Dealing with unwanted thoughts
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Have you ever noticed that your mind is constantly running? Maybe you have never stopped to consider that throughout your life, there has been a voice in your head... analyzing, judging, imagining future scenarios. Who is that? You may think it's you because it sounds like your voice. I'm here to tell you that it's not you and you don't have to listen.
Try sitting quietly for two minutes. Set a timer. In that time, bring your awareness to your thoughts. What arises?
Here is what I heard: I'm hungry. What do I feel like eating for lunch? Focus, Dara. You have such a hard time focusing sometimes. You only have an hour before you have to pick up the kids. And the dog hasn't been walked. Ugh, I'm such a bad dog mom. Focus!
Write down what you noticed in your own head.
If you are able to shift your awareness to watching your thoughts, then who are you? If you can have awareness of the thoughts, that seems to indicate that you are not the thoughts. You are separate. You're the one watching.
Stay with me here. If you are not your thoughts and you have the ability to shift your awareness to your thoughts, or to the sound outside your window, or to your rumbling stomach, then perhaps you are the awareness. Realizing this is freedom, my friends. You have a choice, from one moment to the next, to shift your awareness to the target of your choosing.
If I listened to my thoughts as if they were truth, I would be in big trouble, because the content of our thoughts dictates our mood. Most of the time, my thoughts are telling me I'm not good enough. If I bought into these thoughts, I would be a weeping mess on my kitchen floor, unable to function. But thankfully, I know my thoughts are overly self-critical and distorted. I know this because I've tested them enough times. (Thought: You're going to fail that exam. Reality: You have passed the exam with flying colors.)
Some therapists will tell you to replace your distorted thoughts. Through my own practice, I've discovered that battling with my thoughts and trying to interject positive, optimistic ones doesn't work so well. "Don't think that! Think positive!" This sort of thing actually increases my anxiety because I'm fighting with something that's happening naturally all the time. I don't have the energy to be fighting with my thoughts all day.
So here is an alternative strategy to try. Bring your awareness to your thoughts throughout the day. Get curious about the story you've been telling yourself. Don't beat yourself up for your thoughts; just notice without judgment. Then make the decision to shift away. This is different from trying to stop the thoughts or replace them with new thoughts. I like shifting my attention to my breath, the rise and fall of my chest. But you can also use any of the senses -- what you hear, see, smell, touch, taste. Bringing attention to any of these targets will pull you away from your thoughts and ground you in the present moment.
I believe that a high percentage of our thoughts are totally unnecessary. We can function perfectly well (arguably, maybe better) if we aren't following them. I encourage you to experiment with this. What does it feel like to notice the story in your head and gently shift away?