We live with our thoughts all the time, and a surprising amount of time, they wind up being our worst enemy. Thoughts can be like horrible bullies when they get bad. They’re hovering over us, know exactly what buttons to push, and on bad days they insult our mother. Now thoughts are for the obvious tasks of knowing and understanding things. But they can cause as much (if not more) to distract, mislead, or manipulate us down a bad path. I’m not immune to all this myself. So I’ve worked out a few strategies to keep the bad thoughts from controlling too much of my life.
1) Give Impulse Thoughts a Buffer
There’s plenty of impulsive decisions I’m better off not following. Most of them involve buying things, and the rest also involve buying things, so I’ll focus on those here. I never trust whatever my first impulse is to do, so adding some kind of buffer to let it calm down helps.
This buffer falls into two categories: decisions I have to make right away and those I can come back to later.
Decisions Made Right Away
For decisions I can’t walk away from, I take a deep breath to keep emotions from clouding my judgment. Sometimes I’ll even move away and raise my hands to prevent any impulsive behavior. Then I look at the decision as someone else learning the details. Seeing it as a third party gives perspective and removes some biases that’d lead to a bad decision.
For instance, I’ve often had an idea for a tweet and rushed to type it before the rest of my brain could catch up. Right before I hit send I stop, breath, get away from the computer and walk around a little. Then I ask how a random person, or how some people I predict may see it, may respond if they read it. Most times I send it anyway. A few times I didn’t. There’s some I sent before I stopped to think and regretted it.
Decisions Made Later
If it isn’t an urgent decision, the buffer is simpler and I walk away for a few days. Especially if the decision involves buying something.
After a few days, it’s clear what I want to do or, in the case of buying, if I want it to not. Even then, some good questions to ask are:
- Why do I want this or want to do this? Is the real reason a good one?
- Is it worth the needed time or money I’d be investing? Calculate how much money you make per hour and ask “is this worth paying X hours of work?”
- How useful will it be in the short or long term?
- Is it something I’ll genuinely enjoy and not regret?
This comes up a lot when seeing products on Amazon. I’m excited by the description and what I could use it for. But after thinking it over I often realize I wouldn’t use it a lot. It’s something I’d use a day or two and then forget about it, or it wouldn’t be worth the money. Either that or it’d be too distracting or stress-inducing, in the long run, to be worth it. I’ve passed over lots of kitchen appliances, video games, and odd accessories this way. I don’t have any FOMO though, since the ones I did buy I make use of more than enough to be worth it.
This is a lot of hoops to jump through for making one decision. But remember saying “yes” to one thing, by default, means saying no to at least a dozen others. That’s why having these decision buffers is so important. It makes sure the few bad ones slip through and stop the better ones from reaching me.
2) Gently Acknowledge Unwanted Thoughts
We all have thoughts we’d rather not have. They can range from silly, irrelevant, mean, or let’s be honest, kind of dirty. The first impulse for many is to push the thoughts away and tell ourselves not to think them anymore. But that’s like telling yourself not to think about elephants. You’ll think about elephants more and make things worse.
The more effective strategy I’ve found is gently acknowledging these thoughts. Do so with compassion, acceptance, and without judgment. Forcing them away with anger brings them back stronger. The drawback is those thoughts will keep coming back and never go away. But the more important benefit is the thoughts lose a lot of their power over you.
A common metaphor I’ve heard for this is treating the thoughts like a passing cloud. You see it, acknowledge it, and since you can’t make the cloud go faster, wait for it to pass by. Another is walking down a street and seeing their thoughts scroll by like text on buildings. I imagine these thoughts as a bundle of light floating around before flying or fading away.
Whatever metaphor works best, what they have in common is thoughts come and go on their own. They encourage the “see, acknowledge, and move on” response.
3) Write the Thoughts Out
Sometimes the issue is the thoughts won’t stop and bombard my mind to the point of exhaustion. Trying to ignore or push them away once again only makes them return louder. The solution is simple: write out every thought you can think of on paper until they quiet down.
This helps since writing is the easiest way to externalize your thoughts. It’s easier for one’s mind to finally let the thoughts go. It knows they’re saved somewhere else, and there’s no constant need to remind the person. It’s my way of telling my brain “you don’t need to worry I’ll forget any of this, I have it written down right here.” Then I tuck the thoughts in a private journal notebook for my eyes only.
Writing thoughts out is especially helpful for emotional topics that need closure. Several times something had been dragging me down, I followed these steps.
- Write a long letter to whoever the emotions concern. It could even by yourself.
- Reread the letter aloud and put no limits on how it makes me feel. Once or twice I was on the verge of crying.
- Repeat step 2 as needed until my feelings start to calm down.
- Take a deep breath and accept these feelings as they are, and feel gratitude for helping them make me who I am now. Or whatever emotion you need to feel to find closure.
- Run the letter through a paper shredder to solidify the feeling of closure.
Ultimately these tricks work by giving form to your thoughts so your mind can let them go. Writing is the simplest way, but more artistic expressions like painting work too. Writing is a good one to start with and use short-notice. It’s all the more reason why creative outlets are so healthy.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
I hope you find all the above tricks useful. But the most important thing here is less a strategy and more a misconception I want to dispel. It’s that our thoughts define who we are, which I don’t blame anyone for thinking. They make up a large part of one’s identity and we spend so much time thinking them each day. Especially in fields like blogging or programming where thinking plays a critical role.
But we build our identities on so much more: our actions, morals, emotions, decisions, and many others. Thoughts are the one we’re most aware of, even though they’re arguably the smallest piece. We forget most thoughts the next day. They’re pointless observations or random ideas popping up from our subconscious. It’s why most people don’t share their every waking thought on Twitter. They know most people wouldn’t care to read them, including themselves. I have dozens of journals of daily thoughts going back to high school. Even I rarely care about my past thoughts.
Realizing how little our thoughts affect our identities takes away a lot of their power and makes them easier to manage. It turns them from a bully to that quiet friend that sometimes shares great insights. In short, it helps them start working with us more than against us.