Why It’s Important to Realize That You Are Not Your Thoughts
Can we talk?
Today I want to talk about your thoughts. No, I’m not a shrink. I want to talk about your thoughts as they relate to you. Specifically, the idea that you are not your thoughts, and what that means for your motivation.
Even though you can (and do) talk to yourself, most of the ideas, feelings and statements that pop into your head are not consciously created by you. Rather, they spontaneously emerge from somewhere other than your consciousness.
So where does that little voice come from?
The little voice inside your head is the conscious manifestation of your subconscious mind's interpretation of the world as it relates to you. Your brain takes the never-ending stream of sensory inputs it receives and filters them through your values, beliefs, assumptions, social norms, expectations, biases, prejudices (yes, we all have them), and your emotional state to assign meaning and construct your unique version of reality. But how exactly does it do that?
Without going too far down the neurological rabbit hole, your brain is an exquisitely-designed and finely-tuned electrochemical machine, capable of complex and abstract feats like reasoning, problem solving, empathy and creativity. To operate effectively, it relies on a delicate balance of fuel, nutrients, oxygen, hormones and other chemicals. That balance is extremely sensitive to changes in any one of a whole host of factors.
Those factors include things like fatigue, vitamin and mineral levels, mood, the way you breathe, exposure to sunlight, physical trauma, fitness level, contaminants in the air you breathe and the things you consume, genetic factors, stress level, substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, and about a hundred other things.
I tell you all this not to overwhelm you or to make it seem like there’s nothing you can do about it. I simply want to make you aware of just how sensitive your brain is to the things you put in your body and environmental factors. Too much or too little of any one of those factors can throw off your brain's chemical balance. And, as we’ll see, when that happens, it can generate feelings and thoughts that are unhelpful or even dangerous.
In some respects, the subconscious processes that generate your little voice are like a computer program. When a program has a bug in its code or is fed data that isn't in the right format, the program makes mistakes or produces outputs that doesn’t make sense. This reality reinforces the idea that you are not your thoughts.
So why does this matter?
To apply this physiological reality to your psychological well being, you need to understand a little bit about the way you interact with your thoughts. In the psychology literature, there’s a cognitive bias called fundamental attribution error. The basic idea is that we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to their character but our own behavior to the situational context. So, for example, the guy who cuts you off in traffic is a jerk, plain and simple, while the same behavior by you would be explained by an emergency at home or any other perfectly justifiable explanation that fits your situation.
While this tendency is irrational, it’s at least understandable. For the large majority of the interactions we have with other human beings, we have no knowledge of the other person’s situation or their motives. In the absence of any relevant information, our brain's simply fill in the gap by assuming that the other person always behaves that way, that it’s just “who they are”. In essence, we make broad (and often stereotypical or even prejudiced) assumptions and generalizations about the thoughts, intentions, values and character of the other person.
For your own behavior, on the other hand, you have a front-row seat to your thoughts and intentions, which means you don’t make the fundamental attribution error. Knowledge of your own thoughts is a double-edged sword, though. On the positive side, it means you have the ability to thoroughly examine and challenge them. But this “insider knowledge” can also lead to a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum from the fundamental attribution error, where you make judgments about your character and intentions based on intimate knowledge of your thoughts.
Why it's important to realize you are not your thoughts
As we’ve already seen, your thoughts do not always accurately reflect who you really are. So when you don’t recognize that you are not your thoughts, and consciously separate them from your self, it’s easy to allow them to shape your reality, which in turn can lead to unproductive or even unhealthy choices.
It may seem obvious that you are not your thoughts, but translating that rational understanding into action can be more difficult than you might expect, for a couple of reasons. First, many of your thoughts actually do reflect who you really are, but it’s not always obvious when that’s the case. They get mixed in with all of your other thoughts, and there is no instruction book or mental indicator to tell you which is which.
You (just like me and everyone else) also have parts of your character that you're not particularly proud of. For example, let’s say I secretly like to see other people fail because it makes me feel better about myself. I may not like the fact that I feel that way, but that aspect of my self generates thoughts that are just as true as those that are more socially acceptable.
The second reason it’s difficult to remember that you are not your thoughts is because you can’t escape them. When you hear something often enough, even if you initially think it sounds ridiculous, sooner or later you start to believe it. This shift in perspective is due to another cognitive bias called the illusory truth effect, which causes you to find statements or ideas more believable the more you're exposed to them.
The illusory truth effect explains why so many urban legends are just accepted as fact, like the idea that humans only use 10% of their brains or that leaving a tooth in a glass of coke overnight will completely dissolve it. Neither one is true, but because you’ve heard them so many times you assume they must be based on fact. More often than not, this bias is harmless, causing you to believe inconsequential things like alligators living in New York City’s sewer system. But that same bias can cause real problems when you repeatedly hear thoughts that undermine your self esteem or motivation or even urge you to do hurtful or dangerous things.
Here's a scary fact
A prime example of this problem is the fact that people who suffer traumatic brain injuries (like concussions) are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than the rest of the population. Post-trauma symptoms can last for years and, unfortunately, the persistence of suicidal thoughts sometimes results in the person following through on the impulse.
Note About Traumatic Brain Injuries [TBI]
In the United States, people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) are 55% to 400% more likely to die by suicide than the general population.
I’m not a doctor or clinical therapist. As such, I'm not claiming to diagnose your specific challenge or trying to provide a solution that meets your specific situation. If you’ve ever had a traumatic brain injury, or suffer from a psychological disorder, or have ever thought that you have a problem for which you may need to seek the opinion of a medical professional, by all means do so. My discussion here is more general in nature, intended to apply to people and situations for which a simple shift in perspective can make a significant improvement in their lives.
Even people who have never struggled with depression or any other kind of psychological disorder prior to their TBI can experience suicidal thoughts. They don't even have to suffer multiple brain injuries or exhibit any of the classic post-injury symptoms. Many people don’t know where the suicidal thoughts are coming from, or understand why they are happening.
One well-known example of this is the story of researcher, game designer and author Jane McGonigal, Ph.D. She wrote the book SuperBetter to describe a very challenging period of her life, where she suffered a concussion, which left her with significant side effects (exhaustion, headaches, vertigo, and suicidal thoughts), and the game she developed to help her overcome it.
This quote from her book shines a light on the chilling reality that many with a history of traumatic brain injury.
The biggest Super Villain I ever faced was the suicidal thoughts I had during my concussion recovery. They were persuasive and persistent, and I had never dealt with anything quite like them before. It took me almost a week to recognize that these suidical thoughts weren’t just fleeting feelings - that something was happening in my brain, that some [switch] had been [flipped], and these thoughts were getting stronger and not going away.
I remember telling my husband, 'I don’t want you to freak you out, but I keep hearing this voice in my head that I should kill myself.' I was able to recognize the seriousness of this enough to want to talk about it. 'I don’t actually want to kill myself,' I promised him. 'But I keep having these thoughts. I’m trapped in this dark place, and I don’t know how to get out'."
Author and Game Designer
The scary part of Dr. McGonigal's experience is the fact that she couldn’t stop the voice from telling her she should kill herself. Humans are very impressionable, especially when the person trying to convince us of something is someone we know and trust (and who do we know and trust more than ourselves?). I’ve never experienced this personally, but when a person continues to hear their “self” saying that they have no reason to live, it has to be extremely difficult to resist the thought, especially if it persists for a long time.
So, what’s the point of all this?
While their plight is unfortunate, I didn’t bring this topic up to raise awareness of people suffering with the effects of traumatic brain injuries. Rather, I use it to further illustrate the fact that you are not your thoughts. They are the output of billions of electrochemical reactions taking place inside your head, nothing more, nothing less. They do not define who you are, what you can accomplish or who you can become. Your brain’s ability to construct conscious awareness is an incredible feat, but the very existence of that consciousness is what makes your thoughts so intertwined with your sense of self.
Returning to the original idea of this post, when you can't get motivated to do something because your brain keeps telling you that it won’t work or that you’re not good enough or smart enough, or it makes you feel fear, take a minute to pause and reflect.
Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts, and that your brain is generating thoughts and emotional reactions based on the information and resources it has available to it at the time. Try to mentally separate the thoughts from what you know to be true about yourself, and then consciously decide whether to believe or discard them. Doing so is not easy, but having an understanding of how your brain constructs your “reality”, and how easily that reality can be influenced, should make it more likely.
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