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Learning to Live With Unhelpful Thoughts

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

Your mind is not your friend. Don’t get me wrong– your brain does lots of wonderful things, most importantly coordinating the many complex and intricate biological systems that must work in harmony for you to stay alive. And in many ways, our minds are responsible for the success of our species, our ability to anticipate, puzzle through problems, and build increasingly complex systems. But on a moment-by-moment basis, there’s a pretty good chance that your mind is not your friend.

Think about it– your friends are generally kind to you, right? They don’t say things to you like “You’re stupid! That was a mistake! You’re worthless! Better to stay at home than to try!”. There’s a pretty good chance that your brain tells you lots of mean and unhelpful things, often in the moment that you most need encouragement or kindness. Our friends are also people we can trust, people we believe are at least trying to tell us the truth. Our brains are not like that; they are constantly constructing and reconstructing reality, often with a particular skew that may not bear much relevance to reality at all.

So what can we do when we’re getting those unhelpful messages from inside ourselves? One strategy that can be useful is to just recognize those thoughts for what they are– just thoughts. Not necessarily true, not necessarily helpful, not even necessarily meaningful. Thoughts are just mental habits. Imagining your thoughts personified can be a helpful way to put some distance between you and your thoughts. This strategy is known as cognitive defusion, and it’s a key part of a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.[30] I’ll share two of my favorite ways to personify thoughts, although it’s best if you can come up with one that works for you.

First up is Dear Old Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha is a worrier, and she tries often to impose those worries on me. She wants to be helpful, really she does, but most of what she thinks I should worry about is a waste of time. If Aunt Martha had her way, I’d be a grown woman who still needs to hold hands with someone to cross the street. I’d never be able to go out for a run (“You’re going to hurt yourself! Remember that time you fell! You’ll never be able to run that far and you’ll be stranded!”), let alone go skydiving (one of my all time favorite experiences). When I hear internal worry thoughts, I try to check if they might just be coming from Dear Old Aunt Martha, and, if so, I just say “Thanks for the advice!” and ignore her.

Another frequent contributor to my internal dialogue is the Overzealous Weatherman. I live in Los Angeles, where there frankly isn’t that much weather. It’s nice here almost all of the time. But if there’s a chance– even the teeniest tiniest chance– of rain, it’s Storm Watch 2017!!! I’ve seen footage of a weather person standing outside in full yellow rain poncho and hat with an umbrella up with literally no raindrops coming down at all. Just like those folks, my brain sometimes likes to take something that is relatively unlikely to happen and blow it way out of proportion, often at about three in the morning. When I catch myself overestimating the odds of an unlikely catastrophic outcome, I say to myself “Storm Watch!” and shake it off.

Who are the contributors to your unhelpful internal dialogue? If you can, pick an image or name that is going to feel funny and easy to dismiss. Remember– these people are not your friends, and you don’t have to take everything that they say seriously. If you can let yourself off the hook of always listening to your own mind, you’ll create space to make choices and react in ways that are better aligned with your authentic sense of who you are and who you want to be.

[30] Hayes, S.C., Strosahl, K.D., & Wilson K.G. (2016).  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. New York: Guilford Press.

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