I’ve Finally Learned How to Process My Thoughts (and It Only Took Me 10 Years to Do It)
You aren’t (always) your thoughts, but you are always the one who can decide what to do about those thoughts.
I was first introduced to the concept of “you are not your thoughts” when I was 21 years old. I was going through a bottle of wine a night and — shocker — depression was my normal state of being. I mean, how could it not be? I didn’t know how to process any of the trauma I had been through and I didn’t know how to transition into adulthood. I’m certainly not blameless here — I rejected any sort of help that was offered to me — which wasn’t much, but still. It wouldn’t have hurt to try a beginner dose of Prozac.
I had too many thoughts rolling around in my head that I didn’t know what to do with, so I did what many 21-year-olds might do. I drowned those thoughts in a red-flowing river of booze and said to hell with it. ‘It’ being my health and dignity.
Frustrated with the number of wine bottles that were stacking up in his recycling bin, my boyfriend at the time stepped in and did the only thing he could think of. He handed me a copy of a new age-y looking book with a woman that appeared to be wearing monk robes on the cover and he said to me, “Do you believe that you are your thoughts?”
Me, being the ignorant and angry sort of person that I was at the time, quickly replied something along the lines of: “Of course I am my thoughts. Who else would I be?” I didn’t even bother reading the book before I made up my mind that this concept was nonsense. In fact, I think I stopped just short of throwing the book right back in his face.
Ah, sweet memories of youth. So stupid. So ungrateful.
Please Don’t Take My Thoughts Away From Me
Years later, after I finally managed to get out of my own way, get the help that I needed, and opened my mind to the concept of not being ignorant/angry/depressed all the time, I began meditating and exploring different types of philosophies.
I entered the realm of Eastern philosophies and all the various modern iterations of it. I also delved into, of course, the granddaddy of them all: Meditation.
Everywhere I turned, I kept hearing the phrase “you are not your thoughts.” Though I was no longer mindlessly opposed to it, the concept still didn’t quite resonate with me. I just couldn’t make sense of it, namely because I couldn’t get past the following argument:
If my thoughts are coming from my own brain or mind (or mind-brain?) then wouldn’t it stand to reason that I am my thoughts?
Sure, some thoughts are inherited, but that doesn’t preclude us from having thoughts of our own. If I didn’t have thoughts of my own, I couldn’t effectively separate my identity from that of a rock or that person that sits next to me on the bus.
If I were to give a deeper read on what was going on beneath the surface of this argument, I would see that I was just coming up with a rational reason to dismiss it. In essence, what I’m really saying is:
Don’t take my thoughts away from me. They’re all I have. They’re a huge part of my identity. Please don’t take this away from me. What would I have left?
One of the amazing things about being human is our ability to rationalize and argue for — or against — virtually anything. Lawyers may do it best, but we all have a pretty awe-inspiring ability to rationalize, usually for the purpose of keeping our identity intact.
I do believe that thoughts are in fact part of what makes you you. Thoughts have the incredible potential to make you a kind, intelligent, wonderful person. Despite the impermanent nature of thoughts, they can sometimes feel less fleeting than your physical self or the ever-changing world around you.
Thoughts can release you from the pressure of needing to look a certain way, of needing to be a certain way externally — because your external reality is only half of the equation. Thoughts can let you transcend into the person you want to be.
But by the same stroke, thoughts have an equal potential to destroy you. I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t both tormented and gratified by my thoughts. The fact that I just wrote “my thoughts” further confirms that I’m possessive and protective of my thoughts. Even the bad ones. Even the ones that probably came from someone else’s twisted mind.
You Are Not Your Thoughts — Unless You Want Them to Be
I’ve blathered on about rationalizations, my shameful early 20s, and became the billionth person on the Internet that mentions the now-not-so-secret power of meditation. So where does this leave us?
It leaves us with the following formula:
- We may or may not be our thoughts. Sometimes we may be our thoughts, and sometimes the thoughts we have are given to us by others, for better or worse. However: it doesn’t really matter that much which it is. This is because:
- We are always the one who observes our thoughts. As the observer, we are the one who holds the real power.
That observer, who I can now reasonably call “I,” is the one that is really in control of my Self. The bigger Self, the Self that makes up the totality of my existence. I, the observer of my thoughts, can be both the observer and the thought itself.
I, as the observer, can decide what to do with a thought. I can judge whether that thought came from someone else, and decide whether I want to enforce that thought or not.
If not, I can throw it out — Not despairingly, mind you, but with a sort of peaceful neutrality that one might donate a pair of jeans to Goodwill. Because if you try to force it away or attempt to violently destroy it, it will only grow stronger and will probably start multiplying.
Whether it came from someone else or whether you claim the thought as your own creation, you must ask yourself one deceivingly simple question: Do I want to discard it or store it as part of my larger self?
Honestly, I don’t think it even matters if you know who or where the thought came from, and many times it’s next to impossible to even know if it came from “you” or “them.”
It’s next to impossible because there’s a very fine line between “you” and everything else that exists. We all feed into each other in some way, for better or worse. Either way, the end result is the same: you either reject the thought or you accept it.
If you reject it, you can let it slip gently (again, think: Goodwill jeans) out of your head, and do absolutely nothing else with it. In a perfect world, there would be no further iterations of the thought and there would be no actions made based on that thought. But if it’s a thought that has haunted you for a while, it may take repeated efforts to fully disengage from the thought.
If you accept the thought and have determined that it will serve your higher self, you can welcome it with open arms, tame it or tweak it if necessary, and integrate it into your larger self.
Make Them Prove Their Worth
Earlier in the article I briefly mentioned meditation, and that’s because meditation has a very important role to play. It allows you to filter through thoughts without immediately acting upon them. It gives you the space for your thoughts to float around in your head before you rush to cling to them.
Sometimes all it takes to figure out which thoughts are — or should be — a part of you is to sit quietly with them and see which ones feel good and which ones make your stomach twist.
I’ve found that the best way to process your thoughts is to sit quietly and let them illuminate their worth to you — or lack thereof.