Thinking about your thinking

What are you thinking about most of the time? What is your internal dialogue? What tone do you use when you speak to yourself? Have you already thought about your thoughts? We do not always pay attention to our internal voices. However, they have a huge impact on our life. Dealing well with our thoughts allows us to bounce back better when facing life’s challenges. The first step to develop these mental resilience skills is to be aware of our internal dialogue. This article offers three keys to help you do it.

There are two things that human beings cannot stop: their breath and their thoughts! As George Steiner wrote: “Actually, we are capable of holding our breath longer than we can stop our thinking”! We think all the time, without stopping; and this internal dialogue has a huge influence on our life.

First step towards more mental resilience.

Research in neuroscience has demonstrated that we are not like computers that integrate information in a neutral way; but we filter it. From birth, we start to form our unique mental map of the world around us. It is influenced by our past experiences, our individual and family stories, our expectations, our interpretations, and the messages, conscious or unconscious, we receive from those around us throughout our life. This mental map is the filter through which we interpret what we see, hear and experience.

It is therefore important to understand that a thought is just a thought. It is rarely accurate; it is only our own interpretation of an event…and that is why it is so important not to let it create our whole reality. As the saying says: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as WE are”.

For more mental resilience, the first step is to be aware of this internal dialogue, by paying attention to it and identifying what are those thoughts that live in our mind. Below are three keys to help you do so.

FIRST KEY: Labelling our thoughts.

There are four categories of thoughts:

  1. Factual thoughts: « I am hungry».
  2. Fantasy thoughts « I would love to go for a walk in the mountains ».
  3. Judgment thoughts, ruminations: « I’m a loser », « I think he hates me », « He is unfriendly», « She is so smart ».
  4. Future thoughts, worries: « What will happen if…? », « What if I fail? », « What if nobody listens to me? ».

The first two categories of thoughts are harmless but prevent us from being fully in the present moment. The last two categories, ruminations, and worries, become problematic if they come up too often and stay too long in our mind. To avoid those thoughts having too much power on us, we need to identify what those little voices tell us and try to understand what is happening in us.

The first key is to listen to and label our thoughts. Becoming aware of our internal dialogue: identifying what categories of thoughts are coming up more frequently, to label them, stay curious about what is going on in our mind to better understand oneself.

SECOND KEY: Auditing our thoughts.

Our thoughts can be separated in two big groups:

  1. The thoughts that serve us, that are useful.
  2. The thoughts that do not serve us, that are not useful.

As such, a thought is harmless, but what is not are the emotions and behaviors attached to our thoughts. It is fundamental to identify if a thought is helping us or harming us; to differentiate those that serve us from those that do not serve us; those that help us move forward from those that hold us back. We can make a habit of systematically asking ourselves these questions: Is this thought useful? Is it productive? Does it help me resolve a problem? Is it worth continuing to think what I think?

The second key consists of auditing our thoughts; separating those that are useful from those that are not. We then could favor those thoughts that are productive and allow us to move forward. What we think is under our control; therefore, at any time, modifying the path that our internal dialogue takes, is under our power.

THIRD KEY: Letting go of our thoughts.

Now that we know how to label and audit our thoughts, we understand better that they are only thoughts, coming and going. They are not based on proven and confirmed facts. They are only interpretations of events through the filter of our own, personal, and unique mental map. It is therefore not useful to get attached to them, to identify oneself to them, or to give them the power to create our entire reality!

Sharon Saltzberg has written in her book « Real Love »: « Sometimes I ask students to imagine each thought as a visitor knocking at the door of their house. The thoughts don’t live there; you can greet them, acknowledge them, and watch them go ».

The third key consists of letting go of our thoughts. Being present to what is going on inside of us, without giving too much weight to our internal dialogue (to our critics, judgments and worries), not taking our thoughts too seriously and… learning to let them go!

Curiosity is our best ally.

Labelling, auditing, and letting go of our thoughts are the first steps towards more mental resilience. Your best ally to better deal with your mental skills is… curiosity! The strength we discussed in my last article. Being curious of what is going on in our mind: What are our thoughts? What do I tell myself? Where do they come from? Are they useful? Are they accurate? One more reason to develop our curiosity, to observe what is going on in our mind…by thinking about our thinking! Without judgment, just to better understand and learn.

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