“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” — Sheryl Sandberg
For about every obstacle you struggle with in your life, you might have heard this advice:
If you want to change your life, you need to change your thinking.
And it makes perfect sense, right? You can totally see how certain beliefs and negative thoughts hold you back. You understand that more “positive” mental habits could benefit you on many levels.
But when it comes to putting this into practice… you just don’t know where to start. How do you change something that you have no control over? You can’t decide about the content of your thoughts at any given moment. So how exactly could you change it?
Naturally, you can’t control your thoughts. None of us can — and I’m about to explain why. Knowing this, maybe you shouldn’t start working with your thoughts by forcing them to change.
How about just trying to become more aware and accepting of the moment-to-moment content of your mind?
Why Controlling Your Thoughts Will Never Work
Most people associate the word “change” with some form of control. We rarely think of change as something that happens organically — like the change of seasons throughout the year. When you hear the phrase “changing your thoughts,” you may assume that you need to take active steps to make that change happen.
But any activity targeted at changing the content of your thoughts is a form of control. As it happens, this is a very inefficient strategy for a mental transformation.
Usually, the more we want to get rid of certain thoughts and replace them with others, the more those unwanted thoughts persist. On top of that, when you label certain thoughts as “wrong,” you also add the burden of judging yourself for having them.
A classic example is this: Try not to think of a pink elephant wearing a blue coat while riding a monocycle around the room. As you read these words, you probably find it extremely hard not to picture the elephant in your mind, despite the instructions.
Why does it work that way? According to Stephen Hayes, the creator of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the problem with thought control lies in the very nature of human language.
“The human approach to solving problems can be stated as, ‘If you don’t like something, figure out how to get rid of it, and then get rid of it.’ But when we apply this strategy to our own inner suffering, it often backfires.
(…)When you try not to think about something, you do that by creating this verbal rule: ‘Don’t think of x.’ That rule contains x, so it will tend to evoke x, just as the sounds ‘gub-gub’ can evoke a picture of an imaginary animal. Thus, when we suppress our thoughts, we not only must think of something else, we have to hold ourselves back from thinking about why we are doing that. If we check to see if our efforts are working, we will remember what we are trying not to think and we will think it. The worrisome thought thus tends to grow.” — Steven C. Hayes, Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life
Once you understand that your mind operates this way, there’s not much sense in trying to control your thinking. Even if such effort appears to work short-term, multiple studies show that the suppressed thoughts usually return even stronger later on.
An alternative to changing your thinking by controlling it is to focus on becoming more aware of your thoughts instead. Now, you may believe that you already know the contents of your mind well enough. But according to experts, there’s about an 85% chance that you’re lying to yourself.
You’re Probably Less Aware of Your Thoughts Than You Believe
The first step to raise the awareness of your thoughts is opening yourself to the fact that you may not be aware of a big chunk of them. The trick here is that you can’t know what you don’t know — you don’t see the unconscious thoughts precisely because they’re unconscious.
It may be hard to come to terms with the fact that you’re not as self-aware as you’d like to think. However, this is key. There are good reasons to suspect that the thinking patterns which direct your life are currently hidden from your conscious awareness.
Tasha Eurich who’s been researching self-awareness for many years found that people overestimate their self-awareness to a large extent. In a study of thousands of participants from around the world, 95% of her respondents claimed to be self-aware. But after testing them against a dedicated self-awareness assessment tool, Eurich and her team found that only 15% of the people in the study could be qualified as self-aware.
As Eurich humorously put it, “on a good day, that means that 80% of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.”
Why is this so? And why is it so difficult to objectively assess our thoughts without confusing them for reality?
One big reason is the confirmation bias we’re all prone to. Our mind is designed to look for proof of what it already believes. When we experience a thought that’s in alignment with the self-image we hold, for example, we’re more likely to overlook the fact that it’s just a thought — and we assume it to be true.
As a result, we don’t become aware of that thought — we unconsciously integrate it to be a part of our reality.
To give you an example, a thought that I’ve been having quite often without realizing it is something along the lines of “Other people are bothered by my presence.” It took me a while to recognize that this was a thought. For a very long time, I treated it as objective truth anytime I spotted subtle cues of annoyance in other people’s behaviour. I easily assumed that they were indeed annoyed — and that my presence was the reason.
This thought confirmed my lifelong self-image of being less worthy than other people. Because of that, it was harder to recognize it as a thought. It just seemed to make sense as a part of a coherent worldview.
It’s been only after I deliberately started working on my self-awareness that I questioned this notion for the first time. And because I did, I now have a much better chance of spotting the thought as it arises.
The question is: What are the practical ways of fishing out such deeply buried thoughts and bringing them into the light of awareness?
How To Identify and Accept Your Most Obscure Thoughts
ACT therapists recommend starting to work with psychological difficulties by recognizing what specific thoughts you’re prone to having. If you observe your thoughts diligently for long enough, you’ll usually be able to spot patterns.
As those mental patterns start becoming clearer, the recommended approach is to accept them as they are. Note that this acceptance isn’t equivalent to believing in what your thoughts tell you. Rather, it implies coming to peace with the fact that you’re having those thoughts — without trying to do anything about them.
Mindfulness teachers and psychotherapists emphasize that this second kind of acceptance is essential for lasting behavioural change. As Christopher Germer writes in his essay Mindfulness: What Is It? What Does It Matter?:
“From the mindfulness perspective, acceptance refers to the ability to allow our experience to be just as it is in the present moment — accepting both pleasurable and painful experiences as they arise. Acceptance is not about endorsing bad behavior. Rather, moment-to-moment acceptance is a prerequisite for behavior change.”
To be able to accept your thoughts, you first need to find ways to identify them. Here, I could invite you to practise mindfulness meditation and end the article with this. However, I’m not going to do that.
Meditation is a great way to discover your thought patterns and unconscious beliefs. However, it isn’t the only way. Since there are many guides to mindfulness meditation, here I’d like to share other ideas for raising the awareness of your thoughts. These can be incorporated into your daily life as you go about your usual affairs.
1. Keeping note of thoughts related to suffering
This is a technique recommended by Stephen Hayes in his book Get Out Of Your Mind And Into Your Life. To identify how thoughts and feelings trigger certain coping behaviours (and what’s the effectiveness of these behaviours), Hayes proposes to keep track of your psychological difficulties in a table like the one before.
You can understand “coping technique” as any mental or physical behaviour that attempts to control the content of your thoughts or emotions. I find it the easiest to start filling in the table with the “coping technique” first — and then identify the thought (or feeling) that prompted it.
For instance, as I notice myself compulsively reaching for my phone without any concrete purpose, I may ask myself — what thoughts was I having that prompted me to do that? The thoughts I usually identify are along the lines of “I’m bored,” “I can’t do this anymore” or “I’m feeling awkward in this situation.”
Additionally — but not necessarily — you may fill in the last two columns to assess the results of your thoughts and the behaviours they prompt. Don’t judge those results as “good” or “bad” — simply observe them and write them down.
2. Paying attention to strong emotions
Our thoughts and emotions are closely linked. Sometimes, they become so intertwined that I have trouble telling one from the other. If I don’t pay attention, I can easily become lost in them, entangled in what I generally call “negative internal states.”
However, if I’m able to perceive the emotion first, increased clarity of thoughts usually follows.
The easiest way to do it is to focus on the physical feeling that comes with the emotion. As you experience a powerful emotion like grief or anger, try to direct your full attention to the sensations of it in your body — like heat in your chest, tightened throat, etc.
Once you spend a few moments connecting to the physical aspect of the experience, you may ask yourself: “What’s the story I’m telling myself about what’s happening?” Only then, focus on what’s going on for you mentally — i.e. what thoughts are prompted by the feeling you’re having.
You may find patterns of self-victimizing, aggrandizing, comparison, judgment and many others. Whatever you notice, remember to be as accepting of them as you can. You won’t do yourself any favour by suppressing these thoughts.
3. Taking a walk in Nature
Being in natural surroundings prompts your self-awareness effortlessly because it reduces the number of stimuli you’re exposed to. Nature doesn’t add to your mental chatter and therefore allows you to see the content of your mind more clearly.
To reap the benefits of Nature, go on a walk outside the city without music in your headphones and, preferably, alone. As you interact with the landscape, notice how you constantly make decisions — about which path to take, where to stop for a break, when to have a sip of water, etc. According to Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and mindfulness expert, making choices naturally raises our awareness.
Whenever you’re faced with a choice (even a minor one), you’re forced to consider your options — which means you become more mindful of the details. That’s a good place to be in if you want to improve the awareness of your thoughts.
Pay attention to how you make even the smallest decisions on your Nature walk. In my experience, this exposes my thought patterns better than almost anything else.
4. Setting a trigger to prompt attention to thoughts
When we mind-wander, we often regurgitate our most habitual thoughts. But for the most part, mind-wandering happens unconsciously. After 30 minutes spent daydreaming — for example during your commute to work — you may be wondering what the hell were you thinking about all this time?!
The good news is that it’s easy to create cues which prompt awareness in the middle of mind-wandering. A way that I use sometimes is to decide on an external trigger that will remind me to become aware of my thoughts in the middle of it.
A good trigger to pick is something that happens independently of you but also often enough to evoke awareness at least a few times a day. If you have a neighbour with a dog, you may decide that whenever the dog barks, you’ll take a closer look at your current thoughts. If you spend a lot of time driving, your trigger may be stopping at the red light or a sound of other drivers honking.
However, don’t pick a trigger that goes off all the time. You want to give yourself chances to fall back into daydreaming — and then be reminded to notice your thoughts out of the blue.
5. Identifying your judgments of other people
Interacting with others is a precious opportunity to train self-awareness. That’s because other people often show us things about ourselves that we can’t see on our own.
Something that probably happens to you at least once in a while is judging others. It can be small or big judgments, positive or negative ones — it doesn’t matter. What counts is that, instead of condemning yourself for being judgmental, you can deliberately observe your judgments as a way to foster the awareness of thoughts.
What did you think of your friend when she voiced that controversial opinion? How did your mind react when you saw a co-worker wearing a dirty shirt? What thoughts arose when a relative was bragging about their recent promotion and buying a house as a result?
Judgment is a natural thing we do to position ourselves within our family and social circles. It doesn’t need to be resented, though — it can be observed. If you pay attention to how you judge other people, you may realize a lot of interesting things that your mind does.
Again, don’t judge your mind for judging. Instead, you can find gratitude for becoming more conscious of these thoughts rather than letting them pass unnoticed.
Awareness and Acceptance Are Prerequisites To Change
If you try to change your thoughts without knowing what they are in the first place, you’re setting out to do the impossible.“We cannot change what we are not aware of.”
You’ll be wiser to start by identifying your thoughts, rather than trying to control them.
It helps to take a step back and look at your thoughts without judgment or resentment. When you learn to see them simply as passing events in your mind — and not reality — it will be easier to find acceptance for them.
Instead of “changing your life by changing your thoughts,” simply notice them first. In my experience, becoming fully aware of something that doesn’t serve me leaves me no other option but to change it later on.
The difference is that this time, the change will be organic rather than forced. Remember that controlling your thinking is usually futile. A much more effective and gentler approach is to simply gain a more accurate perspective on your thoughts.
Then, sit back and watch how this changes your entire life.