“Change your thoughts, change your life!”
This is a thing we hear all the time in self-help and personal development but in all honesty, it’s nonsense. Let’s talk about the fact that you cannot stop, control, or change your thoughts through force.
Most people in the early stages of the recovery process get caught in the mistaken belief that they must change their thoughts, stop them from happening, or turn them into happy or positive thoughts. While this seems like common sense, this approach leads to frustration very quickly because it rarely if ever works to any significant degree.
We might want to stop or control thoughts when they are disturbing to us. If they scare us, disturb us, or make us question who we are and what we stand for, it would be natural to want to stop thoughts like that from ever happening. But we can’t do that.
We cannot stop thoughts because when we try to not think about something, there is an automatic checking process that will attempt to verify that we have been successful. As soon as we check to see if we’ve stopped the thought from happening, the thought happens. You can throw all the special techniques you want at thought stopping, it still will not work.
We do not get to decide what we think. Sometimes thoughts become more disturbing, louder, or more persistent. But they’re still just thoughts and we cannot stop them from happening.
Thought changing is just another form of thought stopping. When we attempt to replace a “bad” thought with a “good” thought, the same checking and verification process will kick in. When we automatically check to see if we’ve changed from A to B, we automatically think about A.
Since we can’t stop or change thoughts, how can we get rid of scary thoughts that are causing us so much fear, anxiety, and discomfort? We lead with new behavior. First we act, then thought change happens over time as a result. In general terms, we simply allow all thoughts, then BEHAVE in whatever ways we choose regardless of the fact that those thoughts exist. We behave in such a way that we coexist with those thoughts. We can do life while also thinking disturbing thoughts.
Does this mean I will be tortured forever by my thoughts? No. When we behave toward what we value and what we want to do and generally disengage with those scary thoughts, we are teaching our brains that the thoughts really are not as important as we originally judged them to be. When we stop reacting to them and interacting directly with them, we learn through experience that even the scariest thought turns out to be powerless. Over time thoughts get quieter or occur less frequently and they no longer rule your life. Might they pop up now and then? They could, but past experience will have taught you the best way to act when they do.
Let’s talk about “mindset”. You may hear the word “mindset” in the mental health, self-help and personal development spaces. Recovery is simply not a mindset problem. Your panic disorder or OCD is not a result of a negative mindset. You can’t just “change your mindset” to banish your anxiety disorder. If you’ve been trying that, you can stop doing that. It’s not going to work.
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