Updated: Aug 17, 2021
We are not our thoughts, but when we are wrapped up in them it is sometimes difficult to separate us from our thoughts, think about the last time you felt stressed- you probably just felt it, suffered it and at some point, got through it. Thinking about thinking however is different, this is where you separate yourself from the thoughts/feelings you are having and notice them. This is important because thoughts are not facts, they are just thoughts- thinking ‘I am a psychotherapist’ equals fact thinking ‘I am a good/bad/terrible/awesome psychotherapist’ equals an opinion sometimes accurate and sometimes not. These thoughts may be caused by whatever is feeding that opinion-e.g. I am feeling good that day because somebody complimented my therapy, or I am feeling bad that day because somebody complained about my therapy. Yet we do sometimes experience thoughts as facts- take having a dreadful feeling that something bad is going to happen, there is no reason for something particularly bad to happen, but you can’t help it, you just have the thought- it is a horrible situation to be in. A starting point for getting out of this kind of negative feeling is to disconnect yourself from the thought…
Disconnecting from a thought is what in acceptance commitment therapy, practitioners call ‘defusion’- we are fused with a thought and wish to defuse so that we can see it as a separate item to absolute reality. So, if, for example, I am having the thought: ‘I am a loser’ because I am feeling low, because I am interpreting things negatively at that time or because I am being impacted by someone else’s behaviour or comments- it is a thought not a fact. It is not something I definitely have to listen to. I might also decide to use self-talk to get out of this- I might say to myself: ‘I notice that I am having the thoughts that I am a loser…’ It is very much as if we have two minds, one which is quick to judge, to criticize, alert for danger and threat and has been with us since we roamed the savanna. It is the voice that, at the same time as keeping us safe when we are chased by a sabre-toothed tiger, will also catastrophise events/thoughts which are not that dangerous (e.g., making an administrative error or being criticized by someone else) These threats are not as dangerous as being chased by a predator (unless you actually are of course) but still we respond with adrenalin and the famous fight or flight response. The second voice is the logical, calm rational voice that we can access more easily when we are not in a crisis, this voice is capable of noticing the first voice and so you might think of the critical voice as system 1 thinking and the second as part of your system 2 thinking.
In self-talk we can use system 2 to acknowledge the thoughts/ voice of system 1 Like this : ‘I am trying to sleep but you want to ruminate on that event/thought/feeling about the past or fantasize about a possible future…’ and: ‘I understand your concern and it is a worry/nasty concern, yet at the same time, there is nothing I can do about this now… I will write this down in a journal by the side of my bed to attend to in the morning/later but right now I need to sleep’.
On that note asking the question ‘am I ruminating on the past too much?’ Or ‘fantasizing about the future too much?’ Are great self-talk questions to help re-focus, if you feel the answer is yes and I will confess, I am guilty of both habits of ruminating/fantasizing too much- and even though sometimes it’s fun or even helpful to do so- the question is: is it too much? Am I re-living and re-hashing something unhelpful? Or else fantasizing about something equally unhelpful? If so, I need to get back to the present, and the world is not short of mindfulness apps, exercises and breathing techniques to help bring us back into the present moment. Here is one I prepared earlier:
Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant.com.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.