Thoughts are just thoughts, and they are usually automatic and hard to control. However, actions are in our control, and it takes practice to make sure they aren’t automatic.
Often, we get caught up in the thoughts that we have, leading us down the rabbit hole of endless possibilities, what-ifs, criticism, judgment, and shame. If we let thoughts consume us, we can experience many uncomfortable emotions, and it can result in negative behaviors such as avoidance, defensiveness, aggression, or overuse of external resources (alcohol, drugs, sex, games, food).
When it comes to challenging your thoughts, remind yourself that thoughts are not always fact or even rational. Thoughts are just thoughts, and they are powerless without action. Work to understand if the thought is trying to protect you, warn you, remind you of the past, or if it’s just intrusive. If you find that you don’t need the protective thought in the situation you are in, you can acknowledge it and ask it to leave.
Here’s an example of what it looks like to allow a thought to consume you:
Wendy’s manager belittled her at work, leaving Wendy upset and ashamed. Wendy starts to think, “I’m so stupid.” The next day, Wendy decides not to speak up during the morning meeting with the thought that “I will look stupid and embarrass myself.” Wendy has now embodied the thought and picked up the emotion of shame and the behavior of avoidance.
Here’s an example of what it looks like to challenge the same thought:
During the morning meeting, Wendy’s manager belittles her. Wendy thinks, “I’m so stupid.” After Wendy gets back to her office, she reframes the situation. Wendy now thinks, “I’m not stupid. I just made a mistake.” Wendy uses self-compassion to recognize that she is human and is allowed to make a mistake.
Wendy decided to separate herself from the situation and the thought, and not internalize what was said to her. Wendy could even address her manager belittling her if she wants to be assertive, but that’s another lesson. By reframing your thoughts and recognizing that they are just thoughts, you take more responsibility for your actions and how you feel. It can be empowering, build your self-esteem, and improve relationships.
If you find that you are “stuck” with your thoughts, or have trouble challenging thoughts, reach out to someone you trust to vent. If these thoughts linger on and impact your life, reach out to a mental health professional for additional support.