I saw this on a bumper sticker a number of years ago, and it really helped crystallize something that I’ve believed for a long time. I don’t know about you, but I have all kinds of crazy and unpleasant thoughts. I have plenty of experience with limiting beliefs that are both unpleasant and serve to hinder my ability to effectively show up in the world. And, my thoughts can at times be paranoid, irrationally fear-based, grounded in a scarcity mentality, shortsighted, or just plain unpleasant. But, if I can remember not to believe everything I think, everything gets much easier.
Because my thoughts and beliefs are in my own head—speaking with my own voice, as it were—it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that they must be true. But, I know that I have in the past believed a whole bunch of things that weren’t actually true.
As an example, for a long time I believed that I was the kind of person who didn’t finish what they started. I had a couple of examples of projects that I started when I was a kid that I didn’t finish, and those examples (just two of them! from when I was 11 or 12 years old!) led me to believe that that was my character and my destiny.
Then, when I finished my bachelor’s degree, I didn’t give myself credit for that; I told myself that it was expected of me and so not a big deal. I told myself that it didn’t really count anyway since I “only” went to a state school. I told myself that anyone could have done it.
Because my inner dialogue about finishing my bachelor’s wasn’t particularly supportive, that left the door open for those thoughts to come back. Then, when I was in grad school, those “You don’t finish things” thoughts did indeed come back. I had a bunch of occasions where the thoughts of “You’re not going to finish your PhD, because that’s who you are” or “This is too hard for you to finish” came back to haunt me.
But, just because the thought goes through my head doesn’t mean I have to believe it, or pay attention, or take it seriously. I know that lots of the things that go on in my head have no connection to reality. I know that my head can sometimes go to fear-based places. I know that the limiting beliefs I have are only tangentially connected with reality. So, although I don’t have any control over the thoughts that happen to go through my head, I can control how much I play with them when they show up.
And, how much I choose to play with the thoughts matters. The more I play with the thought, the more likely I am to get stuck in the feelings about it. And, the more I stay in the feelings, the more likely I am to act on those feelings. But, if the feelings were based in thoughts that weren’t really connected to reality, the action is unlikely to get me what I want.
This idea (of not believing everything I think, and choosing not to play with the thoughts that do show up) is based on a model that forms the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
- Situations cause us to have
- Thoughts/Beliefs, which then cause
- Feelings, which then influence or cause
- Behavior, which then can change the
The point here is that thoughts and beliefs cause feelings which cause behavior. This means that if we want to change our behavior or our feelings in any lasting way, we need to change our thoughts and beliefs. If we don’t, the same thoughts and beliefs will start causing the same feelings, and eventually the same behavior.
In my case, the situation of having not finished those projects when I was a kid led me to the belief that I was the kind of person who didn’t finish things. This then amplified my feelings of not being good enough, which made it harder to finish things, and harder to give myself credit when I did.
Back to my grad school example. Although I still hadn’t fully gotten past the belief that I didn’t finish things, I also had some evidence by this point that there were things that I did finish. I was also actively in recovery and thus in the process of changing my beliefs about myself. As I started to give myself credit for having finished my undergrad degree (among other things), I slowly started to believe that I was a finisher.
By confronting the belief with evidence, I was able to start to believe new things, which then changed how I felt about the situation. Running into difficulties wasn’t a sign of the inevitable giving-up apocalypse, it was just an indication that getting a PhD is hard.
And, of course, all of those thoughts ended up being bogus. I was able to stick it through and finish my PhD. Although I didn’t spend a lot of time entertaining the fear-based thoughts, all of the time that I did spend in that place was completely wasted and counter-productive.