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You Are Not Your Thoughts: A Personal Philosophy Of Mind

I have a love-hate relationship with one of the major therapies endorsed by psychology today: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Both as a therapist, and as a client, I know it can work. It can bring fast relief in acute times. So it’s a good thing to have in your inner toolbox when you’re working with the challenges life can throw you.

In a (very small) nutshell, CBT asks you to question your thoughts, and the beliefs that underpin them. It asks you to have another look at the way you’ve got things set up in your mind. To see if the conclusions that it’s so easy to jump to in the heat of the moment are actually even real or right. To renovate the interior of your inner-most home. And it has a few user-friendly formulas to do it with.

Which all sounds great, right?

But something about CBT also irritates me. Because it seems a bit patronising, sometimes, to be sort of “taught” to “un-think” or un-learn your so-called “negative thoughts.” To sort of shuffle things around in your skull to just think a little differently.

Sometimes that seems a bit fake. A bit try-hard. A bit rose-tinted glasses goody-two-shoes to suggest that there are “right ways” and “wrong” ways to think.

But then I have to remind myself that there’s also a whole lot more to CBT than just hoodwinking yourself with word games and tricky thinking. For at another level, this seemingly formulaic therapy can also reflect elements of much deeper, much older wisdoms such as:

“You are not your thoughts”

(which I once heard spoken by a Buddhist monk on the radio).

What do you think about that idea?

It can be so tempting to get really close to your thoughts; to sidle right up to them and even barrack for them. To be on their side. To sense the pressure of them so much that it starts to feel like they form part of who you are. That they’re tangled up with your identity – and so, of course, they’re worth defending. (Sometimes at fairly high costs).

But is that really so?

Or could it also be the case that you’ve inherited certain ways of thinking by default? Perhaps from your family of origin; or from the era and culture you’re surrounded by; or from the ideas of gender and age and “normality” that currently prevail.

How “individual” is any of that stuff starting to sound now?

Exploring the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus‘s ideas, modern-day philosopher Martha Nussbaum,  puts it this way:

“…shortly after [birth] we encounter external forces that corrupt and confuse us. These influences take hold of us: and yet they are not really us. They are not “our very own feelings,” but something from the world outside; and they enslave us as time goes on.”

So maybe it’s more important to question these thoughts and feelings than to automatically defend them…

And maybe, just maybe, CBT is engaging with these sorts of ideas – these older, deeper, philosophical notions. Drawing on something much more than a cold formula or simplistic trickery.

Maybe it’s asking you to engage with your very own philosophy of mind…

And for that reason, perhaps it’s worth looking into.
(Or at least not falling into “black and white thinking” about…).


Text copyright: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Reference: Nussbaum, M.C. (1994) The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Princeton University Press, USA, p. 107.
Image uses cloudy sky by goaty_02
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She was the former editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.


You Are Not Your Thoughts: A Personal Philosophy Of Mind

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

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APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2011). You Are Not Your Thoughts: A Personal Philosophy Of Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Nov 2011
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