All kinds of thoughts come into our minds, and many of them, particularly the critical ones, are so convincing. They sound a lot like truth. They sound like obvious, irrefutable, already proven facts.
And so we internalize them. And so we write them on our hearts, and on our souls.
I am disgusting.
Dieting is the only answer.
She hates me.
No one will ever love me.
I’ll never find a good job.
I don’t deserve to be happy.
In their practical, empowering book The Stronger than BPD Journal: DBT Activities to Help Women Manage Emotions and Heal From Borderline Personality Disorder, Debbie Corso and Kathryn C. Holt, LCSW, include a powerful point about our thoughts: “A thought is a thesis.”
I love this sentence because it succinctly captures the real, actual truth: Our thoughts are not gospel. Rather, they’re hypotheses or theories. Sometimes they’re the (untrue) words of someone else. Sometimes they’re the combination of warped societal shoulds and a childhood bully.
According to Corso and Holt, “Thoughts are not necessarily beacons of truth to obey at any cost, no matter how convincingly our emotions may lead us to believe otherwise. Knowing this distinction can give us freedom of choice…By practicing seeing our thoughts with flexibility and curiosity, we can begin to choose more realistic, even pleasurable thoughts that might serve us better in the long run.”
Of course, this is easier said than done.
As the authors write, in the heat of an emotional moment, it’s hard to realize that our thoughts aren’t truth tellers. Which is why they suggest readers consider these questions:
- Does the thought feel “charged” with emotion? Is the thought coming from your emotional mind or your Wise Woman? The latter is your inner voice, which offers wisdom, insight and a deep kind of knowing.
- Would an objective observer (e.g., your therapist, a friend) agree with the “facts” that you’re seeing?
- Is this thought familiar? Is this thought part of a pattern? Patterns of thinking can sound like facts, because we’re so used to them. For instance, this thought might be part of a stubborn pattern of self-loathing or self-victimization.
- List the thought in one sentence.
- List the emotions that accompany it (e.g., anger, shame, sadness).
- Ask yourself: What are any irrefutable, solid facts (i.e., observable facts another reasonable person would see) that support this thought? Do these facts feel charged with emotion, or are they part of a recurring pattern?
- Tune into your Wise Woman. Ask her: Is this thought true? Are there facts that support its opposite?
- What might a more balanced version of this thought sound like?
- Tune into your body, and consider: How does this middle-of-the-road thought feel? How might you skillfully respond to a similar thought in the future?
When we see our negative, critical thoughts as true-blue, authentic truths, we suffer. We also might act on these untrue thoughts, sparking unhelpful or hurtful outcomes. For instance, when we assume we’ll fail, we don’t even start. Or we sabotage ourselves. Or we miss out on great opportunities or valuable lessons. We rob ourselves of the chance to grow and evolve (whether we succeed or not).
It can be tricky to tell when a thought is untrue, especially if it’s a thought we’ve been having for years. After all, we confuse the familiar with fact. And so we let untrue negative thoughts dictate our actions and rule our lives. But exercises like the above can help. And so can reminding yourself that you have the power and permission to pick your thoughts.
You don’t have to believe everything that enters your mind. You can be super selective and super choosy.
And you can follow the thoughts that are kind and hopeful and helpful, the thoughts that are like cheerleaders, supporting you through difficult times, supporting you through your everyday. You can follow the thoughts that have your best interests at heart. Those thoughts are the truest of truths. And those thoughts are deserving of your precious time and attention. They are deserving of you.