Ten years ago, my brother bought a bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.” I thought that was amusing. How can you not believe what you think?
But lately I’m seeing that this may be the most important advice I’ll ever receive. Happiness and peace seem to depend on stepping back from our thoughts, realizing they are just one view of the world, and frequently a wrong one, and not taking them too seriously. Without attaching to my thoughts, the world suddenly seems a much friendlier place.
When you have a chronic illness such as diabetes, harmful thoughts come all the time — fears, blame, false hopes. It’s really important to let those thoughts come and go without believing they are unchanging truth. Here are a couple of stories on the power of distancing from our thoughts.
For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — the ones who wash their hands hundreds of times a day, who can’t leave the house without going back multiple times to check if the gas is off and the door is locked — their thoughts are crippling. People with OCD believe their thoughts. They think they’re dirty. They think they’re in danger. Their anxiety combined with some biochemical brain glitches control their lives.
Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA has developed an effective cognitive-behavioral treatment for OCD. People learn to relabel their obsessions and compulsions as what they are. They’re not rational. They’re symptoms of some bad wiring or chemistry in the brain and can be ignored. “I don’t think or feel that my hands are dirty,” they’re taught to say. “I’m having an obsession that my hands are dirty. It’s not me; it’s my OCD.”
Schwartz says “OCD thoughts and urges are not meaningful; they are false messages from the brain.” After relabeling, people learn to substitute other behaviors for their compulsion. Over time, as they resist their impulses, their brain chemistry actually changes so that the OCD has less power, even though the repetitive thoughts don’t go away. They just don’t believe them anymore. You can see Schwartz’s program here.
Even some schizophrenics can learn to disbelieve the terrible voices telling them how disgusting they are, or how much danger they’re in. People have overcome lifetimes of madness by learning to disbelieve their thoughts. You can read the amazing story of one man who does this successfully by clicking here.
If people with mental disorders can separate from their thoughts, perhaps the rest of us can, too. How much difference is there between the disordered impulses of OCD and the painful, repetitive thoughts many of us carry that make us scared, angry, or sad? According to Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is, it’s not the thoughts themselves that hurt us. It’s the fact that we believe them.
“Thoughts just appear,” says Katie. “They come out of nothing and go back to nothing, like clouds moving across the empty sky… There is no harm in them until we attach to them as if they were true.”
I would add that many of our deepest thoughts come from things we heard, experienced or learned as children. We may have misunderstood them in the first place, but they have controlled our lives ever since. They may have become core beliefs, so deep that we aren’t even aware of them. By looking at our thoughts from a distance, by questioning them, we can change the way we see the world.
Katie asks people to list their painful thoughts. For each one, she asks, “Is this really true? Think about it. Can you know for certain [she doesn't love you, or whatever the thought is]?” In most cases, we’ll admit — if we’re honest — that we don’t really know.
Katie’s next question is usually “How do you react when you think this thought? Physically, emotionally, what do you do when you think this thought? How do you feel?” Usually the thought makes us feel terrible; otherwise we wouldn’t bring it up. Then Katie asks, “Who would you be without this thought?” And the answer is usually, “I would be happier.” “I would be strong.” “I would be more loving” or something like that.
There is more to the program, and you can see videos of it here. The first time I saw Katie work, it blew me away to see people heal right in front of my eyes, just by learning to question their thoughts.
Katie says you can’t really stop thoughts or control them. What you can do is question them. “I don’t let go of my thoughts,” she says. “I meet them with understanding. Then they let go of me.”
I have to admit that stepping back from my thoughts is making me happier. I often think the world is totally going to pieces. But do I really know that’s true? I don’t. When I admit that, I feel better.
Other people notice it too. When I don’t attach to my own thoughts, it makes it easier to hear other people’s reality, and easier to connect with them. People like that, and it’s also good for my health, I believe. Thoughts are stressful if you believe in them too strongly. When you question them, they lose their power, so you can get back to more important things.
You can read more stories of healing by questioning thoughts at my blog Reasons to Live.