You Are Not Your Thoughts
Updated: Dec 1, 2019
I want you to set your phone timer for one minute, press start, close your eyes, and count how many thoughts you have before the alarm goes off. What's your number?
An event happens. This causes you to think in words in your head; often agitating words as we humans have brains that act like sticky velcro for negative thoughts, slippery Teflon for positive thoughts, a vestige of evolution for survival. These thoughts trigger emotions, which in turn guide our behavior, whether we are aware of it or not.
As I go around providing trauma-informed workshops, this cognitive triangle is an image I frequently use to encourage self-awareness. I wasn't fully aware that my thoughts were separate from myself until I started practicing mindfulness meditation regularly...and I still catch myself going down the proverbial rabbit hole, reacting rather than responding to thoughts. But it's been powerful to name them as being driven by my left "interpreter" brain, as seen through the lens of my past experiences; to name the emotional charge of my thoughts, and to watch how my body - for example, my posture, my facial expressions - respond.
Some of my informal reflections on this triangle include:
Thoughts: our energy goes where our thoughts go. When our thoughts keep going to the past, it's not uncommon for them to be regretful. Thoughts focused on the future tend to be anxious. We can't change what happened in the past - that chapter in the book is closed (though it was pointed out to me that, with help, we can change how we remember or interpret a past experience!). We also can't concretely predict how the future will unfold. So can you practice keeping your thoughts - and therefore your energy, in the here and now? Breath and awareness of your body help with that.
Emotions: depending on how we are wired, we usually take one of two paths with emotions - we either express them or repress them. But there is a third way...we can observe them, ask ourselves (with compassion please) where they are coming from - and choose how to respond to them. I think this is particularly helpful with anger. Anger is a primal emotion and as such, it serves an important purpose. But it also does a lot of damage when it is expressed without consideration of its impact on others.
Behaviors: how do you know how someone is really feeling? By their body language. Oh how deeply our survival brains are wired to read that! Awareness of this fact, for me anyway, has led to a more authentic life, one where I say what I'm feeling in an emotionally intelligent way. And because we are so wired to interpret body language, we can shift how we are feeling by intentionally changing our behavior. Try it - make yourself smile slightly, and watch your mood lift.
It's important to recognize that people who are impacted by trauma can't always choose their behavior in response to a trigger, especially when that trauma happened at a young age before they were fully verbal and could contextualize their experience. It's for this reason that I want to insert the word body in the center of this triangle. Trauma is stored in the body. The way to healing is to listen to the body.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on what I've written in this post. Does it resonate? Am I missing something? Trying to keep it real and I would love your help in doing that.