That’s Men: Thoughts aren’t as important as they think they are
I tweeted this line from Ruby Wax, comedienne and author of Sane New World, the other day: “Thoughts aren’t fact so don’t take them seriously.” The line struck a chord, judging by the number of people who retweeted it, or commented on it.
It struck a chord with me too, so that I set up a reminder on my phone to pop up now and then and ask me, “Is this a thought or a fact?” Almost everything to do with the future is a thought as is almost everything to do with the past; so is a lot of what is going through my head about the present.
I knew a man once who was full of angry thoughts. Start a conversation with him about anything at all and he would turn the conversation to the sins of the people around him, especially the younger generation of whom he particularly disapproved. The more he cycled through his thoughts about the shortcomings of others, the more angry he got. Indeed, he was the sort of man people often found it best to avoid so as to stay away from his anger.
By and large, the people with whom he was angry had done him no harm but he could think himself into a raging storm about them nonetheless. He was, in effect, a slave to his thoughts.
The same happens to most of us in less dramatic fashion. The 16th century philosopher Michel de Montaigne declared that his life had been ruined by a series of catastrophes, most of which never happened. That’s a testament to the power of thoughts to bring about emotional distress.
Sometimes the thoughts that control us have sunk just below the surface of awareness.
The psychologist Albert Ellis once made a list of these thoughts. It was a very long list indeed but a few of the more common ones were:
I must do well and get the approval of everybody who matters to me or I will be a worthless person.
Other people must treat me kindly and fairly or they are bad.
I must be a high achiever or I will be worthless.
When things are tough and I am under pressure, I must be miserable and there is nothing I can do about this.
I have put a list of Ellis’s top 13 irrational thoughts on my website, bit.ly/albertellis.
Simple thoughts, you might say, but very powerful when they occur outside our full awareness. Yet many of us are so used to regarding our thoughts as “real” that even if we saw an irrational thought passing through our mind we would still believe it.
Ellis suggested we learn to dispute our thoughts. Yes, it would be nice if I did so well that everybody approved of me but who says I absolutely have to have everyone’s approval? Who says I’m a worthless person if I don’t?
In an age in which we like to parade our pain, the thought that “When things are tough and I am under pressure I must be miserable and there is nothing I can do about this” is embedded in our culture, and in our minds. But guess what? Thoughts aren’t facts and maybe I don’t have to be miserable because the going is tough.
The Buddha said that “our life is the creation of our mind”. That might seem like overstating it but he goes on to say that if we feed ourselves with the thought that someone has cheated us or otherwise done us down, we are going to make ourselves unhappy.
What all this adds up to is that our thoughts are not as important as they think they are. This can be hard to see because we usually look at the world from inside our thoughts. But if we bear Ruby Wax’s words in mind (not to mention the Buddha’s), that “thoughts aren’t fact so don’t take them seriously,” we will have a better chance of seeing clearly and of enjoying better mental health.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.