You are not your thoughts. Thoughts are just electrical impulses that are rapidly transmitted between neurons in the brain. It is our actions, not our thoughts, that define us. That being said, the way we think has an enormous impact on how we feel; this can have both positive and negative implications.
Before our brains have developed enough to understand logic and reason, the young human brain does what it can to make the world feel more predictable and less chaotic. In toddlerhood, one aspect of normal development is known as “magical thinking.” Magical thinking refers to the cognitive process by which an outcome gets illogically linked to an event or other outcome. For example, a toddler may mistakenly believe that his crying makes the lights in his bedroom room turn on (because each time he cries, mom or dad comes in and turns the light on). In another example, if kissing a stuffed animal three times after listening to “Goodnight Moon” resulted in a good night’s sleep without any monsters emerging from under the bed, a child may mistake this coincidence for a causal effect. That is, she may believe that this nighttime routine was the reason that the monsters stayed away, and thus she may want to repeat it every night as a preventative measure.
As kids age, they gain more awareness about the workings of the world, including principles of logic, cause-and-effect, and an understanding of what they have the power to control (and how) versus what they do not. If this move toward cognitive maturity goes awry, an individual may develop a condition known as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). A common feature of OCD is a maladaptive compulsion to perform a certain mental or physical act in order to avoid a negative outcome or feeling. For example, one might turn the doorknob on the front door seven times every day before leaving the house in order to prevent a car accident. This is, of course, a heightened example of magical thinking – the turning of a doorknob has no bearing on whether or not one is in an accident. This way of thinking becomes problematic when it begins to cause a person a lot of distress or if the compulsions start to occupy a lot of time in his/her day. More benign versions of magical thinking are frequently observed in popular culture. For example, it is commonly believed that opening an umbrella indoors, walking under a ladder, and breaking a mirror are all causes of bad luck.
Even when our thoughts are fairly logical, they still can create negative feelings or outcomes. For example, many people experience guilt for thinking something awful or feel anxious when thinking of something terrifying. However, the knowledge of how powerful our thoughts can be in influencing our mood lends itself to the notion that we can sculpt our thoughts to promote positive feelings and change. Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” So rather than allowing a seed of doubt to fester and grow in your mind, plant a seed of confidence and hope instead. Even if you are unsure about whether or not you will get that promotion at work or if you have the skill to win the school spelling bee or swim meet, approaching each situation with a positive mindset will help engender greater success. Your positive outlook may also take on a contagious nature, improving the mood of others around you.
In addition to mitigating your worries, one can also harness the power of his/her thoughts to help alleviate other negative emotions, such as anger or sadness. With anger, changing your attitude toward a situation can significantly reduce the anger you feel. For example, when your favorite TV show is accidentally erased from the DVR, you can trade an angry thought (“She was so careless! I was really looking forward to watching that!”) for a calm thought (“I’m sure it was an accident. I can probably just watch it online later”). In the case of sadness, adopting a positive outlook is not necessarily the best approach, as it can feel unrealistic or invalidating of one’s struggles. Rather, it may be more helpful to adopt an accepting stance toward your feelings (e.g., “I recognize that I’m feeling down right now. I understand why I feel this way, and anyone in my situation probably would. I can tolerate this sadness until it’s ready to pass”). Imagine how differently you might feel if these were your thoughts, rather than “Suck it up” or “Get over it” or “You really should be sulking because this is the worst thing that ever happened to you.” The former approach is likely to create greater calm and ultimately more positive outcomes.
In sum, our thoughts possess enormous influence; they have the power to affect our beliefs, actions, and mood. However, our thoughts are sometimes difficult to control. Therefore, it requires conscious awareness and effort to modify your thoughts so that they can guide you to a happier, more balanced and in-control life.
Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist