How To Stop Your Unhelpful Thoughts From Taking Control Of Your Actions

Let’s face it life is pretty messy. In a normal day, you probably have to cope with a lot of things that trigger you to feel plenty of unhelpful thoughts and emotions.

Your boss tells you that your work needs to be improved, your partner gets annoyed at you for no reason, your children are screaming that they want more attention, you are dreading making that presentation at work, sometimes just getting through a normal day seems difficult.

Of course, it isn’t all doom and gloom; life also has some pretty amazing moments. There are times of fun, adventure, love, richness and vitality.

But overall it’s a complex and confusing adventure.

How do you manage the unhelpful thoughts and feelings that often come up when you are faced with difficult situations, or when trying to push yourself out of your comfort zone?

Friends, family, colleagues and even society has lots of advice for us. “Just stop thinking about it”, “Get over it”, “Stop stressing it will be fine”, “You just have to focus on the positives” or my personal favourite “Stop worrying about it!”. This is probably some of the worst advice that you have been given, if only it was that easy.

While more often than not this is well-meaning advice, which may work in the short-term. It doesn’t really solve the problem, and unhelpful thoughts and feelings still plague us and get in the way of us achieving our goals.

Human Language is a double-edged sword
One thing sets us above other primates and animals, is our capacity for language. Language has enabled us to achieve many wondrous things, reach the moon, land probes on planets, cure diseases, write poetry and help us forge unshakable bonds with our loved ones.

But it also has a dark side, language has set us against one another, starting wars and causing genocide. At our worst, our words can dehumanise others and can be filled with venom and cruelty. And apart from doing no harm, words spoken by others can have a real emotional effect, invoking feelings of anger, guilt and shame.

There is another place where words can affect us and that is in the private environment of our minds. Things that we would never wish to say to others, or have said to us, we will gladly tell ourselves over and over again.

And despite your best efforts you can never seem to silence your inner voice, it has no off switch or volume dial. It speaks whenever it chooses and almost always has nothing positive to say. In its quest to keep you safe from harm, your mind can be your our greatest enemy.

And there lies the problem; your mind has evolved to keep you safe from the threats that have faced us since we crawled out of the primaeval soup. Threats of being eaten or attacked by other animals, or even the threat of being ostracised from our social group.

In fact, it can be said that the only reason that you are here reading this, is that your ancestors were constantly anxious or worried about how well they were viewed by others. Someone who didn’t conform or fit in, who didn’t pull their weight soon found themselves left alone to fend for themselves.

Because of this, the advice that your mind offers up when you are faced with difficult or even every day situations is rarely balanced or nuanced.

Instead, it can feel like you are hit with a sledgehammer of unhelpful thoughts and unpleasant emotions. And for some of us, these thoughts and emotions can feel so real and powerful that they act a barrier stopping us from achieving our goals.

Thoughts are rarely facts
In reality, our mind is just a machine for generating thoughts and in fact, it is pretty difficult to stop this from happening. In a normal day, you’ll probably have tens of thousands of thoughts. And the more you try to stop them from happening the more they will seem to pop up, sometimes linking together, as soon as one comes into existence, another comes along and you can be lost on a runaway train of unpleasant thoughts that cause unpleasant feelings.

In fact, you probably have a lot less control over your thoughts than you probably like. Of course, we can always consciously choose to think, but the vast majority just pop into our heads completely randomly.

Instead of simply trying not to worry, which is an impossible task, we can become more open to our thoughts and become more skilled at noticing the process of thinking.

When you do this you will probably notice that your mind is a drama queen. It just loves giving you the worst possible outcomes and if it can’t find something from your past it will dream up a terrible future that you’ve not experienced yet.

Defusion – opening up to thoughts
A central skill in acceptance and commitment training is to learn how to step back and put some space between yourself and your unhelpful thoughts. This skill is known as ‘defusion’ and helps you choose what happens next rather than automatically reacting.

Just because a thought happens to be present doesn’t mean you have to act on it. You can have the thought, ‘I’m going to be terrible in this presentation’, or ‘I’m a failure’, or ‘I’m not good enough’ and still give a good presentation, be successful and feel confident.

Of course, this is a new skill and you are going to have to practice it for a bit before it becomes second nature. But sometimes just stopping and noticing that you are thinking is powerful enough. In that pause we can ask ourselves:

  • What is my mind saying in the moment? Are there words or images?
  • How could I label this thought? Is it a judgement? A Criticism? An evaluation? Is it about the past, the future or what’s going on right now?
  • How fused am I with this thought? Is this an old story? Do I feel open and vital? Or do I feel closed and constricted?

Thank your mind
Your mind is just trying to do its job, protecting you from harm and keeping you safe. Not taking risks, being hesitant, underestimating your abilities, watching what you say, making negative judgements about the future, dwelling on the past are ways our mind helps us to stop being eaten or thrown out of our tribe.

One way to defuse from these thoughts is to spend time thanking your mind for the job it is doing, not in a belittling way, but sometimes an acknowledgement and a thank you is enough to help you refocus on the task at hand.

  • ‘You’re not good enough and no one will like you!’ – Thanks, mind, great to have your feedback.
  • ‘This presentation will be terrible and no one will be interested.’ – Thanks, mind, that’s one perspective.
  • ‘I’m a failure and nothing I do ever succeeds.’ – Thanks, mind, good to have you with me.

Sometimes just writing down thoughts, labelling them and noticing that you are having them is enough to get yourself back on track. And sometimes they are very sticky and we have to try more in-depth techniques and tactics. But either way, the process starts with learning to notice our thinking and starting to take a step back from the opinions that our minds have to offer.