by Shane Fookes, MA MDiv, Registered Counseling Associate
In my last post, I described how inflexible mental rules cause us to get stuck. In this post, I want to offer practical ideas for getting unstuck in your thoughts. Before I dive in, I need to give credit where credit is due. The ideas and practices I’m introducing come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach to change first developed by Dr. Steven C. Hayes. In addition to Dr. Hayes, the work of Dr. Russ Harris has helped me greatly.
Become Aware of Your Thoughts
The path toward making peace with your thoughts starts with recognizing you’re having them! I realize this may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how often we take our thoughts for granted. A core ACT concept involves distinguishing between two different parts of your brain: your “thinking self” and your “observing self.”
Your thinking self is the part of your brain that remembers what happened in the past and comes up with plans for the future. It evaluates, makes judgments and comparisons, and otherwise analyzes both your interior and exterior worlds. It also creates, imagines, visualizes, fantasizes, and expands your sense of reality. It’s an amazing and helpful part of you…until it isn’t. How is it not helpful? When it traps you on the “hamster wheel” described in the previous post.
Your observing self is the part of your brain that focuses your thoughts and gives attention to something. It gives you awareness of your interior and exterior worlds.
The difference between the thinking self and the observing self becomes clear when you consider what happens when you do something like watch a sunset. The observing self simply notices the spectacle playing out in front of you. Meanwhile, the thinking self begins producing thoughts like, “Wow, look at all those colors!” It often then quickly moves on to other matters like, “This means it’s getting late. I wonder what’s for dinner. We had chicken last night. I hate chicken. The last time I had chicken, I threw up. That was almost as gross as when I threw up after that race I should have won but didn’t because that guy cheated. That was so unfair.” When your thinking self does something like this, you soon forget about the sunset and get caught up feeling irritated without really knowing why.
Understanding the distinction between your thinking self and observing self can help you gain awareness of your thoughts. When you do this, you quickly discover that your thoughts have a lot of negative content (research has shown that 80% of our thoughts have negative content!). In other words, your thinking self constantly reminds you of bad things from your past and potential bad things that may happen in the future, while providing regular updates on everything wrong with you right now! Soon you get caught up trying to stop the thoughts, argue with them, replace them with positive thoughts, or otherwise try to rid yourself of them. Sadly, these approaches to your thoughts only ingrain them more deeply.
Disempower Your Thoughts
Instead of trying to extinguish difficult thoughts, ACT teaches the concept of “defusing” or disempowering thoughts. This is done with a number of simple but powerful exercises. Practiced regularly, these exercises help you step back and see your thoughts for what they are: mere words passing through your head. When you get good at defusing thoughts, you develop flexibility in your thought patterns. You can then determine whether or not your thoughts are helpful at a given moment rather than automatically getting hooked by them. Here are a few of my favorite defusing exercises:
1. I’m having the thought that…
In this exercise, you simply bring a difficult or distressing thought to mind and then prefix the thought with “I’m having the thought that…” For example, you may have the persistent distressing thought, “I’m such a loser.” that provokes a feeling of hopelessness. This exercise invites you to insert the phrase, “I’m having the thought that…” in front of it and play it over and over in your mind. You can create even more distance from a thought by adding “I notice I’m having the thought that…” in front of it. Learn more about this practice here.
2. Name the Story.
Our automatic thoughts are generally not random and abstract. Rather, they have consistent themes. As such, we can understand them as stories and give them names like, “I’m a loser,” “I can’t do it,” or “Nobody loves me.” This exercise invites you to name the persistent, unhelpful stories. Then, when the story shows up in your mind, you simply acknowledge it by name. For example, you respond to the thought by saying to yourself, “Ah, here’s the ‘I’m a failure’ story once again!” Once you acknowledge the story, you simply let it be. You don’t need to challenge it, get rid of it, or otherwise give it attention. Simply let it come and go.
3. Thank you, Mind!
This exercise acknowledges that repeated, unwanted thoughts are an ongoing reality. But that doesn’t mean you have to give them attention. Instead, when your mind comes up with something unhelpful in the moment, you simply say, “Thank you, Mind!” and move on. It’s important to do this with warmth and appreciation rather than sarcasm or aggression. Learn more about this exercise here.
As with anything, these exercises are only helpful when practiced frequently. When getting started, I recommend purposefully practicing up to 10x/day. It’s important to be cautious of expectations. Simply trying these a time or two will not create transformation. But when practiced regularly over time, research has shown exercises like these lead to a measurable decrease in mental and emotional distress!
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Other Mental Health Services at Life Discovery Counseling in Oregon
If you are in Clackamas, Happy Valley, Damascus, Hillsboro, or Beaverton, we can help you in person at one of our comfortable therapy clinics. Christian counseling is the cornerstone of our approach to therapy. Not only do we see adults, but children in counseling too. We also work with depression treatment, anxiety therapy, trauma therapy and PTSD treatment, relationship issues, marriage problems, and postpartum counseling. No matter where you are in the state, we can provide the support you need with online therapy in Oregon. Once you’re ready to start, we’re ready to meet you. Let’s connect!
About the Author
Shane Fookes is a graduate of Western Seminary’s Counseling program and a Registered Counseling Associate. He served as a pastor for 17 years and is still involved in leading churches. He writes about marriage and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and spiritual development.