Letting Go of Painful Thoughts: Don’t Believe Everything You Think


November 30, 2020

Woman looking out the window

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes. But as I sat at the kitchen table watching the kids form three-dimensional shapes out of Play-Doh, I started to feel uneasy.

I looked around the living room to be sure everyone and everything was still okay. As far as I could tell, nothing had changed except the way I felt.

I carried on with the morning, making lunch and guiding the kids through their activities, without giving it much thought.

After I laid our daughter down for her nap, I went to my bedroom and checked-in with myself –  is everything okay? 

After sitting with the question for a few minutes, a familiar thought surfaced, “You’re not doing enough.”

Oh, that one. No wonder you feel crummy.

I semi-chuckled to myself, relieved that I could take away the power of this thought before it overtook me. 

Understanding & Examining Thoughts

Seeing thoughts as thoughts instead of the ultimate truth of your experience is one of the greatest gifts mindfulness offers.

But before we discuss how you can use mindfulness to disidentify from painful thoughts or half-truths, let’s talk more about the nature of thoughts.

First, thoughts as a whole aren’t bad. It’s quite astounding that the human brain has evolved to think in such a sophisticated way! I mean, how else would you be able to plan an unforgettable party or troubleshoot a complex problem?

Second, thoughts form largely on their own accord. Life experiences, including the culture, family, or school you grew up in, play an important role in shaping your thoughts. For example, if you were bullied as a child, this early experience may have caused you to think, “No one likes me.”

Helpful-sounding thoughts have their limitations as well. For example, if you believe in the importance of being kind, when taken to an extreme, it could limit you from speaking up and sharing your true feelings to someone you care about.

Since thoughts were imprinted from a whole range of experiences that largely weren’t in your control, you don’t have to take them personally or turn them into problems to solve. You can, however, take responsibility for the way they make you feel, and choose to disidentify from, or not believe, those that aren’t a true reflection of your worth, character, or competence.

Use Mindfulness to Create Distance from Thoughts

As you know, one of the main reasons for practicing mindfulness is to cultivate greater awareness of yourself and of the world around you.

On that note, here’s a practice you can experiment with to gain greater awareness of your thoughts. It’s best to do this when you’re not triggered or overly-stressed to get the hang of it and over time, you can apply to more challenging situations.

First, take some moments to simply become aware of the area around you. Notice and quietly name a few objects you see. Maybe there’s one in particular you’re drawn to, and if so, spend a little time enjoying it.

Then, when you’re ready, draw your attention inward. Find a place in your body where you can easily or comfortably rest your attention, whether that’s your breath, feet or hands. If it’s easier, you can also keep your eyes open and gaze at something that makes you feel good while still being curious about what’s happening inside.

Begin to notice any thoughts that surface in your awareness. As you listen easefully, or without trying too hard to make something happen, see if you can shine the flashlight of awareness on what you’re saying to yourself in this moment.

Maybe there’s a particular story you’re telling yourself right now (to use Brene Brown’s language). Perhaps it’s “I don’t like this.” Or maybe you’re wondering, “What should I do next?”

Once you notice a thought, you can silently say, “thinking” and then slowly allow the flashlight of awareness to drift back to that cool object you were looking at or the pleasant sensation you felt in your body. Repeat these steps 1-2 more times or as long as you’re having fun.

If you have any repeat visitors, just make a mental note for now.

An Exploration of Recurring Thoughts

As I mentioned early on, the thought, “You’re not doing enough,” isn’t new to me. Almost always, when I’m under-resourced or tired, it has something to say. Great timing, eh?

Everyone has recurring thoughts. As you deepen your awareness, you’ll start to see them for yourself. 

Recurring thoughts can look like: I can’t do this. It’s wrong to feel this way. People can’t be trusted. Rather than try to change them, use the following questions to become more curious about their relevance and usefulness:

  • Is this thought completely true? 
  • Is there more to the story? 
  • Is this an outdated story or byproduct of early conditioning, rather than the truth of who I am?

Maybe it wasn’t safe, for example, to ask for help at one point, but the conditions and circumstances of your life are different now.

How has this thought helped me over the years?

Is it time to let it go or modify it? For example, instead of, “People can’t be trusted,” you might name 1-2 people you can trust.

What would be most helpful now that you know it’s a thought? 

Could you say, “Hello, I see you,” in a gentle, disarming way.

Or, would it be better to change the channel and find something else to focus on? Ideally, this should be an activity that soothes or comforts you, such as taking a walk, closing your eyes for a few minutes, or turning on your favorite tunes. Do this while remembering that harsh or limiting thoughts are less something to be evaluated and fixed, and more something to be compassionately noticed.

As Kabir said, 

Throw away all thoughts of

imaginary things,

and stand firm in that which you are.

Written by Breon Michel