Why Your Thoughts Are More Powerful Than You Think

At any given moment, most of us have dozens of thoughts going through our minds. Some of them insignificant like “The car in front of me is yellow” and others more significant that have more influence over how we feel and behave. It’s inevitable to have thoughts pop into your head, and many of them go unnoticed; some even pop up without us realizing it or so quickly that we don’t have time to even realize it was a thought.

The insignificant thoughts come and go, hardly having an impact on our day-to-day. The more significant influential thoughts, however, are part of what shape the way we feel and behave. They also reinforce beliefs and neural pathways (thought patterns) in our brains.

So what happens when those thoughts we have turn out to be damaging? Let’s take a look at how our thoughts have the ability to influence so much about what we believe and feel about ourselves and the world around us.

First thing’s first: what is a thought? Essentially, it’s words put together to form a coherent sentence. Usually, but not always, thoughts are triggered by what we see or experience. We give meaning and importance to these put together words. Perhaps without noticing, we decide if the thought is important, is valid, is meaningful, and we often place emotion to it.

That’s to say, we have a thought, and almost instantly, if we’ve put meaning to it, an emotion comes up in response. Let me give an example. Let’s say I walk into the break room at work and everyone is chatting excitedly but when they see me, they go silent and start looking at each other. This would be my “trigger”, the event or situation that happens. My first thought might be “They were all just talking about me.” So, how might I feel following this thought? Well, I could feel embarrassed, maybe angry, probably confused and hurt.

We can see how one thought leads to an emotional response. What happens next is that my emotions often play a large part in how I behave, react, or act. Continuing with this example, if I’m feeling embarrassed and hurt, I might decide to immediately turn around and walk out of the break room. And I also might spend the whole day avoiding those colleagues. If I’m feeling angry, I might lash out and accuse them of gossiping about me. Neither of these scenarios are very healthy responses.

The other thing that this thought does, if I give it meaning, is perpetuate a core belief I have about myself (for example: I’m unlikeable.). These kind of thoughts are damaging because they reinforce unhealthy core beliefs, which continues this cycle of thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Taking a look at that thought “They were all just talking about me,” the first thing I need to do is recognize that it’s just a thought, not a fact. I also need to decide if this thought is helpful or harmful. This particular thought is not helpful, because I don’t actually know what is going on that caused my coworkers to stop talking abruptly. It’s also not helpful, because it leads me to feeling embarrassed and angry, which in return, causes me to avoid or lash out.

Once I’ve identified that a thought isn’t helpful, the goal is to replace that thought with a thought that is helpful. In this scenario, I could tell myself “I don’t know what they were talking about.” This is a pretty neutral and truthful thought. Hopefully, this thought would lead to a more neutral response, such as feeling curiosity or simply feeling unbothered. I might simply greet my coworkers and then go on about my business. The point is that I did not catastrophize the situation by letting my thoughts dictate my feelings and behaviors.

Another strategy is simply acknowledging that a thought is just a thought. Instead of replacing the thought with another, I can simply acknowledge “That was an unhelpful thought. It doesn’t mean anything” and try to continue on without giving that thought any more of my emotions or energy. Not every thought deserves to have emotion put to it. If that were the case, we’d be emotionally exhausted at all times. Imagine driving down the road and thinking “The car in front of me is yellow” and having to place some kind of feeling or emotion behind it. Sounds silly, because it is! We get to decide what thoughts deserve our energy and attention.

Next time you find yourself spiraling into a spin of big emotions and unhealthy behaviors because of one little thought that came to mind, take a moment to recognize that you are the one who gives power to thoughts. Ask yourself, is this thought helpful or true? Give yourself permission to let that thought go, picturing it floating away in the air like the wisps of a dandelion. Replace that thought with one that is helpful, or at the very least neutral. This is not an easy feat. After all, the beliefs that we’ve formed about ourselves have formed over years. It takes time to build new neural pathways and form new beliefs about ourselves. These are the first steps in that process. Remember, your thoughts can be very powerful, but only if you give them the power.

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