Don't Believe Everything You Think
There’s a popular bumper sticker around Berkeley that reads, Don’t Believe Everything You Think. There’s a lot of truth in this clever statement. When a thought appears, we have a tendency to pay close attention. We may think that every thought is important.
And that’s true at times, but deep insights are infrequent. While we may occasionally have an important “aha” moment about our lives, many of our thoughts are not productive at all. In fact, they may be downright destructive. Some thoughts may lead to discouragement, even depression.
As a therapist, I pay close attention to how the client’s thinking and talking are making him/her feel. If it appears that my client’s thoughts are starting to agitate him/her, I’ll ask, “Do you think that it is helpful to go down the path you’re going?”
Most of the time the person will say an empathic, “No!” I will then try to find a more productive avenue for them than simply analyzing the issue.
I do my best to distinguish between what may be a useful exploration on the client’s part, even if he or she may feel a bit uncomfortable, versus the person going into a shame state. In other words, I try to differentiate between true insight, one that leads to growth and relief, versus allowing their inner bully to beat them up.
One of the crafts of therapy, I think, is differentiating between productive thinking and overthinking. While some therapists feel that no amount of thinking or analysis is too much, I disagree. Not only can overanalyzing be distressing, but it can lead to paralysis. We can inadvertently empower our inner critic, who keeps us hostage to negative thinking and to the past.
Therapy should help to free you from the past, not make you a hostage to it. It should help you to start letting go of old patterns that you’ve outgrown. And one of the first places to start is noticing your thoughts, that is, learning which ones you should believe and which ones you should trash.
An analogy I often use is spam on the computer. Those unproductive, even self-destructive, thoughts are a lot like spam. If you double click, you know what happens: you can get a virus and a lot more spam.
Just like with real spam in your email folder, do the same with thoughts that are useless, even destructive. Don’t double click on them! Instead, send them off to the trash!