Thoughts – they're all in our head!

Last week I talked about the concept of ‘Emotional Agility’, this week, I’m going to focus specifically on our thoughts.

Have you ever had that curious moment where you become conscious that every thought and feeling you are having is happening only in your own private world? 

In her article Why thoughts aren’t real, Nancy Collier writes: ‘Your thoughts appear only to you, and are not being heard by anyone else whatsoever… We are all in our own separate theaters, witnessing entirely different shows, and yet we behave as if we are in the same audience, watching the very same event we call life. The thought appears in front of and within only you. Without the juice of your attention, it simply disappears without a trace.’

The average person speaks around 16,000 words a day – that’s out loud. The voice in our head – the ‘inner voice’ – contributes tens of thousands more. Tens of thousands! It’s no wonder we can feel overwhelmed.

But what are thoughts, really? One thing is certain - thoughts aren't facts. Just because you have them doesn’t make them inherently true. Most importantly, thoughts don't last. They are fleeting. 

We can learn to control them.

According to psychologist, author and mindful-living advocate Elisha Goldstein, PhD, in his book Uncovering Happiness, thoughts are mental events that pop up in our mind and are dependent on our mood (whether that’s depressed or excited and so on). 

Tame your monkey!

Our thoughts and our emotions are intrinsically linked. If we can learn to pause and understand where our thoughts are coming from, and whether they are ‘real’ or not, we can also manage our emotions more effectively and become ‘emotionally agile’, a key leadership skill (which I wrote about last week here).

In her article Buddha: How to Tame Your Monkey Mind, BJ Gallagher outlined Buddha’s description of our thoughts as being like drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly’.

Sometimes our emotions appear as these monkeys. Gallagher notes that ‘Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong.’

By learning to manage our monkey minds we also learn to manage our feelings. It can be helpful to pay attention to how our monkeys act – Gallagher notes we can ‘listen to them and get to know them, especially the Fear Monkey’. 

The image below is a useful, visual reminder that can help us to pay attention to our ‘monkeys’ and put some space between our thoughts and our reactions.  Print it out to help put this practice into action.

Thinking can be our #1 bad habit

Just remembering that thoughts aren’t facts can help us. As Dr Goldstein points out, ‘Thinking can be our number one bad habit, often launching us into increased stress or downward spirals of automatic negative thinking, it’s a good thing to loosen our grip on.’

He says ‘Next time your mind jumps to a conclusion that inevitably sends you in a spiral toward depression or anxiety, check to see where your head was at the time… What just occurred prior?’ 

By pausing, we now know we are actually turning down activity on the fear circuit of our brains (the amygdala), which puts our conscious brain (the prefrontal cortex) online.

In the below clip, Dr Goldstein demonstrates The STOP Practice (Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed) from his book The Now Effect. He suggests ‘sprinkling this into our day a few times’ and even seeing if we can do it during difficult moments. 

If you have a case of ‘the busies’, taking the time to do something like this might feel like forever, but actually it’s only 2.22 minutes. And what a relief to be told that one of the best things we can to is to ‘STOP’!

We’re not as open minded as we think

Much like the principles of the STOP practice, the mindfulness movement is all about recognising our thoughts for what they are - passing constructs based on our history and current environment. This is where ‘cognitive dissonance’ comes into play. Cognitive dissonance theory is about the tendency we have to seek consistency in our thoughts, beliefs and opinions. It means we are more likely to ‘stick to our guns’ and not want to change our minds, even when we are shown evidence that our thoughts might be wrong. The related concept of ‘motivated reasoning’ refers to us seeking out agreeable information to reinforce what we already believe. 

Sharon Begley in her article Rewiring your emotions notes that we actually learn information that agrees with our viewpoint more easily than we do anything that challenges it. In fact, we avoid, ignore and argue against information that contradicts our beliefs. She goes on to note that ‘this kind of selective exposure’ means we can just switch off the radio, change channels, only like the Facebook pages that give you the kind of news you prefer.’ Which can lead to us constructing ‘a pillow fort of the information that’s comfortable’. Kind of frightening, isn’t it? We all like to think of ourselves as ‘open-minded’, and yet the evidence from research into how our brain works demonstrates that this is not true.

Like everything, we can learn to think differently. 

In their article Don’t let your Brains Defense Mechanisms Thwart Effective Feedback, James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris outline four ways we can challenge the way that we think:

All-or-nothing thinking: is when we see things as ‘black’ or ‘white’, completely good or bad. We can replace this with a more realistic, open interpretation. Instead of thinking, ‘This will never work’, we can challenge ourselves to think “If this doesn’t go perfectly, it will be disappointing, but we’ll also learn a lot.” This embraces a ‘growth’ mindset where we believe we can learn and improve.

Overgeneralisation: is when we mistake a single issue for an ongoing pattern. ‘I knew they would say that, they always do’, for example. Instead, we can watch out for when we think in terms of “always” or “never” and challenge ourselves to think about the context of just this specific situation. 

Catastrophising: is when we negatively exaggerate something. Instead, we can reframe our thoughts and fear by calmly thinking about the realistic outcomes. I sometimes suggest my clients ask themselves ‘Is this going to matter in five years?’ to help gain some perspective when they feel themselves beginning to catastrophise.

Emotional reasoning: is when we conclude that something is true because it’s what we feel in the moment. We let our fleeting emotional state dictate our thoughts. Instead, we can avoid our emotions ‘hijacking’ our brain by using positive self-talk or asking someone we trust for their perspective.

As leaders, we need to commit to an ongoing process of self-reflection and improvement. Understanding ourselves better helps us to understand and react to our teams more effectively.  Consistency in our behaviour and leadership builds trust. It’s hard work, but the results are worth it – for ourselves and for our teams.

Next week I’ll be focusing on feelings as we continue our emotional agility deep dive. 

Jules SmithComment