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Sunday
Jan092011

The Trap in Believing Your Thoughts

The first post I wrote in 2010 was entitled “Choosing Your Thoughts”.  It deals with the active process of deciding where we want to focus our attention, and can best be summarized by stating that in almost all instances it is possible to choose which of the many aspects of reality we want to focus on: our problems, or our blessings; our challenges or our opportunities.  I wanted to begin 2011 with a post about another, related aspect of cognition by articulating and explaining a principle that is central to achieving greater happiness, less stress, and a greater sense of inner peace in your life.  This principle deals with the unavoidable phenomenon of thoughts arising in our minds that at the moment seem absolutely true.  But in their seeming truth can lie a dangerous trap.

Our minds are thought-generating machines.  It has been estimated that on an average day we have between 12,000 and 70,000 thoughts!  As human beings, we try to make sense of these thoughts by arranging them in logical patterns, giving us a greater sense of control.  But often the arrangement is inaccurate.

Just as it is within our power to choose the thoughts on which we want to focus, so is it within our power to decide which of our thoughts we decide to believe.  On the surface, this may seem a somewhat surprising statement.  After all, don’t we believe things that we know to be true, and if there is some doubt about the truth don’t we generally use or best judgment or try to gather facts to better ascertain whether or not the thought is believable?  When it comes to matters that have a factual basis, yes. We choose to believe that our eyesight is deteriorating because we’re having more trouble reading the street signs in our neighborhood.  We choose to believe that we’re going to miss our flight because the alarm clock didn’t go off.

But even with ostensibly factual matters there is often at least some element of doubt.  We choose to believe that it will rain this afternoon because the weather forecast predicted it, and because the sky has gotten a lot cloudier.  But there’s a chance that it won’t. We choose to believe that the bonuses this year will be smaller because we know that the company has had a rough year.  But perhaps they won’t be.   

Most of the thoughts that impact our emotional wellbeing deal with interpretations of the past or projections about the future.  And that is where the choice to believe or not comes in.  Try to use this power of choice whenever a thought enters your mind that causes you to feel upset, and ask yourself “can I really know that this thought is true?”  Here are some examples:

         It’s 11:30 p.m. and my 14 year-old daughter hasn’t arrived home or called me, even though she promised to do so by 10.  She must have run into trouble.

         My best friend from college just bought a house I could never afford.  I’m a loser.

         My husband always spends most of the weekend watching sports on TV.  He’s just a lazy guy.

         I can’t find my keys, and yesterday I misplaced my cell phone.  I must be losing my memory.

         I couldn’t keep an erection during intercourse.  I’m not much of a man.

         I didn’t get an invitation to a friend’s party – I must have done something to offend her.

While any of these statements might be true, believing them means that you consider them to be true.  A more productive, more accurate, and less upsetting way of thinking about these subjects is that they are possibly, but not necessarily true.  Take the reasonable steps necessary to protect yourself from unnecessary harm or danger (call your daughter, try Viagra) but consider the possibility that what you believe about a situation may not be accurate, and avoid the trap of unnecessary upset.

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