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'Acknowledging' vs 'believing' thoughts

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

One thing that we all have in common as human beings is that we think! We think all day long, from morning to night and even as we sleep. Thinking is an incredibly useful tool. As I often say, there would be no great books, no Internet, no works of art, no Eiffel Tower, if we didn’t have this amazing capacity to think. However, sometimes, our brain can conjure up regrets of the past and future worries. Ironically, your brain is just trying to keep you safe but if we always ‘believe’ our thoughts like ‘biblical truth’ they can become problematic.

Sometimes our thoughts can be incredibly useful. Take the example of crossing the road. Just before crossing, you may have a very automatic thought that goes a little like this- “you better look right & left”. We pay attention to the thought, we then look right and left, and we wait until the coast is clear to cross. It’s fair to say that thought was incredibly ‘useful’- it literally helped you to continue with your day with no bumps or bruises.

Similarly, Tim has a big exam coming up in a couple of weeks, has yet to open a book and begun to revise and he is beginning to feel anxious. A thought pops up- “Maybe it’s time I began to prepare for the exam now”- you pay attention to this thought; you organise your diary to fit in some time daily to study. Would you say that paying attention to ‘that’ thought was a ‘useful’ thing to do? Did it help Tim to move towards his goal of passing the exam?

I think we can safely say that yes, that thought was a helpful thought to pay attention to. He then altered his behaviour, (putting in some study slots in his day) increasing his chances of exam success and lessening the anxiety around not being prepared!

So, in both above examples- paying attention to these thoughts was ‘useful’.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, sometimes however, our thoughts aren’t so useful. If you struggle with OCD and anxiety- these thoughts could be anything from “I can’t drive my car today because I will drive into the car in front” or “I can’t touch that doorknob, because I will contract a serious illness”. These thoughts can be scary. They can be intrusive- in other words they pop into our mind, against our will. We didn’t ask for them, we don’t want them but there they there!

Most of the time we just ‘believe’ these thoughts. We see them as ‘fact’! So, what happens when you treat the thought above “I can’t drive my car today because I will drive into the car in front” as fact? You guessed it, you don’t drive your car!

What happens when you treat the thought “I can’t touch that doorknob, or I will contract a serious illness” as ‘fact’? You don’t touch doorknobs without wearing gloves or sanitising your hands straight after. If you are in a public toilet you may have to wait until someone else opens the door for you!

So sometimes believing everything that we think and following every thought isn’t always useful. So what is a more helpful way we can respond to our difficult, entangling thoughts?

I’ll explain with an example. Imagine you and your friend decide to go for a hike. You decide to go to a mountain range near you. After a nice afternoon of climbing and socialising with your friend, you both get to the top. You have a wonderful view over the entire city. You and your friend take a glance down, then out of nowhere- the thought pops in “I wonder what it would be like to jump."

So, the key takeaway, the key learning is what happens next… in other words how each person ‘responds’ to the thought.

You have the thought “I wonder what it would be like to jump!”. You ‘believe’ this thought to be fact- you begin to worry that if you were left alone, that you could jump- you start wondering things like “who in the right mind things this way/ what’s wrong with me/ I can never climb mountains again”. You then begin to go back down the mountain with your friend, you no longer engage in conversation- because you are in your head- trying to figure this thought- wondering why on earth you had that thought?

So your friend has the thought- “ I wonder what it would be like to jump!” He ‘notices’ the thought and ‘acknowledges’ that it’s a bit weird and bizarre and then 'refocuses his attention' on what he must do next- getting down the mountain before it gets dark! He didn’t deny or try and push away the bizarre thought, he didn’t try to replace it with a nicer thought or debate with it, he just ‘acknowledged’ it then put his attention on to the next thing.

So how does this translate into our everyday life? As the title states we can learn to ‘acknowledge’ those thoughts that don’t serve us or aren’t helpful, and just let them play like a radio in the background while we refocus our attention and energy in doing what matters.

When the thoughts, “I can’t be left alone with sharp knives I could harm someone” or “I have to wash my hands 15 times to prevent something bad happening to my parents” show up, we don’t have to ‘believe’ the thought like 100 percent fact! We can ‘acknowledge’ it “aha there is that bizarre thought again- thanks for the information but I’ve more important things to attend to” and then put your attention on to what matters!

The point of this isn’t to make the thoughts go away, it is to make the thoughts less powerful so we can continue to move our life in the direction of our choosing. As we discussed throughout sometimes thoughts are useful, when they are pay attention to those ones and let them guide your behaviour. Those thoughts which aren’t so helpful, we don’t have to let them run the show. As the saying goes-thoughts are a great servant but a terrible master!

Paul Mc Carroll

Therapist | Trainer | Blogger

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