What it really means to control your thoughts

Photo by Edu Grande on Unsplash

I often come across the phrase, you can control your thoughts. I am left wondering, what is it, exactly, that I am controlling?

The phrase seems to imply that you can control what you think. It suggests you have the power to decide whether or not to think a thought. On the surface, this sounds exciting and empowering. Yet it really only brings anguish and defeat because all it does is set you up for failure.

Here’s why — As soon as you think about whether or not to think a thought, it’s too late because you have already thought it in the very act of deciding whether or not to think it. What this means is you are not in control of your thoughts as they arise, and you can’t dictate whether or not you will ever think that thought again. You can’t just say, Hey mind, I am really sick of having that thought, so let’s stop that, okay? And your mind respond, Got it, boss! Consider it done. And then you never think it again.

Let’s play this out — adorable puppy. What are you thinking about right now? You are probably thinking about an adorable puppy. Did you have control over thinking that thought? Did you make the conscious choice to put that image, that thought of a puppy into your head? While you may be able to choose whether or not you want to continue thinking about the puppy, my hunch is that you couldn’t control whether that thought popped up in the first place.

Thus, the phrase you can control your thoughts does not mean you can control what thoughts you think. You do not have a say at the moment of conception regarding whether or not you think a thought. Similarly, you cannot decide to never think a certain thought again, and expect that it be gone forever.

Believing that you control whether you think a thought is owning something that is not yours to own. When you fail, you are left defeated, without hope, helpless. You may feel anxiety, sorrow, exhaustion, and frustration. And what is worse, you have doubled the very pain you were trying to stop. Because now you are not only in pain from the thought you were trying to control. You are also in pain because of the failure that accompanies the thought that you can control that thought in the first place.

Realizing that you cannot control your thoughts as they emerge in your mind means you can stop blaming yourself for all the negative self-talk. You no longer need to beat yourself up for not being able to wizard away those unwanted thoughts and magically create new ones. You don’t have to feel like something is wrong with you because you can’t control your mind.

So, if you can’t control your thoughts from coming, then what can you do?

Instead of thinking of thoughts as something to control, think of them as something to understand. No matter the thought, no matter how dark, twisted, wrong it may feel, you had the thought as a means to make sense of the world. All you are trying to do is understand. Remind yourself that thinking a thought doesn’t mean you have to continue to believe it or act on it. Thoughts have no power until you give them power, until you let them influence how you want to respond.

When you think a thought, what you are really doing is giving yourself a glimpse into your core beliefs. Those beliefs are also really just thoughts in themselves, thoughts that have been refined, reinforced, and shaped into the story your mind is crafting about the world. You can decide to continue to believe that part of the story, or to cross out the parts that no longer fit and revise it to represent your truth. And yet, you can never really know what is true. All you ever have is your own story. As much as it seems true, as much as perception is reality, it really only is your own reality. It is up to you to continually question your thoughts and the stories they shape as a means to discover further truth. You can continually rebuild, restructure, refine this story you are creating.

As soon as you bring awareness to the thought, you are able to control how to respond, to control whether you choose to believe the thought you are thinking.

You can build awareness of your thoughts by staying present, taking a moment to pause before you react or latch onto a thought, and questioning your thoughts as they come. As this awareness grows, you can begin to realize that it is up to you to determine which thoughts you want to believe. You can decide when a thought is worth believing, and when a thought is not useful, incomplete, or no longer true for you. You can act as a colander to your own mind, sifting through your thoughts and holding dear to the ones that best serve you, leaving the others to fall on through and wash away.

This awareness itself will become a part of life. As you realize you get to choose what you want to focus on and to believe, you begin to realize that everything you see, hold dear, value, is just a thought. And as you realize that, you can better equip yourself to focus on the thoughts that really matter, that will bring you to the life you want to live. The person you want to be. That is where your choice lies. That is what is in your control.