Thinking Isn’t Something You Need to Worry About
Updated: Jul 28
Many people needlessly worry about unwanted or negative thoughts that run through their mind. That’s because they mistakenly consider their thoughts as representing who they are as a person, or as ‘a call to action’ that must be heeded. If this sounds like you, perhaps the following, well, thoughts may be helpful.
We may not experience them as such, but at the end of the day thoughts are involuntary. It’s not like you can tell your mind what thoughts to have, after all. From this perspective, the concept of wanted or unwanted thoughts doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Don’t be fooled by your ability to change thoughts around somewhat, switch your focus from one thought to another or, especially, think about your thinking.
Look at it this way: You can control breathing or eye blinking to an extent, but ultimately they operate on their own, as will be obvious if you attempt to never blink again or hold your breath forever. If you still believe that full control over your thinking is possible, then prove it by stopping it from occurring for the next 10 minutes or telling yourself what thought(s) to have an hour from now. See...you can’t!
Thoughts ultimately being beyond your control means that you cannot possibly be held accountable for them. Yes, this includes even the most heinous thoughts possible*. Imagine the thoughts that horror writers have – as far as I know horror story creators aren’t perpetrators of real-life horrors more than anyone else.
Like the wind, thoughts aren’t good or bad, they just are. You don’t hold the wind accountable for which way it blows, do you? Similarly, thoughts only have the meaning we give them. Therefore, it may be wise to just notice your thoughts and leave it at that, as the folks who practice mindful meditation like to recommend.
We are, however, accountable for what we say, write or do. Speaking, typing out words, and other behaviors can feel like ‘thoughts-in-action,’ but that is an illusion. If you need evidence, think of something and then say, write or do its exact opposite.
Some people believe that thoughts cause behaviors but they are mistaken. Outside of superhero movies, you simply can’t make anything occur just by thinking about it. If you don’t want to take my word for it, try to move a small object like a box of raisins with your ‘thought powers.’ You can think the rudest thought in the world about someone, but unless you say it out loud absolutely nothing has happened. The fact that you can have a rude thought and be rude is on you, not your thoughts.
Where do thoughts come from? It’s hard to know exactly but somehow they arise from brain processes. Without your brain, thinking cannot occur. This should not be equated with your thoughts literally being located in your brain, of course. Thoughts do exist, but not in a physical sense. Medical technology can detect chemical and electrical activity in your brain but cannot read our thoughts as if they were lines in a screenplay – which I consider to be a good thing.
It is hard for some of us to separate who we are from our thoughts. Maybe this has something to do with Renè Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist who in 1637 famously concluded, “I think, therefore I am.” Apparently he thought this statement through a bit more and arrived at something like, “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”
Either way, Descartes relates thinking to one’s very existence and the existence of knowledge itself. However, subsequent ‘thinkers’ critiqued Descartes’s assumption that thinking is produced by who we are rather than ‘just occurring,’ again, like the wind. I’m with them. Perhaps I am biased because, personally, I’d rather not be my thoughts!
But what if we aren’t our thoughts, what are we? It’s an intriguing question, but impossible to answer without intellectually going down an endless rabbit hole. I like the notion that we are that which observes what’s going on in our minds, body and surroundings and decides on a course to navigate through all that ‘wind’ – hopefully the heading of that course is toward ‘North Stars,’ which is another way of saying positive values, e.g., integrity.
Understanding why we exist rather than if we exist is a more modern concern. That answer, my friends, cannot be found amongst our thoughts, but is the net result of the real-life choices we make each day.
*Thoughts associated with actual suicidal risk or indicating impairment in the perception of reality, like delusions, always warrant professional evaluation.
Jonathan Hoffman, Ph.D., ABPP