May 15, 2016

Why we Believe Our Thoughts & Why we Shouldn’t.

Flickr/Mike Lay

The inner voice, the voice in your head, the inner monologue, the inner critic, the inner stream of consciousness.

These are all names for the endless banter that occurs in the privacy of our minds. You “hear” it as you read this sentence.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argues that inner speech is just a re-processing of external speech. It developed simultaneously with, or not long after, humans started using language.

This voice is the internalization of authority figures. It’s like a tape recording of the rules of our society, that keeps playing itself back to us. In some ways, it is useful for our survival, because it helps us to keep track of what we should and shouldn’t do to keep safe.

Thoughts that keep us safe are those like “look both ways!” or “don’t accept candy (as a kid) or drinks (as an adult) from strangers!” While reacting to these thoughts are important, most of us oblige our inner voice as if our survival depends on it all the time. For example, when we have a negative thought about ourselves, we react as if we are in real danger. Many of us react to the thought “I’m not good enough at X” as if we could be decapitated for not being good enough at X.

The reason we react this way is because we have evolved to believe our thoughts. If our ancestors didn’t believe the thoughts “run when you see a predator,” or “don’t eat the poisonous purple berries,” we wouldn’t be here today. We have evolved to internalize societal messages as our own thoughts, and then treat these thoughts as if our survival depends on them.

The problem is that the authority figures who program our thinking—industries, our parents, churches, schools—are self-interested and often wrong. For example, the diet industry isn’t trying to protect us by making us think that we have to be thin to be happy. It’s primary concern is profit, not our best interest. But when this messaging comes back to us as the thought “I’m too fat,” we react to this thought as if it’s true. In reality, these thoughts are like paid-for advertisements, programmed by authority figures, that play on repeat in our minds. We generally observe advertisements with skepticism. Yet most of us react immediately to all of the thoughts that we have as if they are true and necessary. We think that just because we thought it, it must be true.

In his book On Being Certain: Believing you are right even when you are not, neuroscientist and author Robert A. Burton pokes holes in the common belief that we can actually determine when our thoughts are correct. According to him, the feeling of certainty is just a sensation that “is most likely a biologically-based, involuntary, and unconscious process that cannot be trusted as a reliable marker that we are right,” Robert explains. The problem is that we rarely question our own certainty about our thoughts. The majority of the thoughts that we have in a day are just noise, a re-processing of things that we have heard, on which our safety does not depend.

Until we learn to question the validity and necessity of our thoughts from an objective point of view, we will live in reaction to them.

Finding our own unique self-expression requires recognizing that we don’t have to believe everything we think. It requires dis-identifying from our thoughts as ourselves, and knowing that thinking something does not make it true, no matter how real the thought feels.

We must begin to develop our ability to recognize that most of our thoughts are programmed noise that can be disregarded. Most of the time, we do not need to believe or react to our thoughts at all. In fact, always believing or reacting to our thoughts stands in direct opposition to living a created life. For example, believing a thought “I’m not good enough” will divert us from realizing our goals and instead have us working on fixing ourselves to become “good enough.” The problem is not that we are not good enough. The problem is that we gave significance to the thought “I’m not good enough.” As Byron Katie says, “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that.”

We all have mental static. Our minds are all tuned into the chaotic radio frequency of our societies. Until we recognize it as static noise rather than the gospel truth, we cannot be truly free to create our lives.

As Geneen Roth writes in her book Women, Food and God, “the realization that your internal voice does not speak the truth is like finally breaking free of your captor after years of being chained.” So when the voice speaks, rather than believing it, ask yourself if you can know for certain that it is true, and if it is really helping you survive. If the answer is no, observe the thought with the same skepticism you would a paid-for advertisement, and let it pass.



Author: Brandilyn Tebo

Image: Mike Lay/Flickr

Editor: Emily Bartran

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Brandilyn Tebo Jun 9, 2016 12:07am

Exactly :) spoken from a true fellow meditator!

Brandilyn Tebo Jun 9, 2016 12:06am

Thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot to me to hear. So glad the article provided solace for you. If you'd like to stay up to date on my work, feel free to check out my site at BrandilynTebo.com :)

Camille Reichert Wright Jun 2, 2016 1:19pm

This is so helpful to me as a daily confirmation. I read your article when I was at a point of depression about my failures as a person, wife, mother etc. I know in my heart that is not true but the endless monologue was playing and taking over what I know to be true. I am a person who is valued as a wife, mother, friend and family member. Thank you for writing this insightful article and know that I am going to keep it to remind myself when I am battling this 'static' again.

Allen F Mackenzie May 21, 2016 2:59pm


Allen F Mackenzie May 21, 2016 2:36pm

''requires dis-identifying from our thoughts''. Yes!. And that is why using a meditation technique that allows you to transcend the ''mental box'' of thinking and experience your fundamental identity and unchanging truth, ''pure awareness'', should be recommended. The regular practice of a technique such as the Transcendental Meditaion program (TM.org) will, over time, enhance one's experience of ''witnessing'' the mental activity of the mind. Inner silence and peace are the result. The permanent stablization of this state of consciousness throughout one's daily life is the true definition of enlightenment.

Thomas Vivian Perceval Laughton-Smith May 19, 2016 10:34pm

That different cultures have had different perceptions of attractiveness is irrelevant. The point is that recognittion of this beauty standard and adherence to it (be it joy at coming closer to it, or upset at moving further from it) is totally rational and if one's agenda is to have others consider us a certain level of attractiveness but we know they do not because we are fat, then the thought 'i am too fat' is very much true. It is a recognition of the fact that it is our being fat that stands in the way of our desire.

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Brandilyn Tebo

Brandilyn Tebo is an acclaimed transformational coach, writer and speaker. Once a type-A perfectionist who struggled with anorexia, she knows firsthand how destructive attachment to external validation can be. Through years of inner work and deep meditation, coach trainings, and the study of eastern and western transformational philosophies, she learned how amazing life can be once you let go of fear, limiting beliefs and false identification with achievements. She has traveled the world to teach empowering workshops in high schools, prisons, Fortune 500 companies and colleges. Today, she coaches clients on how to remove internal barriers to following their hearts and be the fullest expression of themselves! You can connect with Brandilyn on her website, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.