Your Thoughts Aren’t What You Think

Nearly all of us think, and we think all the time. Most of the time, though, we don’t notice that we’re thinking. Thinking is so automatic, like breathing, that it flies under the radar. However, those thoughts-that-we’re-not-noticing frequently cause pain, both for ourselves and others. 

Learning to notice my thoughts, then learning to question them, was and is central to my inner peace. These are core skills in any mindfulness practice. Yet we don’t often hear people talk about why these skills are so useful. Next week, I’ll share a post on the benefits of observing our thoughts and cultivating self-awareness. But first, we have to understand how our thoughts have been influenced by a whole host of factors.

Most of our thoughts are conditioned

The pain we cause ourselves, as well as the pain we inflict on others, largely comes from believing our conditioned thought patterns. We act on thoughts as though they were reality,

All of us have been conditioned to perceive and interact with the world in particular ways. We’ve been conditioned to hold certain beliefs (thoughts) by our families, our culture, the media we’re exposed to, our religion or lack of it, our educational institutions and more. Not all of this conditioning is unskillful; when it hurts us or others, though, it’s time to re-assess.

Our conditioning—communication styles, behaviours and belief systems—is designed to separate us from others who are not-us. For example, people from very affluent backgrounds are conditioned to speak indirectly (with the underlying belief: “Speaking directly is crude, and we’re refined people.”). Conversely, those who grew up in working-class families learned to speak directly and not “put on airs.”

Most of the time, we don’t see our worldview as conditioned. We simply call it “reality.” For the majority of my life, I thought constantly, yet I had no awareness of these thoughts. I considered them facts. Bright clothing patterns are tacky. Brussels sprouts are disgusting. I exhaust people.

Not all conditioning has negative consequences—for example, critical thinking is essential at times, but relentlessly being critical is not. Many of us are relentlessly critical, and that wires our brains for hostility, for creating an ‘us’ and ‘others.’ Unless we learn to notice how we’ve been conditioned, we can’t discern which pieces of our conditioning are harmful to ourselves and others.

Conditioning vs. ego

Some teachers call the conditioned self ego. I prefer the word conditioning for two reasons: 1) There’s too much confusion with the Freudian “ego,” which refers to something completely different, and 2) Most people start to feel defensive when anyone starts talking about ego. (It’s the conditioned self, the ego, that becomes defensive, but that’s a whole other post.)

The word ego, too, evokes shame in some people. We need to be able to look at our patterns without shame. There is no shame in having been inducted into systems of oppression, and all forms of oppression—racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, ageism and others—are based on thoughts of superiority. We’re not responsible for how we were conditioned as children. However, as adults, we are responsible for whether we continue to operate from that conditioning.   

When we can look at our conditioning with a detached curiosity (“Huh, that’s interesting. Why did that thought come up?”), we have an opportunity to choose whether to believe and act from conditioning or to make a more aware choice.

Culture influences conditioned thought patterns

Each of us lives in a culture that’s a reflection of our collective beliefs—which are simply thoughts. All of us, regardless of background, were conditioned into duality—to see ourselves and our clan as “us” and everyone else as “them.” But there is no us and them; we are all on this planet like tourists on a cruise ship. We were taught to believe “this is right, and that is wrong.” Except. Except… literally everybody thinks they’re right.

Other people are products of their conditioning. If I’d been born into a coal mining family in Kentucky, or a farming family in Sri Lanka, my beliefs might be completely different. Each of us existed as whole beings before we were conditioned into various belief systems, which—again—are just thoughts.

Your thoughts are not you

If you’ve ever forgotten what you were going to say, or felt like a thought ‘slipped away,’ you have experienced how ephemeral thoughts are. Thoughts have zero substance. They come and go. If thoughts come and go on their own, they can’t be an essential aspect of who we are.

Each of us has different thoughts, too. Let’s take a hypothetical coworker and call her Janine. I may think Janine is rude and hostile, while someone else thinks she’s a deeply caring person. Both of us base our opinions (thoughts) on our interactions with Janine. How can both of these thoughts be objectively and constantly true? They aren’t. We each see Janine through the filter of our own experience, our own conditioning. Janine is her own person, multifaceted, complex, and far more than anyone else’s thoughts about her.

Unless we learn to see beyond our conditioning, we’ll never be able to see Janine (or anyone else) beyond their conditioning. And until enough of us learn to see beyond our conditioning, we’re going to have a deeply conflicted world.

Thoughts happen

Similarly, negative thoughts about ourselves are equally untrue. We may make unskillful choices, but that doesn’t make us (for example) stupid. We may have been distracted, but that doesn’t make us universally and always rude. By removing these labels, we can create space around the emotions our thoughts create.

There probably won’t come some magical point at which critical thoughts—of myself and others—don’t arise any more. But these days, the instant I catch myself thinking a negative thought about myself, I immediately recognize that it’s an old tape, old conditioning, and most of the time, I can release the thought. There’s no emotional charge. I’m not bound by it, not emotionally tied to that thought as truth. And that contributes to my inner peace.

Next week: The benefits of learning to observe thoughts.

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

1 Comment

  1. Wayne on December 17, 2022 at 2:41 pm

    This is very well written and contains a lot of both wisdom and practical advice. It’s sad that thoughts about themselves can be the basis of such self-denigration and even self-loathing in a lot of people. Frankly, I speak from experience. I treat my thoughts (about anything) like news reports now, or a government’s comments about how they might be doing in a war. Analysis, skepticism. As you say, a thought doesn’t necessarily have truth in it just because you think it. In fact, it can be the exact opposite of the truth. I find that two opposite practices help me with assessing my thoughts. One is diligent and detailed attention in my interactions with other people. And the other is silent solitude.

    Thanks for this post, Sarah.


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