Your thoughts are yours but you are not your thoughts…

Maybe you’ve heard it said William Shakespeare essentially only wrote two types of plays, either a comedy or tragedy?**

We tend to reduce life to similar binaries. 1’s and 0’s. The human brain loves blacks/whites, opposites arranged along a distinct pole of good or bad / happy or sad. Putting life into boxes keeps things simple. Right?

Sure. “Either or” thinking is easy to parse, i.e., we either like something or we don’t, right? The end.

I won’t argue with you that thinking about life like a light switch (on / off or good / bad) makes for simple cognitive landscape. Granted! But do you really believe that is how life actually plays out? Can life be mapped so easily onto experience(s)!

I’m guessing you are not one “thing” for very long. Happy. For how long? Sad. For how long? Even in a given day or hour we all move through various cognitive and emotional states. I’m guessing you’ve noticed?! In fact, as an experiment try just being one thing for more than 10-minutes, e.g., sad, happy, angry, et cetera. You’ll notice very quickly that unless you deliberately manufacture these cognitive/emotional states they are impossible to maintain as a singular experience.

Even if you feel a persistent state of sadness (what we’d likely call clinical depression) or a latent sense of worry (what we might call generalized anxiety) even in the face of these mental health states if you are really honest with yourself you’ll notice you experience other cognitive and emotional states?

Caveat: If you have a persistent grayed out existence with no cognitive or emotional variation this is a condition to be very cautious about. If you have a persistent state of numbness, talk to a therapist right away; your therapist will likely also bring a psychiatrist into the conversation. Experiencing a persistent state of “nothingness” is rather rare and typically a sign of other things:
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Life is not meant to be grayed out – Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh

Holding a true state of numbness aside, what I am trying to emphasize is that despite telling ourselves that life is a light-switch of happy/sad or good/bad all humans move through many cognitive and emotional states throughout the day.

Life is NOT binary, you are not a 0 or 1; where is the nuance in 1 and 0?!

What does this mean?

It means feeling sad is not only okay, but necessary. Feeling anxious isn’t a bug of the system, it’s a feature!

If you step in front of a moving bus while crossing the street and experience zero anxiety that would be a problem! Anxiety serves a purpose. If you experience a loss and feel no sadness, does this seem like a healthy response?

Of course not!

Emotions are neither good nor bad, they are a signal from the body that something going on in life connects to something meaningful. The bus charges and we feel anxiety. Rather than seeing that energy as a problem we use it to get our ass out of the way. We accept the anxiety and use it.

If someone we care for in life moves on, breaks their connection with us, or even dies, we grieve. Emotion emerges to signal to us that what we are experiencing is meaningful.

We hurt where we care.

Why not stop fighting with your emotional states and attempt to use them to understand what is going on, what is happening in your life that your body is responding to? Yes, I’m talking about acceptance here.

Acceptance is not about giving up or giving in to what is showing up. Acceptance is about dropping resistance and instead using what is showing up to make sense of what you are thinking/feeling.

When these cognitive and emotional states stick around for longer than seems reasonable that is a good indication there might be some underlying thoughts/emotions that could benefit from investigation in therapy. But so very often what we find when doing this work is that the thoughts/emotions are there for a reason.

We care where we hurt.

You are NOT a light switch!

I understand it can be frustrating and even inconvenient to have emotional states and their accompanying thoughts derail life. Really! I get it. It’s one of the main reasons I do this work with you. To improve those reactions. To stop the autopilot response.

But in so many ways this emotional roller coaster IS LIFE. Remember, you are not a 1 or a 0. You are an infinite combination of emotional states that come along with the stories we narrate to ourselves all day long.

How are you reacting to your own story playing out in your mind? How are you responding to the emotions that come up as you rehearse the lines of the play that is your life?

In Act II, Scene 2 of Hamlet, Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

I know it sounds overly simple, but there is a mountain of truth in those twelve words.

Time to stop fighting what is showing up.

Sure, your thoughts are yours, but you are not your thoughts. You are so much more.

Here’s a little exercise to help with the mental struggle at the root of the hurting:

  1. Notice your thoughts + the emotions connected to them.
    1. No, really, stop. Notice your thoughts. This is the hardest step of the three. We typically accept our thinking as our existence / as life. Let me say it again. Your thoughts are yours but you are not your thoughts. Notice that!
  2. Give your thoughts (the story you are telling yourself) a name.
  3. Once you’ve noticed and named, claim how you want these thoughts/emotions to either take you toward or away from the life you want to live.

Notice. Name. And then, Claim where you want to go.

I know it sounds simple, but your mind is prattling away right now, did you notice?! It’s time to engage in the only binary activity I’ll endorse: turn the autopilot switch off by noticing, naming, and claiming.

**It is unequivocally reductionist to argue Shakespeare only wrote two types of plays!

This post does not constitute therapeutic counseling or advice; the contents of this post are provided as a learning resource. We share the contents hoping that if you are in need of mental health support you will reach out to us directly or to a mental health professional in your area.