What sorts of things do you think about? On an average day, what occupies your mind the most? It may seem like a silly question, but many of us have recurring thought patterns that we’re not even aware of, and if those patterns are of a negative nature, they can limit us unnecessarily and cause us to behave in ways that may not be healthy. Likewise, positive thought patterns can influence us to do great things. Do you know what sort of thought patterns you have? Are you sure? It might surprise you to find out what sorts of things you really think about, and what the tone of those thoughts is.
Recently, as part of a psychology experiment I volunteered for, I was asked by a therapist to keep a sort of “thoughts diary” for a week. This was quite labor-intensive, as it involved setting a repeating alarm on my mobile phone to chime at 15-minute intervals, at which point I would have to stop whatever I was doing and make a note of what I was thinking about (I used my voice recorder to make the note-taking almost effortless). I would make the first note as soon as I woke up and the last one right before I went to bed. I was asked to do this during a week when I expected things to be “normal” (e.g., I wasn’t going through any unusual stress or dealing with an event that was out of the ordinary).
I kind of assumed that the purpose of the experiment was to help the therapist with her research, to understand some things about how thought patterns emerge, but it turned out that I was the one who learned something. I thought I knew my mind, but it turned out I barely knew anything at all.
Before this experiment, if you had asked me what I normally think about all day, I probably would have said that I thought mostly about the logistics of the day’s to-do list, especially in the morning. I also expected that I thought a lot about my short-term goals, domestic things like what to make for dinner, and what I would like to do in the evening to relax — all pretty normal and neutral stuff.
I was shocked at the end of the first day that there was already a clear pattern emerging, and it wasn’t nearly as innocuous as I had anticipated. There was also a lot more repetition then I thought there would be, and the things that got repeated were generally not pleasant. Here are the top ten things I thought about that first day, in order of frequency:
- Food, especially along the lines of “what can I eat next?”
- Various daydream scenarios in which the future is awful and I’m unhappy
- Worries about finances, particularly long-term
- Bad memories (embarrassing moments, failures, breakups)
- Feeling disappointed in myself for not being good enough at life, not being as accomplished as I think I should be
- Making excuses, talking myself out of things I’d like to do
- Replaying arguments I’ve had with people, sometimes from years ago, except this time I say all the clever things I wish I’d said when the argument was actually happening
- Dreading ridiculous things that I have no reason to believe will happen (cancer, getting dumped, losing everything I have)
- Feeling like life would be okay if only I were younger/thinner/richer
- Wondering if various people really like me, or are just pretending
Yikes. That was sobering, to say the least. It didn’t take a professional therapist to show me the problems in that list. I do wonder, though, how many of you read it and thought, yeah, I probably think about those things, too.
My therapist friend called me on the second day and asked how it was going. “Let me guess, you’re already shocked at how much negative self-talk you engage in,” she said. Exactly. I really am my own worst enemy. Also, during the week I noticed that at night I tend to be slightly more positive, telling myself that I’ll turn things around and be Super-Me tomorrow. In the morning, however, that attitude has usually disappeared and been replaced with anxiety and negative thoughts.
By the third day I was already starting to make a conscious effort to abort bad thoughts as soon as I noticed them and turn my attention toward something positive instead, or at least something neutral. It wasn’t always easy, and I didn’t always catch myself in time, but at least I was making an effort in the right direction.
At the end of the experiment I noticed a distinct difference not only in my recorded thoughts, but also in my feelings about myself. I was feeling more positive about life than I had in a long time, and wasn’t spending so much of my time putting myself down. I am now hyper-aware of what patterns I am vulnerable to, and I do my best to nip them in the bud before they take hold and run away with me.
Our thoughts control our perceptions of who we think we are, and what we think we’re capable of. If you’re curious about how your thoughts may be affecting you, I encourage you to keep a thoughts diary for a week and see what sorts of things you really think about most often. You cannot do anything to alleviate a problem unless you know what the problem is, and being aware of your thought patterns can be the first step to doing something about the negative ones, and encouraging yourself in a positive direction.