Suspending Judgment with our Thoughts

By Martín Prete, LCPC

Being in our heads 24/7 can be difficult. Thoughts can be relentless. Passing through our stream of consciousness in a variety of manners. Sometimes it feels like speeding bullets while other times, we can barely think at all. Sometimes too, our thoughts can be nasty and cruel, even if deep down inside we don’t believe it.

In an instance like that, have you ever had a thought that raised the alarms in your head leading you to question yourself? Why would I think that? you might ask. If the thought repeated, would the alarm bells still be going off? If so, then quickly being with ourselves can suddenly make us feel trapped. That is not a pleasant feeling, one where we then feel inclined to act upon, but what is there to do with a distressful thought.


Assigning Value to Thoughts

First, a good question to address is do our thoughts matter? Depending on who you ask, you may get a variety of answers, but the reality is, we cannot control every thought passing through our head. It takes energy to continuously monitor our thoughts, and if we were to raise questions about each particular thought, then soon we can find ourselves with an increasingly stressful pile of unanswerable questions.

I’m not trying to say our thoughts don’t matter. On the positive side, when we have a breakthrough thought, whether we’re solving a puzzle or think of something witty to say to an amused crowd, it can feel really good. It’s ok to be proud of our thoughts, ideas, and dreams. What I am trying to stress, is that if we assign a similar value to thoughts contrary to our beliefs and values, then it could trigger our anxiety response.


Negative Thoughts with OCD

In Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, this may be an all-too-common cycle. Many sufferers of OCD deal with their distress in their head, entering negative thinking cycles perpetuating the anxiety instead of relieving them fully. Letting uncertainty lie can feel dangerous to the point where thoughts coerce us into action. But what if we did nothing about the thoughts — Is that even possible?

With OCD or anxiety disorders, there are other factors at work that could play into our anxiety. For example, its common to feel that if thoughts are dwelled on then the feared consequence could become a reality. When life ruining implications are on the line, why would you take the chance? That’s a whole lot of responsibility for our thoughts to have, and a lot of pressure for ourselves to be in charge of managing a never-ending list of imaginary crises. That’s what anxiety does, draw our attention to the perceived threat. If we reinforce in our mind that thoughts are threats, then it begins to disrupt the flow in our life.

Non-judgment through Mindfulness

What I am about to recommend as an alternative is not easy. It requires patience and compassion, and our acceptance. This is a skill we can build over time and involves us to take an observational stance when it comes to our inner experience. Let’s take a chance to be mindful. Notice where our feet are and bring attention to them. Are they warm in our socks? Are our shoes tight? Now to our breath. Can we follow it through our nose and into our lungs? Let’s focus on the breath for a few cycles.

Now, let’s draw our attention to our minds and see what sorts of thoughts we are having. Maybe you are familiar with mindfulness and thoughts of past experiences are surfacing. Maybe our minds are thinking about the day ahead and what our next meal might be. Now stop and hold onto whatever thought we have.

Is it a good thought? A bad thought? A whole lot of nonsense? I want us to try to lean into the non-judgmental approach and consider the thought to be just as it is — a thought. Invincible words in our head. Maybe it’s accompanied with pictures, perhaps a feeling. Now, let’s not doing anything with it. If the thought wants to linger, we let it. It is not good nor bad the thought is here, it just is.


Thoughts and Feelings in Basic Functioning

What I briefly demonstrated was tuning our minds to be observant and mindful while pulling away from the typical need to label things. It makes sense why we do in the first place. It’s important for our brains to categorize things in our environment. It is a survival mechanism. We might label water as good. Fire, good too, although potentially dangerous. It makes sense we are able to operate this way, especially when our emotions really drive home the point with what is pleasurable and what is terrifying.

However, in many instances, it can be unnecessary, especially pertaining to something not easily controlled as a thought. Again, it makes sense why we weigh importance to creations from our mind. Our thoughts can be powerful. We can all easily imagine a happy memory and feel remnants of the past joy, or we could think of something horribly tragic happening to a loved one and feel that worry and sadness. So, when anxiety is coupled with a thought, on a fundamental level, it is understandable why we feel it needs to be addressed.


Practice and Patience

A non-judgmental approach is only one method of beginning to cope with negative thoughts. It can strengthen our mindfulness skills, instill compassion towards the self, and reinforce our values. When a thought triggers anxiety, it can generally be tied to strong value we hold being under threat. If someone values their health, a thought of getting hurt or sick may trigger additional stress.

First, it’s important to accept what is happening in our experience, identifying the anxiety and the thought that is bringing stress. Then practice the approach of viewing the thought as just a thought. It’s not good nor is it bad. It makes us feel a certain way and perhaps doesn’t align with our values, but we know our values. We know we can manage thoughts that question the security of those values. The thought does not define us, nor can it control our behavior. We do. The more we turn to this approach, the more you begin to see anxiety lessen with thoughts. If we can withstand the anxiety and affirm ourselves, then our fight-or-flight response over time will open up to the idea that thoughts are harmless.

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