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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

You Are Not Your Thoughts



A man is sitting on a rocky ridge surrounded by mountains of similar height. It is nighttime, and the sky above him is clear and filled with stars. The man looks thoughtfully off into the distance to the right.



We cannot control our brains. They are complex organs that operate quickly and autonomously, processing information, coming to conclusions, and controlling our instincts and reactions. Our senses are processed through our brains, influencing how we see the world and interact with it. It can come to absolute conclusions about what we are capable of and the nature of the world around it.  


And it can be wrong


Which is really terrifying, if you think about it. We can’t control our brains, and things like traumatic brain injury, tumors, or even traumatic experiences can change how our brains operate, and can fundamentally change who we are. Memory loss, personality change, loss of motor control–the list of things our brain controls without our say-so goes on and on. 


Our brain generates our thoughts. If we can’t control our brains, can we control our thoughts? 


Sometimes. 


Sometimes, we are our thoughts. We experience them and respond to them with so little control that they are almost a thing that happens to us. We are not aware of them as separate events, but react to them in real time. We don’t have control over them, they simply are. 


Other times, we can cultivate a sense of mindful separation from our thoughts. We can be aware of our thoughts and observe them as events, evaluate them, and choose whether we act on them or not. We have a sense of self and consciousness separate from the brain’s impulse. 


You are not your thoughts, you are the one thinking them.  


Most people exist somewhere between these extremes, moving along a spectrum from mindful to automatic based on the situation and with varying degrees of control. Sometimes therapy is about adjusting one’s position on that spectrum. If someone is too detached from their body and thoughts, we try to get them to be in the moment more. More often, we try to build mindfulness so that they have a sense of control over their thoughts. 


But it’s important to note that sometimes your position on that spectrum isn’t something a person can control. Sometimes, when your brain says to be afraid, you have no control over it: You’re going to be afraid. Sometimes, if your brain says that something terrible is going to happen if you don’t lock the door, you’re going to lock the door. You may not be able to recognize that the thought your brain is giving to you is not based in reality, or isn’t healthy, and you may not have a choice about ignoring it. 


We refer to this as insight–we say that someone with insight can recognize that their thoughts are the result of symptoms and may not be true. If they have low insight, then they cannot recognize the thoughts as symptoms–they are just their thoughts. 


This isn’t a choice, or denial, or stubbornness. If they could choose to “not believe” the thought they would, but they can’t. Their brain isn’t giving them the opportunity to not believe it. 


It’s for that reason that I encourage everyone to approach other humans, with or without mental health difficulties, with patience and compassion. Brains can be hard, and sometimes they don’t give people much of a choice. 


They are not their brains. They are not their thoughts. They are the person having them. 


Just like you. 


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