Refuse to Choose Guilty Thoughts / by Michelle Cowan

I have a lot of experience managing my thoughts.  I have learned that it is possible to encourage certain kinds of thoughts and discourage others. It's a matter of attention.  If guilt-ridden thoughts like, "I should be making more money," or, "I should be thinner," get my attention, my brain will try to use these thoughts to motivate me.  It seems to work, and my brain uses what it thinks works.

What my brain doesn't seem to realize is that these guilt-ridden thoughts cause other issues. The berating motivates me, but in the end, I feel worse about myself and want to rebel against those thoughts.

The same thing goes for food-related thoughts. Food has historically soothed me, so my mind brings up thoughts of food to comfort me in difficult times.  Little does my brain know that this is creating an unhealthy dependence on a single coping mechanism: food.

In the past, I thought I needed to pay attention to every thought I had, convinced that every thought had some nugget of truth or wisdom that I needed to learn from.  Even if the thought was clearly negative and hurtful, like, "Look what I've done by eating all this food.  My body is not as attractive as it was five months ago," I was convinced that I needed to mine these belittling thoughts for virtue.  The logic goes: Perhaps I need to hear how ugly I am to feel motivated to eat more carefully. The only way I will change how I behave with food is by feeling bad about what I've done in the past. 

It took many years to realize that not every thought has virtue—that I can choose to move past thoughts that are not helpful or supportive. What I have learned is that I do not miss out on life lessons by disregarding these thoughts. Instead, my brain learns to rephrase the thoughts so that they motivate and support me. "Look at my ugly body" can go away.  "How can I love my body?" will come up soon after.

My brain already knows both negative and positive ways to frame thoughts. By disregarding the negative, hurtful thoughts, I train my brain to offer up more supportive, kind thoughts. The positive thoughts are no less motivating than the negative ones.  In fact, positive thoughts provide more long-term motivation because they don't come with the self-sabotaging side effects of the negative thoughts.

I get to choose not to guilt myself into action.  A while ago, I challenged myself to see if I could lead a life I was proud of without guilt.  My family has historically been driven by guilt. My great-grandmother guilted my grandmother. My grandmother guilted my mother into action.  And my mother guilted me. None of them realized what they were doing.  Now, I tend to guilt myself.  Fortunately, I am aware of the pattern and can escape it.  I can live a brilliant life without guilt-based motivation. I hypothesize that if I move past guilt-based thoughts and only hold onto non-guilty thoughts, my brain will make more non-guilty thoughts. I will still achieve all the things I once believed I needed guilt to achieve. (This pattern of thinking is a project I work on daily.)

This isn't to say that I should ignore any thought that says something negative about me.  Mostly, I concentrate on moving past thoughts that tend to guilt me.  Thoughts like, "I have a very low tolerance for X person," or, "I tend to seek attention at the expense of others," don't send me on a guilt trip.  I can accept those observations and ask questions like, "What in me is irritated by X person?" or, "What do I like about attention?" Those thoughts are not the same as, "X person probably hates me," or, "I want too much attention."  Those thoughts judge me and the people around me.  They may hold some truths for me, but I don't need to pay attention to them.  If I move past the negative thoughts, positive thoughts with the same message will come through. I don't need to worry that I'm missing out on a major life lesson.  My brain knows how to rephrase its thoughts.  I just have to train it to pick more positive phrasings.

I'm excited to finally relax a little more. Guilt leads me to food, because food blocks out the guilty feelings. Without guilt, it's easier to make healthy choices based on factors outside of emotional avoidance.  We don't have to pay attention to negative thoughts, even if we think they might be helpful.  Our brains are smart.  They can rephrase.

Too many of us have taken the advice, "Take every thought captive," far too seriously.  It sounds like a smart thing to do at first, but in practice, it's a recipe for neuroses.  Sure, some people don't reflect on their lives or thoughts enough.  These people chronically turn to  distraction. Maybe they need practice in taking thoughts captive.  But many of us naturally reflect on our thoughts and try to analyze every thought that breaks into consciousness.  By trying to take every thought captive, we become captive to a myriad of overwhelming ideas and suggestions.  Even the chronic distracters out there may spend so little time considering their thoughts because they don’t realize that they can actively choose which ones to focus on.

Brain studies show that only a very small percentage of thoughts make it into consciousness.  That means that when we choose not to give time to a conscious thought, a dozen more wait to break through.  Of those thoughts, we can choose to give time to only the truly helpful ones.  Don't be afraid to ignore thoughts. I assure you, a bevy of other thoughts wait to take their place.

We may not choose all of our thoughts, but we can choose the ones we want to give time to. We can choose how long they stay in consciousness.  Some unhelpful thoughts may come up over and over and over, but by moving past them, you can train your brain to pick other thoughts.

It's tough.  Ask for support when you need it.  I'm only now to a point where I really understand what it means to choose my thoughts.  Meditation has helped, and I can't recommend it enough. Spending a few minutes actively choosing to let thoughts go has been immensely helpful, and I think I'm getting better at it. 

However you decide to train your brain, go for it, and refuse to run your life on guilt.