The opinions we hold about ourselves and our possibilities in life can be like propaganda – opinions that are not based on truth but come to be believed through being repeated so often we come to think they must be true. Starting to reflect “thoughts are not facts” helps us to remember that just because we think it, it is not necessarily true.
As we meditate the constant drone of ‘radio me’ starts to be heard more and more clearly. Whereas before it was a vague chatter in the background sitting quietly in meditation gives us an opportunity to be fully present to all of the thoughts that busily announce themselves in our mind. Some are just random thoughts about what we might eat, or a memory of what we did yesterday or a thought about some future activity or a day dream. But we also start to notice the way the mind presents opinions about ourself. “You messed up there”, “Why did you even think you could do that”, “Don’t think you are so special”.
We will all have our own particular set of thoughts, based on whatever messages we internalised as a child about who we were. Mark Williams, who devised the 8 week mindfulness course for depression, talks of how the mind is a propaganda machine. It likes to keep repeating things until we believe them to be true.
An example of this comes from a story I heard recently. A man was in therapy and as he tried to practice Loving Kindness for himself all he could notice was a judgemental voice in his head telling him not to be so proud and arrogant. As he explored this with his therapist he remembered being a child and running home eager to show his mother his test results. He ran in flourishing the piece of paper with his top grades. His mother, who had mental health issues and was not able to be fully be present to him, snapped “don’t be so arrogant, why do you think you are better than everyone else”. As a child he could not reason that his mother was depressed and that her statement was unfair. Instead he took the blame on himself, as children do when faced with the fear of loosing their parent’s love, and told himself he must never be so arrogant again.
As a result of this, by the time he was an adult he had a firmly established inner critic that would quickly tell him to stop being so arrogant if he ever tried to appreciate himself. As he explored this with his therapist he realised that this inner critic was actually trying to keep him safe. The child’s fear of loosing his mother’s love and care meant he had told himself he must never be arrogant again. As an adult looking back at this he could release that this way of thinking was not founded on any truth. That he was justified to be pleased for getting good grades. He was able to start challenging this thought each time it arose and no longer take it as a fact.
The simple phrase “thoughts are not facts” is a useful reflection to use whenever these opinions present themselves in our mind. The gentle reminder that just because a thought feels familiar and true does not mean it is a fact, it may just be propaganda that we have come to believe to be true.
Thoughts are not facts, a Christmas story:
One of the participants on a previous 8 week mindfulness course saw this in a powerful way. She had hated Christmas for years. She did not know why, she just knew she wanted to avoid Christmas and would always ask her family not to make a big deal of it when she spent Christmas with them. She was on the course in the run up to Christmas, and was practicing noticing her thoughts and emotional reactions. As she saw Christmas decorations going up she thought to herself “Oh no, it’s Christmas again, I hate Christmas”.
Then she started to examine this, what it was she hated about Christmas: she liked the decorations, she liked the food, she liked the presents, she liked having time with family…..so why was it she would always have such a strong reaction of dislike to Christmas? Suddenly it hit her. Her boyfriend of some years past had abruptly ended the relationship just before Christmas. She had not wanted to remember this pain, but each year Christmas acted as a mark to remind her.This fed into her story: “No one will want me” and iIn an attempt to escape the pain of remembering the event or feeling the self-judgement of being unwanted she had taken to avoiding Christmas, which she actually enjoyed! As soon as she saw this she realised that she did not hate Christmas, she hated the memory of the break up, but she could see now that it was an event in the past so she did not need to carry that pain with her any more. She was also working on her own sense of self-love and this in turn helped her to know she could be loved.
The result was that she told her parents she did want to have a full Christmas that year, to have a full lunch and presents and for the first time in years she was free to really enjoy the day again. So often the reason we feel the fear or struggle now is due to an event from the past that when we can calmly look at it from where we are now no longer needs to exert any influence over us. Mindfulness and loving kindness gives us the resources to be able to practice this self-care and self-reflection.
The next time your mind presents a thought as a fact, one that does not support your happiness or wellbeing, ask yourself: is this a fact? Or is it an opinion? Some thing I’m working with now is to use the phrase “it’s just a story” as these things come up. But more on that next week.