Are Our Thoughts Good or Bad?
Recently, I was reading an article about dealing with our insecurities and difficult thoughts written by Dr. Steven C Hayes. He takes the position that our thoughts have no intrinsic value beyond whether they move us forward in life, or not.
Many people assign values to their thoughts. We might feel that our thoughts are categorized as either “positive” or “negative”. Or, we may feel that our thoughts are, or will become our truth if given the opportunity. We might believe ourselves to fit into the category of “pessimistic”, or “optimistic”, but Dr. Hayes suggests an entirely different theory.
Neither Positive or Negative, True or False
He says that thoughts, in and of themselves, are neither positive or negative. They aren’t even true or false. Rather, he suggest that through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, people can learn that thoughts are merely tools. And that those tools serve to guide us in deciding whether we are empowered to strive for our goals and values, or do they pull us into self-defeating behaviors.
It’s true that in many cases, our thoughts lay the foundation for our emotional responses. Those who practice Cognitive Behavioral Therapy recognize patterns between thoughts (positive or negative), and emotional triggers that precede an active outcome.
Patients who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder tend to place a strong emphasis on their thoughts. They can allow their thoughts to hold significant value, which in turn triggers an emotional response and often ends in a self-destructive behavior.
A person might have the thought, “my life really is a mess”… which assigns the value of “truth” to what I think we can all agree is a thought that does not serve to further our healthy outlook on life.
Do Your Thoughts Motivate Change?
Now, Dr. Hayes would instruct that person that the thought, “my life is really a mess” is neither good nor bad, true or false.
He would ask the question, does this thought motivate you to make the necessary changes to better your situation? If so, that thought (using the defusing techniques of the Acceptance and Commitment Theory) then becomes a tool for a healthy outcome.
Similarly, if that thought only serves to motivate one to quit trying, it ends up being a tool for the unhealthy behaviors that follow.
It is important for us to recognize the underlying themes that precede the thought triggers in our lives.
For instance, before one experiences a series of depression-related thought triggers, there is an underlying theme of negative perceptions of oneself, the world around us and life in general.
Angry thought triggers have their own set of underlying themes including the feelings of being treated in an unfair or unjust manner. And our fearful thought triggers are the same. We feel some sort of perception of threat.
Amy Morin (a cognitive behavioral therapist) says, “The good news is, everyone can learn how to combat negative thinking. When people learn how to change their thought patterns, not only do they feel better, but their behavior changes as well.”
Perhaps there can be a bridge between the two types of therapy discussed in this article.
Perhaps we can identify the thought triggers, and their likely behavioral outcomes, and then apply defusing techniques to step back and look at how those thoughts work, and what they do to either help or hinder us.
Dr. Hayes says, “The content of a thought doesn’t matter. The truth of a thought often doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it empowers you or not. What matters is what it does.”
Under this understanding, we are able to look a little more objectively at our thoughts, and instead of assigning a positive or negative value to them, we can use them as the tools that they are.
A hammer is neither good nor bad. It has no moral or ethical value.
In fact, it just sits right where it is until we pick it up and use it. Using it on the head of a nail is helpful to the overall desired end-result.
Using it on someone else’s head… not so much.
So too, our thoughts are neither good nor bad. They serve as tools to guide our outcomes.
Robert J. Johnson, SAP, MAC, LAC is the Executive Director of A New Outlook Counseling Services (ANOCS) in the Denver, Colorado Metropolitan Area. With four counseling centers, ANOCS provides therapy for those with addictions to drugs and alcohol as well as marriage counseling and relational therapy for couples and individuals.