Anxious Parenting Practicalities Part 4/10: You Are Not Your Thoughts (wait, what?)
Updated: Mar 26
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I know - such an annoying question. Profound, I suppose, but not an overly practical use of time, is it? I don’t really think so, anyway.
Still, I had a moment recently that provoked just that kind of reflection, and I think it’s worth discussing. Here’s a bit of backstory:
I view and post a lot of content on social media as part of my advocacy efforts for #OCD sufferers, and as an author promoting my book. Now, as ever, the internet is filled with inspirational quotes and meme-length anecdotes about the nature and treatment of OCD. These days, I feel a certain sense of connection with a lot of messages about OCD, but when I first began my therapy journey, I remember thinking those messages were no different than the question at the start of this post: profound, but impractical.
Now, to be clear, I’m not knocking anyone who puts out inspirational messages about mental health issues. The fact that I found very little utility in them doesn’t mean they’re useless. I just remember feeling a sense of urgency about what OCD was and how to fix it, which led to feelings of frustration about how to use the messages and advice I was finding.
I've been fortunate to recover and return to health since those earliest days, but today I find myself revisiting one of those statements about OCD with a new perspective; one that I wish I knew back then, and that I want to share with others now. So, with that intention in mind, let’s revisit one of those statements that I now understand as both profound and practical:
You Are Not Your Thoughts
This sentiment appears all over the place, and not just in mental health literature. I’ve heard it in yoga classes, read it in religious textbooks, even seen it plastered on street signs. And, until recently, I hated hearing it because I never knew what anyone meant by it. "You are not your thoughts" was always the goal, but where were the methods? What was the real meaning behind the phrase?
These days, I think I (somewhat) get it. Here’s what I have so far:
I used to think that every thought I had was a reflection of my deepest identity. After all, my thoughts came from me, so they must be me, right? Well, yes and no.
Consider the following:
I’ve thought about becoming a hockey player before, I’ve thought about what it would be like to be a really good dancer (read: I am not a good dancer), and I’ve thought about yelling and swearing at the person who darted out in front of me just as I was about to accelerate at a green light.
I've thought about all those things, but I’m none of those things. I’d have to play a lot more hockey, spend a lot more time in a dance studio, and actually yell or swear at someone for any of them to be true; for any of them to be me.
I know that now, and for someone without OCD that idea may seem boringly obvious, but for a person who struggles with obsessions and compulsions, the inner monologue after having one of those thoughts might look like this:
“Oh my God, I just thought about (hockey, dancing, swearing/yelling)...that must mean I am a (hockey player/dancer/violent person)...it doesn't seem like me, but why would I think it if it wasn’t true? Why would I think it if it wasn’t me? Why am I still thinking about it? Oh my God, I don’t want to be that thing, but I am...am I? I might be...but I can't be...can I?”
Cue anxiety. Cue compulsions. Cue OCD.
Here’s what I’ve learned since: all thoughts - even the scary ones - go away if you learn to let them. We (human beings) have thousands of thoughts per day. None of them last, and none of them have to be acted on. That’s what “you are not your thoughts” means. It means you can let thoughts come, and then let them go. You learn that you don’t have to be afraid of voluntarily or involuntarily acting on them. You don’t have to neutralize them. You don’t even have to pay a lot of attention to them. They’ll just go away. Sure, they may come back, but when that happens, you can just let them go again.
The Practical Bit
That all sounds simple enough, right? I suppose it is, at least in a theoretical sense, but here’s the part no one told me: some of us have to be explicitly taught how to let go of our thoughts. That’s the part of “you are not your thoughts” that I wish I had known. That’s the practical part that was missing from the profound message. And that’s the message that I hope you’ll take from this post: instead of spending immeasurable time and energy trying to figure out what ‘you are not your thoughts’ means, enlist experts and expert-written resources to learn why that message is true, and how to apply it in your own life (if you're brand new to OCD and therapy, start by reading about CBT, ERP and check out my resources page). And, if you want to talk to a normal dude who went through (and is still going through) the journey himself, you can always contact me or read about it in my book.