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You Are Not Your Thoughts and Feelings, and They Don’t Have to Bring You Down

Woman in Tree Pose

“Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. ” ~Reinhold Niebuhr

Think about the future! Don’t do something you’ll regret! You need to plan for tomorrow! I wish I hadn’t done that! Will things ever work out? Why did they do that? Will I ever find happiness? Why has life made me the way I am? What’s wrong with me?

Around and around it went inside my mind, a never-ending internal conversation full of questions and uncertainties—the not knowing driving me insane and the desperation increasing every day. I must be able to resolve this, I thought. I need answers. I was overwhelmed by questions, uncertainty, indecision, paralysis, and fear.

I couldn’t hold on to jobs or relationships. I became depressed, hurt the people I loved, and coped with it all by losing myself in drink and drugs. I was either reckless or petrified. I couldn’t communicate for fear of saying the wrong thing, but I desperately wanted to tell someone.

The truth is I felt liberated when I couldn’t think. When the internal conversation was either struck dumb or so garbled I could laugh it off, I had some sort of respite.

Later I would learn that I was self medicating for a generalized anxiety disorder but, at the time, I just new that being out of my mind was preferable to being in it.

Change Is Possible When We Act Mindfully

I was extremely lucky. I live in a society that has within it people who understand and services that give support. Most importantly, I have an incredible family and true friends.

When I needed it, was ready to make a change, and able to accept responsibility for my own behavior, my recovery began.

During my recovery I was taught and used a behavioral model called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT.) This is based upon three basic concepts:

Acceptance

I learned to foster greater acceptance for my own thoughts and feelings, other people, events beyond my control, and the beliefs I held at any given moment. By doing so I was able to break away from my preoccupation with anxiety and focus upon my recovery.

Commitment

I committed to change—to focus upon moving toward the things that really mattered in my life and to travel through the spiral of change on my own journey of recovery.

Behavior

I changed my behavior through mindfulness. I learned that regardless of my circumstances or the thoughts that colored my perception, my behavior could either move me away or toward the things that mattered to me. I had a choice. Not necessarily an easy choice, but a choice nonetheless.

The Importance of Just Being

I was one of the many with an addiction who had learned to act mindlessly. This is not to say that my behavior was without reason. Far from it.

I always had good reasons to get wasted. I was feeling anxious and told myself I couldn’t cope, or I was angry and couldn’t see the point, or I was happy and felt like celebrating. In fact, I had an inexhaustible supply of reasons.

I had learned a coping strategy that enabled me to manage my condition. Just like learning to drive or making coffee in the morning, I behaved on autopilot, without awareness of my own behavior.

There’s nothing wrong with this psychological process. It’s an important part of being able to function. If every time you got behind the wheel or wanted a coffee you had to consciously relearn the process, your day would soon become totally unmanageable.

Autopilot behavior like this is learned by repetition and sits in our subconscious, ready to be put into action when we need it. This is fine as long as the behavior benefits us and moves us toward the things that we need. Like driving us to work.

The problem comes when the behavior not only takes us away from the things we value but also starts to create more problems than it solves.

This was the nature of my addiction. Beyond the physical dependency (brutal but relatively short lived through medical detox), I discovered that my sense of self had been replaced by a yearning to be someone or something else. Something not me. Not me at all.

I’d developed an obsession with wanting to become—become free from anxiety; become a more interesting person; become relaxed; become fulfilled; become happy.

It was my desperation to change that led me to stay the same for ten years.

How Living In The Now Changes Everything

Acting mindfully and being aware of the now changed everything for me. As Eckhart Tolle so wisely wrote, “…the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”

I discovered that I am not who I think I am.

My thoughts are my own but they do not describe me. Because I think or feel anxious, that doesn’t mean that I am anxious. It means I am experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, not that I am anxiety.

If I am aware of now, then I notice these symptoms as they elevate my heart rate, dry my mouth, place intrusive thoughts in my mind, and push me toward “fight or flight response.”

By noticing these sensations, I can be an observer of them and no longer a slave to them. I choose to identify them and give them a name. I choose to look at them in their stupid faces. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but I have learned to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

I do not need to compensate for the things I feel or believe because they are simply thoughts and sensations that cannot harm me.

If we are self-aware and mindful of behavior, then we can exercise choice over what we do right now. We can act not in response to the pressure of our thoughts and feelings, but because we are aware of what we value.

Noticing is key. If we don’t notice what’s happening, then we can’t have a choice over how we respond to those things (whatever they may be).

If I go to a room I’ve never been in before, open the door, and meet a person I’ve never met before who then tells me that I look ugly, I will have an emotional response. I can no more control those circumstances or my emotional response than I can the orbit of the planets.

By noticing my reaction, I can accept my thoughts, feelings, and the reality of my situation. If I don’t, I will probably just react to the way I feel. Perhaps I’ll cry, shout abuse, or even take a substance to “help me calm down.” However, if I am aware and I notice what’s going on for me, then I have another option.

I can pause before I act. I can choose my behavior based upon my awareness of both the situation and what matters to me.

I have let go of trying to change the way I feel, and of trying to become something or someone else. I am simply living in the now, and I know that only my behavior shapes my destiny, regardless of my thoughts.

I am aware of my behavior and I can control it; and, in doing so, I am living my life with purpose.

If like me, you have struggled or are currently struggling with anxiety, mindfulness could help you, as well. You are not your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. You don’t need to try so hard to control them; you just need to accept them and come into the present moment so you can control what you do.

Woman in tree pose image via Shutterstock

About Greer Parry

Greer Parry is a substance misuse practitioner, holistic healer and ACT therapist who lives and works in the UK. She has a passion for hand analysis and conversational hypnosis. Greer writes about her love for palm reading in her blog Palm Reading Review.

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  • Tom

    Excellent post. The section about what we truly can be mindful; behavior just opened my eyes. This will be useful in my continuing mindfulness practice.

  • Hi Greer
    Thank you for sharing your story and insights with us. The title says it all to me, and when we can make this realization we can experience a sense of freedom in our being that can change the whole way we move through the world.

    I particularly liked what you said about mindfulness and using it to make more conscious choices about our behavior. This is such a simple yet profound act because it is so easy to get caught up on auto-pilot, and just get swept away in our lives without making any real choices about how we are living it. We overestimate the pull of our ingrained ways of thinking and being.

  • Akash Bothra

    Hi Greer,

    This article came at the right time. While reading this I thought I was reading about myself. Thanks a lot for the ideas. I am reading Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now” and have tried the methods written there. Sometimes when there are no thoughts in my head and I am totally present, I really feel great. But sometimes when the same negative thoughts come back, I feel totally helpless and prisoned. I try to get rid of them but they don’t go, and sometimes the next thought that comes in my mind is “How could I think like this?” “Am I a bad person?”. I would like to know from you what do you do when any negative thought comes into your mind? do you come back to the present as soon as possible? what do you do to come back to the present moment? do you focus on breathing only? Are all the negative thoughts gone from your head?

  • Dhwani

    Hi Greer,

    I have been trying to quiet my crazy mind for over 5 years now.

    I have just recently started to try to accept my thoughts and negative sensations. And it is hard. The thoughts and feelings are so overpowering. I try to ignore them, but they just keep flooding in – and most often I just seem to be caving in.

    How did you stand up to your thoughts? Is there any tips for someone who has these negative thoughts and feelings flooding them?

  • Salixisme

    “I just new that being out of my mind was preferable to being in it.”
    This really struck a chord with me. As s child-abuse survivor and someone who is struggling with depression, PTSD and an anxiety disorder, I had been self-medicating with alcohol for years…
    It has cost me my sanity, my friends, family and my job, and almost cost me my life.
    Am finally getting clean and sorting myself out, and coming to terms with what is going on in my head, learning to be mindful and more accepting of those things I can’t change.
    Thank you for the post.

  • Sarah Somewhere

    Wow Greer! This is a brilliant article. Thank you so much. It reminds me that I don’t have to become anything to be okay; that by simply noticing my thoughts and feelings of lack I can see that I am not in fact lacking anything. I can relate to so much of what you wrote here, including the ‘mindlessness’ of addiction versus the mindfulness of recovery. Many blessings to you 🙂

  • Sarah

    Oh my, Greer! I love this post and your perspective. It comes at a perfect time, as all things seem to do! I am experiencing depression, I am experiencing a cold AND I am experiencing a beautiful, chilly, cloudy day in Southern California. We don’t often get this kind of weather, hence my reason for being so excited about it! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to shift my focus and help raise my awareness! I love this reminder so that I can truly enjoy the beauty and joy of today … as well as accept anything else that may come my way, with a more conscious mind!

    And of course, thank you Lori for recognizing the value in Greer’s article and for posting it on your Tiny Buddha site!

    Love and light to you both!

  • miranda

    Have you ever read “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle? I found it very helpful.

    Also if you’re having a hard time sleeping or relaxing, I suggest ASMR videos on youtube. GentleWhispering is my favorite. 🙂

  • Matt

    What if you just Accepted those thoughts? Why be upset by a thought at all, after all it’s just a thought. It has no life outside of your attention. Have you thought that it’s not the thought that bothers you but your reaction to it? Don’t try to get rid of them, accept that you have thoughts like that and move on. Let them pass through without getting involved. Just go back to what you were doing. Just like Greer says you’re not your thoughts! Who cares what they say. Focus your attention on the thoughts that serve you and quit focusing on the ones that don’t serve you. Let them pass by like clouds in the sky. Yes some clouds are rainy and stormy and some are white and fluffy but again they’re just clouds and you get to choose which ones you’ll give attention to. When the stormy ones come no need to get upset just calmly ignore them and refocus your attention on what you choose.

  • Matt

    For anyone with inappropriate anxiety I’d recommend for starters reading Claire Weekes book Hope and Help for Your Nerves. It’s an old book but its the gold standard for understanding what’s going on. All anxiety books are based on her methods. God Bless Her!
    Secondly start meditating 20 minutes a day every day! Meditation is no joke it’s a freakin miracle!

  • Akash Bothra

    Thanks a lot matt.

  • Darren White

    Thank you for sharing this great article

  • Darren White

    Hi I found this book very helpful you can heal your life buy Louise Hay also mediation has help me slow my thoughts down and getting into buddhism has also help me so much wish you all the best with your journey

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    “My thoughts are my own but they do not describe me. Because I think or feel anxious, that doesn’t mean that I am anxious. It means I am experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, not that I am anxiety. If you, like me, have struggled or are continuing to struggle with
    anxiety, mindfulness could help you, as well. You are not your thoughts,
    beliefs, and feelings. You don’t need to try so hard to control them;
    you just need to accept them and come into the present moment so you can
    control what you do.” Thank you for that reminder & sharing your story…this was quite helpful. 🙂

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Hey Akash, adding to what Matt said…personally for me, if I have spare time; when I am feeling really anxious &/or negative…I try reading some mindful blogs such as in Tiny Buddha & listen to some good music. I have also noticed, having a good exercise routine on a day-to-day basis; even if it just for a few min., helps me to be more aware & calm of emotional responses to things in general. Hope, this was of some help…hang in there!

  • Mona

    Hi Greer, I have a hard time accepting my anxious thoughts and feelings. Anxiety sensations keep getting stronger and with that come more negative thoughts. How to let go of these anxiety producing thoughts along with these stressful sensations?

  • DyeLongJustice

    Darren,

    Have you changed? If so, how did you make that shift? I struggle with allowing my thoughts to control me, and they do a good job of doing so. It has just perpetuated my anxiety issues :/

  • Dhwani

    Thank you

  • dhwani

    Thank you Darren

  • Little Wing

    I have been going through a difficult time, and of all the articles I’ve read on this site, yours resonates the most. Thank you for posting it and sharing your experience. So many of the other pieces I found (not to put them down but…) were fluff. This actually has some concrete examples and advice/options in it. I’m really grateful to you for that.

  • You’re welcome. Salixisme. It’s a journey not a destination. All the very best.

  • Hi Akasha

    Firstly great that you are reading Tolle he is, in my view, a guiding light.
    Most importantly you are not a bad person. You are just a person who sometimes experiences what you perceive to be “bad” thoughts.
    Please do not “try” to get rid of them. They are what they are but they are not you. You are separate from your thoughts.
    When uncomfortable thoughts come into my mind, as soon as I can (which means I’ve noticed the uncomfortable thought and have an opportunity to do something about it) I do indeed focus on my breathing.
    I try to notice physical sensations. The things I hear, the sensation on my skin, I try to notice my physical reality, the reality of my now.
    However, this isn’t always possible. I may be at work, out with friends or otherwise engaged. If that’s the case then I focus on what I’m doing now. If I’m working I focus on my work, if I’m out with friends I focus on what they are saying. I listen actively.
    This is distraction and it works for me.
    Give it a go and remember there is no right and there is no wrong. There is only what works.
    All the very best.

  • You’re most welcome. All the very best.

  • Hi Mona

    Firstly please discuss this with your doctor if you haven’t already done so. You are not alone and your doctor should know where you can seek some support. It’s so important that you talk to people you trust about this.

    What you are experiencing is totally normal Mona (I know it doesn’t feel like that.)

    Anxiety is a normal human experience and we need it so we can prepare for life’s challenges.

    However, sometimes our anxious thoughts come to dominate all others and we become trapped by them.

    You are not trapped Mona. As bad as it seems right now you need to know that change is very possible. Life is better.

    Thoughts are just that, thoughts!

    Thoughts can not harm us it is only what we do that can. By focusing on what we do right now we won’t necessarily change what we think but we will come to realize that, no matter what we think, we can change what we do.

    I’d really like to ask you to do two things Mona.

    Firstly talk to someone and get some support.

    Secondly please make a list of all the healthy things you used to like doing, the things you like doing now and the things you would like to do in the future. I don’t mean massive stuff like sky diving or painting a masterpiece I mean the little things like walking by a stream or making cakes or listening to your favorite music.

    Then, when you’ve got a reasonable list, see if there are 3 or 4 things you can do now, when you need to. When you next notice anxious thoughts do one of those things. Please don’t “try” not to be anxious. The fact of the matter is that when you are anxious you are anxious and that’s it. Thinking about “trying” not to be anxious will only do one thing. Increase your anxiety.

    Simply do the healthy thing that you like doing. Trust the you that knows you like doing this thing and focus on doing whatever it is in the now.

    All the very best Mona.

  • Thanks Sarah

    I’m British so I’m veerrrryyyy used to the weather your having now. I fancy some California sunshine. I have to echo your sentiments for Lori. This post is by no means the first draft and her help and guidance has been very much appreciated.

    All the best.

  • 🙂 Many thanks. Have a great day.

  • David Janet Axiaq

    nice words that really make sense…thanks

  • Tom

    From a website called ‘tiny buddha’ I would not have expected a dualist perspective, imagining that there is a ‘you’ distinct from ‘your thoughts’ is a very Western concept.

    It’s the opposite of ‘accepting those thoughts’. It’s saying nope they aren’t me!

  • Garry

    Very interested in this response as I have read Power of Now but found that the more I practised, the more sensitised I became to negative thoughts and feelings. It’s almost like I have to expose myself to it and when I do, it feels like it becomes trapped as part of me, negativity circulates more and I notice it more. Simple things like getting ready for work of a morning becomes a practice of realising exactly how often I’m thinking negatively, whereas I can put the radio on at the same time and find that I’m not as negative. So i struggle to see which way I should be living – exposing myself to the negative cycles (which I then struggle to get rid of) or just live with a bit of denial of the “now”.

    Funny how you come across these posts just when they feel relevant 🙂

  • Flitch

    Thank you. I really need this. My anxiety cost me a lot. My education suffered, I have a hard time putting up a daily routine and my motivation on working on things is greatly diminished. It even led to deterioration of a 5 year relationship to my girlfriend. Last month she left me. and I was devastated. She’s almost the whole world to me. It’s been a month but I’m still spiralling down in depression. I’m always ruminating, thinking about the past and the choices I could have made to prevent this, but then I’m also afraid of the future without her. I also have a hard time moving on since I don’t know how or where to start. I started noticing these thoughts when I started to write them down in a journal a few days ago. Like yesterday, the whole day was agonizing, that I’m already having an existential crisis. Night came and I started to question myself where my depression comes from and what causes it. I slept feeling better but when I woke up this morning and remember her, some negative thoughts starts to creep in again…

  • guru

    “I feel totally helpless and poisoned. I try to get rid of them but they don’t go”

    because you believe and react to them . Visualize them as as bully in your head trying desperately to get you in dispute with thoughts. when they arise do not believe their lies and laugh at them

  • Juanito Sumalinog Encinas Jr.

    Thank you. You made me feel better.

  • Black Bart

    I can relate to all of it. I’m bipolar. Been medicated for 12 years. Now I own a business I built from nothing, a home, have a lovely family and am at peace. 12 years ago I made so many rash decisions and my life crashed so hard over and over. I nearly ended up homeless. I was down to my last $20 and could not pay rent. I had 4 jobs in 6 months. I could tell I scared my roommates. I was hanging around lunatics. When I look back with clear eyes I literally shudder at the memories. My father who also has bipolar bailed me out. He ordered me home and bought a plane ticket. I was 27 at the time. He was 55. My lifestyle was going to kill me. And it wasn’t drugs or booze…. it was delusions of grandeur. I would go to bars and tell people I was gonna run for mayor, clean up the city, etc. They would cheer and buy me drinks. I know some believed me. A bipolar delusion can sweep others up in it because the sick person delivers it with such a grand performance. I used to be embarrassed by all this but now I’m not. Medical science and psychological treatment have shown me that being bipolar is not being damaged or broken. It is simply a massive over-abundance of creative energy that needs to be managed with medicine and psychotherapy. I am living proof of 2 facts. That a bipolar person can lead a very successful and healthy life in all ways and that being bipolar DOES NOT mean you are a psycho, a killer, or a physical danger to anyone. Unmedicated bipolar people don’t grab guns and shoot people. Bipolar people off their meds spend all their money, quit their job on a whim, or have indiscriminate sex with whoever they can. Yes, devastation of relationships can be caused but if you stop and think…. plenty of people without mental illnesses waste money and wreck their families out of good old fashioned pride and hubris. The media has several bipolar characters that need to go. Claire Danes character in Homeland is always depicted as unhinged and dangerous. There was a show with a bipolar female doctor…. she was always depicted as edgy rude and neurotic. Folks… bipolars are sick of having to live in the dark. There was a time blacks were openly hung, when women couldn’t vote and when being gay was basically illegal. Social progress has been made over time. People with bipolarity should be next in line. A manageable medical condition should not inspire so much fear just as skin tone, gender, and religious beliefs should not. We can either choose to be made greater as a whole by our bipolar brothers and sisters, friends and coworkers. Or we can secretly be ready to dial 911 if they step out of line. I opt for love over hate and for compassion over fear. The ONLY way I got well was through love. First the love of others lifted me out of the dark long enough so I could see. Then I learned self-love through self-care. I work at home in a business I made because I simply cannot work in a mainstream environment. In this way, bipolarity is a handicap. If you consult the American Medical Association you will see it counts as a disability. In a way, bipolars can do more than the average bear creatively. But.. the flipside is that mainstream life can be next to impossible to adjust to. But you need to pay bills right? That’s why I started my business. I am safe. If I have a bad day I can take it off. If something negative happens between a client and I then I can drop the client. I am not bound by any standard workplace rules. This has brought me much peace. My doctor told me he is proud of me for creating the business and said he thinks it’s an example all bipolars should follow because they’d be safe. The truth is that for now, we are feared. The very mention of the word would cause someone to call the police on you and the state would lock you away. My doc said that America’s attitude towards mental illness is like that of England in 1895. We are more then a century behind in our thinking. Hopefully off in the future, people will realize that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Today, they need the fear to make sense of that. I can get that. I lived through my own years of fear. When someone is terrified they don’t need lectures or scolding. They need compassion. Only through compassion will those with mental conditions and mainstream society strike a balance and forge a new future. Thank you.