The more we think about our thinking, the more effective we are at stopping self-criticism and judgement says Jason Liem
What are thoughts?
When we talk about thoughts we are talking about our internal voice. The internal dialogue we have with ourselves about who we are and what we want or don’t want. Our thoughts form the ongoing personal narrative that we tell ourselves. Our thought narrative involves our ideas and beliefs about ourselves, others and things.
Our thinking gets us into trouble when we entertain an unhelpful thought. What we should do is leave it alone to dissipate, but most of us don’t. Once we latch onto an unhelpful thought it is akin to opening a Pandora’s Box. That one bad idea gives rise to a dozen more bad ideas.
We then get stuck in a loop of rumination. This dwelling on the negative leads us into all kinds of stress and troubled thinking.
Where do thoughts reside in the brain?
There is no specific area in the brain where thoughts actually reside. Instead, we should talk about thoughts as occupying large networks in the brain.
When we are talking about our internal voice, we are speaking about thoughts that we are aware of. Our internal dialogue requires different parts of the brain to network together, such as the parts involved with language and self-awareness. Their networking is what creates a sense of self. So, when we ‘hear’ our thoughts the network recognises the thoughts as our own thinking.
If this network is dysfunctional it means we lose the ability to recognise thoughts as our own. Instead of us ‘hearing’ our thoughts we instead believe they are voices coming from someone else. This is what happens with someone who suffers from schizophrenia.
Why do we have negative thoughts?
It has to do with our brain’s evolutionary programming for survival. Our brains have a tendency to focus on error signals and on the negative. It was to our advantage to be able to detect when something was not right in our environment. Our attention would focus on the problem, so we could either address it or avoid it.
This detection ability arises from the parts of the brain responsible for self-monitoring. (i.e. the insula, prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex). When something is amiss these parts of the brain generate an error signal to help us.
For example, you may be typing away when you accidentally hit the wrong key and make a typo. Your brain generates an error signal that grabs your attention and you stop typing. Error signals act like stop signs. You can figure out what is going wrong and do something different.
But, since we are human, we like to complicate matters. We can’t just accept the error signal. We feed the urge to add judgement and self-criticism on top of it. Instead of just making the typo we feel the need to attach a commentary. “Oh! I made yet another mistake. How stupid and careless of me!”
Having a critical voice is not all bad. It can sometimes be an advantage. Our internal voice grabs our attention to focus on something that needs addressing. It stops us, so we can analyse the situation. The challenge is when we lean too much on this ability and it tips over into rumination.
Why don’t we notice more often when we are happy?
When you are feeling happy you aren’t doing a lot of analysis of how you are feeling. You are just feeling. When we are ‘non-conflicted’ it means there is nothing to be concerned about. The brain doesn’t need to expend energy on analyzing the situation. The brain is simply in a state of rest. It is neither happy nor sad.
Negative thoughts are a different beast altogether. There are four ways we tend to focus on the negative, especially when it comes to change.
- Not getting what you want
- Getting what you don’t
- Protecting what you
- Losing what you are attached
Each of these signal to the brain something is wrong, and resources should be dedicated to try to solve it.
Can we reduce self-critical thoughts?
The answer is ‘yes’. The key is finding a different relationship to our thoughts. We need to start by thinking about our thinking. The idea is to only notice the thoughts and to limit judgement. We don’t want to tag the thoughts with any negative or positive meaning.
Our brains are always generating thoughts whether we like it or not. Up to this point I know of no sound way of turning off the stream of thoughts that flow out of our brains. What I do know is that you don’t have to grab onto every thought. You do not have to believe every thought. Your thoughts will seem like facts and truths, but they are not. They are only thoughts. But many of us believe if we think it then it must be true. This belief is the true falsehood. The fact is if we choose to entertain every thought then we constantly pull ourselves into distressed mind states.
When you notice an unhelpful or distressing thought arise you can learn not to grab on to it. You can think of it like sports fishing. It’s all about catching and releasing. You catch the fish and then you release it back into the water. You have the thought, but you don’t keep it. You release it and it will dissolve.
The challenge is very few of us take the approach of catch-and-release when it comes to unhelpful thinking.
Between trigger and reaction, we can input observation and reflection
Judgment and evaluation are central to how the brain works, but there is a gap in time between perceiving something and judging what it is and what it means.
It takes between 50 to 75 milliseconds to see the colour and shape of an object. It takes up to 200 milliseconds before our brains can name the object. It takes even a few more milliseconds to give a meaning or value to the object the object (i.e. good or bad).
The difference in time it takes between observing an object and naming it is the same time we use to notice a thought and give meaning to that thought. This small gap of time means we can train ourselves to stop between observing a thought and judging it.
For example, you observe the thought (the error detection) when you make a typo. But the gap of time of 125 to 150 milliseconds means we can stop ourselves from making a judgement call; that is calling yourself an ‘idiot’ for making the mistake. You can have the thought, but you don’t have to get wrapped up in the commentary.
The more we think about our thinking, the more effective we are at stopping self-criticism and judgement. We strengthen the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex which helps us with inhibiting action.
By strengthening that part of the brain, we give ourselves two big advantages. First, it becomes easier to determine helpful from harmful thoughts. Second, we become better at catching-and-releasing thoughts. We reduce the chance of getting caught up in rumination.
How do we do this?
One clear fact about the brain is that it can only attend to one thing at a time. So, if we find ourselves getting caught up in an unhelpful train of thought we can derail it. The key is to shift our thinking to one of our senses like breathing. When you focus on your breath you don’t have time to entertain the thought.
When we find our minds drifting back to the thought we can consciously move our attention back to our breath. Every time we do this we train the part of the brain that stops self-criticism and negative judgement.
Like all learning, practice is the key to getting better.