I saw a comment on social media the other day that effectively read “If you don’t control your thoughts, they will control you.” I disagree.
I get the attraction of self-help books, articles, and social media content that espouse this ideal that we are masters of our own minds. That we can control our thoughts and capitalize on higher success rates. It all sounds really attractive. Even somewhat logical.
But let’s break it down a little bit.
Why Mind Control Doesn’t Work
You’re going to have about as much luck controlling your own thoughts, as you are controlling other peoples.
Don’t think about polar bears, don’t think about polar bears, don’t think about polar bears.
What are you thinking about?
We like to think we can control our thoughts, but the reality is, our brain is amazing. AND it moves so quickly that the idea that we can control what it’s thinking, is a more than a tad unrealistic.
The mathematics in calculating the frequency that the neurons in a human brain fire gets a little intense. But scientists have compared the neuron firing rate to be equivalent to a 1 trillion bit per second processor.
Yes – you read that correctly. Per second.
Exactly. Good luck controlling that.
Also – when we think about controlling our thoughts, the reality is, a lot of our thoughts generate from the limbic cortex, commonly known as our reptile brain. The thoughts, addictions, emotions, and predictions that are generated from that portion of our brain are effectively automated.
They happen without us even thinking about it, or sometimes, even recognizing it.
The cerebral cortex gets credit for being the more reasonable side of us. Where logic and critical analysis happens. It’s also the part that convinces us that we are actually capable of controlling our own thoughts.
The cerebral cortex is a little bit cocky.
The Beach Ball Analogy
A great way to think about how this all comes into play when it comes to our thoughts is with the beach ball analogy.
Imagine every thought, addiction, prediction, or emotional response your limbic system throws into play as a beach ball. Your cerebral cortex gets to be you trying to control these thoughts.
So your limbic system throws up a negative thought or worry, your body supplies what it believes to be the appropriate response, and your cerebral cortex jumps in to control that beach ball by saying no, no no, we are NOT going to think about that.
Cerebral cortex, bossy pants that it is, pushes said beach ball down under the water.
It’s not easy – but your cerebral cortex is a bit of a workhorse, so it successfully pushes that beach ball down and under the surface. High fives all around.
Oh wait – don’t do that, you’re still holding that beach ball down.
Ok – so you’ve succeeded in controlling that thought. Sort of. Except the limbic system doesn’t just lazily produce one little old thought here and there. It’s a thought machine. Responding to an array of environmental and psychological triggers. It’s literally sending up beach balls left, right, and centre.
What are you going to do about all of that cerebral cortex?
How many hands and feet do you have to hold all these beach balls under the surface?
Frankly – that all sounds mentally and physically exhausting.
Which is exactly what trying to control your thoughts is like. Exhausting, and near impossible.
So What’s The Alternative? Enter the Mindful Observer.
I am a strong believe in the power of positive thinking coupled with action. And I do believe that we can train ourselves to think positively, but not by controlling our thoughts.
Instead, by investing our energy into what we CAN control. How we RESPOND to our own thoughts. Physically and emotionally.
If we are highly reactive in our actions, then effectively our thoughts are controlling us. But if we respond by being an observer of our thoughts; examining them, questioning their accuracy, and analyzing for bias, then we get to mindfully choose how we feel about, or act on those thoughts.
Many times, perhaps we don’t need to act at all. The mere act of observing the thought is all we need to do.
Let the beach ball surface, observe its presence, and let it float away. Be the mindful observer to your own thoughts.
Creating time, space and distance from our thoughts allows us to process them without the emotional response that our body will automatically provide for us. One that is primarily based on its past experiences and prediction of outcome.
You feel afraid about something, and your body will immediately send you a dose of adrenaline. Whether the fear is legitimate or not.
By observing the thought, and controlling your response, you’re teaching your brain that there are alternative outcomes. Do it enough times, and your body will slowly start to realize that maybe it doesn’t need to feel fear when it see’s X,Y or Z.
Negate the fear response, and you negate your automated shot of unneeded adrenaline, along with all the physical side effects that it brings.
How Does This Translate to Finance, or a Happier Life?
Well, what about shopping? You see that new item that your brain tells you that you want. It’s your limbic system looking for that hit from purchasing something you “need”. Observe the thought. Let it float by. Carry on.
See the stock market tumbling by 30% or so? Your body sends up a crap ton of alarm signals. Notice the thought, acknowledge it, but don’t react by hitting the “sell everything” button.
Feeling anxiety over a worldwide pandemic? Notice the thought, establish a plan for how to proceed, and let the anxiety pass.
The Bottom Line
Whether it’s conquering a fear, reducing worry, protecting your wallet, or expressing gratitude, the ability to be a mindful observer will train your brain that there are alternative responses to its age old predictions and worries.
It will provide you with a sense of peace and control, without expending massive amounts of mental energy trying to arm wrestle your thoughts into submission.
You’ll be a happier and more financially secure person for it.