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Whenever I do interviews, one of the questions I get asked most frequently is, “If you could give out one piece of advice, what would it be?” It’s a tough one to answer, but my instinct is almost always to say, “Pay attention to your thoughts.” It sounds like simple (or perhaps even strange) advice — after all, aren’t we always paying attention to our thoughts if we’re thinking them? But, if you think about it (ha!), we actually don’t pay attention to our thoughts very often.
Maybe when we’re infants or children we pay closer attention because many of them are so new, but as adults, we’ve often grown so used to the voice inside our own head that we don’t give it much thought, particularly when it comes to thoughts we have frequently. And paying attention to our thoughts can actually be challenging if we’re not used to it. I learned best how to do this by reading Byron Katie’s Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. That kind of grandiose subtitle is often a stretch but, in this case, it happened to be true. Reading that book, and learning how to pay attention to my thoughts, really did change my life.
If you’ve been wondering about how to change your own thoughts (or just curious about what it would be like to better understand your own mind), I’d highly recommend reading that book. But if you’re short on time, here are a few things that might influence your thoughts. Taking note of them (and perhaps changing them if you don’t find them to be positive and beneficial to you) can really help you understand more about how you see the way you think. These are just a few of the various aspects of life that can influence you (some others include your culture, time period, what you eat, who you surround yourself with, whether or not you use mind-altering substances, etc.), but these are, in my opinion, some of the most important to reflect upon in order to better understand yourself.
What you love — or don’t love — impacts the way you see the world. There’s a reason that the phrases “rose-colored glasses” and “blinded by love” exist. What we care about (or don’t) influences how we see the things and people around us. Just think about a few things you really love (right now I’m envisioning dogs, rainbows, and a big stack of books from the library). You probably feel really positive and joyful thoughts about them, don’t you? Whenever you encounter those things in the world, you’ll be predisposed to enjoy them because you already have positive experiences with them. This isn’t to say this is a bad or a good thing. It’s just something worth noticing as you go about your day-to-day life.
Likewise, what you see is going to have a big influence on your thoughts. If you witness something horrific (or watch it on the news), you’re going to be impacted by that image. If you see something outrageously wondrous, that image is likely to stay with you for awhile. You cannot control everything you see, but you do have the ability to make choices when it comes to a lot of what you look at (and surround yourself with). Pay attention to what you spend most of your time looking at and consider how it makes you feel. Do you feel uplifted? Informed? Interested? Bored? Overwhelmed? Knowing that what you look at influences your mental state can be the push you need to pay attention and look at what is positive and productive for you.
If you’ve never done something, it’s going to be pretty difficult to understand what it’s truly like. For example, I’ve never had a baby, and though I ask my friends and family members for all of the details, I’ll never fully understand what that experience is like (no matter how vivid the thoughts in my mind!) unless I do it for myself. Understanding this notion — that you cannot 100% understand until you do it — can be really helpful not only in interacting with those who have had experiences different from our own, but also when trying to share our experiences with others. Our thinking can, for better or worse, be limited. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but recognizing it can help to improve our interactions with others and help us assess what kinds of actions we want to experience first hand. What you do shapes you, so choose wisely.
Reading ties closely with seeing, but it’s worthy of its own category because it influences me so deeply. I read a lot of books. I always have and I hopefully always will! What I’ve read — whether it’s nonfiction, fiction, a newspaper, magazine article, back of a cereal box, etc. — has had a humungous impact on who I am as a person. Reading makes me more empathetic and open-minded. While I cannot fully understand the experiences of others (even if I’ve had them myself, since we are all so incredibly different), reading allows me to have a better understand of things I will never live through myself. Reading is, in my opinion, a gateway to open-mindedness. The more you read, the more you know, I believe Dr. Seuss once said. Personally, I avoid reading things that scare or upset me, but that’s my preference. Whatever you choose to read, it’s helping you to think differently and in new ways. (Did this just become a PSA for reading? Yes, yes it did. Go to the library!)
Just as what you read and see contributes to how you think, so, too, does what you hear. Whether it’s news, YouTube videos, podcasts, music, the voice of a loved one — it doesn’t matter. It’s changing how you think about the world and about yourself. Which means it’s very important to select what you listen to with care. You don’t have to limit yourself (after all, the world is a really big place and there’s probably all kinds of cool things to listen to that we don’t even know about!), but pay attention. Every single word that you here influences you in some way. Some more than others, yes, but all of it matters. Take notice of what you listen to most and, most importantly, what you’re thinking about when you listen to it.
Feelings and thoughts are so closely intertwined that sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. A thought is typically complex, while a feeling can be narrowed down to one word. A thought: “I have so much work to do that I’ll never get it done.” A feeling: “Overwhelmed.” They’re certainly linked and one can impact the other, but often the gut instincts, those feelings that arrive without us even realizing it, influence our thoughts. For example, you often feel overwhelmed — a tenseness in the shoulders, a clenched jaw, a snippy attitude — before you can form the thought, “I am feeling overwhelmed right now.” Pay attention to the ways feelings and thoughts work together and look for the truth and root cause (Katie’s book referenced above can really help with this.) Feelings aren’t facts, but sometimes they can appear that way to our thinking minds, so it’s vital to recognize the role feelings play in your thoughts.
The more you know, the easier it becomes to understand the world (and the notion that so little of it can be fully explained!). The Red Hot Chili Peppers have a song lyrics that goes, “The more I see, the less I know,” and it’s honestly one of my favorite lines ever because it’s oddly true. What you know matters (just consider how much more you understand as an adult compared to your childhood self) and that shapes who you are. What you don’t know also shapes who you are. So many of the worlds biases and prejudices are based on what’s not known. Knowledge is power, sure, but the most powerful knowledge you can have is recognizing how little you know and how your small amount of knowledge transforms the way you think.
And, finally, what you want (and value) has an incredible power over how you think. If money and success is important to you, those things will be the focus of your thoughts. If you family is your focus, your thoughts will prioritize them. If desperately want a relationship, finding a partner will always be on your mind. If you desire to make a positive change in the world, your thoughts will home in on how you can do that. What you want guides the choices you make. No one thing is better than the other to want (no judgments here!), but taking note of what you want (or think you want) can be an essential element of understanding your thinking and how it shapes the way you’re living.
As you can see, there are so many factors that go into every single thought in your head. It’s hard to imagine fully understanding all of it, no matter how much soul-searching we do, but it is worth paying attention to how (and why!) we think what we do. Our thinking shapes our actions, choices, feelings, relationships, and so much more. The better we know ourselves, the more we can shape our lives to live the way we’d like to. If you’re struggling with self-awareness or self-love, shift your thinking with one of my workbooks, available for purchase here (or by clicking one of the images below!).