Do your thoughts make you who you are? Sometimes it feels that way. Sometimes when I have thoughts I deem “good,” whether they are wise, kind or clever, I feel good. When I have thoughts that seem unkind, selfish or ignorant, I don’t so feel great. Those thoughts come with another one: “You are unkind, selfish, ignorant. Stupid.” Then, it seems that it’s not my thoughts that aren’t good enough but me. I am my thoughts, in those moments, or so it seems.
So, sometimes, I try to control my thoughts, to make me good enough to warrant approval. And yes, I have memories of this from long ago, when I felt childhood shame at the thoughts that came into my head or the words that tumbled out of my mouth.
But were those even my thoughts? Or was it just that I recycled words and phrases I’d heard repeated so often they became familiar?
The first time I realised how closely children mimic their parents was when I heard my (then) toddler daughter call my husband’s name in a sing-song voice. Or rather, I realised it the following day, when I heard myself do exactly the same as my daughter had. Till then, I’d had no idea I did it.
If a song runs through your mind, you don’t think it’s your fault. You might feel irritated that for the hundredth time that day two lines of James Bay’s “Hold Back the River” is trickling through your brain, but you know it’s because you heard it at work and then on the car radio on the way home.
Okay, that’s me. I’m the one with James Bay running through my brain. (Well, you probably are now too, especially if you’ve clicked play on the video. Go on, do it now if you haven’t. You won’t regret it, honest. It is a good song!)
But you get the point – you didn’t cause it to happen. It’s not who you are. The song just came into your head and then it went.
What if it’s the same with thoughts? “You’re bad.” “You’re selfish.” “You’re stupid.” “They are ugly.” “I am ugly.”
What if I put those to a tune and sing them? Will they be like the river then, and will I try to hold them back or let them flow?
I am not my thoughts; you are not yours. How can we be, when they come and go without our control? Did you know that some scientists have even connected probes to people’s brains and found that the impulse to move or take action comes before the thought to move? My thoughts still do a merry dance while they try to form into a coherent pattern to make sense of that!
And here’s another thing. These thoughts – the words I am typing, the ones you are thinking as you read them – we didn’t make them up did we? The most we did was try to get them to form that coherent pattern. Someone else passed them on to us, both the words we call good and the ones we call bad. If we truly made our own words up, we wouldn’t understand each other.
Or would we?
Years ago, when one of my nieces was a year old she frequently said: “goolig.” It was just baby babble, or so it seemed. Except, not long before, I’d read that sometimes when starting to speak, babies make up their own words for things. I noticed that my niece frequently said “goolig” when she was getting shoes on, and with some pointing and repeating, it did become clear that in her own language “goolig” did indeed mean shoe.
Another of my nieces was slightly late to start speaking – but she would rattle of sentences of gobbledegook. When she eventually started to use language that the rest of us could understand, she skipped the stage of using one of two words, and spoke in full sentences. One of my daughters also sometimes rattled off streams of gobbledegook, and after a while I realised she did this if she didn’t understand what I’d said to her. She thought we were playing a game of making up words, and so she joined in. Actually, she didn’t think that did she? (Unless she also thought in gobbledegook!) My point is, all these babies managed to communicate with us, without using the language we did. When my daughter gabbled gobbledegook to me, I knew it was time to speak more clearly, to get down to her level.
Many psychologists say that by the age of six we have formed most of the beliefs that will drive us for life – unless we later examine those beliefs. This makes sense to me. I’ve seen a ninety-three year old woman behave like a defiant toddler (and no, she wasn’t senile.) I’ve also spent several years using mindfulness practices to observe and let go of unhelpful beliefs, and often notice these come with memories from when I was very young.
Again, this means our beliefs really aren’t our own, just those we learned from our parents. (It also explains why so many people behave like children when they get worked up.)
It’s amazing how much effort we expend trying to control thoughts or to contort them into beautiful sentences. Worrying if we’ve chosen the right ones, or if we should have picked a different one. I’ve had a few moments of “what’s-the-point-itis” over the last couple of days. Are my words serving any purpose? Would I be better off doing something else?
Yet, if we let go of the worry aspect, choosing the right words can be fun. And there’s no getting away from it, a book that’s well written is more enjoyable to read than one that isn’t, even if the subject matter is challenging or sad. Language, used skilfully, has the power to evoke emotion.
Some writing perpetuates the status quo, it’s true; its aim is to create escapism, stop us from facing our lives. However, writing can also help us break free of old patterns and to move beyond limitations. This is true on a personal level – since I was a teenager, I’ve filled notepads and beautifully bound journals with words. I burned most of them a few years ago, and then went on to fill some more. Once those words were on paper, I had no more need for them.
Writing can help us break free of old patterns and to move beyond limitations – this is also true on a wider level. Writing also moves us beyond limitations as a species – if we use it for that purpose rather than to attack or defend. Language, used skilfully, also has the power to evoke change. So I guess there is a point after all.