What you’re thinking

July 14, 2014 by Joshua
in Awareness, Evolutionary Psychology

This post follows up “The most effective self-awareness exercise I know of” and the exercise in it, so I recommend reading it and doing it first. Besides making these posts personal, the exercise increases your self-awareness.

When I talk to a client after doing that exercise, we cover six main points, which I’ll cover in detail below.

  1. The details of their results—that is, the content of their inner monologue and trends in it
  2. Their reaction to becoming aware of those thoughts
  3. The liberation of realizing they aren’t the only one who thinks that way
  4. Clarifying how this part of their mind works
  5. How to use what they’ve learned
  6. The incredible value of knowing how this part of the mind works

I’ll cover them in reverse order since they build in importance and I figure readers want the most important part first.

The incredible value of knowing how this part of the mind works

I write a lot on changing beliefs. Beliefs generally manifest themselves in your inner monologue, whether you like it or not. That is, you usually think your beliefs in language, as opposed to other aspects of your mental activity. Emotions, for example, can be expressed in words, but you usually experience them as feelings. That’s why you can find yourself halfway through dessert before you realize what you’re doing or think to yourself “I’m hungry.” Sensory perception tends to work wordlessly too. While you may sometimes think the words “It’s cold out,” you generally process perception without words. You sense too much all the time to process it all consciously.

If you’re at the gym with only enough time for one last exercise and you’re trying to decide which to do, the words “No pain no gain” might pop into your mental chatter. If they do, whether you believe the phrase or not, you may act on it like a belief and choose the more painful exercise. That’s just an example that might not work for you, but you might notice the process of deciding often cycles through various beliefs manifested as mental chatter.

Why is knowing how this part of the mind works valuable? Because when you realize you can control your mental chatter, you realize how to change your beliefs. You might think, “changing a few words running through my head won’t change my beliefs in the long term. It will only affect them in the short term.”

On the contrary, even a short-term one-time change of words can lead to long-term belief changes. It doesn’t happen from just the words, though. Long-term belief changes happen when the behavior the belief motivates leads to an outcome you wanted and you feel emotional reward.

How to use what you’ve learned

If you think, “I can’t help eating that chocolate cake,” and you end up eating it, the reward of eating it will reinforce the belief you couldn’t help it. You’ll learn to believe you’re helpless.

If instead you think, “I can resist eating that chocolate cake,” and you end up resisting it, the reward of resisting it will reinforce your belief in yourself. You’ll learn to believe you’re strong.

This process is the foundation of Henry Ford’s quote, “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”

There’s no mystery to the process. Evolution designed your mind to learn what works and keep doing it. Getting reward based on decisions, which are based on your thoughts, is how that works. It matches patterns to pleasurable, happy, and rewarding outcomes, or the opposite to painful, unhappy, or punishing ones.

It’s also why the advice “Fake it ’till you make it” works. Telling yourself something you don’t believe feels fake until you get enough emotional reward, which causes you to believe the beliefs that motivated your behavior.

Since few people pay attention to how this process works, it happens passively to them. Now that you know it, you can drive the process on purpose.

Now when you want to try a new belief, you can overcome your self-doubt more easily, knowing not to expect yourself to believe it right away, instead expecting the belief to take root as it increasingly leads to desired outcomes.

Clarifying how this part of the mind works

I have people do the exercise every day for a week so they can observe how mental chatter works.

I think of it in two ways.

First, I think of it like breathing in that you can force yourself to take a breath or to exhale when you want, but if you don’t pay attention to your breathing it will happen on its own. Certain behavior almost always leads to certain breathing, like surprise may make you hold your breath and exercise may make you pant. Likewise, if you force yourself to think certain words you can, but if you don’t pay attention, it will wonder off on its own. Certain behavior almost always leads to certain thinking, like being late leads you to make up excuses and hurting yourself makes you think “That hurts!”

For the second way, I need to explain my analogy a bit. Have you noticed if you take your foot off the brake of a car with an automatic transmission in Drive on level ground that the car will start moving? The engine is spinning whether the wheels are or not and something called a torque converter is always trying to get the spinning engine to start the wheels moving. If you let it, the car would keep accelerating.

I think of mental chatter working like an engine and a torque converter. Like a car’s engine, the mental chatter part of your mind is always creating new thoughts. If you’re conscious of that process then you can choose to follow these nearly random thoughts or not, like a driver who uses the brake to keep the torque converter from starting the wheels. If you don’t know how that process works, the rest of your mind ends up following those thoughts and you end up a slave to them.

I find certain patterns of thoughts tend to be stable, meaning once you start thinking those types of thoughts, you can stay stuck on them for a long time unless you know how your mind works, like by doing the most effective self-awareness exercise I know of, which is one of the reasons I consider it so valuable. Other patterns aren’t stable so they end up leaving quickly.

Stable patterns include

  • Songs
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Things you wish you’d done differently
  • Plans you don’t want to forget
  • Self-criticism or doubt

They tend to include things that don’t depend on other people and happen when you’re alone.

Unstable patterns tend to include things that depend on things that change in your environment, like feeling thrilled or joy.

Sadly, the stable patterns tend to be ones we don’t like and the unstable patterns ones we like. Happily, with experience, you can create environments, beliefs, and behaviors to sustain patterns you want. That’s one of the most useful powerful skills to learn in life. While it may not change the world, it changes how you respond to it, which usually amounts to the same thing and can make the difference between misery and happiness, between giving up and digging in, and so on.

The liberation of feeling you aren’t the only one who thinks that way

On doing the exercise, nearly everyone describes their mental chatter as more

  • Judgmental
  • Negative
  • Repetitive
  • Boring
  • Insulting

and such than they expected. Since you know your thoughts but no one else’s, you probably concluded you were more judgmental, negative, repetitive, boring, insulting, and so on than everyone else.

Learning everyone thinks similarly and reacts the same way tends to make people feel liberated. Instead of thinking “I’m so judgmental etc,” they think, “Oh, everyone thinks like this. It’s part of the human condition.” Very liberating.

I speculate that since we evolved as a hierarchical social species, we’re constantly evaluating our positions in the social hierarchies around us and how we can navigate them, which, in practice, tends to mean judging ourselves and each other.

The reaction to becoming aware of these thoughts

Almost without exception, my clients who do this exercise feel surprised, ashamed, and embarrassed at their thoughts. They feel like they’re the only ones who think that way, presuming everyone else thinks more like they talk while they have to hide their thoughts to keep from offending everyone.

Over the course of the week they also develop skills at recognizing and writing their thoughts, which they almost all expect to be impossible at the start, so they feel more skilled than they expect.

After we spend thirty minutes talking about their results—the contents of this post—they also feel liberated and enthusiastic to put the new skills of choosing new beliefs into practice.

The details of their results

I wrote typical examples of mental chatter people might write in the post “The most effective self-awareness exercise I know of” and links within. I happened to come across two discussions on Reddit of people answering the question “If one day everyone became telepathic, what are some of the surprising things people would find out about you?” that captured a range of people’s thoughts better than I could on my own. I’ll copy some typical reactions here many of which I expect you’ll find familiar. These aren’t exact thoughts, but they illustrate the idea.

From men:

  • “How much I judge people. I’m very nice and polite to people but I secretly judge them in my head.”
  • “How sweary my internal thought process is.”
  • “How highly I think of myself. How lowly I think of everyone (including myself). How hard I try to hide my insecurities and make logical decisions (relationships wise) despite them.”
  • “My intrusive thoughts are quite disturbing.”
  • “That I probably like them more than I appear to.”
  • “Well I guess people would be surprised what a chaos my mind is in. Lots of thoughts at once. And also the conflict I have with myself.”
  • “How secretly angry I can be, and the psychotic thoughts that arise from said anger.”
  • “How many people I know that I have sex with in my head, and how deep the rabbit hole of my perversion goes.”
  • “How much mental effort it takes to pass for normal.”
  • “That I’m an even bigger a-hole on the inside.”
  • “Probably just how fast I think. I had a lot of speech issues as a kid because my mouth could just never catch up with my brain. It’s become a deeply ingrained habit of mine to not even try to speak my mind anymore, I pick and choose maybe one out of every five or ten thoughts to say out loud. Then I’ll think my next five or ten thoughts while I’m still speaking the first one.”
  • “How easily my feelings are hurt, and how bitter I can get about it in the short term.”
  • “Also, how lowly I think of trashy pepole, chavs, rednecks, etc. I don’t want to harm them but I wouldn’t even allow them to reproduce if I had a choice.”

From women:

  • “how f-ed up some of my thought processes are – and just how much of an a-hole I actually am. Most people think I’m nice and kind because I’m too lazy to be outwardly cruel to people all the time.”
  • “How I constantly stare at other people’s butts and make up little back-stories for them.”
  • “It would become immediately evident that the sweet, helpful, thoughtful and open-minded woman they think I am takes a lot of filtering before she’s seen. I pass a lot of crude judgements and carry a good portion of my own biases, none of which would come off as playful if they were spoken out loud – but, I’m also mature enough and shoulder a lot of the responsibility of being a morally-sound person that I am able to observe these negative thoughts and “heal” them in a way that makes others feel good.If people could read my mind, they would turn me away before they realized that I truly am compassionate and want the best for others.”
  • “everyone would instantly know the things I dislike about them and get annoyed by, which would probably be surprising to them. my sister would get a bit of rude awakening and so wouldn’t one of my co-workers. and I think a lot more guys would hit on me because many of them would get the green light, especially during the time i’m ovulating and just in general.”
  • “I have entire conversations with myself in my head. I’m highly judgmental. I have a huge personal space bubble and will silently scream death threats until people move like “I swear to f-ing god if you take one step closer to me I’ll– REALLY? I can feel your breath!” I’m pretty sure if everyone could hear me I’d be put away.”
  • “How exceptionally cruel and judgmental I am to myself, and how incredibly forgiving and yet judgmental of other people I am to everyone else!”
  • “How much I think about [male anatomy].”
  • “I look at other girls boobs just as often as men.”
  • “How much I think about sex. Also how nervous and over-thinking I am all the time. And how nice I am! I have bitch face, and people tell me I come off as rude, but I really usually try to think positively about people. I won’t lie though, if I see someone hurting someone else or being mean in general, I villainize them in my head like crazy.”
  • “That I cannot possibly tell you which way is North, South, East or West without reciting Never Eat Shredded Wheat silently once I find the mountains to the west.”
  • “I often have thoughts that are quite mean, but also I’m also quite hard on myself about it.”
  • “That the negative thoughts about myself they hear me say are the 0.01% that slip out.”
  • “I have a number of mental tics wherein I internally recite the same nonsense phrases to myself when anxious.”
  • “How much I worry about money and get annoyed by ignorance.”
  • “How stupid I think everyone is.”
  • “What a horrible, insecure, misanthropic creature I actually am. With an interior monologue mostly made up of very rude words…”
  • “Probably 90% of my personality. I’ve spent my life shutting down every single emotion so they would discover that I too can get angry, I too can get sad, or I too can get stressed out. They’d discover that I’m not actually a robot.”
  • “Just how paranoid I am about being in people’s way on public transportation. It’s a constant barrage of “well, I’m a woman in my 20s, but they’re a woman in their 40s, do I give her my seat?” “What about that guy? He looks tired, but what if he’s offended that I think he’s old or something?” “I only have one more stop, should I give my seat to that old woman now or should I just get off the train at the next station and she can have it then?” “I’ll be standing in front of the door at the next station, so where do I move to?” What are the rules?! I think other people would be exhausted to hear my fretting.”
  • “How racist I am… (Not in a hateful Nazi/KKK way, I just believe in a lot of stereotypes)”
  • “How often I give myself theme music throughout the day. I’ll be walking along a street, and my thoughts will be like, “doot doot doo de doot. Doot de dooo de doot.” And then I’ll slide through a door like I’ve just completed a jazz routine. I also make sound effects sometimes. Sometimes audibly.”
  • “I’m totally judging your beverage choices. Every day. All the time.”

There were many more, but you get the idea and you can click the links for more. We don’t know how honestly people were reporting their thoughts, but if you’re like me, many of them sounded more than familiar.


Though this is one of my longer posts, it’s also one of my most important and useful if you do the exercise from “The most effective self-awareness exercise I know of” first and then put these skills into practice. They enable you to frame how you perceive the world, which changes how you feel about it and react to it. Few skills enable you to improve your life more.

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