Why and how to observe your thoughts

Reading time: About 2 minutes

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what a crummy writer you are? I suggest, instead, you make some time to observe your thoughts…

I’m in the beginning stages of a new book. And while I have more than 40 years’ experience as a writer and editor, as well as two previously published books under my belt, parts of me still think I’m not a good enough writer to be up to this task.

I tell my clients that all writers feel this way. Which is true. But it’s still hard to deal with. 

Anyway, I’ve started the new book with just five minutes of writing a day, reliably producing somewhere between 150 and 250 words, which is a pretty respectable speed. (It also means I’ll have roughly 70,000 words in about a year, which sounds good to me.) 

But recently, I noticed the negative turn my thoughts had taken…

  • This writing doesn’t seem to be any good.
  • I’m not sure I’m really telling the story I want and need to.
  • What the hell do I think I’m doing?
  • If I keep up this way for a year, at just five minutes a day, I’ll have spent more than 30 hours. What if it’s all a total waste of time?

Do you see the path I was going down? 

Have you ever ventured down this road yourself?

Neuroscientists tell us our brains have a built-in “negativity bias.” This means that negative thoughts have a bigger impact than positive ones. And for good reason. Our ancestors were able to avoid harm’s way by expecting a tiger or bear around every corner, or by making plans to avoid running out of food or water. 

Studies in the last 20 years by the researcher John Cacioppo (and others) have shown the  human brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it regards as negative. (In one experiment, Cacioppo showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings, negative ones and neutral ones. Then he tracked the electrical responses in their brains. Here’s what he learned: the negative images generated a greater surge in electrical activity.)

And, in addition to negativity bias, there’s another neural loop that gives negativity an edge: Once we’ve had a thought once, it’s easier to have that thought again because of the power of neural pathways. Think of a neural pathway as tracks in the snow. Our skis slide right into them and we glide easily and quickly. That’s good news if we’re skiing – but not such good news if we’re simply repeating old negative thoughts.  

If you find yourself thinking negatively about your writing, it might be time to question yourself. Could you possibly become an observer — instead of a thinker, judge or participant? 

So, the next time you’re tempted to judge your writing, imagine standing on a balcony, watching yourself think. You observe your thoughts — seeing them go by as if they were pages in a magazine or a book. Flip, flip, flip. There goes another one. You can’t control them, nor do you want to. Your only job is to watch them. 

And, if possible, label them. There goes fear. There goes envy. Look, guilt is making an appearance. 

But remind yourself that these are just thoughts. And you don’t have to believe them. There’s a phrase among meditation teachers: “Don’t believe your thoughts. Don’t believe your thoughts. Don’t believe your thoughts.” In fact, you may have noticed that negative or painful emotions tend to occur whenever you believe your thoughts (I have no talent for writing.” “I’m a bad parent.” “People don’t find me very interesting.”). 

Instead of believing your thoughts, focus on your breath as it enters and exits your body, using long slow exhales. Being mindful of your breath will help you stay in the present moment where you can observe your thoughts. And understand this is a strategy of acceptance, rather than control. You aren’t trying to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts; you’re simply allowing them to be there, to come and go as they please.

Your thoughts are fluid, like water. So are your emotions. Your power comes from observing them. 

Thoughts are a bit like breathing. You can go a whole day without thinking about or observing your breath or you can intentionally change your breathing throughout your day. You can make this choice. And you can do the same with your thoughts.

Then, ask yourself a simple question: Could something else be true? 

  • Could it be that you’re judging your writing too soon?  
  • Could you give yourself the gift of time before you allow yourself to start making conclusions about your own competence? 
  • Isn’t it more likely that your writing will improve if you do a little every day?

Don’t believe the negative stories you tell yourself. Instead, allow yourself to be calm and peaceful — and observe your thoughts. This slightly different way of seeing things should be enough to help you continue with your writing. 

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My video podcast last week addressed the meaning of the word ‘stet.’ Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.  

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Have you ever been paralyzed by fear of writing? Don’t let this nasty psychological barrier make your life miserable or cost you missed income. I’ve developed a series of 18 videos (with audio and text versions) for just $95 that will help you banish the fear. Plus, you’ll get membership to an online group of others facing the same challenge. Have a look at the program here

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Need some help developing a better writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.

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Are you able to observe your thoughts? How do you do it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better.  To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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