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How to Become Aware of Thoughts without Judging Them

By Janet Jones

In my last post, “All Thoughts Fit,” we explored the power of learning to allow our thoughts to just be without trying to change them. In this post, we’ll learn how.

The challenge is that these trains of thought are usually automatic, reactive, and ironically, mindless! They’ve typically been shaped by past experiences and people in our lives that have become internalized habits of thinking. Allowing automatic thinking to control us is one way that restrictive and/or overeating patterns of behavior take over our lives. The intention of mindful eating is to learn how to be in charge of our eating and our thoughts.

The Focus, Explore, and Acceptance skills of F.E.A.S.T. (from chapter 3 of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat) are very helpful.

train tracksFocus
Pause for a moment. Are you able to become aware of your thoughts? Can you can identify the trains of thought that regularly and automatically run through your mind? Can you give a particular train of thought a name, just as you might read the destinations on a board at a train station? Examples: That’s the past; that’s the future; that’s not true; that’s hyper-critical; that’s perfectionistic; that’s weight-focused; that’s black and white; etc.

Once you’ve identified your particular trains of thought, pick one and reflect on it using the Explore and Acceptance skills of F.E.A.S.T.

Accept
As you reflect on the train of thought you have identified, bring a compassionate and accepting attitude toward yourself. Respond to yourself as you would respond to someone that you love and care about, perhaps something like, “It’s understandable to have that thought in this situation. It’s just a thought.”

Explore
Practice providing “space” for this train of thought without needing to judge, control, replace, or change it.

  • Observe the content or direction of the train of thought.
  • What do you know about why it is there?
  • Are there memories associated with your train of thought?
  • Where does this train of thought typically go?

With skill and practice you can allow these automatic trains of thought to pass through the train station of our mind, allowing them to be what they are: thoughts, not facts!

Allowing Thoughts to Be
Allowing thoughts and feelings to simply “be” and have their space is an act of healing in itself. This is very different from replacing, changing, or getting rid of thoughts, and may seem odd at first. Think of a time when you needed to express your thoughts to someone during a disagreement. How did it feel when you knew you had been heard and understood? Even if the other person didn’t agree or change their mind, having your feelings heard, understood, and taken seriously allows us to move on without getting stuck.

Also consider what happens when we tell ourselves not to eat a “bad” food, such as, “Don’t eat ice cream.” This just sets us up for the next episode of overeating ice cream!

The same thing happens with thoughts. Even if I tell myself, “Don’t think, ‘I’m never going to change!’”, I’ll eventually have that thought anyway so when I do, I’m set up to judge myself for having a thought I told myself not to have!

In an all-thoughts-fit model, the pattern goes something like this instead:

  • I have the thought, “I’m never going to change!”
  • I notice it.
  • I pause and take a breath.
  • I recognize it as a train of thought that is there for a good reason (a habit I learned in the past).
  • I name it; for example, “There’s my self-defeating train of thought.”
  • I respond with, “I hear you; I know why you’re there.”
  • I accept that the thought is present without judging the thought (or myself for having the thought).
  • I move back to the Mindful Eating Cycle to help me with my next decision.

Just as with food, mindfulness give us the opportunity to pause and respond, rather than react out of habit, so we have a choice about what to do next. For example, we can allow the train of thought to simply pass through the station of our minds rather than getting on board. Perhaps we choose to reflect on which cycle the train of thought came from, and use our skills to lead us back to the intention of mindful, vibrant living.

Contributor:  Janet Jones is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Belmont, North Carolina. She has over 20 years of clinical experience and is now focused on incorporating mindfulness into her work with clients. Her approach is heavily influenced by research and theories of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the mindfulness-based contributions by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. She completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Class developed by Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in 2013. With the addition of Am I Hungry? Facilitator Training, Janet is able to bring mindfulness into a very useable and practical application for those struggling in their relationship with food. She practices her own skills of mindfulness through yoga, hiking, play time with her dog, Skip, and daily meditation.

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About the author

Janet Jones is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Belmont, North Carolina. She has over 20 years of clinical experience and is now focused on incorporating mindfulness into her work with clients. Her approach is heavily influenced by research and theories of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and the mindfulness-based contributions by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. She completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Class developed by Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts in 2013. With the addition of Am I Hungry? Facilitator Training, Janet is able to bring mindfulness into a very useable and practical application for those struggling in their relationship with food. She practices her own skills of mindfulness through yoga, hiking, play time with her dog, Skip, and daily meditation.

4 Comments

  1. It sounds so simple and straight forward- but when it comes to that moment where i find myself secretly over eating , i lose the space, train and battle .

    It has been 4 days since ive accepted my eating disorder, im going to remember naming my train and trying to win the battle within my mind and provide space.

  2. Janet Jones says:

    What a courageous step to accept where you are! You are only 4 days since taking that step and learning new ways to respond to thoughts and feelings takes practice. It is simple, but not easy! You may want to consider some coaching or counseling from a qualified professional to help with this process. In the meantime, offer yourself plenty of patience and loving-kindness, as best you can.

  3. Bre says:

    I have a repetitive, negative, Unwanted thought and I have been trying to work on these mindfulness and acceptance techniques. I get so worried that I’m not good enough to practice this or the “what if it doesn’t work for me,” “what if my mind is too weak?” I just want to be happy and enjoy life but it’s hard when my mind is telling me the opposite…

    • Bre, I apologize for this VERY late reply! I did not see your comment until now.
      I understand your fears. It is helpful to remember that those are just thoughts too – not the truth. When you notice the thought, “what if it doesn’t work for me?” or “what if my mind is too weak?”, acknowledge it and perhaps say something like, “That is the future. Right now, I am going to focus on one decision at a time. I accept that I am not perfect so I will probably make mistakes that I can learn from.”

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