“You are not your thoughts” is a phrase that’s often helped me overcome moments of negative thought. The idea that because you have thought something, does not mean you are held to the consequences of that thought. Afterall, what is a thought but a mere possibility. It holds no further weight and causes no further impact than that. I like the quote because it allows me to distance myself from those negative thoughts. It allows me to have thoughts I rebuke immediately and not hold myself to them. Yes, I may have those thoughts sporadically. No, they do not rule me.

I watched a video recently which poses a thoughtful question. If you are the one thinking, then who is the one listening? One could argue that you are merely the listener, the interpreter, the chooser. Some of us hear words around our heads, others can see pictures different to those their eyes show us. Thus we are certainly not the speaker, but the listener. Nor are we the artist, but the interpreter. We have some control over this, in that we can direct our attention to or from these creations, much like we can direct our attention to the world around us, the computer in front of us or the music in our ears. Though we do not have total control; we are more cajoling the instruments we have at our fingertips, in an attempt to bring attention to something. Like me now, writing this in an airport, headphones in, still getting distracted by phone vibrations and tannoy announcements. I attempt to bring my attention to the screen in front of me, but as the person stands up next to me, showing me that my flight is now boarding, my attention is split and I race to finish the sentence before it disappears from my working memory forever.

This is of course a skill that one can train, attention and awareness. The very essence of meditation. From my sporadic interest in meditation, I understand the premise to be to train your ability to bring awareness to and from certain inputs, while training a resilience to failure in this that most other training programmes do not cover. That is, in meditation, when you go astray and find yourself thinking about your next meal, or that todo list item that needs doing, you acknowledge that fact and then attempt to bring your awareness back to whatever it was you were focusing on. You can indeed, at least in my interpretation of meditation, bring awareness to almost anything in meditation, for as long as it is intentional and you end up not finding yourself distracted by it—essentially flow state—though I’m sure there are different benefits to meditating on different subjects; a high dopamine activity is not going to have the same effect as a low dopamine activity. I digress.

I discuss all these points because I wish to talk about impulse. It is those moments where thoughts and actions are near one. Where the inputs signal to the brain to do something, passing the threshold required to act. From a Huberman discussion on music, he suggests this pattern of thresholds. The moment when you start mumbling or even speaking aloud, to yourself while reading a book. While reading, there is a signal to the brain to engage the motor function associated with speech. If the threshold has been passed, you cannot help but open your mouth and produce a sound. It may not be loud, or particularly understandable. But it’s there nonetheless. I speculate that this is the case for all impulsive behavior. A thought of “that trail mix looks tasty” can easily become eating the trail mix if the chemical response to the idea of it is strong enough, and the threshold passed.

Impulsive behavior, according to Kegan’s theory of adult development, is synonymous with childhood and adolescence. The period where we are learning to think, understand and view the world for more than what is immediately in front of us. Where we learn what is considered right and wrong, are taught what kind of impulses we may act on, and which we may not. It is with time, age, that we better learn to control our impulses, yet it is a continuous battle if the obesity crisis is anything to go by.

I propose the idea that, because we are not our thoughts, we cannot be our impulses. They are but a manifestation, a crossing of said threshold, of our thoughts into action. This is not to say that our actions do not have consequences. Unlike our thoughts, impulses and actions have very tangible consequences. The obesity crisis is a perfect example of this. Impulse to eat at times when we need not, lead to excess body fat and a continued cycle. However, despite the consequences and responsibility we hold towards them, I’d argue that it is in the response we have towards those consequences that show our true character.

In the obesity example, we can choose to look for healthier options, for tactics, strategies and systems to right the wrongs. We can choose to live with the consequences. To decide that the enjoyment of food is worth the trade off in health. We can choose to apologize, or not, to someone when delivering a message which brings them pain. We can choose to attempt to be kind, or we can choose to attempt to be brutal when sharing the truth about something. And it is in those choices, the conscious ones, the ones we have brought awareness to, that depict ourselves as we should hope to be seen.

I shared this idea with a friend of mine—who inspired the trail mix example—and their retort was in fact you are your impulses. This is the basis of shadow work. The premise of revealing the darker parts of your psyche with the intention of accepting them as part of you, in order to work with rather than against them. On reflection, I don’t see the ideas as mutually exclusive. Rather, I suggest that the very premise of doing shadow work, in order to work with and understand the darker parts of your psyche, is a sign of good and strong character. It takes an awful lot of courage to tackle such a problem and accept them as parts of yourself, and speaks volumes of the lengths you will go to grow and improve yourself as a human. While it does take an admittance that you are in fact your thoughts and your impulses—so perhaps the exact phrasing is off, when taken in a literal sense—and that is ok, it does play well with what is the idea that we are not ruled by those thoughts and impulses. So as to not argue over interpretations, I think the phrasing of “your are not your thoughts” and “you are not your impulses” give you a power of them, that believing otherwise perhaps does not. They’re enablers of shadow work, as opposed to disablers.

A discussion I’ve had before, on a long deleted twitter account is around the value of labels. To overcome alcoholism, I first had to call myself an alcoholic. It gave me a useful frame, the admittance that these impulses exist and that they are not healthy for me. Over time, however, the label becomes a belief limiter. If I continue to consider myself an alcoholic I would consider myself far more likely to relapse. After all, that’s what alcoholics do. They drink when their impulses say so. Especially in the darkest hour. It was with changing the label, now a former alcoholic, and thus changing the narrative that I could finally distance myself from these impulses and override them with more ease, finally changing my relationship with alcohol for good, and thus be able to choose when and how to consume, if at all. It is by saying “I am not an alcoholic, I am not these impulses” that I build a version of myself who is no longer fallible to the downfall of alcoholism.

Even as I mature I begin to understand even where those impulses came from. Another Huberman podcast, this time about ADHD medication, gave me the insight that undiagnosed and untreated ADHD usually ends in self-medication. In a hope to calm oneself, and be able to have a moment of respite. The narrative continues to evolve, because now my former alcoholism is more understandable, and I can seek additional help to overcome the symptoms that caused it in the first place. I am not those impulses, because I conquered the issue itself and then changed those impulses to want to ones which lead me to a happier, healthier life, and provide me with the support I needed all along.

I write this as an opportunity to challenge myself exactly because I have bad thoughts, and bad impulses. It’s taken years to overcome impulses with alcohol, cigarettes, drug abuse, whatever else. And I have worked hard to overcome those impulses and redefine my relationship with them. Thus, I distance myself from those impulses as a means to overcome them, change them and improve on them.

I am not my impulses, and while I deal with the consequences of them, I can choose a different, more prosperous outcome.

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