Meta-thinking can be a useful way to get back on track when we feel miserable or anxious.
Meta-thinking sounds fancy, but it just means thinking about thoughts.
Whenever you notice yourself thinking something, that’s meta-thinking. You’re not just having the thought. You observe yourself having the thought.
I enjoy hearing how my clients get better. When I ask about their improvements they tell me how they managed to bring it about since we last met.
Many tell me about changing their thought patterns. “How did you do that?” I’ll ask.
“I catch the thought” would be a common reply.
Catching the thought is an example of meta-thinking. First, you notice the thought. Then you catch it. “Aha! No you don’t buddy!”
The idea is that we no longer attach to a thought just because it’s there.
You Can Choo Choos
It’s a bit like being at a train station.
Trains come and trains go. But instead of jumping aboard any train that comes along, we do something else. We notice the train has arrived. We check it out. If it’s not going to take us where we want, we let the train go.
Meta-thinking allows us to do that with our thoughts. We notice them, and if they’re not helpful we can let them go. Thoughts are just thoughts after all. They’re not necessarily true or wise. We don’t have to obey them.
As with the trains, we can notice their arrival and let them go again without leaping on board.
Helpful or Unhelpful
In observing the thoughts that pass through your mind, it can sometimes help to note the kind of thought it is.
The easiest way is to note whether a thought is helpful or unhelpful.
Does it help me get to what I want or does it stand in my way? Does it empower me or does it weaken me?
When starting out with meta-thinking, this is a simple way to look at your thoughts.
As the thought arrives, you can look at it and gently say “helpful” or “unhelpful.”
If it’s helpful, feel free to attach to it. If it’s not, let it go, like those trains at the railway station.
Catching your thoughts is like spotting yourself getting on the wrong train. Then deciding to get back off again and let the train go.
To help you further, here are 7 different types of thoughts that tend to fit under “unhelpful.” When you know what they look like, they are easier to spot.
1. All or nothing thoughts
Have you ever thought: “everything is ruined”?
I know I have. When I did, I was having an all or nothing thought.
Things were not quite as perfect as I hoped they’d be, and so I assumed all was lost.
It’s a kind of perfectionism that means that everything is either perfect or no good at all.
Like when you miss a day’s exercise in your plan and so stop exercising completely on every other day too.
2. Always, Never, The Worst
I sometimes listen to radio phone in shows after football matches. It’s a great place to listen to this kind of thinking.
People phone in and say that this is the “worst” their team has ever played!
Or they’ll say that this bad luck “always” happens to their team.
Or that the good luck never does. “We never get a penalty ever!”
When we do this, we over generalise. We take a difficulty and we have it bleed into all areas of life, as if it’s a rule of nature.
3. Mind Reading
Humans love to mind read. You might be at your desk and a colleague arrives.
You say hi but they bustle on past without a word.
Now you are telling yourself that they are cross with you. They don’t like you.
Of course, we can’t know this. Nobody can do any more than make up guesses about what is going on in someone else’s mind. There’s a zillion possible reasons why they dashed past so distractedly.
Yet we project things onto them instead and make ourselves anxious and upset.
4. Time Travel
I wish I could fortune tell as well as I sometimes pretend to. I’d get the lottery numbers and I’d be typing this from a swimming pool.
But, like everyone else, fortune telling is not something I can do.
I just think I can, like many other humans do.
We make negative predictions with absolute certainty. Again, they often scare and upset us.
They can take the form of “what if” statements. What if this!? What if that!?
But they are pure imagination, no matter what level of certainty we place upon them.
If we are not making up fantasies about the future, we can spend lots of time in the past too.
Our thoughts are stuck going over something that has already taken place.
Sometimes this can be from a genuine place of learning, but often it isn’t. We are looping round and round about something we said or did that we can’t change.
5. Should and Shouldn’t
These are tough words. They tend to be quite punitive.
We use them to beat ourselves up, or to feel bad about somebody else.
That’s why they go really well with…..
When faced with a problem, or something that didn’t go as we liked, it’s easy to switch to blame.
Sometimes we blame ourselves, and sometimes we blame others.
It doesn’t help to solve the problem of course. It just has us feel guilty or frustrated.
“I shouldn’t have done it like this. I should have done it like that. How can I be such an idiot!!”
Spot the insults and name calling. That’s a good indicator that you’ve stepped into blame thinking.
7. The Binocular Trick
We can see the world as it is, or we can get our binoculars out.
If something is bad, we can make it seem even bigger when we look through binoculars.
If it’s good, we can switch those binoculars round and look through the wrong end. Then the good gets smaller.
Whenever we take a problem and amplify it, that’s binocular thinking. Whenever we spot something negative about us and focus in on it, that’s binocular thinking too.
I recall an episode of The Larry Sanders Show. Larry was a talk show host played by comedian Garry Shandling.
In this particular episode, the TV network had a focus group to find out what the public thought of the show.
Against the best advice of his colleagues, Larry was behind the two way mirror, secretly watching.
Everyone loved the show. Everyone loved Larry. Person after person had their chance to speak, each one heaping praise on Larry Sanders.
Until they got to the final guy. “I don’t like Larry” he said.
You can guess what Larry did. He got those metaphorical binoculars out. He ignored all the praise he’d received and focused in on this one guy.
He changed the whole show because of it. It’s comical because we can recognise our own thinking in there too.
The same goes for when we don’t take credit.
Someone pays us a compliment and we find some way to doubt its sincerity. Or we downplay our role in the achievement.
“It was more luck than anything.”
There’s those binoculars again, but this time looking through the wrong end.
Becoming A Thought Catcher
My hope is that sharing these will help you catch your own thoughts. I hope you can now better spot thoughts that are not helpful and let them go.
It’s not an exhaustive list but it covers many of the common ones. Maybe getting to know these gives you a greater awareness of when you are doing them yourself.
It will hopefully better equip you for getting better at meta-thinking. You’ll become more skilled at thinking about your thinking – and catching it.
Of course, simply sorting thoughts into helpful or unhelpful is valuable in itself. You don’t have to know all seven. But you may spot your own favourite in there, so be able to catch it better going forward.
Have a play with it and see what happens. If you no longer followed thoughts that stand in the way of your life, what difference would it make for you?
If you’d like me to help you work through this in person, get in touch or head to my diary and book a session.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice