One of the most important things that I teach my clients is that their thoughts are optional.  Let’s talk about what that means, and how it applies to your life.

So, yes,  your thoughts are optional.  That includes ALL of your thoughts – thoughts about yourself, your thoughts about other people and even thoughts about the world at large.

Sometimes your brain offers you thoughts on its own, and sometimes you may choose to think a thought intentionally.

So if your brain offers you a story or a thought about yourself or something else in your life, you actually get to decide whether you want to believe that thought and make it mean something in your life.

Why Is This Important?

Why is it important to understand that thoughts are optional?

Because if thoughts are optional, then that means you have the ability to choose to think thoughts that serve you, rather than being at the effect of whatever thoughts your brain throws at you at 90 mph.

You have over 60,000 thoughts on average every day.  If you are choosing those thoughts instead of just allowing your brain to wander unsupervised, like a toddler, then you have the ability to direct your thoughts to help you accomplish your goals in life.


Here’s an example from my own life.  My husband is an avid mountain biker, and he likes to take me along on rides sometimes.  I do my best, I’m not the greatest mountain biker, I’m barely a mountain biker to begin with.

There is a trail near our house that is has this huge, huge hill in it, and it’s really big and really steep.  Every time that we would arrive to this point in the
trail where we’d be at the top of this hill, I would think to myself thoughts like, “There’s no way I can do that, it’s way too scary, I’ll get hurt, I don’t want to even try to ride down.”

I would walk my 50-pound e-mountain bike down this huge steep hill, and I would always struggle getting the bike down the hill because I was too scared to ride down.

One day, after I had been coaching myself and doing some thought work around it, I arrived at the top of this hill with my husband.  As usual, he waved and then took off very smoothly down the hill.

I thought to myself, “You know what, maybe I can do it, and if I do wreck my bike, I can handle whatever happens, I can handle being hurt.  I have the ability to manage my thoughts around that.”

What did I do?  I got on my bike, and I rode down the hill, and that was it.

I’ve been riding down that hill every single time since I changed my thoughts about it, because I chose a different thought and I chose to stop thinking that I didn’t have the ability to do it.

Why Not Switch To A New Thought Automatically?

Something that many people think when they first become aware that their thoughts are optional is, “Why wouldn’t I just automatically choose a new thought?”

That’s a great question.

The reason why you don’t automatically want to choose a better thought when you discover you’re thinking something that doesn’t serve you is this:

The most important thing to gain from noticing a thought that you have is the awareness around your thinking, why you’re thinking it, and what that pattern of thinking is actually creating in your life.

If I had thought at the top of that hill, “This is too scary… no, no, wait, I can do it,” and then gotten on my bike and I still felt terrified, then I probably would have crashed my bike.  But I had taken a little bit of time to understand my thinking around it.

Awareness Is Key

When you realize that:

  1. Your thoughts are optional and
  2. There’s a thought that you’re having that’s not serving you,

You want to get curious about it.  You want to think to yourself, “Isn’t it interesting that I think it’s too scary to try to ride down that hill?” Or, “Isn’t it interesting that I think that I’m too old for a career change?” Or, “I wonder why I think I’m going to be single for the rest of my life?” Ask yourself why you’re thinking that.

Gaining awareness around why you keep choosing that thought will sometimes help you move seamlessly into a new thought that does serve you.  Gaining that awareness is so much better than immediately trying to thought swap and think something better to help yourself feel more positive or happier in the short term.

Sometimes the awareness alone is enough to help you start choosing a new thought.  Most of the time, it is best to explore the thought and understand what it’s creating in your life before you try to switch to a new thought.  Sometimes that just takes a few minutes of reflecting on your thought and what it’s been creating in your life. Sometimes it takes a little longer, such as a few days, a few weeks, a few months or even a few years.

The Problem With Thought-Swapping

Sometimes those thoughts that we think over and over and over, which are called beliefs, can take time to change because they’re so deeply ingrained in our thought pattern.

If you do switch to a new thought too quickly (called thought-swapping), your brain will often say, “It’s great that you’re trying to think that way. I like this old thought over here because that feels safer and more secure even though it’s not serving us. I’m not comfortable with everything that’s going on with this new thought.  I just want to stick over here with the old unproductive thought and keep getting the exact same result that we’ve been getting.”

That happens when you haven’t examined the thought, the belief behind it, and started to manage your mind around it so that you can change the thought intentionally.  Without understanding the underlying why behind the thought and working to change it, your brain will run right back to the old though, and you’ll keep getting the same old result.

Why Not Always Choose Positive Thoughts?

If thoughts are optional, why wouldn’t you just choose to always think happy or positive or productive thoughts?

Great question.

Your thoughts are optional, yes. But life is also 50/50 in terms of positive and negative thoughts and positive and negative emotions.

If you spend your life trying to avoid negative thoughts and negative emotions by only trying to think positive thoughts, you’re missing out on the full human experience.  You’re going to spend a lot of time and energy working to avoid those negative emotions and negative thoughts.

You could instead be leaning into them with compassion and curiosity.  You could choose to examine what’s going on in your brain, and what it’s creating in your life.

Also, sometimes we want to think negatively about something in life.

There’s a lot that goes on in the world that I think is amazing.  There’s also a lot in the world that I think is horrible.  I don’t want to think positive thoughts about those things.

Everything in our world isn’t positive.  There are things that happen, we have disappointments in life, we have a full range of human emotions.

Trying to buffer negative thoughts and emotions away with positive thinking denies your full humanity and denies your access to the full human experience.  It also keeps you from addressing any ongoing problems in your life that are causing you extra, needless suffering.

Your Thoughts Are Optional:  Conclusion

Remember that  your thoughts are optional.

When you notice a thought that doesn’t serve you, such as, “I’m not good enough,” or “I can’t do that,” or whatever else your brain might be throwing at you, approach it with compassion and curiosity for yourself.

if you’re interested in learning how to explore your thoughts, what they’re creating in your life, and how to choose thoughts that serve you, schedule a free coaching consultation call with me.  Let’s talk about what’s going on in your life, how I can help you, and see if we’re a good fit!

About the Author

Amy Schield, MBA is a time management and productivity coach for small business owners. Using a mix of simple tactics and neuroscience-based strategies, she helps clients manage their time successfully, set and achieve goals for business growth, and navigate the mental and emotional side of owning and running a small business. Acting as a personal trainer for the brain, she teaches clients how to get out of their own way, so they can finally build the business they want.

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