Thanking Your Mind: An ACT Technique for Coping with Unhelpful Thoughts

As a clinical psychologist who practices CBT, I’m focused on helping therapy clients explore the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I’ve written about some of these ideas and techniques in articles about automatic thoughts, distorted thinking, and how to use mindfulness and thought records to recognize and challenge unhelpful thoughts. In addition to the aforementioned techniques, today I want to share an exercise from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a type of treatment that focuses on accepting what is out of your personal control and committing to action that improves and enriches your life.

In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris (the creator of ACT) describes an exercise called thanking your mind. It entails, well, thanking your mind when it tells you mean, nasty, hurtful or provocative things! But one of the keys of this exercise is to thank your mind using warmth, humor and playfulness…which is probably why I love teaching it to therapy clients.

Thanking your mind works by creating distance between you and your thoughts, giving you space to recognize that you don’t have to believe everything your mind tells you.

Let’s explore the Thanking Your Mind exercise with an example:

Imagine you got denied for a promotion you wanted at work. In the aftermath of this news, your notice your mind telling you some version the following:

“You didn’t get that promotion. You’re such a failure!”

First, let’s all take a moment to remember that just because your mind tells you something (and perhaps is able to do so in a very convincing manner), does not necessarily make it true. In fact, sometimes our minds can tell us things that are wildly untrue…like you’re a pink rhinoceros.

Really. Stop right now and think to yourself: “I’m a pink rhinoceros.”

Are you a pink rhinoceros? (If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are not).

Dr. Harris instructs us in these moments to simply respond with gratitude, warmth and humor:

“Thank you, mind!”

Why express gratitude? Why not curse your mind out instead?

Because by telling us these things, our minds are really just trying to keep us safe and alive. That’s what they’ve been engineered to do since the caveman days. The problem is, sometimes they’ll try to ensure our survival by spinning unhelpful, scary, super negative, or even untrue yarns and soap operas. They’re simply doing this in an attempt to protect us from some perceived threat. So instead of engaging with these thoughts when your mind creates them, try thanking your mind for having such a great imagination and trying to protect you (albeit in a not-so-productive way):

“Thanks, mind, for telling me I’m a failure. In fact, I’ve noticed you like to tell me a failure on a pretty regular basis (especially around performance review time). I guess it’s your way of trying to protect me, but I’m going to go with an alternative explanation (see my article on thought records) for why I didn’t get the promotion this time around. Good looking out, though. I appreciate you!”

Sometimes minds say the darndest things. So…thank you mind! And thank you, Dr. Russ Harris, for creating ACT!

Do you need to thank you mind for a story it’s telling you today?

If you want to learn more about ACT and ACT techniques, I strongly recommend getting a copy of The Happiness Trap. And if you want to put these exercises into action, you’ll set yourself up for greater success with a mindfulness practice that will allow you to improve your awareness of unhelpful thoughts. Download my free, eight-minute guided mindfulness mediation by clicking here.

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This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2022 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

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