Thoughts are the driving force in our lives; every idea, action and creation originates in thought. However, most of the time we experience thoughts as automatic and accept our inner voice without reflection. The result are thought processes that are often dysfunctional for our well-being and happiness, as expressed in the saying “the devil whispered in my ear”.
The Greek prefix ‘meta‘ is often used to indicate that something is ‘about’ or ‘beyond’ something, for example its own category. For instance, a Meta-Analysis is the summary of the results of many other studies.
I have established Metathoughts1 as a concept that guides my work. According to this definition, Metathoughts are thoughts about thoughts, one can think of them as thoughts on a higher level. They are more conscious, clear and reflective than the ordinary regiment of thoughts that pass our mind all day. They stand out, provide awareness and move us forward.
Sometimes we get Metathoughts automatically, they almost ‘pop out’; perhaps after doing excercise or when we wake up in the middle of the night with a new insight. Other times we get them through a learning experience that provides a key understanding, or by talking things through with someone. However, we can also learn to apply Metathoughts intentionally in order to make better decisions, gain clarity, direction and a better state of mind.
My goal in my work as a coach is to empower people to think Metathoughts, as the following examples illustrate:
1. The devil’s voice in our head: Sometimes thoughts reflect the influence other people had in our lives. These can be repressive, like the voice of our parents as we think to ourselves “I can not wear something like this, it is not acceptable!”. At times we follow these beliefs or instructions without recognising where they come from or questioning whether they are helpful to us.
Applying Metathoughts would mean to recognize that those thoughts don’t reflect our inner convictions, but have been taken over from others. Once we have that awareness, we can free ourselves from them and shape or replace them according to our own beliefs, like: “I know my parents would not allow me to dress like this, but I feel good in these clothes and don’t care what other people could think”.
2. Incomplete/one-dimensional thoughts: Sometimes we feel stuck in our own thoughts, for example when we try hard to find a solution for a problem. Thoughts then often go in circles, contradict themselves, are incomplete or head towards a dead end. In these situations we are unable to gain more perspective.
For the use of Metathoughts in this context I like to envision a bird’s eye view; this means to mentally step out of the situation and to look at it from above, like a bird that glides over it or as seen from an aeroplane. Suddenly things are not so confusing and overwhelming any more and we are able to see the shortcomings in our thinking.
3. Emotions: Feelings and thoughts are so closely linked that most thoughts are caused and driven by emotion. But the influence goes both ways: what and how we think when we feel something, can either heighten or change those feelings. If we for instance feel threatened in our self-worth by someone, we might develop negative, reactive thoughts such as “This person is against me and arrogant, I don’t like him/her”. These thoughts will strengthen the negative emotions and can turn into beliefs and actions that are harmful to ourselves and others.
To think on a Metalevel in this instance means to step away from negative thoughts that were caused by the emotion and to ask why we are thinking that way. We could think “I got defensive because I am scared person X could be better than me. (S)he did not do anything against me, so I should treat him/her fairly and stay calm”.
4. Self-Handicapping: With whatever activity or performance we are concerned with, it is not rarely our own inner voice that is our biggest enemy on the road to success. A lack of self-confidence, the fear of losing, embarrassment or the wish to impress and be perfect can lead to thoughts that prevent us from reaching our potential. An example could be that we hold a speech or presentation and get distracted by thoughts like “My boss looks so critical, did I say something wrong? Is this good enough?”. In this way, thoughts can sabotage our intentions as we get diverted or tense.
Thinking on a Metalevel means to become aware that we have these thoughts and to stop them during the performance. This absence of interfering thoughts means to be present or mindful, in a state of relaxed concentration. In the example, we could recognise that our boss looks grim, but would be self-confident and in the flow of the presentation, and therefore not lose the plot.
How I work with Metathoughts in Coaching
- Coaches get trained in the formulation of powerful questions that lead to growth within the client. For example, questions that I would often ask when a client gets lost in the details of their story, are: “What is this really about?” or “Could there be another possibility?”. This will lead to Metathoughts in the client, opening up possibilities.
- Often in life, people don’t have the time or willingness to listen to our problems without getting distracted or providing unsolicited advice or evaluation. As a coach I apply a deep kind of non-judgemental listening which allows my clients to “unlayer” their story, to get to a deeper or different understanding of where they are at, simply by feeling safe to talk it out to themselves and a witness.
- As described above, thoughts often feel disorganized or incomplete. As a coach, I help my clients to bring order into their thoughts, for example by reflecting back to them what they have said with clarity. This process allows for the mental space in the client that lets new (Meta)thoughts arise.
- One of my strongest intentions as a coach is to facilitate the growth of positive, healthy self-beliefs in my clients. I challenge dysfunctional thoughts in the coaching process and help the client to shape them into a better, more constructive form. Metathoughts as I use them, are always focused on the best we can be in the future.
I hope these examples help to provide some insight into the mechanisms behind ‘the devil and the angel talking to us’ and how we are not only able to decide which voice we want to listen to, but are actually in control of them.
1 The concept of Metathoughts came to my mind in the middle of the night on an endless bus trip through Bolivia when I realised that it was exactly the application of a higher level of thoughts that moved my life forward. I decided to write a blog about it in order to share my thoughts with others. Later I started to use the term Metathoughts in my work as a facilitator and coach, in order to help people to understand how they can improve their thinking.