You Are Not Your Thoughts: Where Thoughts Come From and How to Detach from Negative Ones

Have you ever considered questioning your thoughts, or do you just accept whatever comes into your head as normal thinking? Join Ora Nadrich as she explores why we should not just accept thoughts, especially negative ones, as they are but questions where they have come from, if they are really our own and what purpose they are serving.
Ora Nadrich is the founder and president of the Institute for Transformational Thinking, an author, life coach and mindfulness teacher.
Are your thoughts yours
Ora Nadrich is the founder and president of the Institute for Transformational Thinking, an author, life coach and mindfulness teacher.

Did you know that we can have 70,000 thoughts every single day? For those of us dealing with overthinking, perhaps that’s not too surprising. But it’s important to know that no matter what our thoughts tell us, we are more than our thoughts. Sometimes, the thoughts we have aren’t even our own — we borrow them from others. 

We are all human beings with complex identities that go beyond just what we think. While it’s easier said than done, we can learn to accept our thoughts without judgment, particularly our negative ones, and lessen their effect on us. 

Below, we’ll walk you through how thought processes work, the different types of thoughts, and how to overcome negative ones. 

Key takeaways

  • Our thoughts are often not our own, especially the negative ones. They are usually automatic or rooted in external expectations (i.e., societal standards).
  • To overcome negative thoughts, practice observing them without judgment and questioning where they come from.
  • We are more than our thoughts — our identities are made up of many aspects, and our thoughts do not define us.

Want to become more detached from your thoughts now? Choose one of these mindfulness meditations to listen to on Insight Timer.

Understanding our thoughts: Where do our thoughts come from?

While all of our thoughts happen within our minds, they’re not entirely our own. Our thoughts are a collection of external experiences from the second we’re born until the present moment. For instance, Eckhart Tolle, a renowned spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, believes the ego is the source of our thoughts. He says: 

To me the ego is the habitual and compulsive thought processes that go through everybody’s mind continuously. External things like possessions or memories or failures or successes or achievements. Your personal history.

Whether through conditioning at home or societal standards, many of our judgmental, negative thoughts are part of automatic thought processes that we seemingly have little control over. And our ego — that pesky voice in our heads — typically believes they’re all true.

Below, we’ll explore the different types of thoughts and what influences them.

Discover the essential truths about your thoughts that can help free you from psychological suffering.

Automatic thoughts

Automatic thoughts are quick, unconscious thoughts that happen involuntarily. They can be influenced by our beliefs, past experiences, and brain circuitry. Everyday problems, stress, or specific events can trigger automatic thoughts — either positive or negative. 

Because automatic thoughts happen compulsively, they can feel difficult to control. Intrusive thoughts, in particular, are a form of automatic thinking that can be especially challenging. In essence, they are uncomfortable or disturbing thoughts or mental images that pop into our minds, sometimes repeatedly. Commonly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), intrusive thoughts can feel very overwhelming to individuals who believe everything they think. 

The good news is that we have the power to lessen the grip of our automatic thoughts (more on that later). 

Rumination and anxious thoughts

Another form of thinking that’s rooted in external experiences (specifically negative ones) is rumination. Rumination can be broadly defined as the act of thinking repetitively about the causes and effects of our negative emotions, and it can have serious implications for our mental health. Research shows that rumination is correlated with symptoms of major depression and anxiety, which can leave us feeling stuck in the past — or, more significantly, experiencing anxiety spirals.    

Read more: Learn about obsessive thinking, the signs of rumination, and how mindfulness and gratitude practices can help. 

How to overcome negative thinking

Overcoming negative thinking doesn’t happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Building awareness around our thought processes helps us create a healthy distance from our thoughts. And with practice, we can become more mindful and detached from unhelpful thinking over time — which helps improve our overall well-being. 

Become a better observer with mindfulness 

Mindfulness can help us become better observers of our thoughts. But how does one become more mindful? By consciously focusing your attention (and doing that over and over again). Try incorporating a mindfulness practice for just 10 minutes a day — that’s all it takes to see results!

A helpful practice can be watching your thoughts like clouds drifting by. Each cloud represents a thought, and you’re the observer watching them pass from a distance. Some clouds are dark, and others are light. But either way, they always pass. More often than not, you don’t control the clouds that pop up in the sky. But you can control which clouds have your attention. The goal of this practice is to remain aware while detaching yourself from automatic, negative thinking. 

While we can practice mindfulness on our own, it’s sometimes easier to get support through guided meditation. Check out Insight Timer’s free mindfulness meditations, designed for meditators of all levels — from beginner to advanced. 

Ask yourself: “Says who?”

Whenever you experience a negative thought, ask yourself who’s saying it. Are these really your own thoughts? Or are they coming from someone else? Asking “Says who?” helps us question where our negative beliefs stem from rather than just accepting them at face value. It challenges the authority and validity behind those thoughts and helps with letting go.

You’ll likely realize that the voice of your inner critic comes from another person — a critical parent or teacher who made you feel inadequate when you were growing up. The bright side is you don’t have to accept thoughts that make you unhappy with yourself. Understanding that your thoughts do not represent who you are (and most of them aren’t even your own) is a helpful way to detach from them.

  1. Says Who? Meditation: Transforming Negative And Fear Based Thoughts Ora Nadrich 18:10

Learn to be in the present moment

If you have trouble neutrally observing your thoughts, try turning your attention to the present moment instead. Observe how your body feels with a body scan, or try the 54321 ground technique (particularly helpful if you’re feeling anxious). By becoming aware of our sensations and surroundings, we can more easily let go of the negative thoughts that hold us back. 

Breathwork can also be a great way to anchor ourselves in the present moment and release the stress caused by negative thoughts. A study on university students found that performing mindful breathing practices for just one month significantly improved stress and anxiety.

Ready to see for yourself? Here are some breathing practices to get you started: 

If you are not your thoughts, then who are you?

It can be easy to conflate our thoughts with who we really are. Thoughts make up our self-concept, so it can be hard to imagine who we are outside of them. But our thoughts change constantly, especially as we grow older and have new experiences. If it’s possible to change the kinds of thoughts we have — and detach ourselves from them — then it’s clear we’re so much more than what we think. 

We are the observers behind the thoughts, the “I” that is always present, which means we have the power to shape our beliefs and actions. As the observers, we decide which thoughts get our attention and which ones don’t.

Eckhart Tolle had this profound realization during a serious depressive episode when he repeated the words “I cannot live with myself any longer,” over and over to himself. Upon saying this, he quickly became aware that there must be two versions of him: the “I” (the observer that’s always present) and the self (the mental self-concept). The latter is responsible for our incessant thinking, while the former is who we truly are, according to Tolle. 

Don’t let your thoughts define you

Learning to observe your thoughts without judgment is no easy feat. It’s something we all struggle with — even the most spiritually evolved meditation teachers. Remember to be gentle with yourself and show compassion as you learn to detach yourself from negative thinking. 

And if you need a little extra help, Insight Timer is here for you. With the largest collection of free guided meditations in the world, you can find mindfulness meditations and breathwork sessions that support you wherever you are on your journey. No prior meditation experience needed.  

  1. Stop Worrying About The Future Ora Nadrich 9:18
  2. Daily Meditation For Authenticity Ora Nadrich 7:01

FAQs about not identifying with your thoughts

What does it mean to say “you are not your thoughts”?

Saying “you are not your thoughts” means understanding that your thoughts don’t define who you are. This allows you to observe your thoughts without getting too attached to them.

How can I learn to separate myself from my negative thoughts?

To separate yourself from your negative thoughts, practice mindfulness and present-moment awareness. Body scans and breathwork are great mindfulness practices to incorporate into your meditation routine!

Who is Eckhart Tolle, and what does he teach about our thoughts?

Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, a book about spiritual enlightenment. He teaches readers how to separate themselves from their minds, especially negative thoughts, and live in the present moment. 

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be considered as medical advice. If you have concerns about anxiety, OCD, or any other conditions mentioned in this article, please seek a medical or mental health professional for help. Please seek professional help immediately if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts.


Stein, D. J., Costa, D. L. C., Lochner, C., Miguel, E. C., Reddy, Y. C. J., Shavitt, R. G., Van Den Heuvel, O. A., & Simpson, H. B. (2019). Obsessive–compulsive disorder. Nature Reviews. Disease Primers, 5(52). 

Michl, L. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Shepherd, K., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2013). Rumination as a mechanism linking stressful life events to symptoms of depression and anxiety: Longitudinal evidence in early adolescents and adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 339–352. 

Xu, M., Purdon, C., Seli, P., & Smilek, D. (2017). Mindfulness and mind wandering: The protective effects of brief meditation in anxious individuals. Consciousness and Cognition, 51, 157–165.  

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