Out of Africa – a unconventional way to deal with negative thoughts

Out of Africa

There’s a movie playing in your head. It’s a documentary of your life so far. There are happy memories of course, but the majority of the film is all about how much you’ve fucked up.

The narrator of the film tells you repeatedly every day how you’re selfish, lazy, a hypocrite and unlovable. And you’ve done enough work on yourself to know it’s not always true (but sometimes it is). You are prepared for that voice and spend time counteracting it with positive affirmations1 or cross-examining the thoughts to find the holes in their logic. You’re pretty good at being the ‘thought police’ and although the thoughts don’t pop up as often as they used to, you still have to be on your guard. Especially if you’re tired, stressed, hormonal or in the midst of one of life’s dramas.

Struggling with your thoughts takes a lot of time and energy. Frankly, it’s exhausting.

You’re a filmmaker

We’ve all seen documentary films about Africa in all its guises — from the swollen bellies of starving children through to the glorious sunset silhouetting giraffes on the open Savannah. Which version of Africa is the ‘real’ Africa?

Both? No

Neither. Neither one of those representations of Africa is actually Africa. You can’t experience the true essence of Africa unless you go there and encounter it for yourself.

That movie inside your head is not you. Even if I watched the hours of footage you have accumulated over the years, I would only see the story of you. You are much more than that story in your head.

So instead of trying to shut down the movie, or replace it with the Walt Disney version of Cinderella, what if you just saw it for what it was and let it be?

I have a movie inside my head with graphic pictures of the what I saw when I discovered my husband’s dead body. The narrator tells me it’s my fault (even though I know he’s lying) and wants to know how I can preach love to others when I couldn’t even love the person in my life who needed it the most. I’ve spent years trying to turn off the projector, re-shoot the ending or putting my hands over my eyes and ears. The movie is still there …

And sometimes, when I’m tired, stressed, hormonal or writing about what happened to me, I get absorbed again in the movie. I wonder what I could have done differently, I remember I’m a selfish human being and I’m overwhelmed by sadness and loss.

Psychologists call this cognitive fusion

When we are in a state of cognitive fusion, we are stuck to our thoughts.  It is almost as if we cannot separate ourselves from our thoughts.  We are often so stuck to our thoughts that we cannot even see it.  In a state of cognitive fusion, thinking completely dominates our behavior.  We think or believe that something is true and we act as if it is true. ~ Laura Schenck

Being lost in our thoughts isn’t always a bad thing. When you’re reading a book, working on report, planning an event or even reading this blog your thoughts are an important part of being a fully functioning human being. It’s when we get stuck in our head and what we’re thinking diminishes our experiences of the present moment that they become a problem. Ruminating about past event or predicting future calamities can also trigger painful emotions that make us feel like shit.

Thoughts are the frames in a movie

At the most basic level, thoughts are just words and pictures. We all have them and we all get hooked in by them. Many of the conditions we label as ‘illnesses’ are just fusion with our thoughts — depression, anxiety, low self-esteem. Although we like to imagine we can control our thoughts, the truth is they come and go exactly as they please.

{Your mind might even be telling you now that’s not true … interesting don’t you think?}

So what are we to do?

{Your mind is now telling you this won’t work … see what I mean?}

Notice and name

There are many techniques you can use to ‘unhook’ from your thoughts. Here are just a few.

Say this phrase out loud – I’m fat – and really buy into it. Believe it, find evidence for it and see how you feel.

Now say – I’m having the thought that I’m fat. Does this dispel and take away some of the sting?

Now say – I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m fat. Does this unhook you from the thought and enable you to let it be there without bothering you?

Try this one – Here’s the ‘I’m fat’ story showing up again. Thank you mind!

Or try singing I’m fat to the tune of Happy Birthday.

These are all mental exercises designed to take you out of the vortex of unhelpful thoughts by just observing them and making room for them. You can also name your thoughts and then put them on to imaginary leaves on a stream and watch them float away.

Leaves on the Stream (13 minutes)

The Leaves on the Stream mindfulness exercise will shift your focus from looking from your thoughts to looking at your thoughts. You don’t need to change your thoughts in any way. The thoughts will just come and go naturally. [This is not me talking – it’s Dr Luoma. Once you’ve listened to the meditation and start practising it, you can do it in the moment in about ten seconds]

Download MP3 here

This is just a story

The movie/story metaphor is what works for me. I have a whole range of repetitive thoughts that arise and I’ve named them the Asleep Story. It is the story of who I was when I was shut down and disconnected. It’s just a story, just a movie playing in my mind. It is no more real than watching a documentary about Africa.

Aha – here’s the I’m Asleep Story. Thank you mind!

I want to experience my life out in the real world. Once I’ve noticed an unhelpful thought, named it and released it into the stream, I put my attention on what is happening right here and now. I see, hear, touch, taste and smell what is around me in this present moment and I get on with something that is meaningful to the real me, not the documentary version of me.

Even if you mind is telling you this is all a crock of shit, why don’t you give it a try. There are scientific studies that prove this works, but if I can get through a meltdown by using these techniques then something is working.

It is hard to explain just by using words what is essentially an experience so if you have any questions please ask in the comments.


  1. Studies show that positive affirmations make some people feel worse

About KatieP

Embracing my midlife sexy while exploring modern love & relationships • Devoted to all things beautiful • Master of Arts in creative writing & non-fiction writing

7 thoughts on “Out of Africa – a unconventional way to deal with negative thoughts

  1. I never stop being amazed at how much the events in my life are aligning with the knowledge you’re sharing and of how much use it is to me. 🙂

  2. While I agree and identify with much of the article and love the Cognitive Fusion references, I am not sure the exercises will help. I do have my Fat and Ugly days were nothing feels right and my mind set is just that, but I am not sure how saying I am fat will help me get out of this.

    1. Hi Amelia
      The idea is to notice that you’re having the thought “I am fat” and see it as just that – one of the millions of words and pictures that pass through your head each day. The idea is to break free from getting sucked into unhelpful thoughts that stop you connecting with the people and the things you love.
      You could also try it with ‘I can’t change my mindset’ — ‘I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I can’t change my mindset …’
      I hope this clarifies it for you.

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