How Do You Know if Your Thoughts Are Your Own?

Seriously, how do you? One of my favorite books I’ve read recently, Escape From Freedom by Erich Fromm, discusses how one of the main ways to gain “positive freedom” is thinking for yourself. Digging deep into your own belief system and worldview and questioning why you believe things helps to uncover what you actually believe and why you believe it, or even why you say certain things or think the way you do.

I always assumed my thoughts were my own, but how could I be sure? When I first learned about this seemingly innocuous idea, of course I thought “yeah right, all of my thoughts are CLEARLY my own.” But this idea stuck in the back of my head: how could I uncover the root of my thoughts, desires, and beliefs? Whenever I had a thought, I caught myself trying to dig under the surface and figure out how that idea became lodged in my head.

Here’s a great one. It shows that even the most mundane of ideas or thoughts might come from elsewhere other than your own thought processes.

“Eat in moderation. As long as you do this, you’ll be fine.”

I thought this in my kitchen one day when I (probably) was going for dessert and trying to rationalize why I could allow myself to partake in this indulgence. Then I stopped. Where did this idea come from? My parents probably instilled it in me at a young age, saying that as long as I didn’t eat too much of one thing, I could still live a healthy lifestyle and not get fat.

But, it dawning on me, what the hell does “moderation” even mean? How much can you eat of something before it’s unhealthy? And I’m sure it depends on what the “thing” even is, right? What about people who have high cholesterol, or are sensitive to a certain type of food, or the million different mutations that individuals have that make a healthy diet for them absolutely detrimental to someone else? This platitude, I realized, of “eating in moderation” was BS. I had always “believed” this to be true, but after actually THINKING FOR MYSELF and reflecting on it, I changed course.

But again, did I even think for myself recognizing this falsehood? I realized — nope! I read in a book by the scientist Valter Longo that this claim of “moderation” is ridiculous for all of the above reasons. This phrase uttered by him happened to come into my mind at the perfect time I was pondering the relevant thought. Maybe I didn’t actually have a think about the “moderation” debacle for myself after all.

So how are you even supposed to think for yourself then, when you’re surrounded by so much content, generations of social norms, and a need to quickly understand your environment without pausing to dwell on every single thought you have?

For what it’s worth, I think the first step would be to make an honest attempt to recognize some of your major beliefs, thoughts, and desires, and unpack WHY you believe what you believe and actually take the time to do so. Getting into a pattern of pausing and delving into your belief system whenever the opportunity arises can go a long way into forming a habit of adhering to your own ideas, and not just robotically following or believing things you agree with. Finally, novel ideas and thoughts can arise from a combination of borrowed ideas, giving you the flexibility to apply your knowledge in one domain quickly into another.

Thinking for yourself is a weird thing; so seemingly simple, yet insanely hard to do. I’m not sure how you can guarantee the trueness of an original thought, but once I figure it out, I’ll be sure to share.

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