Explore the Question “Who Am I?” from Why Our Minds Wander

April 12, 2024
IONS Communications Team

The thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves may be the most important way we define ourselves. It’s why they may often come up repeatedly during our mind wandering. As Arnaud Delorme shares in his book Why Our Minds Wander: Understand the Science and Learn How to Focus Your Thoughts, these thoughts can be categorized into different types, such as self-critical thoughts, self-affirming thoughts, self-doubting thoughts, self-judgmental thoughts, self-comparing thoughts and self-reflective thoughts. 

Breaking down thought types

Self-critical thoughts involve negative beliefs about our abilities, such as “I’m not smart enough” or “I always mess things up.” Self-affirming thoughts are positive and empowering, such as “I am capable” or “I am worthy.” Self-doubting thoughts make us question ourselves. “Can I really do this?” or “Am I making the right choice?” Self-judgmental thoughts lead us to criticize our own actions or behaviors, such as “I shouldn’t have said that,” or “I’m such a failure.” Self-comparing thoughts involve comparing ourselves to others, such as “Why can’t I be as successful as them?” or “I wish I had their life.” Lastly, self-reflective thoughts help us understand our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, such as “Why am I feeling this way?” or “What can I do differently next time?”

By being aware of the types of thoughts we have about ourselves, we can better manage our mental health and well-being. Negative thoughts can lead to low self-esteem and depression, while positive thoughts can boost our confidence and self-worth. Thoughts may gradually stop running your life, and you come to rest in what you really are.

Exercise: Who Am I?

There is an exercise in psychology Arnaud shares in chapter 2 of his book where you challenge someone to define themselves by asking: “Who am I?” You might start by giving your name, but then you must continue elaborating further. Here’s how you can try:

  1. Take a blank piece of paper and a pen. Then, sit in a quiet place where you know you won’t be disturbed. Set a timer on your smartphone for five minutes.
  2. Write down who you think you are. It doesn’t have to be full sentences – you could write a single word. For example, Arnaud mentions that he would probably start with “a father,” and then “a neuroscientist.”
  3. After you write something, imagine someone asking you, “OK, tell me more.”
  4. It is OK to pause for 30 seconds or more to just think deeper about who you are. When you are ready, write as many definitions of yourself as you feel necessary.
  5. When done, continue reading this blog. 

At first, you probably wrote down some definitions of yourself – such as your gender, nationality, marital status, your job, your education, and so on. However, it starts becoming more interesting when you keep pushing: “Tell me more. Who are you?” You might start to describe some personality traits: “I’m shy” or “I’m an extrovert.” As you keep asking the question, you might end up on more existential concepts: a human being or a soul, depending on your religious or spiritual orientation.

“Who Am I” in action

Arnaud tried the exercise himself to help demonstrate its impact. He started by describing himself as “I am a kid who grew up to be an adult,” to describe his childhood and the inspirations he had for studying mind wandering. He then states, “I am a scientist,” to describe his experience as a scientist and understanding models of consciousness. From there, he delves deeper by stating, “I have thoughts,” discussing how those thoughts impact him as a person and how he comes to understand through mindfulness practices that he is not his thoughts. Finally, he concludes by stating, “I am conscious” noting that he is able to perceive the beauty in a sunset. Through this process, we are able to see how the exercise may take us from simple facts to philosophical reflections with greater implications for ourselves.

If you would like to learn more about who you are, why your mind wanders, and techniques for overwhelming thoughts, check out Arnaud’s book Why Our Minds Wander: Understand the Science and Learn How to Focus Your Thoughts (available now on Bookshop and where books are sold). The practices in this book will hopefully guide you to that place beyond thoughts and belief, a place where people report experiencing more peace, happiness, and capacity to focus.

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