Who wins when you argue with yourself?


As part of my interest in developing a philosophy that makes sense for me I have been enjoying a wide range of books. Two of the most recent are The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Power, Pleasure and Profit by David Wootton. Reading through their work prompted me to really think about the amount of time I spend arguing with myself – doing battle in my head and getting frustrated that those around me can’t empathise with the war I am waging. Perhaps if I actually talked about it to them – they might, but that is a completely different topic that I will usefully avoid right now!


What I have been drawn to is the notion that we could well do to accept the presence of our thoughts but not necessarily the content. What I take from this is that we need to give ourselves the time to notice and understand the thoughts and feelings we have without judgement. It is the judging of them that creates the problem. Arguing with our own thoughts is about as useful as arguing with someone else. In arguments what we tend to do is adopt a fixed position and then try to persuade the other to take our fixed position and make it theirs.


It occurred to me that I was doing the same with my own thoughts – forgetting the advice I give to countless people and teams about how best to navigate the differences between them. So I decided it was time to try and apply what I know works to the arguments I have with myself. What I have found useful is to hold two challenging but powerful things in mind almost as the backdrop to the internal war I wage in my head.


Firstly and most importantly is to remember that whatever thoughts I am having and the feelings that are surfaced as a result, while overwhelmingly present will pass. However instead of arguing with myself, or trying to think positively which just feels like jasmine flavoured self-help, I have found it useful to allow myself to hold onto the present thoughts as well as remembering times when my thoughts have been different.  Somehow by not denying or trying to diminish what I feel, but seeing it as part of a spectrum of feelings, I am more able to weather the storm. I guess I have finally come to understand the much-used phrase – this too shall pass.


The second step is to hold off on taking action. This is not easy as unsurprisingly taking action always gives me a tremendous sense of being in control and being the agent of my own destiny (do imagine whatever soundtrack springs to mind as you read that!).  What I find enormously useful is to step back and analyse what is in real terms different today versus a week ago when my thoughts were different. Often I find that nothing is different – somehow I have managed to create a narrative in my head that could likely send me headlong into unhelpful actions or hopelessness. This allows me to take the time to understand the multiple perspectives I am holding and decide on which reality I am going to give most emphasis to.


As many philosophers refer to, a combination of self-awareness followed by self-care creates the space to determine what we will actually believe from the myriad of thoughts we have, which then ultimately determines what we act on.


When next you find your thoughts at war – step back and ask yourself:

Which view serves your best self and what is the nature of your personal interpreters – is it pleasant living with them?


This blog was written by Charles Irvine, Managing Director of Questions of Difference.

A conceptual futurist, affirmatively disruptive philosopher and organisational resultant