Thought Loops: Self Regulation Starts With Your Thoughts

Self regulation is not the same as self control, will power or discipline.

Many of you have expressed an interest in exploring the topic of thought loops and gaining agency in your own life. I’m going to be writing some posts covering some basic concepts, and you can build on them from your own experience and experimentation.

Thought loops prevent us from exercising our own agency in life, and make it impossible to self regulate. We can see this very clearly in our outcomes. If you intend to stop checking your email compulsively, binge watching senseless tv episodes at night, or decide to cut certain foods or beverages out of your diet…you’ll often trigger a kind of resistance that goes beyond just the inertia of breaking a habit.

Often we focus on the failure, the inability to control our own behavior. It’s not like we’re asking ourselves to do something super human or extraordinary or even difficult. Stop checking your phone. It’s a very simple thing. Yet we find we can’t do it, or we have to wrestle with ourselves and expend all this mental and emotional energy just to accomplish this really simple thing.

If you are focused on how hard it is, and focused on the outcomes, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that you don’t have discipline or will power, when in fact you don’t have agency. You cannot self regulate because you can’t extricate yourself from thought loops.

I don’t know if you are getting the subtlety here. If I am caught in a thought loop and I don’t even know it, and I believe somehow that this thought loop is, well…me, talking to myself? Then I’m going to use up my energy in that arena, trying to fight what I believe to be myself. It’s kind of exhausting. It’s possible, for sure, and that’s where you can apply all kinds of will power and try to exert whatever discipline you can muster. Gads, are you feeling kind of exhausted and overwhelmed and grim, just reading this? I am.

What I propose is this:

#1 The thought loop isn’t you

When you are in a thought loop, you think it’s you talking to yourself (whatever the hell that even means…think about it!). As I mentioned before, if you think it’s you talking, you give weight and importance to what is being said, as if it was true. (previous mention of this here) However, if you just heard this on the radio, would you even care? If the radio was constantly telling you to check your phone, would that be nearly as compelling?  You then fight with this thought loop, or try to resist it, or whatever. Because you think it’s you speaking. If you believed it was just a repetitive commercial on the radio, how would your reaction be different?

#2 Fighting with thought loops is a waste of energy

It’s much more effective and efficient to recognize you are in a thought loop, realize it’s not you speaking, and instead of fighting with the thought loop, return to yourself, to silence or to your own intention stream. You don’t engage with it, you realize what’s happening and you return your attention to yourself.

#3 It’s not about the outcome

The discipline and willpower, if you want to call it that, is only applied to noticing and returning, not to controlling your behavior. If you are applying all this force way downstream, at the stage of behavior control, doing or not doing a thing, moment by moment, you are going to be wiped out. When you think of willpower, you think of grimly forcing yourself to do or not do a thing. But that’s a misapplication of discipline.

If you, in a state of agency, in an act of self regulation, decide to limit yourself to drinking only on the weekend, then you’ve already made the choice. If there were no thought loops happening (assuming you are not physically addicted) then you would simply follow through on your decision. If you decide to walk across the room, does that require discipline and willpower? No. And choosing to drink iced tea instead of beer on a Wednesday night is just as easy. You chose to put one thing in your mouth instead of another thing. Done!

Agency is really powerful. We’re just so used to being caught in these looping thoughts, and when we decide to do simple things and can’t, it’s kind of like being crippled. It’s like deciding to walk across the room and not being able to. But if you’re focused on trying not to have a beer on Wednesday night, you’re focused on the wrong thing. The focus needs to be way before that, on recognizing you are in a thought loop and returning to yourself. So if you find yourself at the point of trying not to have a beer, you’re focusing on the action or outcome, and you’ve missed the point.

Of course, thought loops and agency are more complex than this. There are emotional components and all kinds of grubby stuff, but start here and notice, experiment, discover. Stay light. Self regulation and agency are not the same thing as controlling your behavior. They happen way before the action even comes into question. Self regulation is not even about controlling the mind, per se. It’s about getting to know what “in your head” is you and what’s not. Honestly, if some stumbling drunk derelict was following you around, telling you things over and over again, like “Oh, I really want a beer! I know I said I wouldn’t have one until the weekend, but damn, mate…I just really want one, you know?! Hey, let’s just have a beer tonight. One little beer, we deserve it mate! Just one….” would you think that was you talking? Would you be swayed to go get a beer? Would you feel the need to argue or overpower this guy? Would you want to engage with him? Probably not, right?

Explore this. Share your findings!



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  1. Donald says:

    Nice post. I can totally relate to being caught in a thought loop only concerned with the outcome. Having been a “functional alcoholic” or “binge drinker” or whatever label you want to use, I always used self imposed thought loops to control and justify my drinking. That went on since my late teens into my 40’s and in hindsight, felt like swimming upstream. Before I lost the desire for alcohol, I was reading about surrendering (which I believe every individual has their own definition). I continued drinking but stopped swimming upstream and just went with the flow of life. One day, after a 3 day binge, the desire was all gone. People have asked me how I did it and I really don’t have an answer, it just happened. A couple times since, out of the blue, I had a strange desire to got to the bar. I quickly learned that that means there is some emotional stuff bubbling to the surface that needs to be felt.

    As a side note in regards to alcohol, I remember when I first started meditating, I realized that it was similar in a way to drinking. For me, alcohol quieted my inner dialog and obviously altered my state of consciousnesses. So perhaps, in a way, I was seeking oneness but in a way that wasn’t good for my body. That’s just something fun to think about. Cheers!

    • Lilith says:

      That was a very interesting and useful comment. Thanks for posting your personal experience and observations.

      There is so much insight here: how the desire for something (even as powerful as alcohol) can vanish, how the desire to “go to the bar” is information…it means something else, is an indicator of something else that needs to be processed. Alcohol, as well as many other activities, like sex, gaming, watching tv…can all blunt the internal dialogue temporarily. Everyone is trying to quieten their minds, get space from the tyranny of the internal chatterbox. They are tools, just not the best ones.

  2. Deana says:

    Thank you! This site has been exactly what I needed. Your articles describe in almost exact details my recent awakening experience. It has been 3 months now. I often find myself speechless and wanting to be alone in nature. I left my amazing career, and haven’t been able to find the person inside me that can go back to it. this is the “scariest part so far” Letting go… and living in faith that something will connect. I have nobody to relate to in my inner circle YET..and have gone through the “I think I am going crazy” for months now! I have just given up alcohol, after a binge experience that was interesting to witness. I’ll be watching for the thought loops, however deep inside I know I’m done. Anyways…. rambling a bit! Just so happy to feel connected, and not totally alone. Thank you again!

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