Part 1: Overview
Does the title of this article seem strange? Perhaps so, because instead of saying, Who Is Running Your Life: You or Your Thoughts, I said, You or The Thoughts in Your Head. But aren’t your thoughts and the thoughts in your head the same? Well, if by the word “you” we mean conscious, aware you, they usually are not the same. You see, most of the time the thoughts in your heard are not your thoughts for these three reasons:
1. Most of the time, we operate on autopilot. That is, our thoughts are unconscious, habitual, and unmonitored self-talk. They are happening behind the scenes and we are unconscious of them.
2. Even when we are aware of negative self-talk, they are not our thoughts but the thoughts of our caregivers, teachers, and others who put them in our head while we were children. But because we found those thoughts in OUR head, we falsely concluded they were OUR own thoughts.
3. Not only do others put thoughts in our head, but our subconscious does the same as it misguidedly tries to protect us. Thinking with the mind of a young child, the subconscious plants thoughts in our head such as, “Don’t give your opinion because people may laugh at you. Don’t try that because you may fail, and if you fail people may ridicule you.”
Since our success in life, or lack of it, is due to the quality of our thoughts, it is important to get a grip on them and rule them, rather than have them rule us. How can we gain control of our thoughts? Here are some steps we can take:
1. Get into the habit of being aware of your thoughts. Do this by taking several short (2 or 3 minute) “thought breaks” during the day where you stop everything and ask yourself, “What are the thoughts in my head now?”
2. Write down your thoughts in a “Thought Journal” before you forget them so you can learn what areas you need to work on and monitor your progress.
3. Learn to identify the thoughts by asking, “Are these MY thoughts or the thoughts of my childlike subconscious, or the thoughts others put in my mind?”
4. Identify the quality of thoughts, by asking, “Do these thoughts help improve my life or do they hamper my growth?”
5. Practice longer 10~15 minute periods of stillness, where with eyes closed you neither try to stop nor encourage thoughts. Rather, while sitting still you merely observe your thoughts. Don’t analyze or judge them, just be aware of them as they pass by, like fallen leaves in a stream. This exercise helps you to disassociate yourself from the thoughts in your head, and you will clearly come to realize that you are not those thoughts, but the witness of them. Once you experience this truth, it will become easier to change negative thoughts to empowering ones.
6. Now that you are witnessing your thoughts, pick a negative one that you wish to change, such as, “I am afraid of speaking before a group.” Now practice visualization sessions for 10~15 minutes, twice a day. In the visualization session, you imagine you are already the person you wish to become. For example, if you are afraid of speaking before groups, imagine that you can easily do so . In your mind’s eye, see the audience members smiling and pleased by your presentation; see yourself confident and fully engaged with your audience. Also, feel the excitement of the audience and your own enthusiasm. Although the language of the conscious mind consists of words, that of the subconscious is made up of images and emotions. So, when you practice visualization, you are actually speaking the language the subconscious understands. Also, the subconscious cannot detect the difference between an imagery activity and an actual one. So, if you imagine being successful, the subconscious will count that as actual experience. Since you have been repeating your negative thoughts to yourself thousands of times, do not expect to change overnight. So, give it some time to work.
7. The above point leads me to my next one; mainly, persist. If you keep practicing visualization, you will eventually experience spontaneous change, for your subconscious will bring about the changes you are programming in your mind.
8. Besides imagining yourself as the person you wish to be, also start acting as if you already possess the qualities you wish to have. This will be easier to do if you pretend you a famous star of stage or screen. You will be surprised to see how much of your power you can unleash, just by visualizing and acting as if.
9. Celebrate your successes by treating yourself to something you want and act as if your new successes are now a permanent part of you.
10. Make the intention to consistently repeat the cycle of positive visualizations, thoughts, feelings and action.
11. Joyfully anticipate many more future successes.
Part 2: Ending the Suffering Caused by Irrational Thoughts
What is it that you want? That’s easy to answer because we all want the same thing: happiness. Since that’s the case, anything we willingly do that robs us of what we want (happiness) is foolish. ‘Irrational’ is just a polite term for ‘foolish.’ How often do we act against our own best interests? How often do we do foolish things? Part of being human is to accept that we are less than perfect and bound to make mistakes. However, whether we experience more happiness than misery, or vice-versa, depends on how we behave after making mistakes.
Whenever we do something foolish, such as arrive late at the office every day, we have a choice. We can admit our error, analyze what we are doing wrong, and correct our behavior. Or we can rationalize. That is, instead of taking responsibility, we may blame others, claim that it is not our fault, or insist that our actions were justified. Whether we are happy or miserable, then, depends on whether we live rational lives or lives of rationalizing.
One proponent of rational living was Dr. Albert Ellis, who originated Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in 1955. Building on the small amount of research in Cognitive Behavior Therapy that existed at that time, he developed a school of psychotherapy that continues to have a profound effect on contemporary thought. For example, Dr. Aaron T. Beck, who is credited with establishing the now popular Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), built on the work of Dr. Ellis. Today, the main spokesman for CBT is Dr. David D. Burns (author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and The Feeling Good Handbook).
Dr. Ellis’ landmark book, A Guide to Rational Living was introduced in 1961. A brilliant writer, he sprinkled his book with wit and wrote it for non-professionals in clear, everyday language. The latest version of his book is entitled A New Guide to Rational Living and is available at libraries and Amazon.com.
The theory and practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) can be summed up by the formula, ABCDE. ‘A’ represents an internal or external ACTIVATING EVENT that triggers a thought and emotional feeling. ‘B’ stands for our BELIEF (attitudes, opinions, and expectations) that color, influence, and shape our thoughts. ‘C’ refers to the emotional and behavioral CONSEQUENCES of our belief about ‘A.’ ‘D’ represents DISPUTE, the act of challenging our thoughts when they are irrational (distorted). ‘E’ is the positive EFFECT that results from challenging our irrational thoughts, for when we change our thoughts, we change our feelings and behaviour.
Our thoughts and feelings are linked, so that negative thoughts go with negative feelings and positive thoughts are accompanied by positive feelings. Our feelings are important, for they are how we experience life. I may have happy thoughts, but happiness is about FEELING happy. That’s enough of an introduction; let’s move on to an example:
My son returns from work or school and goes to his room without saying a word…
This is ‘A,’ the ACTIVATING event. Listed below are five thoughts I may have, depending on my BELIEFS. Next to the thoughts are emotions that are linked to them.
1. “After all I’ve done for him, he doesn’t have the common courtesy to say hello.” —Feeling angry.
2. “Something must have upset him.” —Feeling concerned about his welfare.
3. “He must be angry with me.” —Feeling worried.
4. “He must be upset because this morning I told him he was late for work again.” —Feeling hurt.
5. “He must be lost in thought.” —Feeling compassionate and understanding no loss of happiness.
In thought #1, I believe my son is rude and I feel angry, the CONSEQUENCE of which may be an argument with him. But what if he was innocent? The happiness of two people are jeopardized by my irrational thought (distorted thinking). On the other hand, what if I DISPUTED the thought before flying off the handle? As soon as I felt the anger, I could have paused and asked myself some questions such as, “Am I jumping to conclusions? Can there be an alternative explanation for his silence? Am I unfairly judging him? Since I am his father and not a child, why don’t I take the initiative by greeting him and starting a conversation to learn why he was so quiet?”
Can you see the powerful EFFECT of changing my thoughts? Don’t they also change my behavior and their CONSEQUENCES? The point to remember is that it is not events that determine our thoughts, feelings, and actions, but our interpretation of (beliefs about) that event. You can practice the ABCDE steps with the other four example thoughts. Once you’re comfortable doing so, practice with your own thoughts and watch your life change!
Get into the habit of becoming aware of your feelings before you act. Ask yourself if the feeling you’re experiencing reinforces your happiness or is a thief of happiness. If it is the latter, explore the feeling to find the thought (belief) that is creating it. Then DISPUTE the thought and change it to one that is aligned with your best interest. You will also find it helpful to study what Cognitive Behaviour Therapy refers to as ‘distorted thinking.’ Once you become familiar with the patterns of distorted (irrational) thinking, you will find it easier to detect your own negative thoughts and correct them.
Positive thinking is sometimes misunderstood; it is not meant to be inane or unrealistically optimistic, but a method of changing the thoughts that lead to negative consequences or unhappiness. Positive thinking is realistic, reasonable, and rational. Also, at times it is appropriate to experience anger and other ‘negative’ emotions, for as Dr. Ellis explains:
“… it is the quality of feelings that is important. Experiencing intense irritation and displeasure when things go wrong can motivate you to change frustrating conditions. Feelings of rage, on the other hand, often land you in a smoldering stew, where you’re likely not to take any action at all, or to act in ways that are impulsive and self-defeating. A bit of anxiety or some degree of concern about facing the boss can add an edge of excitement that sharpens performance; excessive anxiety, however, can interfere with thinking and action. While REBT tries to minimize debilitating emotions, that does not mean that it’s unhealthy to experience keen feelings of sorrow or displeasure when you experience misfortune.”
To drum home the ABCDE formula of REBT therapy, let’s look at another example. Example 2 was taken from The EQ Edge, Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, written bySteven J. Stein, Ph.D. and Howard E. Book, M.D.
Bobby and Brenda had been dating ever since her family moved into the neighborhood a year or so earlier. Three months ago, however, Brenda left to attend college in another state. They’d stayed in touch by phone and e-mail, but had enjoyed only one brief visit, when she’d flown back for her sister’s birthday. So Bobby was eagerly awaiting her return for Christmas. Imagine his surprise when he looked out thewindow on December 20, and saw her car parked in the driveway of her house. “Gee, she’s home already,” he thought. “I’m surprised she didn’t stop by.” He sat and waited for the phone to ring, but to no avail.
Later that evening, at the dinner table, Bobby’s father couldn’t help but notice his unaccustomed silence.
“You seem a bit preoccupied,” he said. “It’s like you’re not even here.”
“I’m kind of upset,” Bobby sighed. “Brenda’s been home for hours and she hasn’t called. I’m really worried that she’s lost interest in me. She’s probably found herself another guy. someone at the college. I don’t feel all that much like eating. I’m gonna go to my room.” With those words, he stood up and slouched off.
(This example is mapped out in the following ABCDE diagram.)
Effect of doing A-D
Seeing Brenda’s car in the drive-way; realizing she was home but hadn’t called.
Brenda should have called!
She’s probably lost interest in me.
I bet she found someone else.
I knew this would happen.
Nothing ever works out for me.
I’ll never find anyone like her again.
I feel sad, worried, upset, pessimistic.
I have become withdrawn.
We haven’t been arguing.
She hasn’t been calling me less.
She hasn’t been any less loving.
Perhaps she was tired after her trip and fell asleep.
She might have gone to visit her sister.
Her parents may be taking up all her time.
She might still have the flu.
I’m overreacting; we have a good relationship.
I should call her!
I need to stop being so insecure.
My imagination tends to run wild.
If she lost interest in me, she would tell me.
How do I feel now?
What have I learned?
How will I use what I learned in the future?
Effect of doing A-D
Another valuable tool for overcoming suffering caused by irrational thinking is Byron Katie’s The Work or Self-Inquiry, which you can learn about in the articlefollowing this one.
The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success by Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book
A New Guide To Rational Living by Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapyby David D. Burns
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie
Choose Them Wisely: Thoughts Become Things! by Mike Dooley
by Matthew McKay PhD, Martha Davis PhD, Patrick Fanning
Thoughts Are Things: Turning Your Ideas Into Realities by Bob Proctor and Greg S Reid
How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life by John C. Maxwell