First, a disclaimer: The practice of changing your thoughts takes a lot of work.
Confronting our own thoughts and beliefs can be very uncomfortable. But, the practice can have a powerful positive effect on your life. It can give you perspective, increase your joy, and increase your resilience. You’ll have to decide if you’re willing to do the work, if the benefits are worth the effort for you. If you prefer your life’s status quo, or for whatever reason are afraid to or unwilling to put in the work to change your life, there’s no need to continue reading.
Why I’m writing this post
I decided to do a post and video about this topic because it’s made a huge difference in my life and I’ve become pretty good at it, but I realized not that many people practice it. So I want to share it with others so they can reap the benefits as well. The last few months I got excited about speakers that I thought were going to explain it (then I could just share their presentation instead of writing all of this out myself!), but the speakers either oversimplified the practice or way over complicated it compared to how I would explain it.
I’m not sure exactly where I learned this process. I think it was a combination of speakers, books, personal therapy, and trial and error. (Side note: going to therapy is a sign of strength, not weakness. If we’re afraid to go to therapy or afraid to tell people we’re in therapy because of what people will think, we’re contributing to the stigma of it. Therapy may not work for some people, but 100% of the therapy we don’t go to doesn’t work, so I’ll take my chances with actually going. It’s worked extremely well for me so far.)
I’m just sharing my personal experience based on what I’ve learned through practice. I don’t have any sort of degree or accreditation in psychology. All I’m doing is sharing what has worked for me in hopes it could help others.
When to approach this practice
I usually practice what I’ll refer to as “thought control” at two different times: during personal reflection time, or during times of crisis or hardship (sometimes these times co-occur). Now, if you don’t have a practice of personal reflection time (prayer, meditation, sabbath, purposeful rest), I highly suggest starting. The benefits of personal reflection time and how to incorporate it into your life could be a whole separate blog post, I won’t go into them now. This might be where you stop reading because just the thought of thinking about starting a personal reflection time seems like too much work. You may believe that you do not have time for a personal reflection time, but I would suggest that what you really mean is that it is not a priority for you and/or you do not believe the benefits are worth it. Fit it in, even if it means waking up in the morning before all your distractions start.
What is thought control?
My understanding is that this practice in modern psychology is called cognitive behavioral therapy and it’s considered best practice in the industry. Spiritually, the Bible calls this practice “taking thoughts captive” (2 Cor 10:5).
One of my counselors shared with me a graphic like this to explain it (I found a different version on google and pasted it here). It shows how our thoughts, feelings, and actions are related to each other. This post is going to focus mostly on the thoughts section of the triangle.
For example, consider the thought or belief, “I am a failure.” When we walk through life with that belief or recurring thought (one speaker I heard called these types of recurring thoughts the repeating “ticker tape” in our mind), how does it make us feel? Confident? Happy? Positive? Not so much. More likely: defeated, inadequate, sad. When we feel defeated, inadequate, sad, do we do things like try new positive things, act lovingly, persevere? Not usually. It usually leads to negative behavior that reinforces the negative thought and continues the destructive cycle…
How to apply this idea to your life
- I usually begin the process of thought control when I recognize a negative feeling. For example, I wake up in the morning dreading the day, rather than excited to tackle or enjoy it; or I come home from an event feeling “blah.” As soon as I have time to reflect, I ask myself “why do I feel this way?” This time of reflection can be in the car, in the shower, or during scheduled, focused personal reflection time (recommended)–just whenever your heart is still. Figuring out why we feel the way we do is not an easy task. It does get easier with practice.
- Eventually, I can track my feeling back to a thought or a belief. This can take minutes, hours, or days for me, depending on the circumstances and how focused I am on determining the cause of my feelings.
- Once I’ve determined the thought pattern that is causing my feeling, I examine the thought pattern. Usually I can do this process in my head, but for really sticky thought patterns, it helps to write out my thoughts and feelings. In examining the thought pattern, I challenge it. I question it like I’m a cop interrogating a suspect. The biggest question I ask is “Is this true and rooted in reality?” Often, I tap into my spiritual faith to help me compare my thoughts to truth. Ie: “what is the spiritual perspective on this? What does God say about this?”
- A. If the thought is true and rooted in reality, but still a negative thought that manifests negative feelings, thoughts, and behavior, I consider different, more positive ways to frame that thought that are in line with truth. Sometimes I consult other, wise people if I can’t come up with more positive frames for the thoughts on my own (I may do a seperate blog post on how to find these trustworthy people cuz that’s also a topic in and of itself).
- If the thought is not true, I identify thoughts that are true with which I can replace it.
- Once I’ve got either a reframe or replacement for the original thought, I meditate on that new, truthful, positive, different thought pattern. I think about it, the new, positive, encouraging implications of it, and let them sink in. And I remind myself to catch the old, negative thought pattern when it pops up again throughout the rest of the day or week and commit to replacing it with the new pattern I’ve established. And then I continue on with my day feeling lighter, happier, and freer! The image below shows a simplified workflow of this process and the example below it explains how behavior and physical feelings are tied into all of this.
Here’s a “for instance”. This isn’t a strict prescription, but just an example of how it could go down.
I realize I’m feeling physically bloated and low energy. I’ve been staying home more often than not, avoiding having my photo taken, and dread confronting my wardrobe in the morning because nothing seems to look good. Emotionally, I feel sad and disappointed. My posture is hunched over and heavy, rather than tall and open.
I track these feelings back to the thought, “I am fat.”
I examine these thoughts and realize they’re also affecting my marriage because they’re associated with the thought pattern “I’m ugly. I’m not good enough for my husband. I don’t deserve him. He should just leave me. Why would he want me?”
I challenge the thought patterns: am I really, actually overweight? Maybe not: maybe I’m as fit as I’ve ever been. I’m just having a weird day and getting out of the house and moving, adding a new accessory to my wardrobe, and/or taking some other action of self-care will make me feel less lethargic. I decide to let go of the “I am fat” thought and replace it with “I am strong and fit.”
Conversely, maybe after some tough examination, I realize that I actually am overweight. No matter how much I tell myself “I am strong and lean,” but continue the habits leading to my weight gain, I’ll still be in the same situation. To believe otherwise is the cliche definition of insanity-doing the same thing, but expecting different results. Then it’s a matter of coming up with a plan to address the reality–I can accept being overweight or I can do something about it.
Then I challenge the related thoughts about my marriage. I decide they’re not true. In reality, I’m not ugly and my husband loves me for who I am, not just my appearance. I remind myself of all the reasons I know this is true, all the ways my husband demonstrates to me that he loves me. This makes me feel more confident, which has an effect on my physical posture. In my body, I feel warmer and stronger.
We are responsible for our own thoughts
Say that I had been feeling fat because someone had led me to believe I was, by their words or actions. I do not have to accept other people’s thoughts about me any more than I have to accept my own thoughts about me!
If we believe that someone else is responsible for our negative feelings, here’s how I suggest responding:
First, challenge the thought! For example, your belief may be “I’m fat because last night Sarah made a comment about my legs!” But, when you compare this thought to reality, you realize maybe Sarah really was trying to compliment you, but you misunderstood it. Many of us often interpret other people in correctly or assume we know what they’re thinking or feeling. Change the thought accordingly, perhaps to “That was nice of Sarah to compliment me. I’m grateful for her,” or “I’m sure Sarah didn’t mean anything by it. I’ve got too much going on today to worry about what she may or may not think about my legs!”
Second, decide if you want to allow that person to be responsible for your feeling. Using the same example, maybe–regardless of if she meant her comment as a pejorative or not, maybe Sarah is a jerk and not a person whose opinion you value. A good course of action would be to remind yourself not to care what she thinks and let it go: “Who cares what Sarah thinks? I like how I look!” Or, if you choose, stand up for yourself and ask Sarah to treat you with more respect.
Third, if you realize that you’re not able to let go of how someone makes you feel, you can remove yourself from the situation. This is another form of standing up for yourself and can be paired with a request for being treated differently.
I highly recommend the book “Boundaries” by Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend when it comes to making these decisions about someone who really affects your feelings.
A “for instance” of how to use thought control during a hardship.
Many of us are more susceptible to negative thoughts, feelings and actions when we feel we’re in a crisis or hardship, or when something doesn’t go the way we want. The more we practice thought control in easy times, the more natural it will be, like second nature, in hardship. Read my son’s story at CristinaMcDonald.com/maverick to learn how my husband and I used thought control when our infant son was fighting for his life to battle thoughts like “This is all our fault,” “We’re alone in this struggle,” “This is going to destroy us,” or “God has let us down.”
So, there you have it.
I’ve provided an explanation of thought control, why it’s beneficial, how to do it, and examples of what it may look like. I hope you find this helpful. Happy thinking!