First off, a big thank you to all who offered words of encouragement following my last blog post, and a special shout out to those who shared it with others. I was touched that the post seemed to resonate. If living in a world without sadness or pain isn’t an option, then the next best thing is knowing that we’re in this together, especially given how commonly we isolate ourselves when we’re struggling. We so readily leap to self-blame and shame, assuming that we must be “doing it wrong” because everyone else seems to be sailing through without a care in the world.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that much of the coaching work I do with clients centers on normalizing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are universal. We all procrastinate. We all have insecurities. We all have days when things don’t go as planned. Yet many of us mistakenly attribute these experiences directly to our own shortcomings or failings rather than just chalking them up to life. The resulting damage to our mental and emotional wellbeing can be tremendous. All this because we’ve fabricated a story and arbitrarily deemed it a fact. Ugh.
Luckily, there is a fairly simple technique that I’ve found remarkably helpful when dealing with perceived adversity and the associated stress. Although it takes continued practice (like everything), it’s relatively easy to implement.
What might this elegant solution be, you ask?
Five words: Stop believing everything you think.
If this edict alone is sufficient for you, awesome! No need to keep reading… just get out there and enjoy your fantastic life! If you’re looking for a little more guidance, I’ve outlined the basic steps I use below. You can try these any time you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or otherwise upset. As always, please adopt the strategies that work for you and simply leave the rest behind. There's no way to do this wrong. No opportunities for negative self-judgment here.
First, stop what you’re doing and take a moment to identify your thoughts. What story or stories are you telling yourself about the situation? Don’t worry if you can’t immediately pinpoint them… some thought patterns are so automatic and ingrained that they’re difficult to identify. This will get easier with practice. If you do find that there is a particular story you seem to tell yourself over and over, you might give it a label, e.g., this is my “students don't respect me” story. Recognizing these habitual patterns is the first step towards releasing them.
Next, get curious and dig a little deeper. Ask yourself one or more of the following questions, based on work by Martin Seligman (outlined in Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Change Your Life), Byron Katie, and Victoria Castle:
Is the story you’re telling yourself true? Can you be absolutely certain that it’s true?
Is there any other way to view the situation, i.e., are there any other stories you could tell yourself instead? (Hint: The answer is almost always yes.)
What evidence can you find in support of your thought? What evidence can you find against it?
Might the opposite of the thought you’re having actually be as true or truer than your original thought?
What happens if your story is correct? How will you deal with the implications?
How do you feel when you believe the thought?
Whether or not the story is accurate, is it useful?
Who would you be without the thought?
Using questions like these to chip away at negative thought patterns can take time and effort. Still, I think you’ll find that even weakening their grip slightly can lead to a significant boost in confidence, energy, and motivation. That’s certainly been my experience.
Finally, when you’re ready, upgrade your stories. Although we can’t do away with our stories completely—how would we make sense of the world without them?—we can replace them with new and improved versions. We’re making all of this up anyway… why not choose a helpful story rather than a harmful one?
So the next time you’re getting curious about a negative thought, I challenge you to try replacing it with most uplifting, inspiring alternative you can conceive of. I bet that I’ll be able to see you beaming from here. :)