“When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change” ~Wayne Dyer
Recently, I wrote about neuroplasticity and how to use polysensory mental practice as a way to change the structure and function of your nervous system. Today I want to talk about another way to literally change our minds through thought work.
Thought work is the process of consciously changing our thoughts and thought patterns in response to our emotions or circumstances. Thoughts become automatic in ways that we don’t even realize. Research from the National Science Foundation has found that 95% of the thoughts you think each day are the same every day.
According to an article on NPR, “the human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second. But our conscious minds can handle only 40 to 50 bits of information a second. So, as a result, our brains sometimes take cognitive shortcuts.” These shortcuts can cause us to revert to the same thought patterns or the same reactions without ever bringing them to the conscious mind.
Thought work is a deliberate method that helps to bring those unconscious thought patterns to our conscious minds so that we can decide if the thoughts are helpful or something we’d rather change.
Now before I go on and explain how to do this, I want to make sure to make something very clear. There is a BIG difference between thought work and pushing thoughts down or spiritual bypassing.
Pushing thoughts down or pushing them away does not disrupt the unconscious thought patterns and in fact, can help to cement them in place. Pushing thoughts down is a pattern in and of itself, and often comes from believing that you or your thoughts are not valid or appropriate.
Spiritual bypassing is the idea that people who are on the spiritual path or working towards enlightenment should strive towards finding only joy in life and that having “negative vibes” is a sign of an unenlightened mind. I call bullshit on that. We all experience joy, sadness, anger, fear and grief at different points in our life and that is normal, healthy and part of the human experience. Yes, it’s always possible even in the darkest times to find something to be joyous about or grateful for – your child’s smile or some pet cuddles or a beautiful tree – but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t absolutely be experiencing anger, fear, hurt or pain when the shit hits the fan.
Okay, end of rant. Back to thought work!
So, how do you start to do thought work? The first step is to start to observe your thoughts or feelings as they happen. Developing a mental non-partial observer who can witness the thoughts or feelings without judgment is key here. If you find yourself reacting to the thought or feeling, like “I shouldn’t be feeling that way” or “Why do I always get triggered around this?” then you’ve already gone on to the next thought. The trick is to catch the thoughts as they happen and be open to looking at them without judgment.
Here is my step-by-step process to doing this work:
- Identify a feeling, thought, or physical sensation you are having.
- Write one down of those three and then figure out the other two. For example, write down the physical sensation and then figure out what feeling that is and what thought you’re having about that. Or write down the thought and then observe how that makes you feel and where you feel it in your body.
- Look at the thought. Ask yourself if it is true. Would 100% of people on Earth agree that this is true? Can you think of a way of looking at it that would make it not true?
- Ask yourself — is there a stress-free reason to keep this thought?
- Reframe: what’s another thought or belief system I could adopt that would be kinder, healthier or more inspiring?
- Check in with your body and emotions again. Does this thought feel better?
Let me give you an example from my own life. Recently I wanted to ask a family member for a favor. Now, this family member has not been the most generous person in the past and I’ve been hurt by some of our past interactions. My first thought was, “they’ll never say yes and I’ll feel let down, once again.” The body sensation that went with this was tightness and heaviness in my chest, which I identified as hurt and anxiety.
I asked myself if I could be certain that my thought was 100% true. I couldn’t. Perhaps this interaction would be different, or perhaps they’d grown, or I’d grown, and our conversation wouldn’t be the same as it was before. I realized my thought was just one possible outcome and it may or may not have been true.
Then, I asked myself if there was a stress-free reason to keep this thought. The only good reason I could think of to keep the thought was to protect myself from potentially being disappointed again by this person, but that certainly wasn’t stress free. In the end I couldn’t think of a stress-free reason.
I reframed my thought as this, “I am scared of asking for this favor because of past interactions, but I know that if I offer a chance to connect, perhaps it will be different this time. I’ll never know if I don’t ask. And if they don’t say yes, I’ll be okay. I have support systems in place to be able to feel disappointed and make it through.”
Do you see how I didn’t make it all roses and moonbeams? I didn’t push it down as invalid or try to make it full of joy. I still acknowledged the reality that I had been disappointed in the past, but I created a new thought that felt more supportive and caring for myself. I checked in with my body and instead of feeling fear and hurt, I now felt braver and stronger.
And guess what? In the end, they said yes and agreed to do me the favor. Woo hoo!
If you want to know more about how to do each step of thought work and get some practice implementing it with me as your guide and coach, it’s a big part of what we cover in the first module of the Unconventional Tools for Healing group program. If you want to know more, click here and check it out for yourself!