How to Change Your Thoughts

There are always lots of different thoughts you can have about any given situation.

Beliefs/thoughts are often formed in childhood. Up until around age 6 we cannot filter the information we get from the world around us. It all goes directly into our sub-conscious as a belief. At that age most of our information is acquired by watching and listening to the people around us. If that information teaches us that yelling is the way to get what we want, or that we always treat babies gently, then these things will be in our sub-conscious as blue-prints for how to think.

But our minds are like computers and need up-dates from time to time, otherwise our thinking becomes inefficient and inaccurate. For example, when we are young, we probably have a belief that we need to hold an adults’ hand when we cross the road. If we did not up-date that belief as we got older, our life would be a bit limited.

Some of the beliefs that we arrive in adulthood with, are not based on reality, nor are they serving us well. But unless we stop and examine them, and test them for truth, we will not change them. These beliefs might include things such as

  • I am the victim of events/people,
  • I am not attractive enough,
  • I am helpless,
  • I am not good enough,
  • I need lots of money to be happy,

and so on. The list is endless.

The first step in examining our own thoughts is to recognise what we are actually thinking. This takes us out of automatic, reactive mode. It gives us a chance to objectively observe our own thoughts. This is a three-part process.

  1. Identify the event that we are thinking about. Maybe the event is, preparing to get in the car and go to work (for example). Get a pen and a piece of paper and write this down.
  2. Now identify what thought is going through our mind at this point. Maybe the thought is, the drive to work is killing me, I hate it. Write this down.
  3. Now identify how this thought is making us feel. In this case it may be that we feel anxious. Write this down.

What we will now have are 3 things written down;

  1. The event (preparing to get in the car to go to work)
  2. The thought (the drive to work is killing me)
  3. The feeling that follows the thought (anxious).

Step two is to take the thought and analyse it for truth and reality. In the case above, the thought was, the drive to work is killing me. Obviously, the thought is not actually true. We are not dying because we drive to work. What might be closer to the truth is, most days I am not enjoying the drive to work.

*Please note that some thoughts are easier to analyse than others. And sometimes it takes work and time to come up with an alternative thought that you believe to be true, and which also serves you well.

What we are looking for is a true thought about the situation that uses an “I” statement. The reason we use an “I” statement is that we are then taking control of our own thoughts about the event or circumstance.  And instead of being powerless, we now have choices. In this example we can now ask ourselves what we can do to make the drive more enjoyable. We have given ourselves control over whether we enjoy the drive or not. We are no longer a victim who is helpless to change what is happening to us.

The third step to change a thought is practise. Whenever we get ready to drive to work, we need to practise thinking the new thought instead of the old one. This sounds easy but it takes time and effort. Our brain is wired to resist change. It has been on automatic pilot for years using the previous thought. Now it will take 30 – 90 days to start a habit of thinking something else.

Part of cementing this change is to notice the change in our feelings, when we change the thought. For example, when our thought was the drive is killing me, we were telling our subconscious mind that we were dying when we drive to work. The subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between a true statement and a false statement. Therefore, it was believing there was a serious threat to our life every time we drove to work, and what’s more, we were helpless to resist the threat. This led to us feeling anxious and probably powerless.

Whereas, if we change the thought to most days I don’t enjoy the drive to work, then we can start to find ways to improve the quality of the drive. Maybe we can start listening to motivational podcasts while driving, or playing our favourite songs, or find someone to share driving with. Our feelings should then shift from being anxious to some other emotion. Maybe to uneasy or a little bit nervous. These are not great emotions, but they are better than feeling anxious.

Over time we would hope that the thought would change to sometimes I don’t enjoy the drive to work, and the feeling would just be acceptance.

Written by Lynda Timperley. Btch, Dip Psych, Cert Life Coaching

Acknowledgement: Brooke Costillo: Her model of Circumstance, thoughts and feelings.

John W Santrock: His book, Essentials of life span development for developmental stages.

Dr Danial G Amen: His book. Change your brain, change your life.

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