So, changing our behavior is one way of improving our sense of well-being. I’m referring to this as a form of self-liberation because we do not have to be shackled to our feelings. We can rise above these in a number of ways. Another way of gaining self-liberation is through changing our thoughts.
According to the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) model (as well as many other older philosophies), it is not a situation itself that results in positive or negative feelings, rather it is our thoughts about situations that give rise to corresponding feelings. Thus, if I view a “C” on an exam as a failure…and believe that this grade means that I’m not that intelligent…and that people won’t like me because they will view me as unintelligent…and that I’ll never get a decent job because my GPA is not good enough…then it is likely that I will experience feelings of sadness and distress at getting a C. However, if I view a C on an exam as satisfactory and just a reflection of the limited effort that I put forth on the exam…and that most people won’t know or care whether I got a C or an A+ on an exam…and that it will in no way hinder me from achieving my goals…then it’s likely that my emotions will not be influenced much by that grade.
The way we think about things is often a result of conditioned patterns that develop from our experiences. Perhaps our parents told us that anything less than an A is totally unsatisfactory and that we’ll never amount to anything unless we get As. Those thoughts then become our self-talk or “voice in the head” that repeats these negative messages in particular situations. These thoughts are often “automatic” and basically unconscious. They reside just below our conscious awareness. However, when we turn our conscious awareness on our thoughts, we can then examine the content.
When we examine the content of these negative thoughts, we will often find that they are distorted in some way. Distorted thoughts give rise to distorted feelings. As the cliche goes, do we see the glass as half empty or half full? When the significant other breaks up with us, are there more fish in the sea or will we never love this way again? You can see that our perceptions have a tremendous power over our emotions. In fact, you could say that our perceptions dictate our emotional responses. If I’m opening my closet, and I think a tiger is in there, my body is going to kick into fight or flight mode. It doesn’t matter if there’s not really a tiger in there, as long as I think there might be, my body will react as if there is one. Our physiological and emotional reactions respond to the mind’s “what ifs” as “what is.”
Importantly, with some practice, we can become more and more aware of these distorted thoughts. Often we can use strong, negative emotional reactions as a cue to examine the content of our minds. Our conscious awareness can help us create space between our thoughts. Thus, we start to learn that our thoughts are not necessarily true, and we can change these thoughts. When we change the thoughts about situations, we also change our emotional/physiological reactions to those situations.
The downside to trying to change thoughts is that it can be quite challenging at times. The pull of the old ways of thinking become deeply entrenched over time…it’s almost as if there is a gravitational pull toward the old patterns. Many times in therapy I’ve had clients recognize that their old thought patterns are distorted but say they can’t help thinking and reacting to their dysfunctional thoughts. One of the inherent problems of trying to change thoughts is that it is easy to get lost in these thoughts…and the more we try not to think in these old patterns, the more we sometimes do.
This goes back to what I quoted from Dr. William Glasser in my last blog, that “It is easier to act your way into a different way of thinking than to think your way into a different way of acting.” If I tell you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant no matter what,” you will immediately…and almost obsessively…start to think of pink elephants. In fact, about the only way you will be able to dislodge pink elephants from your brain is to engage in an activity that is so engrossing that pink elephants are squeezed right out.
This is not to say that changing thoughts through the application of the CBT model (of which there are many strategies) doesn’t work. On the contrary, there is much research…and my professional experiences with clients…to support that it can be tremendously effective. It’s just that changing thought distortions is not the only way to improve our well-being – it is just a way.
So, changing distorted thoughts is one way of improving our well-being. It works great for many people and through practice, we can become better at it. However, for some people tinkering with their thoughts either perpetuates the problem (e.g., being in their heads too much, swept away by thinking) or provides no symptom relief.
There is another way to enhance our sense of well-being that is neither changing our actions nor changing our thoughts. It is by being rather than doing or thinking. I’ll cover this more in my next post.