“A man is but the product of his thoughts what he thinks, he becomes.”
This simple statement by one of my heroes is probably the cornerstone of my approach in life and in work. Ironically when I first trained as a psychologist and when I first started working with clients, I didn’t really get how profound that statement was. I didn’t really understand that I truly was “creating” my own life through the thoughts both conscious and unconscious I was having. This simple concept was brought home to me again – funny how we grasp things in life and then forget them again – with a young man I have been seeing in counselling. Let’s call him Holden C. We have been in a battle of sorts, he and I. I want him to be happy – I want everyone to be happy actually, I’m right there with the Dalai Lama who says “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” Add “ and free” to that statement and I am there with you, Your Holiness.
Now Holden on the other hand, as he beautifully said in one session, is “more comfortable being uncomfortable” and his form of uncomfortable is being depressed. He also admits that he’s stubborn and in my opinion, he will not give up the depression. It’s become his identity these last few years. Depression is one of the worst traps we human beings can be in. When you are depressed, you feel tired, you lack motivation and concentration, you have all these negative thoughts about yourself, the world and the future and you lose interest in doing things that used to give you pleasure, like social activities and exercise. People don’t want to be around you, because frankly it’s a downer being around depressed people and you don’t want to be around people, even though it actually does make you feel better. However as Holden remarked, it is exhausting “faking it”, pretending that’s it all “happy happy” with other people when in reality things are “crappy, crappy”.
So Holden and I, we have been at a standstill in terms of progress. This week he sits there saying nothing and I sit there thinking “What I am going to say next” and trying to break through that teenage misery. So I offered to teach him about how our thoughts are linked to our feelings and behaviours, and in fact create the life we have. He did the slightest shrug of his shoulders, which I took as assent and so we began. As we started to get into his thoughts, what tumbled out was the one he has been projecting out to me, his parents and the world, and in fact it was the one that was creating his current situation. “I’m useless”, he said. “Who told you that?”, I asked. Another shrug. It turned out no one had ever said that, but he reasoned what else would you call someone who got a TER of 54. I don’t know Holden? Someone who didn’t study? Someone who had a lot going on personally? Someone that wasn’t motivated?
But a university entrance mark, a mere number does not make you useless. Can you be useless? Sure you can and so can I and so could Gandhi. And we can be funny, and stubborn and loving and angry and helpful and depressed and generous and lazy. These are all possible ways of being. But you have a story about yourself that you are useless and you relate to that story like its absolute truth. And when you tell yourself you are useless, you feel miserable and you don’t do anything to feel better, because – here’s another one of your thoughts. “What’s the point?” And those beliefs keep you depressed, sleeping 14 hours a day, directionless, miserable. You don’t want to do anything because “What’s the point, I’m useless” and so it goes on. The thought has become your reality. You see examples of “I’m useless everywhere” and it becomes a vicious circle. You declare “I’m useless” and sure enough you start living into that future, doing things that confirm that belief. And here’s the scary thing. Eventually other people start relating to you like you are useless. Whatever your internal self-image is – you will find it reflected back to you by other people.
So what do you do about that? How do you change that track running continuously in your head of “I’m useless”. Firstly you need to notice it. How you do that? You notice how are you are feeling. Your feelings are a signal as to what’s going on in your head. I have noticed that people often don’t know what they are feeling. Notice your body sensations. Do you feel sick in the stomach? Are your shoulders tense? Are tired? You body will give you clues to what’s going on emotionally. If you notice you are feeling down, or angry or sad, check out what you are thinking. A great practice is to keep a journal and write down what’s running through your head when you are feeling certain emotions. You will begin to notice that there is pattern and that there are particular thoughts associated with these negative emotional experiences.
Once you have noticed the thought, you need to evaluate it. Is it serving you? Is it empowering you? Is it even accurate? I find that we will only give up a thought like “I’m useless when we have connected to the emotion connected to the thought, and really feel the emotion. Typically a thought like “I’m useless” has early origins and is connected to a painful emotional experience. If you can actually heal that emotional pain then it takes the sting and potency out of the thought. In fact you find that you don’t believe that thought anymore and you start creating something else in its place. When I explain this concept to children in primary school I get them to look at the thought as if it was their friend who was having it. What would you say to a friend who thought “I’m useless”. Typically kids are very compassionate when they are relating to it as someone else. Then I suggest, perhaps you could think that way yourself? I sent Holden away to ask a friend what they thought about him as part of challenging the veracity of his “I’m useless” thought.
In an aside, the situation that prompted this thought for Holden was a perceived failure academically. We hate failure don’t we? People will do anything to avoid failure. My hero Gandhi failed to deliver on his goal to get the English out of India. How many of us think of Gandhi and his life as a failure though? Failing does not mean you are a failure. Or useless. Or hopeless, Or pathetic or all of those other things that people say to themselves. I would say that all successful and powerful people have failed at least once and usually more often in their lives. Richard Branson. Benazir Bhutto. Donald Trump. Einstein. What they don’t do is extrapolate from “failing at something” to telling themselves “I am a failure”. I can guarantee that if you continually say to yourself “ I’m a failure” so you will be. The other downside to believing that failing makes you a failure is that you start to live life to avoid failure. Human beings will do anything to avoid failing. And so they so stop trying. Just like Holden. Because “What’s the point?”.
Why send Holden to talk to another person? Firstly talking to another person helps even if you don’t solve anything. Secondly, we are often very hard on ourselves and our thoughts are pretty distorted. Once we say them out loud to another person, we either start to see ourselves or the other person will point out how ridiculous our thoughts are. Third, Holden’s friend is likely to reflect back that rather than finding him “useless”, he is in fact “clever”, funny” and “caring”. So Holden has some ideas then on other possible ways of thinking. The possibilities are endless. I am successful. I am masterful. I am clever. I am funny. We think thousands of thoughts every day. Why not consciously choose to think thoughts that are empowering or inspiring rather than let thoughts just rattle through our heads without any direction or intention. Even though it might feel a little odd at first or an effort, it’s amazing what starts to happen when you start to change your thinking.
In summary, if you are not happy with something in your life, your thoughts may not be in alignment with where you want to go, so take a closer look. What are you feeling about this area? What are you thinking? Once you have identified your thoughts, come up with other possibilities and consciously choose to think these thoughts as often as possible. Notice what a difference this makes to how you feel and the results you get. If you are finding that strong emotions are connected to your thoughts, which make it hard for you think more empowering thoughts, you may find it useful to work through these with a psychologist or counselor. They can support you in this transition process, to help you move on from limiting beliefs and manage strong emotions to consciously choosing your thoughts and taking actions consistent with your thoughts.
Victoria Kasunic is a psychologist, speaker and author who specialises in happiness. To find out more visit her website at www.victoriakasunic.com