Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You are what you think all day long.” As a therapist, I’ve tried to teach clients that their thoughts profoundly impact their moods and shifting emotions, their behavioral choices, their self-confidence, the healthy risks that do or don't get taken, and their feelings of self-worth and self-esteem in all arenas of life. Countless common thoughts can have a negative and lasting impact. Below I share three of them and explore the ways in which changing those thoughts can lead to positive life changes.
1. "I'm afraid — therefore I can't."
It’s amazing how easily being afraid translates into “There’s no point in trying or believing that success can be achieved.” A very bright and talented client was repeatedly offered a promotion within his organization. Although he wanted to move up the ladder, he kept turning down the opportunity because he was afraid to speak in large groups and knew that would be part of the job. So I introduced a concept designed to change his thinking: Be afraid and do it anyway. This created a space for him to consider the idea that the fear didn't have to hijack moving ahead in life. Now he could be open to addressing, confronting, and working with his fear — rather than making decisions to simply avoid the thing that evoked it. He went to Toastmasters to learn basic public speaking skills, and we role-played them in session. We practiced breath work to calm his system, guided imagery to imagine success, and positive self-talk to celebrate small steps forward — and he was able to work through the fear and take the promotion.
2. "I'll never find anything or anyone better; this is as good as it gets."
Countless men and women apply this mindset to unhappy relationships and dead-end jobs. One client had been in a long-term relationship and was clearly not getting her needs met, but she was afraid that no one better would come along, or that she wouldn’t be okay if she wasn’t in a relationship. This translated into “Therefore, I have to settle.” The new thought we introduced in therapy was, I don't have to settle, and I don't have to settle, and I don't have to put a glass ceiling on hos good things can be." We then focused on the standards she held for friends who were dating, so she could begin to hold to those same, higher standards in her own relationships. If she wouldn’t encourage her friends to settle, why should she? This, combined with work on ego strengthening and raising self-esteem, enabled her to end the relationship. She stayed single and discovered she could be fine on her own. In fact, her life became much more fulfilling when she started to reclaim all the things she had put to the side to accommodate her partner.
3. "I made my bed. Now I have to lie in it."
Many families and cultures promote this idea, especially in older generations. Once you’ve made a choice, the thinking goes, you can’t deviate from it or change your mind. To do so is associated with “giving up,” “weakness,” or “failure.” One client came to therapy because he had been an attorney for almost 30 years and hated his career. He chose it to please his father, who was also an attorney. He knew from the start that nothing about the work resonated with his “truest self,” but once he committed to law school and then a firm, he felt trapped. His new thought became, "Deciding to make a change is a sign of courage and strength, and it's my right to do so." This gave him permission to listen to his own inner wisdom — and it didn't take long for him to realize that what he always wanted to do was teach high-school history. He gathered his courage, let his partners buy him out of the firm, ignored all the naysayers, and for the last two years, he’s been teaching in a private school and has never been happier.
Learn more about shifting negative thoughts to positive ones in my book, Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons From the Therapist’s Couch.