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Just Change Your Thoughts, They Said

Can you really fix your life by fixing your thoughts?

 Thought Catalog/Unsplash
Source: Thought Catalog/Unsplash

“He was mocking me, or so I thought, and I got really upset. I left the room and slammed the door. Later, it turned out his joke had nothing to do with me whatsoever.”

“My boss asked me about my previous employment, and I thought she was questioning my qualifications. I got really nervous and, instead of going out with my girlfriend, spent the entire night perfecting my report. Later, it turned out that the boss was preparing to promote me.”

Thoughts trigger emotions. Emotions drive behavior. To change behavior and emotions, the logic goes, we need to find and replace incorrect thoughts with correct ones. The lady wouldn’t have gotten upset had she not thought that the joke was directed at her. The hard-working employee would have kept his date had he realized that the boss was very satisfied with his work.

The idea that fixing errors in thinking is the cure to difficult emotions and unproductive behaviors—a revolutionary idea just a few decades ago—serves as the cornerstone of cognitive-behavioral therapy, one of the most influential and well-researched psychotherapy approaches. Nowadays, this idea is also being actively promoted by various types of trainers and coaches.

“Change your thinking and lose weight.”

“You are poor because of your thoughts.”

“Ten mistakes in your thinking that prevent you from meeting the love of your life.”

Sound familiar? (If not, you must be doing a really good job ignoring Facebook ads.)

Becoming curious about your thoughts and the way they affect how you feel and act can indeed be worth your while. You do need to see the thought-behavior connection to break it eventually. However, if you hope that identifying and replacing every single “incorrect” thought will free you, once and forever, from unpleasant feelings, you will need to lower your expectations.

Here is why fixing thinking errors is not going to solve all emotional issues in your life.

What if the thought causing uneasy feelings or unproductive behaviors is accurate?

Suppose you are about to read your own poems in front of a big audience. For the first time in your life. And you are afraid that you will embarrass yourself. So afraid you want to cancel.

It’s the thought, “They will say my poems are awful!” that is causing all the trouble with anxiety and self-doubt. How do we fix that? Can you tell yourself that everyone is going to love it? Why should they? Tastes differ.

If it’s your first time, those poems might indeed be not so great (yet!). And if it’s a big audience, by sheer likelihood, there is bound to be at least one jerk who likes to say mean things. So yes, there is a chance someone says the poems are no good.

And what if you are afraid of death? And that fear makes you avoid flying planes, driving cars, and doing a lot of other fun things. The underlying thought is “I am going to die,” and the thought is very accurate indeed. If there is one thing everyone can be sure about, it is that one day they are going to die.

The cure to the avoidant behavior is not changing the thoughts. It is doing what needs to be done despite the thoughts and the accompanying emotional turmoil, regardless of whether what you are thinking is true.

Thoughts cause emotions. And the other way around.

It goes both ways. Our emotional state affects the way we think. For example, this post describes how your mind works when you have anxiety. Under the exact same circumstances, the exact same person may see a disaster when they are anxious and an opportunity when they are calm.

Here is an example. You are a guitar teacher well known in your small town. One day, the coronavirus crisis hits. You and your students are told to stay home. You are in shock. All you can see ahead is personal bankruptcy.

A few days go by, and you feel calmer. A new thought pops up: “Why not open an online guitar school and make even more money teaching people from all over the country?” Now, had the online school idea crossed your mind a few days before, it would not have had a chance of surviving the anxiety storm. “Are you nuts?? Who the heck teaches guitar online?! It’s over!” your anxious mind would have replied.

“Good” thoughts cannot just be planted into your mind. They need the right emotional soil to take root and grow.

What if you haven’t slept or eaten? Or if it is that time of the month?

Thoughts and emotions affect one another. And they both depend on the state of your body.

Any woman of childbearing age, and any person who has ever been in a close relationship with such a woman, can attest to the fact the emotions are hormone-dependent. Sometimes the only viable fix for feeling bad and thinking “distorted” thoughts is just to wait a few days, at which point the thoughts miraculously fix themselves without any effort on your part.

It also helps to eat and sleep. When the basic physiological needs are not met, our emotional state is out of whack—nothing to do with thinking errors. Hunger will trigger a stress response in your brain. (Ever yelled at anyone because you are hungry?) Adequate sleep is vital for healthy emotional regulation.

And one more question. How can you, with all seriousness, work with the content of your thoughts if your thoughts before and after that cup of coffee are completely different, while the objective circumstances have not changed one bit?

So before you set out to examine and challenge your thinking, how about some proper sleep and a nice breakfast? With or without coffee, depending on what caffeine does to your mindset? Personally, I like my thoughts best after one cup of “half-caf.” Yes, that exists, too!

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