"Those who can’t change their minds can’t change anything." — George Bernard Shaw
"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." — John Kenneth Galbraith
Some people can change their minds as easily as they change their clothes. Even when shopping for clothes, they pick one item to buy, then ditch it for another, and wind up buying something completely different. Or they go back and forth about what to order in a restaurant, driving the poor server batty. But where it really counts—changing their thoughts about themselves and their lives—they act as though their minds are anchored in cement. They outright refuse to consider that the thoughts in their heads may only be opinions, not statements of fact.
Thoughts have no power over us apart from the power we bestow on them. They are merely fleeting mental experiences that pass through our mind, making room for the next. But when they get stuck in our mind and are left to rattle around unexamined, they can lead to persistent negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression.
Change a thought, change a feeling. But how do you change your mind about your own thoughts? It starts with becoming mindful of your thoughts and connecting them to your daily experiences. Schedule time with yourself at the end of the day to reflect upon the day’s events by asking yourself questions like the following:
- What happened today that upset me?
- Did someone say something that left me feeling angry or depressed?
- Did something unexpected happen that affected my mood?
- What went wrong today?
Follow up by asking yourself:
- What was going through my mind at the time?
- What was I thinking or saying to myself under my breath?
- What thoughts were bouncing around in my head?
- Whose voice or whose words does it sound like?
Once you get in the habit of examining your thoughts on a daily basis, try catching them as they occur during the day, as discussed below.
When Is a Cause Not a Cause?
Each of us is a personal scientist, trying to figure out the causes of events happening in our daily lives. It’s understandable to perceive a cause-and-effect relationship between events that happen contiguously—that is, connected in time and space.
Let’s say something happens to you and you soon begin feeling _____ (fill in an emotional response). You might make the logical inference that contiguity equals causality, so that if one thing follows another in time and space (daily experiences are followed by emotional responses) they must be causally linked. Ipso facto, events (A) occur and emotional responses (B) follow, so A must be the cause of B.
This form of reasoning is built on the faulty premise that emotional reactions are the direct result of life experiences. But (and this is a big but), we often overlook the intermediate step that connects events to emotions. These missing links in the chain are private mental experiences we call thoughts.
Consider the causal relationship between flicking a light switch and the lights turning on. These two events (flick switch, lights on) are linked together so reliably in time and place that is understandable we draw a conclusion that flicking the switch causes the observed effect (lights turning on). Yet one day you happen to flick the switch and yet nothing happens. Maybe the bulb is blown or maybe there’s a short in the wiring. In a similar way, life events may seem to the direct cause of emotional reactions, as B regularly follows A, but a more complete picture of causation needs to account for the mental wiring under the surface, specifically the thoughts that intercede between life experiences and emotional responses.
The proof in the proverbial pudding comes from the fact that two people may experience the same event but have very different emotional reactions. Or you may have experienced the same event yourself on separate occasions, but had very different emotional responses based on how you thought about each event at the time.
Same event, different effects. I expect you can probably think of examples from your own life of how the same event affected different people in different ways.
Three Key Steps to Changing Your Mind
Thoughts that seem to just pop into our heads are called automatic thoughts. When negative automatic thoughts bounce around in our minds unchallenged, they can trigger a range of negative emotions.
Change a thought, change a feeling — but how? It starts with capturing disturbing thoughts, holding them up to the light of reality, and then substituting more rational ways of thinking by practicing what I call rational back-talk. Let's call this three-step process the SRS method: Stop, Rethink, and Substitute.
Step 1 → Stop
Trying to snatch a thought is like cupping water in your hands. It tends to slip through. To become a thought catcher, get in the habit of scanning what’s on your mind whenever you’re feeling upset, right then and there. Use your feelings as a cue to probe the contents of your mind.
People are usually more aware of what they are feeling (anger or fear is difficult to ignore and for good reason) than what they are thinking. Work backward from the feeling to the triggering thoughts. Say you notice that you’re feeling sad or angry. Ask yourself, what’s on my mind? What was I just thinking? What thoughts are connected to the way I'm feeling?
Stop whatever you are doing and jot down any disturbing thought or thoughts in a diary or notebook. Over time, sort through your collection of disturbing thoughts. Do they fall into predictable patterns, such as thoughts in which you put yourself down, expect something dreadful to happen, exaggerate the consequences of negative events, expect the worst, focus only on the negative, dismiss the positives, heap blame on yourself for other people’s problems, and so on? Find the pattern that fits your way of thinking negatively. Or consult a cognitive-behavioral therapist to help guide you through the process of identifying your personal thought triggers.
Step 2 → Rethink
Hold the thought up to the light of reason. Does it make sense or is it distorted or exaggerated? Am I judging myself too harshly, more harshly than I would judge someone else in the same situation?
Weigh the evidence supporting the validity of the thought and the evidence weighed against it. Prick the thought to see if it holds up under scrutiny. Ask yourself, who says it must be so? Whose voice or whose words does it sound like when I put myself down?
And perhaps most importantly, ask yourself if the thought is working for you (helping you move ahead in your life) or against you (keeping you stuck and feeling miserable). Recognize that no one can make you feel angry (or any other emotion) without your permission. So maybe this time you just won't give your permission.
Step 3 → Substitute
Once you identify and challenge a disturbing thought, change your mind by substituting a rational alternative thought in its place. To get started, let me offer a few examples from my patients of thought substitution, or what I call rational back-talk, which they used to countermand self-angering thoughts and self-statements.
Take back your anger by talking back to your own angering thoughts and self-statements, as in the following examples:
- He's a terrible, disgusting, vile person to do what he did to me.
- I can’t stand being treated like this and I won’t take it.
- People should be punished for things like this.
- I feel awful about myself for letting this happen to me.
- No one ever had to put up with something like this.
- No one should be allowed to treat me like this.
- I just can’t walk away from this like nothing happened.
- He'll think I'm a wimp if I let him get away with this.
Rational Back-Talk to these Angering Self-Statements
- What he did to me was inconsiderate but I shouldn’t condemn him based on one experience. How do I know what he's going through?
- You’ve been through worse than this. Calm down. Don’t blow it out of proportion.
- It’s not up to me to decide who should be punished. I wouldn’t want other people judging me in kind.
- Don’t automatically assume you are at fault. Stop dumping on yourself.
- How do you know what people have had to put up with? Anyway, what possible difference does it make to me what other people have had to put up with?
- Don’t expect others to always have your best interests in mind. He was just acting according to his perceived best interests, not mine. That's just being human.
- Of course you can. When did anger ever settle anything?
- You have nothing to prove. If you let him dictate your actions, you’ll be reduced to his level.
(c) 2019 Jeffrey S. Nevid