“We are what we think. All that we are arises from our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world”. The Buddha
This is a day in the life of Zoe. Zoe is 37 years old, mother of 2 beautiful children and lives in London with her partner. Today is Zoe’s big day. She is going to interview for her dream role. Zoe is a writer and a journalist and had taken a few years off work after having her children. She is now ready to go back. Prior to today, she spent months looking for the right publication, the appropriate roles, sending in her applications and waiting for the call back. Two weeks ago, she heard from a great publication and was asked if she could go in for an interview and meet with a few people. Zoe spent the last many days preparing for her interview, getting her portfolio in order and was ready to face this challenge.
Zoe is excited about what today can bring. She drops the kids off to nursery, and is ready to jump on the tube, but when she gets to the station realises that the tube has severe delays. She panics. Her immediate thoughts –“ I’m such an idiot. I should have checked again if there are any delays on the tube. I am going to be so late and never get this job. I can’t get one thing right. Why does everything go wrong for me? I’m so unlucky and so damn useless.” Zoe eventually gets a cab, reaches her interview just on time but is flustered. What are her feelings at this point – anger, sadness, frustration. What consequences do these thoughts and feelings have on her action - the preparation and work she’s put in for the last 2 weeks goes out the window as Zoe brings her angry, frustrated self to the interview. The question is - Where did that smart, confident, competent Zoe go? The truth is we’ve all been in Zoe’s shoes multiple times, be it at work, home or relationships – blaming events, having unhealthy thoughts and negative feelings that ultimately result in poor action.
So this brings me to my topic of today - Thinking on Purpose. If you want to take away one golden nugget from this post my friends, then this is it. Events are neutral. Our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings drive our action and actions create our results (positive or negative) Let’s break that down.
Events: Events just happen – from the time we wake up in the morning to when we go to bed. Events can be big, small or even internal experiences. We have no control over events or external circumstances. Very often we think that its events that drive our feelings and actions, while in fact it’s our thinking.
Thoughts: The same event can be processed and experienced differently by different people. While we have no control over our events, we have absolute control over our thoughts – what we think of the event and what it means. Most of the time, thoughts are so fast that we don’t even know that it’s happening. But if thoughts are so powerful and we have control over them, then how can we get in charge of them?
Self-Awareness: The main reason, we feel we don’t have control over what we are thinking is because we are not aware. Self-awareness is the first step to identifying thoughts. Most of us work on autopilot – we get into a pattern and do what we do without actually thinking or being aware. Its important to get mindful of the mind and ask ourselves why we think the way we think. After an event, we can ask ourselves – “what just happened”, “what am I thinking about now”, “what do I want to do?”
Identification: Once you get more aware of your thoughts, its absolutely critical to check if you are having a healthy thought or an unhealthy thought. Healthy thoughts are rational, productive and inspire healthy actions. Unhealthy thoughts are cognitive distortions and often are irrational. It makes you feel bad and leads to negative behaviour. In Zoe’s case her thoughts were unhealthy – overgeneralisation (“why does everything go wrong for me, I am so unlucky”), name-calling (“I’m such an idiot…so damn useless”); catastrophising (“I am going to be so late and never get this job”). These thoughts created a negative spiral leading to negative feelings and ultimately poor results.
Shifting: Once we have identified our thoughts as healthy or unhealthy we can then start the process of shifting. This is deep work that requires advanced skills. I would recommend working with a life coach or look for other resources including books, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to help you with this change work.
So, my friends, here’s the mantra:
Events + Thoughts = Feelings --------Action
I’ll leave you with a small exercise. Try this for the coming week:
Step 1: Pick an event that happened last week. It can be big or small.
Step 2: Write down what your thoughts were when that event occurred. Were they healthy or unhealthy thoughts? Rational or irrational?
Step 3: Your thoughts brought about feelings. What were they?
Step 4: What action did you take and how did your thoughts and feelings influence your action?
TIP: If you find this exercise useful, keep a thought journal and fill it at the end of each day. This will help you get more self-aware of thoughts, and its impact on feelings and action. Remember, thoughts are really powerful. Taking charge of your thoughts can help you take charge of your feelings and actions.