Historian and writer Will Durant once said: “we are what we repeatedly do”. This quote has always resonated with me as it eloquently summarises the sheer power our habits have to shape our lives as a whole. If this is true, then we need to pay attention to what we choose to do daily, but is focusing on external behaviours only addressing half of the issue?
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) we take a two-part approach, by not only exploring the power of daily behaviours, but also the power of our daily thinking habits. We know certain activities make us feel better (e.g.: exercise, restful sleep etc.) and that some make us feel worse (e.g.: sedentary lifestyle, alcohol, and drug use etc.) but in addition to that, what if you regularly have critical thoughts about yourself, catastrophise about the future or constantly believe others think badly of you? It’s likely that this repeated habit is also going to shape the view you have of yourself and others.
To demonstrate the power of our thoughts, take this example: someone is walking down the street and spots a friend on the other side of the road. They smile and wave at them but the friend walks by without responding. This person thinks “I must have done something wrong, they don’t like me”, which makes them feel sad and rejected. Now, let’s say this exact same situation happens to another two separate individuals. The second person thinks “they must not have seen me” and moves on with their day unchanged. Finally, the third person thinks “my friend looked preoccupied, I hope they are ok”, so they feel concerned and call their friend later that day to check in.
The key here is that the situation remained the same in all three cases, but it was the individuals’ thoughts that changed their response and their mood. In other words, whilst we can’t always change the situation or trigger that causes feelings of anxiety, low mood, low self-esteem and so on, we do have more power and control to change how we respond to those triggers. Eckhart Tolle, author of “The Power of Now”, summarised this in his quote: “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it”.
So, what can we do about it?
The first step is to identify your thoughts and the emotional impact they are having on you. The next time you feel a big shift in your mood, try to pinpoint the thoughts you were having just beforehand – it can be surprising how tricky this is to do at first! But like any new skill, the more you do it, the easier and more natural it will become.
Secondly, you need to start challenging your thoughts. We all have a tendency to see our thoughts as facts, and believe them unquestioningly. Usually, however, our thoughts are made up of opinions, assumptions and interpretations, and therefore can be wrong. A good question to begin asking yourself is: “is this thought a fact or an opinion?”. By just taking this step you will be able to put some distance between you and your thoughts. Over time, instead of thinking “I’m not good at anything”, you might start realising “my thoughts are telling me I’m no good at anything, but this isn’t necessarily true”.
Finally, it is important to work on our compassionate voice. Our critical voice is very good at being heard and making us believe what it says, but often our compassionate voice is reserved solely for others. To combat this, you can ask yourself: “what would I say to a friend going through something similar?” or “what would my friend/loved one tell me if I was saying this to them?”.
Changing our thought-process is not a quick fix, and it can take a lot of practice before we start to see changes. Like working a new muscle in the gym, we need to train our brains over a period of time to notice a significant difference. This is something you can start doing yourself today, but often people find it helpful to have somebody to guide them through the process.
In my 1:1 and group coaching sessions I use the principles of CBT to help you identify the behaviours and thoughts that are keeping you stuck, and work together to challenge and replace them over time. There may be things in our lives we cannot change, but having more control over our responses will lay the foundations for increased resilience, wellbeing and clarity towards life’s ups and downs.