Very often we think about and hear things aimed at helping us get past a sticking point, move forward, alleviate some frustration, anger, sadness, etc. The answers we get often seem obvious: if you are doubting yourself, stop; if you are nervous about approaching your boss for a raise, engage in positive self-talk to gain the needed confidence, then go forth; if you are feeling down over a relationship ending, consider all the new options available to you and understand this is a new start.
As detailed in the previous post, these are the ‘whats’. Ok, great…how??
The ‘hows’ are very different from the ‘whats’ and perhaps more crucial, certainly less obvious.
How do I stop? How do I change what I think? How do I reframe the situation in a way that is persuading to myself? And then, how do I turn thought into action?
There is one method – that of just doing it. How do I exercise more? You exercise more. How do I read more? You read more. This method is perhaps more applicable to patterns of a strictly behavioral nature. But, how do I change the way I think? Change the way you think? It may not be all that obvious to some of us. This is particularly true when changing what you think conflicts with something else that you already think. Confirmation bias is a bitch!
So what about those internal thoughts that we just seem not be able to shake? These lead to behaviors that we just seem not to be able to change.
Perhaps there needs to be a shift to a more basic or more important belief. One that underlies any conflicting thoughts, or one that better fits the situation.
Let’s say you value being right in arguments and you are arguing with your significant other. It will be very difficult for you to refrain from proving yourself right, in the moment. In the mist of an argument, your try telling yourself that being right is not important. It doesn’t work – because you believe that being right is important – and probably due to a myriad of neuropyhsiological happenings! You can’t just change the way you act about being right to not being important because you think differently.
In a more abstract example, try thinking to yourself that the earth is flat (I’m assuming my readers are not flat-earthers). Just because you think this thought, doesn’t mean that you believe it. This is because it’s in conflict with other thoughts, experiences, etc. Here the door opens for an epistemological discussion on what a justified true belief is – perhaps we’ll enter it later. But for now we’re concerned with the idea that in order to adopt a thought there needs to be some cohesion with other thoughts you hold and no glaring inconsistencies, otherwise this new thought will not stick.
One way to help change your thinking and most likely your behavior is to appeal to a more pertinent belief. That belief that you are right in the argument with your significant other? Well, give yourself a pause, and think about your relationship with her (or him). Perhaps there is a more pressing belief – that you should not cause this other person harm. Well, now you can reflect that the current argument is hurting this other person. Suddenly, your belief in being right may not be the most pressing thought.
You are giving yourself a chance to change and hold a different thought, one that doesn’t conflict with the other.
In fact, it now offers a thought-competition with the thought of wanting to be right. The non-harming thought is perhaps a more immediate belief. It may be more immediate just due to the emotional aspect of it and be more pressing given the argument. But now you are not just trying to entertain thoughts that you truly don’t believe. You are generating an alternative thought that either is more pertinent or more basic. Now, you have a means by which to choose what thought you want and its corresponding behavioral change.
It should not go unnoticed that in this example the change in thoughts is also a change from the un-emotional to the emotional. Thinking you are right is not particularly emotional, but concern for harm and vulnerability to harm seems to be. Again the meta-position questions what is more pressing, and the more pertinent takes priority – but only if you allow space for it. Allow yourself to see an alternative way of thinking and now you have a ‘how’ not just a ‘what’.
The allowing of space is very difficult in the moment, so start after the fact.
Once you feel non-reactive, settle down and then stop to process the situation. Maybe it’s later that night or the next day. Creating distance sets yourself up to be successful with this practice. Practice over and over and over and over again. After all we’re changing something, a pattern. Rarely does this happen after one, two or twenty times.
Here we see the further tie-in of patience, self-compassion, discipline – all these things relate to each other, that’s why they come up so often in therapy work! I wish the ‘how’ was a simple, isolated, single-dose of effort. Personally it would save me a lot of unpleasant feelings!