Jerry Waxler Home
Self-help for Writers
Memoir Web Home
Events and Workshops
Survival Guide Home
by Jerry Waxler
Our thoughts have a profound affect on our emotions, and by learning how to
think in our own best interest, we improve our emotional condition. We
may not realize our thoughts affect our feelings. Most of us assume it's
the other way around; that our feelings come first and our thoughts naturally
follow. But as we watch the relationship between thoughts and feelings
we begin to recognize that the influence works both ways. For example,
our thoughts may habitually emphasize first and foremost the discouraging
side of every situation, or compulsively predict a catastrophe at the
end of every pleasant moment. Such gloomy thinking drags our feelings
into the dumps.
The fact that thoughts affect feelings is good news, because we can review
our thoughts, talk about them, compare them with other people's thoughts,
decide if we agree or disagree with our own thoughts, and so on. We don't
have anywhere near as much access to our emotions as we have to our thoughts.
The part of our brain that gives us the ability to think, called the
prefrontal cortex, is what makes the human brain so specialized, and distinguishes
us from other animals. By using our thoughts to refine and guide our emotions
we are maximizing our human potential.
But while it's possible to change thoughts, it's not easy. We've been
under the influence of our thoughts for so long that we're not aware of
the general tone of our thinking, nor do we realize we have choices. Even
when we begin to notice the connection between our thoughts and feelings,
we may not believe we can change them.
Time for change
To change the things we think, we must expose them to conscious scrutiny.
Keeping a journal exposes what we are thinking, and enables us to more
deeply understand our own thoughts and to make conscious decisions about
them. Talking to a counselor also helps us recognize old patterns and
consider new options.
Elaborate trap of habitual thinking patterns
As we learn more about our thinking patterns, we realize our thoughts
can trap us into strong negative emotions. For example, it is common to
blame another person's behavior for our own feelings. We might say to
ourselves that the other person "makes us depressed" or "upsets
us." Cognitive therapy helps us reframe our thoughts to realize that
the other person doesn't magically control our feelings. We make ourselves
depressed through our own beliefs.
When we look more closely at our beliefs about other people we realize
that we often expect them to place us at the center of their world. We
learned to think in these magical terms when, as children we believed
we were the center of the universe, and we expected our parents to know
our needs and give us what we wanted. These, and other childish beliefs,
persist unchallenged into our adult life, continuing to disturb us, until
we take the time to root them out and correct them.
For example, we may have formed the notion that another person is supposed
to know what we want, and then is supposed to behave accordingly. This
belief sets us up to become upset and troubled when the other person doesn't
behave in the way we expected. By saying the other person upset us, we
give all the power to the other person. Upon closer consideration we realize
that we were upset by our own belief about the other person's behavior,
rather than the behavior itself. When we look at it this way, we can find
ways to reclaim control over our feelings.
Cognitive therapy is a rich, productive perspective that helps us learn
about the habits of our mind. From Norman Vincent Peale's "Power
of Positive Thinking" to Dr. David Burns' "The Feeling Good
Handbook" many self-help books spell out the way we use thoughts
to upset ourselves, and suggest ways to replace these habits with more
productive ones. Here are some insights that help release us from negative
One of the most common ways we inflame our feelings is to use a label
to describe someone. When we say, "you jerk," or, "what
an oaf" we pin an emotionally charged label on someone else or on
ourselves. A label limits our options, making us feel helpless, depressed
or anxious. Once we accept the label "jerk" we have no where
We can lift our spirits by describing situations more accurately. Say,
"I'm having a bad day" or "Everyone makes mistakes."
Such statements take more work than automatic labels, but when we use
forgiving phrases instead of emotionally charged labels, we'll tune down
our bad feelings, and increase our optimism and cheer.
We filter our observations of the world through our own beliefs. We may
tend to focus on any information that agrees with our perspective and
to ignore information that disagrees with our belief. By selectively filtering
out the things on which we focus, we continually give ourselves supporting
"proof" that our belief is a correct reflection of the way the
world "really is." For example, if we have low self-esteem,
we may tend to only hear criticisms, while ignoring praise. To break this
gloomy habit, we need to make the effort to see and reflect on evidence
from both sides.
When someone treats you unkindly, you may say to yourself, "He never
considers my feelings" or "he is always rude." Words like
"never" and "always" ignore all the exceptions and
focus only on the negative point we are trying to make. If we look carefully
we realize that the person or situation actually has a variety of positive
and negative aspects. Instead of generalizing, we should select words
that remind us that the offending situation is just one episode. Instead
of "never" or "always" say, "in this situation."
By looking more closely at the actual situation you are in a better position
to respond appropriately, without escalating unproductive feelings.
Reality can turn out to be black, white or any shade in between. But often
we convince ourselves that if we can't have it all, we can't have anything.
For example, if I can't be first in my class, why bother studying at all,
or if I can't be as thin as a model, why bother controlling my eating,
or if my lover doesn't give me everything I want, she doesn't love me
at all. This type of thinking creates expectations neither we nor others
can ever meet, and so we are inevitably disappointed.
"Should" statements and beliefs
We believe that someone should behave towards us in a certain way, and
when that person behaves differently we become angry, disappointed, depressed,
etc. But we are the ones who created that rule. While it would be nice
if everyone focused on us and pleased us, this is not the law of the world.
We can become much healthier when we realize that other people are motivated
by a whole range of causes, and that their behavior towards us is not
controlled by our rules. Accepting the rules other people live by, even
those we don't agree with, lifts a burden from our shoulders and improve
the quality of our life and relationships.
Crystal ball gazing
Often, we find ourselves considering what might happen in the future.
Our mind races ahead, and we fantasize about a negative outcome, one with
catastrophic consequences. We are flooded with fears about losing our
job and home, or escalating the world's chaos from its present state to
a much worse state. Experiencing the upsetting emotions of our dire predictions,
we feel discouraged, frustrated, or angry, based on a reality that has
not yet taken place, and probably never will. After recognizing that we
are making ourselves miserable when we predict the future, we can allow
ourselves to back off of our thoughts of gloom, and focus instead on those
things over which we have more control.
As we try to relate to other people, we find ourselves wondering what
they are thinking. Since they can't say everything on their mind, we must
guess some of their thoughts. Sometimes our guesses take us into blind
alleys, creating tension within ourselves, and tension with other people.
By guessing that someone is judging us, mocking us, manipulating us, and
so on, we can become enraged or depressed. We can help to bring our mental
state back into equilibrium by recognizing that we have jumped to conclusions
about their thoughts. They may not be thinking any such thing, and meanwhile
we are working ourselves into a frenzy. Once we recognize that our emotions
are based on fantasies of what they might be thinking, we can insert positive
guesses into our fantasy. Even better, we can develop the skill to check
out our fantasy by asking people what they are thinking. The ability to
communicate our concerns empowers us to increase intimacy and reduce misunderstanding.
Refuting errors, and affirming positive values
Our thoughts form the verbal basis of our internal life. We describe the
world through our thoughts, describe ourselves, and describe what we intend
to do. We even get in touch with our emotions by describing them with
our thoughts. Of course most of our thoughts are just fine. The ones we're
interested in changing are the ones that drag us into feeling bad. When
we recognize the power of our thoughts, and want to improve, we must learn
how to modify our own mental patterns.
But just because we begin to pay attention to our thoughts doesn't mean
we're immediately able to change them. These patterns run deep, and once
we see these trouble-making thoughts, we often feel helpless. As soon
as we stop one thought, our mind generates another. Rather than stopping
thoughts, we need to learn how to dispute them and replace them with more
effective ones. Changing our own thought habits requires practice and
hard work. To understand, dispute and then correct the beliefs that make
us miserable. Through introspection and skill building, we can learn to
counterbalance these negative thoughts.
First, by becoming aware of the thoughts that make us miserable, we become
better able to communicate them with others, and think about them ourselves.
This clear perception itself improves our sense of understanding of ourselves,
and can open channels of intimacy with others.
Abandon fruitless lines of thinking
Second, we learn to let go of fruitless lines of thinking. When we realize
our misery is based on unsubstantiated fantasies of what someone might
be thinking, or of what might happen in the future, we can begin to relax
our grip on these thoughts that seem so compelling and important.
Refute thoughts that drag us down
Third, we can begin to actively refute our line of thinking. If we realize
that a thought such as "He always treats me shabbily" makes
us feel miserable, we can recognize it and refute it. In this case, we
would realize that by generalizing we are making ourselves upset. Instead
of focusing only on his negative behavior, we would also include times
when he behaves more generously. By opening ourselves up to this recognition,
even if he only treated us well one time, we can break our negative generalization
and open ourselves to more positive ways of thinking about our situation.
Affirmations lift our feelings
Fourth, instead of disputing negative thoughts habits, consciously flip
them the other way and substitute more positive ones. For example, reverse
the crystal ball and consciously predict a positive outcome. Or change
the negative filter to a positive one, and see all the good things in
life that you can be grateful for. Even making simple optimistic statements
like "this too shall pass" or "everything is for the best"
you can get to the other side of rough spots with a more positive frame
Living well requires insights and learning about our own internal environment.
One of the most accessible places to look for ways to feel better is our
own thought stream. As we explore our thoughts, we find many opportunities
for improving them.
When our thoughts drag us down, we can learn to change these habits for
the better, and gradually, with diligent persistent work, we learn first
how to detect, and then how to dispute our habitual thinking. By escaping
the trap of unproductive habitual thinking, we can become free to think
thoughts that deliver more productive and more harmonious results.
See also: Affirmations, Beliefs, Blame, Body/Mind, Change, Self-help,
Feeling good handbook by David Burns
Awaken the giant within by Tony Robbins
Power of positive thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
Anger, how to live with it and without it by Albert Ellis
Introduction to NLP by Joseph O'connor and John Seymour