“Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so” William Shakespeare
Ever feel that you are at the mercy of your thoughts? Have you ever said something impulsively and immediately regretted it? Or not enjoyed a well-deserved day off because you still feel bad about that meeting last week? Or maybe you are worrying about something that may never happen?
What if you could regulate how you think so that you control your thoughts rather than your thoughts controlling you?
When something grabs our attention our ‘limbic brain’ triggers an emotional response and signals to our ‘thinking brain’ to engage in conscious thought in order to decide on a response. This initial response will inform our interpretation of how we feel and think and it is largely out of our control.
If we choose to take time to think rationally and intentionally about the situation before responding, we may change what we think and this will in turn, change how we feel. Thoughts and feelings are directly linked and thinking is completely within our control if we choose to take responsibility for it and learn how to do it more effectively.
What is the purpose of thinking?
Thinking enables us to analyse events and create strategies on how to react rather than rely solely on our instincts and autopilot behaviours. Indeed in the past, this ability to apply intellect proved to be our greatest survival tool allowing us to outwit other more physically superior animals.
However, whilst thinking is a superior skill there are challenges associated with it when we are not fully conscious of our thinking patterns and how to regulate them to achieve better outcomes.
Having a tendency to ‘over-think’
As our environments and circumstances have evolved, the need to engage our thinking for our own survival has lessened, but our need to think hasn’t. Thinking is an automatic activity performed by our brains and we are not able to “switch off” this process. It has been estimated that we have over 70,000 thoughts a day!
However, without projects to apply our thinking to, we tend to fill ‘idle’ thinking time by “over-thinking” situations that may have been resolved more effectively, and less painfully, with little or no thinking. Consequently, the greatest human gift has, for many of us, become our worst enemy.
Thoughts are not time bound
Using our imagination, we are able to engage our thinking skill to have an experience whenever we choose, regardless of when the event actually happened. Indeed, it is our own thoughts and perceptions of an experience that provide our mental pain and suffering not the experience itself.
This can be used for positive effect, for example when we engage our imagination reading books, watching films or creating visualisations of future success.
On the flip side, with our natural bias towards negativity, we often find ourselves at the mercy of negative thinking patterns as we ruminate about past experiences or worry about potential future events rather than living in the present moment. Without awareness of our patterns and techniques to check and change them, for many of us our imaginations are creating pain and suffering on a regular basis even when our present experience is positive!
Reflecting on the core aim of our brain, namely to ensure our survival – the way we think will focus on our perspective ie how does the current situation pose a danger to us or provide a reward for us. This does not take into account the perspective or intent of the other person(s) or anything else for that matter and may lead to a less desirable outcome.
Without considering all the facts, we are likely to misinterpret a situation and create inappropriate strategies and actions for resolving it.
Factors derailing our ability to think effectively
Our ability to engage our core capabilities to self-regulate and engage our thinking can be influenced by our current emotional state. For example, if we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired we are more likely to respond negatively and if we have just had a negative experience this is likely to ‘seep’ into the next activity.
Check in with yourself before responding and ask yourself, ‘would I respond differently if it was the perfect day and everything was going my way?’ if the answer is yes, then your current emotional state is likely to be influencing your thoughts and feelings.
Our current experience or environment
If we find ourselves in chaotic, stressful or threatening environments this can result in our limbic brains ‘hijacking’ the situation and bypassing our thinking processes. In such scenarios we become very focussed on dealing with the object of stress and may not be able to think clearly or rationally leading to us relying on our instinctive responses to resolve any issues.
Our early life experiences
If we have experienced frequent stress during our early years this may have resulted in directing our brain development in favour of autopilot responses over slower rational responses. In short, we may have created a habit of instant response rather than an intentional rational one and we need to ‘train’ our brains to engage thinking as a response.
So how can we manage our thinking for better outcomes?
There are many techniques that help people challenge their thinking patterns or suspend their thinking temporarily, for example:
- Awareness is always the first step – without an awareness of where you are and what’s working, or not, you are unable to create strategies to change. What are your thinking patterns and are they helping you to achieve your aims?
- Practise meditation or mindfulness to help you live in the moment and focus on the here and now
- Create a habit of transition when you move from one task to another:
- Consciously ‘close’ the previous task
- Release any tension associated with it and
- Set your intention for the next task
- Use the emotions associated with thinking patterns as prompts to focus your attention and apply your thinking to developing plans that will improve your experience in the future. Here is a reminder of the core emotions and how they can be used to help your experience:
|Emotion||Focus of attention||How it can help us|
|Anger||Threat||Energy/confidence to break through obstacles
|Fear||Potential threat||Protect from danger
|Disgust||Toxic object||Maintain boundaries, principles and values
|Sadness||Loss||Reminds us about who/what is important
|Joy||Reward||Enables us to thrive
|Trust||Security||Open to new ideas, connect and collaborate
|Anticipation||Potential reward||Look forward and plan
|Surprise||Novelty||Focus on something new or unexpected
- Develop a habit of moving on after negative experiences:
- Reflect on past experiences
- Learn from them and view them as a source of feedback
- Put strategies in place to avoid them recurring and
- Move forward
- Overcome anxiety-fuelled thinking:
- Reflect on the source of concern
- Explore options to minimise your risk
- Take action
- Practise compassion focussed thinking to see situations from other perspectives:
- Pre-suppose that there is a positive intent driving the situation
- Develop a curiosity for understanding other perspectives
- Listen non-judgementally to others
- Show empathy (this does not mean that you have to condone poor behaviour but allows you to understand why a particular course of action has been taken)
Consider how your thinking patterns are impacting your experience of life. What needs to change?
The following books are some of my favourites as they have had an enormous impact on my own personal development. The concepts are simple to understand and allowing them to ‘absorb’ creates a shift in thinking in itself.
Mindset – Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential by Carol Dweck
This is an easy to read book that demonstrates how your mindset, which is essentially a belief that you hold about yourself, influences the way that you think and how you tackle tasks and challenges.
In summary, there are two mindsets:
- The ‘fixed mindset’ is based on the belief that we are who we are, with little room for change or growth of our IQ, abilities, personality, talents etc. This leads us to run a context for living of validating who we are. This results in criticism and failure being failure and effort being a sign of lack of ability.
- The ‘growth mindset’ is based on the belief that we are a ‘work in progress’ where anything is possible within the realms of realism. This leads us to run a context for living of developing ourselves. This results in criticism and failure being seen as an opportunity to learn and effort being the secret of success.
There are numerous examples in different settings that bring the concepts to life and enable you to identify where your own mindset is fixed and how you can change it.
Somebody Should Have Told Us! (Simple Truths for Living Well) by Jack Pransky
This book is based on a real life story of Sydney Banks, a spiritual philosopher, who uncovered the inside-out understanding of our existence.
Through stories and examples the book explores the truth behind the statement ‘Stress does not actually exist, it just appears to exist due to our thinking creating it as a feeling.’ Rather than stress being caused by what is going on in the outside world it is created in our inside world by how we choose to think about the events happening in the outside world.
The final chapter summarises our gifts being:
- Thought is the gift of creation – with the power of thought we can create anything within our own minds
- Consciousness is the gift of experience – whatever we choose to be aware of can be experienced together with the resultant feelings
- Mind is the pathway of healthy creation. Our ability to have a clear mind allows us to continuously self-monitor our feelings and emotions in order to assess if we are close to health and wisdom. If not, we can make adjustments to our experience to get there
Shifting from an ‘outside in’ world to an ‘inside out’ world puts your experience of life and happiness firmly in your own hands. The challenge is being clear about what you want, how you can achieve it and then doing it!
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This book represents the lifetime’s work of Daniel Kahneman about judgement and decision-making.
It explores the ‘dual process theory’ that explains how people make decisions using one of two systems:
System 1 is unconscious where decisions are made based on perceptions and intuition. Characteristics are that decisions are fast, automatic, effortless and emotional and are influenced by how it has been framed and personal biases.
System 2 is conscious and deliberative where decisions are based on cognitive analysis. Characteristics are that decisions are slow, controlled, effortful, rule based, flexible and neutral.
Individuals adopt a preference as to which system to engage. Through a greater understanding of how we process information and make decisions it is possible to influence the choices we make and the behaviours that we adopt. This book provides enormous insights into the human mind – a must read!