I am guessing that we all agree that how we think about something impacts the experience we have with it. You wouldn’t still be here if you weren’t already pretty much on board with the idea that your brain is really powerful and can change your lived experience.
These examples aren’t here to make a case that one belief or thought is better or righter than another. It’s the opposite of that, actually. This is to draw your attention to how your thoughts create the experience you are having.
It was not the the news story, the dishes or the silly posts that made you experience your world as you did. Those things just exist. They’re neutral.
Instead, it was your thoughts about those things that created the experience that you had.
If you are familiar with the Cognitive Behavioral therapy modality or The Life Coach School’s “Model” you may very well know this already. But, when it’s your first time thinking through it, you might feel A LOT of emotion.
Lots of people get really upset at this idea. They feel that you are blaming the victim, or telling them that they had the “wrong” thought, or generally feel like they’re being handed a bunch of blame for every hard thing in their life.
My outrage took the shape of arguing (somewhat incessantly) the point that all of my thoughts were “rational” and “reasonable” and therefore, “right.”
Here’s how those conversations went with a CBT therapist of my acquaintance:
Me: “He said ‘you suck’ and I said ‘you hurt my feelings!’”
CBT Therapist: “He can’t hurt your feelings. Only you can hurt your feelings.”
Me: “What the hell does that mean? He said I suck!”
CBT Therapist: Yeah, but you could have chosen to see that as a good thing.
Me: “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT! When someone says ‘you suck,’ it’s RATIONAL to get angry and have hurt feelings! What do you want me to do instead, give him a hug and say “Thanks, I love you, too!” That’s not normal! And, anyway, it was his intention to upset me!”
CBT Therapist: “You can have any thought you like! You can be mad if it’s what you want to do. What I want you to know is that you aren’t mad because he made you mad, you’re mad because you designed your own thoughts to make yourself mad.”
Around and around we went: me arguing that I was right, when really, I was hurt.
Eventually, I landed in the middle, fully agreeing with myself and with her.
First, just for the record, my thoughts were rational and reasonable! No one would blame me for having the default reactions to what happened to me. If someone smiled at me I could like them. If someone yelled at me I could get angry. If someone turned me down, I could decide I don’t want to be friends with them anyway.
If I like the way my life is going, I can keep my thoughts, just as they are.
But, what is also true is that if I don’t want to give this rude person the power to upset me, I could choose a different thought and have a different experience.
We have now arrived at the CBT model
Welcome to The Situation
According to the cognitive behavioral model we live our lives inside “the situation.” The situation is neutral in the sense that it’s not in an of itself upsetting or gratifying or exciting, or… anything, really. It just is. The situation in our example would be that i was talking with a man who said the words “You suck.” to me.
Choose your Thoughts Wisely
Your mindmanager watches the situation unfolding and comments on it to herself. “That was rude,” she says. And, thusly, you have had a thought!
Cue the Amygdala!
When I’ve decided that someone has been rude to me, I do not take it well. I might feel hurt. Sometimes I feel betrayed. I almost always feel super annoyed. All of these “negative” feelings trigger hormones that activate the amygdala and launch me into emotionally appropriate behavior. Once I’m hurt, betrayed, or annoyed I’m going to act that way. In fact, trying to stop an emotion train when it’s already on its way out of the station is HARD.
It takes a herculean effort to walk back fury, annoyance, desperation, betrayal, and hurt in the nanosecond between the thought and the feeling. (It’s way, WAY easier to intervene during the thought.)
Feelings create behaviors
Once you are all up in your feelings, you are going to act accordingly. In our example, my thought “that was rude” led me to say “you hurt my feelings.” If i had thought “That’s weird that he would say that, I wonder what upsetting him” maybe I would have asked a question or let it go. Who knows.
AGAIN: None of this is about the right response. It’s just about observing that it was the thought that created the feeling that created the behavior.
Behaviors feed back into the situation and accumulate into results
The situation is also partially created by you. How you have behaved up until this moment colors the situation you find yourself in right now, and what you do in this moment will color the situation you live in tomorrow. This is how our behaviors over time accumulate into the results we create in our lives. While that’s worth knowing, it doesn’t in any way diminish your ability to respond differently tomorrow, however.
The CBT model is a powerful tool when it comes to managing your mindset, mindscape and mindmanager. All three of these pieces of the mind can be adjusted, optimized, and experimented upon with your thoughts… which in turn will change your feelings, behavior and results.
Amanda Crowell, PhD is a cognitive psychologist obsessed with how people make change. She is best known for translating cutting edge research into practical strategies that can be used right away.