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Humans are an evolved species.
We have the ability to think and reason, the ability to feel certain emotions about our thoughts, and the ability to think about our thinking!
Our thoughts are at the core of how we feel and therefore how we live our lives, and if we allow our thoughts to run rampant without being aware of our thoughts, we aren’t living life to the best of our ability.
Our thoughts are what drive our life and who we are as a person, so to make sure we are thinking purposefully and consciously is critical.
A way to improve your thinking is to begin a practice called thought work. This may sound a little obscure to some (it was completely foreign to me), but thought work can become a practice that totally shifts your life from meh to Zen.
Thought work is becoming conscious about your thinking and working to change thoughts that aren’t serving you—duh right? It may sound simple, but it is actually a practice that is lifelong and one that takes a lot of effort and awareness to begin and maintain.
I have been practicing mindful thought work for over three years and there are still things that haven’t clicked for me and new stuff that comes up on the regular. Thought work involves taking what your mind is thinking, oftentimes unconsciously, bringing it to the surface, examining it, and deciding if that thought is serving you or if you’d rather lose it or change it. Thought work involves owning your thoughts (even the sh*tty ones!) and accepting that what you think has a direct impact on how you feel, how you act, and what you put out into your world.
Oftentimes, thought work can be quite painful. None of us want to shift through shameful thoughts or negative self-talk. Thoughts that make us feel as if we are not enough or worthy.
There are so many unconscious thoughts lurking at the surface that we usually don’t want to see or admit that we have. There are so many surprising thoughts that once uncovered allow us to have a clearer understanding of our feelings and behaviors. These are thoughts that many of us have been thinking since our childhood.
All of our life, we have been compacting different thoughts into our brains and we filter through and slightly alter them with each experience we have. Certain thoughts just stick and won’t go away on their own, so if we want to improve our thoughts, we have to do so consciously.
We may not like to admit it, but we are all in charge of how we think and therefore how we feel and act. Many of us want to blame the circumstances and the people around us for our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions. This victim mentality keeps so many of us stuck and powerless to the circumstances and people around us.
Conscious and mindful thought work can release us from the victim mentality and give us our power back! The growth and healing of our emotional health and well-being from practicing thought work can have an insane impact on our life as well as the lives and relationships around us. Once we realize how much control we actually have over our thoughts, we begin to take note of what we want to allow to take up space in our brain.
Letting go of thoughts that aren’t serving us allows us to consciously create the thoughts we want, which will translate into the feelings we want, the behaviors we want, and the actions we want to put out into the world—in other words, the life we want to live and the person we want to become.
So how do we do it? Where do we start? Here are a couple of strategies that worked for me:
1. We start with observing and noting. Take a few days or weeks and just observe your thoughts, notice what feelings come up without any apparent thoughts causing them, and stop and ask yourself what you may have thought right before that feeling arose—pay close attention to what goes in and out of your brain. All you are doing is observing. Don’t try to change anything; just be aware.
2. After you feel like you have taken enough time observing, start to write down different thoughts and feelings. Take time out of your day to do a thought download (the practice of writing down all your thoughts without thinking or organizing what you are writing but just letting words flow out of you) each day. You can pick a specific topic you are struggling with or just allow thoughts to organically flow. Do this as many times as you can over a week or two.
3. Go back over your writing/thought downloads and circle/highlight/underline which thoughts are 100 percent fact and which thoughts are just your own opinions and/or stories you’ve created. This is where it gets into the nitty gritty of owning what you think. Most of our thoughts are just stories we tell ourselves—a lot of the time they aren’t true, but we think they are true until we take the time to break thoughts down. When we take a step back and observe, we begin to notice most of what we think is just our opinion or a story of what we tell ourselves. This is where the work begins!
4. Pick a thought you would like to change and then come up with a goal thought. Your goal thought is something that you feel will serve you in your life. After you have decided on those two thoughts, get out a piece of paper and draw a ladder. Put your current thought on the bottom rung and the goal thought on the top rung. The amount of rungs you have on your ladder will depend on the believability of your goal thought. If your goal thought is something that is extremely hard for you to believe, put more rungs; if your goal thought doesn’t seem that far-fetched to you, put less rungs. Then you start at the bottom after your current thought and on each rung write a slightly better thought to replace it. Then come up with a slightly better thought to replace that one and so on until you have reached your goal thought.
5. After you have completed sketching out your goal thought ladder, read your first replacement thought and allow that to become your mantra. Every time you think your original thought, gently remind yourself of the new thought. Take small moments throughout your day to think your new thought. Set a reminder on your phone to think the thought or put a sticky note on your mirror. Do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of your new thought and then think it! Repeat this process over and over until you believe the new thought. Keep in mind this takes time and a lot of it!
Once you believe the new thought, go onto the next rung on your goal thought ladder. Repeat this process until you have reached your goal thought.
There are some thoughts I used this method on that only took me a couple of months to change and there are some thoughts that I have been working on for years. Thought work is a continuous, lifelong practice and process.
Another tool to use to change your thoughts is a process I have dubbed “the angry teacher.”
1. Do a thought download for five minutes. You can pick something specific that has been bothering you or just let your words organically flow.
2. After the five minutes, go through your writing and become the angry teacher. Take out your red pen and cross off all the thoughts you don’t like, wish to change, or know do not serve you in your life—thoughts that may not be as true as you tell yourself.
3. Pick one of the marked-off thoughts and focus on that for a set period of time—a week, a month, however long you want! Every time you think this thought, practice immense compassion for yourself as you would for a close friend. Say all the things you would say to your close friend if they told you this thought.
4. Try speaking out loud to yourself. Use a mirror if you feel comfortable doing so or find a place to be alone to speak aloud to yourself. Let your friend know how much it hurts you to see them hurting. Let your friend know their thoughts aren’t true. Let yourself know all the positive things you would want a friend to know.
5. Talk to yourself with kindness, love, and compassion. Become that friend to yourself. Keep up this positive self-talk over and over, and eventually, talking compassionately and with love to yourself, as you would a friend, will become second nature.
Some things to keep in mind when practicing thought work: not all thoughts that aren’t “happy” are negative and not all “bad” thoughts are thoughts we need to get rid of. There are thoughts that, as painful as they may be, we want to have, and in some cases, need to have. Grief is the first that comes to mind. When we have lost someone, those feelings of grief are necessary to allow us to give meaning to our loved ones and their time here with us. Missing someone and cherishing the time we had is a part of life, even when it hurts.
There is also a sense of purpose in some of our labeled negative thoughts such as regret or discomfort; many of these often propel us to places in life we would never get to without that internal struggle—thoughts that push us out of our comfort zone, thoughts that may be tough but push us into purpose.
This piece is just a small part of thought work, and the strategies I have spelled out are ones that have worked for me. There are so many resources out there when it comes to thought work.
Let me know what has worked for you!