People usually ask us this question in moments of silence while driving down the highway. Typically, we respond with a one word answer.
It’s never true. We have lots on our mind. At that moment, we were thinking of a project we needed to complete, that stupid billboard we can’t stand the sight of, the fact that we’re kind of hungry because we saw a McDonald’s a mile back, and now we have their “I’m lovin’ it” jingle stuck in our head.
Still we answer, “Nothing.” Because, in reality, it wasn’t anything that important. We were letting our thoughts wander and someone just happened to catch us doing it. Somehow, responding with, “I want a cheeseburger because I had the McDonald’s jingle on loop in my head,” doesn’t seem cool.
Thoughts Are Things
Most people, most of the time, are not consciously aware of what they are thinking about – yours truly included.
At the same time, you know the impact that your thoughts can have on you. You can become depressed, angry, frustrated, lonely, disappointed, fearful, worried, sad, and doubtful – just to name a few.
On the positive side, some thoughts can make you smile, laugh out loud, feel a sense of pride, cause you to relax, make you feel confident, or – in the case of passing by a McDonald’s – make you crave an ice cold Coke.
The majority of the time, your thoughts directly control how you are feeling at any given moment – regardless of whether you are consciously aware of it or not.
With that in mind, wouldn’t it be great if you could better control what you were thinking so that you could change how you were feeling at any time?
I want to share with you five simple steps you can use to control your thoughts and stop negative thinking, remove toxic thoughts, and better control your feelings.
How to Control Your Thoughts in 5 Simple Steps
Step 1 – Learn to Stop Your Thoughts
One of the first things you need to do is to learn to stop in the middle of your thoughts (good, bad, or just boring). At various times throughout the day, catch yourself thinking. How are you feeling? What are you thinking about? Why are you thinking about that topic?
This is much easier said than done. Usually, when you’re feeling frustrated, upset, tired, or angry about something, your tendency will be to “press on” or “fight through” or “get past” whatever it is that you’re feeling. This is not a good strategy.
The angrier and more emotional you become, the dumber you get. ( Tweet this.)
It’s easier to see this in others than it is in ourselves. If you have kids, think of how dumb your kids become the more frustrated or angry they get. If you don’t have kids, borrow your friend’s kids for a day. If that scares you, think of that guy or gal at the office who is hot-tempered. You’re no more immune to this result than they are.
Instead of pressing on, take 5 minutes to stop what you’re doing, and think about your thoughts. The next few steps will help.
Step 2 – Identify Your Negative Thoughts
The better you become at stopping your thoughts, the faster this step will become for you. In the meantime, I can give you a tip to make it a little bit easier: begin with how you’re feeling and work backwards. Every feeling we have is the direct result of something we were thinking. Therefore, if you’re feeling anxious, begin by stepping back for a minute, and asking yourself, “Why do I feel anxious?”
Maybe it’s a project or a meeting you’re dreading. Maybe you have to fire someone on your team or meet with the principal at your child’s school. Figure out what that thing is that’s making you anxious.
But don’t stop there!
What about it is making you anxious? Did you previously have a bad experience in a similar situation? Did you miss your last deadline? Did you receive some toxic feedback from your boss? Was it something else? Identify what that root cause is.
Keep in mind that the event making you anxious is usually just the vehicle your mind is using to create the emotional state – it is rarely the root cause of the emotional state.
Step 3 – Write Out Your Mental Movie or Mental Tape
If you did the last step correctly, you’ll begin to identify the movie, or tape, that is playing in your mind. It could be the meeting in which you were chewed out by your boss. It could be the time you flubbed the presentation or the conference keynote. Maybe it’s the sound of your dad’s voice telling you you’re worthless.
By default, the majority of people have negative mental movies and tapes that fire off inside of their minds – not positive ones. When a current situation reminds us of a previous situation we tend to replay that movie or tape. Even if we had five successes and one disappointment, it is the disappointment our minds will return to because most of us want to avoid pain more than we want to seek out pleasure. ( Tweet this.)
What you need to do is identify what that movie or tape is and write it down. Why? Because you want it out of your head. Inside of your head, it has power and seems much larger than it really is. Written down, it is now outside of your mind and you gain a distance from the emotion that it creates.
The term for this is dissociation and writing out your mental tapes is just one form of doing that. It’s also the easiest because it requires nothing more than a pen and a sheet of paper. Dissociating yourself from an event means to remove yourself from the first-person position in the memory.
If I were to ask you to think of a painful time in your past and to remember it as if it were happening, you would put yourself right back in that situation. It would stir up emotions and you would feel yourself becoming angry, bitter, frustrated, depressed, etc. That is referred to as associating – putting yourself inside of the event. By default, this is how our mental movies play – with us back in the position of pain.
By writing out your mental movies (what happened, what was said, what was felt, etc.) it removes you from being immediately associated with the pain and allows you to step back and gain a little bit of outside perspective on the situation. My coaching clients often tell me that this simple step usually calms them down in a big way because, getting your tapes out of your mind removes some of their power.
Step 4 – Find the Lie
Behind every negative mental tape is a lie about ourselves that we are choosing to believe whether consciously or subconsciously. A key step is to identify what that lie is. The lie could be that you’re worthless or that you’re a failure or that you’re a nobody. Maybe you were told that you are dumb or that you’ll never find a spouse who will love you. Whatever it is, identify it and write it out next to the mental tape.
Step 5 – Recognize the Truth
The only way to combat a lie is with truth and right now is the time to seek out what the truth about you is. At this stage is where I pray, read my Bible, and ask God to reveal to me the truth about who I am created to be. Your process may be different. I might also talk to Lisa or a close friend about this. I’ve worked with counselors and I work with a coach who can offer me an outsider’s perspective. Whatever route you choose to take, you must determine the truth.
Once you have the truth ready to go, write the truth next to the lie. Write the truth in the first person and write it in positive phrasing. So, instead of writing, “I am not a failure,” write down, “I am a successful person who has accomplished many great things.”
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” ~ The Apostle Paul, Philippians 4:8
Bonus Step: Associate the Truth Into Your Current Situation
It helps if you think of real events in your life that back up your truth statement. These events could be related to your current situation or they could just be times where you experienced the truth statement in your life.
Suppose you have a meeting with your boss coming up that is making you anxious. Ideally, it helps if you can think of at least one really great meeting you’ve had with her in the past for this exercise. However, let’s suppose you’ve never had a good meeting with your boss – that’s highly unlikely but let’s go with it. And now, you have a meeting coming up with her that you’re absolutely dreading.
Here’s what I want you to do, think of a similar meeting that you’ve had with someone in a position of power that you would consider a success. Maybe it was a leader at your church or a boss at a previous company you worked at – it’s doesn’t really matter.
The goal here is to prove to yourself that you are capable of having successful meetings with superiors or people of influence and power. Now, what I want you to do is to allow yourself to go back to that meeting in your mind. Re-experience it and see how you feel. Did you laugh during the meeting? Was it lighthearted? Was it productive? What about that meeting made it successful?
Now, use that memory to reinforce the truth you wrote out in step five above. If you need to go back and revise your truth statement a bit, do it. Make sure it aligns with how you feel about yourself when you think of this memory.
Finally, combining the truth statement, the feelings and the success from the previous event, I want you to imagine that your upcoming meeting happens just like that previous event. Feel the confidence you have as you walk to the office, smile as you shake her hand, feel the calmness in your heart and mind as you discuss the topics, and so on. Do this as many times as you need to.
The power here is not that it has the ability to directly change or control the other person in the room. But it does have the ability to change how you present yourself and respond to that other person. This will likely alter how you interpret the events of the meeting and possibly how that person reacts to you.
You Can Control Your Thoughts
I hope that this exercise empowers you and demonstrates that you can control your thoughts – both negative and positive. In fact, if you did the bonus step above, you’ll begin to see that you don’t just have to use this exercise to stop negative thinking. You can use it to increase the number of positive thoughts and emotions you have simply by using some of the tools in this post.
I’d love to hear your stories or experiences with controlling your negative thoughts. How have you overcome negative thinking? Leave a comment below and share with the community.