By Dr. Mara Karpel
“We tend to live our lives based on what we believe about ourselves, our world, our capabilities, and our limits. Where do those beliefs come from? From what other people have told us. What if they’re wrong?”
~ Author, Louise Hay
I’ve found that Facebook is a mixed blessing. I have made new friends and met amazing people who’ve been guests on my radio show through this mysteriously powerful medium, as well as increased my connection with old friends. I’ve read many Facebook posts that have been extremely inspiring. However, I’ve also read some posts that have been so negative that they’ve led me to wonder about the future of our humanity. Then I have to stop and remind myself that when reading one person’s negative post, I’m not seeing a realistic sampling of what’s happening in the world or what everyone believes. I know that for every negative there are many more positives in the world.
The same is true when I get on a negative spiral in my own thinking. It’s easy to wear myself down in a matter of a few moments with beliefs that are not valid. On the other hand, I’ve also discovered that it’s possible to feel better in a matter of moments just by changing my perspective. After all, a belief is just a thought that we think over and over again until we believe it. Some of our beliefs help us in our lives, but others don’t serve us at all. They cause us tremendous pain, and we can be more productive by changing those beliefs.
How We Feel, Emotionally Is Often Caused By Our Thoughts
Having control of our thoughts may or may not be a new concept for you. But, the overwhelming evidence is in, and it’s clear that how we feel emotionally is very often caused by the thoughts that we think. The good news is that we each have the power to change our patterns of habitual negative thinking. We can also shift the chemicals in our brains and our bodies–– often as well as or better than medications, such as antidepressants like Prozac or Zoloft––just by changing our thought habits. In fact, we can also improve our health, our relationships, and our entire life by a simple attitude adjustment.
Beliefs Are Programmed Through Repetitive Thinking
Beliefs are actually programmed into our brain through our repetitive thoughts and our behaviors based on these thoughts. Our brain picks out realities in our environment that appear to match these beliefs and only pays attention to those realities, discarding all of the information that doesn’t match. Maybe you’ve heard the old “glass half-full or half-empty” example (only about a million times). Now, let’s take another look at that half-filled glass. As you might already know, if you’re an optimist, you’re likely to see the glass as half-full; while, if you’re a pessimist, you will likely see the glass as half-empty. However, in each of these cases, you’re actually ignoring the other half of the glass! With this cycle of belief-building, every time we notice something that fits with our belief, we believe it more and see our belief as a fact. Our brain then shows us more evidence to support this “fact.” It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
We Can Change Our Beliefs to Better Serve Us
Here’s the good news! Since a belief is a thought that we think over and over again, and since it’s strengthened by paying attention to only those things in the environment that support that thought, then we can change our thoughts by changing what we focus on; thereby, changing our beliefs and our reality! We can examine our thoughts, then deliberately find alternative perspectives and increase our awareness of things in our environment that support the alternatives. For example, as I write this, my wrists hurt from tendonitis. Rather than focusing on pain and feeling “broken,” I am focusing on my good health. I notice how the rest of my body feels flexible and pain free, I notice how I rarely catch a cold, and I notice how energetic I feel. The result is that, although I may feel annoyed and inconvenienced by the tendonitis, I believe in my good health and my reality is health, vitality, and emotional well-being.
When we become aware of negative chatter and know that this chatter is not the “truth,” even if we aren’t able to turn it off completely, it will lose it’s power over us and, perhaps, the volume will soften. Says Eckhart Tolle, in his book, Stillness Speaks, “When you recognize that there is a voice in your head that pretends to be you and never stops speaking, you are awakening out of your unconscious identification with the stream of thinking. When you notice that voice, you realize that who you are is not the voice – the thinker – but the one who is aware of it. Knowing yourself as the awareness behind the voice is freedom.” Or, as Michael Neill reminds us, “The voice inside your head is not the voice of God – it just sounds like it thinks it is.” With that awareness, we have the power to change our own thoughts – and, therefore, our own feelings and behaviors.
I changed those upsetting thoughts and feelings about the Facebook when I decided that there was another way to view the situation and that I could use those negative posts as inspiration for my positive-perspective blogging. My immediate reaction, upon making that decision was to feel excited to have an outlet to express myself about these topics in a more positive way. And I was happy to have another interesting topic to write about. The outcome was a complete shift within myself to a more optimistic outlook. This can also be done in a more private way, through journaling.
Three Steps to Change Our Self-Talk
Beverly Flaxington, The Human Behavior Coach™, was interviewed on my radio show, Dr. Mara Karpel & Your Golden Years, about her latest book, Self-Talk for a Calmer You. During this interview, she pointed out, “It’s our own minds, so often, that defeat us. We say things to ourselves that tear ourselves down. The self-talk that we use on ourselves absolutely drains us. Lack of confidence and low self-esteem is very typically an outgrowth of too much negative self-talk too often.” Flaxington suggested three simple, but powerful, steps to turn around this type of self-talk.
First, increase your awareness of when you’re talking to yourself in a negative way. “Get in touch with what you’re feeling, such as, ‘I’m feeling blue,’ ‘I’ve got a pain in my stomach,’ or ‘My hands are clammy’.” These feelings can act as a gauge to let us know that we need to check in with ourselves about what thoughts we’re thinking in that moment. Then, make an agreement to interrupt the flow of the negative thoughts by using a thought-stopping technique, such as imagining a ‘Stop’ sign or saying ‘Stop!’
Next, to stop the momentum of our negative thinking and feeling, Flaxington suggests that we use distraction by turning our attention to something that is positive. Choose anything that, “when your attention goes to it, the message to your body and your mind is that this is a positive thing. If we distract ourselves, it gives me, at least, that chance to say, ‘Do I really want to be here with these thoughts or would I like to go somewhere else?’ Most of us will make the better choice for ourselves.” For myself, doing yoga, taking a walk, listening to relaxing music, or laughing are most effective for interrupting the negative flow of thoughts. In addition, sometimes, the best thing to do is to take a break from your thoughts, still your mind, and meditate. For more about that, read my blog, Mindfulness Meditation to Break the Pain Cycle.
Finally, the third step is to replace the negative thought with different language. Try to think of the situation in a more positive way, or, at the very least from a more neutral perspective.
A New Twist on The Thought-Feeling Connection and a Powerful Additional Tip
Many times, in sessions with my clients, I have asked, “What would you say to your best friend, if you saw him/her making that decision or heard them saying these harsh words to themselves?” According to the latest research, this is extremely beneficial and can be taken a step further to create an extremely powerful way of achieving change in how we feel when under stress. A recent series of studies, led by Dr. Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, has added an interesting new twist to the thought-feeling connection, the findings of which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
As I mentioned earlier, having emotional distance from our thoughts helps us to be more aware of what we’re thinking, so that we can have the power to change those thoughts that are not serving us well. The new findings, discovered by Dr. Kross and his associates, demonstrated that referring to ourselves by our own name in our self talk, rather than by first person (“I” or “me”), increases that self-distance and, subsequently our ability to change our own thoughts, resulting in different emotions and behaviors, when we’re under stress. This was found to be especially helpful in situations where people suffer from social anxiety, although it was also found to be helpful in any anxiety-provoking situation and when feeling depressed or angry about past events. Based on their research findings, the researchers proposed that using our own name in self-talk, along with words of encouragement and positive affirmations about our abilities to overcome obstacles, may actually have a direct effect on our autonomic nervous system, or our “fight or flight” reaction, when in situations we perceive as stressful.
Dr. Kross suggested that the “subtle linguistic shift – shifting from ‘I’ to your own name” changes the way we feel, and ultimately, how we behave. More specifically, what he found was that, when people do this, they tend to be more supportive toward themselves and give themselves more helpful advice, similar to how they would advise their best friend. Apparently, using our own name when speaking to ourselves, gives us the emotional distance to be able to do this.
Further research by Kross and his associate Moser, found that the brain scan images of people addressing themselves by name during self-talk actually look similar to those of people giving advice to their friends, while those using the personal pronouns of ‘I’ or ‘me,’ do not. They concluded that using one’s own name elicits more wisdom and brings clarity into our thoughts about dealing with life events.
Here’s an example of how this might work. As I’m preparing to speak in front of a large group of people and I’m feeling nervous, I might say to myself, “Mara, it’s normal to feel nervous when public speaking. Even some movie-stars have butterflies before performing in front of people. But, it’s not big deal. You’ve got this! You’ve spoken in front of groups of people before and nothing terrible happened. Just do your best in preparing the material ahead of time and then do some slow, deep, breathing before you go on stage. If it doesn’t go perfectly, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll learn from your mistakes and do better next time. You are intelligent and you know what you’re talking about. Whatever happens, happens. Be calm and move on, Mara.” Doing this has proved beneficial again and again.
Remember, life can be difficult at times and feeling badly doesn’t make you a bad or weak person. It’s just important to know that you do have the power to change how you feel.
[For more information, and interviews with expert guests, be sure to join me LIVE every Sunday, 5-7pm CT/6-8pm ET for “Dr. Mara Karpel & Your Golden Years.” Join the conversation by calling in, e-mailing, or tweeting, or you can listen any time on podcast.]