“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor Frankl
I love “aha” moments. I feel excited and empowered when I see things in a new way. Change feels possible, and I can’t imagine going back to my old ways of thinking. But a lot of the time, I do go back. Not always. Some things stick, but more often than not those “aha” moments don’t facilitate the change that I think they will.
The yogic concept of samskaras and the scientific understanding of neural pathways explain why our “aha” moments don’t tend to stick: the more we think a certain way, the more likely we are to think that way again. One profound moment of thought is typically not going to overcome a lifetime of ingrained thought patterns.
Repeatedly experiencing similar “aha” moments is one way to slowly change the way you think. This repetition happens a lot in the language used around spiritual practices like yoga. For example, you might hear a saying like “This too shall pass” repeated in yoga classes, you might read it in books, and then you might find it starts to make its way into your responses.
For many of us, this subtle changing of our thought patterns is how yoga starts to play out in our lives. We find ourselves in a typically distressing situation, but our response is suddenly softer and we can be in the midst of a messy moment and not get overly worked up.
While repetition can be very powerful, sometimes our thoughts are so problematic that it is beneficial for us to work a little more aggressively with them. The best tool that I know of for changing ingrained ways of thinking is the Thought Record exercise. The process of working through a Thought Record doesn’t hold the same sort of excitement and novelty as having an “aha” moment does, but I have found it to be an effective – and lasting – way to breakdown unhelpful thought patterns.
The Thought Record Exercise
1. Identify a specific thought or way of thinking that isn’t helping you
For example, if you tend to take things quite personally, it might be helpful to work with thoughts you have about why people are doing things and how it relates to you. Maybe you think one of your coworkers intentionally undermines you in meetings with your boss. Maybe you think a friend said something to purposely hurt your feelings or you think your partner is intentionally trying to annoy you. We tend to believe these sorts of thoughts when we have them, so even recognizing them as potentially distorted is a great first step.
2. Think about the situations in which you have this thought
As we begin to better understand the way context influences the way we think, we start to take our thoughts less seriously.
3. Ask yourself what emotions you feel when you think this thought and rank the intensity of these emotions out of ten
Our emotions trigger thoughts and our thoughts trigger emotions. It can be very helpful to start to recognize the way that they play off each other.
4. Identify any physical symptoms that accompany this thought
There might be muscle tension or an increased heart rate. You might feel pain. Maybe you have a strong resistance to uncrossing your arms. Mindfully observe your body.
5. Ask yourself how strongly you believe the thought, and rank the intensity of the belief out of ten.
Most people tend to believe their own thoughts without question. Considering that it might not be wise to believe all of your thoughts is an important step in changing them.
6. Write down all the evidence you can think of to support the thought you are exploring
Make sure that the evidence is actually true – and not just other thoughts you have about the situation.
7. Write down all of the evidence you can think that does not support the thought you are exploring
Challenged yourself to spend a lot of time on this part of the exercise.
8. Come up with an alternative or more balanced thought
This step in the process isn’t about making everything okay. Rather, it is about addressing two very human tendencies that lead to a lot of distorted and unhelpful thoughts: the tendency to have thoughts that are driven by our emotions and the tendency to believe these emotionally-driven thoughts.
For example, if you were exploring your belief that a co-worker intentionally undermines you in meetings with your boss, an alternative and more balanced thought might be: In meetings with our boss, my co-worker says things that make me feel threatened and insecure. I have a hard time understanding how his intentions could be anything other than trying to undermine me, but I don’t actually know his side of the story.
9. Reflect on the process
- Reassess (rank out of ten) your belief in the original thought
- Note any shifts in emotional intensity that you experienced – again ranking your emotions out of ten
- Make note of the things that struck you most in the process of reflecting on this thought
In my experience, what happens after working through a Thought Record is very similar to what happens after hearing “This too shall pass” repeated over and over again: my thought patterns start to noticeably shift. My experience of the world starts to change because the stories I tell myself about it are different.
We do a lot of things – and chase a lot of things – in an effort to feel differently about ourselves and our lives, but in many situations, all we need to do to feel differently is to think differently. It is considerably easier said than done, but changing your thoughts may be the most significant thing you can do change your experience of your life.
If you would like a template for the Thought Record exercise, follow this link.