Episode 37: Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Ever noticed how your thoughts can sometimes feel like the captain of your ship, steering your emotions and behaviors? It’s a universal phenomenon. Negative thoughts, although uncomfortable, are part of our existence, serving as our brain’s personal bodyguard. However, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to believe everything we think. 

This week, I’m taking you on a journey to understand and manage those pesky negative thoughts. We’ll be dissecting how they influence our emotions and physical well-being. Spoiler alert: they have a significant impact! But fear not! By distinguishing factual thoughts from distorted negative ones and discussing ways to reframe common negative thought patterns, we’ll equip ourselves to sail through even the stormiest waters of the mind.

What you will learn on this episode:

– The impact of negative thoughts on our emotions, physical health, and overall well-being

– How negative thoughts are part of the brain’s protective mechanism that steer our feelings and behaviors

– Differentiating between factual thoughts and distorted negative ones, with a focus on reframing common negative thought patterns

– Becoming more aware of our negative thought patterns and developing healthy strategies to handle them

– Techniques to challenge and reframe negative thoughts and the importance of practicing positive thinking

– Front-loading our lives with positive affirmations, reading materials, and thoughts to better handle the challenges of life


*This transcription below was provided for you or your convenience; please excuse any mistakes that the automated service made in translation.

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Leadership Parenting. 

Today, I want to talk about our thoughts. If you’ve spent any time with me so far, you’ll know that I have this big love affair with talking about our thoughts. This is because, when you really understand thoughts and your relationship with them and your ability to work with them, it truly gives you power over so many things in your life. I see thoughts as a kind of steering wheel. If you and your body and your mind were a vehicle, then thoughts would be the steering wheel that help you go in the direction you want to go, because how you think actually determines where you’re going to end up. Thoughts are creative, which means they create the feelings that we have, and our feelings are the things that cause us to do our behaviors or cause us to act. So thoughts are at the beginning of that chain and much of the time we’re just not aware of their influence on our lives. So when we have positive thoughts, we tend to feel good in air quotes, which is very general, of course. What I mean is that you might feel like you’ll be okay on the inside, like you can handle things, like you’re able to manage whatever’s coming your way. This is kind of that core of resilience. Even when hard things are happening, we’re going to be all right. But when we have negative thoughts, then we might feel bad in air quotes, like things aren’t going to be okay, like they’re going to be just too big and our future starts to get really dark and negative. So today I want to talk specifically about negative thoughts and how they can creep into our thinking and kind of make us stuck and what we can do about them. You know, it’s absolutely normal to have thoughts that are negative, mostly because of that survival brain that we have and how it’s wired to look for things that are wrong in order for us to stay safe. And you’ve heard me talk about this negativity bias before, how our brains are biased to pay attention to trouble, to look for it, to catch it early and even anticipate it so we can be prepared for the worst. So this bias puts a kind of pressure on your thinking, giving you a negativity bias or a negative color to things. So we’re kind of set up for this and this can be a problem because we can be very, very influenced by that bias and it will show up in our thinking and then we’ll start to believe those thoughts that are really just being generated from your brain to try to protect you, and those thoughts can feel very, very true to us. 

Have you ever had a scary thought about something that isn’t happening right now but maybe could happen? Let’s say you have the thought about something happening to your children. It’s not happening right now, but you’re thinking about it. How does that make you feel? It’s scary? Right, it can cause you to feel fear, very real fear. 

I used to do this a lot, especially at night, and I’ll admit sometimes it still creeps in and happens to me. I’ll have this thought what if my child gets in an accident or gets sick or doesn’t learn their manners and ends up being a social outcast because they don’t know how to eat respectfully at the table? It can be any kind of thought about something that could go wrong on a big scale or on a small scale, and then I will inevitably get those feelings that come with those thoughts the worry, the fear, maybe the sadness. I could be laying in bed with my six-year-old little boy sleeping safely in the next room and be thinking about him as a 40-year-old man with no friends, no family, miserably lonely, all because my thoughts went on a wild ride through time and all the possible bad things that could happen because he doesn’t yet have good table manners. And the crazy thing is there’s nothing for me to do about it, because he’s six, not 40, and he’s not supposed to have mastered his table manners yet. I’ve been plunged into a negative, fearful scenario that gives me all the feelings and none of the power to do anything about it, because it’s not real right now, but I’m totally immersed in the possibility of it in the thinking. 

Now, that’s a silly example, but sometimes it really helps to use examples that kind of feel silly to us because it can illustrate how quickly we move into worst-case scenarios in our thinking. I haven’t met a mom who has never had a worst-case scenario show up in her thinking, and that’s good news as far as helping you understand that if you’ve got negative thought spirals that happen sometimes, that you’re not alone, that this is quite normal. Actually we have negative thoughts about others and we have negative thoughts about ourselves, and maybe the hardest kind of negative thoughts are the ones about ourselves, where we’re critical and harsh and demanding or where we measure and compare ourselves and find that we come up lacking. Somehow. All of these can trigger our threat response and tell our body that something’s very, very wrong, maybe even dangerous. So theoretical danger in our thinking can really feel like real danger as far as your body goes, because it can’t always tell the difference between the thoughts that are based on facts and the thoughts that you’re just having. Theoretically. Your body responds most of the time as if your thoughts are true. So once again we’re going back to that link between your thoughts, your feelings, how they feel in your body, what it makes you want to do. And this is a grand overview of the resilience principle, of understanding how your internal world works, so that you’ve got a sense of how to drive it first, how to understand it, but also how to drive it. 

And I just want to preface where we’re going today with this thought. Many times I will talk to people about their thoughts when I do presentations or when I’m having a conversation with a client, and they’ll kind of get this thought oh no, now I’m paying attention to every thought I’m having and they’re all affecting my body and how am I ever going to be able to control that? Do you hear how? That’s kind of also a scary thought. Thoughts can kind of spin off on each other and especially as we’re talking about thinking today, I just want you to watch that you catch any of those kind of worry thoughts about your own thinking. We don’t have to be worried about catching every thought and controlling every thought and making every thought perfect. And it’s important to make this distinction because I don’t want you all worrying that you have to have perfect thoughts or your body’s just going to tank or freak out. 

What we’re finding is that it’s actually very normal to have a variety of thoughts, some that you might call positive or meaning. They’re very helpful and useful to us and they help us feel really good. And it’s also normal for us to have unhelpful thoughts, and these are the ones that we call negative thoughts. And you know, another normal thing is to have random and kind of weird thoughts that just don’t make much sense at all. What we’re learning in the world of psychology and neurobiology is that having thoughts are not the problem. Thoughts are going to be flying around in our minds pretty constantly. It’s how much time we spend on the thoughts and how much we interact with them and kind of believe them that really matters. 

You may remember in our episode on gratitude how we talked about developing gratitude, and one of the main ways to do that was by noticing things that we appreciate, focusing our thinking on those things. We call this paying attention and savoring the things that matter to us, that make us feel good, that kind of build, that appreciation, and we had a big discussion about the power of using our attention toward a specific intention. It’s this focus on thoughts that deepen the feelings that go with gratitude. So it literally helps your body, gives the messages of safety. So your body gets out of that threat response and into the healing and the kind of rest in rejuvenation response. That’s why gratitude is so great for us physically, emotionally and for our relationships. 

So negative thoughts work in the same system in our brains. They’re there and when we pay a lot of attention to them they start to affect how we feel. They even start to affect our emotional state, if you remember that part of the discussion. Paying attention to those negative thoughts can affect our emotional state in the same way that gratitude does only to the negative. So it’s important to know that everyone has negative thoughts. It’s part of the kind of garden of thoughts in your mind and I don’t want you to feel worried or freaked out about that, because part of the secret in working with negative thoughts is not being surprised by them and not being freaked out by them and really not trying to eliminate them or suppress them. 

I actually used to kind of think we were supposed to get rid of our negative thinking but if we could work with our thoughts then we should just eradicate the negative ones and only think positive ones. But have you ever tried to do that? Thoughts are kind of like a puppy that we’re trying to control to get to do just what we want to do. It’s not possible. The more you try to control your thoughts, the more out of control they get. For instance, try not thinking about a giant, bright orange pumpkin rolling down the street. The first thing you think of is exactly the thing you’re trying not to think of, and thoughts are kind of rebellious that way. They double down and get more intense when we want them to go away. So the problem is not in having negative thoughts Everyone’s going to have them. The power lies in how we work with them or respond to them. So instead of trying to eliminate them, which is not possible, we are going to learn to work with them, which is very possible, and I think the first step is to really understand them. So let’s define what a negative thought is. 

Negative thoughts tend to center around worry, threat, unworthiness and self-criticism, and they tend to replay bad experiences, predict bad outcomes and focus on things in life that leave us dissatisfied. In general, I use the term negative thought to mean a thought that is not useful to us. It’s just not helpful, things that might hold us back or scare us or make our world seem darker or scarier than it really is, and, in general, it just doesn’t work toward our good. These negative thoughts can distract us from focusing on what’s important and prevent us from enjoying life. They can be really heavy and are at the root of anxiety and depression. So where do negative thoughts come from? Well, we’ve already talked about the negativity bias that your brain generates negative thoughts out of self-protection, so that’s one place they come from, and we often call them automatic when this happens, which means they’re coming without our wanting them to or asking for them. 

Negative thoughts can also come from things that we’ve been told directly or indirectly. If you’re around parents or friends growing up who talked a lot about being critical or fearful or thinking that they have bad luck or that they’re not good enough, we can pick up on those thoughts and adopt them into our own thinking. One reason why I’m so passionate about teaching this material to you all is because you’re modeling thoughts and beliefs to your children, and no one’s going to do this perfectly. But as you learn to work with your own thoughts and get out of negative thought cycles, you will be setting an example for your kids to do the same. Help them decrease their negative thoughts. So there’s even some theories out there around genetic coding. That thought gets passed down in our families from generation to generation, because trauma gets stored in our genetic material and how we respond to that and how it shows up in our thinking. It’s possible that that could also be stored as well and that we pass our genetic material on to our children, so we might be dealing with some automatic thoughts that come even from our parents and grandparents. 

Basically, though, I find that just being human means we have a brain that spits out all sorts of wild and wacky thoughts, just like it can create some of the most creative and beautifully joyous thoughts. So accepting that we’re going to have both kinds of thoughts will go a long way in helping us know how to work with them. Negative thoughts can kind of creep in and can also become a habit. Habits are patterns that we tend to follow without much effort, much conscious effort, and, as you know, we can have habits that work well for us and we can have habits that work against us. So here’s maybe the most important part of this whole episode. 

I want us to realize that we’re talking about thoughts as separate things here, separate from who we are, even though we are the ones having the thoughts inside our head. We’re talking about thoughts as being words in our mind that come together and start to form a story or a narrative, because we think in stories, and some stories are very factual and some are completely made up. Have you ever had thoughts that tell you things that have no rational or factual basis? And it’s easier to hear the thoughts of others that are not based in fact, right Like how the person is thinking them. You can tell that they just feel so true to them. You can see it, but they can’t see it. You guys, this is my job all day long. I get to listen to people’s thoughts and teach them to look at them with some objectivity, because when you are so close to your own thinking and you’re just feeling all the feelings that come from it, it’s very hard to see objectively that you’re having thoughts and that they are optional. 

There’s a saying that goes like this don’t believe everything you read. Well, I’m saying don’t believe everything you think because our minds give us a big menu of thoughts and not all of them are good for us, and this is why we’re training and resilience to learn to work with this human brain we have and really learn to drive it where we want to go. And this is going to include accepting that everyone has negative thoughts at one time or another and that we don’t have to believe every one of them, especially the ones that aren’t serving us, and negative thoughts just don’t serve us. I get push back around this sometimes. Well, lee, I don’t know about you, but I don’t live in a fairyland where only positive things happen. We deal with hard stuff. We can’t pretend all the time to be happy about things. Of course you’re right about that. We’re not looking at swinging the pendulum from negative thinking to positive thinking, where we just are happy about everything. I’m talking about correcting distorted thinking, not about thinking positive all the time. 

Negative thoughts aren’t just thoughts about negative things or things that we think are hard or difficult. They are distorted to the negative. Here’s the difference. I can be thinking about something factual that I have to deal with, like I woke up with a stuffy nose and a sore throat. That’s the factual thought. I have a sore throat and a stuffy nose. 

A negative thought takes those facts and distorts them to the negative. Oh no, now I’m sick. I always get sick. I never can stay healthy Now I won’t be able to enjoy the holidays. I’ll probably have to stay home and miss everything, or this one. 

Factually, the information is there are layoffs happening in your industry, wherever you work. The distorted thought is I’ll probably be one of them. I’m going to be without a job and not be able to find another one. If that happens, I won’t be able to handle it. Or I yelled at the kids this afternoon. There’s the fact, here’s the distortion. I’m the worst mother in the world. I’m ruining these kids. Lee said kids listen to our thoughts. I’m a mess. So now the kids are going to be a mess. They’d be better off without me. Do you hear? 

The distortion of the facts toward the negative? Are those distorted thoughts based upon the truth? Well, they’re related to the truth, but they’re not based on the truth. That’s what the word distorted means. It takes something that, in its pure form, is kind of neutral and then it distorts it toward the negative. And what we want to do is stay more in the zone of neutral with our thinking, where we’re looking at the facts and if we’re going to lean in any direction, we want to lean towards the positive, towards the hopeful, toward the powerful? Do you hear the distortion of the facts toward the negative? Are those thoughts based upon raw facts and truth? Would everyone agree they’re absolutely 100% true? Are they rational? Do they make sense? Would you believe those thoughts for other people? And finally, are the thoughts good for you? Do they help you or support you or encourage you? Isn’t this just the coolest thing that we can look at our thoughts as optional and run them through this criteria to see if we want to keep thinking them? This is really the core of resilient thinking. You may want to go back and listen to episode 15 to get a refresher on what resilient thinking is. 

We’re covering the same topic here, but going a little deeper into the negative spirals that tend to get us down, because what we’re going for is that overarching resilience, not a toxic positivity, and that phrase is really popular right now. Have you noticed that Toxic positivity? What people are pushing back against with that phrase is not feeling the pressure to be happy and perfect all the time and to let ourselves and others have their feelings. If you’re feeling sad or scared or angry, it’s okay. You don’t have to be positive all the time. This is really true. We want you to feel your feelings, but we also don’t want you to go on this big, dreadful, dark slide of feelings into worst-case scenarios that spiral you into hopelessness. So we have to balance this. We want to really make sure that we’re focusing on working with our negative thoughts so we can feel hope in spite of sadness and pain, and comfort ourselves with truth and empowerment, rather than that doomsday, very painful, negative cycle that can happen. So those thoughts that we mentioned just a little bit ago, how would you rewrite them to give you some more hope? Lift your spirits, help you feel empowered so you might think about what you can do to help yourself through. 

Oh no, I have a cold. It’s okay, people get cold sometimes. I can take care of myself. I don’t know yet if I have to miss things. If I do, I’ll get through it. Let’s take it one day at a time. Or I don’t know that I’m getting laid off. I don’t have any evidence yet that I’m going to lose my job. If I did, I’d focus more on what to do to handle it. I’ll be okay. Or I lost my cold and yelled a lot today. I’m really disappointed. I’ve been working so hard at this, but I also did a lot of things with the kids today that went well. I need to remember to count both things. Tomorrow is another day I can repair things with the kids and I can get some sleep to feel a little better and try again tomorrow. 

Can you see how negative thoughts distort the situation? Can add information that isn’t there, or magnify a threat or disregard something that could be positive. If you’re noticing that you do this once in a while, or even a lot, please don’t fear. This is part of being human. We’re not trying to suppress negative thoughts. We just want to decide if those thoughts deserve all of our precious attention. You just want to get good at detecting negative thought distortions and how to handle them so we can get to a balanced and more helpful way of thinking. Is that positive thinking? Well, it’s more positive than the distortions, but it’s not the toxic kind. We want you to feel hope and be able to comfort yourself through every challenge you face. That’s resilience. So learning to work with negative thoughts is important and healthy. Okay, here are some things that we can do to work with our negative thoughts. 

Number one understand that your thoughts are separate from who you are. Go back and listen to episode three and episode five early on in this podcast, where we go much deeper in explaining how thoughts and feelings work. The core of the message is that you and your thoughts are separate. You have thoughts, but they don’t define you. They aren’t all helpful, they aren’t all true and accurate. This means you get to observe them, look at them and even decide how you want to interact with them. Because you’re separate from them, you can put a lot of focus and attention on them, or you can let them chatter in the background and really pay little attention to them. Can we be that flexible with our thinking? That’s the word we use flexibility. Cognitive flexibility means you don’t have to believe everything you think. You get to decide. 

Number two notice those thoughts. Now that you know that they’re there as a separate entity, you can tune in to them and listen for what they are saying, instead of pushing them away. You can listen to them without judgment. The without judgment part is an important step, because sometimes we have a whole other thought that judges our thoughts and says we shouldn’t have such thoughts. Just notice that too. There’s no harm in noticing thoughts. 

If you’re having some big feelings, you’re going to want to look for the thoughts that are beneath them, because thoughts create feelings. One of the best ways to be able to know it’s time to look at your thoughts is when you feel those feelings. Some of those automatic thoughts slip in there so fast and sneaky that you don’t even know they’re there until you start to have all those painful feelings that come from them. If you’re having feelings of peace, calm, gratitude, hope, confidence, love, then you are not in a negative thought distortion. You can even have feelings of fear, sadness and anger and not be in a negative distortion because somehow those feelings are useful for you. 

As you’re noticing that you’re having thoughts that are causing you pain, that are keeping you stuck, you’re going to want to do step number three, which is find the specific thought that’s causing you that pain. We have to do some detective work here. You can even ask what is the thought that is upsetting me the most? You want to start looking for clues to why you’re feeling those dark, despairing kind of feelings, or maybe the scary and the daunting feelings. You might need to just pick a thought anyone that you can catch. You’re looking at a bunch of fish and a barrel and you’re just going to reach in and grab one of those thoughts you’re hearing in your mind and pull it out of the spiral and look at it. It really helps to even write it down. So how do you work with it? This is the next step you take that specific thought and you challenge it Really, take it at face value and question it. 

Here are some questions to run your thoughts through. Number one is the thought true? Okay, wait, really. Look at the thought. Is it really true all of it? Is it so true that everyone else would agree with me? Number two does it make sense? Are there any distortions in it? Am I jumping to conclusions? Am I linking things up that don’t belong together? Would other people agree this thought makes a lot of sense? Number three is the thought good for me? How do I react when I believe this thought? I think that’s maybe one of the biggest. Is it helping me? Is it helping me feel peaceful and confident? Is it the kind of thought I teach my child to have and encourage her to have? And number four what would I be like without this thought, if it were out of my head and I was free to believe something else instead? How would I respond if I had no fear, if this thought just wasn’t bothering me. 

If you’re pulling out a thought and you’re taking the time to run it through these kinds of questions and look at it with this objectivity, you’ve really broken the automation to this negative cycle. We’re using flexibility to work with thoughts and this gives you freedom, because you get to choose what you’re going to think. You get to choose what you’re going to pay attention to, and you can even create a new thought that works better for you. It’s not easy, but it’s so worth the extra effort it takes to practice this, because it will help you feel better and be less afraid to do the things you want to do. As you do this, you’ll notice that your feelings start to change because your thinking is changing. Okay, let’s summarize Working with your thoughts is power. 

You need to accept thoughts, not fight them or suppress them. But accepting them doesn’t mean that you believe them and you leave them unquestioned. You get to question them and then you get to choose more balanced thoughts to serve you better. I invite you to practice watching and listening to your thoughts. Write them down and look at them objectively, run them through the questions. Ultimately, it will help you handle challenges that you’re facing. 

Lately I’ve been practicing priming my thoughts, which for me means I purposely and intentionally put my focus on things that I believe will help me direct my thinking. I made this change somewhere in the middle of COVID, when we were all at home more and the TV was on a lot and the news was reporting things that kind of directed my mind to thoughts of fear, panic and despair. I noticed in my clients their thoughts were very focused on the same kinds of things. We were all reacting to the thoughts of the world, thoughts on the news, reports of danger. I started to guide my clients to listen to the news in small portions and to fill their minds with things that help them focus on hope and power and goodness, and people started feeling better, and so did I. 

I don’t think things have actually changed much since COVID. As soon as one terrible thing has passed, the news finds the next terrible thing, and I’m not against watching the news altogether. But I decided that I needed another direction to fill my thinking with. So I’ve started purposely listening to music that had words that lift me up and give me hopeful things to think about. I read scriptures, read books on the power of the human heart and I listen to meditations that affirm the truths that really comfort and support me and my whole emotional mood and state changed, because what we think directly impacts how we feel and then, ultimately, what we do. So my last invitation to you is to front load some of the things in your life that help you think about things that serve you. 

If you’re feeling down on yourself because you’re learning a new skill or a talent and you think you’ll never get where you want to be, read Carol Dweck’s book on Mindset and remind yourself that it’s the process of learning that brings us growth, not the achievement itself. If you’re feeling bad about your parenting, thinking you’re not doing it right, listen to some podcasts that normalize the challenges of motherhood and give you little ideas to try to impact your situation. Journal your thoughts, then step back and circle the thoughts that help you move forward and then write them on cards and put them on your mirror. Play with the power of your thinking. Don’t take every thought as fact. Choose which ones you want to write on those cards, on your mirror and even on the walls of your heart. Whichever thoughts you practice will feel true to you. Let’s start practicing the ones that really empower us. I believe in the power that we have to work with our thinking, and I’m so grateful for this knowledge and excited for you to try it out in your life too. Thanks for spending time with me and I look forward to seeing you all next week. Take care. 

The Leadership Parenting Podcast is for general information purposes only. It is not therapy and should not take the place of meeting with a qualified mental health professional. The information on this podcast is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, illness or disease. It’s also not intended to be legal, medical or therapeutic advice. Please consult your doctor or mental health professional for your individual circumstances. Thanks again and take care.

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