To begin any change, first you need to identify all behaviors needing change, because you can’t alter what you don’t acknowledge. And if you refuse to acknowledge your own self-destructive beliefs and behaviors, not only will they continue, they’ll become more deeply entrenched and grow more resistant to change.
Acknowledgement of your weaknesses (and strengths) requires absolute honesty about what is and what isn’t working in your life. You need to know both what’s working, (which you can celebrate) and what’s not, so you can fix it.
I offer an exercise that will help you identify the beliefs you need to alter. However, before we begin:
- First, give yourself permission to examine and question every belief you now hold about yourself.
- Second, open your mind to the possibility that some of your beliefs – even ones you’ve firmly held as true – may be false.
- Third, allow the possibility that some of your beliefs may be preventing you from moving forward as you’d like.
Now, we’re ready for the exercise. Relax and take an unhurried few moments to answer the questions below (simply reflect on your responses to each question; nothing needs to be written down for this exercise).
- Name the person or people who bring you the greatest joy. Think about why they make you happy.
- Name the thing you enjoy doing the most. Think about how you feel when you’re doing it.
- Name a place you love to go. Think about that place and, using your imagination, “go there” for a few moments.
- Now, name a person in your life who causes you sadness and pain. Did you just go from peace to agitation? Why?
- Name what you like least about your job or about your family. Feel what’s happening to your state of mind as you go there.
- Think about a time when someone you care about humiliated or deeply hurt you.
If you did that exercise thoughtfully, taking your time and imagining in great detail, you experienced the marvelous power of the mind. In a matter of seconds, you can go from happiness and peace to agitation and discomfort, even anger. This same mind power will be your ally as you attempt to identify the negative behaviors in your life that need altering. As you carefully question your self-beliefs, in your heart of hearts, you will know what needs correcting in your life.
And, with that same mind power, you can control your thoughts – if you choose. There are three steps. Each one is mandatory, if you are to successfully control your thoughts.
- FOCUS FORWARD
LABEL YOUR NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Labeling your negative thoughts is like casting a light into a dark room – it disperses the darkness (negativity). Labeling is the critical part of this “solution” because when a negative thought enters your mind, you can either pay attention and stop it – by labeling it immediately – or you can let your mind take you along a negative path and allow the thought to grow and fester. A far better choice is to “nip it in the bud.” This requires you to exert some willpower and strength of character. The very moment a negative thought enters your mind, label it with something like:
- “That was negative”
- “That was unkind.” (Name the thought: critical, judgmental, etc.)
- “That wasn’t like me. I usually don’t think negative thoughts.”
The third comment (above) is a superb self-fulfilling prophecy that helps people hurdle the barrier of habitually negative thought patterns.
REPLACE YOUR NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Replacing negative thoughts is most effectively done by trying to ’be’ the person you’re thinking about, with their needs and life experiences. This requires you to put yourself in the other person’s position and really consider why he’s speaking or acting as he is. Most of the time, with this perspective, even if you don’t agree with the person, at least you can replace the negative thought with something like:
- “I can understand why she’s doing (saying) that. It’s because she…”
- “If I understood her better, I’d probably like her more. I’ll get to know her.”
- “Too bad he acts (talks) that way. What can I learn from it?”
- “Different strokes for different folks!”
FOCUS YOUR THINKING FORWARD
Healthy forward thinking is the third step. Instead of focusing backwards, blaming others, or wallowing in negativity, fill your mind with positive thoughts that move you forward. Is it always easy? No. Is it possible? Absolutely! Does it sometimes take creativity? You bet. Here are some examples of positive, forward thinking that are solution-based:
- “I usually don’t think unkind thoughts like that. I’ll do better next time.”
- “Tomorrow will be better. Good days usually follow rough ones!”
- “I might not have all the facts. I’ll learn more and it’ll probably make sense.”
And this is perfect for adults who regret any past action:
- I made the best decision I could with the information I had at the time. I have more information now, and I’ll do better in the future.”
The steps to change negative self-beliefs aren’t difficult. But, as with all things worth doing, the process requires effort. And yet, don’t let yourself become discouraged if you have trouble in the beginning, if changing your thought patterns proves to be difficult for you. Your previous ways of thinking are habits and it takes about three to six weeks to break a habit. Have the courage to keep trying until you naturally and easily think predominantly positive thoughts.
It comes back to the question, “How badly do you really want to change?” And that reminds me of a well-known story about Socrates.
WHAT THE SEEKER NEEDS
One afternoon, a young man approached Socrates, the wise old philosopher, and exclaimed, “Socrates, I want to know what you know! I want knowledge and wisdom like yours!”
The gentle Socrates replied, “Very well, young man. Follow me.” And he led the youth to a nearby pond, where he held the boy’s head under the water for quite a long time.
When Socrates finally released his grip, the young man jerked up out of the water and gasped, “Socrates! Why did you do that?” The philosopher calmly asked, “Young man, when you were under the water, what did you want most in the world?”
The boy answered, “Air! I wanted air!” And then Socrates patiently explained, “Young man, when you want knowledge and wisdom as badly as you wanted air, you’ll find a way to get it.”
I would like to submit that when your desire for change and improvement is great enough, you’ll make the effort to control your thoughts and direct them in positive ways.
We’ll conclude this principle the way we began – by assessing your self beliefs in an attempt to ascertain the positive ones that empower and strengthen you, and the negative ones that limit you. You’ll keep the first and discard the second.
This is first done by carefully questioning and examining your beliefs. Now take a quality moment of unhurried time – right now – and ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have beliefs (that I may have held for years) which might be wrong? What are they?
Now, it’s tough to re-examine your core beliefs. It is difficult to scrutinize the personal convictions you’ve held for years. You’re doing this, though, because some of your closely-held beliefs might be preventing you from reaching your goals and becoming your ideal self. Defining and questioning those beliefs is the first step.
To discover your long-held limiting beliefs, ask why you either succeed or fail in each of these life areas:
Ask yourself two questions for each area in your life:
- Physical: Do I excel physically? If not, why not?
- With Relationships
Now ask yourself (in each area):
- “What positive beliefs can replace my negative ones?”
Here’s an example of how to do this:
- Physical. Do I excel? “No.” Why not?
- “Because I was never any good at sports.”
- “I was overweight.”
- “My parents didn’t encourage me.”
- “There wasn’t an athletic program at my school.”
What positive beliefs can replace the negative ones?
- “Even though I wasn’t involved in sports in school, it isn’t too late to start learning and getting in shape.”
- “I can swim each morning with the community group at the local pool.”
- “I can jog around the high school track before work in the mornings, and perhaps join a competitive program for masters when I’m ready.”
- “I can join the local work-out facility/I can shoot hoops with my buddies (or children). It’s never too late to have fun!”
Another exercise that provides clarity begins with asking yourself the following questions:
- “What will the consequences be (what will happen) if I continue believing as I do?”
- “Will those consequences bring me happiness or unhappiness?”
- “What would I have to believe in order to succeed and enjoy greater happiness?”
The answers to these questions will most likely be revealing. Remember, one well-known definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” If some part of your life isn’t working, question your beliefs and make changes.
Examine each belief that keeps you from being successful – at home, at work, in your relationships, etc. and replace those negative beliefs with positive ones. Choose beliefs that empower you and make you a better person. Release yourself from damaging beliefs. It will take effort and creativity, but the rewards are unlimited. I suggest you do this self-discovery exercise with a loved one who deeply cares about your well-being, and with whom you are completely comfortable.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their beliefs.”
~ Dr. Paula