The Power of Choice in How We Think
Rodin's The Thinker
We choose how we think. How we think about ourselves, our life and our worth. At first blush, this seems Pollyanna, or just plain wrong. Our thought patterns, particularly when they relate to how we feel and think about ourselves and our circumstances certainly must be “automatic” “natural” and most importantly uncontrollable. The idea of choosing to think differently must therefore be contrived, fake and unnatural.
Much of this may well be true. But with critical distinctions. Over time, we do in fact develop automatic patterns of thought. But, this is only because we have engaged in this pattern of thought consistently and without interruption or challenge.
Practice anything long enough and you will get good at it. The first time you got on a bike (or if you are a Gen Xer, a skateboard or better yet a Snowboard) it felt insane. Surely, you would never feel normal on this thing. Fast forward a year o two and it is hard to make yourself feel anything but comfortable on it.
This is an example of how through practice and a belief that we can in fact have a different experience and mindset, the brain is literally rewired to think and experience differently. We do have choice in which patterns of thought we choose to make automatic.
How can this be? If you are a person who often feels quite badly, despairing or who often has negative and harshly critical “self talk”, it is likely that this “habitual thinking pattern” has been established over months or likely years of “practice”. At a certain point in time, you likely made a decision to listen and trust the voice in you which undermined and attacked your worth as a human being. (it may not have felt like a conscious decision but the effect is the same)
You will probably notice that unless you are suffering from longer term Major Depression (which can also respond very well to Cognitive Therapy though perhaps in combination with medication) that even though most of the time your thoughts about yourself are negative and your experience of your life generally bad, there are still moments of pleasure, joy and even a sense of well-being.
The problem is, these moments are few and fleeting. And yet, they do occur. Why? Why and how can we have these pleasant and healthy thoughts but only rarely. The answer likely lies in how we choose to think about theses feelings and thoughts of joy at the very moment in which we have them.
For example, if I am suffering with a negative and habitually self-critical mindset, when I have moments of pleasant, positive thoughts, I likely talk back to them with language like “I’m feeling good now, but this will never last, this isn’t real. “ What I am saying to myself here is “good feelings don’t count” “Good feelings and thoughts are false, illogical and wrong.”
THESE are the thoughts to push against, to fight, to challenge.
These are the thoughts that are the most illogical. Why do I say that these thoughts are illogical? Now we get somewhat into the domain of Philosophy of the Mind, but in short, it is arbitrary to put faith in any one way of thinking. After all, none of us know what is absolutely true in the world. And there is no objective and absolute fact about our own value and worth. Therefore we must choose how to think of ourselves. Most of us can look at ourselves and our lives and see ample reasons to love and trust or mistrust and loathe ourselves.
The important distinction is that one way of thinking leads to a dramatically healthier and satisfying way of going through our lives than the other. If two choices are absolutely equal in validity but one feels good and one bad, we must, if we desire a better life, work to choose the positive.
it is far from my intention to say anything like “it’s just that simple” It ain’t simple. Not by a longshot. Neither is this approach to therapy “purely cognitive” in spite of the name. Without the development of trust and connection between client and therapist which is rarely a thinking process but rather an emotional and experiential one, can this change begin to take root.
If you are engaging in a goal similar to the one I have described, I salute your courage, and I wish you the very best of luck. A little luck never hurts either.
Aaron Gilbert, LICSW