What were you thinking?!
I remember that question being posed in a negative, judgmental or even joking way a lot in my childhood. Initially it was on TV show I watched where the main character did something to cause a big problem, like put a whole container of detergent into the washing machine and comes back a little while later to find a floor full of soap bubbles with more pouring out of the machine. And then her friend asks “what were you thinking?”
These days, I ask myself that question with a much different intention behind it. Not judging, or joking, but more from a curious place.
What was I thinking that led me to this problem, this poor result, or this frustrated feeling? It’s a great question to ask yourself, especially when working through challenging times.
For example, this morning as I stepped out of the shower I coughed and immediately winced in pain, as the muscle from my shoulder to my neck went into a painful spasm. The kind where you can’t turn your neck to see behind you without screaming in pain. This area had bothered me in the past, but not to this extreme.
As soon as it happened, as I worried about how this was going to disrupt my plans for today, I asked myself “what were you thinking” right before the cough. I’m moving to a new home in a few weeks, and was looking at the cabinet and thinking about all the things that have to get packed, and getting a bit stressed about it. Then the cough, then the pain: I interpreted it to be my body’s way of telling me to stop worrying about the future move, stay present and focused on today.
How our minds work
You see, our minds work in a particular way. It’s estimated that the mind thinks between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day which averages to 49 thoughts per minute, according to the Lab of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California.
Thoughts are your natural response to a situation or circumstance. As the human body encounters sensory data (what it sees, hears, etc.), your brain naturally attempts to make sense of this sensory data and the mind turns these signals into thoughts.
In other words, we experience something and immediately our brain attaches a thought to it. You walk into a room and think “hmm, it’s cold in here”.
There are so many thoughts throughout the day that we can’t pay attention to them all, but it’s important that you start because our thoughts create our emotions or feelings. It happens so quickly that sometimes we think the emotion caused the thought, but the thoughts come first. Sticking with the earlier cold room example, after thinking “hmm, it’s cold in here”, you start to feel uncomfortable and a little disappointed. You don’t like being cold.
Next comes how we behave, or act, based on this emotion or feeling. Again, you’re in a cold room, feeling uncomfortable, and now you go find a blanket or jacket to put on, and turn the heat up.
And that action you took gives your desired result: you begin to feel warmer, and happy that you’re no longer cold.
What you think directly influences how you feel and how you behave.
Negative self-talk and limiting beliefs
This same process can work in an unhelpful way too. If you’re struggling in a particular area of your life, it could be your thoughts that are keeping you in that struggle.
Sometimes you may not even be consciously aware of these thoughts. When I work with coaching clients, it’s very easy for me to hear these types of repetitive, unhelpful thoughts come up as my client is speaking.
It could be something as simple saying the words “should” or “try” a lot. “I should start meditating every day then I’ll feel better”, or “I’ve been so drained lately, I’ll try to get to bed early this week”.
How do you feel after saying those sentences? Confident, enthusiastic, eager to feel better? Not so much.
Compare that with “I will start mediating” or “I am going to get to bed early this week” – big difference in not only tone and energy behind the words you choose, but the feelings they elicit (confident, enthusiastic, eager, positive) and the results you’ll get.
Using weak words that don’t produce the emotions and feelings you’re seeking is setting yourself up to fail and come up short of your desired results.
Limiting beliefs are repetitive thoughts you’ve had that have become truth for you; they’re part of your belief system, and now they’re limiting you in some way.
For example, you could have a limiting belief from something you heard in childhood from a parent, like “all rich people are corrupt and evil”.
So now, when you achieve some financial success, earn more money and start to build some wealth, you spend it very quickly or lose it through a bad investment. You seem to have a pattern of struggling with building and sustaining wealth, and that can be traced back to this limiting belief.
Money, and your relationship with it, is a key issue for many people and many times we have these limiting beliefs keeping us stuck.
Another one is relationships. Maybe you’ve had the experience of getting really close to someone and then they disappoint you or they leave you.
Now you may have a thought that runs through your mind “I better not get to close to him, he’s just going to leave me anyway and I don’t want to get hurt.” And then you find yourself unable to have the close relationships you want to experience.
Here are other examples of limiting beliefs. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “I never have any luck.”
- “I have to work really hard to be successful.“
- “Work can’t be fun.”
- “I’m too old” or “I’m too young.“
- “I’m not good at ____________. “
- “I can’t afford that.”
Harness the power of your thoughts: become aware
The first step in harnessing the power of your thoughts is to become aware of what they are.
If you work with a coach, you can ask her to pay attention to any limiting or negative beliefs or repetitive language you use. Sometimes we don’t hear ourselves until someone points it out to us, and that awareness alone can begin to elicit change.
Like in my muscle spasm story above, you can become more aware by asking yourself “what were you thinking?” right when a problem, issue or negative feeling arises.
Pay attention to your feelings and emotions and how they may showing up in your body before you act. Does your chest or jaw get tight when you perceive someone is treating you unfairly? Does your stomach hurt when you worry about an upcoming work deadline?
Harness the power of your thoughts: challenge and change your thoughts
Once aware of your thoughts and of the signals your body gives you, those emotions and feelings, you’re in a position to challenge and change these thoughts for better results.
For example, if you consider yourself too scared to step outside of your comfort zone, force yourself to do something that feels a little uncomfortable. Or, if you think you’re not good enough or don’t deserve to have success, do something that helps you to feel worthy.
Additionally, recondition your mind with thoughts and beliefs that are empowering, that serve you, and that get you closer to what you really want in your life.
Let’s say you’ve decided to stop eating sugar for health reasons. It’s not so bad after you get through the first few days of withdrawals. But after a few weeks of feeling full of energy and proud of sticking to no sugar, you don’t feel well, maybe you’re catching a cold, and a thought goes through your head as you spot what used to be your favorite cookies in the grocery store, “if I eat this cookie I’ll feel better”.
Logically you know this isn’t true, but the thought and urge are strong. Maybe your Mom would give you a cookie if you hurt yourself as a child, to make you feel better. But it doesn’t really matter what happened in the past, just stay in the present.
You now have a choice to make, and it’s always about what you choose to believe and then what you choose to do. You’re responsible and in charge.
You can change that thought to “if I eat this cookie, I’ll feel even worse” or “if I have some nice hot tea with lemon I’ll feel better and recover more quickly” or for more emotion, “sugar is poison to my body, I’d rather nurture my body and start feeling better another way”. Think about how you’ll feel too: bringing strong emotions and feelings into these thoughts will empower you.
Harness the power of your thoughts & recondition your mind
Your mind is very powerful. If you’re like most people, you probably spend very little time reflecting on the way you think.
But negative thoughts that you don’t challenge and change can have damaging effects to your wellbeing and prevent you from ever achieving your full potential in life.
It all comes down to being aware of your thoughts, deciding what you’re going to choose to believe about those thoughts (is it serving me or not?), and changing any limiting thoughts and beliefs to ones that benefit you.
Making the conscious decision to harness the power of your thoughts and recondition your mind with empowering thoughts and beliefs is key to your success.
Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash