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THINK: How to Revolutionize Your Thought Life

Think Act Be, Part I

I was trained as a clinical psychologist, primarily in an evidence-based approach called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The basic premise of CBT is that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intimated connected.

Later I was introduced to mindfulness-based treatment, which I incorporated into my work. Mindfulness emphasizes an open and accepting focus on what's happening in the present.

Part of what I love about mindfulness-based CBT is that it's effective not only for treating conditions like severe depression and overwhelming OCD—it's also a powerful approach for anyone who wants to live well.

Even when we know how we want to design our lives, we need tools to support our

goals. Mindfulness-based CBT provides three well-tested tools:

Think: Fostering patterns of thought that serve us well

Act: Planning our behaviors to match our goals

Be: Opening to our present experience just as it is.

From "Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive

Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks"

This post is the first of a three-part series that will summarize these three interconnected approaches.



There’s a story I sometimes tell about a young man's self-hating thoughts. It wouldn't take much to trigger them. Even opening the refrigerator and finding very little to eat could do it. I'm such a loser, he thought to himself as he closed the refrigerator door, frustrated with himself for being the kind of person who has little food in the house.

And then in a rare moment of clarity he heard what he was telling himself—that if he weren’t such a loser, there would be more food in the fridge.

When he realized what he’d just thought, he actually smiled a little as he shook his head. The refrigerator’s not empty because I’m a loser, he thought, it's empty because we shop for groceries on Saturday, and today's Friday.

What a relief it was to let go of the unnecessary self-hating. He'd had a similar feeling countless times over the past year but didn't even realize he was telling himself a story to explain why things happened.

All the thoughts centered around the idea that he was a loser, inadequate in some essential way. "I am a loser" felt on par with "The sky is blue"—simply another observation of reality.

Once he became aware of his thought patterns, he began to notice countless negative assumptions he’d made about himself—assumptions he could test to see if they were valid.

What I didn't used to mention about this story is that it’s my own. Several years ago I was going through a challenging period in my life. I didn't realize that my thoughts had gotten really distorted, turning so easily to "I'm a loser."

We might think a psychologist would be good at recognizing problematic thoughts, especially when he's trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. I'd been doing CBT at that point for about 7 years, so I was well aware of the tools that would show me what my mind was up to.

But like most of us, I took for granted that my thoughts were true.

I thought I was seeing the world (including myself) as it was, not through the thick lenses of my own bias. So if you find that you haven't noticed unhelpful ways of thinking, don't worry—you're not alone, and it's never too late to start.

Identifying and Challenging Our Thoughts

Figure 1: Template for recording a triggering event, the thoughts we had, and the resulting emotions. From "Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks"

We typically start with an upsetting event and record the emotions we felt and any thoughts we can identify (see Figure 1).

For example, Karen had been courting a new client but didn't end up getting the account (EVENT). She thought to herself, "I suck at this" (THOUGHT), and felt dejected (EMOTION).

Once we've pinpointed the thoughts we're having, we can examine them to see if they hold up.

In this example, it would be important for Karen to know if she's actually bad at her job so she could find ways to improve her performance, or choose another line of work.

It turned out that Karen was actually quite skilled at work, and had had so much success that her superiors were talking about an early promotion. Their endorsement was strong evidence against her automatic self-judgment, and helped her to reevaluate how she interpreted this disappointing turn of events.

She ended up replacing the "I suck" thought with one that was based in reality:

I'm successful at what I do, even though I don't get every account I pursue.

This thought was not only more accurate but was much friendlier to herself. Moreover, it led her to keep putting in her best effort at work. If she'd believed her initial thought, she very well might have slacked off, thinking her efforts wouldn't make a difference.

How to Get Started:

If you'd like to foster a thought life that serves you well, begin by being curious about what your mind is up to. Think of yourself as a scientist, studying the landscape of your thoughts.

If it's hard to hear what you're telling yourself, consider quieting the mind. For example, if something happens and you notice you're feeling upset in some way, consider:

  • pausing for a moment and acknowledging that something is getting you down

  • moving to a quiet place if you can

  • taking a moment to breathe

  • writing down what’s happening and how you feel.

Once you’ve cleared some mental space you can ask yourself, What’s going through my mind?

Be as open as you can to hearing what your thoughts are. Sometimes we dismiss a thought before we really let ourselves examine it because the thoughts are painful—ones like, "I'm not good enough."

Once you've figured out the thought(s), take some time to consider whether it's true. Is there another explanation? Is there evidence you might be ignoring? What might you tell a friend in a similar situation?

By tending to our thoughts, it's easier to choose actions that keep us feeling well—a topic I'll pick up with next time.

- Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, LLC


blog: ThinkActBe

Twitter: @sethgillihan

Retrain Your Brain: CBT in 7 Weeks

Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery

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