Challenging Thoughts – Part I

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. Dan Millman

As a professor, I was always trying to impress upon my students how our own life experiences frame our understanding of a work of literature. This became clear in our discussions about the literary works we read in class. There can be as many different opinions about the meaning of a literary work as there are students in the class. The same can be said of how we give meaning to all of life’s experiences. Events or situations occur and we understand them based on our interpretations, limiting beliefs, and assumptions.

Just as with literature, sometimes we have a strong emotional reaction to life. Sometimes we act out of fear or anger without even realizing it at the time. Other times, our instinct is to hold back, to hide. This is because of our inner critic. Our thoughts, limiting beliefs, assumptions and inner critic limit us. Because of these automatic ways of thinking and feeling, we react to life without forethought. This creates the patterns we see in our lives – the recurring situations, the particular type of people we seem to attract – because we create our reality with our thoughts. And we can change our thoughts!

In my coaching practice, I frequently work with clients on challenging thoughts even when they come to coaching for another reason. In this post you will learn about different types of thoughts and beliefs. I’ll illustrate these concepts with examples. Then, in the next post, I’ll explain how to change them.

Interpretations, Assumptions, and Limiting Beliefs
We often react to life through that lens of past experience without ever stopping to think whether our experience is really what is happening in this moment. We ascribe meaning to events and other people’s behavior based on our beliefs and values. Our understanding of these things may have nothing to do with reality. This is an interpretation. Other people experiencing the same event with us, or people whose behavior we have observed, may have a completely different understanding of the situation and their behavior. In my literature class, one of the poems we studied was “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke. The poem is about a brief experience between a father and son who dance around the kitchen disturbing the pots and pans. Some students interpret the poem as being about an abusive relationship between a boy and his alcoholic father. The opening lines identify that the father had been drinking. Other lines describe the boy being scratched when his father stumbled and the father keeping time on the boy’s head. Others interpret the poem differently. They find a happy memory about an evening’s romp. Just like students interpreting literature, we interpret everything we see and experience. There will be as many interpretations about an experience as there are people involved. Interpretations are unique to us in the main. Others may interpret things similarly, but the experiences behind our interpretations are our own.

In contrast to the interpretation that is our own, a limiting belief is an idea that is believed by many people but that really has no basis in reality. We all have them. We learn them from our parents and other adults in our lives. Growing up, I heard people (mostly men, but even some women) say that women are not good drivers. As a result, I was afraid to learn to drive. My instructor said he had never met anyone as nervous behind the wheel as I was. I eventually outgrew my fear but these types of generalizations about specific groups of people are judgments that are false and don’t serve the people believing them or the group they are targeted at.

Unlike a limiting belief that is shared by the majority, an assumption is unique to our experience. When we believe that something that happened before will happen again, that is an assumption. Just because something occurred in the past doesn’t mean the same thing will necessarily happen again or happen in the same way with the same outcomes. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. If we had a frustrating or undesirable experience with one person of a particular gender, ethnicity, in a position of authority, or in a particular job, it doesn’t mean that all people who are of the same sex, race, authority or career will cause us the same upset. Just because one police officer gave you a lecture before citing you, it doesn’t mean another one won’t cut you a break. No two people are exactly alike and believing they are limits the possible outcomes in every interaction.

These ways of thinking limit us and others. They hold us back from seeing other perspectives and possibilities. Interpretations, limiting beliefs and assumptions lock us into a particular pattern of thinking, feeling and behaving. It restricts our ability to choose our response to people and situations. Instead, we are locked into courses of action that no longer benefit us. Our emotions are created by our thoughts and our behavior is strongly and frequently motivated by our emotions. When we change our thoughts, our behavior and emotions change along with them.

Inner Critic
We all have that voice in our head that criticizes what we do, puts us down, and in every way prevents us from doing things we want to do. Whenever we are about to step outside our comfort zone or we are close to achieving a goal or dream, the inner critic gets very loud and abusive. With thoughts like “you’re lazy” or “you’ll never amount to anything” or simply “you’re not good enough”, resounding in our heads, we shrink back. We don’t stretch ourselves or reach our goals when we listen to that voice. This is our inner critic and it is much more powerful than interpretations, assumptions and limiting beliefs.

The inner critic comes from a very deep place inside of us, from a place of fear. It can be the result of a painful past experience – a child’s interpretation of what happened and why – that has hardened into a core belief. Possibly, we no longer remember the event that spawned this inner critic. The memory lurks in the shadows just out of sight. But, we feel the presence of something bad. It must have been very traumatic to make us so afraid, to create this inner critic that has worked diligently over the years to prevent a recurrence of such an event.

The thoughts generated by our inner critic can be more difficult to shift than other limiting thoughts. The voice has roots all the way back into the past. The emotions associated with the voice (the inner critic’s and ours in response) are more intense and paralyzing. However, recognizing the inner critic for what it is – an old friend that doesn’t fit us anymore – is a big step in overcoming the fear engendered by the voice and its message. The inner critic is like an old friend because it tries to protect us. It wants what is best for us, and based on what happened when we were young, the inner critic believes that some things are not good for us. However, we are not children anymore. As adults, we have a different perspective on things. We can handle a lot more, and understand a lot more, than we could when we were young. We recognize that choice is better, stronger, more life-affirming than being tied to an outmoded way of thinking and acting. We want to be able to consciously choose to expose ourselves to possible embarrassment, anger, or praise so that we can continue to grow and develop ourselves. As adults, we recognize that we only truly fail when we don’t try. Being unsuccessful is an opportunity to try something different, to practice something new, and to continue to grow and develop. Recognizing this is the first step on the path to replacing the harsh messages with something more empowering.

What challenging thoughts do you experience? How do you deal with them?

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