Dr. Randi Gray
Helpful and Unhelpful Thoughts
One thing I love about thought work is that it often takes us from a place of disempowerment to empowerment. Think about the idea of all the situations we experience throughout the day being the thing that dictates to us what we feel, think, and do. That is how some people experience life.
“It was that thing that happened at work that made me mad,” “It was what my friend said that made me feel sad,” “It was that conversation with a family member that ruined the rest of my day.” We sometimes think that our emotional reactions are rooted in the things we experience and the situations in our lives. Certainly, on some level, these things impact us, but we also have more power, choice, and control than we apply.
Consider for a moment the idea that it is not the situation that decides how we feel, but the
very first thought that we have about the situation that leads to the corresponding emotion. Here is where we find some empowerment. We cannot control many of the situations we experience, sometimes, we did not create the situation, and sometimes we did not choose to be in the situation. As life would have it, we are in the situation anyways. What we can choose is the very first thought we have about the situation. You are the only thinker in your head.
When we choose unhelpful thoughts, we tend to make hard situations harder. When we
choose helpful thoughts, we can navigate hard situations more effectively. It is no longer the situation that decides the emotion you are feeling, but the very first thought you have about the situation that leads to the emotion. That emotion will lead to the behavior or the thing you will do next.
Thought, emotion, and behavior--that is the chain of events we are doing to be more mindful of and choose how we want that to feel and look. I teach this concept to clients of all ages.
If I am teaching this to a child, I might say the situation is your favorite toy just broke, clearly a challenging situation. Sometimes we have to push pause so that we can choose the thought because often, our brain will fire the unhelpful thought before we even realize it. In this example, an unhelpful thought might say, “No fair, bad things always happen to me.” Once you’ve said that thought, you probably feel angry or frustrated. Once you feel that way, you might throw the toy against the wall and walk out of the room.
Now, if we push pause and ask ourselves what a helpful thought might be, you will have time to choose more effectively how you handle that situation. A helpful thought might say, “I’m glad I have other toys to play with,” or “Maybe my mom can fix this toy.” Once you say that thought, you might feel neutral or even grateful. Now that you feel these emotions, you might just pick up another toy and start playing with it.
It is important to realize that a helpful thought does not have to be a positive thought. In a challenging situation, your brain will not believe something that is unrealistic. In our example, it would not be realistic or appropriate just to say, “It’s okay my favorite toy is broken.” That would not feel true, and we do not want to invalidate the emotions that might be part of that experience. We are simply looking for a helpful thought to help you through that situation more effectively.
As you work with your counselor, we spend time identifying your patterns of thought and use this information to teach you how you find helpful thoughts related to your situations, experiences, and patterns. It takes some time and practice, and as you improve your skills and abilities, your thoughts begin to change, and your emotional reactions become healthier and more balanced. Your behaviors are more effective for producing positive outcomes. You will also grow these skills by adding information such as common thought distortions to more fully inform your thought work.