I used to believe that I couldn't access joy or wellness unless external things in my life changed. This is a really common thought error. It makes us a bit stuck – hoping and waiting instead of making the internal change that is available to us. At work, this thought error leads us to wait for decisionmakers in our workplaces to “fix” things, while the decisionmakers are expecting us to manage our stress on our own. In her book Trauma Stewardship, Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky warns, “If we allow our happiness and sense of success to hinge on things outside of ourselves, we will wait for our well-being indefinitely” (Lipsky, 2009).
There is a certain freedom in knowing that we can find happiness within ourselves, even if it takes some work. This doesn’t mean that we try to become unflappable regardless of what is happening around us: we may still want to change our situation. But it becomes much easier to be happier if we don’t feel dependent on others for our happiness.
Self-coaching myself in "thoughtwork" has led some big changes in my sense of control over my life and happiness. Thoughtwork is about retraining your brain to produce more helpful thinking, which can reduce fear, anger, anxiety and other “negative” emotions. In thoughtwork, we become observers of our own minds, noticing what feelings and actions our thoughts create. Since neither thoughts nor feelings are facts, they aren’t always the best resource, at least not without some reflection first. Feelings can indeed be a source of knowledge; for example, they can provide signals of what you want and don’t want. In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, practitioners describe trying to find the “wise mind” between your rational mind and your emotional mind. When practicing mindfulness (a key tool in DBT), you notice your thoughts and feelings, and let them pass without judgement.
Thoughtwork is only effective if we are not in a heightened arousal state or emotional shutdown (i.e., “fight, flight or freeze”). This could feel like a tightness in the chest, holding your breath, or your heartrate quickening. It could also feel like being spaced out and easily distracted. In a heightened/shut down state, you are more likely to engage in more absolute and defeatist thinking. You may have difficulty processing information. You may find that your brain fights with you every step of the way, like the proverbial devil and angel on each shoulder, each battling for supremacy. To be able to do the exercises that follow, you will need to tune into your body to see if it’s ready for wiser thinking. You might have some physiological responses so automatic that you wouldn’t even normally notice them before they link up to a “hot thought.” You would first need to try meditation, deep breathing, yoga or another relaxing practice to get into a calmer zone.
If you’re stuck, you may need to mentally access an ally in your life. Say to yourself, “What would my friend/sister/partner/therapist/favourite writer say?” Even when we’ve done the work to be our own ally, our self esteem and compassion can falter sometimes. Fortunately, we can take our loved ones, role models, spiritual guides and mentors with us on our journey, even if they’re not physically with us. And, by all means, ask for their support in real life if you can.
It’s also important to practice self-compassion in this process, rather than just trying to “logic” yourself out of a feeling. You can literally show yourself love through hugging yourself, and through affirmations like, “I love and accept myself.”
When contemplating change, you evaluate various paths that you could take. When you consider your options, a fear-based, “No way am I doing that!” thought may pop into your mind. It may cause a rising or tightening feeling of panic in your belly, heart and/or throat. We might dismiss the option immediately based on this thought and feeling. The option may seem totally illogical, preposterous even. For example, a client of mine delayed taking medication for a long time because she thought, “It’s my situation that is depressing me; there is nothing wrong with my brain!” This thought was based on the core belief that medication is only for people who have a brain chemistry problem; that medication should be avoided. She thought as soon as she took a leave or left the job, she would feel better. But her brain had changed. Eventually, she took a leave and medication, and reports that both helped. Now, I am not telling this story to say you should go on medication (or a leave). Taking medication is a very personal decision. My point is that she dismissed an idea that ultimately was good for her. Being able to observe your thoughts and question your core beliefs is an important part of making change.
“I have no control over my life” is an example of a common “hot” thought, cognitive distortion, or thought error - i.e., it’s not true! That thought then produces the feelings of hopelessness and desperation. The action that emerges from that is usually, well, inaction. If you are able to stop and listen to the thought, “I have no control over my life,” you can question the truth of it and come up with a more helpful thought. A more helpful thought could be, “Although there are some things outside of my control, there are enough things within my control for me to make a change.” You could then list all of the things that are within your control. For example, if you feel you won’t be able to get a job because you can’t control whether you get chosen, you can remind yourself that you have control over your presentation, your preparation, your interview anxiety, and so on.
You have control over your life. It starts with managing your thoughts, feelings and actions.
If you like what I say here, you may be interested in my Exit Burnout Program or my "Exit Burnout" self-help workbook. Get in touch for more information.