You’re sitting in a dark room alone and begin thinking about who’s creating the noise you hear nearby? A colleague, your supervisor, or partner unexpectedly schedules an “I need to talk to you soon” meeting? What are you thinking and feeling in those moments? Highly probable that fear, stress, dread, and anxiety are in the mix.
Although nothing is inherently dangerous about the dark, noise, and being alone, or necessarily negative that someone requests a quick meeting with an unstated purpose, your mind can quickly generate negative thoughts in both situations. Time and attention to these thoughts can quickly yield a rapid heart rate, sweating palms, a feeling of dread, tension in the shoulders, stomach pains, dry mouth, and a host of other physical sensations that are particular to how fear and anxiety show up in your body.
Imagine you turn the lights on and discover the noise was a neighbor struggling to find her keys—no danger. Imagine in the meeting that your colleague or supervisor shares news of an unexpected opportunity she has and wants your thoughts. Neither scenario included a real threat to your safety although your mind may have generated thoughts that triggered very real emotions and physical sensations. When you reflect on these examples and other experiences, it’s not hard to recognize that your thoughts are powerful and yet not always aligned with reality.
Thoughts Create Feelings
It may seem counter-intuitive at first that thoughts are so powerful but keep reading. We’re tempted to credit circumstances and other people with creating our emotions. In the examples above you might say, “surrounded by darkness, the noise scared me” or “my supervisor stressed me out with her sudden request to meet with me.” The proximity of your fear and stress in both situations to the circumstances can lead you to link these and attribute a causal relationship between them. Yet rather than attributing circumstances or other people as the cause of your feelings consider your thoughts as the catalyst for your feelings.
Reframe: New Possibilities
Now imagine a world where students, direct reports, chairs, deans, colleagues, friends, spouses, children, parents, etc. don’t frustrate, anger, or create stress for you. Rather your thoughts about students, direct reports, chairs, deans, colleagues, friends, spouses, children, and parents create frustration, anger, or stress.
Imagine the freedom that resides on the other side of embracing this truth. After all, the behavior of students, direct reports, chairs, deans, colleagues, friends, spouses, children, parents, and others are beyond your control. If they had the power to generate your negative emotions then you would be a victim and at their mercies.
GOOD NEWS: You are in control of your thoughts, you have the power to change your thoughts.
Multiple Sources of Evidence
You can find explanations for the link between thoughts or beliefs and feelings in cognitive and behavioral psychology research, neuroscience, folk wisdom, personal experiences, spiritual teachings, received wisdom, etc.
- Theodore Roosevelt is credited with observing, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t you’re right.”
- Remember The Little Engine That Could, Platt & Munk’s popular children’s book with the message that accomplishing a challenging task begins with “I think I can, I think I can.”
- Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy research demonstrates strong links between your beliefs and thoughts about your abilities and your successful execution of your goals.
Learning Makes Sense!
Think of developing new thoughts and/or beliefs as simply learning! Learning results when we create new neural networks, thus change the brain. Neuroplasticity facilitates not just neural connections for math, science, and literature, but also routines and habits of mind. Whatever authority source you rely on and trust, consult it and you will discover that your thoughts powerfully shape your reality.
Consider the Possibilities for YOU!
Change your thoughts, change your life! Simple but NOT easy. The work of gaining awareness of the power of your thoughts and working to change them takes time and effort. And, of course, many of your thoughts are subconscious and intertwined in your past experiences, worldview, deeply held beliefs etc. Yet the journey to living your purpose, making your meaningful contributions involves cultivating thoughts and beliefs that will generate emotions that will spur you to action. Thus, changing your behavior also begins with changing your thinking!