Look at that new BMW. That must have cost a lot of money. I couldn’t afford a car like that. I’m not that successful. I’m really not very successful at all. As a matter of fact, I’m kind of a loser. I must be a real disappointment to my parents and wife for being such a loser that I can’t afford a BMW.
Does you mind ever say things like that? Mine does. I know a lot of other people’s minds do, too. What else does your mind say that isn’t helpful? Compare you unfavorably to others? Remind you of your past failures? Tell you that you don’t measure up? Tag you with a very negative label? Make fun of your shortcomings? Create a disastrous image of the future?
What does your mind say that isn’t helpful?
All of this is self-talk. Another phrase that isn’t used much anymore to describe this conversation in our head is our train of thought. I like the train metaphor because it describes a series of distinct thoughts, yet they are all linked together. And like that really long train we’re waiting for on our commute, they just keep coming. Ever notice how the flatcars and boxcars eventually lead to the tanker cars full of toxic chemicals?
The interesting thing about this internal conversation is that only the locomotive, and maybe the first couple of cars, are real. The rest are all thoughts we make up in our heads (distorted thinking). The guy and the BMW are real. Costing a lot of money and my ability to afford one are subjective evaluations I made in my head based on my relative scale. From there, the judgment about being a loser and disappointing my family gets more and more made-up and less and less based in reality.
What if I told you these thoughts are normal? If you, like me, sometimes think this way, it’s okay. Where we can get into trouble is what we do after this train of thoughts runs through our heads.
Where we can get into trouble is what we do after this train of thoughts runs through our heads.
One option is to try to make myself feel better with a new line of thinking. My boss doesn’t give me enough credit for all I do. He’s too busy playing favorites. Or, We’d be better off if my wife didn’t waste so much money on all of her girl stuff, like makeup and clothes.
These are really just me blaming someone else for how I feel. After shifting the blame, I’m likely to have a bad attitude at work or complain to my wife about the money she spends. Neither would lead anywhere good. It would hurt my relationships and, therefore, would hurt me.
A different option is to recognize that these are just thoughts. From that recognition, I can now look at my thoughts in two different ways.
Recognize that these are just thoughts.
First, I can ask if they are really true. Maybe they are replays of tapes in my memory—something a parent, teacher, or coach once said about me. Or a false warning sign that something bad is going to happen because something bad happened to me when I was in a similar situation (time tunneling). If they are lies, I can challenge them: I’m actually pretty successful. I just don’t waste a lot of money on trying to look good by buying a flashy car. Successfully challenging negative thoughts helps me dismiss them.
The second possibility is, the thought might be true, but I just accept it and focus on things I can control. I don’t make as much money as some people. I can, however, work hard, love my family, and be the son/husband/friend that others know they can count on. That will make for a pretty good life. Accepting negative thoughts has a surprising ability to reduce their power.
Dismissing the lie or accepting the truth reduces the pressure to change our circumstances.
All of this starts when we become aware of our thinking, which takes practice. Whether we dismiss the lie or accept the truth as no big deal, we reduce the pressure to try to change our circumstances. We don’t feel a need to control others’ thoughts or actions. This is a big step in the right direction for those of us who want to stop hurting the ones we love.
When I accepted a relationship with God, my orientation on the world started changing. Without God, worldly standards were the only measure I had of my success: money, possessions, job title, popularity, etc. That led to a lot of comparing myself to others and being tough on myself for my mistakes.
With God, I care far more about what he thinks of me. I know from the Bible that he cares about my character but is not impressed with my possessions. I know that he loves me, despite my mistakes. I know he created me differently than other people (makes it easier to accept truths about me) and he has a purpose for my life that is different than what he has for others (I can stop comparing).
Do I always think this way? No. Remember, I said my orientation started changing. Sometimes I forget and think more like my old self. God doesn’t make any of us perfect, but a relationship with him helps a lot and is a big boost in the right direction.