Episode 11: Managing your Mind 101: The thought ladder.

In episode 10 I told you the best thing I ever learnt was that we are in control of our own thoughts and feelings; that these come from within us and are not dependent on external events. I also said that I doubt that you believe that this is true. I had written an episode trying to explain theoretically why this is, and why it is wrong. I’ve called it “Becoming an Adult”. But I’ve decided that we have had enough theory for the time being, and maybe we would be better off with a little bit of action.

Probably the best way to convince yourself that you have control over your own mind is to start doing it. Seeing is believing. I learnt about managing my mind from a podcast called UnF*ck your brain by Kara Loewentheil. Kara is a genius. I am certain that she can teach this stuff far better than I can, and my advice is that you listen to her podcasts for yourself. You can search for it by name, there is an Asterix instead of a U in unf*ck, or I will leave a link on my website and FB page. As Kara says, “it will change your F-ing life”.

Her work is predominantly aimed at high achieving women, with feminism as a central theme. But you really don’t have to be a smart feminist woman to benefit from it. What she teaches is applicable to all of us. The insecurities and struggle of being a woman within a patriarchal society are analogous to everybody’s struggle against their unhelpful beliefs and coping strategies; against the screwed-up world view that we inherited from our parents and from society. Everybody has insecurities, everyone has hang-ups, everyone has anxiety, and everyone has unhelpful coping strategies and harmful games that they play to try to cope with these.

If you are open minded you can absolutely benefit from listening to UnF*CK your brain regardless of whether or not you are a feminist, female, or a high achieving Type A professional. But I know that for some it can be a bit of a barrier. It’s natural to feel “its not for me”, especially when we haven’t learnt to manage our minds yet. Certainly, I was reluctant to engage with it initially. So, I am going to try to teach the bare bones of Kara’s amazing work here as best I can, for those of you that are not so keen on a feminist approach, or feel short on time (there are over 100 episode), but I really do recommend that you give Unf*ck Your Brain a go.

The key tool that Kara teaches for learning to manage your mind is something that she calls the thought ladder. This is a practical tool for taking control of your harmful and unhelpful thoughts on a day to day basis. In the last episode we discussed how if we want to feel better, we not only need to think better thoughts, we also need to believe them. The thought ladder helps us to learn to believe better thoughts.

In order to use the thought ladder, we need to first identify a single unhelpful thought that is making us feel bad. It needs to be a single thought, not an abstract concept. When starting out I would recommend using a relatively simple issue, not some deep-seated fundamental hang up. For example, it might be better for me to work on the thought “that consult went badly”, rather than the thought “I am a bad doctor”.

When we are picking the thought, we know that it is a bad thought because of the way it makes us feel when we think it. When I think “that was a bad consult” it makes me feel a certain way, a little bit of nausea in my stomach, a little anxious, a little sad. I know then, that it is a good thought to do some work on.

There are endless potential targets, I would narrow it down to something that has happened to you today that made you feel bad, and the thought that it produced in you. Don’t focus on the event, but on the thought. Let’s say there was a traffic jam and you were late for work. What’s the sentence in your brain that is causing the bad feeling? It might be “Why do I never learn; I’m always late”, or “My manager will have noticed and I’m going to lose my job” or simply “the traffic is always bad, what a waste of my time”.

Once you have identified this single thought you need to focus on it. Kara suggests that you write it down on the bottom of a piece of paper. Personally, I have never done this, I nearly always listen to podcasts driving to work, and I’m fundamentally lazy. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Focus on, or write down, the thought at the bottom of the “ladder”. Now you need to think of a target thought to put at the top of the ladder. This is the ideal thought that you imagine would make you feel fantastic if you could believe it. The best, most balanced, healthiest thing a person could think regarding the subject. The thought that would make you happy. This might be something like “I’m a great doctor”, or“The consult went as well as it could in the circumstances” or “Traffic Jams happen; it’s not my fault”.

Now depending on what the thought is, it is likely that you are not going to believe the target thought when you first come up with it. It is the ideal thought, you can think it, but you can’t believe it yet, because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of your world view. You can tell if you believe the thought or not by how it makes you feel when you think it. If you don’t believe it, it will have no effect on how you feel, on the little bit of nausea in the pit of your stomach. If you feel better straight away, then you don’t need the thought ladder – you have already managed your mind (at least for that topic). It probably means you need to be a bit more ambitious. You can pick an even better target thought that is harder for you to believe straight away, either for the same topic or a new one.

The next step is to think of a thought that is slightly better than the original thought. This is the first rung on the ladder. It is not the target thought, and its not going to feel amazing to think it, but it is slightly better than the original thought. It may still cause a bit of nausea, just not quite so bad as before. An example might be “I’m not the worst doctor that ever lived”, or “everyone has tricky consults” or “The traffic was actually OK last Thursday”. The key here is you need to be able to actually believe the thought on the first rung. When you think it, it needs to make you feel a little bit better. If it doesn’t it probably means you don’t believe it yet, and you need to tone it down a bit more, maybe “There have been worse traffic jams than this one”.

Once you have found a thought you can believe you can then work on the next rung of the ladder. Try to find a thought that’s a little bit better than the last, as you work your way up towards the target thought. If you find you are getting stuck, you can practice a thought at a certain level over time. We can plan in advance what we are going to think in a particular situation; so that the next time we are in a traffic jam our go-to thought becomes; “There have been worse traffic jams than this” rather than “the traffic is always bad”. Over time you will find you can work your way up the ladder so that your go-to thought is “traffic jams happen, now I’ve got more time to listen to this excellent podcast”. In this way we can rewire our standard responses to the external events that happen to us. We are actively choosing what we want to think and feel.

Working on relatively trivial thoughts is a really helpful process. It is much easier to change our thought patterns for simple thoughts than more fundamental ones, but it’s a good proof of concept. It demonstrates to us that we are in control of our own thoughts and subsequently our own feelings. We are capable of changing on purpose what we think. In addition, working on our thoughts on seemingly trivial things such as bad traffic, bad weather or busy days at work can be surprisingly  beneficial to our day to day lives. Once you start doing it you soon realise how much of a negative impact these trivial things can have on your overall mood. Sometimes we allow bad traffic in the morning to set the tone for our entire day. I really had no idea that this was happening to me, I just thought I was “having a bad day”. I didn’t realise that the only person responsible for my bad day was me. That I was essentially choosing to have a bad day because of the thoughts I was thinking; because I wasn’t managing my mind.

Once we get used to managing our minds routinely for selected seemingly trivial patterns of thinking we can start to extend this work to more fundamental and tricky thought patterns that may be having a major impact on our overall health, wellbeing and quality of life.

So, the first part of your homework is to try your own thought ladder, try to manage your mind about something that has been bugging you today, and practicing thinking a better thought, on purpose, when faced with it next time.

The second part is to go and listen to Unf*ck your brain so you can learn how to practically apply this work throughout your life; but don’t get too hooked because I still want to see you back here next time to learn about becoming an Adult.