When you think, you do it with words and pictures — mental words and pictures. Usually when you're trying to change your thoughts, you try to think different thoughts. But have you ever tried thinking the same thoughts in a different way?
For example, if you are criticizing yourself using words in your head, what tone of voice are you using? If it's a harsh tone, if you are kind of yelling at yourself, then try saying the same thing only with a kinder, softer tone of voice. Does that change the way you take it? Sure it does. You respond to the way you say something to yourself just like you do when someone on the outside speaks to you. It makes a difference if I command you, "Get me a glass of water!" or if I ask politely, "Would you mind getting me a glass of water?" You feel differently in response to different tones of voice.
A man named Richard Bandler came up with this idea. The first book of his I read, Using Your Brain — For a Change, hit me as a revelation. It had never occurred to me to change the details of a thought (tone of voice, volume, etc.) rather than the thought itself. I've experimented with it, and it does indeed make a difference. If you feel bad, try to discover if right at that moment you are making pictures in your head or saying something to yourself. Then notice how it is being done.
If you are saying something to yourself, for example, try to discover the details and then try changing them one at a time to find out if it makes a difference in how you feel. Turn up the volume. Notice how you feel. Turn it down and notice how you feel. Try saying it with different emotions. Try different peoples' voices: A wise old person, a person of the opposite sex (saying it seductively), your best friend, etc. Try putting a sound track in the background. Try to determine where the voice seems to be coming from. Then imagine it coming from somewhere else. Imagine your thumb saying it to you. Imagine a spirit sitting on your shoulder saying it to you. There are endless possibilities. Some won't make any difference. Some will change the way you feel.
The hardest part of this is noticing what you are picturing or what you're saying to yourself in the first place. Those thoughts tend to go by "unconsciously," that is, you don't really notice them much of the time. You're paying attention to what's happening on the outside, and you notice your feelings and it seems like the stuff happening on the outside directly causes your feelings. But there is something in the middle that determines what you feel: your thoughts.
Those thoughts may be "unconscious." It is not that the thoughts can't be conscious. It's just that you don't usually pay attention to them. You don't notice them. It works the same the other way too. Haven't you been reading a book while there are sounds going on around you that you didn't notice? You were busy listening to the voice in your head as it was reading the words, and perhaps you were making pictures in your head about what you were reading. At times like those, you have so much attention focused on your internal words and pictures, you don't really notice what's going on in the outside world.
The same thing happens in reverse: when you're paying attention to what you're seeing and hearing and feeling, your internal thoughts go by unnoticed. And that's fine for the most part. If you were always paying attention to your own thoughts, you might miss what people were saying to you or you might not see a car coming.
But when you are feeling a negative emotion and it's interfering with your work or your relationships or something important, then pay attention to what you're thinking. And experiment with it.
NOT JUST NEGATIVE USES
You can also make nice things better. For example, you can increase your enjoyment of pursuing a goal by making your thoughts about it more motivating and pleasant. Take a weak voice talking to you positively about your goal and make it deep and strong and powerful and a little louder. Add energizing or inspiring music to the background.
If you hear thoughts about how maybe you won't succeed or maybe you don't have what it takes, make those thoughts small and weak and squeaky (like a little mouse is saying them).
When you experiment and find things that work, use them often. After a while, just like anything else you repeat, you will start to use the new changes unconsciously, without even trying. Over the long run, this will make you more effective and put you in a better mood.
All this goes for pictures in your head, too. There might be even more things you can change visually than there are with sound. You can make a picture brighter or dimmer, smaller or larger; you can make it a movie or a still picture, color or black and white; you can look at the same picture from a different point of view, in focus or fuzzy, and so on.
Usually when you think, you are probably making pictures and talking to yourself, so you have lots of room for creativity. Make a picture of your goal bright, colorful, and vivid. Bring it up close. Make it a wide, deep, three dimensional, moving picture. Bring in an inspiring soundtrack and say things to yourself in a confident and inspired tone of voice. You'll be up and working, feeling confident and motivated.
You can also change the impact of memories. If you have a memory that makes you feel bad whenever you think of it, try making the picture a little smaller or move it away a little bit, make it black and white, maybe even make it a still picture. Now add a narration from the future describing what you learned from that experience.
Everybody is different. For some people, when you take a painful memory and make it black and white, the pain is less intense. But for some people it will make it more intense. You'll have to experiment with it. The reason I didn't suggest you make the picture disappear is because we learn things from experiences, maybe even especially painful ones. You want to retain the memory so you can retain what you learned. But if you can make it less painful and still retain the information, why not?
I used to have a problem with criticism, for example. It really bothered me. But I knew if I could take it better, it would be very useful to me to be able to listen to criticism without feeling as bad. I would be able to gain what was valuable from the criticism.
Here's what I did: Whenever someone criticized me, I imagined I was in a fort. I imagined an impenetrable fort guarded by the meanest, toughest guys I could imagine. I was in the fort, completely safe. And I was looking at a little TV monitor of the scene, only I wasn't looking from my own eyes. I imagined the camera was in an upper corner of the room looking down on me so I could see both me and the person who was criticizing me. I could see us, and I had a little printer there spitting out a transcript of what the person was saying.
I did it this way because I have found the thing that caused my feelings to be hurt was not so much what someone was saying, but the tone of voice they used when they said it. So by imagining reading it, I was only reading the information without the emotional impact of their tone of voice.
I tried to practice this when someone criticized me, but I felt terrible so quickly, I wasn't able to do it. So I practiced with my wife. We spent an hour or so practicing. She would think of a criticism, and then I would imagine I was in my fort, looking at the little monitor and the printer, and then she would tell me the criticism (and she used real criticisms). We practiced it over and over. I got pretty good at it. As soon as I suspected I was about to be criticized, I yelled to myself (not out loud), "Into the fort!" and there I was, safe and protected, watching what was happening from a point of view other than my own (from the corner of the room) and then I read what was being said.
It was probably too elaborate. I was determined to be able to listen to criticism without feeling bad, so I went to the extreme. But it worked. And it changed my relationship with my wife drastically. It also improved other areas. I used to feel bad when people criticized my writings, so I was hesitant to let anyone read it. Of course, it would be hard to make a living as a writer not wanting anyone to read what I'd written!
I sometimes feel a little twinge when someone criticizes my work, but for the most part, I don't feel bad. I listen and wonder if the criticism is worth anything. If it is, I use it. If it isn't, I have an attitude of, "Well, that's your opinion, and you may be right, but I don't happen to agree with you."
That attitude about criticism was a big change for me. The main things I changed were the visual point of view from which I saw the situation, and the tone of voice (when I read the printout of what the person said, I used a calm, distant, neutral tone of voice).
This insight (that you can not only change what you say to yourself and what you picture, but how you say it and picture it) opens up a whole new area for experimenting. And since you spend a good deal of your waking hours picturing things and saying things to yourself, you have lots of opportunities to experiment.
I was out on a walk once, feeling depressed, feeling hopeless about one of my goals, and I thought it was a good time to experiment. I imagined people singing. I imagined the park I was walking through lined with people I know on either side of the walkway, singing to me. It was an inspiring gospel tune, but I changed the words. They were singing, "Don't give up! You can do it, we know you can!" Within five minutes, I had tears coming down my face and was feeling thoroughly inspired!
You can imagine hearing and seeing things any time you aren't actively engaged in some project. You can experiment endlessly and find new ways to change how you feel. Does it sound like a weird thing to do? Going around imagining people are singing to you? Seeing pictures and hearing things that aren't there? Isn't that kind of psycho? It's kind of funny that it seems like a weird thing to do when you think about doing it intentionally to feel good. It's funny because we do it all the time unintentionally to feel bad.
Worrying about something means hearing and seeing upsetting things that haven't happened. People make themselves angry and depressed and afraid regularly by imagining they see and hear things. But that isn't done on purpose. They are usually just old mental habits from childhood and the mind just seems to keep working whether you try to direct it or not. It even works while you're asleep.
But just because you imagine seeing and hearing things automatically that make you feel bad doesn't mean you couldn't deliberately imagine things that would make you feel good. You can still worry. That's all right. It is a useful thing to do once in a while. But when it's pointless, when you're feeling bad and it isn't helping anything, take control of what you're thinking by deliberately imagining seeing and hearing things that might help you. It's your mind, after all. You can do whatever you want with it.
A few years ago I was coaching a friend of mine. He asked me to help him change his thoughts. He had difficulty walking up to women he was attracted to and meeting them.
"When you look at an attractive woman, and she looks at you, what do you think?" I asked him, "Are you picturing anything? Are you saying anything to yourself?"
"I imagine her saying something to herself," he said, "She says something like, 'What a dork.'"
"Gee, I wonder why you don't want to go up and meet her?"
"Yeah," he said, looking sheepish, "why would I want to go up and have her reject me like that?"
"I want you to try something," I said, "Close your eyes and imagine seeing an attractive woman. Imagine she is saying something to you mentally. Imagine she is telepathic and she is projecting her thoughts into your mind. You can hear her voice clearly in your head. Her voice is soft and inviting. Alluring. She says, 'I want to meet you. Come talk to me.'"
His eyes were closed, but he had a smile on his face.
"Now imagine a different woman you find attractive," I said, interrupting his reverie, "And imagine that she is also telepathic. You can hear her voice, lovely and inviting. She says, 'I want to know you. Please come and talk with me.'"
We did that a few more times to make it a habit, or at least to make it a mental option when he is attracted to a woman. He said he felt different about meeting women. He didn't feel afraid. But the real test was yet to come.
A few weeks later he told me "that little thing" we did made a huge difference. He had no problem walking up to attractive women and talking with them, and he had gone out with several of them. It is now five years later and he is happily married to the "woman of his dreams."
This stuff is powerful. Try it. Experiment. I think your future is looking brighter already. Doesn't that sound good?
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.