You and I think stupid thoughts sometimes. We not only get them from others, but we think up stupid ones for ourselves, usually when we're upset (mad, sad, or afraid). The ol' brain doesn't think too clearly under duress and it can come up with some dumb ideas. And when they're repeated a few times it becomes easier to think them in the future. Given a few decades, and boom: Stupid thought-habits. We all have them. Every last one of us.
But we aren't stuck with them. If you want to clean up your thinking a little, try this: Simply ask yourself, Will it do me any good to keep thinking that? Then follow that question with a second question: Is there a more useful idea I could replace it with?
First, attach the first question onto the end of a stupid thought, and it will act like a virus that eventually destroys the stupid thought it is attached to.
Here's how it works. Let's say when I make a mistake I think to myself, I'm such a loser. When something goes wrong, that thought comes into my head, and it has for the last thirty years, so now it comes automatically.
The first thing I'm going to do is repeat the first question to myself many times every day just to get familiar with the question. To make my brain comfortable with it — to make its path through my brain somewhat well-worn.
The next thing I'll do is start catching myself thinking the stupid thought. Every time I think I'm such a loser, I'll ask myself, Will it do me any good to keep thinking that? If the answer is no, and in this case it is no, then I go on to the next question: Is there a more useful thought I can replace it with? Sure there is. Of course there is. Hmmm, what am I going to think instead?
How about this: I made a mistake; is there anything I can do to avoid making it again? This turns my mind in a productive direction, and derails the old direction.
Fine. No problem. I forget all about the loser-thought, and start thinking about how to avoid the same mistake in the future.
But then what happens? Three days later, I make another mistake, and what pops into my head? I'm such a loser, of course! It's not going to go away from one try. I'm in the habit of thinking it. It has been associated (by repetition) with certain feelings, and now whenever those feelings come up, that thought comes up.
Or maybe whenever certain kinds of circumstances come up, those thoughts come up and then the feelings come up. Whatever. The order doesn't matter. What matters now is attaching the new questions to the thought I'm such a loser. So when I notice myself thinking the thought again, I ask, Will it do me any good to keep thinking that? And so on, and the process comes a little easier this time.
And the next time it comes even easier. And pretty soon, the loser-thought evokes that question. The question becomes associated with the loser-thought, so they start arising together.
Since the question keeps taking the thought in a new direction, the new direction starts to become automatic, and the mind will eventually streamline. It'll skip right over the loser-thought, which will then diminish and fade away from lack of use.
If this sounds complicated, it's not. Just repeat the first question over and over to yourself for a few minutes every day, or better yet, twice a day. While you're doing this, remember situations when you felt negative feelings, figure out what thought you had that gave you the feelings, and then ask, Will it do me any good to keep thinking that? If the answer is no, ask, Is there a more useful idea I can replace it with? Think it through, right there when you're practicing the question. Think up a more useful idea. Try it on in your imagination.
And the rest of the time (when you aren't repeating the question to yourself), keep a lookout for non-useful thoughts that come into your head. When they do, nail them with the question. Follow it through. Take the thought-train to its conclusion. This is a powerful question.
Even if you don't catch yourself at the time — even if you think of it later — go through it in your mind. Think it through. Mental rehearsal works.
experiments in recall
In experiments at the Institute of HeartMath in San Francisco, people were asked to recall past events that made them mad, and to keep those events in their minds for five minutes. Their hearts beat harder and more irregularly, and an easily-measured antibody in their saliva increased momentarily and then dropped for six hours.
But when the researchers told the subjects to interrupt their angry thoughts and to remember positive experiences, their hearts calmed down, and the antibody in their saliva rose and stayed elevated for six hours.
Will it do you any good to recall events that made you angry? Well, on a directly physical level, it is not in the best interest of your heart or your immune system.
Is there a more useful idea you can replace it with? Sure there is. There always is. You can, at the very least, remember past pleasant experiences.
Some of the "solutions" you get with the second question can themselves become useful new thoughts to practice. For example, a man is continually annoyed with his teenage son. He frequently thinks, "What a brat!" The teenager doesn't really do anything bad, it's just an attitude that infuriates the father.
Using this question, the man knows it doesn't do him any good to continually get mad, so it's not doing him any good to think his son is a brat. Is there a more useful idea he could replace it with? Sure. He comes up with this: "He's not a brat; he's only a teenager."
Ask anyone with a teenager. They all get an attitude. It's probably Nature's way of telling parents and kids it's time for the kid to be out on their own.
The father can use his new idea as a new thought to practice — he's not a brat; he's only a teenager — and it will change his thought-habits on that subject, making him feel angry less often. He would do it the same way: Repeat that thought to himself over and over for a few minutes every day until the thought is familiar and comfortable and comes to mind automatically when he needs it.
Use these two questions to take your stupid thoughts and make them impotent. Use the questions to replace them with more helpful thoughts. Make these questions come to mind when you need them simply by practicing them every day.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.