One of the most important things therapy has taught me is that changing your thought patterns can change your entire life. We’ve all grown up with certain thought patterns engrained in our mind, based on what we’ve learned, observed, and inherited. Some are more positive, like “It feels good to help other people”. But some can be more debilitating, like “I have to succeed or I am not worthy”.
These thought patterns are actual neural connections in our brains that have been strengthened over time. So changing them isn’t easy. In fact, it’s like retraining a muscle. It takes time and effort, but when you do, man is it worth it!
Step 1: Recognize the Thought Pattern
The first step in changing a thought pattern you’ve had your whole life is simply to start recognizing it. Often times we think a certain way without even knowing it. First, just try acknowledging the moments when those thought patterns kick in. For example, I’ve recently realized how much pressure I put on myself to do everything right. I’ll notice moments when I get stressed throughout my day and realize they’re often created by this thought process. Even something as simple as getting in the right line at the grocery store. I’ll notice a slight feeling of anxiety and realize it’s stemming from this idea that I cannot do anything wrong.
But rather than shaming myself for having these thoughts, I try to simply acknowledge them. I’ll just notice when they are there. I don’t try to change them right away, but simply getting in the pattern of acknowledging them is essential for the next step. It also weirdly makes me feel less anxious. Naming the thought or emotion that is going on in my head can actually relieve some of the anxiety associated with that thought.
Step 2: Understand Where it Comes From
It’s so important to understand exactly what these thought patterns mean, where you learned them, and what you truly believe about them. Once we examine them, we can realize how illogical or unrealistic that way of thinking is. This can be most beneficial with a therapist, but you can certainly do it on your own or with a friend as well.
All you really need to do is continue asking yourself questions, like “Why do you feel this way?”, “What other people in your life think this way?”, “Who taught you this way of thinking (directly or indirectly)?”, “What is your earliest memory of thinking this way”?,”What would happen if you didn’t think this way?”, etc. Questions like these can help reveal so much about yourself. And once you get a better understanding of why you think a certain way, it can be easier to alter that way of thinking.
Step 3: Create an Alternative Response
Once you take time to think through where these thought patterns come from (which can take hours or even years), the next step is to create an alternative response. Try and come up with something you could say in your head to replace the thought process you’re trying to change. For example, with the absurd amount of pressure I put on myself, the alternative response I came up with is: “You don’t have to be perfect.” It’s something I’ll repeat to myself in those moments when I can hear those old thought patterns coming through. It may sound simple, but it can really help as long as you come up with an alternate response that truly speaks to you.
Step 4: Practice and be patient
From how I’ve laid this out, it may seem like you just go through the three steps and then you’re fixed. Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. Changing the way you think takes time and effort. It’s very similar to muscle memory — retraining your muscles is like retraining your brain. So be patient with yourself. Let yourself stay in Step 1 for as long as you need, or repeat Step 1 when you’re just feeling too anxious to listen to an alternate response. And if you realize over time that the alternate response you came up with isn’t working, allow yourself to explore another option. Give yourself the time and space to allow this thought pattern to change as it needs to.