It was not until I was 40, I think, that I really understood that I can choose my thoughts. That I am powerful and strong and capable enough to shift my thoughts, to “take them captive,” to wrangle them into submission. That I am the boss of my thoughts. I love being the boss.
I know I am not alone in this.
Learning to be aware of our thoughts and to then to direct them to healthier places is foundational to living with purpose, health, and joy. There really is no way around it. My thoughts will ultimately dictate my behavior – the way that I speak, the manner in which I spend my money and my time, the relationships that I permit into my life. My thoughts determine the way that I carry myself in the world, my sense of worth and dignity, and definitely whether or not I care for myself with kindness and compassion.
The other morning as I was moving from sleep to awake, an idea popped into my drowsy brain. What if we used the 5 W’s that we learn in grade school as a simple framework to remind ourselves of the truth that we can shift our thoughts as a powerful act of self-care. I grabbed a notebook and pen from the desk beside my bed and quickly jotted down some thoughts. I also offered a FB Live on this topic if you are interested.
The Who, What, When, Where, Why (and the bonus HOW) of Shifting Our Thoughts as a Powerful Act of Self-Care
Who: Who do you choose to be?
We need to replace the negativity or the lies we have believed about ourselves with a kinder truth – and with a declaration about who we choose to be. Not who we were or who we always thought we would or should be. Set some Mind-Body-Spirit Intentions (ex. two of mine are “Strong” and “Purposeful”) for yourself and post these in an easily accessible location to remind yourself throughout the day of who you choose to be.
Before the stressful parent-teacher meeting or in the middle of that difficult interaction at work. Before you hit “send” on a grouchy email or click “buy now” on that shopping cart full of stuff, remind yourself of who you choose to be.
What: What is going on?
In the middle of your tantrum, as you are attempting to numb yourself with that big bag of cookies or as you reach for that second (or third) glass of wine; or as you go through the motions with an ever-present sense of anxiety simmering just below the surface, pause and ask yourself what is really going on. This is about learning to IDENTIFY and ACKNOWLEDGE the emotions you are feeling: anxiety, anger, fear, overwhelm, loneliness, fatigue, rejection, and so on.
Many of us are supremely unskilled at naming our feelings – we bang the pots and rant and numb out instead of getting quiet enough to listen to what our bodies, minds, and spirits are speaking to us. Acknowledging an emotion is like saying “I see you.” It is not about judging the feeling as good or bad, or about embracing it. It is about bringing awareness to what is going on at a deeper level within ourselves. Only with awareness can we begin to shift.
When: When will you pause to check-in?
This is a proactive decision to pause regularly throughout our days to check-in and to practice listening to our bodies, minds, and spirits. To notice the hunger, the thirst, the need for a hug, the tension in our shoulders or the achy stomach. The fear. Instead of mentally running through a to-do list, while in the shower we can notice the warmth of the water, take a few deep breaths and bring awareness to our bodies.
Before we eat we can pause for a moment to release tension, to express gratitude, to ask if we are truly hungry. Tie these check-ins to habits or activities (like a shower or meal times or a morning commute) that are already firmly established.
Where: Where are your thoughts right now?
Are your thoughts living in the past (rehashing the grief, the loss, the mistakes), in the future (predicting what might happen), or in the land of your vivid, story-telling imagination? Do you ever lie in bed at night, tears streaming down your face as you play out the divorce (which has not happened) or some horrible crisis or trauma that might befall one of your children? I wish I could say that I have never done this.
As you brush your teeth does your mind play out an argument with someone that you are feeling frustrated with – you come up with all sorts of witty and wise things to say to them but in the meantime, your heart rate and the tension in your shoulders increase needlessly. We need to practice bringing our thoughts back to the present. We can learn to ground our thoughts – with mindfulness and gratitude, for instance. Or with scripture or a gentle mantra. We can cut off that story-telling with a firm hand and refuse to allow our brains to wander all over the place, unbridled.
Why: Why are you talking to or about yourself like that?
Observe your self-talk. How many times today alone have you called yourself fat, lazy, a jerk, an asshole, or stupid. How many times have you thought things like, “I always mess up,” “why can’t I be more like…” or “No wonder I’m alone.”
Why is it OK to bully or berate yourself, to talk to yourself with anything less than the same kindness or compassion that you would offer your sister or best friend? When you make a mistake, own it but don’t disparage yourself. You are simply an imperfect human being like all the rest of us. If you fell short of your goals, acknowledge this and remind yourself that you are learning and growing. Who said you have to be perfect?
So all of these 5 W’s largely revolve around questioning, observing, listening, noticing, (or declaring – as in declaring who you choose to be). But now we will shift your thoughts toward positive action.
How: How can you take even one baby step to shift into a kinder, more compassionate life today?
Instead of focusing on all the ways “you don’t measure up,” the mistakes, or the “what ifs” – shift your thoughts to how you can care for yourself today to support yourself in more fully aligning with your Mind-Body-Spirit Intentions. Or what is one small step you can take right at this moment to step into who and how you choose to be in the world?
Perhaps you need to pull out your agenda and pencil a few “happy things” into your week (print this Happy-Stress Worksheet to help out), or write yourself a reminder to get to bed earlier this week. Maybe you want to send a quick text of gratitude to someone or put down the remote and go for a walk in the crisp fall air instead. Call a friend, pull out the knitting or oil paints that you love but which have collected dust over in that corner, or get to work on that side-project of yours. The one that scares the heck out of you but you know you want to put yourself out there anyway.
I invite you to put these 5 W’s into play in your life over the next week or two and notice how you begin to shift your thoughts. Notice how these simple questions can help you begin to practice more loving self-care.
Who’s going to be the boss of your life?
*these days I use a different process called “shift your thoughts” with my clients to understand how thought leads to emotion which leads to behavior (not to be confused with this post which I wish I’d have named a little differently). You can free Shift Your Thoughts Worksheets here.