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You Are What You Think

You Are What You Think

We all have a voice in our head. For many people, that voice rarely stops. That voice – our automatic thoughts – impacts everything we do.

Some thoughts we govern when we set our minds to something. But most of our thoughts are automatic – they pop up spontaneously without our conscious prompting. Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make our world.”

How do our thoughts make our world? Well, it looks something like a circle. Thoughts spark emotions. Strong emotions cause physical reactions – our body tenses up, our breathing accelerates. In extreme emotion, we can go into fight-or-flight mode. We often behave based on our emotions. The end result impacts how we think about ourselves and the rest of the world.

We can choose to let our thoughts run wild with no governance, or we can choose to direct that voice in ways that empower us. You can actually change this cycle at any one of the stages of the cycle.

Impacting the thought stage.

The first step to taking back control is recognizing that a thought has happened. That may sound banal, but the trick is to catch automatic thoughts as quickly as possible before the emotion and physical reactions have set in, or despite the fact that the emotion and physical reactions have already set in. Once you catch them, you can work through what you believe to be true and think through the alternatives.

Learn to recognize negative thinking patterns. There are a few very common patterns. All-or-nothing, fortune telling, and labeling are a few. Learn them and start interrupting the pattern.

You can learn to turn off repetitive, negative thoughts. Here are a few visualization scenarios that work really well for me.

  1. Imagine you are turning the thoughts off, like switching the TV station or clicking to another song. Decide to think about something else.
  2. Imagine you are putting away the thoughts in a chest of drawers. Watch yourself setting them down there and decide to come back to them when you are rested and ready to work through the problem again.
  3. Imagine putting your thought into a boat drifting down the river. You are on the shore. You don’t need to follow the thought down the river – you can let it float away.

Differentiating between fact and opinion is another powerful tool for relationships. It used to be so easy to get my goat. I would get angry and somehow feel personally attacked by other people's opinions that I violently disagreed with.

Opinions can feel offensive – and they are never more so when people are discussing them as if they are truths. I’ll take the facts. The key to this one, which is still sometimes a challenge to me, is accepting others’ right to opinions that feel offensive and letting them go.

[Related: Sorry, Not Sorry: How to Stop Caring About What People Think]

Impacting the emotion stage.

Moving on to emotions. It all starts with, guess what: recognizing the emotion. Recognize that you are feeling something strong and put a name on it. It’s important.

Did you know that anger and fear trigger very animal instincts and push the brain into reptile mode? That’s the mode of flight or fight. There is nothing else. Adrenalin surges, instinct takes over. This part of the brain is not the thinking part of the brain. The only way to take back control is to get the brain out of the frontal lobe.

Ask yourself an open question. Why am I so angry/afraid? The brain starts to think of the answer and is immediately out of instinct mode.

As with thoughts, it’s good to understand your emotional triggers. The more you realize the things that trigger positive emotions, the more often you can leverage those things. That’s the easy part.

Understanding and changing your fundamental beliefs is one of the harder parts. Our beliefs are built on our core experience. Do you believe you can handle anything or that you are helpless? Do you believe anything is possible in life or it just isn’t worth it to try?

Any one of these types of beliefs is forged by specific things that happened in our lives. Something someone said or did to you (probably over and over) as a child. The example set by the people around you as you were growing up. Whatever tragedies happened to you – and everyone has them. 

These things influence our beliefs and the way our brain thinks. They are carved deep into our DNA. It may seem impossible to change beliefs. But you can reprogram your beliefs. You can identify handicapping beliefs and replace them with new, empowering beliefs.

[Related: How to Boost Productivity by Recognizing Emotions]

Impacting the physical stage.

The next stage is the physical. Your body reacts to thoughts and emotions. Become aware of when your body is impacted physically by your emotions.

By using relaxation techniques, you can change your physical state from one of anxiety or stress to one of calm (or calmer). Deep breathing and visualization are two ways to do this. At any stage in the circle, you can intervene by stopping and taking a moment to calm down and relax. It sounds basic, but it’s fundamental to defusing yourself when the cycle has already taken hold.

We can always learn from the cycle and change the outcome the next time around by using situation analysis. Situation analysis provides a powerful tool with which to examine your thoughts and how they impacted the outcome of a difficult situation.

Start by laying out what happened and follow through with identifying alternatives. This enables you to find a way to learn from mistakes and move forward. And yes, ultimately, change!

[Related: Is it Time to De-Program Your "Operating System?"]


Angela Fresne is a career and life coach. She is dedicated to helping people find more satisfaction in their lives.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.