Throughout my life, people have frequently asked me, “Who are you talking to?” The question is typically accompanied by a quizzical look because I’m usually alone when they ask. You might think that I sound a little crazy, but hang with me on this. Over the past few years, I’ve been discovering that it’s possible to change your thoughts. And if you’re anything like me, that is really good news, since I often have a ton of negative thoughts.
As a child, I had an imaginary friend, Johnny, so most of my internal conversations were with him. We played G.I. Joes together, vanquished evil kings together, and one time I even introduced his mom to my mom—and yes, my mom loves telling that story. I haven’t hung out with Johnny in a few decades, so as an adult, my answer to who I’m talking to is just “myself.”
My ever-patient wife has believed someone else was in the room with me for over 15 years of marriage. Over time, she’s learned that my self-talk happens out loud, but I’m confident she’s still confused sometimes about who I’m speaking with while getting ready in the bathroom on a dark, cold morning.
The truth is, we all talk to ourselves. You may not even notice your self-talk and thought life going on inside you, but it’s something we all do. This self-talk is massively powerful and influences how you feel and experience life. In fact, Pastor Charles Swindoll said, “I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.”
Our thought life and self-talk make up the first filter in determining how we react to life’s circumstances. As Dr. Magdalena Battles says, “You live the words you tell yourself in your mind.”
Cognitive-mediational theory tells us that what we think about life’s circumstances actually produces the emotions we feel. Basically, it says that Events + Thoughts = Emotions.
Our feelings about something come after our thoughts about it. We often focus on our emotions and feelings, which are incredibly important, but truthfully, they are a result of our thoughts. And that’s why becoming aware of, filtering, and mastering our self-talk is essential.
Do you want a more purpose-filled life? Change your thoughts. Do you want to consistently have the courage to tell those closest to you how you really feel? Change your thoughts. Do you want to change how you respond to the uncontrollable events and obstacles in your life? Change your thoughts.
My pastor, Craig Groeschel, often says, “Your life is always moving in the direction of your strongest thoughts.” He’s even written a whole book about how changing your thoughts can change your life. (It’s a must-read, by the way.)
Here are a few things I’ve started doing to help me change my thoughts:
1. Observe your thoughts.
Some of you immediately knew what I was talking about when I mentioned self-talk, and others of you are still confused. Either way, the first step to winning the war in our minds is observing our thoughts and becoming students of ourselves.
At my company, Habakkuk, we like to say all development begins with self-awareness. Becoming a student of yourself will allow you to begin cataloging what circumstances elicit negative or positive self-talk.
When someone cuts you off on the road (event), what is the first thought that comes through your mind? Before you get angry (emotion) and speed up to catch them (action), what did you think? When the team member you’ve been avoiding having a crucial conversation with walks by your office, what is the first thought that pops into your head? When you make a mistake, what do you tell yourself?
Observing these thought patterns is the first step to uncovering the unconscious beliefs that are influencing your response to everyday circumstances.
I’ve always had conversations with others in my head, but it was only in the last few years that I actually began to observe and understand the power of those internal conversations. This habit usually serves me well because it helps me think through multiple outcomes and possibilities of conversations. The failure I had early in my leadership career was that I wasn’t observant of this self-dialogue, and when the self-talk inevitably became negative or inaccurate, it would often lead me off course.
For example, I would sometimes put words in someone’s mouth and then take their hypothetical reaction personally. This negative, made-up, and inaccurate self-talk made me avoidant of those team members because I already “knew” how they would respond to my coaching. Of course, that’s crazy, but that’s the trap I personally fell into by not being observant of my self-talk.
This will be a slow process, so give yourself grace as you start studying your self-talk. As you start doing this, you might begin to recognize how negatively you speak to yourself or how “off” your thoughts are, which can feel overwhelming and uncomfortable. But the first step to winning the war in your mind is to become observant of your self-talk so that you can take steps to fix it.
2. Filter and capture your thoughts.
After you’ve observed your thoughts, then you can start filtering them and capturing them. This means you need to evaluate, analyze, and challenge your thoughts.
This filtering process will allow you to pursue the deeply rooted, preconceived, and often unconscious beliefs that are fundamentally influencing how you think. This is where things can get messy. It is one thing to observe your thoughts, but now you’re taking the intentional step to capture those thoughts. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
The culture at my company is a unique and personal one. Many of our team members even call it a family because the connection is so deep and meaningful. I am intensely close to my leadership team and consider them more than just teammates—they are genuine friends. I’ve even been friends with one of my leaders since I was six years old! This type of culture is powerful, but it can also lend itself to avoiding tough conversations because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.
Early on, I was the person primarily responsible for bringing this avoidant mindset into our workspace. As I began to learn how damaging and unhealthy it is within any organization to avoid conflict, I was astonished at what I would say to myself. My self-talk looked like this:
If you hold her accountable, she won’t pick you as a leader. If you call him out on being late to this meeting every week, he won’t pick you as a leader. If you tell him you need more from him right now, he won’t pick you as a leader.
As I observed and captured those consistent thoughts, I had to do the hard work of figuring out where they came from. To make a long story short, I’m adopted, and for a long time, I believed I wasn’t worth being chosen because my birth father didn’t fight for me as an infant. As a result, I have desperately worked my whole life to get others to choose me, and I avoid situations or conversations that might result in them rejecting me.
By first observing and then capturing my thoughts, I was able to figure out where my thoughts were coming from. Taking this step allows you to evaluate your thoughts for accuracy and understand why you naturally think the way you do.
3. Replace or reinforce your thoughts with truth.
The human brain is remarkable. For every behavior or thought we have, our brain creates a neurological pathway. Think of that neurological pathway as a dirt road. The more we have a certain thought, the more our brain strengthens the pathway, turning our original dirt road into something more like a superhighway.
The more you think a thought, the faster your brain will serve that thought up. That’s why it’s so hard to change your current thoughts and behaviors. Your default thoughts, the ones you’ve been thinking day after day without even thinking about it, are running down a superhighway that is well-constructed and highly efficient. If you don’t consistently observe and challenge those thoughts, you’ll continue to reinforce them.
But there is hope. You can literally change your brain. How cool is that? It’s called neural plasticity, and our understanding of this scientific truth is only growing. To keep our analogy going, just know this: You have the ability to break down those unhealthy, untruthful neurological superhighways and replace them with new ones that are fed by healthier, life-giving, truthful thoughts.
I’ll give you an example of how this has worked for me.
Not too long ago, I saw my wife, Kirsten, with “the look” on her face. I am sure every human has their own version of “the look,” but my wife’s version always throws me for a loop. She wasn’t making eye contact with me, she wasn’t smiling, and she wasn’t talking. She was just going through the motions. The first thought that went through my mind was, What did I do this time? No joke. To be clear, I’ve warranted “the look” many times in our relationship. But in that moment, I challenged myself with the question, Why am I thinking that thought?
Then I replaced the thought with truths. It was the end of a long day. My wife cares for our five young children at home. I had been away at work for most of it. And Kirsten’s “look” when she is frustrated at me is nearly identical to her “I’m tired” look. I replaced my initial thought that stirred up fear and dread in me with a truthful thought: My wifey looks beat. Time to step up and live out what I say. By doing so, I avoided creating stressful, hypothetical scenarios in my mind, and I was able to support her and listen to her talk about her day with a clear head.
If we want a different life, we must begin to think about what we think about. Remember Pastor Craig’s words: “Your life is always moving in the direction of your strongest thoughts.” So, take your thoughts captive. When you change your thoughts, you will experience change in your life—my last year has been proof.
P.S: Order Pastor Craig’s new book here.