When it comes to changing your mind it is critical to first gain awareness of what you are dealing with. Without that Situational Awareness you will likely attempt to change things that are only symptoms. Because you don’t perceive the larger picture, you end up wasting a lot of energy on processes that don’t work effectively.
What is awareness and what does it have to do with changing your behaviors, habits and emotions? A good part of awareness has to do with perception. People who are aware see things that others don’t. They also have a context to put those little bits of information into that help them form a clearer picture. Without the small details and the larger context to make sense of things you can get pretty lost and turned around in the mind. This is what usually happens when people attempt to change a negative thought, or emotional reactions.
Here’s a story from The Power of Intuition by Gary Klein that illustrates how awareness helps to understand a situation and the importance of seeing what others don’t.
The Invisible Adversary
The Marines conducted a training exercise for inexperienced corporals and sergeants at Camp Pendleton in California. John Schmidt is a former Marine who is highly skilled at making sense of tactical situations and was observing. The instructors controlling the exercise, and acting as the enemy, called in mortar attacks, sniper fire, and mine explosions to decimate the team. After this had gone on for a while, an instructor asked a Lance Corporal what kind of adversary they were up against. “I don’t know,” was the response. “The enemy is just clobbering us.” Further questions to probe more deeply pointed nowhere. To the Lance Corporal it was undifferentiated mayhem.
To John Schmidt it was obvious that the Marines, were facing at least a platoon, and more likely, a company of about 150 to 200 soldiers. He knew this because of the mortar rounds, there had to be forward observers to call them in. Mortars are weapons that usually belong to companies or battalions not to platoons. John was keeping track of the number of enemy contacts that had been reported. If he could account for a platoon based on actual contacts, there were probably many more soldiers they hadn’t encountered. Therefore, they were almost certainly facing a larger force than a platoon. The area covered by these different contacts suggested that they were facing a company. Furthermore, the mining of the team’s path showed their adversary planned a defensive operation and a commitment of effort. This implied a force that was certainly larger than a squad. The mortars, mines, and snipers, all seemed to be trying to channel them off the path and into a nearby field that was probably the intended killing zone. (The Power of Intuition p. 139 by Gary Klein)
When people first attempt to make changes in their mind, whether it is thoughts, emotions, or beliefs, they are inexperienced. Much like these young corporals and sergeants, they don’t know what they’re up against. They get clobbered and they don’t even know why. If you are going to win over the adversaries in your mind then you will need to become aware of them and how they really operate.
Eliminating Negative Thoughts
Beginner attempts to change negative thoughts or emotions are often done as if it were a cut-and-paste operation in your Word document. When a negative thought occurs a person will try to make the case against it and prove that it’s not valid. They take the opposing side and push out the negative thought as if to delete it. Then they fill in a positive affirmation, thought, or supportive belief in its place. They might feel better for the moment, but later they can’t figure out why that old negative thought keeps recurring.
Using the metaphor of a garden, thoughts are the leaves of weeds that we can see. When we pull the leaves off a weed it appears that we have solved the problem. However, when you look below the surface, you find that the roots of that weed are still there. Beliefs are the roots of thoughts. If you want to permanently remove a certain thought, you will have to remove the beliefs the thought is rooted in.
Attempts at changing a thought without addressing the belief is like tearing the leaves off a weed and leaving the roots intact. If you can’t see the beliefs in your mind you will have a tough time changing the thoughts. It’s important to get a clearer picture of what you are up against.
The difference between thoughts and beliefs
Example of a negative thought: “I shouldn’t have done that.”
To the casual observer, this appears to be a single thought of self judgment. However there is a system of beliefs at the root of this thought that are invisible. For starters, this judgment is a comparison that finds us wrong. Assumed in this comparison is some other action that would have been “right”. This “right” action is often not spoken in the words, but implied.
There is also the element of faith or belief in that assumed right action. The defined wrong action and the hidden “right” action for both have some faith invested in them. Without faith in this other mental construct, there would be no basis for comparison that leads to self judgment.
The Inner Judge
The part of the mind that speaks the judgment, “I shouldn’t have done that”, we could call the inner judge. It’s not the total mind, just one aspect. If another part of our mind were to disagree with this judgment, then that different part of the mind can easily be seen. This can happen if we have the opposing thought, “That’s not true. It was good that I did that.” However, if there’s no disagreement with the inner judge, the judge stands alone, and it appears as our only voice. This can make it difficult to see this inner judge character as only one aspect of the mind. Instead we tend to think of it as “me.”
Even when there is no disagreement with the inner judge there is still another part of the mind at work. It is the part that silently agrees with the judge. We call this the victim. The victim part of the mind accepts the criticism from the inner judge. When the judge and the victim agree it is also difficult to perceive these parts of the mind as separate from you. Without the awareness of where you stop and the beliefs and voices in the mind begin you will have a difficult time with these adversaries.
Awareness: The Context for Thoughts and Beliefs
What appears as one thought, “I shouldn’t have done that”, is really made up of several components that comprise a belief system. Aside from the negative thought there is:
1) The invisible force of faith you put in that negative thought.
2) The criteria of what is right or expectation that we compare our self to.
3) The invisible force of faith that we put in the criteria of “right”.
4) The inner judge part of the mind that is making the comparisons
5) The voice of the victim that accepts the comparisons of the inner judge.
6) Then there is the resulting emotion of unworthiness when this self judgment is accepted to be true.
The emotion is the consequence of believing the negative thought of self judgment. That emotion can also be a trigger for another set of beliefs such as, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or “I wish I didn’t feel this way.” Belief in these thoughts can create more emotional reactions. When uncontrolled in the mind this can lead a person into uncontrolled downward spiral of emotions.
Set Up for Failure
When you attempt to change those negative thoughts with a cut-and-paste operation, you are likely to fail. You are pulling a leaf off a weed but leaving the roots in tact.
Each thought is sourced in a belief, and most beliefs are networked with other beliefs. The victim voice in the mind is often in automatic agreement with the judge voice. The judge voice is echoing the comparison based on the belief in the criteria of what is right or successful. The negative thought, “I shouldn’t have done that,” is just the common sense conclusion to these other beliefs. It may be the only part you hear, but it doesn’t mean that it is the only part to the problem.
Attempting to change the thoughts you can see won’t effectively get rid of the beliefs. To effectively change the negative thoughts you will have to change the beliefs that you don’t see. That’s why awareness is so important. Without awareness you won’t be able to see into that invisible world of beliefs where the real issues lie.
If you’ve attempted to stop or change your negative thoughts and haven’t been successful it doesn’t mean you are a failure. Your results aren’t a measure of your performance, discipline, or personal will power. More likely they have to do with your experience, awareness, and the tools you are using. Developing the awareness to find a belief, and skillfully remove it is a bit more involved than pushing aside a negative thought.
It’s a lot like being up against a company or battalion. It doesn’t mean that you are beat, it just means you had better gain a greater awareness of what you are up against. Then get the training and reinforcements to do the job of changing your core beliefs instead of being distracted by the negative thoughts.
The process begins with self awareness. Developing awareness will give you the ability to see more clearly these hidden beliefs. Without that ability of perception you won’t be able to see where those negative thoughts are coming from. And it’s darn difficult to stop an enemy that you can’t see.
For exercises and practices in raising your awareness and changing core beliefs I suggest the Self Mastery Courses. The first few sessions are free.