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Helpful Or Unhelpful: What Thoughts Will You Think Today?

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A young woman approached me after a keynote presentation recently. She liked an exercise we did on reframing negative situations into something more positive. She told me about how she has suffered from anxiety for years; largely related to a sexual assault she suffered as a teenager. She liked the reframing exercise because it was so easy.

I told her about something even easier that she might try.

When our son was in grade two, the Health Sciences Centre Department of Psychiatry came to his school seeking children and parents to volunteer to experience a communication skills program called "Best Friends" (at least, I think that is what it was has been many years and I have since lost track of the manual, the researcher's name, and the purpose of the study, but I remember the outcome of the learning very clearly!).

Our son did not experience anxiety at the time, and does not to this day. Although the program was targeted at children with anxiety, the pilot group included any child that was interested and willing to participate. We enthusiastically signed up! (OK, I should say "I" rather than "we" enthusiastically signed up; but everyone was willing to check it out.)

The researchers asked parents (and their child) to complete the program over a number of months. The students received a manual and did some learning and practice at school. The parents did some reading, and both the parents, the child, and the teacher journalled during the experience.

I remember being so excited when I realized what our son was learning. One piece has stuck with me over all of these years.

The children were taught that thoughts are just thoughts; that they are not facts. And, they were taught that they could choose thoughts that help (rather than hurt) them.

For example, let's say that you are playing on the school ground and a boy -- we'll call Johnny -- steals your ball. You might feel angry. You might be thinking that Johnny is mean, or that Johnny is a bully. You might cry, run to tell a teacher, or get into a school-yard fight with Johnny.

Thinking that Johnny is mean or that he is a bully are not very helpful thoughts. They do not help you achieve your outcome of wanting to have fun on the school ground.

Consider that you could have a more helpful thought about Johnny. You could think that Johnny wants to play and does not know how to ask. You might then invite him and say "Hey, Johnny...why don't you join our game?"

I remember us practicing with all sorts of situation, and in each one we could easily identify an unhelpful thought (often the default) and a helpful thought.

The key is, we can call choose thoughts that help us achieve our outcomes, that help to move us toward what we want, and that help us be smarter and more resourceful, no matter what comes our way.

In 2012, I posted a blog titled "Out, Damned Thought." Shortly after, I got a message from a subscriber, he was the father of a nine-year-old boy. He expressed his concern about his son, who was experiencing very high levels of anxiety. It was at the point that it prevented the boy from going to school on many mornings. The boy was constantly telling himself that no one liked him, that he was dumb, that school was really hard, and that he had no friends.

This father decided that he was going to share some of the post with his son. He said "it seems strange to ask a nine-year-old to think about his thoughts, but that is exactly what I think he needs to do." He needs to choose different thoughts and then notice how different he feels.

An article by Elisha Goldstein, "Three Common Mind Traps That Sink Happiness," speaks to this. Goldstein describes how our lives and our minds become routine, and our thinking, interpreting, expecting and relating to people become habits; they become our auto-pilot. He goes on to describe that often the auto-pilot is getting in the way of our happiness; particularly when we catastrophize, discount the positive and exaggerate the negative, and point blame.

So, connect with yourself (your thoughts) and connect with other people. The young woman who approached me was so glad that she came to the conference and that she connected with others while she was there. She felt better. The reframing exercise was done in small groups. She realized in doing this simple exercise that she could change her thoughts, affect her experience, and that she was not alone in thinking the thoughts she thought.

A post in The Guardian by Will Hutton, references the importance of remembering that we are social beings and we need each other. "For happiness can never result from the exercise of choice alone: we are social beings, and the building blocks of happiness lie in looking out for each other, acting together, being in teams and pursuing common goals for the common good."

Goldstein's article reminds us of an old cartoon of a man and woman sitting on a couch in front of a TV, with a caption that reads "It's 12 o'clock, do you know where your mind is?" He beautifully reminds you that you can cultivate "the ability to be more present to these mind traps" and that the practice of being more present "will help you break free from (the traps) and shift your attention on more effective ways of interacting with life."

It's (look at the time) o'clock, do you know where your mind is? Or better yet, it's (look at the time) o'clock, are your thoughts helping or hurting?

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