Change your thoughts to change your reality

by Jack on March 2010

In this article, I’m going to discuss a special kind of software. I’m not talking about Mac vs. Windows – I’m not trying to trigger a religious war [1]. Instead, I’m talking about the software that runs in your mind – the shortcuts, automatic habits, and scripts that get triggered, and then played back or narrated under various circumstances within your life situation.

What are the repeated messages and patterns running over and over in your head? Just as a piece of software is a set of instructions to a computer – if this, happens, then do this; if that happens, then do that – so too are the programs and patterns inside your own head. For example, many of us are heavily programmed to reach for our pocket or our purse each time we hear or feel a buzzing? (Do I have a new email? Text? Is someone calling?)

Furthermore, a lot of this stuff is applied to us without our conscious knowledge or consent – from our upbringing and schooling (via parents and teachers), from television and other entertainment, from magazines, books and reading material, at our workplace, among our peers, and many other ways during all our waking hours.

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate to buy shit we don’t need. (Tyler Durden)

We are programmed and persuaded from the day we are born – you may have heard the estimates that an average child will have watched over 10 000 murders on television and in movies by the time that they have turned 18. We are told by others, who often want to promote specific economic or political agendas, that we need to change ourselves, and that we need to do things other than what we wish in order to be acceptable to them.

Most people are not consciously aware of what their internal programs are, but we can learn clues about the nature of our programs by examining our habitual self-talk. What are the voices that you hear in your head? Are they the voices of a loving mentor or a scolding critic? What kind of words and voice tone do you use when you talk inside your mind?

The language you choose for your internal dialogue has important implications for your feelings and moods. Saying “I have to…” or “my husband is making me…” or “my boss is making me…” will generate a state of stress, powerlessness, and reactiveness, whereas “I choose to…” or “I am going to…” generates a state of agency, autonomy, and power.

In some cases, the alternatives are fairly clear cut. You will probably take your children to their soccer game when you have a headache even though you might prefer to stay at home and lie down. Even so, you don’t “have” to take them – you choose to do so rather than face the alternative of breaking a promise and disappointing your children. You don’t “have” to pay your bills, but you probably prefer paying bills to the alternative of having a poor credit rating and turning off the electricity. In either of those cases, there is a choice, regardless of how unpleasant or absurd the alternatives are. You always have a choice, even if it’s an obvious one and you’d never seriously consider the other alternative. You always have a choice.

Most people, when they use this kind of language (I have to, I must, etc.) tend to subconsciously react in opposition to it. The implication is “I have to do X; I don’t want to do X; and this situation is not OK”. As such, this creates stress, resistance, and non-acceptance of the situation.

On the other hand, selecting the language of power, choice, and autonomy creates a feeling of acceptance and relaxation. Of course, you might prefer to be doing something different. However, because of your full awareness of the consequences associated with each alternative, you are able to make a fully conscious decision, and to accept the consequences, both positive and negative, of that decision.

The originator of cognitive therapy, Dr. Albert Ellis, memorably calls this practice “musterbation”, in reference to another familiar word. Hale Dwoskin, the teacher of the Sedona Method, recommends that you “stop shoulding on yourself”. Mocking these undesirable practices using these memorable expressions is a great way to remember to keep your self-talk encouraging and positive.

So, given that imperative forms of language – “must” and “should” – tend to cause stress, why do people use them so often? One reason is that it makes you feel temporarily powerful in a situation where you may feel powerless – you’re really showing yourself who’s boss, and “motivating” yourself good and hard. The trouble is, this isn’t real motivation, it’s just self-flagellation. In a lot of cases, it comes from a place of anger and frustration – since you don’t want to do the task, and you feel frustration, you want to strike out at something. You can’t lash out at the original source of the task, so you berate yourself for not doing it well enough instead. It’s still just reactive action, not real power or autonomy.

Am I overstating the power of language? I don’t think so. Language has the power to drive thoughts, emotions, and behavior. The habitual repetion of “I have to…” or “They’re making me…” as a mantra is going to have strong influence on your thoughts and ultimately on your beliefs. Ultimately this can create a set of adverse, limiting beliefs like “I am powerless”, “I am at the mercy of my environment” and “other people control me and my actions”. I suspect that none of us would consciously choose such beliefs, but how many are creating them subconsciously through our negative self talk?

So what are the alternatives? The simplest way is to catch yourself when you are using phrases like “I must”, “I have to”, and so forth, and to replace them with “I am going to” or “I choose to”. As you build this habit, your self-talk will grow gentler and less critical. You can also change in a similar way the manner that you use to speak with other people – while you can still be clear when giving directions, there’s still no need to use phrasing like “you have to” or “you must”.


  • “I have to…”
  • “I can’t…”
  • “I must…”


  • “I could…”
  • “I choose to…”
  • “I do…”
  • “I am going to…”
  • “I intend to…”

Conscious reprogramming

Fortunately, changing your habitual self-talk is only the beginning. There are more powerful and systematic ways that you can use to improve the content of the constant monologue going on in your mind. We really do have the ability to rewrite these patterns and programs in our minds, through conscious and deliberate effort.

In my own experience, the methods of reprogramming that have been the most valuable are the ones that are extremely simple – almost naïvely so – and that can be repeated, over and over again, in most situations throughout the day. A simple system that you can memorize and rehearse at home, and then actually remember and carry into the “real world”, will blow the doors off a “perfect” system that is too complicated to actually use in situations that really matter. The best systems of consciously designed “human software” are the really simple – almost mindless – approaches that you can apply over and over again, without having to stop and think too hard. The more complexity a system has, the greater the barrier to starting to use it in the field right away.

Two systems that I have used with very positive results are The Work (Loving What Is), by Byron Katie, or the The Sedona Method, which originated in the late Lester Levenson’s work and was then taught by Hale Dwoskin. These two approaches have some features in common:

  • they involve a short series of questions (fewer than 10) applied to one of your thoughts, feelings or beliefs
  • they are extremely simple in their structure and easy to remember
  • they are very gentle, accepting, and non-judgmental
  • they are aligned with good spiritual principles (often very “Zen”), as well as with logic and common sense
  • they work in the moment when you apply them just as a challenging situation is unfolding
  • they work as a part of personal development “homework” when you are working in your journal or problem-solving on paper

The goals of both methodologies are likewise similar:

  • let go of negative thoughts and feelings
  • eliminate unwanted beliefs and negative habitual thought patterns
  • increase your experience of happiness and well-being
  • improve your interactions with others

The questions associated with the two approaches are as follows.

The Sedona Method

  • Could I let this feeling (or thought, or belief) go?
  • Would I let it go?
  • When?

The first question simply asks you if it is possible for you to take the step of letting go. Honesty is important – “yes” and “no” are both permissible answers, and both may lead to letting go in the end.

The second question probes into whether you are actually willing to let go at this moment. If the answer turns out to be no, you may follow up with “would I rather have this feeling or would I rather be free?”.

The final question, “When?” is an invitation to let go right in the moment, if you choose to do so. At that point, you may experience releasing the feeling. This is always a decision that is made within the moment.

Repeating the series of questions can lead to deeper and deeper release of troubling feelings and a feeling of peace and calm.

The Work / Inquiry

  • Is it true?
  • Can I absolutely know that it is true?
  • What happens – how do I react – when I believe that thought?
  • Who would I be without that thought?

I discussed the process of inquiry in more detail in an earlier post. Additionally, Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is goes into substantial detail about inquiry and also presents a number of case studies.

The answers that tend to arise with inquiry tend to be much more wordy and long winded than the ones that arise with the Sedona Method. The reason for this is clear: The Work uses open-ended questions, while the Sedona Method in its most basic form uses yes-or-no questions. As such, it’s can be easier to practice inquiry on paper, especially while you start, rather than attempt to complete the steps in your head. Conversely, the Sedona Method is somewhat more adapted to early usage in live situations. However, once you are experienced with both approaches, you can do them both in a wide range of situations, whether you choose to run the processes in your thoughts or on paper. These systems are effective both in a quiet written setting (e.g. journaling at a desk) and in a live situation (e.g. speaking with other people in a situation where you feel tense).

Reading and learning about these kind of systems is fine, but the real power happens when you make them into a regular habit. Imagine a habit that enables you – over time – to design and alter all your other habits! You truly can use these approaches to release negative habits and to create the space for positive habits in your life.

These kind of techniques make belief design possible because they go deeper than superficial quick fixes. They can operate as deeply as you are willing to go. Hale Dwoskin makes the analogy with a plate dispenser at a buffet – when you pick up one plate, the spring pushes another one up into its place on the stack until all the plates are dispensed. In a similar way, when you resolve one belief, another, “deeper” one will often rise up in its place until you have completely explored and let go in a given area of your life situation. When you practice these kind of questions diligently, they cut through everything that is not true. They leave you with an abiding sense of inner peace and alignment with reality, in the present moment, that can otherwise be difficult to achieve.

Operating in live situations. I recommend that you memorize the list of questions from each of these systems and get in the habit of applying them during stressful situations. If your partner or boss shouts at you, that is not the time to be thinking “hmm, what’s the first question again?”. In that case, your desire to use one of these techniques will most likely be swept away in the emotional challenges of the moment. Conversely, the more automatic your reaction during times of stress, the more effective these methods will be at serving you. Fortunately, you can test drive these practices on small upsets, so that when a big challenge arrives you will be ready. Sometimes you may even react positively and with gratitude when a small problem arises – perhaps when someone cuts you off in traffic, or the subway doors close right before you get on the train. Why? Because such events give you the opportunity to consciously run one of these programs, to feel better, and to further reinforce and automate the habit of reacting in a proactive when in the face of challenges.

Doing your homework. Make a list of things that are upsetting you – these could be recurring thoughts and emotions, or beliefs that you would prefer not to hold. Systematically apply one of both of these processes to each item in the list. In some cases, new issues (i.e. thoughts / emotions / beliefs) will arise during your processing, and you can add them to your list and process them in turn as well. A regular practice of inquiry or releasing for a couple of hours a week can be incredibly valuable in surfacing and releasing emotional knots in your mind.

Of course, live situations and homework are not mutually exclusive – they work to reinforce each other. The more you practice asking these kinds of intelligent questions, the more you rewrite the soundtrack playing in your head according to rules that you consciously choose. The more that you take charge of the soundtrack playing inside your head, and redesign your habitual self-talk, and your beliefs, the more power you have to alter the course of your life and the world around you in a positive way.

[1] However, if I were trying to do that, I would write about how the Mac platform is superior, more elegantly designed, and much more pleasureable to use. 😉


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