The thought work protocol is how we put the think-feel-act cycle into action to change our lives. The think-feel-act cycle is based in neuroscience, cognitive behavioral and somatic theories. This protocol is applicable to literally everything in this beautiful life and has been a vital part of my healing my mind, body, and spirit. Once you learn it, understand it and start to apply it to your life, it becomes a skill set that runs in the background of your life. A meta skill that helps you gain awareness of your thoughts. You can apply this skill to any and every situation in life.
First, let’s dig into what thoughts are.
You may be rolling your eyes and like, “Vic, I know what thoughts are.” But stay with me, my love.
In this life coaching I do, we define thoughts as sentences in your mind, often written by your subconscious mind. The part of you that thinks constantly without you even knowing it.
These thoughts are referred to, in the Buddhist tradition, as your monkey mind. I like to picture a little row of monkeys in my brain, slamming away at typewriters and throwing random thought sentences into your brain without your conscious control.
The thought that these monkeys write and rewrite are often based in our histories, our traumas and our childhoods. Our brains and bodies are in constant communication via the vagus nerve.
This takes us back to the concept of the watcher. So in short, there is the part of you that’s thinking, the room full of monkeys, and the part of you, the watcher, who is able to observe the thoughts racing through your head at the speed of simian.
When you come to realize that you can watch the monkeys and the old stories they tell you, you can begin to get some cognitive distance. To create some space between you and your thought stories about you, the sentences the monkeys write.
That cognitive space becomes available through awareness, through meditation in any form, although you know my favorite is breathwork meditation.
In meditation, whatever form, we learn to quiet our minds, and most importantly to begin to watch our thoughts zooming around our brains. You can’t change what you can’t see, so this step is vital.
You need to be able to see your own thoughts in order to begin to accept and then shift them.
This is meta work – meta with one T, for those of you who may be thinking about metta meditation from Buddhism. Meta meaning self-referring, if you’re a dictionary – learning to think about your thinking. It’s a skill for sure, one that I think should be part of education starting in pre-K.
You have the power to observe your thoughts and decide if you want to keep them, if they serve you.
Your brain thinks tens of thousands of thoughts a day, for very smart evolutionary reasons, namely survival, which is usually the main reason of your evolution.
We spend our human days evaluating everything around us; ourselves, our futures, our pasts, strangers, family, friends, the train and its perennial lateness.
We are wired as humans to notice things, to assess for safety and danger, to suss things up and come to a quick conclusion, lest we get eaten by a rogue lion. This is part of the monkey mind’s job.
Most of us don’t have daily awareness of these processes until we pause and make our subconscious thoughts conscious.
By bringing awareness to our thoughts, by learning to see the sentences these monkeys are typing out for you.
This is step one, to believe that you have monkeys writing sentences in your mind and to understand that these thoughts are generally subconscious. To know that you can bring conscious awareness to them.
The second step is to do it.
Bring your awareness to the fact that you are not your thoughts and that you can observe, analyze, contemplate, and change your own programmed habitual historical thinking.
You can do this and it’s vital if you want to change the text that those monkeys are putting into your consciousness.
Finally, you get to decide if the thoughts you are thinking on autopilot are ones that serve you. If you want to keep thinking the same old thoughts that you’ve always thought, you will get the same results or outcomes that you’ve always created. Our thoughts create our feelings. We then take actions based on those feelings. Then an inevitable result or outcome in our lives occurs based on the action we take.
Same old thoughts, same old feelings, same old life.
Notice the thoughts. Begin to separate yourself from them. Ask if they serve you. Keep the ones that do and get ready to shift the ones that don’t. And oh, my goodness, this can be challenging.
I’ve been doing this work for ages now and I still struggle often to really see the thought that underlies my feeling. This is hard work, this changing of our lives, and you can do hard things, my love. You really can. Understanding how vital this work of recognizing your own thoughts is helps drive my own desire to sit with my thinking. Even when every little cell in my body is screaming, “No, look away, don’t acknowledge that you’re thinking that old self-sabotaging thought, just buffer a little more, that will do it.”
What I find most vital here is to pause and to give yourself a ton of love and care when this feels challenging.
Taking stock of your own habitual thoughts and recognizing their origin can be really overwhelming at first.
Go slowly, be gentle, encourage yourself lovingly to stay with it. This work can be dysregulating for folks with a trauma history, which frankly is most of us in late-stage capitalism living under the patriarchy.
You may not like what you hear when you look at your thoughts, and that’s okay, truly. I don’t like half of my thoughts half the time. It’s not shameful or regretful. There is nothing to be upset or sad or angry about with yourself. Your old thoughts are just survival tools that you developed to get through this bananas world. The more love you can give yourself, the more you can be your own loving witness and the more space you can hold for change, the more easily this work is done.
You can’t heal hurt with more hurt. So being mean to you for having a harmful, painful, or self-defeating thought is just choosing another painful, harmful, self-defeating thought. Instead, consider writing down and repeating to yourself, “I am new to this. It’s okay to have had thoughts that don’t serve me, thoughts that kept me stuck. I’m learning to release these thoughts little by little, day by day.”
This is what we call a bridge thought that can help you make progress towards a larger goal thought.
Your negative thoughts about you do not define you.
You are made of stardust, my darling. You are perfect and whole and magnificent just as you are. Thoughts about how you’re a failure, how you should be married with kids or how you hate being married with kids. Thoughts that you always eff up, that you’re not thin enough or you’re too thin, not smart enough or your smart mouth always gets you in trouble. These thoughts, they don’t define all the magic that is you.
They’re just old thoughts, old judgment. Calling those thoughts fact and believing them keeps you stuck in the cycles you’re in now.
Harmful thoughts, harmful feeling, harmful action, harmful outcome, because neuroscience. We understand that once you attune yourself to seeing your thoughts and create a little space from them, then you can begin to disassociate yourself from most thoughts. Which is different from the psychological phenomenon of dissociation, to be clear.
You can disassociate yourself and can break the links between you and believing that these thoughts are fact. You can recognize that they’re just a brain habit. Then you can begin to decide if these thoughts serve you and you can begin to learn to shift them to a new thought that can help you to move your life forward.
This is a brand-new skill for most of us. It sure was for me.
I thought thoughts like, “I’ll never be skinny enough and that means I’m a failure,” which didn’t actually look like that as a thought. It looked more like me staring in the mirror grabbing a chunk of thick inner thigh and just sighing.
It took a little work to get to the fact that that was the thought under that experience.
Or this little gem that I’ve held on and off since high school, which is, “Everyone else knows exactly what they want to do with their lives.” Or “Other people have normal families.” I totally believed that that was real back in the day.
I also used to have thoughts that kept me comparing myself to others day in and day out, and I still find myself doing that one.
All of these thoughts, all of these examples of habits that my brain had, and maybe you’re thinking of some habits that your brain has on auto-repeat, none of it’s me. None of those thoughts define me.
They’re literally just electrochemical impulses in my brain, and old habitual ones at that, not facts.
Whatever self-defeating or mean thoughts, whatever judgments you may have about yourself and your life, those are not facts either.
They’re just a mental evaluation. An assessment based on an old measuring stick of what success, thin, pretty or having enough money or having a good career is.
Whatever the story is that you’re using to beat yourself up, it’s just not real.
It’s just as subjective as anything else in this world. The sooner you start to believe that, to truly take it in and to recognize that all of these judgments of ourselves and others are just based in stories, the sooner you can take back your mind.
When we believe that our thoughts, our stories, our old narratives are truth, that can be really painful because of course you’ll feel stuck in your current life experience if you believe your thoughts about it.
Of course, you’d want to change who you are if you have painful thoughts about yourself.
So, wise being that you are, you strive to change the circumstances, the outside factors of your life as though that could change the way you think and feel about yourself.
You go to the gym, you read the self-help books, you restrict your diet, you try the yoga, you do and you do and you become a self-care machine.
Despite all this doing, if your thoughts continue to be, “I’m terrible, I’m not enough, I need to change this, why can’t I just be…” the energy of all that work, all the push to be different is for naught.
Despite all the self-care actions you’re taking, you’ll feel just as lousy about yourself when you get to some invisible destination as you did when you set out on the journey.
I can’t tell you how many of my patients have come into my office saying, “I just want to lose 10 pounds,” and they lose the 10 and want to lose five more because it wasn’t about the weight, it was about their thoughts about themselves.
Doing the things won’t make you happy if you don’t believe that you’re worthy of being happy or feeling joy.
If you don’t believe in your heart you deserve a lovely life or can have peace in your heart until – until what? Until you’ve enacted 473 acts of self-care a day while still feeling you’re not amazing enough as is? Trust and believe, my love. That is a cover up job, and it’s a super popular one. Just ask social media.
I recommend that you pause, that you take a deep breath and start to truly look at your thoughts.
Understand that seeing them is the first step to shifting your entire life and to truly engaging in self-loving self-care. Know going in that this will be scary at first. Potentially it may lead your brain to tell an overwhelm story. And that’s okay.
Get in touch with the grounding supportive resources in your life; your communities, your pets, your loved ones, your capacity to breathe before you embark. You are well resourced, make sure you’re in touch with those resources and remind yourself that you are perfect, loved, and lovable, and that you’re safe.
If you get overwhelmed, you can pause, breathe, give yourself a break to regulate, and come on back to the work, potentially starting with the story that you are overwhelmed because is that not but a thought, my love?
This is the work I recommend, the invitation I offer you in this process of diving deeper to see your own thoughts and to become your own watcher in this profound way.
I recommend you start to write it all down, get your thoughts out of your head where they roll around like little grenades doing you small and big harm.
Put them on paper. Once you can see them, you can learn to manage them, to sort them out into stories that serve you and those that don’t.
But first, you need to understand that thoughts are not facts.
They are habits written by monkeys, driven by electrical impulses and you don’t have to believe them. You can look at them and you can choose purposefully, for your own actual good, which you want to believe and which you don’t. That is a massive act of self-care and self-love in action.
We begin with a thought download. You start by setting a timer for five minutes.
If that feels like too much, if your brain is like, “Whoa, I can’t do five minutes,” start with two. It doesn’t really matter in the end.
Start to write physically with a pen on paper. The neuroscience research shows that is much more effective than using a machine. I totally do this work on my phone if I’m on the subway and want to see something in black and white in front of me. Don’t make perfect the enemy of good.
When you can, choose paper and pen, and if that feels like a real barrier to getting this done, grab your phone.
Start writing, my love. I like to do it in bed before I’ve even gotten out of bed, so there’s no real barrier story. Like, life doesn’t get rolling, my phone’s still on airplane, and my brain is fresh.
Start writing, not judging or minding your grammar or spelling. Just get it all out of your head onto paper. Let it flow.
Once it’s written down, you can get that cognitive distance from your thoughts and you can start to question whether you believe them, whether you want to believe them, if they serve you.
Remember that all of your thoughts are totally subjective.
They come from your past, your culture, your community, your home of origin, your family, et cetera. They are no more real than any other thought. They are not objective truth. They are just stories, just evolution-driven assessments of the world you’ve lived in.
The more you look at your thoughts, the more you’ll see that what you’ve been calling objective reality, fact, is not likely so facty after all.
They’re judgments, and so often in the folks I life coach, those thoughts can be pretty darn mean to you. They are keeping you from recognizing your complete amazingness, those old thoughts are keeping your cortisol spiked and are keeping you from healing.
Capitalism has taught us that we’re not happy when we haven’t bought anything in a minute. That if we just buy that new bag, we’ll have a great summer, fall, vacation or whatever. We’ve been taught to buffer and numb. We’re taught to believe that the circumstances of life keep us from joy, from peace, from contentment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Your thoughts are the key to unlocking it all and to engaging in true self-care.
Your homework is awareness. Awareness, acceptance, action, that is how we move through this thing called life. So try your darnedest to not jump to action. Bring your awareness to your thoughts. When you have gotten really cozy doing that, start to write them down.
Do a daily thought download every single day.
This daily thought download is your most important daily self-care. Every morning before you do your future self planning, do this free writing for five minutes – okay, fine, two to five minutes, whatever works for you.
Simply observe yourself thinking. Take a breath to center yourself and to keep you from judging your thoughts. They are not you. You are not them. They’re just thoughts. They’re just sentences. They’re just words. Picture some monkeys at a typewriter, if that’s helpful. Write it down.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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