The Thought Work Protocol is a framework I use in my coaching practice. It’s based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a top-down approach to understanding how humans operate in the world. With my clients I pair this top-down, brain-to-body framework with a somatic, body-based approach. Our nervous system runs the show too, our habitual experience of life is not just our thoughts. There is an interplay of our cognitions and our somatic experience of being a human mammal, which is often referred to as a bottom-up approach. Our body is constantly feeding information into our minds, which we then run through the filter of our habitual thoughts.
Mind speaks to body while body speaks to mind.
Both matter, greatly.
The Thought Work Protocol is a tool, a thought exercise. I’m going to simplify the science a bit here:
Something happens in life, and you have a thought about it. Most often the thought is based on your socialization, your conditioning. It comes from what you were taught to think in your family of origin, where you grew up and what you saw modelled for you as a kiddo by your grownups and other kids. It is a habitual thought.
Most of us don’t pause to examine or question our habitual thoughts, so of course we keep thinking them—that makes sense.
Nerd alert! Each thought you repeat into your mind deepens that neural groove. Which is that old path of thinking the same thing that your brain is used to thinking. Bodies seek the path of least resistance, like water which will always move down gradient, or downstream.
As that old neural groove gets activated, the molecules of emotion get released into your bloodstream. Once those biochemicals are released, they create a feeling or emotion in your brain and body as your receptor cells pick them up and are like “dopamine? Awesome! Let’s get excited and motivated and do stuff!” Or “oxytocin? Amazing! I’M FULL OF LOVE!” Or your thoughts could lead to feelings like being disappointed, frustrated, self-pitying, indecision or sadness too.
Thoughts lead to feelings, because science.
We then take action based on that feeling state.
- No one ever thought “I’m a terrible dumb human” and then took the action of engaging in acts of deep self-love and self-care.
- No one ever thought “My body is perfect just as it is” and then took the action of depriving themselves of comforting, delicious, luscious food.
- No one ever thought “I am so overwhelmed by these tasks on my to do list and then immediately got to work conquering them.
- No one ever thought “I was born pure perfection and I am wildly worthy of love and care” and then took the action of accepting less than that from anyone in their lives.
We take action or stay in inaction that matches up with our thoughts.
The primary thought error of codependent thinking is that we are NOT worthy of love, that we have to be constantly and chronically sourcing it outside ourselves, from our achievements and from other people.
From that thought, and this is not a conscious thought for most of us, we take actions that prove we are worthy of mere crumbs of love and love and care, not the whole friggin cake. So we take action like not attending to our basic needs, not putting our self care first and foremost, looking to others to make our decisions for us or validate our decisions a la “what do YOU think I should do?!”
We crowdsource the validity of our desires by getting other people’s buy in before we can take a bath asking “I’ve earned it… right?!” We stay in relationships (and I mean romantic, friendships, work relationships, familial ones) because we feel like we have to. If someone else chose us, who are we to say they’re wrong, to assert our needs and set boundaries, to say how we want things to be, on and on.
You take action, or don’t take action, from your feelings about yourself and the world.
What we do in coaching that is so magical and transformational is to slow it all down. You can see the thoughts there in the middle that you otherwise aren’t seeing, like those far-from-concious codependent stories about what is possible for you, how much joy you can experience before you feel guilt or shame and whether it’s okay for you to ask for help or support.
It all boils down to that thought that you aren’t worthy of love if you aren’t enacting perfectionism—people-pleasing everyone you meet or living out that savior or fixer story. You try to protect other people from having their feelings because it’s easier for you if they aren’t sad, angry, irritable or grumped.
So that pattern just sucks, and I know, I get it. I lived it for a super long time.
Once you can see the Thought Feeling Action cycle playing out, you can realize that every action you take or don’t take creates a result for you in your own life. Then you have more power to intervene for yourself.
This last part is often super mind-blowing for my clients. The focus is squarely on YOU, what you create FOR YOU and not for anyone else. They have their own protocol running in their bodymind, and it’s not your job to manage it for them. Not at all.
Which doesn’t mean to take free reign to be a schmuck or a jerk, not at all. It means that you get to honor the agency and autonomy of the people you love by not trying to run their lives. You trust that they can, in fact, do that on their own.
Your job is to manage your own mind, your own Thought Feeling Action cycle.
That’s the Thought Work Protocol.
It’s something you can absolutely do on your own. I also highly recommend having a skilled, experienced coach, such as myself, who can support you in learning and putting the Thought Work Protocol to practice. Someone who is skilled at listening for the story under the habitual story your brain is telling.
There are important nuances here that take time at task to truly master. I’ve dedicated my life to doing just that. Particularly when it comes to applying the Thought Work Protocol to the habits you are struggling with, that I struggled with, like codependency, perfectionism and people-pleasing.
These habits can really deeply distort your view of yourself and the world.
That can make it easy to jump to conclusions when you’re looking at your own subjective experience of the world. Having an objective witness who can help you slow it down, peel it all apart and take a look at what the what is, is truly life changing.
Being coached myself is one of the best, if not THE best, investment I have ever made in my life because it has given me the tools I need to be able to be my own watcher in a powerful way and to hear my own thoughts without believing them—without assuming they are correct and to be acted on. Rather, I am now able to say: where did this thought come from? Is this my family talking? The patriarchy? Racismo? Capitalism? My middle school theater teacher who told me I was too fat and loud to be a good dancer?
Next I can pause and see what that thought is creating in my life, and WOW is that powerful.
Then I get to decide if that is a thought I want to keep feeding into my neural networks in my brain. That’s how neuroplasticity works—the more often you think a thought, the deeper the groove around it gets, the more you believe it in your mind and body.
I will testify to the incredible power of being able to see and manage my own adult mind, to recognize my protector parts, my perfectionist parts and when my inner children are screaming for my attention.
I know that I have the tools and skills I need to support myself in new ways. I don’t just have to believe the old stories, the old programming that someone else put in my mind.
I now have a deep sense of wellness, knowing that I can process and experience any feeling in my life.
I have an algorithm, a nerdy, science-based protocol to help me make sense of it all and take courageous action for my own best life. This has been nothing short of mind-blowing.
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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