William James, American philosopher and the father of American psychology, once wrote: “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
It is no longer a mystery that thought has creative power. Not just in its ability to generate great ideas, but as a manifester of belief, action, truth…in a sense, reality itself. And, as James pointed out, as humans, we have control over our thoughts. And yet millions of people allow their thoughts to control them.
Here are four scenarios. For each I have illustrated potential outcomes based on two different possible thoughts.
1. Your partner had an affair.
It is easy, in this situation, for negative self-talk to sabotage you, your process, and your choices. Whether your rage is so all encompassing that you are unable to see clearly, listen, or understand what is going on, or whether you try to blame yourself, choosing your thoughts can help you maintain both balance and objectivity during a painful and complicated time.
Thought #1: “If only I had/did (fill in the blank), this never would have happened” or “I pushed him/her away by (fill in the blank).” You can take responsibility for your part in the relationship, and should. But your partner’s actions are his/her choice alone. That abdication of responsibility falls, not on you, but on your partner. Stop the blaming self-talk, as it will only cause you grief and serve to excuse the actual guilty party!
Thought #2: “This is not my fault. It was his/her choice to have an affair.” Your integrity is sound, and you did not shatter the trust within the relationship. If your partner tries to lay responsibility for his/her cheating at your feet, the above thought will help you deflect that undeserved blame. When your thoughts are clear and accurate, your emotions remain more balanced, and you feel better. Your actions reflect that. Any decision you make from this point forward should be made from a clear, balanced perspective, not from a place of self-blame when you are not at fault.
2. You obsessively worry about your relationship and it’s wearing you down.
It is not uncommon for someone in a relationship to develop ROCD – relationship obsessive compulsive disorder. This exhausting condition involves thinking about your partner constantly (what is he doing, when will she call, does he love me, etc.) until your life disappears into the shadow of the obsessiveness.
Where does this come from? Insecurity, about the relationship, and, ultimately, yourself. That kind of compulsive worry-thought is often a thinly disguised fear that the relationship is fragile or doomed and that you are somehow to blame.
Thought #1: “She/he is going to leave me. I’m not good enough.” The more you think this way, the more your belief in yourself will erode, which will be reflected in your behavior. You will be increasingly insecure, clingy, obsessive—conditions which not only make you miserable but are likely to drive a wedge into your relationship.
Thought #2: “I’m awesome. I’m going to live my life and enjoy this relationship. She/he is lucky to have me!” These kinds of thoughts, when repeated often throughout the day, end up creating neural pathways in the brain – no joke! You can reprogram your beliefs and thus emotions and the actions that ensue. You will appear—and be – more confident and desirable. Remember, confidence is sexy!
3. Meeting your partner’s family for the first time.
Here’s a more light-hearted example of how choosing your thoughts can have a positive impact on your well-being… and everyone’s good time! So you’ve been dating exclusively for a few months and your partner’s big family reunion is next weekend. Your partner wants you to meet the “whole fan damily.” This can be a stressful situation, but how you choose your thoughts will have a dramatic impact on how stressful. Those thoughts can also help you have a great time, not a nerve-wracking experience.
Thought #1: “They won’t like me.” (And then you internally run through your list of possible flaws—“I’m too loud/quiet, tall/short, dependent/independent….”) Or you might be the type to think, “How boring. A bunch of random family members I’ll never remember.” These thoughts are almost bound to sabotage your experience, and probably that of your partner as well. At the risk of repeating myself (again), thoughts create beliefs and feelings which directly manifest in action. You will be that nervous and/or resentful and/or suspicious girlfriend/boyfriend whose anxiety or resentment simply washes over everyone. Rather than sharing the “blah”—why not share the love?
Thought #2: “This is going to be a blast. I can’t wait to meet everyone!” (Realizing that “everyone” is related to your beloved…and isn’t that special?) The reunion is important to your partner, who wants you to be there. (Look at it as an honor! I would!) To avoid jitters, shift the focus from the fact that they are meeting you, to the fun of “getting to meet” them. Your shift in thoughts will mean that you show up a much better version of you. By getting your thinking away from negativity and anxiety, you are lighter, and your anticipation shows, just as your dread would have, had you not chosen a better way of thinking.
4. Your partner’s in a bad mood.
Your partner invited you over for dinner and a movie. He cooked Italian, your favorite. It was yum. But throughout the evening, he seemed super preoccupied. You couldn’t help but notice. Short answers, not listening, distracted…. Classic bad mood—no cause immediately discernable. How you proceed will depend on how you feel, which will be influenced by the thought(s) you choose.
Thought #1: “I must have done something to upset him/let him down/disappoint him.” Or even: “This is the beginning of the end….” If you immediately default to self-blame, you hurt not only yourself but also the communication between you and your partner. Your worry that you’ve “done something” can lead to withdrawal (because you don’t want to know) or you could turn the tables and now your worry and anxiety manifests in your own “standoffish” bad mood that got the whole thing rolling from the other side! Downward spiral ensues, with both parties having no clue what is going on.
Thought #2: “I wonder if or how I can help him/her with whatever is going on?” This immediately sets the stage for action, not self-blame and inaction. Don’t get me wrong—when someone is upset it is not at all uncommon to wonder if it is with us, but before you go there, think to yourself: “What do I know about this person I’m in a relationship with?” (It’s probably a lot.) So next, maybe you think more specifically about the person you are with, for example: “He/she is an introvert and processes things internally. Perhaps he needs some time alone to work things out before he is ready to talk. I’m going to be straightforward and discuss this with him.” Your choice about how to think about this situation becomes the foundation for your beliefs (not bad about yourself, merely empathetic for your partner) and feelings (you are there to help and your partner will welcome that help) and, finally, actions. Instead of spiraling into mutual bad moods, you can work together with what you know about one another to figure things out.
Knowing who you are and what you want and need in a relationship will raise your self-esteem and lower your anxiety. The first step is often in simply choosing your thoughts. If you don’t feel confident that you can turn off the negative thinking and turn on the thoughts you want, start with affirmations—daily statements you make to yourself. Some examples: “I am worthy of love,” “Life is full of opportunities,” or “I deserve to be heard.” Fake it till you make it—it works!
Affirmations to try on for size, starting today: “I am in control of my thoughts” and “I have the power to direct my life through my thoughts.”
Go forth and choose a thought!