To find out if you can really change your life by changing your thinking, let's look at a type of psychological healing strategy known as cognitive therapy. In the world of psychology, the word cognitive refers to thoughts and thinking. Thus, cognitive therapy "traces the roots of emotional and behavioral problems to particular thought patterns" (Hassett, 1984, p. 527). The goal of cognitive therapy is to examine your belief system and change the way you think, so that you can behave in a healthier, happier way.
Although the idea of thoughts and behavior being connected can be traced back more than 2,000 years ago, it wasn't until the 1950s that a workable system of therapy was developed (Hassett, 1984). Albert Ellis introduced rational-emotive therapy as a way to recognize and modify irrational thoughts. Over the past few decades, the most popular version of cognitive therapy to emerge is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) (Gazzaniga & Heatherton, 2003), which also incorporates theories of behavior modification, such as extinguishing unhealthy behavior through the principles of reinforcement (which simply means that a behavior can be stopped if you don't reward yourself for doing it). CBT has been successfully used to help many types of maladaptive behavior and mental conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, and self-harm. A specific type of CBT, dialectical thinking therapy, has even been successful in treating borderline personality disorder (also known as emotional dysregulation disorder), which was previously thought to be untreatable. The goal of dialectical CBT is to change dichotomous thinking (black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking) into more flexible thought patterns that synthesize perceived opposites and, therefore, make it possible to deal with the paradoxes of life in a more balanced manner (Spradlin, 2003).
So how can you apply cognitive therapy in your own life? Psycholinguists have found that the words we use are directly connected to our thoughts, so one way is to change your vocabulary. Try using the word and instead of but. For example, "I tried to lose weight, and my downfall was nighttime snacks." Another effective language change is to stop using superlatives (such as best, worst, totally, and absolutely), so that your words reflect middle ground rather than extremes. Getting rid of rigid, perfectionist, "musty" thinking, such as "I must succeed or else I'm worthless," is recommended by the authors of Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life because "when people place the pressure of a 'must' on themselves, they muddy their brain and then, understandably, get disturbed and act in stupid ways" (Edelstein & Steele, n.d.).
And because anger has been clinically connected to heart attacks (Cromie, 2006; National Health Service, 2007), a healthy choice is to curb sarcasm in your daily speech, because sarcasm is a sign of anger. If you are plagued with worry and anxiety, you might want to examine how much of your speech reflects fear (such as, "I'm afraid I won't be able to make that meeting"), and replace it with more neutral terminology (such as, "I won't be able to make that meeting"). If you tend to catastrophize, you can tell yourself, "Stop the disaster thinking" each time you catch yourself thinking the worst is going to happen.
Research by motivation expert David McClelland (Mednick, Higgins, & Kirschenbaum, 1975) revealed that people with a high need for achievement more readily recognized positive words (such as success and profit), and people with low need for achievement more readily recognized negative words (such as failure and loss). In general, if you start using thoughts and phrases that reflect hope and possibility, such as "I can" instead of "I can't," you might discover that your behavior becomes more energized in a positive direction.
Cromie, W. J. (2006, September 21). Anger can break your heart. Harvard University Gazette. Retrieved October 14, 2007, from http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2006/09.21/01-anger.html
Edelstein, M. R., & Steele, D. R. (n.d.). FAQ, Three minute therapy: Change your thinking, change your life. Retrieved October 14, 2007, from http://www.threeminutetherapy.com/bookfaqs.html
Gazzaniga, M. S., & Heatherton, E. F. (2003). Psychological science: Mind, brain, and behavior. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Hassett, J. (1984). Psychology in perspective. New York: Harper & Row.
Mednick, S., Higgins, J, & Kirschenbaum, J. (1975). Psychology: Explorations in Behavior and Experience. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
National Health Service. (2007). Anger management. Retrieved October 14, 2007, from http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/articles/article.aspx?articleId=1890
Spradlin, S. (2003). Don't let your emotions run your life: How dialectical behavior therapy can put you in control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.