How to Use a “Thought Ladder” to Identify & Change Established Patterns of Thinking That May Be Halting Your Progress
In this podcast (episode #361) and blog, I talk to social justice lawyer, podcast host and master coach Kara Loewentheil about how to identify and change established patterns of thinking that halt our progress, and so much more!
Progress shouldn’t just mean working on ourselves. It means working on ourselves AND the impact we have in our communities. It is about us in the world.
But we first should start with our internal life. We need to get to know ourselves, what we think about ourselves and how we can work on changing established patterns of thinking that hold us back. This process involves, at its core, “downloading” our thoughts so that we can work on changing them, one step at a time. This is not an instant transformation. It is hard work, and doesn’t just stop, but it is worth it. As Kara says, awareness is only half the battle. We all need to put in the daily work it takes to improve our minds.
One way of doing this is by using what Kara calls neutral thoughts. Basically, you focus on the smallest thing you can believe right now—something that is neutral and a fact. Say, for example, you battle with your body image. You see yourself in the mirror and think “yuck, I have a terrible stomach.” You can’t just replace that thought with the positive affirmation that you are a beautiful goddess. You can, however, look for a more neutral thought that will occupy your brain and give you some relief. You can say something like “that’s a human stomach” or “many women have stomachs like this”. This does not make everything better but, as Kara points out, it does make the situation “10% less horrible”. You are essentially giving your brain something to do, a little relief or reward, and over time this way of thinking becomes your default mode, and then move onto the next little step, or the next neutral thought.
This process is like a thought ladder. Each rung brings you towards a better self-image, without overwhelming you and shutting down the healing process, or getting you stuck in black and white thinking. It is a tool that essentially teaches you how to stand outside yourself and observe and interact with your thinking, breaking down how you feel and what you are really thinking, and changing that, little by little.
As you work through this, you are re-training your brain. And, the more you practice this cognitive skill, the more you will find that your brain will start doing this without conscious effort. It is a way to acknowledge that although we are not perfect, and although we live in an imperfect world, we can still have a healthy relationship with ourselves. It is a way to open up our thinking to complexity and nuance, which is part of the messiness of human life.
We need to develop a compassionate relationship with ourselves, and avoid feeling a rush to “just get better” or “just fix this”. We need to make space for messy journeys, emotions and failures alongside celebrating our achievements and progress. We should not just monitor our progress and check boxes like we are working on some industrial project. We are humans—even when we are constantly working on our ourselves, this doesn’t mean we won’t have bad days or bad feelings. It’s not always going to be a smooth ride, and that is okay.
Indeed, we should always try to be kind to ourselves. When we do this, we will naturally be less self-preoccupied with our own issues. When we loathe ourselves, however, we tend to think about what we hate about ourselves more, which can lead to rumination, overthinking and self-preoccupation.
When we are kind to ourselves, we also tend to develop a natural sense of humility. This is not self-deprecation or a sense of shame. True humility is a kind of curiosity. We think all people are of equal worth, and that we are not below or above anyone else. We don’t assume that we are supposed to know everything or be better than everyone else—we realize we are not the best or worst, which helps us develop a more neutral perspective of the world and ourselves that naturally increases our community.
Part of this process is also learning how socialization impacts our thought processes and how we function, and not letting this unfairness dictate who we are, what we think we can become or what we want our community to look like. This is especially true for marginalized people who have long been held up to harmful “norms” of behavior and appearances.
For more on changing mindsets, listen to my podcast with Kara (episode #361), and check out her website. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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2:00 Why Kara loves what she does
3:10 Where the self-help industry falls short
4:20 How we actually start finding ourselves & our purpose
5:00 How to use a “thought ladder” to self-regulate your thoughts, feelings and choices
7:20 Why we should try to avoid “black & white thinking”
9:30 How cognitive dissonance affects our mind, brain & body
14:25 The treatment effect
15:50 Why we need to have self-compassion
16:30 Why we should not monitor our progress like we would monitor a machine—progress is not industrial
18:25 What resilience really means
20:30 The importance of being kind to ourselves
23:00 What humility really is
26:15 Inspiration versus competition
27:00 How to enjoy the journey, not just the end point
30:30 Deconstructing toxic social norms
38:00, 47:30 The difference between the mind & brain
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