In a well-known German novel, a character has the same lunch every day: cottage cheese sprinkled with paprika. He is not a very likeable character. He is stiff, unbending, and ultimately cruel. Then there was someone I knew who brought the same supposedly healthy lunch to work every day for years—a tuna fish sandwich—and became demented from all that mercury. Repeating ourselves is fine, but a too-steady diet of the same thing can signal that we are living a small and straightjacketed life. Repetition can prove risky—and it’s the same with our thoughts.
Say that you’re thinking a thought that doesn’t serve you. Thinking it once is unfortunate. But thinking it a million times, hour after hour and day after day, hijacks your life. Just imagine thinking, “I have no chance” over and over again. Imagine it blinking in green neon opposite your easy chair in the room that is your mind. How easy would that easy chair feel if you had to look at that malignant indictment every second? All day and all night: “I have no chance.” You take a nap and you wake up and there it is again: “I have no chance.” How would a life lived like that feel?
There are serious things to do to try to stop caustic repetitions of that sort. But there are also amusing and goofy things to try. Here is an amusing and goofy one. Simply change one word of the thought. Put in any new word you like. Instead of thinking, “I have no chance,” think “I have no socks” or “I have no celery” or “Goats have no chance.” Silly, isn’t it? But who’s to say that silly can’t also be brilliant?
Maybe the repetitive thought is “Nothing about life is fair.” Change one word. “Nothing about paragliding is fair” or “Nothing about life is purple.” Maybe the repetitive thought is “There’s so much competition.” Change one word. “There’s so much shortcake” or “There’s so much alfalfa.” Does changing a word in this fashion make life fair or reduce the competition you face? No, it doesn’t. But it may disrupt your pattern of self-talk, momentarily end the trance you’re in, and allow you to laugh just a little. Isn’t that something?
We know all about repetitive, unproductive, obsessive self-talk. We know how debilitating and damaging that self-talk can be. If we ask ourselves again and again, “Did I lock the door?” we wear ourselves out and kidnap neurons that might otherwise be used for good work. Isn’t that the essence of mental staleness, boredom and agitation? “Oh, my gosh, not that thought again!” How tiring! How maddening! But there it is. Given this terrible penchant for repeating ourselves, we need as many tactics as we can muster in order to interrupt that onslaught.
These are exactly the sorts of tactics and strategies that cognitive therapists regularly offer, tactics like thought stopping and thought substituting. But rarely are their tactics amusing or absurd-seeming. They are professionals, after all, these cognitive therapists, with a professional demeanor to uphold. It wouldn’t do for them to present you with a silly strategy. But silly might be just what the doctor ordered. Imagine saying “I have no flies” rather than “I have no chance”? Don’t you feel better already?
You could of course change a word because you want to make a point to yourself, for example by changing “I have no chance” to “I have some chance” or by changing “Nothing about life is fair” to “Lots about life is fair.” We would understand your intention in each instance: you are wanting to paint a picture of life as better. That makes perfect sense. But for my little exercise I would like you to be sillier than that and head in the direction of nonsense. Pick words that make no contextual sense and create sentences that are patently ridiculous. I am trying to get you to smile! Please play along and see what you experience.
Get yourself ready. When you think a thought that you know doesn’t serve you, say to yourself, “If I have that thought again today, I’m changing one word and turning it goofy.” If that thought arrives a second time, smile, say it out loud—“I have no chance”—and then say it again with a word substituted. “I have no raisins.” “I have no walnuts.” This may not get to the heart of the matter but it may make you giggle and provide a respite: and giggling and respites are not nothing.
This lesson is part of the Your Best Mind Ever series. In this groundbreaking program Dr. Eric Maisel teaches a brand new way to get a grip on our minds.