ONE OF THE MAIN WAYS you and I cause ourselves
unnecessary misery and trouble is by believing ideas we don't
know for sure are facts. You "know" things that aren't
actually true, but you don't know they aren't true, so you act
on those beliefs and it causes you problems.
It's not just you; we all do it. We act
as if we know things we don't actually know. Since you're the
one reading this, I'll address you directly.
To help this make sense to you, I suggest
you think now of a specific problem you have had recently
the more recent, the better. When have you experienced a negative
emotion in the last week or so? Pick one specific time. What
were you doing? Arguing with your spouse? Trying to introduce
yourself to someone? Pounding the steering wheel because you
were stuck in traffic and running late? Getting chewed out by
your boss? Pick only one thing for now. We will call it your
Problem or Challenge, or your P/C for short.
We will start now with an assumption. I
recommend you make this assumption whenever you feel a negative
emotion: You have your P/C because there is something you believe
something you think is true that isn't true. Or
it is unprovable either way, true or false. I am accusing you
of unscientific thinking. We are all guilty of it. Even very
highly trained experimental scientists occasionally think unscientifically.
It's not that thinking unscientifically
causes all problems or all bad moods, but almost every problem,
bad mood, or limitation you experience in your life is to some
degree worsened or held in place because you believe something
that isn't true. Read that last sentence again: it is important.
Sometimes believing something that isn't
true can actually help you like "having faith in
yourself" but here we are only concerned about beliefs
that cause you trouble. We're looking for thoughts you have that
make you unhappy. The question is: What are you thinking about
your P/C that might not be true?
There's a catch to this. You knew there
had to be a catch, didn't you? This technique isn't as easy as
it sounds. Why? Think about it. How can you know what isn't true
when you have already assumed it to be true? If you already knew
it wasn't true, then technically, it's not a belief, and it's
probably not causing you any problems.
How can you discover something you believe that isn't true?
You start with an assumption: Assume that
if you are dysphoric (that is, feeling negative emotions), there
is something you are thinking about your P/C that isn't a known
fact. Make that assumption and start looking, and you will find
one or two of them maybe a whole bunch of them. And when
you find them, and you realize you don't know for sure they are
true, they will stop interfering with your thinking. Result:
good moods more often and more effective actions.
You are on a hunt. You are trying to find
ideas you hold with too much confidence. Why? Because you reason
from those ideas; you use them as sound and stable facts, and
you take actions based on them. Doctors once believed that too
much blood in one's body could cause illness. It was only a theory,
but the doctors reasoned from this theory as if it were a proven
fact, and took actions based on it. Doctors all over Europe tried
to cure people suffering from serious illnesses by relieving
them of some of their blood. This often made people sicker, as
you can imagine, especially with no knowledge of germs and no
sterilization procedures, and sometimes the treatment killed
the patient. Untrue ideas, held with excessive confidence, tend
to cause trouble. Much (if not most) of the suffering of humankind
has been caused by people having too much confidence in beliefs
that weren't true. You could say it is the main theme of history.
Don't let it be the theme of your personal history.
It may seem somewhat counterproductive
to move from more certainty to less certainty. But introducing
uncertainty in place of a fixed idea can open up opportunities
for new solutions. In an experiment, Ellen Langer and Alison
Piper laid several items in front of participants. With one group,
the experimenter said, "This is a hair dryer (pointing to
a hair dryer), this is a dog's chew toy (pointing to a dog's
chew toy), etc."
With the other group, the experimenter
said, "This could be a hair dryer (pointing to the hair
dryer), this could be a dog's chew toy (pointing to the dog toy),
etc." The only thing they did differently was to introduce
some uncertainty. Saying an item "could be such and such"
implied there were other possibilities; saying an item "is
such and such" implies certainty and finality. It implies
there are no other possibilities.
Then the subjects filled out some forms
with pencils. After they finished, the experimenters acted as
if they had made a mistake. They told the subjects they couldn't
finish the experiment because of the errors and that they didn't
have any more forms.
The dog's chew toy was made out of rubber
and could be used for an eraser. Only the people in the this-could-be-a-dog-toy
group thought of that solution. Making the fixed belief into
something less certain allowed more creativity. Less certainty
helped them solve a problem successfully.
The same is true for you and your P/C.
When you discover something you've assumed to be true that isn't
actually a known and established fact, you introduce some uncertainty
in the place of your fixed idea. By doing so, you gain some freedom;
you can be more creative; you're more likely to find a solution.
Things work better when you reason from fewer faulty ideas, and
it will help you stay in a better mood.
the nuts and bolts
Now let's get down to brass tacks. How
can you discover your faulty ideas? First: find out what you
are thinking. Ask yourself: "What am I thinking about this
problem (or limitation or challenge)?" If you can't actually
catch yourself thinking anything, then ask yourself what you
believe about it in general, as if someone had asked you a casual
question about your opinion. Ask yourself what you think. "What
do you think about this problem?"
You will get answers. When you ask a question,
your mind will furnish answers. Write those out in a list.
Now put those thoughts under a microscope.
For each thought, ask yourself: "Do I know it's true
or is it only a theory?" You will find there is quite a
bit you assume that you don't know is true. Don't get ridiculously
philosophical about this or the process stops doing any good.
"Do I really know for sure the sun will come up tomorrow?"
Well, technically, no, you don't. But for all practical purposes,
you do know, and here we are only concerned with practical
That's really all there is to it. Ask yourself
what you're thinking; ponder it, wonder about it, and as you
come up with thoughts, scrutinize them on the basis of evidence.
This process, as easy as it sounds, it very productive. Try it
and see for yourself.
You can do it in your head or you can do
it on paper. It's easier on paper. Just about any thinking process
works better on paper. Thoughts are light and airy and it's easy
to get lost in daydreams. When you start thinking, you know what
happens: one thought reminds you of another related thought,
which reminds you of another related thought, and before you
know it you are thinking about your fourth grade teacher with
the green lipstick when you started out to think about your credit-card
debt. Your mind works by association, so it's difficult to keep
it on track. Writing your questions and answers down on paper
holds the thoughts still and makes it easier to get somewhere.
If you can do it in your head, that's
fine too. There is no need to do a perfect job here. It's really
not even possible to do it perfectly. There are unending layers
of thoughts you have that aren't true. But this process can get
some big chunks and it can do some good and that's all we're
after. Just ask the questions, see what comes up, check your
beliefs for their soundness, and get on with the business of
living. This is not soul-searching; it's more on the order of
fixing a leaky faucet.
To give you an idea of how this might look,
the following is a sample written dialog of a person who's problem
or challenge was that he needed to spend more time on the computer
writing a book and less time goofing off. (Gee, I wonder who
that could be?) Read the dialog to get the flavor of the process,
and then try it on your own with your P/C.
You don't need any special rules for what
makes a thought "unscientific" use your common
sense. When you slow your thoughts down on paper like this and
really ponder the validity of your own thoughts, you can tell
which ones are fishy. Realize they're fishy and go on. You don't
need to try to get rid of a belief; as soon as you know it isn't
a known fact, it loosens its hold on you. That's all you need
In order to have a dialog, you need two
people. But there's only one of you. So you're going to play
two parts like someone who plays a chess game against herself:
She sits on one side and makes a move and plays to win, then
she goes and sits on the other side and plays to win. When you
write out a dialog, do the same thing. Use two different colored
pens and write questions with one color, then pick up the other
pen and write your answers. Then pick up the first pen and play
the role of critic: Are those thoughts valid? Reasonable? Do
you have any evidence for them?
Okay, here we go:
GREEN PEN: What is your problem or challenge?
BLACK PEN: I want to write a book, but
I put it off a lot. I spend too much time reading and talking
with my wife and watching movies.
GREEN: What do you think about writing
BLACK: It will be hard to do; no fun.
GREEN: Do you know that for a fact?
BLACK: Well, of course, you can never really
predict the future, but some of the work on it I've done so far
has been a drag. I have been digging through every known fact
and backup research material I can find.
GREEN: Do you think that is necessary?
BLACK: I guess so.
GREEN: Since you are doing it and it isn't
enjoyable you must think it is necessary.
BLACK: Yeah, I guess I do.
GREEN: Is it necessary?
BLACK: I don't know; I think so.
GREEN: So you don't know for a fact.
BLACK: Well, it's not the kind of thing
that you can say is a fact or not. I could write a book without
GREEN: And what would happen if you did?
BLACK: It might not have everything I know
in it. That would cheat the reader.
GREEN: So you think you have to put everything
you know into this one book?
BLACK: I guess so.
GREEN: Is that possible?
BLACK: I guess not.
GREEN: You guess not?! Of course that isn't
BLACK: Hey, take it easy!
GREEN: You are continually learning. There
is no way you could put everything you know into one book. You
would never be able to finish it. Besides, who would want to
read it? The reader is looking for something useful: The reader
is not looking for a record of what you know, and certainly isn't
going to want to slog through all the research material.
BLACK: No, I guess not.
GREEN: Would you?
GREEN: No! Of course not. In fact, that
is one thing putting you off writing the book slogging
through all that research material again.
BLACK: Boy, if I didn't have to go through
all that research material again, I would feel more motivated.
GREEN: Well you don't have to. Your book
might not sell, but you don't have to.
GREEN: Well, it doesn't seem likely, but
it's a possibility that your readers would want to read
every little detail of research. Don't go from one stupid belief
to another (from "I have to" to "I don't have
to"). Realize you don't know and leave it at that. So you
don't have to put all that research material into the
book. You feel more motivated to do the book. Or, more accurately,
your motivation is less inhibited by an assumption you made.
And so on.
Of course, the writer might try these things
and find he still has trouble. At that point, he can wonder what
he's thinking, and question those thoughts for their validity.
It's not an exact science, and it won't cure everything, but
your chances are good that it will help, at least a little bit.
It is likely to be worth your time.
Now you try it. Or next time you are experiencing
a negative emotion, try it. Ask yourself in the heat of the emotion,
"What am I thinking right now?" And then ask yourself,
"Is that true? Do I really know that for a fact?"
After doing this a few times, you'll probably
start to wonder where the hell you got all those dumb ideas.
We probably picked up most of them when we were younger and didn't
know we would ever rely on this stuff. We learned a lot of things
we have forgotten we learned. We learned it from what our parents
told us or what we concluded from what we saw. Sometimes an offhand
remark of our trumpet teacher or the cutting remark of a childhood
sweetheart gave us a belief that wasn't true, and we've never
thought to change it because all this time we've been thinking
from the thought not really thinking the thought
consciously at all.
Do you remember learning to tie your shoes?
I don't. I don't even know how I do it. I've been doing it so
long it has become completely automatic. Some of our thoughts
are like that, and that's one reason it is hard to discover what
If you have already tried this seek-the-false-belief
process, you've found that the hardest part is knowing what you
are thinking, which is really kind of funny. You'd think the
words in your head would be one of the most obvious parts of
your experience. But it isn't that way at all. Those thoughts
go flitting by in the back hallways, working their magic, changing
your feelings, and unless you really pay attention, they go by
much too fast and automatically to notice.
I have a little tip to help you figure
out what you're thinking: guess. That's right, guess.
Given the way you feel, what can you guess you might be thinking?
Just about any time you seriously ask yourself a question, you
will come up with an answer. So when you try to guess what you
are thinking, you will come up with something. Now, it is possible
that what you guessed was wrong. So don't just believe what you
guessed was what you were actually thinking; ask yourself if
this guess is something you really believe. If not, forget it.
If so, then put the thought through the acid test: Do you know
it is true? Are you completely sure? Or is it only a theory?
Another thing you might have trouble with
is that sometimes your thoughts are not in words. We've been
discussing this whole subject as if all your thoughts were words,
but that isn't the case. Some of your thoughts are pictures.
But you can do this process with pictures by translating the
meaning of the pictures into words.
For example, I remember one time I felt
depressed, but I couldn't figure out what I was thinking. I was
really not saying anything to myself. Then I looked for pictures
and realized I had an image of myself as an old man being a penniless
loser, and the image made me anxious and depressed. I translated
it into words and it came out something like this: "I'll
never amount to anything."
Now I had something to work with. "Do
I know that for a fact? No, I guess it is a possible future,
but it depends a lot on what I do between now and then. Anything
could happen, and that is one possibility. So I'd best concentrate
on my work and not goof off as much."
Do you see that this is not pie-in-the-sky
positive thinking? This is not trying to drown out the negative
thinking with positive thinking. It is investigating your negative
thinking to find out how much of it will stand up to an honest
appraisal of the evidence. Some of it will and that will
have to be a reality you need to deal with. But some of it won't,
and that will be some unhappiness that can drop away, leaving
you in a better mood, with a clearer head.
Question your thoughts; find out what you're
thinking, and find out how much of it is true. It will improve
your mood here and there, and that will make a difference.
In the long run, you will clean up your
thinking; you'll change the way you think about things and that
will have a great effect on your life, again, in the long run.
It happens like this: You find yourself thinking some stupid
thought like, "I never do anything right!" You look
at it, realize it is overstated and not true, and you feel better.
A week later, you make a mistake and you
find yourself again thinking, "I never do anything right!"
You've already argued that one down. What are doing thinking
it again? The patterns of thought you have used through your
lifetime are now a habit. So often you'll catch yourself thinking
the same stupid thought over and over again. No problem. See
the falseness in it, again, and go on. You win a small personal
victory each time, and each time, you increase your chances of
never thinking that counterproductive thought again.
The negative feelings you have experienced
over and over since your childhood will happen less and less
often and all the stupid kinds of things you do used to do when
you felt that way will become a thing of the past. All you need
to do is persevere.
1. Ask yourself what you are thinking
about a problem.
2. Argue with those beliefs by asking,
"Do I know that for sure?"
"What is wanted is not the will to believe but the
wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."
"Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less
remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes
what is wrong."