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How to Take Charge of your Thought-Life

Mar 25, 2014 // By Marcus Brotherton

If there’s one area of life where we humans tend to struggle it’s the random thoughts that come into our minds.

Why is this a problem?

Often those thoughts are negative. Sometimes they go all the way to harmful.

ANGER: Man, I hate my boss so much right now!

LUST: Wow, I’d love to see her without her clothes on.

FEAR: Sheesh, how are we ever going to pay all these bills?

JEALOUSY: No fair! How come he got this bonus and I didn’t?!

Psychologists and social thinkers warn us that if we think negative thoughts for too long, then we’re in danger of acting on those thoughts.

Thoughts drive actions, usually, (unless an action is a gut response). And so the logic goes, for instance, that if we think hateful thoughts long enough, pretty soon we become a person who’s full of hate, and then we act on that hate. That is, our hate-thoughts will become hate-crimes.

Ghandi famously put it this way:

 

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

With respect to Ghandi, I’d say he’s partially right about this one. Sometimes your thoughts become your destiny and sometimes not. You might think lustful thoughts your entire life and never actually have an affair. You might think hateful thoughts for years and never actually murder someone, although you’re dancing on the edge of destruction.

Regardless, I’d say a related danger always exists whenever you let thoughts run wild—

You waste your life.

And that’s a big problem for anyone. Me included.

Say you wake at 3 a.m., and a fear about money floats into your mind. Which would you rather do—stay awake for the next four hours tossing and turning? Or take charge of your thought-life and return to a restful sleep?

Or say you see a fine-featured woman walking down the street? Which would you rather have? A marriage filled with lust, where you’re continually longing for other women? Or a marriage filled with satisfaction, where you’re continually thinking about how to best love your wife?

So, what do you do?

A primer on proactive thinking

Here’s a solution for taking charge of your thought-life.

Be forewarned, it comes from scripture. I realize not everyone who reads this blog has a faith-based value system, and as I’ve said before, that’s okay, I’m glad you read this blog. After I offer this solution, I’ll offer a faith-based application as well as a secular one. So keep reading, compadres, no matter what you believe.

One solution to taking control of your thought-life is found in Psalms 1, where the writer says,

Blessed is the man … [who] meditates day and night on God’s law.

The word ‘meditate’ means to mentally chew on something. You purposely place something in your mind and mull it.

You take charge of your mind.

According to this directive, you do well if you mediate on God’s law, namely, on passages of scripture.

If you’re not-faith based, the general principle still holds true: you do well by purposely placing something positive in your mind. You proactively think positive thoughts.

How is that done? You imagine something honorable. You mentally recite a famous quote. You focus on the words to a song that lifts you up rather than puts you down. You remember something admirable.

I don’t know about you, but the most vulnerable thinking times for me are the following:

·        First thing in the morning. It’s far too easy to begin the day in a bad mood. Particularly a Monday. It’s almost expected.

·        Last thing at night. As I’m lying in the dark, it’s easy to let negative thoughts, unrestrained frustrations, and the concerns of the day reign over my mind.

·        When I drive. Particularly a long drive offers time for introspection, reflection, and contemplation. I’m prone to wonder about life’s ‘what ifs.’ I reflect on past conversations and interactions, sometimes angrily or bitterly. I become uneasy about the future.

Here’s the solution put into action:

First thing in the morning, I place into my mind these words below. I’ve memorized this, and the first thing I do when I wake up is purposely choose to run these words through my mind.

Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances;

For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

At the end of the day, I put in my mind these words. I’ve memorized this, and the last thing I do at night, (or if I wake up in the middle of the night) is purposely choose to run these words through my mind.

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,

Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—

If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

When I drive, if I’m angry or concerned, I often place these words in my mind:

Do not be anxious about anything,

But in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God

And the peace of God which transcends all understanding

Will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Replace the harmful with the helpful

Taking control of your thought-life means you purposely drive your thoughts in the right direction. If a negative or harmful thought comes into your mind, you mentally say, I’m not going to dwell on that.

But it’s about more than saying no.

Because if you just say, “I won’t think about X,” then the very thing you focus on is X. Soon your thoughts churn with keeping X out, denying X, not opening the door to X, and your mind become mesmerized with the removal of X. The harmful thought becomes the elephant in the room.

That cursed pachyderm can only be defeated by displacement. You can’t merely reject a negative thought. You must take action and place a positive thought in your mind instead. You replace the harmful with the helpful.

And you must think about the new helpful thought more than once. You proactively run that positive thought forward and backward again and again. You mentally chew on goodness like it’s a big piece of spearmint gum.

You take charge of your mind.

Question: How about you? Have you ever struggled with your thought-life? What do you do that points you in the right direction?

 

  • Mike Pietsch

    Excellent post. Each and every one of us struggle with keeping our thoughts rights as this really is the core of the human problem. You certainly haven’t lost me as a subscriber.

    • Marcus

      Thank you, Mike. :)

  • Matt Mehringer

    Thank you Marcus for incorporating honesty and the truth of God’s Word in this article. As a high school history teacher, I find myself perpetually challenging my students to think in terms of cause and effect. Using your provided examples, if I dwell on lust, jealousy or anger I try (albeit imperfectly) to determine why I am thinking this way (causes) and the potential long term results if I act on my thinking (effects). When I successfully apply the cause/effect idea, I usually am sobered up fairly quickly. I then snap back to reality and ask God to help me stop twisting the good gifts he has already given me. Thanks again for your post and it’s a privilege to read your work.

    • Marcus

      Thank you Matt. I like how you’ve framed the issue in terms of ’cause’ and ‘effect.’ The principle of a person reaps what he sows.

  • Nate Mitten

    Thank you for this this insightful and helpful post. Thanks also for your honesty about your own struggle with this – it enables a reader (or least me) to take your comments to heart when I believe you’re speaking to yourself just as much as you are to me.

    • Marcus

      Thank you Nate. Absolutely I’m speaking to myself too. We’re all in this together. Thanks.

  • donnapyle

    This is an important topic, Marcus, so I appreciate your insight from a gentleman’s perspective. You hit the nail on the head about the difference it makes to start our day in Scripture or intentionally thinking toward the positive and admirable, instead of the downward spiral of negativity. My moments of weakness are definitely when things are quiet (whether at home or on the road). That’s where the proverbial angel and devil shoulder puppets show up. I went through a season when I didn’t like who I saw in the mirror (thanks to culture’s definition of beauty), so I plastered neon pink sticky notes containing Scripture passages about how much God loves me all over my bathroom mirror so that I would literally have to “look around” the truth to focus on the negative. That exercise alone made all the difference. Keep these great posts coming, my Friend.

    • Marcus

      Thanks Donna, always good to hear your thoughts. That mirror exercise is a good one for sure.

  • JC

    This sounds silly but I get biggest bang for my efforts by talking to the dog. She lets me vent and reminds me that most of my thought-life is hobgoblins that I have created. Deep down this doesn’t effect anyone but me and that we need to check out something smelly in someone’s yard.
    What the old line? “Lord, help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am”

    Doesn’t diminish the spiritual approach

    • Marcus

      Thanks JC. Nothing can top a dog!

  • Travis

    Marcus,
    Thanks for this battle call to take control our thought life. One of the keys you hit was to replace the old thoughts with new, not just trying to stop the harmful thoughts. That has been a very helpful approach in many areas of my life. Out with the bad, in with the good.

    • Marcus

      Thanks Travis, out with the bad, in with the good. True!

  • Jim Rudolph

    Marcus, I thought of you as just another veteran loving patriot, you continue to surprise me. Thank you for your courage in writing this article.

    • Marcus

      Thanks Jim. Correct about the veteran loving patriot. Correct about the surprises.

  • Wes Roberts

    You had me there for a minute. I’m fully sticking with your blog post. Why in the world would I, or anyone, get off your list? :-) Earlier this AM when on a mentoring call with one of the emerging adults I’ve the sacred privilege of hanging out with, he and I were talking about what you wrote about. I even like the fact you use the word, compadres. Frankly, with your, for you in all that you wrote, Marcus. Mindfulness is a decision, and an art, and a fact of relationship with one’s core belief system. For we who dare to be known as Christ-followers (not always easy…), there is that great invitational statement to “let this mind be in you” which was also in “you know who.” Not being cute here, at all. I’m slightly preaching now, Marcus, but Jesus, the man (yes, the God/man in our belief system), often had to withdraw to lonely places to spend time with his father to get his own head and heart directionally correct. Why would we men and women dare to think we were any different. I spent time this morning on Skype with a dear friend of another religious faith than you and me. Uniquely, we were talking about the very thing you wrote about, so well. Be encouraged. Keep writing like this. You invite us to grow and become all we were designed to be. No apologies necessary. I look forward to your next post. Can you make that one a bit more radical? :-)

    compadres

    • Marcus

      Good thoughts, Wes: ‘Mindfulness is a decision.’ And go ahead and preach. :)

  • http://www.ehendrick.org/pastoralcare/index.htm Kevin W. Bridges

    Great post. Don’t know why it was a struggle as to whether to post or not. Even if your an atheist, there is wisdom in the writings and teachings of the bible. All literature can contain valuable thoughts.
    I especially like the last part about focus and replacing the negative thought with a positive one so as to not become obsessed with x. I know when trying to lose weight, if I focus on what I can’t have, I want it all the time!

    • Marcus

      True. Thanks Kevin.

  • Jeff

    Thanks for this post. Thanks for the truth from the Bible. Whether one is a believer or not, truth is truth. You help me look inside and see what I need to address. Your insight to Ghandi’s words is much more accurate. I have this verse committed to memory and in my prayer guide, 2 Corinthians 10:5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

    • Scott Taber

      Awesome! Love that verse. He power in it is amazing.

      • Jeff

        Thanks Scott. As you know, harder to do than to say. Lots of replys on this topic. We all need help and support.

    • Marcus

      Good reminder, Jeff. Thank you.

  • Scott Taber

    Interesting. I echo the others in that you have no need to fear the topic in your blog. I know you to be a man of God. You led me in my faith so I feel confident in your heart. God is wrapped up in everything our senses show us. This blog is no different. I struggle with the concept in this blog all the time. As I was pondering your thoughts I realized that I do what your suggesting but only at times and without any real knowledge. When I am afraid I sing a song you taught us in youth group to myself, actually to God, in my head over and over. It never ceases to calm me and set me at ease. The problem is knowledge and action. I know this song, or even just reading the words of my Lord and Savior would help. I have actual experience to back up that knowledge but too often I allow myself to wallow in my negative thoughts. This is especially hard due to the fact that I often spend a lot of time in my own head. Good words Marcus, I for one have taken them to heart.

    • Marcus

      Scott, so great to have you on here. thanks.

  • Andrew Burgoyne

    Beautiful and useful!

    • MB

      ! Thanks Andrew.

  • Ben Lewies

    Hi Marcus

    Good post. I have been thinking about this topic myself for quite a while and specifically the quote from Ghandi. The big challenge is to always keep this in mind – for me the big challenge is not to understand this mantra, but rather not to lose sight of it. We humans tend to forget these sort of things when the going gets tough.

    I think, what is also of importance, is that this mantra can also be instrumental in our understanding and dealings with others. I realise that the focus of your post speaks to the more significant aspect of managing ourselves, but understanding what drives other people can hugely influence the relationships we have with those around us. This has huge application, for instance, when a man needs to make the decision as to whether somebody is a potential life partner or not.

    PS. Similar quotes have been attributed to the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Lao Tzu and the Oral Torah (Rabbinic Judaism)… to name just a few. The fact is that this speaks to a universal truth that those of immovable moral fibre embrace and nurture. I, myself a Christian, hope that I will become better at living out these values. I appreciate the regard for your non-Christian readers and for their freedom of religion, however, I hope you realise that there is no need to be apologetic about your own faith. In fact, I appreciate the fact that you are able to so eloquently and honestly explain how that shapes your value system. It lends authenticity and credibility to your writings.

    • Marcus

      Thanks Ben. I loved this line of yours …’The fact is that this speaks to a universal truth that those of immovable moral fibre embrace and nurture.’

  • kirby white

    Great post. I listen to positive, uplifting music. I drive for most of my days, as I am in sales and have a rather large territory. So music and discussion cd”s help very much. Thanks for posting.

    • Marcus

      Music is a great ally in this fight. Thanks Kirby.

  • Lee

    Great post. Thoughts can very easily become a behaviour either acted out or just perpetuating a cycle of negative thinking if one doesn’t learn to intervene.
    When i experience such thoughts I always fall back on a behaviour management strategy called “Stop Think Do” which i have employed with my own or other children and also adults in care facilities or homes that i have worked in. In most cases of self utilisation it can take just a matter of seconds and often i decide that such thoughts won’t serve me very well and dwelling on them or acting on them will be counter productive and so i will choose to just not worry about such things and redirect myself elsewhere.

    Stop is the step where you have recognised the thought is negative, inappropriate or violent etc and can be difficult for some to be aware of that until after the fact and can take some practice to self employ, particularly for children or with adults that have developmental disabilities or psychiatric disorders, who may need a parent/carer to remind them but that is usually once the thought process has begun to be acted on. For those of us that are relatively neurotypical, it is a matter of interrupting that thought process and just thinking or saying Stop and then allow yourself to calm down or relax or whatever.
    Think is the step where you examine your thoughts and look at your options on how to act on them and the consequences of each action. For most of us that thinking through it rationally should not be too difficult but as with a child or adult in care being talked through it by someone, others may also find it useful to talk it through with someone.
    Do is the final step, where you make a decision based on the above analysis and act on it. As with negative thoughts, you are on the money with redirecting to something more positive or helpful.

    Learning to make the right choice is not that difficult, following through with it can be a bit more challenging.

    • Marcus

      ‘Stop, think, do.’ Great concept! Thanks Lee.

  • Luke C

    Great post Marcus, I have struggled with anxiety and instrusive thoughts for years. Learning to put down your worries and block out worries about the future for extended periods does wonders for your mental health. I only recently learned of and implemented a technique taught by a psychiatrist, as discussed below, it involves recognising an unhelpful, negative thought and putting down what you are doing and saying in your mind “Dont go there”, you keep repeating this for a minute or two, the theory being that you cant think of two things at once. Then go back to what you are doing, if the unwanted thought comes up again, repeat “Dont go there” again for a few minutes, you may have to do this cycle 2 or 3 times, but it does work surprisingly well, coming from a man with severe anxiety.
    The key is to catch the thought early before you mull it over too long, focus on repeating the mantra, and stop what you are doing. If you dont fully address the thoughts they can sit in the back of your mind all day, chewing away at you. I find when Im under pressure at work or home, thats when the haunting of past mistakes and future worries occurs, I then force myself to stop, and address the thoughts, it saves working away all day only half concentratting because the thoughts are chewing away.
    Also if a thought is hard to get rid of, ask yourself “Is there anything I can do about this right now” Can I make a note to think about this later, or call someone now, or email myself a message to address it at work, taking some form of action will help you feel better about a worry and help get it off your mind.

    • Marcus

      ‘Don’t go there.’ Well put! Thanks Luke. Also the line, ‘Is there anything I can do about this right now.’ Good stuff. Helpful.

  • urbanviking

    I used to sit at the counter in a truckstop and hear Earl Nightingale’s messages…a long time ago. We become what we think about. It is that simple. Change your mind, change your life, change the world.

    I was in a conversation not long ago when a close friend said, “I just can’t stop thinking about (a horrible experience which included the death of someone close to both of us)”. I said, “Nobody can. You can’t stop thinking.” Ignoring the deep meditative states that are attainable with lots of practice. “You can only start thinking about something else.”

    Humans can control their thoughts. That is the greatest gift we have. Only by directing our thoughts can we have control of our lives. Most of us operate out of very unhelpful thought habits.

    Mountain climbers have a saying: Don’t look where you don’t want to go. I would say: Don’t think what you don’t want to be.

    Thank you for your blog. It is a source of unending inspiration.

    UV

    • Marcus

      Good thoughts UV, thank you.

  • Michael

    This is so, so, so good… I struggle with every one of these areas. Lust, since I was a teen. Anger, later in life. Nowadays, it seems like they build up and overwhelm me — like my mind has 0 room for anything BUT them sometimes. It’s horrible, but true.

    I realize not everyone will agree, or identify with this… but for some reason, there’s this passage in Proverbs that really hits home for me. Maybe it’s because of the visualization Solomon gives to lust, when we are enticed by it (and want to act upon it), or maybe it’s because I’ve memorized it so many times that it’s written on my heart… the passage is this:

    For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey,
    and her speech is smoother than oil;
    but in the end she is bitter as gall,
    sharp as a double-edged sword.
    Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.

    (Proverbs 5:3-5) (NIV)

    It’s not as simple as just reciting a mantra like this every time I’m tempted. It is a CONSTANT struggle… daily, hourly, by the minute sometimes. And it’s exhausting — so much easier to just give up and give in. But I am called to more as a husband, father, and overseer of my life. Yes, there is grace for these things — Jesus paid all of it and more on the cross. But it’s easy to be indifferent about the daily fight we wage. In the end we are all held accountable for not only the actions of our hands, but the words upon our lips and the state of our hearts.

    Marcus, THANK YOU for speaking truth with this post. It is so important, and so good. I pray for you, brother, as you continue to reach skeptics/seekers/anyone that will listen. Much love to you.

    • Marcus

      Michael, thanks so much for these words and thoughts. With you in this–MB

  • Cathy West Landis

    Marcus, this could not be more timely for me. I am struggling so with this right now. Everytime something good happens, I am tortured by self-defeating thoughts of how I am going to screw it up. And thinking I was the only one, considered myself to be crazy. I’ve had a tough couple of years. My body is betraying me, my mind is betraying me, people have betrayed me. Sometimes it is a struggle to keep going. I have to conquer this in some way. I often have “talks” with myself about getting it all together, but it seems the bad thoughts always come back. I often ask the Lord to take these thoughts from me, but then when they come back, I feel I have failed at yet another thing. At least now I know other people struggle as well. Thanks again, Marcus.

    • Marcus

      Cathy, thanks so much for your comment and your honesty here. God has good plans for you. Amen to that!

  • ScottyP

    I saw you post this a couple of weeks ago but just now finally got around to reading. Thank you for this “nuts and bolts” post. I spent years enslaved to pornography and did finally take it that next step. I agree just because you think it doesn’t necessarily mean you will do it but it certainly sets you up for failure. When the heat of the moment comes up we tend to fall back on what our mind has been feeding on. My life was ruled by lustful thoughts so when the invitation came it was more of a subtle fall. What may seem like “innocent” thinking is so underestimated.

    Since that time community, transparency, and accountability have made the difference for me. Definitely taking ownership of my thought life has been a work in progress. This year I challenged myself to fight the lazy thoughts and replace it just like you are saying. I have been memorizing Scripture. Right now I’m working through the book of 1 Peter. I just finished the first chapter. I want to have the whole book memorized before the end of this year. For me it takes a lot of time to do this. A lot of reflecting on the meaning of the passage, a lot of re reading over and over. It has transformed my thought life.

    It’s a battle for the mind we all face and some of us have a lot more work to do than others based on our past. May God use your words to richly enhance other’s lives and bring us all closer to His image.

    • Marcus

      ScottyP, thanks for your honesty here. This line of yours is so true: “What may seem like ‘innocent’ thinking is so underestimated.” Glad you’re fighting the good fight. –MB

  • The Reader

    Thank you for the wonderful post

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HI, I'M MARCUS BROTHERTON,

the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many men lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help men lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.