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One New, Easy Way to Manage Stressful Thoughts

Today’s blog focuses on a concept by author/ teacher Byron Katie, whose claim to fame is her way of questioning our stressful beliefs.  Her concept – called “The Work” https://thework.com/ – uses a set of questions to investigate our thinking and is an application of the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Thoughts, feelings, and actions are generally connected and/or impact the other.  If I were to give you an assignment to FEEL HAPPY, you might recall people, places, and things that make you happy (thoughts) or you might force a smile or a little dance (actions) that could prompt happiness. 

Part of what causes stress in our lives is when we think something should be different than it is in reality.  We want our teenager to be more respectful but they aren’t; We want our spouse to listen but they don’t seem to be listening; We want our friend to text back but they don’t.   Our interpretation of a situation causes more stress. 

Byron Katie’s concept “The Work” is one of a myriad of influences on my psychotherapy practice, and consists of four questions and a set of turnarounds:

Question 1: Is it true? (Is the stressful thought true?)

Question 2: Can I be absolutely sure that it’s true? (a double check of whether the belief is true or not; a “yes” or “no” answer)

Question 3: How do I feel/ What happens when I believe the thought? (list the ways the thought is then contributing to your stress and distress)

Question 4:  What would happen/ Who would I be without the thought? (if the situation were the same but I was not even thinking the stressful thought)

Turnarounds:  Then you turn the thought around to it’s opposite, the other, and/or the self and think on how the turnaround may be as true or truer than your original stressful thought.

Let’s try out the questions and turnarounds on our example scenario that might resonate with your teen (or for you as an adult!)]: we want our friend to text back they don’t.  If we interpret this as they must be mad at me, then we feel distress or upset when logically there may be a million other reasons why the friend has not texted back [yet].  So the stressful thought would be something like: “[my friend] is mad at me”.  Let’s walk through the questions and turnarounds so we can master the concept and then *hopefully* apply it the next time we’re thinking something similarly or our teen is dealing with similar distress.

  1.  My friend is mad at me, Is that true? 

… Yes!

2. My friend is mad at me, Can I absolutely know that that’s true?

… um, well, maybe it feels like they must be mad and I certainly don’t like how long it’s taking them to get back to me, but No, I can’t say for sure that means they are mad at me.

3. How do you react when you believe that thought, my friend is mad at me?

… I focus on what my friend is or isn’t doing… I’m obsessing about what they might be doing with their time… I’m finding ways in my mind to make them wrong/ show that they are wrong… I’ve abandoned what I was doing or could be doing and am instead spending all this time in my head worried about what my friend is or is not doing…

4. Who would I be without the thought, my friend is mad at me?

… okay, so if it were the same situation – my friend hasn’t texted back – and I could not even fathom a thought that they are mad at me… well, I guess I would be doing my own thing, enjoying whatever I was enjoying before I started worrying about this… I would be staying true to my own actions… I might even be reaching out to other friends in general, not waiting to count on one person to get back to me… Turnarounds to my friend is mad at me, and try to find two or three ways where these might be as true or truer:

5. Turnarounds:

a. (turnaround to the opposite) My friend is NOT mad at me:

… okay, my friend is not mad at me… well, I haven’t done anything to make my friend mad

[that I know of]

… people don’t always respond to texts right away… they talked to me earlier today/ we were texting earlier today…. Maybe they aren’t texting me back but it’s not because they’re mad at me…

b. (turnaround to the other) I am mad at my friend:

… ah yes, Are there ways where this might be as true or more true? … I am mad that my friend has not texted me back… I am mad that my friend is not being reliable… I am mad that my friend is not there for me when I need them… I am mad that my friend has been distant… I am mad that I am not a better friend to myself…

c. (turnaround to the self) I am mad at me:

… Am I mad at myself?  Are there ways I am mad at myself in general and/or in this moment?  I am mad with myself that I allow a friend’s action or inaction to impact me so much… I am mad at myself for wasting my time on this… maybe I am mad at myself for keeping this friend in my life when they don’t put in the effort to be a good friend to me…

So, hopefully this example has helped a bit for us to see how walking through the process of the four questions and turnarounds can ease up some stress.  “The Work” of Byron Katie is one technique I draw from in my practice with teens and adults.  If you want to learn more about Byron Katie, she has a myriad of videos available on YouTube that will continue to illustrate her inquiry work.

NEED MORE?/ Therapy with Sue:

Doing “The Work” of Byron Katie can help with stressful thoughts and feelings, but may not be a substitute for professional treatment.  If you are a California resident and would like to talk with me about how counseling for yourself or your teen can help, please contact me, I’d love to hear from you. I have a psychotherapy office in midtown Sacramento, an office in El Dorado Hills, or I can provide tele-health through a secured platform. I can be reached at https://hopeintherapy.com/contact/ or (916) 764-8360 to talk further about this or to answer any questions you may have.