How to Upgrade Your Life by Improving Your Thought Life

Some frameworks to improve your internal dialogue

Mountain and sky scene with Emerson quote that says, “You become what you think about all day long.”
Photo credit: Samuele Errico Piccarini

Managing our thoughts and our minds is the most powerful way to change our lives. We’ve been taught what to think and why, but not really how to think. When we let our mind go on autopilot, the results can be disastrous. In this article, I illustrate several ways for how to think, and especially how to change your thinking. These frames for “thought work” take very little effort, with monumental payoff. What you think, you become.

A metaphor for the mind.

Imagine the reservoir that provides the water supply in your community being dosed with poison 10 times every day for 20 years. That’s 730,000 doses of poison! Now, imagine you find out that you were the one poisoning the reservoir! Would you stop? Of course! In fact, not only would you stop, you’d probably add an antidote to speed up the purification process.

This is a metaphor for how our minds work. If you’ve been thinking negative things for the last 20 years, you’ve poisoned the reservoir of your mind. If you only had 10 negative thoughts per day (likely a very low estimate), that would equal 730,000 negative thoughts over a 20-year period. That’s a lot of poison!

Stopping the negative talk will eventually purify the reservoir of your mind. But you can dramatically speed up the purification process if you use an antidote to the poison. This is where managing your thoughts and your mind comes in. Counteracting the effects of the “poison” will increase dramatically when you choose your thoughts on purpose. Remember, your mind’s job is to think. It will be thinking about something anyway, so you might as well make them purposeful thoughts!

Fortunately, the “antidote” of purposeful, affirmative thinking is much more powerful than the poison of negative thinking. It will not take 20 years of thought work, 10 times a day to purify the reservoir of your mind. In my experience, the process goes much more quickly than that. But it will take repetition. In fact, repetition may be the most important part of thought work. It’s important to choose positive thoughts (of course), but you need to think them repeatedly in order for them to work. As they say — consistency in small things is no small thing!

Repetition matters.

It doesn’t even matter if you believe the positive thoughts at first. What matters is that you say them, and that you say them regularly. You don’t have to say them out loud, you can say them in your mind.

When you catch yourself saying something negative, it’s especially helpful to say something positive to yourself immediately. It strips away the power of the “poison” if you take the “antidote” immediately. It’s also helpful to take the “antidote” as a preventative measure (i.e., when you’re not thinking anything negative).

The reality is, if you’ve spent decades of your life telling yourself what a piece of shit you are, you’re going to have to spend some time replacing those negative thoughts with something else. Well, if you want your life to improve anyway!

Think about it — let’s say you’ve walked around thinking “I’m not enough” or “I’ll never catch up” or “I can never do anything right.” How could you possibly feel like enough, like you’ve caught up, or you’ve done something right with this “audio” playing in the background all the time?! You can’t.

Excavating my mind.

How do I know all this? I’ve been in two 12-step recovery programs for over five years and recovery has revolutionized my life. When I came into recovery, I had already tried many other ways of improving my life. All of the workshops, workbooks, groups, retreats, self-help books, therapy, etc. that I tried combined didn’t come close to the healing, growth and change I got from recovery. The bulk of the work in recovery, at least in my experience, is thought work. As one friend in recovery says, “This isn’t a program of learning, it’s a program of unlearning.”

I’ve always been a very introspective person. But I had no idea how much was going on in my subconscious mind until recovery. Not only did I engage in negative self-talk (the bulk of which I thought I cleaned up decades ago!), I had no idea how deeply held my beliefs were. When I learned, “a belief is just a thought you’ve been thinking for so long that you’ve decided it’s true” I was blown away. I thought my beliefs were true. The process of recovery has included excavating my mind to find out what I’ve been thinking and believing. Then, examining those thoughts and beliefs to see if they are really true — and if they serve me. More on that in a moment.

What’s the background audio of your mind like?

Some people don’t even know that they have a background audio of negative thoughts running through their minds. I was one of those people. I didn’t know until I was over 30 that I had negative self-talk! I realized it when I saw someone else’s negative thoughts written out on the page of a book. I didn’t realize I “spoke” negatively to myself until it was pointed out to me! I remember thinking, “Holy shit! I say that stuff to myself all the time!” Even for those of you who do know you say terrible things to yourself all day long, you might not understand just how detrimental those thoughts are.

Think about it like this, if you were trying to teach someone something new, would you say things like this to them…

“You’re never gonna to learn how to do that right!”

“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know how to do anything right?”

“You’re such a loser. Everyone knows you’re a loser.”

“You’re not good enough. You never will be.”

How could anyone hear that kind of talk over and over and not believe it?? Well, the same is true of good thoughts. If you hear them over and over again, you’ll eventually begin to believe them!

Woman with Disraeli quote, “Nurture your mind with great thoughts, for you will never go any higher than you think.”
Photo credit: Mike Haupt


The process of changing your thinking to create a purposeful thought life includes:

  • noticing when you say negative things to yourself
  • stopping saying those negative things
  • examining what you believe, especially about yourself
  • replacing the negative things with positive things (i.e., choosing your thoughts purposefully)

Notice when you say negative things to yourself, then stop.

The first step in addressing any problem is to notice there’s a problem. If you’re like me, maybe you didn’t even realize you engaged in negative self-talk. Or maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal. If that’s you, hopefully this article will show you how important your internal dialogue is in your day-to-day experience.

The process of 12 step recovery is an excellent way to uncover what’s in the depths of your mind. Journaling is another great way to get at your subconscious thinking. I figure out what I think and believe about things when I journal. Therapy is another great way to examine your thoughts as you talk through your experiences with a therapist.

Once you’ve noticed you have negative thoughts about yourself, others and the world, stop. Each time you notice you’re having such thoughts, stop the thought. In the beginning, that was all I could do. Then, as I started to see how frequently I was doing this, I made a plan for replacement thoughts. This is where thinking on purpose dramatically change things. Below are a couple of brief anecdotes to illustrate this.

Examine what you believe, then replace the negative thoughts.

Once you understand what your thoughts and beliefs are, then you have to figure out how to change them if they’re not serving you. BTW — asking “Does this serve me?” or “Is this working for me?” is the best way I’ve found to determine whether something is healthy for me or not.

A personal example — “I’m too much.”

My negative self-talk tended to focus on how I was “too much.” This contrasts with most people’s negative self-talk about not being enough. In my mind, “too much” thoughts are the opposite side of the coin from “not enough.” The idea behind both of those sentiments is that we’re not the “right” amount of something. There’s something wrong with us. Neither side of that coin is better than the other, they both suck.

For me, the game-changer to my “too much” thinking came when I was in a Yoga Nidra class. The teacher asked us to come up with a short phrase that captured what we most struggled with. For me it was, “I’m too much.” Then she had us create another phrase that was the opposite of that short phrase. I fiddled with it for a while, and eventually it morphed into “I’m just the right amount of everything.”

When I first came up with that a few years ago, I had to say it all the time to myself. Every time I felt the need to back off, shrink, become small or not share what was really going on with me, I said to myself “I’m just the right amount of everything.” It really shifted things for me. Sometimes I didn’t have a conscious thought, like “I’m too much.” Sometimes it was just an impulse to shrink down. So this technique works even when the thoughts are so deeply subconscious that you don’t realize you’re having them.

Now, I say “I’m just the right amount of everything” once each morning. Very rarely do I need to say it to pull myself out of thoughts of being “too much.” This new thought has changed things drastically for me. It’s an example of an affirmation I created to negate a very specific message.

Another personal example — Your thoughts aren’t necessarily true!

Just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true. For example, I’m in a very healthy, loving romantic relationship with an amazing person. I’ll have thoughts about him that are complete bullshit. They have absolutely nothing to do with who he is, or anything he has ever done or said. The difference now is that I know it’s bullshit. Those are just thoughts in my head and they have nothing to do with reality.

A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and the pillow I keep between my legs while sleeping was missing. My first thought was, “That fucker stole my pillow!” Which was ridiculous. The pillow was on the floor on my side of the bed. And he’s never done anything like that before. Also, he was sleeping!

I have the kind of mind that wants to blame other people for things. It wants to keep me separate from other people. It doesn’t want me to be close to others. I understand that kind of thinking is fucked up now. I didn’t understand that before recovery. I thought all those thoughts floating around in my head were true!

Choose your thoughts purposefully

Take charge of your life by taking charge of your thoughts.

When we start taking charge of what’s going through our heads by purposely choosing our thoughts, we become actors rather than a reactors. It’s one of the ways we take control of our lives. I was acting like a victim when I believed all of that shit that was going on in my head. Now I understand that I don’t have to live at whim of the audio that’s playing in the background of my head. I can push the stop button on that audio and put in a new one in there. One that I have purposefully chosen.

I heard someone say he’s become so successful because he learned to talk to himself more than he listens to himself. This is another way of saying “choose your thoughts purposefully.” The rest of this essay is about how to do that.

One of the exercises that was recommended in my recovery was mirror work. This is especially helpful for people who have extremely low self-esteem. It’s where you look yourself in the eyes in the mirror and say loving things to yourself. It was extremely difficult at first, but I did it. Often, I was crying when I did it, but I still did it. The thing I said to myself was, “I love you just the way you are.” That meant I loved myself even as I was resisting looking in the mirror, even as I was crying, even though I’m imperfect. I was willing to do it anyway. Willingness may be all some us have.

Fast forward 5+ years later, I don’t do mirror work regularly anymore. But occasionally when I catch my eye in the mirror, I’ll get this impish smile on my face and say, “I love you just the way you are Barb.” And I mean it! It’s such a blessing to know that it’s true. I really do love myself. That has made an enormous difference in my recovery and in my life. In fact, it’s made all the difference!

That brings me to affirmations, which have become essential to changing my thinking.

For those who are skeptical about affirmations.

Affirmations work to combat negative self-talk and help us “change our minds” about ourselves and what’s possible. Sometimes, affirmations get a bad reputation because people have been misled about how they work. You don’t just think, “I’m rich” and have money come your way. The most important part of what makes affirmations work is repetition over time.

Our negative self-talk has an enormous detrimental effect on our lives. Some people think that affirmations are too simplistic of a solution. If that were true, then why are negative thoughts having such a detrimental effect? People who believe affirmations don’t work have likely skipped an incredibly important part of saying them — repetition. The consistency of saying affirmations matters. If you don’t believe something will work, you’re probably not going to be consistent with it, which means you won’t see the effects.

When you look at how negative self-talk works, it’s similar with affirmations. Most people don’t just say one negative thing to themselves every once in a while. They say them over and over again, for years on end. If that’s you, look what it’s done to you! Let’s switch that around — imagine if instead, for years on end you repeatedly said how amazing you are?? That’s what I’m suggesting for you. Perhaps thinking about affirmations in the ways I present below will get you to buy into the power of affirmations so that you’ll at least give them a try for a while.

Three effective thought frameworks

One point that’s important to understand is that going from subconscious negative thinking to purposeful thinking is a process. It takes time. You were not born with thoughts of not being enough or that the world is an unsafe place where people are out to get you, you were programmed! And it’s time to change that programming. But it’s going to take some time.

Programming your mind.

Speaking of programming, I’m going to reference some others below because I think they do some really great work on how to change our thinking. The first one is a programmer. Sir John Hargrave wrote a book called Mind HackingHe’s a computer programmer who decided to use the principles of programming to change his mind.

Briefly, he called his negative thought loops “problem loops” and he equated them to programming loops. Doing that helped him to get out of his negative thought loops. He says our negative thought loops are limitations we put on ourselves, others and the world.

Notice that these are not actual limitations. They exist only in our minds! What we consider possible and impossible are just ideas. They’re not the truth. They’re loops to be reprogrammed! Hargrave says you can “find the boundaries of what you consider possible, and consciously widen them.” You can train your mind to believe something you previously thought was impossible. You can reshape your thoughts on purpose, which will reshape the world around you.

Since long before I read Hargrave, I’ve had a quote in my bathroom that says, “Impossible is just an opinion.” I leave it there to remind me that my mind is what places the greatest limits on me. I’m sure people from the first century would have thought cell phones, space travel, printing presses and many other things we take for granted were impossible. Wrong!

Back to Hargrave — he goes on to say that his reprogramming could become as big as he imagined, so he challenged himself to think up the biggest loops he could. He decided that an exponentially increasing loop would be best. One of the affirmations he came up with as a result of this thinking is, “My ability to bring amazing things into the world is exponentially increasing.” I stole his idea for one of my own daily affirmations. I’ve said it for years now, and it actually feels true for me. I didn’t believe it in the beginning (at all!) but I do now — because of the repetition.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I got out of negative thought loops and you can too. Getting out of those negative thought loops was extremely helpful, but it just wasn’t enough. The thought loops tended to pertain to specific situations, patterns or relationships. The generalized negativity was much less specific, so I had to deal with that as well.

Scaffolding your thoughts.

Another one of the people who’s influenced me greatly in affirming myself is Brooke Castillo from the Life Coach School. She is brilliant and thinks in ways that I’ve never heard anyone think before. She introduced me to a concept that she calls “scaffolding.” It’s similar to Hargrave’s notion of changing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Scaffolding can be used when we’re trying to change our thought patterns from something really negative to something positive but have a hard time doing so. As I’ve mentioned, repetition is imperative for affirmations to do their job of “changing your mind” about yourself. The thing is, if you just won’t repeat something because it feels too far from the truth for you, there’s a way to get there. In my experience, it’s not necessary for you to believe an affirmation for it to work, but it is necessary for your repeat it. If not believing it will keep you from repeating it, then Castillo’s notion of scaffolding will do the trick. Here’s how it works:

The example she uses to illustrate scaffolding is this. Let’s say you’ve been saying, “I hate my body” for decades. It may feel impossible for you to switch to “I love my body” with any kind of consistency. If that’s the case, you can scaffold your way to “I love my body” by thinking something neutral such as “I have a body.” Note that this thought is very different than being hateful to your body. If you go from “I hate my body” to “I have a body,” the likelihood of you making the leap to “I love my body” increases tremendously! Try it.

If there is some other thought you have about yourself, like “I am a piece of shit,” try something neutral, such as “I am.” After a time, when the effects of the negative programming have decreased, you’ll be able to make the shift to “I am lovable” much more easily.

Better thoughts = better thought life.

And now onto the third person who’s influenced me greatly in terms of changing my mind about myself. Louise Hay has been the greatest influence on my thought life. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she wrote a book called You Can Heal Your LifeShe’s also the founder of Hay House which publishes self-help, inspirational and transformational books and products.

Her book came from her own process of recovering from trauma. Her philosophy is that our mental patterns create illness and disease in our bodies. Those illnesses and diseases are related to specific issues (e.g., menstrual issues are related to the family). She believes that if you want to have a better thought life, you just have to change your thoughts!

Some important points about her philosophy include:

  • Every thought we think is creating our future
  • The point of power is always in the present moment
  • Everyone suffers from self-hatred and guilt
  • It’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed

One of the most powerful notions I learned from her was that my thoughts aren’t necessarily true! I used to believe the thoughts in my head. Now I know that beliefs are just thoughts we’ve thought for so long that we’ve come to believe they’re true.

Some additional points of her philosophy include:

  • Resentment, criticism and guilt are the most damaging patterns
  • Releasing resentment can dissolve even cancer
  • We must be willing to begin to learn to love ourselves
  • Self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the keys to positive changes

By the time I read Hay’s book, I’d already had a couple of experiences that had convinced me that certain issues manifest as illnesses and/or injuries in our bodies, as Hay believes. One such experience was when I read Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup. She said that menstrual issues always have to do with the family. As soon as I read that, I realized that the menstrual issues I’d been having were related to the difficulties I was having with my father. I was astounded because they cleared up when things cleared up with him! I didn’t put these pieces of information together until I read about it, then looked back at my menstrual calendar. So this wasn’t a case of the placebo effect.

Another experience involved me injuring my lower back, which has to do with stability. I injured it on the same weekend I had consulted a consumer credit counselor about my debt. These experiences, which I realized after the fact, convinced me that there was something to this philosophy. So, when I got my hands on Hay’s book I paid attention. Below are a couple of the affirmations I got from her, and some that I’ve gotten elsewhere. I’ll explain the thinking behind some of them.

Here are some of my most important affirmations

I am part of the perfect rhythm and flow of life, all is in divine right order.

This helps me remember that I’m not in charge, and that all is well. Even when things don’t look like they’re going well, I know they are because I trust in the inherent goodness of the universe. This knowledge is based on my life experience. Anything that’s happened in my life, no matter how shitty it looks while it’s happening, has either turned out well, or led to something really amazing once I look back at it.

My life is Divinely guided, I am always going in the right direction.

To me, this is about movement. And it’s another acknowledgement of the fact that I’m not in charge. I’m always moving forward, and wherever I’m headed it will eventually turn out well.

I am creating healing experiences for more and more people daily.

This affirmation came out of the work I did from Mind Hacking. It’s my mission to create more healing in the world because of the tremendous impact my recovery has had on me. In fact, my service work in my recovery communities feels like a calling to me. It’s effortless and feels like a gift to me.

Here are some of my other affirmations.

I live by serendipity, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise without fear.

I am a clear communicator, understood by everyone.

I am successful and success leads to more freedom in my life

I say this one to remind myself that being a successful entrepreneur does not mean I must work a ton of hours and neglect my personal life. One of my hesitations in starting my own business was that I didn’t want to work all the time, which is what my father did when he started his own business. It’s also what I’ve heard repeatedly from others — that you must be willing to sacrifice your personal life if you want to have a successful business. I don’t believe this to be true, but I need to remind myself of this all the time.

That is just a sampling of some of the affirmations I say. There have been others over the years, and I’m now reaping the benefits of having said them. What’s really cool is when they become my “go to” thoughts.

If you want help with coming up with affirmations for yourself, I recommend you consult the sources listed above. Or — you can do what I did and write out what your main issue is in a short phrase, then come up with the opposite of that to counteract it.

Thinking on purpose changes everything.

Thinking on purpose has an enormous impact on one’s life, and thinking good thoughts is the way to have good life. This is especially true if we’ve been thinking bad thoughts for a very long time. Excavating your mind to see what your thoughts and beliefs are is important if you’re going to change them. The process of changing them involves several steps, including examining whether your thoughts and beliefs are serving you, and replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

If you like this article, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who have deal with self-hatred.

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