Everyone knows the story of "The Little Engine That Could" by Watty Piper, right? "I think I can, I think I can".......Well the author hit the nail on the head (no pun intended) when it came to targeting the source of what the strongest influence is in "our" world- THE MIND. However, so many times we hear, "follow your heart" as the answer to a question of "what to do?" Our world enjoys romanticizing the heart and establishing it as the primary source of leading and guiding us in life, but that is the worst thing we can do! The heart refers to the center of our emotions. It is the universal symbol of love and therefore houses all other emotions within it. Let me paint a picture for you, bear with me.
Ok, so let's take a glimpse into a hypothetical "typical" day and navigate our way through it via the heart (our emotions). You wake up feeling refreshed because you got a great night sleep the night before. You get ready for the day and feel prepared to tackle all that it has to offer. Things are off to a great start: hot shower, clothes are clean and unwrinkled and you love the way you look in your outfit. You are feeling great! Next, you go into the kitchen to make coffee and breakfast, only to find that your spouse used the last of the milk and the k-cup box is empty. Bam! Frustration sets in. How could they be so selfish to finish up the milk and use the last k-cup? Now what are you going to do? I guess you will be making a run to the local donut shop for your morning coffee, which will probably make you late to work because you didn't plan on making this pit stop. You grumble to yourself all the way there about how you can't believe you have to be put out like this because of your spouse's inconsiderate behavior and/or absent minded ways. Either way, you're frustrated. Now, you pull up to the window at the donut shop to pay and pick up your coffee. When you get there, you find out the car ahead of you bought your coffee and donut! What?!?! Wow, how awesome is that? You feel grateful and excited about this random act of kindness and now you find yourself back to feeling great and ready to tackle the day.
You've now arrived at the office. When you get to your desk you find a note to report to your boss's office ASAP. You immediately feel your heart sink, "what did I do?" When you speak with your boss, you're relieved to find out it was only about the planning of a surprise party for your co-worker, because it's her birthday. Well, after the relief sets in, you begin to feel a different set of emotions: insecurity and jealousy. Now that random act of kindness has been deflated and you're back to feeling your heart sunk into the pit of your stomach. You can see where I am going with this, right? When we are driven by our heart (i.e. emotions) we encounter a whirlwind of fleeting moments that cause our days and weeks to feel like we are on a never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs. It can become very chaotic for our lives and the people around us. I could have created many different scenarios, both light and inconsequential or deep and heavy. The result would remain the same: an up and down roller coaster ride with the heart as the conductor, leading us to places of highs and lows.
Of course, it is not wrong to allow an emotion to create a moment for pause or celebration. It is only human to rejoice when we get good news or to cry when we receive sad news or to get angry when we get upsetting news. But it should not dictate our entire outlook and change our perspective so drastically. Most of us know the saying, "don't throw the baby out with the bath water"- well apply it here. Don't let a little setback such as feeling frustrated or sad cause you to throw out your whole perspective on a situation. Feelings can be false indicators and unreliable at times. Let me take you back to "The Little Engine That Could." Our thoughts should be the engine of our train (values/beliefs), followed by our behaviors - the train cars (actions) and lastly followed by our emotions - the caboose (feelings). Our emotions should almost always follow our thoughts and behaviors - they are not consistent, nor reliable enough to be the engine of our train. Behaviors are not the best choice for the engine either. Many times we may find ourselves behaving in ways that we would not normally behave because we want to fit in or feel accepted (i.e. peer pressure). So, this can cause some inconsistencies in our behaviors which then can create some chaos, if left in charge of leading our train. Nevertheless, our thoughts are the best choice as our engine because they tend to be the most consistent and reliable of the three.
Now, let's talk about our thoughts for a minute. Our thoughts are our beliefs and the truths we hold about ourselves, others and our world. We are not as easily persuaded to change our beliefs and what we think to be true as we are with our feelings or behaviors. Therefore, thoughts create a fairly solid foundation for us to bounce incoming information off of, to determine which choice would be best, how to best respond in a situation and how to interact with the world in which we live. When we "think we can" you will most likely "see that you can" and "feel that you can." Your mind will tell your body what to do and say and you will then eventually feel encouraged by doing so. Let me give you an example from the previous illustration. You went to make coffee and breakfast, the milk was gone and there were no more k-cups. Rather than allowing the emotion of frustration to take hold of the engine, your thoughts could have pushed it aside and said, "maybe there is a reasonable explanation as to why this is, I will ask my spouse when I talk to them next. But for now, I will grab some toast and get a cup of coffee at work." The belief that our spouse would not maliciously use up all the milk and last k-cup needs to trump the feeling of frustration, allowing you to move forward without grumbling while seeking an alternative, like toast and coffee at work. After you follow through with this alternative, you will find that the frustration will fade away and you will continue feeling that you can tackle the day.
Though thoughts are the best candidate for the engine of our train, they can also malfunction and lead us astray. We have to be very careful to not fall into the trap of irrational thinking and false truths. Our world can be cruel and confusing at times which will influence the way we think about ourselves, others and the world. It is important that we have a healthy foundation for our beliefs and truths to flourish and take root. We don't want any cognitive distortions to have the time to take up space in the foundation of our thoughts. But more on that next time. For now be encouraged to keep telling yourself, "I think I can, I think I can" and watch your behaviors and emotions follow suit, just like a properly functioning train does.
Kristin Ferri, LMHC, NCC