One of the most important things you can do to change your life is to get crystal clear about the difference between circumstances in your life (and in the world) and your thoughts about those circumstances. Until we become conscious of this difference, we are convinced that they are one and the same and it feels as if circumstances (and life) are happening to us. We feel like victims, powerless to change anything.
Once we understand the difference, however, we realize where our power lies and we begin to take responsibility for what we actually can control: our thoughts, feelings, actions, and results.
Circumstances, Thoughts, and Beliefs
Google defines “circumstance” as “a fact or condition relevant to an event or action.” Circumstances are always facts, meaning that everyone can agree on them.
The definition of a “thought” is “an idea or opinion occurring suddenly in the mind.” I love this definition because it underscores that thoughts exist only in our minds, not in the outside world. I also like to refer to thoughts as “sentences in our minds,” because it helps us see that our thoughts are the story we’re telling ourselves about the circumstances we’re experiencing.
And when we continue to repeat thoughts over and over, they become beliefs, because we’re so convinced that they are true.
The reason it’s so important to understand the difference between thoughts and circumstances is because our thoughts (and beliefs) are what create suffering for us and keep us stuck. It’s never our circumstances.
Here’s an example to illustrate. Say that you left your job when you had your first child. Now that she’s in kindergarten, you’ve been job searching for several months, but you haven’t found anything yet. You’re starting to believe that maybe something is wrong with you and you start questioning your abilities. Then you start spinning out in your mind, wondering if you’ll ever find a job and imagining the worst-case scenario.
Your circumstance is: you are not currently employed. Everyone can agree on that.
Your thoughts are everything else that you’re telling yourself. “Something is wrong with me” is a thought. “I’m not sure if I can do this” is thought. “I might not find a job” is a thought. These thoughts are what is creating the unpleasant emotion and mind drama, the imagining worst-case possibilities and the hand-wringing.
The good news about thoughts is that they are completely optional. Imagine yourself (or someone else) in the very same circumstances without that thought. How would you be feeling differently? Showing up differently? How would your results be different?
Take A Thought Inventory
One of the most powerful exercises you can do is to closely examine all of your thoughts and beliefs about yourself, your abilities, your career, and your goals.
To do this, get a piece of paper and write down all of the thoughts about a current career goal or problem. (Really do this on paper. It helps you view the thoughts more objectively.) What is holding you back? Why are you feeling stuck? What are your thinking about yourself and your abilities? Write about this one issue or problem for 10 minutes until you’ve written down all of your thoughts about it.
Then go through and circle the circumstances. What is 100% factual? What could everyone agree is true? Sometimes the circumstances are simply something like “I exist. I have a child. I have a law degree. I’m not currently employed.”
Then underline the thoughts. Notice how there are more thoughts than circumstances. We often have very long stories. How do you feel when you think the thoughts you wrote down? What do you do when you think that way? Are the thoughts serving you in any way?
Those thoughts are what you can change. Sometimes it’s just a matter of letting go of a thought that isn’t helping you. Imagine being in the same circumstances without that thought. Who would you be? How would you feel? How would you show up differently?
The simple exercise of identifying on paper the actual circumstances and your thoughts can create the space in your mind to see things differently. You’ve been believing your story and it’s felt so completely true.
But if that story is creating suffering for you, you also have the option to let it go. Just contemplating that possibility is a powerful step because it allows you to recognize that you do have options. It allows you to imagine yourself with a different mindset. And a different mindset is exactly what you need to create the results that you want.
What story have you been telling yourself about what is possible for you? Is that serving you? Who would you be without the limiting thoughts and beliefs? Contact me for a free strategy session if you need help with seeing your limiting thoughts for what they are.
Go forth, grow, and bloom.