Coming to Terms

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Are you being held hostage by your negative thoughts? Here’s how to negotiate a truce.

Be honest: How much time do you spend daily worrying about the way something is, or was, or might be in the future? Now add the time spent being annoyed with other people, muttering in your mind about how they “should be.” Then include the time devoted to replaying in your mind the injuries done to you by others. What’s your final tally? Several minutes? Or more like a few hours?

And while you’re fretting over those issues, how do you feel? Anxious, angry, fearful? Perhaps there’s even a jittery stomach, tense muscles and pounding temples to boot. As your mood darkens, it becomes harder and harder to push away those upsetting thoughts.

Yet no matter how often you replay those negative thoughts in your head, they don’t do anything to improve your reality. Instead they mostly cause you pain, intensifying conflict and robbing you of moments in which you could have been happy and productive. The remedy to such self-destructive thinking, according to Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (Harmony, 2002), is as simple as her book’s subtitle.

Katie’s four basic questions can help you to reevaluate your troublesome thoughts – and your attachment to them. This “inquiry” process guides you toward a more honest assessment of the troubling situation, which in turn facilitates a clearer plan of action. Those willing to do “The Work,” (i.e., the process of answering the four questions), can not only reclaim endless hours that would otherwise be spent in terminal loops of negative thought, but also learn how to transform their perceptions of even the most painful realities.

Truth and Dare

“The Work” begins with a purging exercise in which you write down all your negative thoughts about a person or situation that’s bothering you:

1. “I resent ____________________ because ____________________.”

2. “I need ____________________ to __________________________.”

3. “He/she/it should/shouldn’t _______________________________.”

4. “He/she/it is _____________________.” (Describe them in the most frank terms possible. Don’t be kind; be petty and judgmental.)

After you’ve filled in the blanks, use the questions and “turnaround” exercises described below to investigate and evolve your thoughts and feelings.

Once you’ve got this stuff down on paper (a large index card or even a napkin will do), you apply Katie’s method for digesting and interpreting these impressions. Looking at each of the statements in turn, boldly investigate each one using the following questions:

Is this true? Listen carefully for your own heart’s honest answer, not simply what you’ve said, been told, or sworn to in the past. When you experience your own answer, you’ll know it.

Can you absolutely know it’s true? You may strongly feel that something is true (at least in part), but are your statements verifiable facts? Are they completely true all the time? Or are they simply your beliefs or interpretation of facts based on sketchy evidence and emotion? The statement you’ve written, or the thought that’s torturing you, may appear to be incontrovertible to you. If so, try adding “and it means that” to your original statement. You may come to realize that it’s your interpretation of the fact that is causing you the most pain. Or consider whether you’d still say the statement is absolutely true if you had to live with your decision forever.

How do you react when you think that thought? What do you feel emotionally, and what do you feel in your body, when you let these statements inhabit your mind? How do you typically treat yourself or the person you’ve written about when you think each of these thoughts? Make a list of your resultant attitudes and behaviors. Ask yourself: How do I live when I believe this thought? Two good follow-up questions: Can you see a reason to drop the thought? Can you find one stress-free reason to keep the thought?

Who or what would you be without the thought? What would you be like, and how would you feel, if you were not hostage to that thought and all those resulting feelings? Imagine that you didn’t have the ability to think the thought as you stand in the presence of that person (or in that situation).

How would the situation be different?L List the possibilities that would emerge if you could choose to live your life without this concept. For example, in the same situation, but without the thought, how would you treat the person differently? Does this way of being feel kinder to you? More energizing?

Turning Reality Around

After answering these questions, it’s time to process any forthcoming realizations. Often, people discover they are all worked up over judgments they cannot even be certain are accurate. They discover they don’t like the feelings they experience when they ruminate and fume about their reactive versions of reality. They have the insight that they would be a lot happier, more capable and more hopeful without their ingrained lines of thought and belief.

Next, you are invited to do a “turnaround.” A turnaround gives you a forum for evaluating whether your own behaviors or reactions are fueling or exacerbating the problem – whether, for example, we might be projecting our own fears, frustrations and judgments onto the other person or the situation in general. All you have to do is take the statements you have written and experiment with some alternate versions of them. You might try substituting yourself – “I” – for the person you are judging. Or turn your statement into the opposite of what you first wrote, asking, “Could this version of reality be true?” For example, in a turnaround, the original statement “He is unloving to me” becomes “He is loving to me” (to the best of his ability) or “He is unloving to him” (could this be part of the problem?) or “I am unloving to him” (could this be true?) or “I am unloving to me” (when I don’t look truthfully at my thoughts and actions).

A few questions come up during this process: Are you insisting on certain chunks of reality to the exclusion of others? Do you have an active part or passive-aggressive role in the conflict? Can you give yourself the medicine that you are prescribing for other people?

As you weigh these possibilities, and other variations of the truths you outlined in the first part of the exercise, you arrive at a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play in the situation and, potentially, your own complicity in the conflict.

It takes an initial investment of time to address persistent patterns, but once you’ve been through the cycle once or twice, a quick review of the process may be all it takes to short-circuit nagging thoughts as they arise.

Calling a Truce

The crux of Katie’s message is this: Stop resisting and arguing with reality! Because, as Katie is fond of saying: “When you argue with reality, you lose – but only 100 percent of the time.” In other words, your current reality, whether it involves an unresolved conflict, a childhood trauma, a job you dislike, an obstacle you don’t know how to overcome, or even a world riddled with wars and hatred, exists as it does at this moment whether you like it or not. While you may not be able to significantly alter the situation, you can change your thoughts and reactions about it. When you do, you free up energy that can help you reclaim the momentum and clarity you need to be your best self, to see implicit opportunities, to evaluate priorities and to take real action.

While Katie doesn’t promise that her method will make silk purses from each and every sow’s ear, she does suggest that when you free yourself from judgments and begin to see your situation more clearly, you may even be able to recognize its positive and transformative aspects. Perhaps more important, you begin to see yourself as a force of positive, conscious change.

One important assertion implicit within Katie’s work is that the feelings that arise from negative thoughts are not necessarily “bad.” In fact, Katie says, “painful feelings can be a good thing because they can signal when it’s time to begin questioning the thoughts that are causing them.” Instead of simply hating and bracing against the pain, she suggests, you can employ your own agonizing thoughts as a teaching aid.

Live and Learn

Katie speaks from experience. It was suffering through a wrenching period of her own life that prompted her epiphany about the detriments of negative thinking. Over the course of several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, despite having a seemingly picture-perfect Southern California lifestyle, complete with a lucrative real estate job, husband and children, Katie says she found herself spiraling into worsening rage, paranoia and despair. Her troubles were nothing unusual, she notes, just a garden-variety mixture of frustrations with her spouse, job and children. The same complaints that many people experience at one time or another.

But lacking the skills and insights required to catapult herself out of her judgments and negative thinking, Katie found her mental and emotional structures breaking down. She began to gain weight and became addicted to codeine and alcohol. After bottoming out one night on a halfway house floor at age 43, she recognized the need for an intense self-examination. In a moment of spontaneous insight, she came up with the basic line of questioning that would eventually become her trademark approach.

What Katie discovered through her personal inquiry was that it was her own recurring thoughts and beliefs about her family and her job – and not her family and job per se – that were the source of her emotional pain. She also discovered that the majority of her assertions about “the way things were” were in fact inaccurate, untrue, or at the very least uncertain. She eventually boiled down her self-examination to the four key questions and began to share her findings at small gatherings in her home. Before long, her method caught on, and Katie began offering workshops. Not long afterward, she wrote her book.

Active Approach

Katie’s philosophy, which has been likened to Zen Buddhism, cognitive therapy and Socratic dialogue, has since resonated around the world. More than 300,000 people have been reached through her popular book, her Web site (www.thework.org), her workshops and retreats, and also through the increasing use of her technique by therapists.

The popularity of the approach, Katie believes, stems from the fact that it can be applied to just about any problem. In her book, she gives examples of how “The Work” can be applied to an astonishing variety of common everyday complaints, including issues concerning relationships, family, work, money, body image, even concerns about environmental and political crises. The consistent thread lies in finding that it’s typically our thoughts about the issues that provoke most of our pain, not necessarily the issues themselves.

This is not the same as denying there is a problem, notes Katie. Nor is “The Work” meant to be a replacement for action or, for that matter, a negation of protest. Rather, she says, the idea is simply that when our destructive thoughts are probed, the proper course of action becomes clearer.

The majority of Katie’s book is taken up with transcripts of sessions she’s conducted with people whose own real-life experiences serve as examples of “The Work” in action. When a woman whose beloved nephew died tragically in a mountain-climbing accident finally works through her anger at his “risky behavior” and fully acknowledges her sadness about his absence, she realizes that she can finally enjoy her happy memories of her nephew. She can honor his choices and begin to live a more joyful life herself.

An environmental activist angry with corporate polluters discovers that her chronic rage has morphed into a strident self-righteousness that is impeding her potential for effective protest and activism. And so on, through just about every imaginable source of pain, frustration and resentment, all of which are eventually transformed into understanding, relief and equanimity.

Successes aside, it should be pointed out that doing “The Work” is not necessarily a simple and linear process. Long-established patterns and belief systems may require repeat processing and deeper, more honest lines of inquiry. But meaningful change always takes time and effort. Katie’s point is that this is far more preferable to the alternative – staying stuck and miserable for a lifetime.

“All the stress that we feel is caused by arguing with what is,” she writes. “What I love about ‘The Work’ is that it allows you to go inside and find your own happiness, to experience what already exists within you, unchanging, immovable, ever-present, ever-waiting. No teacher is necessary. You are the teacher you’ve been waiting for. You are the one who can end your own suffering.”

Helen Cordes is a freelance writer based in Texas.

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