Andrew, an airline pilot, was troubled by anger and regret when he thought about how his company had let him down when he had gotten sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME / CFS).
Even though he loved his job and did his very best to excel in it, he had always needed to take slightly more sick days than his colleagues. Sometimes, due to jet-lag, he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before a flight and had therefore felt too tired to safely fly his passenger airplane. His company, instead of supporting him in flying only when he felt well and rested, had put pressure on him and treated him with disrespect.
With pain and indignation, Andrew still remembered his boss’ face when he had been ordered into his office and spoken to as if he were a child. “How can my boss talk to me like that?” Andrew said visibly shaken during one of our coaching sessions.
This painful memory still kept Andrew awake at night—not only because the associated emotion was very intense, but also because his sensitivity to stress had increased since he had come down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (as is common in ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia).
How Andrew let go of his hurt and anger
To help Andrew sleep better, we looked at ways for him to let go of the painful memory and move on. We settled on a technique inspired by a process called “The Work” from world-renowned therapist and healer Byron Katie.
Let me walk you through the five steps of this technique (10-20min), so that you, too, can use it to let go of old feelings, memories, and thoughts that no longer serve you.
Step 1: Identify the thought at the root of the upsetting emotion
Often, emotions are caused by a thought or belief.
Here is a (bit silly) example of this: If I believed that my wife was unfaithful to me, I would get upset. Since I belief she is faithful, I am not upset—but quite the opposite actually!
I suspected that the root of Andrew’s remaining anger and indignation may have been a thought or belief, so I tried to identify the culprit thought or belief with him.
To get to the root, I asked Andrew to say in one simple sentence what he was upset about. After experimenting with a few different sentences, Andrew felt that the following statement best expressed his feelings:
“My boss is a bad person who did me wrong!”
- “I am angry at Jane because, when I got sick, she disappeared from my life and didn’t help me. “
- I should have taken better care of myself after that flu that ultimately turned into my illness.
- I should have left my job with more regard to disability benefits, because now I no longer qualify for any support (Andrew had this one, too).
Step 2: Is what I’m upset about absolutely true?
In this step we try to question or “disarm” the thought that lies at the root of our upsetting emotion.
If we were somehow able to recognize that the thought or belief that causes our upset is not true, we could let go of the upsetting emotion as well, right?
Recall the “unfaithfulness” example. If I were upset because I believed my spouse was unfaithful, my anger would dissipate the moment I know for sure that my worries were unfounded. Likewise, our upsetting emotion changes from upset to relief the instant we realize that our initial thought was untrue.
In Andrew’s case, discovering that the initial thought is not true is a lot more subtle than the just mentioned example, but it basically works the same.
We simply ask, “Is my upsetting thought absolutely true?”
What if the thought is 99.9% true? Then it’s not absolutely true. As long as there is an iota of doubt possible, you can answer “No” to this question.
This means that you can nearly always say “No” here. Yet this step is important to practice, because it emphasizes that our belief is not the absolute truth, which causes it to lose some of its power over us.
Is the thought “My boss is a bad person who did me wrong!” absolutely true?
It might be just Andrew’s point of view from which it all seems wrong. There is a chance that from a different point of view, one could understand why Andrew’s boss acted the way he did. Maybe he just had a bad day. What if there were other circumstances that caused him to let his anger out on Andrew? Doubt is possible, so the answer is “No.”
Hint: no thought that distresses you is absolutely true. If it’s hard for you to believe me right now, name your distressing thought or belief in the comments below, and I will give reasons why it’s not absolutely true.
Now that you recognize that your belief may not be absolutely 100% true, move on the the next step.
Step 3: What would change if you no longer had the distressing thought?
We ask this question because we want to make sure that letting go of our distressing thought is a good idea. We try on this new belief to see if it is a “good fit”, just as we try on new cloths before we buy them.
I asked Andrew what would change if he could let go of his distressing thought. What if he was no longer upset by unpleasant memory with his boss?
“These thoughts sometimes keep me awake at night, so I would definitely sleep better.” Andrew responded.
In our conversation about what would change, we also discovered that he would feel calmer and happier without his distressing thought, which in turn would increase his composure and energy.
I also shared with him the latest research which shows that stress (sympathetic nervous system activation) in people with ME/CFS correlates with the level of mental fatigue they experience. This fact further supported him with the decision to let go of the distressing thought.
Step 4: Turn around the thought
Turning around the stressful thought or belief means that you write down a thought that states the complete opposite of your original thought.
The belief that upsets Andrew is, “My boss is a bad person who did me wrong.”
The opposite of this thought is, “I love and accept my boss and have no problem with what he did.”
“Ha!” You may think. How will Andrew believe that?
Likewise, once you’ve come up with your turned-around belief, you too might be thinking, “That turned-around belief is just not true!”
Don’t worry about it now; it’s natural at this point not to believe the turned-around thought. For you to no longer believe the stressful thought and instead buy into the positive thought, Byron Katie developed the tried and true next step.
Step 5: Let go of the upsetting thought
This is where the magic of this technique comes in, as it actually allows you to rid yourself of what’s upsetting you.
Katie asks us to come up with at least three genuine reasons for why the new, turned-around thought is true.
What does genuine mean in this context? A genuine reason is genuine for as long as you feel
that it is true. It doesn’t matter whether the belief is rational, or whether society, your neighbor, or your mother believes in it. As long as the reason feels genuine to you, it counts.
It can be anything that you feel is genuine, which includes reasons that are based on your religion or spirituality. For a Christian, a genuine belief could be “I love those who have done wrong unto me, just like Jesus loves those who have done wrong unto him,” or for a Buddhist, “The reason my boss has harmed me is that he, too, is suffering. Thus I feel compassion and love for him and his pain.”
You can tell if a belief is genuine by listening to what happens in your mind when you write it down. As long as you notice in your mind something along the lines of, “Oh, yes. Somehow I feel like this reason is true,” the reason is genuine.
It’s important to remember that your genuine reasons in support of your turned-around belief don’t have to be bigger or more powerful than the reasons that support your initial “stressful” belief. For example, it is possible for a woman who only has a 30% chance to recover completely to still believe 100% in a full recovery.
Since one of the fundamental principles by which our mind works is “What you pay attention to grows bigger,” the woman will believe that she can get better for as long as she
- makes it a daily practice to write down or ponder on the reasons for why she will get better and
- avoids thinking about an indulging in her doubts.
Likewise, if you only pay attention to why your turnaround (the turned-around belief) is true and avoid thinking about why your initial stressful belief might be true, your belief in the turnaround will grow much bigger and your belief in your initial stressful thought will fade.
Here are the genuine reasons Andrew discovered in support for his turnaround.
- My boss doesn’t know what he did. He was raised in a foreign culture that is more authoritative than mine. He is just doing what he was educated to do. I can’t be angry about that. He’s just who he is.
- He must be suffering if he takes his anger out on me. He may be under a lot of pressure from management. I have compassion for him.
- Everything happens for a reason. What he did may turn out to be a blessing, as it has caused me to pursue a path of personal exploration and growth. I might come out of this journey a more resourceful and happier person.
Tip: Sometimes it can take some real soul searching to find your genuine reasons in support of your life-affirming belief. So please take your time. Write your turned-around belief on a sticky note, stick the note on your bathroom mirror, and, every time you brush your teeth, think of genuine reasons for why your turnaround is true.
Also, what really helped me to find support for my positive beliefs was reading empowering and spiritual literature.
How to make the positive change stick
I shared with Andrew that he would have to practice the technique daily for as little as five minutes in order for its benefits to stick. Otherwise, the new belief loses its strength and fall back into our old ways of thinking and old stress patterns.
I could see in Andrew’s face the relief he felt when, using this five-step process, he was able to let go of the stressful thought that had lingered from that unhappy chapter of his career. Later, he reported back that he was no longer bothered by this pattern and that his sleep had improved.
Over to you
I welcome you to share your new, health-and-happiness-supporting belief and your genuine reasons in support of it in the comments below.
Also, please share any questions or other thoughts about this topic you may have.
If you believe you could benefit from my one-to-one support for reaching your optimum health and happiness, have a look at my wise-investment guarantee coaching program. Three of the five spots that had opened up this January have already been taken, so please apply soon if you are interested.
Note: For confidentiality, actual names of clients were not used in this article.