I used to work with a psychiatrist who said that with kids, thoughts were as good as feelings. He suggested that kids may not be able to articulate complex feelings, but they can sometimes tell you what they think about something, and that can be enough. As a therapist, I’m in the business of feelings, which means I’m also in the business of bodies, sensations, thoughts, and beliefs.
Feelings alone are hard to affect. We can sit with them, honor them, understand them, but it’s hard to just “feel differently” than how we are feeling. We can, however, change how we think and that usually starts with what we tell ourselves in our head.
A famous psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested that a child’s earliest experiences of egocentric speech are part of a process of modeling how we think using language. He suggests that it helps understand complex concepts, organize logical thinking, and even self-regulate. By understanding a client’s inner dialogue, we get to understand how they reason, how they solve problems, and how they feel.
Vygotsky suggests that this inner dialogue isn’t developed in a vacuum, but instead comes from interactions with others. By having conversations with family and peers, humans start learning things about themselves and the world. They experience other points of view–other ways of thinking–which can impact how they themselves learn and think going forward.
That becomes the cornerstone for a lot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. By being the person our clients talk to, we get to have an influence on how they think about things. I don’t mean that in a manipulative sense–I’m not trying to brainwash someone by talking to them a certain way. Instead, they get to experience their inner monologue externally and get feedback from someone who (hopefully) they experience as a positive, supportive person. By experiencing their thoughts with them, I can offer alternative ways of thinking, alternative conclusions, and demonstrate different responses than they received from others.
When presented with an alternative way of thinking, they may adjust their thinking. Hopefully, this leads to thoughts about themselves or the world becoming more positive, more flexible, more healthy.
The same tool that I’m using as a therapist is one that we all use on each other all the time. Parents share what they think with their children. We share our thoughts with our friends. Every interaction has an impact, to varying degrees. The words we use to describe ourselves are words we’ve heard about ourselves or others before. The words we use to describe our circumstances to ourselves are things we’ve heard before about other situations and other people.
I think it pays off to be thoughtful about how we speak to each other and about how we describe things that happen. Our words will become thoughts–our own or other peoples’--so we have an opportunity at each moment to seed positive, healthy, uplifting words in the minds of the people around us.
And in ourselves.