Do you know how to think “on purpose”? Here, Master Life Coach Kara Loewentheil takes us through her practical approach to understanding and changing the thought patterns that cause our emotions and behaviors. Formerly an accomplished but unhappy lawyer, Kara used this method to transform her own thinking and learn to be happy, ultimately changing course to become a life coach. Kara works primarily with lawyers stressed out by their jobs, and single women stressed out by dating – but her tools are applicable to anyone dealing with chronic stress, anxiety or negativity.
Q: Why do so many of us feel constantly stressed, and how can your method help resolve that?
When people say “stress,” they are generally referring to the emotion of anxiety, even if they don’t know that is what they are feeling. What happens when you feel anxious is that your brain releases certain hormones into your body, particularly cortisol and adrenaline, which create all these physical sensations (rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, tense muscles, etc). Your brain does this when it perceives a threat – mental, emotional, or physical. Really, stress is just a physical reaction that your body has to the thought that you are in danger.
If you think about the evolutionary context of this response, it’s basically a survival mechanism to avoid getting eaten. So it makes sense that you are programmed to be obsessed with scanning your environment for danger. Of course, we generally aren’t faced with many lethal threats today, but your limbic system – the primitive part of your brain that you share with other animals - can’t tell the difference between lethal and non-lethal threats. So when we’re stressed about something, we fixate on it and can’t stop thinking about it. That’s why so many people can empathize with the feeling of, “I can’t stop thinking about this even though I know it’s not a big deal” – as long as you believe that the thing you’re thinking about is a threat, you won’t be able to will yourself to stop thinking about it. It’s very difficult to override millions of years of evolution. So the key is to realize, and to really believe, that the thing you’re worrying about is not a threat – to change your perception of it.
Q: So how do you change your perception?
The first and most important thing to recognize is the difference between external circumstances and your own internal thoughts, interpretations, and opinions. Circumstances that exist in the world, to-do lists for example, just exist, they don’t cause stress. After all, some people have to-do lists and feel fine about them, whereas other people might have the same list but be crushed by a sensation of overwhelm. It’s what you’re thinking about your to-do list, your mental description of the situation and how you relate to it, that causes you stress. If you think “I can get all this done, no problem,” you feel fine. If you think “I don’t have time for all this,” you feel anxious. Same to-do list, totally different thoughts and feelings.
What I teach is a form of what meditation teaches you, which is the ability to observe your thinking. But I also teach you how to change it. It’s not just about relieving stress - once you learn how to think “on purpose”, you can create anything you want in your life. That’s the next step – the first step is get out of that mental and emotional pain state, and the second is, now what do you want to create in your life, and what do you need to think to make that happen.
Q: What are some of these thinking patterns that cause stress?
There are many, but two prevalent ones are what I call “trouble spotting”, and “catastrophizing.” Trouble spotting is the mental habit of constantly scanning your situation for problems and inconsistencies. For instance, you might be constantly scanning your work environment for indications your boss is displeased, or someone is getting better feedback than you, or scanning your personal life for signs that your partner’s feelings have changed. Besides generating a lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress, if this is how you’re thinking, you’re much more likely to actually cause or initiate a problem – to start an argument with your spouse for example, or to act sullen and weird with your boss which makes them more likely to be displeased.
Catastrophizing is imagining the worst case outcome all the time. People can get into a habit where they see an email come into their inbox, and they’re automatically thinking about the worst thing it could say. Or your boss wants to have a meeting on an assignment, and you automatically are thinking that you must have made some fatal mistake and are getting fired. Everyone’s catastrophic narrative ends up in the same place, with them and their kids or pets out on the street.
We believe these thoughts, but they are almost always wrong. And in fact we experience them being wrong all the time – but if we don’t consciously work on changing them, we just think them all over again the next time. Humans are terrible at estimating risk - we tend to always overestimate the possibility of something bad happening to us. If you’re a catastrophizer, what you’re doing is basically telling your limbic system all the time that there are lethal threats everywhere. You’re creating a chronic state of stress for yourself, flooding your body with stress hormones constantly. A lot of it isn't rational or conscious, it’s just operating in the back of your mind.
Q: Can't some of these thought processes be productive? For instance, can't playing through downside scenarios help you be prepared if things go wrong?
To some extent if you can limit it. But most people can’t stop their brains doing this once they start. The immediate result of catastrophizing usually isn’t strategic thinking: it’s frequent unease, worry and even full blown anxiety, and draining your brain of energy to do other things. Long term, less obvious results are rigidity, fear of change, and avoidance of healthy risks. When you’re a catastrophizer the unknown is exhausting because it brings up a whole new set of worries – so you start to avoid the unknown.
Q: How can you change this, break out of this thinking habit?
The first step is awareness, simply noticing that you are doing it – you start to see that if your brain reacts to every single thing with this tendency, it might just be a way of thinking and not an objective list of possible outcomes. The second step is learning to engage with that thought pattern and slowly start to change it. You can basically practice talking back to your brain and pointing out that it has no way of knowing that any of these terrible things will happen – and in fact that good things might happen instead. With awareness and engagement you can retrain your brain to harness the catastrophizing pattern and use it only when it will be helpful. Remember, you’re the boss of your brain, not the other way around.
Q: Can you walk us through an example to see how this actually works in practice?
So, when you’re feeling anxious or stressed out, there is literally a sentence in your mind that you’re thinking, whether you’re aware of it or not, that’s causing that stress. The way to deal with your stress is learn how to be aware of what you’re thinking, and then figure out what you can think instead. I call this “thinking on purpose”. And when you’re figuring out that sentence that’s giving you stress, you have to be specific.
Let’s say that you commonly face a situation at work where you have a hard deadline to file something at a certain time, and your client gives you some comments five minutes before the deadline that need to get processed. You might be thinking, “I’m not going to be able to do this in time and I’m going to miss the deadline and get yelled at by my boss.” Now, even hearing that sentence is producing some anxiety for me, and it’s not even related to my life! You have to replace this stress producing thought with a different thought that you actually believe is true.
So for example, a replacement thought you might settle on could be “I’m often able to get this done in time.” And then you have to then practice that thought, thinking that thought “on purpose” when the situation arises, instead of your default thought. Sometimes I tell my clients to put sticky notes on their computers as a reminder to keep creating this new groove in their brain. It sounds incredibly simple, but this is really how the world works!
Now it’s really important to note, that will only work if you believe that thought. You have to be able to believe the replacement thought. That’s the key, and that’s how my method is different from positive thinking; in positive thinking you try to tell yourself a thought you should believe, but usually you can still tell that you don’t really believe it. Trying to convince yourself of something generally doesn’t work – the key is to tell yourself something that you really can believe already fairly easily, that feels a little bit better than what you were thinking before. And then you work your way up to even better and better thoughts.
Eventually, once you have practiced a thought, it starts to just become your default thought. And you get into a positive feedback cycle. So here for instance once you routinely think “I often get these done in time,” you’ll actually get more of them done in time, because anxiety and stress paralyze your brain and are killers of productivity and efficiency. Thinking that you don’t have enough time creates a situation in which you don’t have enough time - your thought creates the reality. And then as you do get more and more done in time, you’ll believe it more and more, and you’ll get even more of them done in time.
Q: What about an example outside of work?
In addition to lawyers, my other main type of coaching clients are women who are dating, and are stressed about dating. I had a client earlier this week going through this – she came in saying, “I hate dating, it’s so draining, I’m never going to find someone”, etc.
What I did first is just point out to her, that’s a lot of thoughts and feelings! You’ve got a lot going on – but right this minute, what’s the main thing that’s bothering you? Her response was, “I’m just really tired of dating, and I feel like I’m never going to meet someone.” Well, that’s a thought – not a feeling. That’s a sentence in your mind. When you think, “I’m never going to meet someone,” most likely you are then going to feel hopeless, defeated, overwhelmed. And when you feel hopeless, your behavior changes – you stop putting in the effort, because why bother? And the result that’s going to then produce in your life is pretty obvious. You told yourself you were never going to find someone, you felt hopeless, so you didn’t take any action to find someone, and now you’ve proved your thought true – you didn’t find anyone.
If you want to keep dating and feel better about it (and by the way there’s nothing wrong with being single), the next step is, what can we figure out for you to practice thinking that would feel a little bit better? In this woman’s case, she wasn’t ready to believe, “there’s definitely someone great out there for me,” so telling her to think that thought would not do anything for her. What we came up with in the end was, she was willing to believe that it was possible that she would find someone, and that it was worth dating a little bit longer to see. And that didn’t feel as hopeless.
I want to emphasize that going from feeling hopeless to feeling neutral is fantastic for a day’s work. ‘Hopeless’ means I give up and it turns into a self-defeating cycle. ‘Neutral’ means I give my brain a chance to recalibrate and move towards thinking something more positive in the future. It’s all very individual and tied to what words mean to you, what sentences create what feelings for you. For some people that’s an enormous change, going from being fully convinced that there’s no one out there for them, to there might be, that can change everything in their lives. For others that thought would not be helpful, would not be motivating enough, and we would have to come up with something different. For her that was the right thought, and helped her be a bit more open to take a few more actions to move a first date along.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about technology. Most people generally realize that checking their phone all the time creates stress, but how does this actually work, and can this create anxiety even if it's not work email that you're checking?
I think a lot of what happens is that when you don’t know how to manage your thoughts, a lot of things trigger them, and looking at your phone constantly is one of the biggest triggers out there. There are a million different things you could be thinking, like unconsciously comparing yourself to others on social media or getting indignant about the news, but regardless of the specific thoughts you’re having, what you’re doing by looking at your phone every five minutes is inviting in a ton of input that’s going to trigger a ton of thoughts.
I also think that a lot of the time when people use their phones, they’re doing what I call buffering, which is, they’re not willing to have whatever feeling or thought they’re actually having, so they try to distract themselves. In that situation I don’t think the phone is stressing you out, but it also isn’t restoring you or helping you deal with the underlying problem. It’s just a distraction, like eating ice cream until you have a stomach ache or getting high until you’re zoned out, just another way of checking out of your current reality. Generally when people are anxious, they want to avoid being alone with their thoughts, and they will use whatever is around to do that.
Q: Many people that have achieved financial, professional and other success seem to have done so by just pushing through the stress associated with setting and meeting ambitious goals. Is stress just the price you have to pay to achieve success?
There are a few different ways to answer that. On the face of it, I think it is absolutely possible to achieve ambitious goals without being anxiety driven. Most people just don't know that because they have never tried it that way. So it's a logical error - because they have achieved things by being stressed, they believe stress is required to achieve them. But it may not be, in fact it may actually hamper or make achievement less efficient and creative. That's what I would argue it does.
Some people are driven by a certain anxiety and fear which they either find tolerable or enjoyable. It’s not really great for long term health, but sure, that works indefinitely for some people.
For others, those behaviors work, but only to a certain point. That was actually the case for me, until it suddenly became unbearable and was no longer an effective motivator. Often you see this happen around the age of 28-32, when people start feeling the constant anxiety and stress isn’t worth it anymore. Generally either their priorities have shifted or they’re just so physically run down they can’t continue to operate in that way. So even if it was effective, it stops being effective and you have to find a new way of doing things.
The deeper question is, why do you want that “success” in the first place? Humans only do things because they want to feel a way they don't feel, or stop feeling a way they do feel. Many people that are driven by anxiety and fear to achieve or attain certain things are really doing it because they think that achievement will give them satisfaction and self-worth. But if you’re believing that you’re inadequate and that’s what’s driving you to get to that place, getting there never solves it.
I know this first-hand because this is what happened to me – I was looking for that self-confidence so I went to Yale and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, but that didn’t make me feel confident, so I went to Harvard and graduated cum laude, which still wasn’t good enough, so I got a prestigious clerkship and then the one reproductive rights litigation fellowship in the country, yet I was still incredibly anxious and insecure.
So fundamentally I question the idea that achieving ambitious things is an automatic "good." I think ambition and creativity and drive are awesome. But when a client comes to me and they have achieved a lot but still feel terrible, then part of my job is to talk to them about what they want to achieve next and why they want to achieve it. If they like their reasons, there are always ways to get there that don’t involve constant anxiety, stress and low self-worth.
Kara Loewentheil, J.D., is a Master Certified Coach. She works with smart feminist women who are being held back by their anxiety and self-doubt. Kara uses cognitive-science based techniques, feminist theory, and coaching tools to teach her clients how to literally rewire their brains in order to create self-confidence and get what they want in life. You can find her dishing out weekly brain-blowing bombs on The UnF*ck Your Brain Podcast (available on your favorite podcast app), and you can download a free guide to creating confidence at www.unfckyourbrain.com/confidence.