4 Questions to Help Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts

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GUEST POST BY ROB MCRAE OF WISE PATH COUNSELLING

Do you want to learn something that can change your life powerfully, yet is simple?  Something that is applicable to small or large problems, something that you can do alone and gets better with practice?  Welcome to The Work of Byron Katie.  Of all the things I’ve ever done, The Work is the most transformative process I’ve come across besides mindfulness itself.   I usually describe it to my clients like this:  it is like taking CBT and turning into a powerful, focused laser-beam.  

CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) is considered the most empirically validated form of psychotherapy.  However, for many of us who have been through the ringer of CBT, it leaves much to be desired.  The Work is a simpler, more refined process of self-inquiry that leaves the “B” of behaviourism out – it is purely cognitive.  The theory in CBT is that actions come from feelings, which themselves come from thoughts.  CBT helps you to identify and change maladaptive thinking patterns and follow this into positive actions.  In my opinion, The Work does this more simply and succinctly, but doesn’t try to address actions or behaviours, assuming that when ideas shift, actions naturally follow suit.  

The Work

The Work is based on the theory that we suffer not because of what is going on, but because of our thoughts about it.  It follows ideas that connect to cognitive therapy, Socratic dialogue, and traditions of simple self inquiry.  Byron Katie, the inventor of this method, says that it was born in a moment of clarity for her, when she experienced profound inner peace and realized that all human suffering is born in the mind. 

The Work is a process of finding a stressful or unpleasant thought, and then asking questions as a way not of trying to change the idea – but of simply finding out what is really true.  It is essential to ask the questions without an agenda to try to make the ideas shift or go away, and this is one of the reasons I suspect it is much more useful than plain CBT.  In regular CBT we are given the idea that we can just change our thoughts when we see them, and though this is a lovely idea, it is just not true in experience.  Can you simply change your beliefs about a thing?  Sure, you can temporarily redirect.  But you cannot change your own beliefs.  Your mind has to truly see things differently for that to happen.  So in CBT people often get frustrated, thinking that they are not good enough at the technique, or doing something wrong, if their thoughts don’t change.  In The Work, that’s a given.  We assume your thoughts don’t change.  But in the words of Byron Katie, “I can’t change my thoughts.  But when I question them deeply, sometimes they let go of me.”  

The Work consists of four questions, and then a ‘turnaround’.  

  1. Is it true?

  2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?

  3. How you feel, how do you react when you believe that thought?

  4. Who would you be without that thought?

Turn it around:  the last step is to consider the opposite of your thought and see how true it could be.  

Let’s look at a brief example.  I encourage you to do this with an idea in your own life.  Byron Katie suggests starting with a simple judgement of another person, like “Dave is a jerk” or “Trump is an idiot” or “My mom doesn’t love me”.  Pretty much anything goes.  You can use ideas about yourself, like “I am not good enough” but generally it is better, especially in learning, to use others.  Obviously we all have judgements of the world, so don’t pretend you don’t.  Get honest.  Get petty.  Let’s try an example, “My mom is crazy.”  

First, make sure your statement has only one idea in it.  So instead of “My mom is crazy and should stop hoarding newspapers” – just keep one piece.  You can do other pieces at other times.  

Question 1:  Is it true?

Answer:  Yep!  Sure is!

Question 2: (You only use this if the answer to #1 is not No) Can you be absolutely sure that it is true?

In this question you are asked to really deeply consider your statement from an objective, factual perspective – not just in your opinion.  After all, we KNOW that your opinion is that it is true to start, or else the thought likely wouldn’t be there to begin with!

A:   Well….I mean she sure is anxious and erratic sometimes.  Is she literally crazy though?  Maybe not.  I think what she is doing is totally irrational.  But is it absolutely crazy?  I guess not.  

Question 3: How do you feel, how do you react when you believe that thought? 

A:  Hmm.  Well when I believe it and think that “my mom is crazy” I get really sad.  I want to help her and protect her and change her mind.  I feel powerless that she is over there doing things that seem utterly ridiculous, and I can’t control that at all.  I also feel scared – if my mom is crazy, maybe I could become crazy!  It feels almost panicky in me.  Yuck.  

(Notice that we are just reporting honestly what this thought is doing to me.  It is simple investigation)

Question 4: Who would you be without that thought?  

A: Well without that idea that my mom is crazy… I guess I could just see her as a nervous person who acts a bit differently than me.  If I don’t believe she is crazy then I guess I could relax a bit, and I don’t have to feel the pressure to save her.  If I am spending time with her without that belief, then I can more easily accept her the way that she is.  It stops bugging me as much. It feels better.

(This is not about trying to make yourself stop believing the idea – it is just letting your mind use imagination to pretend what it might be like.  It is pure fantasy.  But you are using a whole new set of neurons in this question, and it pushes you out of your rigidity on the idea.)

Turn it around  

What is the opposite of your statement – and could there be any truth in that? Give some proof.  

A:  Well the opposite is that “My mom is NOT crazy”.  Could that be true?  Well yeah, of course.  I mean, the proof that she is not crazy is that she has a good job, she organizes huge events, she runs her home quite well.  So I guess it could be true that she is not crazy.  

(in the Turnaround you also get the chance to play with it – consider not just the literal opposite, but turn the thought towards yourself.  We don’t like doing this, but it can be very powerful.)

A:  Another turnaround is that “I am crazy”.  Wait a minute here! Ok – just for the sake of this – how might that be true?  Well, I’m crazy when I think my mom should change.  She’s the way she is.  Why am I fighting that?  Also, I am crazy because I also have weird, strange things I do according to other people.  Those are the things that make me wonderful and different.  But I guess it can look crazy sometimes.

Remember – this Work is a meditation – it is meant to be done slowly and with contemplation.  It is just about investigating your ideas.  And maybe, just maybe when you’re done, the world just looks a touch different.  Who knows?  

Go try it on.  Write down what stresses you.  Question it.  Stay open.  And just see where it takes you.  Thousands and thousands have used this simple technique to see through lifetimes of limiting ideas. 

For more information about this, I encourage you to find helpful worksheets and advice at www.thework.org.


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Rob Menning McRae MA, RP

Rob McRae is a psychotherapist at Wise Path Counselling and author with over 5 years of clinical experience working in private practice, addiction rehabilitation centers, community health care,  and hospital settings.

Rob has a Masters degree in Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy from Wilfrid Laurier University and is a Registered Member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario (#003746). Rob has also completed two units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with the Canadian Association of Spiritual Care (CASC) making him eligible to work in hospital or health care settings.