Understand that communication begins on the inside and determines the outside. – P.S. Perkins
We, as therapists, spend a lot of time coaching people on interpersonal communications and trying to get them to appreciate the importance of clear, direct, authentic conversations and how they affect the quality of relationships. What about the running conversations we have with ourselves? Those of us who subscribe to cognitive-based therapies teach the people we see about the role of basic beliefs and thoughts in shaping our interpersonal experiences. But oftentimes we do not make enough of an explicit connection for individuals about how their inner dialogue contributes, or even rules, their interactions with others, and forms their sense of well-being in the world.
The importance of thoughts—the amount, quality, and direction of them—has been noted for years in ancient teachings of Vedanta, the oldest time-tested teaching from the spiritual traditions of India. These same concepts are now popularized in books like the Law of Attraction, The Secret, and such. The basis of these is that we are what we think. In this article I would like to break this down in a way that can help the people we work with and ourselves to manage our inner dialogues, thereby also influencing external dialogues as well.
The old teachings of Vedanta make a point about the power of our thoughts on creating our reality. The book Self Unfoldment by Swami Chinmayananda says, “The difference in the concentration and type of [these] thoughts give rise to the variety of human being we see in the world.” He goes on to delineate three types of thoughts. There are thoughts that are pure, thoughts that are passionate and agitated, and thoughts that are dull and inactive.
Obviously, the thoughts that are pure bring on a state of mind filled with equanimity, serenity, calm, and peace and are the highest order of thoughts. The passionate, agitated, and stormy thoughts are usually riddled with strong desires and prompt us toward actions that fulfill these desires. Thoughts that are characterized by inertia and carelessness, lead to lack of action and purpose.
We could say that those whose thoughts are pure and noble are at peace and experience well-being, having calm, rich relationships with others, accepting those in their lives the way they are, with little or no judgment and interpersonal drama. Those with passionate, agitated thoughts filled with desires are probably often in the midst of interpersonal drama, having both conflict as well as amazing moments of intimacy and connection. These may be people who come to us with relationship issues and anxiety disorders. Those with inert and dull thoughts are probably socially isolated and may be quite alone or lonely, possibly substance abusing and possibly depressed.
Swami Chinmayananda makes a point in his book that most people experience all three types of thought. It is the degree to which any one of these occurs the most frequently that determines one’s type of personality, and by extension, the quality of interpersonal and intrapersonal relationship they experience.
P.S. Perkins, a communication specialist, in his book The Art and Science of Communication has very similar ideas. His premise is that the ability to know what you are thinking about and to discipline the mind to think in a different direction with different thoughts, is crucial to our sense of well-being and interpersonal connections. Metacognition is the ability to think about what you are thinking about: “To cleanse your thoughts, you need to examine your thought’s shape themselves, to understand how given thoughts will show up negatively or positively in your personal situation, and to deliberately choose to change course or move forward in the desired direction.” This ability is vital in understanding and shaping change as it happens in the moment. Mindfulness meditation techniques help develop this ability as well.
I would like to suggest a few ides on how to begin to work on the content as well as the texture of one’s thoughts. Swami Chinmayananda has four basic steps to learning to control your mind and therefore your thoughts:
- Daily introspection. Learn to be a witness to your thoughts. At the end of each day, go within and see the parade of all thoughts, words, emotions of the day and review them as impartially as you can.
- Detect weaknesses, faults, and negativity. In your thoughts and transactions, as they happen, try to watch for negatively biased, critical, or otherwise unhelpful thoughts as they come up.
- Stop negative thoughts and actions. Watch for thoughts and action that you don’t like or feel good about.
- Substitute the negative. Change negative, shameful, hateful, aggressive thoughts for positive, loving, constructive ones.
Perkins steps at changing thoughts are:
- Practicing self-monitoring.
- Practicing self-management.
- Focus on Be, Do, Have.
This approach means choosing ones thoughts and words, making choices, and taking actions. If I am kind, I will do kind things and have kindness in return. This formula can be applied to most scenarios, but the outcome is always the same.
P.S. Perkins suggests engaging in a thorough examination of your thoughts and words and changing them to reflect new, more constructive, productive ones. Replace old self concepts that come from the messages given to you by your first caregivers, which came out of their own issues, with your different sense of self-worth, self-love, and love and acceptance of others.
This is but a small window to the issue of intrapersonal communications. It is a topic that deserves a lot of attention and I feel it would be extremely beneficial to explore this in depth with the people we therapists see.
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