You are listening to the *Take a Break* podcast with Rachel Hart, episode 46.
If you’re an alcoholic or an addict, this is not the show for you, but if you are someone who has a highly functioning life, doing very well but just drinking a bit too much and wants to take a break, then welcome to the show. Let’s get started.
Hey everybody, we are doing a deep dive into the think-feel-act cycle today. This is what I get so many questions about. I will tell you that there are so many of you out there who as soon as you hear about the cycle and start to understand, “Oh, that’s why I feel the way I do, that’s why I’m acting the way I do.”
It’s like, “Oh my god, this makes so much sense. Why didn’t anyone share this framework with me? Now I have a framework and I can understand. I can understand why I feel and act the ways I do. It doesn’t have to be this mysterious thing.”
But, the question is, how do you go from having a framework to using it as a tool? And that’s what I want to show you today, how you can start to utilize the think-feel-act cycle as a tool, because it is such an incredibly powerful tool. And if you learn how to master it, it will change everything. It is a tool I used to change my drinking but it is a tool that I use today to work on everything in my life; changing how I eat, how I exercise, changing my relationships.
It helped me start a business, it helped me leave my job – everything I do, I use the tool of the think-feel-act cycle. I’ve actually talked about how I first encountered this framework in my book. I was living in New York City and I was so frustrated with my drinking. It just seemed to be this thing that was getting in the way of so much that I wanted to do, and I finally decided that I had to look for help.
I had to figure this out; I couldn’t try to just sit and figure it out by myself anymore. And I ended up finding a group called Smart Recovery. It’s a peer support group and it uses techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy. And CBT therapy really focuses on this idea of think-feel-act. It helps people to understand how they can use this framework and apply it to the world.
So at Smart recovery, what they do there is show you how you can use all these tools to start to control your use of drugs and alcohol. And I’ll tell you that Smart is very different from any of the other peer support groups that are out there.
So when I went, it was such a relief for me because nobody was saying that I had a disease, right, they were talking about it in terms of brain science. They were talking about it in terms of habits and in terms of learning what’s happening, learning different skills and learning how certain skills weren’t serving you.
Nobody was telling me that I needed to wear a label and call myself an alcoholic. In fact, Smart actually discourages the use of labels like alcoholic and addict. One of the reasons why it does is, you know, this sense that for many people labels are not empowering. Some people find them empowering, others don’t; they find them disempowering.
Also, labels don’t capture that there’s a whole range, there’s a whole spectrum between being a “Normal drinker,” and being someone who literally is non-functioning and that alcohol is causing problems in every single part of your life. So I wasn’t there to confess all the bad things I had done when I’d been drinking, I didn’t have to admit the nature of my wrongs, I didn’t have to ask for a higher power to remove my defects or my shortcomings.
All I had to do was start learning how to apply new tools. And for someone that liked to learn things, right, this was perfect for me. I thought, “I can learn new tools.” And Smart was the first place that I was introduced to the think-feel-act cycle, and it was hugely transformative. I mean, it just made so much sense as soon as I read about it. I remember just reading and being like, “Oh, this makes sense. Why has no one ever explained this to me before?” And I used the cycle to change my desire to drink; something that I had struggled to do since I was 17.
I used it to change my desire because all of a sudden I could see, “Oh it’s my thoughts; it’s my thinking about alcohol. I have to identify those thoughts, I have to become aware of them. If I can identify them, if I can become aware of them then I can start to shift them.”
And I understood, for the first time, “Oh I can change my deprivation. I can change feeling restricted. I can change feeling like I’m missing out. I mean, it was so powerful and transformative for me. So I learned this tool and I just ran with it, I loved it.
And that really set me down a path of self-discovery. Now, I had really been on a path of trying to figure this out for a very long time since my early 20s, but once I understood this concept, I just clearly understood, “Oh, this can apply to anything. This isn’t unique to drinking.”
And so, I started really trying to understand that; I started trying to understand many more parts of my life. And a couple of years later, I actually found the work of Brooke Castillo, who’s a life coach. She’s a life coach that I eventually trained under; she does amazing work. And her work is so interesting, it so connected with me because it also uses part of the think-feel-act cycle.
But she expanded it in such a brilliant way to include two additional pieces. And those two pieces that she created to expend the think-feel-act cycle, it helped me understand how the cycle was working in my life even more.
So she added the pieces: a neutral circumstance and a result. And in her model, the think-feel-act cycle is kind of sandwiched between a circumstance and a result. And I will tell you that learning this, all of a sudden having these two extra pieces, really supercharged me, because then I was able to understand it in such a different way. It felt like more of a tool that I could use in any moment; and that’s what I think is so powerful.
Now, why I think that those two additions to the cycle are so powerful is this. First, of course, we don’t think a thought until we encounter something in the world to think a thought about, right; that’s the circumstance. And so, being able to pull those two things apart to see the circumstance and how our thought is separate, so often we don’t do that. so often it’s just meshed together, we can’t see what’s happening in the world as separate from our thoughts, we just think our thoughts are what’s happening in the world.
That’s incredibly powerful, but also understanding that our actions – everything we do or don’t do – it is always creating results, right. The results that we have in our life are connected to what we’re doing or not doing, and so really adding that results piece to the end helped me to see, “Oh okay, so this is how I’m really creating my life.”
So what I’m going to do today is go through each step. I’m going to go through each step in detail and then show you the process for how you can start to use it as a tool. Because I know there are so many of you out there who think, “Yeah, this makes great sense, I love this, I love this framework; now how do I apply it, how do I use it?”
Let’s begin, we’re going to start with the circumstance. So the circumstance is that beginning piece of the cycle, right. Before you have a thought about something there is a circumstance. Circumstances are everything out in the world, everything that is happening right now. That could be the weather, current events – so what you’re reading in the news, who’s in the Whitehouse, world events.
Not only everything that’s happening right now, circumstances are also everything that has happened in the past. So that can include what happened yesterday, what happened in your childhood and what happened in ancient Rome. I love thinking about it this way.
I love thinking that your past, what has happened yesterday or ten years ago or in your childhood is as unchangeable as ancient Rome. It really puts it in perspective for me that way.
So all of these things are outside of your immediate control – In this exact moment, you cannot change the weather, you cannot change the headlines in the news, you cannot change who is running this country in this exact moment, you cannot change the past. You cannot change your past and you cannot change the past of ancient Rome. These are examples of circumstances.
Now, circumstances also include people. You are a circumstance, your husband, your wife, your family, your siblings, your ex, your mother in law, your boss, people you encounter. Those are also circumstances. Circumstances also include things that you may be able to change in the future but you cannot change in this immediate moment; your appearance, weight, your body, your job, your relationship, how much money is in your bank account.
You may be able to change these things in the future, and frankly, you can change a lot of them with the help of the think-feel-act cycle, but in this immediate moment they’re a circumstance. Now here’s the thing about circumstances: all of these things that I listed, they’re all neutral until you think a thought about it.
I want you to really think about that – they’re all neutral until you think a thought about that. and listen, this makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense that our interpretation, our understanding, our judgment of things out in the world and of ourselves is what creates the feeling, right. So it makes sense to be able to separate out the circumstances from the thoughts.
Now, when most people encounter this idea that circumstances are neutral – and I talk a lot about how alcohol is neutral – but when people encounter this idea of circumstances being neutral, immediately the brain can be like, “Yeah okay, but what about like really terrible things. What about violence, or terrorism or death? Are you really saying that that is neutral?”
And what I’m going to offer to you is this… Yes, even the things that most people in the world would label as terrible are also neutral until you think a thought about them. And listen, this actually makes a lot of sense. It’s the reason why no two people react the same way to the same set of events, because we’re all having different thoughts about those events.
And it doesn’t also matter is 99% of the world would agree, which when I do hear people kind of trot that out, like everybody would agree this is terrible – if there is one person in the world who would think differently about this circumstance, then it’s neutral, right? The circumstance is not creating how you are feeling until you think a thought about it. So what you’re trying to do when you identify a circumstance is to pinpoint the objective realities of your world, stripped of any judgment and opinion.
Now listen, this is going to feel weird. We are not used to doing that. we are not used to looking out into the world and separating it into your circumstances and your thoughts about your circumstances. We’re not used to stripping away all our judgment and our opinion.
Here’s the thing, I’m not saying that you can’t have your judgment and opinion; you can keep it. I just want you to understand that these two things are separate; they do not go hand in hand. And if you really want to boil it down even further, you can think of your circumstances as just the facts of life, the facts of this situation, stripped free of judgment or opinion; stripped free of whether or not what’s happening is right or wrong, just the facts.
The think-feel-act cycle runs in response to circumstances, and I’ll tell you this, for most people thee cycle is running totally automatically and unconsciously. We’re not even aware of it, and that’s why most people at first really struggle to separate circumstances and thoughts, because they’ve had years and years of practice as just having the think-feel-act cycle just running automatically.
They’re not used to looking at things and thinking, “Hey, what’s my judgment here? Can I strip away my opinion? Can I just try to see what’s neutral in this situation? Because the truth is that we have opinions about everything happening around us and to us and about us.
Our brain likes to label everything as good or bad, fair or unfair, just or unjust. And that’s not a problem, okay, but what the cycle shows you how to do is how to be conscious about this labeling, right, how to be aware that this labeling is happening and then trying to understand, “Is it helping me or is it hurting me?” Learning how to separate the facts of your life from the thoughts that you’re having about those fact is incredibly powerful.
So those are what circumstances are. Circumstances are everything happening out in the world, and you, and everyone around you. All these things, stripped free of any judgment or opinion. It’s what you cannot change in this moment. You may be able to change it in the future, but right now it’s outside of your control.
Now, this is where we get to the think-feel-act cycle, and I’ve talked a lot about thoughts. Now, thoughts are just a sentence in your mind, right, it’s just something that you are thinking about a circumstance. It’s your opinion, your judgment, your assessment of whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. And a lot of people will say that their thoughts are facts, “This is just true…” Right?
How many times have you caught yourself saying that? “This is just true. This is just a fact.” Your thoughts are not facts, your thoughts are an opinion; they’re an assessment, they’re a judgment. And here’s the thing about your thoughts: they’re always optional, always; even if you have practiced thinking some thoughts for a very, very long time.
For a lot of people, that thought that you’ve practiced thinking for a very, very long time is, “I’m never enough. I’m not good enough.” That thought is optional. It might not feel optional to you in this moment, but it is. And thank god, right? Thank god it’s optional, because if it wasn’t you would just be stuck with it. So here’s the thing, your thoughts are always optional, even if they don’t feel that way. Even if it feels like, “No it’s really true, there’s nothing else I can think…” If it is an opinion, if it is a judgment, if it is an assessment, right, if not everyone would agree, then it’s optional.
There is a huge benefit to seeing all your thoughts as optional. It means you can change them. They’re not optional, you can change them.
Circumstances you can’t change, at least not in this immediate moment. Circumstances are outside of your control, but thoughts you can change. And that is where all of your power lies; in the fact that you can change what you’re thinking.
Now, when I talk about this concept with people for the very first time, when most of them hear this idea that their thoughts are optional, they’ll think one of two things – or both of these things, actually. They’ll either say, “Okay so then I should just walk around seeing everything as positive? Is that what you’re telling me to do, if my thoughts are optional I should just see the world as just beautiful and wonderful all the time?” And two, “Okay so if my thoughts are optional, you’re saying that how I feel is my fault?”
If you thought either of these things, let me tell you that you are in good company. This is totally normal. Here’s what I’m going to tell you: the answer to both of these is no. No, you should not go around and see everything as positive, and no, how you feel is not your fault, and I’m going to explain why.
One, I don’t want to feel positive about everything that happens, and neither should you. Humans were given the full spectrum of emotions to feel, both positive and negative. And when certain things happen in life, I want to feel negative emotion. I want to feel grief when someone I love dies. I want to feel anger when I see an injustice in this world.
Negative emotions are not a bad thing. We’re not meant to walk this earth and be positive all day long. In fact, I think this is a key piece of this; knowing that you don’t want to feel positive all the time. You need that contrast, you need both the light and the dark.
That contrast is what shows you, what makes it possible to have both emotions. You couldn’t have calm if you didn’t also have stress. You need that contrast. You need the contrast between stress and calm to understand them. If you didn’t have sadness how would you understand joy? Again, you need that contrast; you need the light and the dark.
And here’s the thing: if you start to understand your emotions as just a set of physical sensations in your body that can’t harm you – they might feel uncomfortable but they can’t harm you – then there’s no reason to avoid feeling negative emotions. Negative emotions aren’t a problem.
Now the second questions, this idea that, “Okay if my thoughts are optional, if I can choose what to think, if I’m in control here, then I guess what you’re saying is how I feel right now is my fault.” I’m going to tell you this: one, it’s not your fault because no one ever showed you how this works. For almost everyone listening this is a brand-new concept. This is a new way of conceiving of the world.
The other thing is, just because you understand how the think-feel-act cycle works, does not mean you can put it into action right away. It’s like expecting that you can hop on that bike for the very first time and ride off into the sunset. It doesn’t work like that, it’s a tool; you have to learn this skill, your brain has to learn how to use it and it will take time to master.
Listen, I wish that I had learned this in grade school. I wish that this was something I had learned as a kid, but I didn’t. I didn’t learn it until my 30s. And the truth is, you didn’t either. You weren’t learning this in school, this is a new concept and shifting your world view about what creates your feelings is no small task, especially since we’re surrounded by messages that our happiness is found in our external environment.
We’re surrounded by messages that if we just get enough money and we get the right body and the right partner and the right job and the right home and the right kids and the right Christmas card – whatever it is, we’re surrounded by these messages that if we can master that then we’ll finally feel happy. And that is the exact opposite of what the think-feel-act cycle is telling you – that it’s not what you have, it’s not your circumstances, it’s what you think.
So this really is a big shift. It is not enough to intellectually understand the think-feel-act cycle. You have to see it in action, you have to practice it. You have to start to learn it and master it, that’s how you learn to harness it. And here’s the other thing, this is what I do for a living; I practice the think-feel-act cycle all the time. That doesn’t mean that I’m in 100% control of how I feel in every moment because so much of our thinking is still unconscious.
So much of it that I may not be aware of what’s happening; I have these kneejerk reactions. So the idea is never, “Oh it’s your fault that you feel the way you do.” What I want you to just know is that you have a tool that you can use. I want you to start thinking that how you feel is not your fault. It’s not a problem. Your negative emotions have an incredibly important purpose. They show you what you are thinking in any given moment.
Your negative emotions – and all of your emotions for that matter – are like a first alert system or a warning system. You have tens of thousands of thoughts every day, you can’t be aware of them all. But when you experience an emotion it’s a sign for you to pay attention, and to pay attention to what’s going on in your mind.
So that is what thoughts are about. You have thoughts about your circumstances. You might believe that they’re true, you might believe that they’re impossible to change, but they’re always optional. If someone could have a different opinion, a different assessment, a different judgment, then it’s not a fact; it’s not a circumstance, it’s a thought which makes it optional.
The next part is feeling, right, think-feel-act. The feeling, or emotion, is what is created by what you’re feeling. And I use the words feeling and emotion interchangeably. Now, feelings are one-word emotional states: happy, sad, mad, lonely, bored, stressed, frustrated, jealous, compassionate, empowered, powerless, shame. Right, one-word emotional states…
I want to be really clear, fat and terrible are not emotions. “I feel fat, I feel terrible,” You’re not describing an emotional state, you’re just saying a thought. So however, you’re feeling, whatever your emotional state is, that’s always just one word; you’re just listing one word that you’re feeling. And it’s so important to understand that we’re supposed to have the good and the bad. We’re supposed to have the light and the dark. We’re supposed to be able to experience the full spectrum of emotions, that’s what makes us human; that we can experience all of them.
A is your actions – think-feel-act; TFA – this is your action or inaction; what do you do in response to how you feel? Your actions don’t just mysteriously happen; they’re always motivated by how you’re feeling. And so when you pay attention to this, when you’re writing this down, what you have to ask yourself is, “What do I do? How do I act? Or what do I not do when I feel angry or sad or lonely? Do I lash out? Do I shut myself away? Do I hide in the corner? Do I start catastrophizing? Do I get lost in my thoughts? Do I get up and get off the couch? What do I do? What is my action or inaction?”
Now at the other end of the cycle, this sandwich – we have the circumstance which starts it, then the cycle and then the result is at the other end of the sandwich – and this is the result that you get from taking the action. Now here’s the thing, and this is really important, you only ever create results for you. Your result only ever applies to you. You don’t create results for other people and they can’t create results for you.
Your think-feel-act cycle is all about you. They have their own think-feel-act cycles going on. They have their own thoughts; their own feelings and they’re taking their own actions based on all of that. So be really clear here on, “what are you creating for you?”
Here’s the crazy thing, and the thing that I learned from Brooke is that your result that you get, whatever you’re creating in life, is always proving your original thought true. Listen, it seemed crazy at first but it makes a lot of sense because the brain wants to be right. The reason it wants to be right, the reason why it wants to prove itself true is because, of course, it just saves energy; it’s very efficient. If we just prove our thoughts true all the time then we don’t have to think new thoughts; we can just keep thinking the same thoughts.
So the brain is always looking for evidence to support what it believes, so I think the best way to see this is to think about somebody going through the world seeing the glass as half empty. They will be looking for, spotting, finding evidence for how the glass is half empty.
They’re going to see it everywhere. They’re going to see it at work, they’re going to see it at the grocery store, on their commute – they’re always going to see evidence for how it’s half empty. Now, you could go through the world seeing things as a glass half full. And if that’s your thought, you’re going to be proving evidence, finding evidence for that everywhere you go – your relationships with people, how you interact with your coworkers, your body.
Whatever it is, you’re going to be finding evidence to prove that thought true because it takes less energy to find evidence to prove your thinking true than to change what you think. And that is the power of the think-feel-act cycle. What it is asking you to do is to notice what you’re thinking and think about if you want to change it or decide if you want to change it. Now, that takes energy, your brain will resist it; it is easier just to keep the same old thoughts.
But I’ll tell you this, keeping all the thoughts I had about alcohol, all the thoughts I had about drinking and what it said about me, what it meant about me, who I was when I drank and who I couldn’t be if I didn’t have a glass in my hand. I could have kept those thoughts but I would just keep producing the same results for me; which was waking up the next day feeling like, “Why’d I let that happen?”
If you want to change the results you are getting in life, you have to change what you’re thinking. That is what the think-feel-act cycle taught me. You have to supervise your own mind on purpose. You have to direct it to do things, to spend energy, when it may not want to. You have to challenge what you think. Don’t just put on blinders. Don’t just say, “It’s true; I can’t change it.” You can always change it.
So this is the full cycle that I use. You have the think-feel-act cycle, and one either end, sandwiched in between, the circumstance starts it out and then the result is at the end, showing you what you’re creating from your cycle. If you want to start using it as a tool and not just as a really interesting framework, you have to do two things. One, you have to identify your current cycle; what you are automatically and habitually thinking. You have to start to pull that out. And then two, you have to, once you see that on paper, once you understand how that cycle is working, you have to identify a shift that you could make. How could you change your thoughts to feel differently on purpose when the circumstance stays the same?
So here’s an example, right. Alcohol can be a circumstance; it’s neutral, it’s not good or bad. It just exists. I can’t change it. I can’t wave a magic wand and make it disappear from the world; it is a thing in the world outside of my control. Now, a lot of people have a lot of opinions and judgments about it, and so did I. I had a lot of thoughts about it.
Now the thing is, if I want to start to change how I feel about it, I have to start looking at what I’m thinking and then deciding if I want to keep those thoughts or if I want to shift some of them. I want to be really clear – this is not about, “So my thoughts are optional. Right now, I feel angry, so I should just be able to switch and start feeling happy.”
It doesn’t work like that, guys. I say this all the time, you cannot slap on positive thinking; your brain will reject it. You cannot go from angry to happy overnight. You cannot just snap your fingers. But imagine how much better it would be if you could go from angry to maybe a little annoyed – or maybe even angry to feeling kind of neutral. Imagine how much better that would feel.
So what I’m going to do is walk you through an example so that you can see how this works in practice. So the example here, the circumstance, is a party. Parties are neutral; parties don’t make us feel anything until we think a thought about them. So a party is a circumstance.
Here’s the thing – you may have a laundry list of thoughts about the party in question. Using the cycle is not the place to write down your laundry list of thoughts. What you want to do is identify one thought that you’re thinking. You just want to pull out one and see what that one thought is creating for you, just to see how the cycle works.
So one of those thoughts could be, “I don’t want to answer people’s questions about not drinking. They might think I have a problem if I tell them I’m on a break.” So that could be one of your thoughts about the neutral circumstance of a party. When you think that thought you’re probably going to feel anxious.
When you feel anxious, when you’re at the party, you may try to hide the fact that you’re not drinking, you may be fixated on coming up with excuses. You’re going to be taking actions as a result of feeling anxious. Now here’s the thing – when you do those things, the result is this: telling the truth is a big deal because you’re still hiding and you still think it’s a problem to be on a break or to not be drinking. It’s just proving it all true.
So I was talking about this with a client recently, and she was out with a bunch of girlfriends and she had decided that she was going to take a break that night; she didn’t want to drink. But she hadn’t seen these friends in a while and she just didn’t want to talk about it. She was just hoping nobody would ask, nobody would bother her, but she was feeling a lot of anxiety about this. And when we were talking about it, we started to really unpack how she was feeling – the anxiety that she was feeling was impacting how she was acting. And the fact that she was taking a break that night, it was like she was Gollum from Lord of the rings.
You remember that character, right? And he had that precious, he had that ring and he was kind of sitting in the corner looking at his precious, right. And that’s how she was about this idea of her decision not to drink that night. It was like it was her precious and it was hers and nobody else could know about it. And she was sitting in the corner acting all weird – how you feel determines how you act. You have to pay attention to this. and once she understood that – once she could see how her thinking was creating how she was feeling and then acting, she could see that she could learn to show up differently.
All she had to do – she didn’t have to change her friends, she didn’t have to make them more understanding, more compassionate, more supportive, she just had to start shifting her own thinking. And shifting that thinking is like climbing a ladder. You have to take it one rung at a time. You’re not going to go from anxious to confident overnight; it’s not going to work like that.
But you can start to slowly move up the ladder and feel better. What that is going to take is brainstorming new thoughts to think about the same circumstance. So in this case, the circumstance is to party. There’s a million thoughts you can think about going to a party. You can choose a million different thoughts to think, but if you know that your current cycle is producing anxiety, then you’ll want to start shifting it to something else.
So one example of how you could shift it is a thought like, “I can practice saying I’m taking a break tonight.” Just that thought, “I’m practicing saying I’m taking a break tonight.” When you feel that, maybe you feel committed. Maybe you feel a little compassionate for yourself. You have a feeling that’s different from anxiety.
And then the action is actually practicing saying that you’re taking a break, practicing being truthful, being honest. And the result then, you may discover it’s not as bad as you thought. You may discover that, “Oh every time I practice saying I’m taking a break, it gets a little bit easier.” It’s like a skill that grows stronger with use.
But the way to do that is to identify first what your circumstance is, notice what you’re thinking about it, ask how those thoughts make you feel, observe how you act when you feel that way, and finally, see the results that you are getting from those actions. And if you don’t like the results you are getting, of how you are acting or how you are feeling then you have to decide if you want to do the work to change your think-feel-act cycle. You have to brainstorm new thoughts.
Go slow. You’re not going to go from anxious to confident. You’re not going to go from angry to happy overnight, but you can start to move up the ladder. You can start to ask yourself, “Are there other things I could think? Are there other ways I could interpret the circumstance? Are there different opinions and judgments I could have? Can I challenge my own thinking?”
This is how you learn to turn the think-feel-act cycle from an interesting framework into a tool that you can use. And I promise it is so powerful. Good luck and let me know how it goes.
If you want to send me an email, you can always reach out at podcast@RachelHart.com – and I’ll see you next week.
Hey guys, if you want to go over to iTunes and leave a review about the podcast if you’re enjoying it, I would love it. But not only that, I am giving everyone who does a free urge meditation. I will tell you, this meditation, it is super simple. All it takes is five minutes and a pair of headphones. If you are having an urge and you want a different way to handle it, just pop those headphones in, find a place where you can sit down undisturbed and teach your brain, retrain your brain a very simple method to make urges more tolerable. All you need to do is head on over to rachelhart.com/urge and input your information there.
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