You Are What You Think: How Our Thoughts Shape Who We Are

By Glenn Pearson – Workplace Mental Health & Wellbeing Consultant and Trainer, Counsellor, Senior Operations Manager

‘You are what you think’ is a concept that was first described by Greek and Roman philosophers over two millennia ago. They understood that it is not life events themselves, but rather how we interpret these events that determine how we experience them.

Our thoughts will determine not only our immediate response to an event, but also shape the essence of who we are throughout our life.

It is this understanding that has helped develop a way of thinking about personal growth and change that many present day thinkers, trainers, and therapists use to help positively shape the lives of others. As a counsellor and mental health trainer I see first hand the power of our thoughts to help us or to harm us.

ABC Model

A psychological theory called the ABC Model helps us see how our thoughts and beliefs play a defining role in how we experience life.

In the ABC Model, A stands for ‘activating event’, B stands for ‘belief about that event’, and C is the ‘consequent emotions and behavioural responses’. It’s important to understand that belief (B) also refers to the thoughts we have because of our beliefs.

For example, when I see something in my rubbish bin that could be recycled I feel a sense of frustration, take it out, and then put it in the recycling bin. Seeing the item in the bin was the activating event (A). I believe that our planet is precious and needs looking after, and therefore think that recycling as much as possible is important – that’s my beliefs and thoughts about the event (B). Feeling frustrated, removing the item, and then putting it into recycling is how I felt and what I did about the situation (C – consequent emotions and behavioural responses).

To enhance our understanding of how beliefs and thoughts can lead two people to have very different responses to the same event, let’s imagine a fictitious scenario. Two colleagues in similar roles have been contacted by their HR department and told that they are being made redundant. For the sake of this example let’s assume both people have the same amount of financial reserves and the support of their friends and family.

Both people are going through the same activating event (A – redundancy). Person 1 is very disappointed but is keeping perspective and does not fear the future, has started contacting friends to put the word out about looking for work, and is already applying for new jobs (C – consequent emotions and behavioural responses). Person 2, however, is devastated and fearful of the future, doesn’t let any of their friends know, and doesn’t start looking for another job as their confidence is too low (C – consequent emotions and behavioural responses).

Both Person 1 and Person 2 have experienced the same activating event and yet their consequent emotions and behavioural responses are very different. Why is this?

The different emotions and behavioural responses (C) of each person comes directly as a result of their beliefs (B) about redundancy. Beliefs don’t lie dormant in the depths of our psyche, they are alive and active. Beliefs animate our thought life and act like a lens through which we interpret our experiences. They drive our behaviour and colour what we see when we remember the past and imagine the future.

Much of my work in counselling is centred around the beliefs and thoughts of my clients, trying to determine what these are and how they are affecting their experience of life.

Returning to our scenario let’s consider the beliefs of our two people, the ‘B’ of ABC Model. Person 1 believes that redundancy can happen to anyone, doesn’t mean that they’re not a valuable employee or person, and doesn’t mean employment won’t be found again (B). Person 2 believes that being made redundant means that they’re not a valuable employee or person, and employment again is unlikely (B).

As we consider their different beliefs and then compare their emotions and behavioural responses (C), we can clearly see that it is just as the ancient philosophers said – it is not life events themselves, but rather how we interpret these events that determine how we experience them.

Confirmation Bias
Another important aspect of our beliefs and thought life is that our brains are wired to give more attention to information and experiences that are consistent with what we already believe about ourselves and the world. Conversely, we also give less attention to information and experiences that contradict or don’t fit with what we believe about ourselves and the world. This is known as confirmation bias.

As you can imagine, this ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ effect will have quite an impact on our imaginary duo and how their respective futures might play out. For example, Person 1 is more likely to take an unsuccessful interview in their stride and be encouraged that they’re getting an interview in the first place. Person 2 might see this kind of result as confirmation of being unemployable.

Person 1 will likely be encouraged by hearing about a friend’s story of gaining employment again after redundancy and it will confirm their belief that redundancy does not mean they will never work again. Person 2 might hear a similar story and conclude he’s always known that friend was so much better than him at getting jobs and bouncing back from disappointments.

The Power of Our Thoughts to Shape Us
The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote that “The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts”. As we reflect on our fictitious duo I would argue that we can clearly see this in action.

Because of Person 1’s beliefs and thoughts about redundancy they are keeping positive, have the will to keep applying for jobs, and are not fearful of the future. They will probably have some tough days (I’ve experienced redundancy so I know what it can be like), but they get through these, and are engaged with and supported by their family and friends.

Their beliefs and thoughts about redundancy are shaping who they are.

Because of Person 2’s beliefs and thoughts about redundancy they are discouraged, feeling defeated, and are fearful of the future. They will probably be experiencing anxiety, might be beginning to have difficulty sleeping, and may feel a sense of hopelessness when thinking of their future. Because they are embarrassed to tell their friends and family what’s happening they could become isolated and withdrawn, and are at risk of developing depression.

Their beliefs and thoughts about redundancy are shaping who they are.

The ABC Model shows us that our beliefs and thoughts are the key to understanding how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world in which we live. They are like the algorithm that determines what the output will be when the ‘information’ of our daily life is fed into it. This algorithm is being coded throughout our lives, based upon a complex mix of our genes, environment, and experiences.

The good news is that if anyone reading this is desiring change in some aspect of their life, change is possible. Thankfully our amazing brains are very capable of re-
coding an algorithm when they are ‘fed’ new empowering information. It can take
time, hard work, and perseverance to learn this new skill, but as Norman Vincent Peale said “Change your thoughts and you change your world.”

Having a skilled guide to accompany us as we seek change can prove immensely valuable. Such guidance can take various forms, such as counselling, coaching, training, books, or courses. The financial commitment required for these resources can be significant, but are likely to yield significant returns in your life.

What thoughts might be shaping who you are?