An exercise I often use at the beginning of my sessions to set the tone is one I was shown by Chris Brindley MBE. It's one you may have been involved with before. I ask for a volunteer to come to the front, I request that it needs to be someone who feels particularly confident in front of people. Interestingly, once I have placed this condition on the volunteer, usually, a vast majority of the delegates will volunteer someone. The "volunteer" comes to the front, and we stand opposite each other. I explain that we are going to deliver two demonstrations of an exercise that everyone else will participate in afterwards. I ask the volunteer (or perhaps would be better referred to as the 'tribute') to raise their strongest arm up and out to the side of them, I explain that I will say some words following which I will ask them to say something three times out loud, after this I will attempt to push their arm down by their side, at this point they must do their best to resist me pushing their arm down (You can see examples in the main picture for this article). I then say something like the following,
"You are powerful, strong and confident! No one can push you around or tell you what to do. You're truly amazing! Now say these words out loud three times, 'I am strong and worthy'"
They say 'I am strong and worthy' three times. Then I attempt to push their arm down back by their side, as they resist. Every time without fail the volunteer comfortably resists the force I’m placing on their arm to push it down. Then I ask the individual to relax their arm and shake out the tension. I explain that we are going to do the demonstration again, but this time I will say something different, and I ask them not to take it personally, to remember it’s a demonstration and to still ensure they do not let me push their arm down. After a minute or so, when they have had enough rest, I ask them to raise their arm up again, to the same position as before and I say something like the following,
"You are weak, vulnerable and nervous! Anyone can push you around and tell you what to do. You're weak! Now say these words out loud three times, 'I am weak and unworthy'"
They say 'I am weak and unworthy' three times. Then I attempt to push their arm down, now one of two things usually happen. Some will feel weaker in their resistance and it is easy for me to push their arm down, so much so that it is visible to everyone watching, sometimes these individuals will gasp in shock at the change in experience they feel. Some report literally feeling like all strength has gone out of their arm. The second thing that can happen is that individuals feel stronger the second time round. But I have observed, that in almost all of these cases, just before I go to push their arm down, they lift their arm up as if they have said "You're not moving this arm". At the end, I thank my volunteer, no matter how the demonstration went, sincerely reminding them that they are strong, powerful and worthy, and invite them to relax and sit back down.
After a minute of excitement where people are discussing what's happened, I ask them what they think of the demonstrations. Then I invite the delegates to try both demonstrations out with a partner, and to try it for themselves. This is what you can see in the header picture of this article, I am walking around the different pairs and witnessing what is being experienced. I allow as much time as I can for people to really explore this demonstration. Then, when everyone has had a go, we come back together to discuss. I have carried out this exercise now with many people, hundreds in fact. I love how unique but yet still common people’s experiences can be. In my experience, people are truly incredible and amazing.
My findings with this simple non-scientific experiment, is that all responses to the first and second demonstrations are valid, there is no right or wrong reaction, no desirable or non-desirable response. What this demonstration does, is provide an insight to how you will respond when placed under minor pressure or stress, and to observe the effects both psychologically as well as physiologically. For me, it is a simple, yet effective self-awareness activity. It allows discussion regarding what happens with 'me' physically and psychologically, when 'I' am experiencing something positive or negative, and how do 'I' respond to both internal and external factors. People are able to witness and discuss the varied psychological experiences. It allows me to highlight, how everyone experiences the same thing differently, yet we can relate to others experience, and we can understand others when we talk about it with them. Also, that as we explore and practice curiosity with those experiences individually and together, we can reflect on the thoughts and feelings we have and how they connect to our physical actions as well as behaviour. The ultimate aim of this exercise is to empower people to isolate their whole-person experience to events that go on in their lives, and that everything we experience has physiological and psychological responses which are interconnected as well as interrelated, neither of which can be dismissed.
I am hopeful, that sharing this experience with you here is as effective in setting the tone for this article, as it is in my talks and workshops. As the heading suggests, I wish to discuss the art of powerful thinking and how this empowers powerful minds. That is to say, I want to highlight the significance and importance in practicing and training 'intentional powerful thinking' and how this can develop powerful minds; optimising mental health, emotional wellbeing and performance.
One quote that I see a lot, and have found it difficult to find who it originates from, is "The mind is a powerful thing, when you fill it with powerful thoughts, your life will start to change". Denis Avey a World War II survivor who was captured, sent to a prisoner of war (POW) work camp, put to work every day in a German factory and where he laboured alongside Jewish prisoners from a nearby camp called Auschwitz said,
"The mind is a powerful thing.
It can take you through walls"
In this article we will explore how the practice of intentional powerful thinking can truly develop powerful minds, what this looks like and why it effects our mental health, emotional wellbeing and our performance.
Before we really get into our subject, I want to take some time to highlight some key lessons and principles about thinking, which I will do informally through two metaphors, I felt that this would be the most efficient way to say as much as I can about thinking, as briefly as I can.
Two 'Thinking' Metaphors
Metaphor 1, Think Organisation Communication: I like to view thinking, or the operation of thought, similar to the communications that occur within an organisation. It is happening 24/7 in thousands of ways and influenced by thousands of people. It is impossible to control; you cannot eliminate the negative and it affects everything that goes on in the eco-system of the organisation. In fact, both negative and positive communications can be equally beneficial, as long as they are both done in healthy ways. The best way to harness the power of the communications within in an organisation, is to create it through values, healthy processes and policies. You don't control it, you intentionally create healthy communications which reflect, represent and realise the organisations values and optimise the health, wellbeing along with performance of the organisation. This metaphor can be far more detailed, but this is sufficient for now. The purpose of this metaphor is to highlight how thinking is autonomous, you cannot switch it on or off, in fact you wouldn't want to, because if you do the whole system dies, it means you're no longer living. This metaphor also shows how thinking comes in all forms and styles and that it can be negative, positive, healthy or unhealthy. It highlights that as we are true to our values and rules, thinking will be at its healthiest and will empower you to thrive in life regardless of what happens, just like the communications within an organisation.
Metaphor 2, The Netflix-Mind: At any one-time Netflix can have over 4000 titles streaming, constantly, they never stop! The titles are a diverse representation of all facets of life, the good, bad and ugly. From time to time we choose a title to watch and once we've finished, Netflix recommends another programme, in fact it has a menu of titles you can choose from, all linked to things you have watched before. The algorithms of Netflix will provide recommendations of what to watch and it will always be recommending, however sometimes it recommends the absurd, inappropriate and sometimes outright disturbing. In fact, more often than not, you have watched everything good on Netflix, and you are left either watching the same things over and over again, or just getting exhausted with the lack of variety. Every so often though, a new title, or an old classic will come up and you are uplifted as you are entertained by it. This is another metaphor that could go on... Research shows that humans can have anywhere between 12,000-60,000 thoughts a day, in fact, some research suggests that people can have in excess of 90,000 thoughts a day. Up to 95% of those thoughts will be negative and up to 85% will be repetitive. We are naturally wired with Netflix type algorithms, where thousands of thoughts are continuously streaming from all facets of ours and other people’s lives, and what we watch influences how we feel and what the brain continues to recommend moving forward. How you choose to set up, interact with and respond to your thinking, as with Netflix, will significantly impact future recommendations and experiences with your thoughts. All this in turn will influence your emotions, behaviours, life experience, quality of those experiences and your outcomes.
The purpose of sharing these metaphors with you is to demonstrate what our experience with thinking can be like. Ironically, our experience with thinking is rarely thought about by most people. Thinking just happens. In reality, many people are amazed by the idea that our thoughts are not real. Truth is, whilst some thoughts are useful and maybe even life-changing many of them are unhelpful, negative and sometimes completely inaccurate.
Much of the experience people suffer with mental ill-health stems from a lack of awareness and inability to influence and manage their thinking. Also, many people do not realise their potential or live the quality of life they wish to have because they do not create and control their thinking. Building on our previous metaphors; organisations can breakdown and go bust because the owner or board stops creating and managing the communications effectively, or Netflix recommendations get out of control because we do not setup or control our viewing preferences. We can either be acted upon by our thoughts and thinking, or we can choose to act upon them. The outcome of this choice will determine in large part our mental health, emotional wellbeing and life outcome experience.
What is Intentional Powerful Thinking?
To be intentional means we do something deliberately, we are purposeful with our intent and actions. I define powerful thinking as having a strong effect on our thoughts and feelings. Intentional powerful thinking within this article will be defined as the 'deliberate and purposeful practice of effecting one's thoughts, feelings and behaviours'. Intentional powerful thinking is something we must train, develop and practice every day of our lives, throughout our life. It is not a quest we ever complete or reach a finish point in. Why? Thinking underpins everything we do in life, it influences our beliefs, personality, feelings, intellect, abilities, habits and behaviours, it is a clear sign that the brain is alive, or in other words we are living. So intentional powerful thinking should be practiced for as long as the brain is alive.
To be intentional about our thinking means we are deliberate and purposeful with it, but to be intentional with powerful thinking means we are deliberate and purposeful in having a strong effect on our thoughts and feelings. Here is where things get exciting. How can we have any effect on our thoughts and feelings, let alone a strong effect? A question leading to endless possibilities. My life experience so far has brought me to the belief that our purpose in life is to lift our thinking to a higher plane, to develop it to such a point where genuine power is created. On a personal level, I do include the spiritual in this, however, that is not something we will discuss here. On a scientific and practical level having a strong effect on our thoughts and feelings means we strategically plan, train and develop ways in which we can create and manage our thoughts and feelings on a day to day basis. We create a lifestyle that incorporates daily practices which encourages planning, training and development of core psychological skills.
Information is being released every day from psychologists, behaviourists, therapists and coaches regarding exercises, steps, processes and rules which provide ideas, hints and tips on what this daily practice of psychological skill development might look like. It doesn’t take long to realise that as with nutrition, exercise and other key areas of life there is a wealth of information now available in this area. Obviously, some sources are better than others, some are accurate and some are not. But in the main, information in this area is more accessible now more than ever. Whilst I will touch on some of this throughout the article, the key point to take away here is: intentional powerful thinking is the practice of creating a lifestyle which incorporates core psychological skill development empowering you to have a strong effect on your thoughts and feelings.
How Do We Practice Intentional Powerful Thinking?
The key to this is, in its simplest terms; the development of psychological skills or mental skills, which are tools or means whereby cognitive function is improved and enhanced. Psychological skills comprise the deliberate use of pre-prepared and structured sequences of specific thoughts and behaviours to regulate psychological states. In other words, it is the tools we develop, and our level of ability to use those tools, to have a strong effect on our thoughts and feelings, which results in our levels of mental health, emotional wellbeing and behaviours. You could argue it’s the mental resources we have at our disposal, and the level of skills we possess in using those resources, to act upon our psychological state, rather than our psychological state acting upon us. However, we choose to phrase it, psychological skills are real, and in my opinion, are the most important part of our ‘being’ that we need to develop.
Yet, they are not educated, trained or developed generally in society unless you go looking for it. I don’t want to be misunderstood with this, we do all practice and develop psychological skills in some way, but it is usually informal and almost always depends on the fortune of an individual to be surrounded by others who possess such skills. Some examples of psychological skills are; attitude, goal setting, motivation, confidence, self-talk, mindfulness, imagery, managing anxiety and regulating emotions generally. As you can see some of these skills you will have developed, but as with any skill, the more you know about it and the more you practice it, the better you get at utilising it for your benefit. I will not be going any deeper into these skills in this article, however, if you do want more information, EPIC 4LIFE have launched a free and non-subscription based blog, where many of these skills are discussed, along with suggestions for how to develop them.
What I want to review with you here is how these psychological skills help you practice intentional powerful thinking. As you practice these skills each day you will raise your awareness to your ‘user preferences’, create healthy thinking and produce positive emotions. These three areas combined will empower and inspire powerful thinking.
1. User Preferences
In our 'Think Organisation Communication' and 'Netflix-Mind' metaphors we talked about values and viewer preferences as crucial to producing desired cultures or healthy viewing recommendations. Your 'user preferences' work in the same way. When I refer to ‘user preferences’ I am talking about your values, beliefs, habits, likes and dislikes. Foundational to each of these are your values, the facets of life that are of highest importance to you. This is crucial when practicing intentional powerful thinking as it is the absolute core of who you are. The problem is, many people have little, if any, awareness of what their deepest values are. Have you really stopped to think about this?
You may ask, what are values? Values are those things you consider important to you. Our core values are the things we hold of utmost importance. For example, I have never been involved in a discussion at an individual or organisational level where family or friends are not named as core values. This is expected on a societal level, but also on an individual psychological level. Our brains are wired to be connected to others and are at their healthiest when this part of our mind is being fulfilled.
An individual or organisation that is fully aware of their values and lives them is laying a firm foundation for practicing intentional powerful thinking. They know their ‘why’ and are more likely to learn, change and grow. An individual or organisation that is not aware or is living in conflict of their values is more likely to create apathy, experience mental ill-health, believe they cannot achieve and create unhealthy self-fulfilling prophecies. They will not practice intentional powerful thinking, and sadly their thinking will dictate to them the quality of their experience and outcomes.
So, first things first for user preferences, establish your core values. You can do this by exploring with others what their core values are and why these are their core values. As you do this pay attention to your emotional responses, what are you connecting with, what is resonating with you on an emotional level. You can get a piece of paper and write down everything that is most important to you, put a brief reason why. Then reflect on what you have produced and highlight the 5 most important ones. Exercises like this will help you in raising your self-awareness to your deepest values. Once you have done this, write them down, turn them into a poster, produce a vision for your life that reflects the epitome of you living your values. Make this as visual and tangible as you can. The more familiar you are with you values, the better. Do not confuse values with your beliefs, your values drive your beliefs, if there’s a conflict, then review the beliefs. Your beliefs are not truth, they may align with truth, but it is possible to believe something and it not be true. Once core values have been established you can start exploring the best course of action for developing psychological skills. Like any personal development this will require some support and guidance.
2. Healthy Thinking
Creating healthy thinking is a key aim to practicing intentional powerful thinking. Often people are unaware of their thoughts and the impact they are having on their life. Many accredit their circumstances and the quality of their life to external factors i.e. economy, friends, neighbours, family, government and employers etc. Whilst these factors do influence and impact our lives, they do not determine the quality of life. As already discussed, it takes the development of psychological skills to really affect this. The development of these skills to produce healthy thinking is critical, as much of our experience with emotions in life and our behaviours, including habits stem from our thinking.
One major challenge in life for much of society is stress-management, some have argued that we are facing a global stress epidemic underlying a global mental ill-health epidemic. A crucial factor of stress is our thoughts, out of control stress can feel like a frenzy of thoughts, which seem impossible to control. This experience can lead to spiralling out of control uncomfortable and distressing emotions, which can also feel impossible to switch off. If we allow our thinking to run wild, with little to no control, we will become subject to it, and we will not understand or know how to change it. This can break down mental health and cause mental ill-health. Once mental health breaks down, like with physical health, it becomes very difficult to repair and rebuild. But it is possible. What is also possible is the prevention of mental ill-health. This is achieved as we develop healthy thinking, which can empower greater influence over our emotions and behaviours. Dr. Debasish Mridha (2014) said;
“The best treatment for stress, anxiety and depression is to change your perception”
Recently on twitter through elite4all I led a #powerfulthinking challenge; a person had to tweet a quote that really changed their thinking for the better and then nominate 5 other people to do the same. This was an incredibly enriching experience for me personally. The tweet has reached over 10,000 twitter accounts. I have tried to find every quote shared and save them. This challenge was the inspiration for this article. Some of the quotes were so profound and POWERFUL. I have included a selection of some of my favourites in the pictures below.
What has impressed me the most about the results of this challenge so far, is just how significant and powerful some of these quotes are, and most significantly, how few were repeated. I have also reflected greatly on the immediate impact some of them had on my personal thinking. Sometimes it was like someone had literally spoke to my heart, even my soul. I was reminded frequently of the great words of J. K. Rowling through here character professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books,
“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic…”
As I was reading some of the quotes it seemed that in that moment my mind was lifted up to a much healthier and powerful place. I was reminded that the more we surround ourselves with powerful thinking, such as these quotes, the more opportunity we create for personal powerful thinking. This challenge demonstrated to me, that practicing intentional powerful thinking really can and does create healthy thinking, and how focussing on healthy thinking is an effective way of practicing intentional powerful thinking.
Our minds can become so heavy and darkened by the ‘convenience’ and ‘selfish’ thinking surrounding us, that when we connect with something which produces healthier thinking for us, it can be like taking a walk-in nature after spending some time in the city. The ‘fresh air’ or in other words the fresh or refreshed thinking can literally revitalise our minds. They literally stimulate neuro-chemical reactions which produce healthy emotions, and research shows that this creates new and healthy neural pathways improving and broadening cognitive functioning. In other words, we become more flexible in our thinking and more able to thrive in life regardless of the circumstances. Healthy thinking can literally support healthy neurobiology. Thus, we can choose to optimise our mental health in the same way we can choose to optimise our physical health, through being intentional with the information we put into our minds being sure to make it healthy and powerful. What we sow into our minds has the potential to create destructive or powerful thinking.
3. Positive Emotions
Producing positive emotions is another key aim from intentional powerful thinking. A good friend of mine and positive psychology expert Gilda Scarfe recently produced a blog for EPIC 4LIFE and she said this,
“Research suggests that, beyond making people feel good, the experience of positive emotions such as joy, happiness, and contentment holds many social, intellectual, and physical benefits for the individual. Every day we are confronted with situations where we must manage our emotions. So how do we enhance positive emotions, especially in a time like this? According to Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions allow us to be more resilient by building social, mental and emotional resources. By intentionally working on our positive emotions we develop a positive emotional reserve to pull from in times of adversity, build meaningful and supportive relationships to help us during tough times, and are able to think more broadly to solve problems.”
Building on where we left of with healthy thinking, positive emotions can literally change the structure of our brains, creating new healthier neural pathways which are responsible for sending signals from parts of the brain to different parts of the body. Positive emotions can increase the plasticity of the brain. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience. We literally build and broaden our minds to become what we want them to be, like we would build and strengthen muscles (to be clear the brain is an organ not a muscle, which is why we talk about it structurally and refer to building and broadening). Often when I am training this to individuals and organisations, I explain that we need to be in the business of manufacturing genuine and sincere positive emotion moments.
This is not to say typically defined negative emotions i.e. anger, sad, embarrassed, jealous and fear etc. are bad or unhealthy, this is not true. These emotions are much needed. For example, if someone is holding a gun up at you, your emotion of fear and maybe even anger could sharpen your focus to what is happening and help you respond appropriately. Where negative emotions do become a problem is when they are experienced over a sustained period of time, and they produce neural pathways and effect the brain in such a way where mental health breaks down and mental illness can occur. It’s like being stuck on a train track, the only way off, is to stop and build another track that goes in a different direction. Positive emotions are the alternative train track. As we practice intentional powerful thinking we empower and inspire ourselves, as well as others, to produce positive emotions, to regulate the ‘so called’ negative emotions and to quite literally build and broaden their brain, or as EPIC 4LIFE like to say create a mind to thrive in life no matter the circumstances.
What are the Benefits of Intentional Powerful Thinking?
I am hoping that you have started thinking about this already, specifically for yourself. However, here I wanted to highlight just a few of the most significant benefits to practicing intentional powerful thinking.
As we learn to develop our personality, to build and broaden our minds, we can have a very real impact on the experience of our life. WHO define mental health as;
“A state of mental and psychological wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, and can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”
When you look at this definition there is nothing here that even remotely refers to mental illness. Some people are unaware that mental health is completely different from mental illness, just as physical health is different from physical illness. Yes, they are connected and they affect each other, but as concepts they are very different. Mental health refers to a ‘state of psychological wellbeing in which…’, proceeding to describe an opposite end of the spectrum to mental illness. Let’s compare the definition for mental illness,
“A condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking”
Mental illness is a disorder to mental health, meaning it is the opposite of where it should ideally be. As we explore the mental health definition further, we see the following words; potential, cope, productive, fruitful and contribution. Much of the work on improving mental health has been focussed on de-stigmatising mental illness, understanding and labelling mental illness and proving opportunities for people to say they are not okay. This work has been amazing, by some incredible people, and I must stress will always be needed. However, over the last 10-15 years the focus of mental health has turned to more proactive and preventative approaches. My work for example is purely focussed on the optimisation of mental health, to not just cope but thrive no matter what happens, to be productive, fruitful in the contribution they give to their communities. I carry out this work on an individual and organisational level. We are focussed on taking mental health in a completely opposite direction from mental illness. Our philosophy is to move ourselves and others as far away from that line where mental health turns into ill-health as possible equipping people with the user preferences, psychological skills, healthy thinking and positive emotions they need.
Many merge emotional wellbeing and mental health together. I have no issue with this. But I deliberately keep them separate. The definition for emotional wellbeing used at EPIC 4LIFE is,
“Emotional wellbeing is related to how we think, feel and behave. It is about feeling positive about daily life and work and having good relationships with family and friends”
Whilst mental health is closely related, they are talking about two different things. Emotional wellbeing is largely to do with an individual’s emotional intelligence or EQ. This is the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. For me, mental health is our life experience and emotional wellbeing relates to the quality of life experience. Closely-connected but very different at the same time. For example, with hindsight I am aware that my EQ has always been relatively high, but my ability to take care of my mental health in the past has been very poor, thus in some ways my high EQ may have contributed to my personal experiences with mental ill-health.
My work with individuals and organisations includes the improvement of emotional intelligence. The improvement and progress people make when optimising their mental health, in my experience, is greatly increased if they are increasing their emotional intelligence at the same time. More importantly, I empower people to improve their quality of life, by inspiring them to become more emotionally astute. As we do this we can truly optimise emotional wellbeing, and as a result further our work in optimising mental health and performance.
Many people talk about high-performance or peak-performance. Ultimately this refers to people preforming at their elite levels, trying to reach their personal elite and/or reaching for the top 10, 5 or 1% in their field i.e. business or sport etc. I also work within the field of high-performance empowering and inspiring individuals and organisations to achieve and sustain their elite levels. But often something is misunderstood about high-performance generally. High-performance is about stress and emotion management, and both of these things are unique to the organisation, team, person and circumstances. What is stressful or emotionally uncomfortable for one, may not be for another. Ultimately optimising performance is about understanding the stress of emotion experience and finding resolution. Sometimes that is complex, other times it can be fairly straight forward. So, when we are talking about optimising performance, we are referring to optimising a person’s ability to manage stress, regulate their emotions and achieve their desired outcomes
As we learn, change and grow together through powerful thinking; powered by psychological skills, healthy user preferences, healthy thinking and positive emotions, we can truly create a mind to thrive in life regardless of circumstances which can empower and inspire people to optimise mental health, emotional wellbeing and performance.
Performance Psychologist | Emotional Intelligence Specialist | Co-Founder EPIC 4LIFE