In a time where there’s so much to be sad or upset about, we have the power to choose thoughts that feel better.
And, we can actively look for evidence that those thoughts are true and that good things are happening.
In this article and podcast episode of Truth for Teachers, I’ll share a couple of examples of how this has worked in my own life and work, and how it might be useful for you, too.
I’ll also outline four specific steps you can take to choose a better-feeling thought about something that’s bothering you right now, whether it’s personally or professionally.
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We can’t choose our own facts, but we can choose our response to the facts
Now just to make sure that no one gets this twisted — particularly since this episode is airing in between a two-part series I’m doing on critical thinking and being informed media consumers, I want to be clear that this is a strategy in which we are choosing thoughts based in reality.
So I can’t just say “COVID isn’t real” or “All my students are going to get straight A’s” or “All of my partner’s traits that drive me crazy are just going to go away.”
That’s magical thinking. It’s a denial of reality and telling ourselves something that isn’t true will lead to disappointment and frustration later.
That’s not what I’m recommending here. I’m not saying to make up your own facts! I’m saying choose your response to the facts … and when your current response is making you feel discouraged or overwhelmed or hopeless, you can choose a response that feels better.
How to choose a better-feeling thought about COVID
So if the facts are that unfortunately in your area, you still need to take precautions against COVID in order to keep yourself and community members safe, you CAN choose a thought such as, “I hate this; I’m missing out on so many things; this is so unfair; it’s never going to get any better.” You are entitled to choose that interpretation.
And I think all of us move in and out of that sometimes, right? We all have moments or days when it just feels like this whole thing is never going to be behind us.
However, if you get stuck in that space, it can be really hard to face daily life and have the motivation to teach, so that’s a situation in which choosing a new thought could be really useful.
You can also choose a thought like, “COVID is not going to be interfering with the way I want to live my life and teach my students forever. It will get better. It will not always be just like this.”
This statement is equally true as the statement about how much you hate it, right?
We’re not denying the sadness or anger you’re feeling, at all. Those feelings are valid. And so is the feeling that COVID will not always be impacting our lives the way it is right now.
So you get to decide which thought is producing the kinds of feelings you want to feel, and try to focus your attention on that thought instead of the one that produces feelings you don’t want to feel.
Once you choose a better-feeling thought, then you’re going to actively look for evidence that the thought is true.
That means when you hear there’s a new virus variant that’s more contagious, but you also hear that the vaccine rollout is going full speed ahead, you can choose to focus on the evidence that helps you maintain that better-feeling thought.
Focusing on all the possible mutations of this virus for too long can make you feel hopeless again. But looking for evidence that the vaccine is helping and that fewer people are dying or getting severely sick can help give you hope.
How to choose a better-feeling thought about students’ progress this year
Let’s go to the classroom-based example now. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re just not meeting the needs of all students in your class, and you’re deeply concerned about where their learning progress is going to be at the end of the school year.
It would be a lie to say that all your students are going to get straight A’s. It probably wouldn’t be a better-feeling thought because it’s too disconnected from available facts and evidence, and will likely lead to disappointment later. So, you’re not going to make up your own reality here.
However, you’re also not going to focus solely on how far behind some of the kids are going to be — whatever that means — or what’s going to happen if they can’t pass a standardized test, and so on.
As I’ve talked about a lot on this podcast, just because something is true–and those things may very well be true–that does not mean that it’s healthy or worthwhile to dwell on those thoughts.
We can acknowledge briefly that there are kids who will have adverse effects on their learning because of the pandemic.
We can also choose not to think about that first thing in the morning, and to choose a more energizing thought instead.
We can choose not to think about that right before beginning a lesson, or right before a parent conference, and to choose a more helpful and motivating thought instead.
Because it’s also probably true that some of your students are actually doing better now than they would be in a traditional classroom during a typical school year. Some of your kids may be struggling academically or socio-emotionally, but not necessarily both, and some are experiencing some truly wonderful benefits right now, too. Many of your students will be able to get back on track — that’s likely true, isn’t it?
And it’s also true that you will not be the only teacher grappling with this problem next year. The entire country (and many other countries around the world) will be dealing with how to move kids forward after the disruptions we’ve experienced.
So, this is not your problem alone to solve. It’s a bridge that all of us are going to have to cross when we get there.
Can you see how this is a better-feeling thought than, “Half my class is failing and they’re never going to catch up?” You can choose these better-feeling thoughts and then actively look for evidence of them throughout the day.
How to focus on assets rather than deficits, and find evidence of the good
This is something that I used to practice a lot as a teacher, and it changed the way that I handled behavior management in my classroom. As a new teacher, I used the punitive systems that were popular at the time, where I was keeping track of all the times kids were breaking the rules, and issuing an escalating set of consequences for them.
And I hated every minute of it.
It was extremely depressing to be constantly focusing on all of the bad choices kids were making and their off-task behaviors.
4/5 of the class could be on task, but my attention was focused on a handful of kids who were off-task so I could record their mistakes and punish them for them. It was an awful way to spend 6 hours of my day and I can’t imagine that was super fun and energizing for my students, either.
So, I changed the way I structured things in my classroom so that I was noticing the positive things kids were doing and calling those out. I did this through a token economy for a couple of years, and then through a bead system that I made up. I used little triangular beads and gave each student a pipe cleaner.
I would just notice my third graders when they were making great choices, and I’d compliment them on it. I’d tell them how proud I was of them, and sometimes — randomly — I would accompany that compliment with a bead, which they’d stack on their pipe cleaner.
The kids slowly accumulated the beads over the course of the week as evidence of the great choices they made. On Friday afternoon, when they had free-choice time in centers, the kids with the most beads got to pick their centers first.
It wasn’t a huge reward, and that was on purpose: I wanted to keep the focus on recognizing kids for their positive choices and giving them tangible evidence of all the awesome stuff they were doing.
The point wasn’t really to have the most beads or get a reward. I wanted them to feel pride in themselves when they looked at their pipe cleaner filling up with beads during each passing day, and I made sure every child in the class had equal opportunities to earn them since they weren’t tied to any standard of perfection. Kids who struggled with work completion, for example, could get a bead for staying on task — I’d whisper to them, “Hey, awesome work this morning, I noticed how focused you were on getting that project complete. Even though you didn’t finish it all, you really used your time well and you should be proud of that.” The bead was a symbol of that hard work and reminder that they’d done a great job.
Now, this anecdote is just an aside — this episode is not about behavior management systems, and I don’t know that something like this is necessary or relevant in today’s classrooms. But I’m sharing it here as an example of how I shifted my focus to what my kids were doing right instead of what they were doing wrong, and that totally changed the tone and culture of my classroom, not to mention my own mood and energy levels as a teacher.
So even in the years toward the end of my time in the classroom when I was no longer using a reward system, I continued my focus on the good things that were happening in the classroom and drawing attention to those things.
That’s what I’m really saying here: instead of constantly thinking about and tracking and trying to remedy all the deficiencies and shortcomings that you notice in students, try focusing on their assets. Try focusing on the things that are going well, and the things that they are successful with.
And when I say focus on, I just mean think about it and talk about it. So many of our thoughts and conversations about work are complaints: we’re venting about all the things that are going wrong. Try to think and talk about some of the things that are going right. Find a better-feeling thought.
It does not feel good to think and talk endlessly about how terrible students are doing in class or how terribly they are behaving. When it gets to that point where you just don’t feel good, choose a better-feeling thought, and then look for evidence to support that thought. You WILL be able to find evidence to support the idea that your kids are doing terribly, and also evidence to support the idea that your kids are doing some really incredible things.
How to look for more evidence of the good in your relationships
I use this strategy a lot in my marriage, too. I gave the example earlier about how it doesn’t work to try to tell yourself that your partner is perfect and amazing when in fact they have shortcomings and flaws. At least, it doesn’t work for me.
But I do try to choose the better-feeling thought and look for evidence that it is true. My partner — like everyone’s partner, like me — sometimes does things that feel insensitive. I will sometimes indulge in thoughts about how insensitive he is and how I wish that he would step up in this area or I wish that he was more like this or less like that.
But the better-feeling thought is that my husband loves me deeply and I know he wants to make me happy. He doesn’t always succeed in that, nor do I always succeed at doing the things that make him happy. But I know his heart toward me is never to disregard my needs or my feelings.
And I can then look for evidence that he loves me, evidence that he cares about my needs, and evidence that he’s a helpful, equal partner in this relationship.
When we need to have a conversation about something, I don’t sweep my feelings under the rug anymore or pretend like it’s okay or force myself to only focus on his good traits. I’ve done all of those things, and they don’t work. All that approach does is keep the peace around the house for a few weeks or months. Then one tiny thing happens and I blow up, and he’s left standing there like, “Where is this coming from? Because I had no idea there was a problem.”
It’s taken me a long time to learn how to speak up to tell him directly what I need and what I’d like from him so that I don’t have to try to convince myself that everything’s fine and allow resentment to quietly build.
When I routinely articulate my needs and preferences, I can spend the majority of the time focused on evidence that he loves me and cares for me, and is a good partner to me, because there’s a lot of evidence for that. It’s a better-feeling thought than constantly focusing on the things that I wish he did.
Remember that the goal is NOT to be happy and positive all the time
So, this is a strategy that you can use in any kind of personal or professional circumstance in which you are feeling sad, disappointed, hopeless, or discouraged.
However, it’s absolutely fine to feel all of those feelings. In fact, one thing I’m realizing more and more is that the goal is not to be happy or even content all the time. As Glennon Doyle teaches, the goal is to feel everything: to feel the grief, to feel the sense of loss, to feel the frustration.
These are all part of the human experience. If you suppress all of those feelings that we have labeled as “bad”, you’re not really getting the full human experience. In a way, you’re also watering down your joy, because we don’t really appreciate joy unless we’ve also had the sadness.
I’ve found that it is a lot less work to lean into those uncomfortable feelings and just allow them to be there for awhile, rather than try to chase them away immediately
So this idea of choosing a better feeling thought is something that I go to when I start to notice that I’ve been in a low mood too long and I don’t want to feel like that anymore. I also use it when I’m in a low mood unnecessarily: maybe I just watched something on the news that I found upsetting, but is not my problem to solve, has nothing to do with me, and that I don’t need to be thinking about. Those are times when I may want to choose a better-feeling thought.
How to choose a better-feeling thought about what’s bothering YOU right now
My challenge to you is to notice when you are thinking a thought that does not feel good and decide when you are ready to change it.
1. Decide if you want to sit in the discomfort, sadness, or anger for a while. These are valid emotions, and really productive things can come from them, so don’t rush it. You will know when the thoughts are just too overwhelming and your mood is too low and you’re ready to feel better.
2. When you’re ready, choose a better feeling thought by exploring the situation from a couple of different angles. Asking yourself questions can help train your brain to find those better feeling thoughts. For example, you might ask:
- What’s another way to look at it?
- What else might also be true?
- What might be true about the situation that I haven’t paid attention to before?
- Can I find anything good about the situation?
- Could another person look at my situation and point out something good?
- If a friend was feeling how I’m feeling, what alternative perspective could I offer that person?
3. Try on the answers to those questions, and see how each one feels. It’s like you’re in a store, looking at hats or sunglasses or whatever it is that you’re into: you pick one up and try it on to see how you like it. If it doesn’t suit your mood or personality, then put it back and try on a different one. Do the same thing here: you don’t have to attach a judgment to your thoughts (good thoughts vs bad). And, you don’t have to give a passing thought any weight or importance. Keep searching until you find one that feels good.
4. Once you’ve selected that better feeling thought–the one that aligns with how you want to feel — focus on continually looking for evidence that it is true. Notice all of the good things happening. Mount up evidence in your head that things are going well, the same way you can easily mount up evidence that things are going badly. Our brains are always looking for evidence to confirm our existing beliefs. If we believe a person is the absolute worst, we can easily find more evidence that it’s true. We all know how to do that intuitively, and we accumulate that evidence over time. So use that natural instinct toward your own good: actively look for evidence that good things are happening. The evidence is there, if you choose to see it.