Stop Trying to Change Your Life by Changing Your Thoughts


By Tina Gilbertson

It doesn’t work.

You already know this. You’ve told yourself a hundred times to think about it a different way. Or you’ve tried not to think about it at all, that thing that happened that you can’t seem to let go of.

Your thoughts are not the problem.

Your feelings (which you’re trying to change by changing your thoughts) are not the problem.

The problem itself is the problem. The thing that made you feel bad, THAT’S the problem.

Your feelings are a natural outcome of what happened. Your thoughts are trying to manage the feelings, but only because you can’t change what actually happened.

You think because you can’t change the past, you have to change how you feel about it in order to feel better.

It’s a good idea, but unfortunately (as you know), it doesn’t work.

And it’s not because you’re not good enough at it. It’s not because you have to try harder. It’s not because you’re a “negative” person.

The real reason it doesn’t work is because you can’t make feelings that are already there, not be there. You can’t make them go away by changing your thoughts, your attitude, your underwear or anything else.

So what can you do to manage the things you can’t change? How can you get out from under the cloud of what happened and start feeling better again?

The answer is simple but it’s hard work. Harder even than trying to control your thoughts.

There’s only one way to truly heal and to free up all that frozen energy that’s locked inside the memory of what happened.

You must feel the hurt until it doesn’t hurt anymore.

It’s not a popular view, but it is the truth. Embracing pain is a process for people who want results, rather than a temporary balm that feels good now but doesn’t address the real problem.

If you’ve still got feelings about what happened… if you’re still thinking about what happened… it’s a sign of unprocessed, unhealed pain.

Feeling is healing

Just feel what you feel. Cry or yell into a pillow. Do what comes naturally. Feel sorry for yourself.

Don’t involve any other living thing if what you feel is violent or aggressive.

I promise you, you’ll find if you pay attention that actual emotional pain is always temporary. On the other side, there’s relief.

Once you’ve fully processed the pain of what happened you’ll be free of it. Permanently.

Until then, you can waste the years trying to get better at positive thinking, never fully healing, constantly searching, maybe eventually falling into depression.

I don’t wish that on anybody. Please revisit your loss or injury, even if it feels like going backwards. It isn’t; it’s the only way forward.

If it feels too scary, find a counselor or friend who can hold a safe space for your pain.

You don’t have to do it alone. But if you want to heal the pain once and for all, you have to turn back around and face it.

The only way out is through.




  1. LOVE, LOVE this article. So true and refreshing to read. Also, very validating. I’m so glad it has been acknowledged that we can’t change our thoughts; I’ve been working very hard to do this and have not been successful:). I listen to many webinars, etc., that advocate to change our thoughts and sometimes, it’s like, “Please! Could we just get real here?” The only way to process the pain is through it, not under it, over it, around it. THROUGH it! Thank you for the opportunity to read this!

    Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT

    • Glad this post spoke to you, Kathy. Maybe there are people out there who can change their thoughts, and keep them changed, by force of will. But for those of us (including me) who have trouble controlling our thoughts, it’s good to know there’s an alternative that works. Thank you very much for your comment.

  2. Sandra and Wellcraftedtoo, thank you for your well-considered comments about finding a happy medium. I don’t think we disagree at all.

    It’s certainly not helpful to indulge in troublesome thought patterns, or to cling to a perspective that never changes.

    But those are thoughts, not feelings. There’s a difference. A feeling is simply an emotion, separate and distinct from the story we tell ourselves about it.

    I’m not aware of any evidence that allowing *emotions* to be as they are leads to neural pathways getting paved in stone and creating more of the same emotions. If that were true, we’d all be stuck in perpetual sadness by the age of five, considering how many times we cried as infants and toddlers!

    The real test is this: Does one’s way of dealing with feelings make him/her feel more or less whole over time? More or less happy in general?

    I’m living proof that embracing even the yuckiest feelings is not lethal or even dangerous. I feel more whole, calmer and more excited about life than I ever have. Nothing inside me can hurt me. Unless I swallow a nail.

    Thanks again for your comments, everybody!

  3. susielindau, you mentioned drama in your life from your reactions of hurt. I have had this quote on my blog but I would like for you to see it so, with tt’s permission, will post it here as well. I hope it will give you another perspective.

    “There comes a time in your life when you walk away from all the drama and people who create it. You surround yourself with people who make you laugh. Forget the bad, and focus on the good. Love the people who treat you right, pray for the ones who don’t. Life is too short to be anything but happy. Falling down is a part of life; getting back up is living.” – José N. Harris

  4. Yes, and no.

    Certainly when we avoid or minimize, or distract ourselves, from really exploring what is deeply, or repeatedly, bothering us, painful feelings do hang around, in one form or another. Sometimes, with issues of more import, we helps to ‘sink into’ the emotion, explore it, all of it–the thoughts, fears, and feelings–swirling about a particular event….Often that is the only way real healing only can begin.

    But, in many circumstances we hold habitual patterns of looking at things from certain angles that impede our happiness. Many of us, if not most, tend to focus on what isn’t working, what’s wrong, what’s troubling us–in any given scenario. And why not? Seems to me there’s a survival mechanism in that! But look at how often our tried and true, knee-jerk ways of perceiving bring us down.

    It requires a good deal of discernment to learn when to let go, to ‘flip’ one’s customary way of viewing a problem, and when to hold on and explore the feelings, the issues…

    But I have learned without doubt that ‘flipping’ my take on–my interpretation of–a situation can bring me tremendous relief, and new insights to boot.

    Recent case in point: I spent a long, extended visit with a loved one this summer. As her departure approached I felt increasingly sad, although I knew she had to go, and that it was right that she left. One day it dawned on me to look at the situation from a new perspective–that of relishing how special our time together had been, how unusual it was to have had that time, and how lucky I was to know my friend like this.

    My sadness didn’t go away completely, but it lessened a good deal, and in it’s place I felt enormous gratitude for what I’d received.


  5. Interesting proposal, but not one I can agree with fully. Neither suppress nor indulge! That’s the approach recommended by great spiritual teachers of the past and it’s the approach I follow. It’s a delicate line, but I think there’s a danger of digging the neuronal pathway deeper by indulging. I fully believe we can change our thoughts if we understand the nature of thoughts (and emotions) and have the right tools and practice. Yes, we’re up against some tough brain biology, but it’s doable.

  6. Thank you all so much for your thoughtful comments. And a giant thanks to Timethief for hosting!

    Lilmisspumpkin, your question is an excellent one, and it’s one I hear a lot.

    In a nutshell, all emotions are by nature temporary. It’s only when we mess with them – by ignoring, distracting, or otherwise trying to make them go away – that Nature goes awry. Then feelings get “stuck” and hang around like the smell of old fish, long after the actual fish is gone.

    If you’re patient with your feelings, giving them all the time and attention they require, they will let you go. I practice this myself, and it works for me. I’ve seen amazing changes in others who discover this practice — especially in their level of self-compassion.

    It’s SO much easier than struggling. I highly, highly recommend giving yourself this gift.

    Thanks again to everyone for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  7. What is hurting you forever, lilmisspumpkin? Or are you just theorizing? Emotional pain is different from physical pain. They are not always related. So maybe you are referring to physical pain which produces some emotional pain?

  8. I must be wired so differently. I need to see the person and smooth the waters even though they were the one that hurt me, then I can forget about it. That’s what helps me to move on. I am never as close to the person as before.

    I am also learning that so much of the drama that happens in my life comes from my initial reaction of being hurt. I have decided that the next time I hear something, I am going to keep my mouth shut as if my performance could win an Oscar!

  9. Dear Tina,
    I clicked the like button on this excellent guest post even though it’s on my blog. I am so honored that you chose to contribute to my blog in this way.

    “You must feel the hurt until it doesn’t hurt anymore.
    It’s not a popular view, but it is the truth.”


  10. It may seem banal, but a friend recently advised me that the only way to get a song fragment out of my head was to listen to the whole song. Same process as what you’re talking about, I think.

    I spent 22 years being sad (and oh so much more) about not having been able to have children. I finally went into therapy for the first time and was lucky enough to connect with someone I trusted right away. She suggested that I write out EXACTLY and SPECIFICALLY what hurt and how I felt and what I wanted and didn’t want, etc. It was a daunting task! Four and half pages later…I felt as if I’d finally processed what happened and what triggered it all back over my life.

    It was dark and painful but at the end I was free. Thank you tt for hosting this post! Tina, you were speaking directly to me. It’s an ongoing process.

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