I’ve recently begun to dive into “The Work” of Byron Katie.
For those who don’t know Byron Katie, she is a speaker, teacher, and author who travels around the world helping people release themselves from their stressful thoughts.
And if you are anything like myself, stressful thoughts are something that need tending to now and again.
After reading her book, Loving What Is, I’ve had the chance to apply her simple framework in my own life and in the lives of some of my clients.
The results have been pretty powerful.
Today, I’d like to walk through Katie’s four simple questions to show how they can be applied to any stressful thoughts you may have now or in the future.
Write down your stressful thought.
You can write one statement, or many. But you’ll want to address each thought with these four questions one at a time.
You may also want to download Katie’s worksheet for this.
For this exercise, I am going to borrow a recent client’s situation as an example. (She’s given me permission to share her story.)
This client – let’s call her Suzy – is a busy mom of a toddler and juggles a business and a full-time, work-from-home, job.
Suzy felt that she was too quick to anger and get upset with her daughter when she wanted attention during work hours, or when trying to get things done on schedule.
Suzy didn’t like her reactions in these situations, and she had the belief that she needed to be more patient… which meant that every moment until she was more patient was stressful.
Stressful thought: “I should be patient.”
Question #1: Is this true?
The first question to ask yourself is whether your thought is true.
Beware about the word true, though. Katie believes that “truth” is what is, in other words, what is currently happening in reality.
So this isn’t about moral truths or what “should” be happening or should have happened in the past.
It’s about whether our stressful thought is factually accurate in the present moment.
Suzy’s immediate reaction to that question was yes, she should be more patient.
Notice, she wasn’t really addressing reality in that answer. But it was how she felt. So we moved on to question number two.
Answer: “Yes, I should be more patient.”
Question #2: Can you absolutely know that it is true?
Next, we ask ourselves if we can absolutely know that our stressful thought is true.
And this is where a lot of our stressful, even morally righteous, thoughts may fall.
We cannot know 100% that our stressful thought is true.
Particularly if it involves what “should be” or what “shouldn’t be” happening in the present moment.
Our belief cannot contradict reality and be true at the same time.
For Suzy, we asked this question and her answer went from, “Yes, it is true that I should be patient.” To, “No, I can’t a-b-s-o-u-l-t-e-l-y know that it is true.”
This was huge.
It gave an opening to inquire further in question number three.
Answer: “No, I can’t absolutely know that I should be more patient because I’m not more patient right now.”
Question #3: How do you react when you believe that thought?
Next, it’s time to recognize how we feel when we believe our stressful thought.
Here are a few questions to run through in your mind:
– What emotions arise when you believe that thought?
– Does it bring peace or stress when you believe that thought?
– How do you treat the person (or yourself) in this situation when you believe this thought?
– How would you feel without this thought?
– Can you see a reason to let go of this thought?
Please know you aren’t trying to let go of the thought immediately.
You are just asking yourself what it would feel like in each situation outlined above.
For Suzy, she realized that she would actually feel calmer if she didn’t have the thought that she needed to be more patient!
Answer: “I feel more stressed and less patient when I believe the thought that I need to be more patient.
I would feel calmer without the thought that I need to be more patient.”
Question #4: Turn the thought around.
Last, it’s time to inverse the statement and see how that reversed thought could actually be as true or truer than the stressful thought.
For example, “He should spend more time with me.”
Could be turned around to:
“I should spend more time with myself.”
“I should spend more time with him.”
“He shouldn’t spend more time with me.”
Then, see if there is a way that one (or all) of the turned around statements could be as true or truer than the original stressful thought.
In Suzy’s case we turned it around to:
“I shouldn’t be more patient.”
“It’s good that I am not patient.”
There were two big insights that came from these turnarounds for her.
The first was that her impatience was a huge asset to her in her job as a project manager.
The fact that she was impatient helped her teams meet deadlines and get things done efficiently.
The second insight she gained was that she should stop being so patient by distracting herself from giving her full attention to her daughter at this young age.
She should be impatient to spend as much time with her as possible while she is still so small, and be impatient about enjoying her – even when things are challenging.
This realization came as a huge relief for Suzy.
It doesn’t mean that she would not like to react in a patient manner to her daughter in certain circumstances.
It simply means that not having this belief leaves her calmer and more able to acknowledge and appreciate the advantages that impatience brings as a mother and project manager.
Answer: “I should be impatient to spend time with my daughter fully. I should engage with her now, even when it is hard. My impatience is an asset in my job.
Not hating my impatience brings more peace than thinking I need to behave differently.
By not beating myself up over my impatience, I will feel calmer when my daughter does something frustrating and I’ll be more capable of handling the situation.”
This simple process of self-inquiry can be a powerful way to address – and reverse – stressful thoughts.
But it might feel challenging to apply immediately after reading this overview.
In her books and videos, Katie also addresses how to apply this process to all kinds of extremely difficult challenges including death, divorce, rape, and war.
If you try The Work, please let me know how it goes for you!
PS – Another great stress release tool – if you have so much on your plate and you can’t keep all your worries straight – is worry flashcards.