"Thoughts: Managing My Mind"


The ambulance siren split the early morning air as it sped off toward the nearest hospital. The injured man would need fast and skilled medical attention in order to survive the crash that left his wife dead and many lives abruptly changed forever. Two policemen directed the highway traffic while two other policemen questioned the intoxicated man who had caused the collision. Except for a small cut on his right cheek the man appeared to have no serious injuries. The onsite alcohol screen indicated legal intoxication, and in his drunken state the man appeared confused and uncertain as to where he was and how he got there. He had no recollection of his all-night drinking binge or his weaving all over the road and into the path of the oncoming car in which the married couple traveled on their way to visit their grandchildren. However, in due time he would become aware of the tragedy he had caused and the DUI/murder indictment he would face. His choice to abuse alcohol impaired his ability to control his thoughts—and the behavior that followed. His lack of thought-management transformed his vehicle into a weapon capable of causing collisions and wrecking lives.

Without good mind management a person’s travel along the Highway of Life is uncertain and unpredictable. The man who fails to manage his thoughts effectively is indeed an accident looking for a place to happen. People with unmanaged minds represent threats to their own well-being and to the lives of innocent people around them. Mental impairment through alcohol abuse is only one way through which people choose to give up their self-control. We can also become mentally impaired through negative, unhealthy thinking. While the specific degree of impairment may be debated, the reality is that such thinking poses an ongoing threat to both individual and relationship health and happiness. To prevent impairment we must practice self-control through the effective management of our thoughts. Simply put, we must learn to manage our mind. 


Thoughts are important because they determine our emotions and our behavior. Negative, unhealthy thoughts generate painful emotions and undesired behavior. In contrast, positive, healthy thoughts create appropriate emotional moods and constructive behavior. Our thinking determines our mental health which in turn affects how we perceive other people and how we interact in our human relationships. Good mental health, so essential to personal health and to relationship well-being, requires that we take charge of our thoughts.

However, effective mind management can be a challenge, especially for many people who feel helpless in their ability to manage the mind. They believe that they have no control over the thoughts they have and, as a result, they travel through life experiencing emotional states and repeating hurtful behaviors that continue to be generated by their negative, unhealthy thought patterns. Their sense of helplessness usually leads to hopelessness, depression, and despair. This negative approach to thought management maintains a journey through life along the “3-M Highway” that is filled with Mistakes, Messes, and Misery.

Thankfully, other people choose a different approach. They choose to believe that they can learn to manage their thoughts and, in doing so, generate emotions and behavior that will achieve good mental health and a safe, successful journey along the Highway of Life. Hopefully, you’re in this category of people and you are interested in “tools” that will increase your ability to manage your mind effectively.

As a human traveler I’ve experienced my own struggles with the ongoing challenge to manage my mind in a healthy manner. I’m very grateful that the usage of good mind-management tools has improved the quality of my personal life. During my tenure as a professional therapist I’ve tried to help many individuals who were struggling with thought-management issues. One of the tools I’ve shared with many of these struggling travelers is an idea I call “The Mental Gatekeeper.” 

                                                  Introducing “The Mental Gatekeeper”

Allow me to introduce you to the Mental Gatekeeper. Some years ago I relocated to a city in which a U.S. Army base was located. Soon after moving there I decided to visit an individual who was a patient at the base hospital. Unsure of the procedures I asked a friend who worked on the base about directions and instructions. He told me to drive out a particular street which would lead me to the base, go through the checkpoint, and follow the signs to the hospital. I did as he said and soon approached the checkpoint. The cars ahead of me were slowing down but proceeded through the gate without stopping. However, as I approached the gate a large M.P. (Military Policeman) raised his hand and directed me to pull over and stop. My anxiety increased as I wondered what I had done wrong. In a very business-like tone the policeman asked me for my car registration and for my destination on the base. I handed him my registration paper and explained the purpose of my visit. He replied, “Thank you, sir. Just a minute, please.” He went to the rear of my car and I waited nervously. In a few moments he returned, handed me my registration materials along with a piece of paper, and said, “Have a good day, sir.” Then he walked away back toward the gatehouse. I looked at the paper and realized that it was a “pass” that allowed me to be on the base. I then realized that the other cars that were being waved through by the M.P. had decals or stickers that validated their clearance to enter the arsenal. I did not have a decal on my car and, therefore, had to be stopped for inspection. Thankfully, I passed the inspection and was allowed to continue with my adventure.

The next day a fellow came for his therapy session and we were exploring ways for resolving his depression and, more specifically, his excessive worrying pattern. Coincidentally, the man was acquainted with the army base and had used the same checkpoint many times that I had used the day before. I asked him to explain the purpose of the checkpoint and to imagine what could happen if the Military Policeman failed to identify or stop unauthorized vehicles. Clearly, such a failure could result in some type of terrorist activity or other harmful event. To do his job effectively the policeman had to fulfill three functions. First, he had to be trained to know what to look for and how to identify an unauthorized vehicle (or person) that represented potential threat. Secondly, he had to be constantly alert to every vehicle that approached the checkpoint and actively discern the authorized from the unauthorized. Thirdly, he had to be assertive in stopping the unauthorized visitor, checking out the person, and making a disposition for issuing a pass or for refusing entrance. A failure in training or in alertness or in assertive action could lead to an unfortunate event.

I asked this particular client to imagine that he had at the entrance to his brain a little gatehouse with its own policeman who serves as his personal gatekeeper. This gatekeeper uses two stamps, one that marks an approaching thought as “True” and the other that marks the thought as “False.” The main duty of the gatekeeper is to monitor every thought that approaches the gatehouse. He discerns the thoughts (whether healthy or unhealthy), stamps as “False” and rejects all unhealthy thoughts, and stamps as “True” and allows entrance to all healthy thoughts. When the gatekeeper is functioning effectively, only those thoughts that are inherently true and healthy are allowed entrance into the “inner brain” where emotions are generated. However, if the gatekeeper is not doing his job and allows false and unhealthy thoughts to gain access, all kinds of negative, painful emotions will be generated. For example, if the approaching thought is “I’m a total failure so there’s no use in staying alive” and the gatekeeper automatically stamps the thought as “True,” that thought will enter the “inner brain” and cause great emotional damage.  Here’s the bottom line: the emotions result from whatever the gatekeeper stamps as “True.” If in fact the incoming thought is true and healthy and the gatekeeper marks it as “True,” the individual will experience emotions that are consistent with external reality. However, if the incoming thought is clearly false and unhealthy but the gatekeeper stamps it as “True,” the emotions generated will be distorted in that they are not consistent with external reality.

As we considered this thought-management illustration, I asked the man to imagine what will happen if the gatekeeper has not been trained properly and therefore has no clue about how to discern false, unhealthy thoughts from true, healthy thoughts. Perhaps all thoughts look the same to him, so he stamps every incoming thought as “True.” Furthermore, imagine what will happen if the gatekeeper does not stay alert, that is, he falls asleep or becomes careless and just stamps every incoming thought as “True.” Or, he might realize that the incoming thought is false and should be denied entrance, but he is not willing to put forth the effort to counter it and kick it out. The conclusion is clear: we are in big trouble if our personal gatekeeper is untrained, undiscerning, and unassertive. A non-functioning gatekeeper is an open invitation to mental unhealthiness. Our challenge is to train our personal gatekeeper and to keep him alert and functioning on a continual basis. He is essential to our work in safeguarding our minds and our emotions.
                                                  Installing the Mental Gatekeeper

An effective Mental Gatekeeper is essential to our effort to manage our mind. In order to fulfill his purpose the Gatekeeper needs three skills:  training, alertness, and assertiveness. Let’s explore each of these necessary skills.
(1) The Well-trained Gatekeeper

Without proper training a Military Policeman working at an Army base checkpoint would not know how to fulfill his basic duty. Clearly, he must be educated about his responsibility to protect the base while allowing appropriate people to enter the base. He has to learn what to look for, how to spot threats, and what to do when threats are identified. Likewise, our Mental Gatekeeper needs appropriate training in order to fulfill his duty to help us manage our mind effectively. Good training means, among other things, that the Gatekeeper will recognize negative, unhealthy thoughts so he can stamp them “False” and refuse entrance into the “mental base.” But how do we provide this type of training? Let me share one helpful resource.

In 1980 David Burns published a book entitled “Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy.”* In his work as a psychiatrist Dr. Burns had helped many people who were struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. He believed that a person’s thinking patterns were directly related to the moods that were being experienced. A person’s moods can be changed by changing the thought patterns that generate the emotional states. In his book he presented a list of ten types of thinking that are inherently unhealthy and self-defeating. While a reader might not agree with everything in the book, he will probably find Dr. Burn’s list to represent a useful tool for improved thought management. I have personally shared his list with thousands of individuals and no one has reported to me that they found the items to be harmful to them. The overwhelming response has been very positive in that people have used the list as a helpful tool.

We could think of these ten types of thinking as “Cognitive Distortions” because they distort our thoughts into negative, unhealthy thought patterns. Essentially, they represent “the enemy” that threatens our mental health and well-being. On one occasion I shared the list with a friend who was very active with Alcoholics Anonymous. We had been discussing his personal recovery program and the impact of alcohol upon one’s mental state. When he saw the list he remarked, “In AA that’s what we call ‘stinking thinking.’” Ever since then I’ve often thought of these ten types of distorted thinking literally as “stinking thinking.” Let’s take a brief look at these thought distortions. (For a more thorough examination you can consult Dr. Burn’s book or related materials.)
Thought Distortion #1:  “All-or-Nothing Thinking”
 (I see things only in black-or-white, either-or categories. If I’m not a total success then I’m automatically a total failure. I grade myself with only A’s or F’s since nothing in between is allowed.)
Thought Distortion #2:  “Over-generalization”
(I see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. I think in terms of “Always” and “Never” as I tend to globalize any negative situation.)
Thought Distortion #3:  “Mental Filter”
(I pick out a single negative event and dwell on it exclusively so that my vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire glass of water.) 
Thought Distortion #4:  “Disqualifying the Positive”
(I reject positive events and compliments as if they “don’t count” for some reason. By doing this I can maintain my negative belief even though it is contradicted by my everyday experiences.) 
Thought Distortion #5:  “Jumping to Conclusions”
(I make a negative interpretation of something even though I have no solid evidence to support my conclusion. I can jump to a conclusion through “mind-reading” in that I assume that someone is reacting negatively to me and I don’t bother to check things out with the other person. I can also jump to conclusions by “fortune telling” in that I predict that things will turn out badly and I feel convinced that my prediction is an already-established fact.)
Thought Distortion #6:  “Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization”
(I go to an extreme in either turning some simple event into a major crisis or I will shrink a real crisis into something small and simple.)
Thought Distortion #7: “Emotional Reasoning”
(I choose to believe that my negative emotion reflects the way things really are. My emotions prove reality. For example, “I’m feeling unloved; therefore, I must be unloved.”)
Thought Distortion #8:  “Should Statements”
(I try to motivate myself with unhealthy shoulds and shouldn'ts, as if I had to be whipped and punished before I could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders. Since a “should” represents a standard of behavior the emotional consequence is guilt if we fail to fulfill the “should.” When I direct should statements toward others, I tend to feel anger, frustration, and resentment.)
Thought Distortion #9:  “Labeling and Mislabeling”
(This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing my error I attach a negative label to myself. Instead of saying “I lost that game” I would label myself by saying, "I'm a loser."  When someone else's behavior rubs me the wrong way, I attach a negative label to him.  Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly-colored and emotionally loaded.)
Thought Distortion #10:  “Personalization”
(I see myself as the cause of some negative external event for which in fact I was not primarily responsible. I automatically blame myself instead of holding other people responsible for their behavior.)
The effective Mental Gatekeeper knows how to identify the “enemy,” that is, those negative, unhealthy thoughts that represent danger to the individual. Specifically, he understands these ten types of distorted thoughts and is trained to recognize them for what they are. This training is essential if the Mental Gatekeeper is to do his job successfully to promote our mental health.
(2) The Alert Gatekeeper

Without the right training our Mental Gatekeeper cannot function effectively at managing our minds through safeguarding our thoughts.  Good training, however, is not sufficient if in fact my Gatekeeper fails to stay alert on the job. Let’s recall the Military Policeman working at the base gatehouse. If he falls asleep or becomes careless and allows unauthorized personnel to enter the base, he has failed in the performance of his duties and through his failure places the base at risk. Likewise, our Mental Gatekeeper can fall asleep or can become negligent, and, as a result, all types of distorted thoughts can enter our minds unhindered and unimpeded. Our challenge is to keep our Mental Gatekeeper alert at all times. Frequent reminders may be necessary, perhaps something as simple as telling myself, “Okay, gatekeeper, stay alert! Do your job! Don’t let those distortions in—keep them out!” Occasionally I will literally slap my head with my hand as if to say “Wake up, gatekeeper! Stay alert!” 
(3)  The Assertive Gatekeeper
In addition to staying alert the Mental Gatekeeper must practice assertiveness in dealing with negative, unhealthy thoughts. A passive response will not get the job done. There’s too much at stake to allow the Gatekeeper to treat enemy thoughts like “okay guys who pose no real threat.” The battle is on and it is real—the battle for the mind! Our Gatekeeper must work responsibly and diligently to counter and reject the negative thoughts.

Many thought-management tools are available to the Mental Gatekeeper, but these tools are of benefit only if he uses them assertively. Let me describe one such tool that Dr. David Burns recommends. I shared this “Three Column”** tool with the depressed man described earlier. I recommended that he use pen and paper to gain more benefit from this activity. On the paper draw vertical lines to create three columns. At the top of Column #1 write “Negative Thought.” Then write “Cognitive Distortion” at the top of the second column and “Rational Response” as the heading for Column #3. Now we’re ready to deal with the incoming thought or some thought that is already on our “mental base.” In Column #1 we identify the thought and write it down. In Column #2 we identify all of the Cognitive Distortions contained in the original thought that we wrote in the first column. Finally, in Column #3 we develop a new thought that contains the original thought but without the distortions. Basically, we’re getting rid of the distorted thought and we’re replacing it with a thought that is true, realistic, and believable. The original thought is “irrational” because it contains one or more Cognitive Distortions; the new thought is “rational” because it does not contain the distortions. Conducting a “distortionectomy” is an important “mental surgery” that allows us to remove the threat (the distortion) and to move toward better mental health.

A single negative thought can represent a serious threat to our mental and emotional health, especially if it’s an overgeneralized thought (like “Everyone is out to hurt me”) or a negative label (like “I’m a total loser in life”). However, the real damage occurs when multiple negative thoughts get strung together to form a “train of thought.” In this process one negative thought follows another and a sequence results that leads to a mental “train wreck.” If a single thought or a train of thought is allowed to “run around” in our mind without proper management, those thoughts can turn into actual beliefs that pose an even greater threat to our personal well-being. For example, if we allow the thought mentioned earlier, that is, “I’m a total loser in life,” to roam freely in our mind, the thought will probably become a personal belief. At that point we would say, “I really believe that I am in fact a total loser.” Such a belief poses a significant threat, especially if similar negative beliefs join together to form a “mental train of negative beliefs.” Unfortunately, most adults have too many harmful beliefs that resulted from years of thinking the same negative thoughts.

Our Mental Gatekeeper definitely has his work cut out for him as he helps us manage our mind. He has to identify the negative thought sequences and the unhealthy personal beliefs. He uses various thought-management tools to reshape the negative patterns by removing the distortions and by revising the original thoughts into new beliefs that are more rational in that they are true, realistic, and believable. To accomplish this goal a person could use a 3X5 index card as a helpful tool. On side “A” write down the “old belief” that contains the distortions. For example, you could write “In the past I used to believe that I was always messing up and therefore was always a total failure.” At the bottom of the card write in big, bold letters “BUT NOW . . .” to indicate an important transition. Turn the card over and on side “B” you need to write out the new belief you choose to adopt for yourself. For example, you could write, “I choose to believe that an occasional mistake does not make me a total failure. It is true that I have made some mistakes and I have failed to achieve several goals. However, I have also made many good choices and I have succeeded at some goals. I refuse to label myself in a negative way. Instead, I hereby commit to doing my best in decision-making and in the achievement of my personal goals. I like this new belief and I believe it more and more with each new day.” Be careful to leave out the cognitive distortions like the overgeneralization (“always”) and the labeling (“total failure”). Then sign the card and add the time and date of your signature. At this point you probably still believe the old thought about 95-100% while the new thought is very tentative (5-10%). Your goal is to reverse those numbers and to believe the new belief at 100% certainty. To make this reversal happen you must take time each day to read your card and commit to the new belief. Read the old belief softly to decrease its power. Read the “But now…” and the new belief with great force so as to give it added power. Repeat this process daily for at least ninety days, preferably for many months, to insure that the new belief will have more power than does the old belief. You might want to actually sign and date your belief statement every time you commit to it, meaning that you could have ninety signatures after the three-month period. Do whatever works to add strength and power to the new belief you’re trying to install in your mind, internalize in your heart, and integrate into your life. Slowly but surely the new belief will counter and overcome the old negative belief. If during the following years the old belief starts “popping up” again, you’ll need to repeat the process of daily reinforcement by reading and committing to the new belief. This type of thought management work may seem tedious and tiring, but it is necessary to effective mind management. As a result you will experience a new level of positive mind management, and you will enjoy the inner peace and joy that accompany your healthy thinking.

During my tenure as a mental health therapist many people have tried to incorporate these types of thought-management tools into their personal growth and development. I have celebrated with them the level of success they achieved as they strived to manage the mind. I recall one man whose thinking was very negative due to a difficult, abusive childhood during which he had not been taught positive ways to manage his thoughts effectively. He listened carefully as I presented some of the ideas and tools contained in this article, and then he responded from a perspective of strong spiritual faith. He stated that he had been reading in the Bible several scriptures about the importance of right thinking. Specifically, he mentioned Philippians 4:8 in which the apostle Paul wrote,  “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think  on these things.” He also mentioned Proverbs 23:7 that stated, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” This particular man reinforced the wisdom and benefit of the ideas we had been discussing by relating them to his Christian faith. Even without spiritual faith other people have found the thought-management tools to be of great practical benefit in their search for greater peace and joy in life. 

Concluding Thoughts . . .

To go through life with an unmanaged mind is to travel the “3-M Highway” that leads to Mistakes, Messes, and Misery. The road signs of life are there for us to choose either a journey of Negativity or a journey of Positivity. The good news is that we do have a choice! Good mental health and healthy relationships require that we possess and practice positive mind management.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “You may not be able to keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” When I first heard the statement the application made was to the resistance of temptations. However, I see a great application in our efforts to manage our thoughts. We may not be able to keep negative, unhealthy thoughts from approaching our Mental Gatekeeper, but we can keep them from building a home in our minds. As we learn to manage our minds more effectively we reassure ourselves that our travels along the Highway of Life will be safe and successful. I wish you well as you assess your current level of mind-management skill and as you consider and use specific tools to improve your ability to manage your thoughts on a daily basis.

As always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship travels.
*The ten Cognitive Distortions described in this article were adapted from:

                Burns, David D. (1980).  Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy. New York:  William Morrow and Company.  (Pages 49-50)
                Burns, David D. (1989).  The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: Penguin Books.   

**The “Three Column Tool” was adapted from David Burn’s book, Feeling Good:  The New Mood Therapy, p. 67.
RELATED ARTICLE:  To read Dr. Baker's article about ways to manage emotions and moods just click on the title below.
          "Emotions:  Managing My Mood"

Dr. Baker has also written articles about worry, anxiety management, and depression. To see a list of these articles and related resources, please consult the Mental Health category in the Resources section or you can click on the link below.
         Mental Health Resources

VIDEO:  To watch a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Thoughts:  Managing  Strinking Thinking" please click on the image to the right or click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



                    (Blog #1309)


9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill