Think About How You Think, Part One: Regarding Yourself

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 11
March, 2015

By Dan Coughlin



To a very large degree, every business is driven by thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions at work influence decisions, behaviors, relationships, and, ultimately, results. Consequently, it’s very important to try to make your thoughts and emotions as effective as you can make them.

If you want to jump into the deep end of the learning pool on how a person’s thinking affects his or her emotions, I recommend the following books: Learned Optimism, What You Can Change & What You Can’t, Authentic Happiness, and Flourish by Dr. Martin Seligman; Working With Emotional Intelligence by Dr. Daniel Goleman; and Cognitive Therapy by Dr. Aaron Beck. That’s 1900 pages of writing by three of the most important psychologists of the past 50 years. In addition, I recommend two books on sports psychology called Warburton’s Winning System by Greg Warburton and Sports, Energy, and Consciousness by a variety of authors and edited by Dr. Eric Leskowitz. Ideas from those books also have great application for business leaders.

Understand the E – T – E Sequence

Every day every person goes through a sequence over and over. I call it the E – T – E Sequence. That stands for the Event – Thought – Emotion Sequence. Here’s how it works:

Event – something happens.
Thought – you attach a certain meaning to what happened.
Emotion – your thought creates an emotion within you.

As simple as that sounds, it is enormously important. If you realize your thoughts produce your emotions, you can quickly get to the significance of what this means. If your thoughts produce your emotions, then you can change your emotions by changing your thoughts. In this way, you can maintain emotional self-control, and that can make all the difference in your performance at work.

The key is to be aware of and to accept your thoughts and your emotions as they are right now. Then you can choose to keep your positive thoughts and emotions (joy, gratitude, excitement, calmness, amusement, confidence, hopefulness, optimistic, and resilient) and to replace your negative thoughts and emotions (worry, anxiety, fear, pessimism, doubt, hopelessness, frustration, regret, embarrassment, shame, and anger) with more effective ones. The problem is not in having negative emotions. You’re human. You’re going to get anxious, worried, frustrated, angry, pessimistic, embarrassed, and sad. The problem is when you hang on to those emotions over the long term and continually relive the thoughts that generate those emotions. When you’re in a permanent state of a negative emotion, you’re going to have a hard time performing at your best.

I’ll go back through each piece one at a time.

An event could be something that happened which had nothing to do with you, it could be something that happened to you, it could be a memory of something that happened in the past, or it could be something that you think might happen in the future. Here are four examples of events, one for each type:

  • The stock market drops 2,000 points in a day.
  • Your biggest customers tells you she will find a new provider if your service doesn’t improve significantly in the next 100 days.
  • You remember a teacher in high school told you that you had an ability to stay calm and solve difficult problems.
  • You imagine a friend of yours is going to compliment you on being a good parent.

These events don’t affect your emotions until you attach some meaning to them. After you think about the event and interpret it in a certain way, then you generate an emotion. Here are some examples.

The stock market drops 2,000 points in a day and you think it’s very likely that your boss will lay off people at work. You think about it and realize that you’ve been there the shortest amount of time and are likely to be fired this week. As a result, you experience the emotions of fear, anxiety, worry, stress, doubt, and pessimism.

Your biggest customer wants dramatic improvement in service over the next 100 days. You think to yourself that there’s no way your organization can make that kind of improvement that fast. You begin to feel pessimistic, hopeless and helpless. You bring less energy to work and sit through meetings with a worried look on your face.

You remember a teacher telling you that you have an ability to stay calm and solve problems. You think you will be able to handle a difficult situation at work. You feel optimistic and confident.

You imagine your friend complimenting you on being a good parent. You think this means you are an effective communicator even when your teenage son talks back to you. This thought helps you to stay calm while you’re talking to your son.

See How Your Thoughts Drive Your Emotions

Now it’s your turn. Think back over the past few days. Identify an event you encountered that had nothing to do with you, happened directly to you, was a memory of something that happened in the past, or something you imagined that might happen in the future. Recall what you thought when you considered that event. Then identify the emotion you had as a result of that thought. Write down the sequence so you can see it on paper.

Now do it again.

After you do that three or four times, you will see how real these sequences are in your life.

I’ll give one that happened to me today. As I was writing this article, my attention was on these ideas and I was engaged in the process. Essentially, I was in a state of flow where there are no emotions. There’s just focus and you feel as though you’re “in the zone.” I received a text from a great friend that his mother was being moved to hospice care. That text was the event. My first thought was how nice his mother was to me when I was in high school and in college. My emotion was one of happiness. Then I thought about my friend losing his mother and my emotion was one of sadness.

Just by focusing on a specific event and thinking about it you can change your emotions.

To see how quickly your thoughts can affect your emotions do the following two exercises.

Recall a situation where you encountered a tremendous loss in your life: a good friend moving away, a valued colleague leaving your organization, a divorce, or an important person to you passing away. Spend some time remembering the details of the situation. Give yourself two or three minutes to really think about that event. Now how do you feel at this moment?

Recall a situation where you had a nearly perfect day where everything went the way you wanted it to go. This could have happened in high school or college or at home or at work. Give yourself two or three minutes to really think about the details of that day. Now how do you feel at this moment?

Your thoughts affect your emotions. Change your thoughts and you change your emotions.

Understand The Enormous Power of Automatic Thoughts

Without realizing it, your automatic thoughts guide your emotions throughout the day.

Someone cuts in front of us while we’re driving, we automatically think that we have been trespassed upon, and our emotion turns into anger. If we had thought the person was rushing to the hospital because a pregnant woman was in the car and her water had broken, then our emotion would likely have been of concern for her. Your boss shows the sales decline in your business over the past six months and your automatic thought could be that someone is going to lose his or her job. Your emotion can become one of worry or fear.

All day long our automatic thoughts pop up and guide our emotions. Consciously increasing our awareness of these E – T – E sequences and accepting them as being real is a very important step because then we can decide which ones we want to keep and which ones we want to change.

Those emotions impact our decisions and behaviors and relationships at work and eventually affect our business results. If those emotions are positive and filled with confidence, optimism, resilience, joy, or excitement, then they can help to improve our performance. We want to keep those thoughts and emotions. However, when our emotions are negative and filled with fear, doubt, worry, pessimism, frustration or anger, then they will hurt our performance. We want to change these emotions. To do that we need to change our thoughts.

Prepare Your Mind to Take On Your Negative Thoughts

Remember this series of steps:

  1. Negative thoughts produce negative emotions.
  2. Negative emotions produce negative energy.
  3. Negative energy produces poor performances.
  4. Poor performances over the long term produce negative results for your organization.

The starting point is to realize when you are experiencing negative emotions and to go back and consciously challenge and change the thoughts that produced those emotions.

It’s very difficult to change your thoughts that produce anger, fear, or worry when you are angry, afraid or worried. You have to prepare your mind to be able to effectively notice your thoughts and emotions, accept that those thoughts and emotions are really happening within you, and to successfully challenge and change the negative ones.

Stress is a negative tension in your body. Stress is what hurts your ability to perform. When a person is “stressed out,” he or she is less likely to perform at a high level. Stress is caused by negative thoughts, negative emotions, and negative behaviors. These are any thoughts, emotions, or behaviors that reduce your ability to be effectively productive in the performance area that you want to excel at. One of the problems with stress is that it keeps you from being aware of your negative thoughts and emotions.

Reduce Stress, Get Calm

Step away from the situation and take time to prepare yourself properly to go back inside your mind and effectively challenge the thoughts that are producing the negative emotions and negative behaviors. Here are a variety of things you can do to prepare your mental energy for the challenge ahead.

As often as you can over the course of a week, do things that reduce stress in your life and increase calmness. Get a massage, take a hot whirlpool bath, go for a walk or a jog or a run, curl up on the couch and read a relaxing book, or do anything that relaxes you.

Martin Seligman and Aaron Beck explained a technique called progressive relaxation where you mentally move through your body tightening your muscles, holding them in that tightened position for a moment, and then relaxing them.

Make meditation practical. My favorite definition of meditation is one I learned from David Meggyesy, author of the sports classic Out of Their League, which is about college and professional football in the 1960s. He quoted Jimmy Joy, the accomplished sculling coach, in defining meditation as “just sit there and be quiet.” Just sit down, plant your feet comfortably, place your hands on your knees, close your eyes, and focus on the feeling in your body as you move from your feet to your calves up through your body and into your neck, shoulders, and head. Mentally go back to where you were an hour ago and slowly move up to where you are at this moment. This simple and quick process can help you calm down a great deal.

In his book Warburton’s Winning System, Greg Warburton explains several approaches to clear out negative thoughts and emotions. Here are some of my favorites.

Be on the alert to notice when you’re having a negative thought, emotion, or behavior. When you notice that this is happening, honestly accept it and set aside time to calm down and remove the stress you’re experiencing.

Look at the words and phrases you are saying to yourself and the questions you’re asking yourself. Then look at how you’re breathing and your posture. If you are taking in big gulps of air or slouched over or slumping down, then slow your breathing down and sit up straighter.

The most unusual, and potentially the most powerful, advice from Warburton on reducing stress caused by negative thinking and negative emotions is called “tapping.” He teaches an approach to literally tap into your negative thoughts and emotions to let them go.

He combines the conscious act of recalling your negative thoughts with the Eastern Medicine approach of tapping into specific places on your body: your eyebrows, the side of your eye socket on each side, under your eyes, just under your nose, just under your lower lip, an inch below your collar bone on your left and right side, your sternum, the base of your ribs on the left and right side, under your arm pits about three inches down on each side, and next to the inside of your fingernail on each finger and your thumbs.

As you tap you say to yourself, “Even though I am feeling (state the specific negative emotion you are feeling right now and the thought that is causing that feeling), the truth is that this is what I am feeling for now and I am willing to accept myself about this situation.”

This simple exercise lasts for about two minutes as you tap seven times on each spot while repeating that statement. It helps you accept the negative thought and emotion and to let it go. Warburton says tapping “helps to stir up the natural energy flows in your body to clear out any and all mental and emotional blocks to peak performance.” You don’t try to ignore the negative thought or emotion. You accept that it’s real and prepare yourself to move forward.

Challenge and Change Your Negative Thoughts

When you are calm and have reduced the stress caused by negative thoughts and emotions, you are able to consciously develop positive thoughts. The key is to change your negative emotion generating thoughts into positive emotion generating thoughts. This is the step that can lead to better business results.

In order to see negative thoughts and negative emotions in your life, the two most important words are “slow down.” Slow your life down enough to be aware of negative emotions when you are experiencing them and the thoughts that generate those emotions.

Once you identify when certain habitual thoughts produce negative emotions in you at work, then you can challenge those negative thoughts. It is not enough to just think positive thoughts. You can’t just say, “Today I will achieve greatness” or “Today I am confident and optimistic” or “To be enthusiastic, act enthusiastic” over and over again and expect any real lasting change in your thoughts. You actually have to go inward and argue with yourself and convince yourself that your negative thought is wrong.

Dr. Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, which is based in part on the work of Dr. Aaron Beck and Dr. Albert Ellis, provides some great insights on how to effectively challenge your negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. The steps below are based on the teachings of Seligman and Beck.

Imagine you are having a discussion with another person and you want to challenge that person’s premise and conversationally change his way of thinking. You would treat that person with respect, listen to his or her arguments, and then provide a series of counterpoints to guide the person to your way of thinking. In this case, you are having a conversation with yourself and you need to deliberately intervene in your negative thought process in order to generate more positive and useful thoughts.

You can look for evidence as to why those thoughts are inaccurate, alternative descriptions of what something means, how weak the premise is that you are working off of to get to that thought, or how useless this thought is in guiding your emotions.

Here’s a look at those four ways to challenge your thoughts.


The stock market drops 2,000 points in one day. You think it means people have to be fired in your organization. You become anxious about your job and you’re worried you will lose your home. However, step back and look at the evidence. Does a fast downturn in the stock market really mean your company has to fire people? It could take 100 days to see any negative ramifications to your sales numbers. In that time, the stock market could shoot back up again. Also, a turn in the stock market could create changes in your industry that could lead to great opportunities for your organization. This could be a real opportunity for you to emerge as a more effective leader at work. There’s just not enough evidence to support becoming fearful at this time.


Let’s look at what other things could happen. Your company might look on this as an opportunity to buy a major competitor and to solidify its place in the industry. That could lead to more options for you in your career. Look at your own standing in the company. Recall the value you have created for your organization over the time you’ve been there. Even if you were to get fired you are prepared to add value to other organizations which could lead to an even better job for you.

Rather than getting worried by the change in the stock market, you could get excited about the changes in the stock market.

Weak Premise

The premise that a drop in the stock market is bad for your career is not necessarily true. It could lead to a variety of changes that could ultimately open up new doors for you. Therefore, the basic premise that your fear and worry are based on is not very strong. Rather than letting yourself spiral into negative emotions and negative behaviors based on a weak premise, step back from the whole situation and make a list of all the good things that could happen as a result of the drop in today’s stock market.


How useful is it to worry about something you have no control over anyway? At this point, you have no idea how the top executives in your organization are going to respond to this news. They might not do anything different than what they are currently doing. Rather than just spinning your wheels in a negative way, why not just focus on doing your work today as well as you can?

Now it’s your turn. Identify a negative thought you are carrying within you. Challenge that thought and work to change it to something more positive. Look for evidence that your thought is wrong or could be wrong, look for alternatives as to what this event could mean, look for a weakness in your premise, and decide how useless your thought is in helping you to achieve what you want to achieve. By having this internal conversation, you can move from the negative thought to a much more positive one.

Don’t just make up a phrase like “I’m a winner today and tomorrow and every day.” That’s like trying to feel good by eating a candy bar. Feels good for a minute, but it has no depth. You have to actually go inside your brain and have a conversation to reverse the negative thought on a permanent basis. Then you can reinforce that positive thought with positive phrases and wording that supports the thought that you want to keep at the top of your mind.

Focus On Your Strengths and When Things Went Well

There are two sources within you that you can always turn to when you want to start anew. First, what are you good at doing, and, second, when have things gone well for you in the past?

If you take the time to think about your strengths, you will see that there is hope for the future in almost every situation. You can begin with your strengths and start to move forward. In addition, remind yourself of times when things have gone well for you. Keep a journal of your small successes each day and very soon you will see that you have a proven ability to be effective in a wide variety of situations. It is possible for your negative thoughts and negative emotions to overwhelm you and hurt your performance at work. Take the time to consciously focus on your strengths and how you can use them, and to consciously recall when situations have gone well for you. The time and effort you put into those exercises can significantly help you to recapture a feeling of hope, optimism, and excitement for the future.

Move From Negative Tension (Stress) to Positive Tension (Flow)

The ultimate act of shifting the way you think is to move from a state of negative tension, or stress, to a state of positive tension, which is flow or total positive engagement in work that is meaningful to you.

I think stress is created when people feel they are working an inordinate number of hours a week with no end or break in sight, when they feel they are being controlled by outside sources and are powerless to change anything, when they focus more on not having a certain outcome than on the journey to achieve the outcome, and when they are mentally strained and worn out emotionally by negative thoughts and emotions such as anger, worry, fear, regret, frustration, and enduring sadness.

I think the state of flow is created when people feel they are in charge of their own destiny and their sense of personal dignity increases, when they are taking regular breaks to reenergize their mind and body, when they feel purposeful in their activities and that what they are doing really matters and is making a difference, and when they experience positive emotions like appreciation, optimism, calmness, joy and exhilaration.

By becoming aware of your negative thoughts and emotions, accepting that they are really within you, allowing your mind and body to calm down and clear out the negative energy, and then consciously establishing the thoughts and ensuing emotions and sense of purposefulness that you want, you will be able to move from a state of stress to a state of flow.

Managers: Practice Yourself, Then Teach Others

If you manage a group of people, I encourage you to try these various exercises on shifting from negative thinking and emotions to positive thinking and emotions. Tweak the approaches to develop an approach for yourself that you find effective. Then teach what you found worked for you to the people you manage. Learning to think about how you think can be a very powerful way to improve your emotions, behaviors, decisions, relationships, and ultimately your results at work.

Final Comments

My journey into thinking about how people think began with a single statement from an excellent professional counselor named Tom Michler. He said, “You cannot consistently outperform your own belief system.” I took that to mean that our thoughts provide the upper limit on what we can accomplish. That comment took me on an adventure through the work of people like Martin Seligman, Aaron Beck, Daniel Goleman, Bruce Lipton, Wallace Wattles, Greg Warburton, and David Meggyesy. In the end, I was reminded that we can consciously choose our thoughts and they will impact our emotions, decisions, behaviors, physical health, relationships, and results.

I will close this article with the foreword from James Allen’s 1902 book, As a Man Thinketh:

“This little volume is not intended as an exhaustive treatise on the much-written subject of the power of thought. It is suggestive rather than explanatory. Its object being to stimulate men and women to the discovery and perception of the truth that – ‘they themselves are makers of themselves’ by virtue of the thoughts which they choose and encourage, that mind is the master weaver, both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance.”

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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