Question Your Thoughts to Improve Your Quality of Life
Introduction to Byron Katie
Way back in 1986, Byron Katie was overweight, depressed, filled with rage, and so fearful she slept with a gun under her pillow. Her kids avoided her, and when she checked into a house for women with eating disorders the other residents there avoided her too. She felt so worthless she slept on the floor rather than in the bed.
Nowadays thousands of people flock to see Katie every year and many thousands more download the free worksheets from her website, worksheets that contain the same questions Katie asks workshop participants.
So what happened to create this change? Some call it “spontaneous awakening” or “instant enlightenment.” What Katie usually says is, “I’m just someone who knows the difference between what hurts and what doesn’t.”
What hurt was believing her thoughts, and not believing them meant her suffering disappeared. Very shortly after Katie realized this, people began to come to her for help. Her help, then as now, involved asking the questions that gradually evolved into the process known as The Work of Byron Katie. Taking time to deeply contemplate and answer these questions brings relief from issues and leads to inner quiet.
Loving What Is
I came across The Work several years ago, when I saw Katie’s first book, Loving What Is, in a bookstore. I had read and heard many times that the key to happiness was exactly that: loving whatever was in your life in any given moment. I tried to be kind and forgiving, and I tried to make myself think positive thoughts, but trying to be positive felt like such hard work.
A process called The Work might not seem the obvious choice for someone wanting to do less work, but for me the benefits were instant, and strong enough to want to keep going. They have also been lasting and incremental.
We’re all pretty good at judging others: it’s easier to see what we don’t like in others than it is to see it in ourselves. But what you dislike in someone else is what you reject or disapprove of in yourself. Most of us know this already, but we don’t know what to do about it. We feel guilty and try to stop ourselves, effectively censoring our own thoughts. But saying we shouldn’t have these thoughts doesn’t stop them.
In The Work, instead of trying to stop yourself having nasty thoughts or to make yourself be kind, you start by allowing exactly what you think and feel.
Katie explains how to fill out the Judge Your Neighbor worksheet
Write it down
However this is not an invitation to rant at the person with whom you are upset, but to write it down. Instead of using our judgments to punish others or ourselves, Katie suggests that we use those stressful thoughts to facilitate our growth and compassion.
Some people don’t like the idea of seeing their worst thoughts on paper, but thoughts have far less power there than they do rattling around in your mind. Once you have done the process you can rip the paper up, but it’s not so easy to rip up your mind!
Katie’s worksheets are known as the Judge Your Neighbor Worksheets. These are an invitation for you to write about who you feel angry or upset with and why, and then to inquire into those judgments. As the name implies, you judge your neighbor. (Or your husband, wife, mother, father, child or long-dead great aunt.)
Sometimes just filling out the worksheet brings a huge sense of relief as you see that what you were so wound up about a minute ago isn’t true. Other times you may still feel certain it is true. Either way, going through the process of asking The Work’s four questions will bring benefits.
The four questions of "The Work"
Question One: “Is it true?”
Frequently, this question brings the mind to a standstill. Busy thoughts fade away and the stressful feelings ease as you realize it isn’t true.
Sometimes however the answer will be yes, in which case you go on to:
Question Two: “Can you absolutely know it’s true?”
Asking this second question will very often lead you to see that no, you can’t absolutely know that a belief is true. (It’s not necessary to force yourself to try to stop believing a thought. Even if the answer is yes, you can go on to the next question.)
Question Three: "How do you react when you think this thought?"
When answering this question, the more honest you can be the greater reward you will see. Notice how it feels inside to believe the thought. Notice what you think it means about you and the other person, notice how you treat them and yourself.
Question Four: "Who would you be without the thought?"
This is an invitation to look deeply inside in a meditative way and see what life would be like without the thought. It often brings up both general responses such as: Calmer, peaceful and more specific responses such as, “I’d like them more without that thought.”
Inquiry: He shouldn’t shout at the kids
An Example of an Inquiry using The Work
To make the process clearer I will give as an example a woman who is tired after looking after two young children all day. She hears her husband shout at their two young children within minutes of arriving home from work. (This is not a direct example from my own life, but an amalgamation of thoughts and reactions that either I have had or others have expressed, and as you read it you will get most from this if you find a similar example from your own life.)
The woman thinks, He shouldn’t shout at the kids.
Is it true?
Yes, she thinks.
Can you absolutely know it’s true?” (Here you can add, “Can I absolutely know that it would be best for me and for them if he didn’t?”)
Now, she realizes that she can’t be absolutely 100% sure it’s true.
It can feel painful to notice that when we believe someone shouldn’t do something we are doing the same thing, but The Work is not about punishing yourself for your reactions. Its purpose is to assist us in gaining self-awareness by observing how believing a thought affects us.
As you go through the process, as best you can, be kind to yourself as you notice your reactions.
How do you react when you think this thought?
She notices that when she believes this she feels angry and has “shouting” thoughts about him in her mind, and that a few minutes later she is either arguing with him or with the kids.
Very often, even after we see our reactions, our minds try to justify our beliefs. For this I find a supplementary question very helpful:
What are you afraid would happen if you drop the thought?
Notice all the scary scenarios your mind throws up. In this example the mother might notice fear that if she drops the thought she is condoning his shouting and that this makes her a bad mother.
Who would you be without the thought?
What would it be like for that mother to hear her husband shout and not think he shouldn’t do it? She might remember that his father is ill and he is worried, and that his boss just presented him with several new responsibilities. She would suggest he take time for a rest before he sees the kids, and she might ask if he had a hard day at work.
And she may notice that without the thought she feels more loving towards her husband and her kids.
She then does:
Turnaround One is to the opposite.
Staying with our example the mother writes:
He should shout at the kids.
She then finds at least three reasons why this is true that feel genuine to her. Here’s what she could write:
1) Because that is reality (at least as I see it, perhaps he doesn’t think he has shouted.)
2) Because when he rang earlier, I told him the kids were acting up. Perhaps he thinks he is supporting me. Perhaps he thinks I told him because I wanted him to reprimand them.
3) Because doing this inquiry has helped me to see how I contributed to the situation. So now I can talk about this with him and find ways to support each other that feel good.
Turnaround Two is to yourself:
I shouldn’t shout at the kids.
Pitfalls to be aware of when using "The Work."
If you find yourself feeling worse after doing an inquiry instead of better it is most likely because you have used the turnarounds to beat yourself. That is not their purpose; the purpose of the turnarounds is to help you know yourself better and to create balance.
Do not be tempted to go straight to the turnarounds without answering the questions first. This is almost guaranteed to keep you feeling unhappy. On Katie’s website she writes that the questions probe deep into the mind, beyond the intellect. Turning the thought around without first going through the process keeps it intellectual.
For more on how to use The Work effectively and how to avoid the pitfalls, I recommend Carol Skolnick’s blog Soul Surgery. (See the links section.) Carol is a certified facilitator of The Work, and writes extremely well about the process.
1) Because it upsets me when I do.
2) Because I enjoy when people talk calmly to others so I’d like to be an example of that.
3) Because it’s not effective. They react to my shouting, not to my words and so they don’t learn what I’d like them to.
4) Because I enjoy closeness with my kids and when I shout we lose that.
5) Because I lose contact with the intuitive part of me that knows what to do. I feel lost when I shout at my kids.
I shouldn’t shout at me.
1) When I shout at myself in my mind, I feel unhappy.
2) When I do this, and think I should get things right, then I feel bad and tell my husband what the kids have done.
3) Because when I’m busy scolding myself there’s not space in my mind for creative solutions.
Notice that in the turnarounds the mother does not find reasons to judge or defend herself. Instead she looks at the consequences of each.
See the work in action
The Work of Byron Katie is available on Amazon
Bryon Katie’s Website:
The Work of Byron Katie, where you can find:
Katie's Blog: BryonKatie.com
Carol’ Skolnick’s blog is Soul Surgery
You can read more about how using The Work has affected my experience a parent at my blog inquiring parent
An article on The Work by Ricardo Hidalgo, LMHC, and Anil Coumar, MBBS, MA:
Walk a mile in another’s shoes.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Walk a mile in another’s shoes.” The Work is a way to make that possible. It helps us see that underneath we are all the same.
Katie has worked with long-term prisoners, and has facilitated meetings of Israeli and Arab people and of Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus.
The process of The Work is now used by many therapist and psychologists, and has similarities to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but there are significant differences, one being that you do not try to replace the stressful thought with a more positive one. Instead as you go through the process the stressful thoughts dissolve. Although you do turnaround the original thought, it is not with the aim of believing another stressful thought – but with the aim of uncovering and releasing any thought that might keep you from loving what is.
This is hard to grasp with the rational mind, because we tend to think that if we don’t believe thoughts such as, “The world is an unfair place,” or, “My child shouldn’t be so ill,” or “People should be kinder to each other,” that we won’t be motivated to act for change.
My experience has been that when I hold on to stressful thoughts I rarely see the change I want, and when I question or release these thoughts I am able to see new ways of responding that I didn’t before.
The Work should never be forced on anyone, and if you are under the care of a mental health professional, please consult your practitioner before attempting it.
Who Can do The Work?
Anyone can do The Work, from a child aged 5 and up. Some people will take to it more readily than others. If you already keep a journal of thoughts and feelings you will probably find it suits you. If on other hand you’re not so keen on writing in this way, there are other effective processes which can improve emotional well-being , and I will be covering some of those in future articles in this series.
For more on improving emotional well-being and quality of life, check out my articles on:
To read how journalling can help a child as young as seven see this article by RealHousewife: Diary of a 7 Year Old - Effective Anger Management Strategies for Children