Illustration of hand catching thoughts

How I Learned to Take My Thoughts Captive

Written by Mackenzie King, Australia

“You’re so careless!”

“Why are you so . . . stupid. How many times do I have to repeat myself?”

“You’ll never amount to anything . . . ”

These are just a small sample of the verbal knockdowns I grew up with, handed to me by adults in a misguided attempt to correct my careless and “stupid” ways. I absorbed all these lines as if they were truths.

In time, the effect of these toxic words spilled into other areas of my life. I would overcommit to workloads because I wanted to show my bosses that I amounted to something. When it came to romantic relationships, even when I didn’t really like the other person enough or had reservations about their personalities, I still went out with them because I thought I was fortunate to even have someone interested in me.

Without realising it, I had developed a set of guidelines to live by, such as “I must cheerfully accept every given task to show everyone I’m a performer”, or “I’ll be the most helpful colleague to everyone, so they’ll love me”. I thought this was the only way I could protect my self-esteem, but I ended up hinging my self-worth on my performance.

For a long time, I tried fixing my toxic thought patterns by reading Christian articles, and even ventured into self-help Christianity. I once came across a self-help preacher who said that we should get into the habit of speaking positive words over our lives to gain a healthy self-image.

So I tried earnestly to speak positive words and think only positive thoughts. I kept lines like “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to “God has created me to do good works” in my arsenal of pep-talk, which fed right into my guidelines for living.

I would even repeat Bible verses in my head, such as “taking captive every thought to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), focusing on things that were “noble, right, pure, lovely” (Philippians 4:8), and “casting all my anxiety on God” (1 Peter 5:7). But all these did very little to dispel the anxious or negative thoughts I had.

The problem was, no one was showing me exactly how to hold my thoughts captive—that is, what did that look like, practically?

It wasn’t until I found myself emptying the contents of my stomach into the kitchen sink that I realised I had to seek help. So, I went to see a psychologist, who then introduced me to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), a treatment approach that would help me identify unhelpful thought patterns while equipping me with the practical know-how of addressing them.

Being told that there was a way to work through the tangled, negative thoughts in my brain was both a revelation and a relief. It was a revelation because I didn’t know there was a solution to it, and a relief that I didn’t need to be held captive by my thoughts.

 

Identifying unhelpful thought patterns

After sorting out my toxic thoughts, my psychologist gave me a sheet listing the unhelpful thinking patterns I had. These include jumping to conclusions (making assumptions about what someone else is thinking or what might happen in the future), should-ing and must-ing (saying “I should . . .” or “I must . . .” in an attempt to shore up my capability), and catastrophising (blowing a small problem out of proportion).

For example, whenever I messed up at work, I’d suddenly be flooded with thoughts of “I should have done this better” or “I should have seen this mistake”. This would often quickly lead to me catastrophising—that because of the mistake, I would either face a disciplinary action or be fired, and from there on, no one would employ me (therefore, I must not make any mistakes).

Being able to identify these unhelpful thoughts have been incredibly helpful for me in pinning down my toxic thoughts, and from there, to judge—challenge—them.

 

Judging my thoughts

Challenging these thoughts meant I had to break them down to see if there’s any truth in them. It isn’t easy breaking down the layers of toxic thoughts because they often come in one big bundle that I need to pull apart and find supporting evidence to see if the claim is true.

So back to my messing-up-at-work scenario—having told myself “I should have seen that mistake”, the question now is, would it have been possible for me to have seen that mistake? No, because the past-me wouldn’t have been able to see the mistake future-me would make. So, there’s no point beating myself up over it.

As for the catastrophising about being fired, I now have to ask myself, what proof did I have that the mistake would lead into dismissal? And the truth is, the mistake is not a sackable offense, but a garden variety mistake, such as forgetting to update so-and-so about a new strategy or plan, or even more mundane, like missing a full-stop at the end of a sentence while crafting promotional materials.

These exercises helped me recognise my thoughts for what they were—a bunch of extreme, suffocating thoughts that didn’t have any real basis. It was like turning on the light switch and seeing roaches scuttle for cover.

 

Inviting God to walk with me

Learning to judge my thoughts is a process, and there are good and bad days. Still, I’m thankful to have learned the practical steps of focusing on “whatever is true” (Philippians 4:8)—actively catching my thoughts and seeking evidence and truth to counter each negative and untruthful thought.

Whenever I do these exercises, I like to invite God to be a part of the judging panel too. I picture myself dragging an unwanted culprit (thought) to the throne of God, and these thoughts diminish in the light and glory of Christ.

Strangely, John 8:1-11 comes to mind, where a woman accused of committing adultery was about to be stoned to death, and Jesus stepped in to confront her accusers. As they quietly slipped away, He asked her, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”, and she said, “No, Lord.”

And the final bit always struck me: “Jesus said, ‘Neither do I. Go and sin no more.’” In the same way, I feel like Jesus is saying to me, “These thoughts that condemn you, they are no more. Now go.”

Challenging my thoughts has been a way for me to work out Scripture’s exhortations of not conforming to the pattern of this world but renewing my mind (Romans 12:2). Instead of dwelling on the words that have hurt me, I remind myself that I’m a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and was bought at a very costly price. I may be “stupid” and “careless” in the eyes of men, but Jesus sees otherwise.

Now, it’s easy to think, “Hey, we have the Bible and God’s truths in it, so let’s just rehearse these verses instead of seeking professional help.” But while the Bible is our source of truth and life, it isn’t meant to be used as a method to address our ugly thoughts or other mental health issues we may be struggling with. After all, our great God who created our minds also made specialists to help us heal.

On the other hand, while my psychologist has really saved my thought life, I also can’t just rely on her or the tips alone. After all, I’m only a broken human, and unable to fix myself. But where her help ends, Jesus steps in—in Him, I have the hope of a new identity, the hope of a Saviour who lives in me, and finally, the hope of a new body and mind in heaven.

On days when, after I’ve judged my thoughts, there’s still some niggly ones left, I imagine going on a stroll with Jesus and telling Him about all my woes. I imagine partnering with Jesus as He cuts through and pulls out the clogged weeds of toxic thoughts suffocating my mind. He neither judges nor condemns me for my weaknesses, but only sees me as precious and in need of saving.

He’s the loving shepherd who rescues me from the ditches and thorny shrubs, and gathers me into His arms, holding me close to His heart (Isaiah 40:11). With Him and His protective rod and staff in hand, I trot in safety and am never alone.

 

*While this method has worked for me, it’s not meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution to your needs. If you are experiencing mental health issues, please reach out for help with a professional psychologist or counsellor, who might be able to better tailor a mental health plan to meet your needs.

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