When Corey comes to see me he is consumed with hurt and rage. Two years ago his partner, Lyle, â€śwho was the love of my life,â€ť abruptly moved out of their home and disappeared while Corey was at work. In the following days Corey discovered that Lyle had been sexually involved with Lyleâ€™s â€śbest friendâ€ť for more than a year, and that the two had left the state together, financing their move with money that Lyle had stolen from Corey. In our first meeting, Corey tells me that he spends most of his waking hours so preoccupied with angry and vengeful thoughts that his life has come to a standstill. He wants to let go and move on, but feels completely stuck.
Together we try a number of methods to get him unstuck, and what finally does it is a process of self-examination developed some years ago by a woman named Byron Katie. Katie was not a mental health professional, but a self-employed businesswoman and mother of three, who, beginning in her early thirties, was â€ścompletely depressed, suicidal, stuck in total pain and self-loathing.â€ť During a two-year period she was so immobilized that she was often unable to get out of bed for days or weeks at a time. One morning, in a sudden moment of life-changing insight, she saw that her suffering came from her thoughts about her situation â€“ my life is horrible, I donâ€™t deserve happiness â€” not from the situation itself. She began to laugh as she realized a simple truth: when she believed her thoughts she suffered, and when she didnnâ€™t she was happy.
Out of this insight, she developed a process of self-inquiry which she now calls The Work. It involves asking four simple questions about each belief which causes us pain:
Is it true? 2 Can you absolutely know that itâ€™s true? 3. How do you react when you believe that thought? 4. Who would you be without the thought? After answering these questions, you come up with a â€śturnaround,â€ť a sentence expressing the opposite of what you believe. So, for instance, â€śHe doesnâ€™t understand me,â€ť can become â€śI donâ€™t understand him,â€ť or â€śI donâ€™t understand myself.
I see â€śThe Workâ€ť as a form of self-directed cognitive therapy. Itâ€™s helped many thousands of people get out of their mental ruts and improve the quality of their lives.
Together, Corey and I apply this process to his belief that: â€śIn order for me to be happy, I need Lyle to admit he hurt and betrayed me, and I need him to offer apologies and restitution.â€ť Here is an abbreviated summary of our discussion: Is this idea true? â€ťYes!â€ť Can you absolutely know that itâ€™s true? â€ťWell, no, I canâ€™t really know what would happen if he ever did actually come clean with me. Maybe Iâ€™d be happier and maybe I wouldnâ€™t feel any different than I do right now. Iâ€™m not much of an expert on how to be happy.â€ť How do you react when you believe that thought? â€śI feel heavy, bitter, weighed down. I feel vengeful. And I feel helpless because he has to do something in order for me to be happy, and he isnâ€™t doing it.â€ť Who would you be without the thought? â€śIâ€™d feel a lot lighter and happier, thatâ€™s for sure. Lyle would finally really be gone from my life. When I think about him all the time itâ€™s like heâ€™s still with me every day.â€ť Okay, now turn the thought around into its opposite. â€śThe first thing that occurs to me is that I donâ€™t need anything from Lyle in order to be happy. Itâ€™s believing that I do that is keeping me unhappy.â€ť As we talk further, another turnaround occurs to him. â€śI need to admit that Iâ€™m hurting myself every time I obsess about him, and instead of waiting for him to apologize maybe I need to apologize to myself for what Iâ€™m doing to me.â€ť
In the weeks that follow, Corey asks these four questions every time he finds himself ruminating about Lyle, and is gratified that his destructive preoccupation gradually melts away. Coreyâ€™s experience is not unusual. In my work Iâ€™ve found Byron Katieâ€™s process to be a simple, but highly effective tool for opening the mind and expanding perspective. Many of my clients have discovered that when they develop the habit of questioning their thoughts using the four questions and turnarounds, they no longer have to fight to control their minds or battle with painful thoughts. Instead, painful thoughts often just gradually dissolve on their own.
An important advantage of this process is that it is easy to learn. Most of the people I work with are able to use it effectively on their own after just a little guidance and coaching. One easy way to begin learning how to do it is to access Katieâ€™s website, www.thework.com. There youâ€™ll find a step-by-step description of how to do the work and a number of video clips in which she demonstrates it with students.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.