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The Three-Fold Mental Test for Anxious and Depressed Thoughts

Posted on June 5, 2017

If you’ve been in my counseling office for any length of time, you’ve heard me explain the “Three-Fold Test”. For those who haven’t heard it, let me give it to you and then spend the rest of this article explaining its significance.

With any bothersome thought pattern, a three-step test will guide you to determine whether you want to spend any more time considering that thought. This test goes like this. (Note: If the thought pattern fails at any point in the test, you immediately stop and move onto a different focus for your thoughts). These are ranked in order of most common to least common. This means, most people’s bothersome thoughts will fail the first test, the second most will fail the second test, and the third most will fail the third test. Hence, this is the order you consider them.

No more explanation; here is the test.

  1. Do I have any control over this thing I am spending time thinking about? If you don’t have any control over it, change your focus to something else.
  2. If I do have control over this thing I’m thinking about, am I responsible for this thing? If you don’t have any responsibility for it, change your focus to something else.
  3. If I do have control over this, and I am at least partially responsible, do I have time right now to do anything about it? If you don’t, then schedule a time to take care of it, and move on to another focus.

For those who are wondering, I did develop this test about 15 years ago, but the concepts are not original with me. I am sure I borrowed these concepts from many sources, but I can name two very quickly if you want to study more of the background. First, I gleaned the overall concept from Dr. William Glasser, the founder of the Choice Theory/Reality Therapy school. The concept of working this through like a series of filters I got from Dr. Ed Smith, the founder of the Transformation Prayer therapy method. Read any of their books and you’ll see how their models became the basis for this test.

To show the importance of using this test frequently, I must explain some of the underlying presuppositions to strengthen your resolve to use it. There are several of these and I will try to be brief in explaining them.

First, let’s address the overall concept of choice. For roughly 50 years, psychology got mired in the idea that we are simply the product of our biology and that this prevents us from getting rid of anxiety and depression. This Behaviorist model assumed that you were “wired” a particular way and nothing could change that. Even though we describe everything else we do in life as a verb—that is, we learn, we love, we hate, we eat, we watch a movie, we travel, we hit someone, we voice our opinions, etc.—we describe our most troublesome thoughts as a noun. We don’t say “I am depressing myself”, we say “I have depression.” We don’t say “I am anxieting” we say, “I have anxiety”. We find it easier to see our depression and anxiety as things outside of us over which we have little control.

Dr. Glasser proposed in 1968 for the first time that other than a few hormonal situations and traumatic brain injury, most people choose to depress themselves. They do this for the most part to deal with anger. He also noticed people choose to anxiety, for the most part to deal with fear. His assumption was that if we can choose something, we can choose something else.

But he also noted, most of us will not. Depressing and anxieting produce things we want in our lives, even if we don’t want the results that come from depressing and anxieting. We want to worry. Yes we do. We want to anticipate what is coming so we can be ready for it or be prepared in some way. To do this, we anxiety.

Therefore, the focus of anxiety or depression is often on things we cannot control. This comes into play in a moment.

Next, it is important to know what we actually do control in life. Get ready for this list. The only things we control can be boiled down to three things:

  1. We control what we will focus on next.
  2. We control what action we will take next
  3. We control whatever other people allow us to control.

You do not control the past. We cannot change it, so we do not control it. Any time spent looking at the past with a focus on regret, shame, bitterness, revenge, blame, or fear is useless. The only focus on the past which yields results is how it affects the present. If you look back to learn or to process past beliefs, you can find good results.

You do not control the future. That is an illusion. Your planning does not control the future, it simply places you where you think you need to be. But we forget how many thousands of times we planned and we were wrong. Any time spent on worrying or depressing about the future is wasted thought.

You cannot control other people unless they allow you to. And the problem with controlling other people is that you become responsible for them. This is the basis of all co-dependency, but that’s another article.

Most people who depress themselves or anxiety themselves are convinced they cannot really control their own thoughts. But Dr. Glasser and many others in the Brain Plasticity movement (i.e. Daniel Amen, Norman Doidge, etc.) have shown in countless studies this is not true. What is true is we have convinced ourselves we cannot control our thoughts because we don’t really want to. As badly as it feels to depress ourselves, it is our choice and we are doing it for a reason. We think we can control things which we actually can’t control. The same is true with anxiety.

This is where the three-fold test comes in. Here is a short commentary on each step so you can see why they are important questions.


  1. “Do I have control over this thing I am spending time thinking about?” If you are thinking about the past or the future, you are putting mental energy into something which you can never change. Even if you believe you can, you cannot. Come to grips with that and leave it behind. Stop telling yourself you have no control over these thoughts. They are actually one of the only things in life you do have control over. For instance, I spent years thinking about how people reacted to some of the things I teach. When I applied this test to that thought pattern I realized I could not control their reactions, nor their attitude toward me, nor their choices for how they would treat me. Therefore, focusing for a second on how they would think about my teaching was useless. What I did control is whether what I taught was accurate and helpful. When I started to focus my thoughts on those things, I started to live more healthy.
  2. “Am I at least partially responsible for what I am spending time thinking about?” In life, there are many actions we can take to work with others. At any given moment, there are millions of things any of us can be doing. But we know deep inside we don’t have the time or energy to do more than a few things each day. Therefore, if we want our lives to matter, then we will do those things which mean the most to us. The healthiest actions we can take are ones which acknowledge and follow commitments we have made. For instance, it is proper for a parent to help a child make their lunch in the morning before school starts. This is especially true if the child doesn’t know how to do it. But as the child gets older, the parent needs to withdraw their help slowly so the child will take responsibility. On the other hand, if you are married to a drug addict, you often feel that need to worry and act in such a way as to prevent them from using. The problem is, their addiction, though it affects you, is their problem not yours. If you spend too much time focused on what you will do for them in it, you are taking responsibility for things both outside of your sphere of responsibility and control.
  3. “Can I take care of this responsibility right now?” Much worrying is done because we want to solve situations which haven’t happened yet. We don’t like to be caught off-guard, so we worry a future situation out until we have solved every possible thing which can go wrong. But we haven’t really solved anything. Think of a basketball team. They can plan how they will play the other team, but all the decisions have to be made at real speed in the game. If you have responsibilities which are coming up but haven’t happened, only focus on the principles, not the actual working out of the responsibility. All other mental effort is wasted.


Most people don’t think the test will work because they have chosen anxieting and depressing as solutions to their unsolvable problems. But, as I tell all my clients, if you apply this test each and every time in place of anxieting and depressing, you will take control of your thoughts again, and you will accomplish what you are setting out in life to achieve.

Top Ten Advice I Ever Received


I am 57 years old. I wear that age as a badge of honor, for in those years I have overcome many adversities. Unfortunately, many of those problems were caused by my poor judgment, ignorance and ill-advised decisions. Regardless, what has helped me grow over the years is well-timed and sage advice.

Those who know me well are aware of how much I journal my daily reflections. I have to do this or I immediately forget the benefits of what people and God have said to me. Monthly and annually, I review my journals to glean the truths that have shaped my life.

Recently, I completed another journal and I took two days to go back through all of them to see if I could discern the best advice I have ever received. Though there were many, many good things, I actually had ten pieces of advice that stood out to me. As a friend said to me last night (after reading all ten of these on Facebook) he can see every one of them in my life.

That really encourages me to know that.

None of these piece of advice comes before I was 20. Why? Because for whatever reason, during those formative years I decided I knew what was best for my life. This was not good. We need the wisdom of others more than we know. If you’re listening, you can hear the truths of the Creator echoing off the brains of your loved ones and mentors.

Top Ten Advice I Ever Received

#10: (From Ed Smith, my mentor in TPM)

“If everyone over a certain period of time, seems to be treating you with the same negative reaction, remember that You are the common denominator. Healthy people will figure out what the connection is and make the necessary changes.”

#9: (From Bob Falconer, who showed me throughout life that growing up a child of an alcoholic doesn’t have to define who you are):

“No one chooses suffering. But we do choose misery. The person who learns this difference cannot and will not be defeated.”

#8: (from Dr. Bill Glasser, mentor, professor, genius and writer.)

“No matter what a person is saying to you, what emotion they are showing, what action they are taking, all it is really is, is INFORMATION. If you can discern what their words, actions and emotions are saying, you can detach from the defensiveness we enter from inferring more meaning than they are communicating.”

#7: (from Bob Willoughby, professor and one who gave me my first professional position working with him)

“You are allowed to be angry; as much as you like. You’re not allowed to hurt others with your anger. Be as angry as you want for as long as you like, but remember there is a shelf life to anger. As soon as it gets old, if you don’t deal with it properly, it can become rage, revenge or resentment. And if you won’t let yourself show anger or talk about it, anger always becomes depression. Depression is anger plus either fear, hopelessness or shame”

#6: (Also from Bill Glasser)

“Nothing anyone else does is your responsibility. Nothing you do is someone else’s responsibility. If you are taking responsibility for their actions or if you are blaming someone else for your actions, then you will never be completely healthy.”

#5: (Another gem from the incomparable Ed Smith):

“Every emotion you are feeling comes from something you believe. No one else forced that emotion upon you, no matter what they did. The most helpful action we can take on behalf of ourselves is to ask the question, “What does this emotion tell me about what I believe?”

#4: (The last of the Bill Glasser advice. To get the most out of Bill, read his classic “Choice Theory”. It will blow your mind and change your life).

“In every relationship, you have more choices than you are willing to admit. You can leave the relationship if you want to. You can stay in the relationship if you want to. It is not that we don’t have choices, but sometimes we don’t like the choices we have. No situation is ever hopeless…there is always a best choice we can make; even if we don’t like the best choice.”

#3: (Yep, Ed Smith again)

“Nothing anyone has ever done to you in the past is currently messing you up. It is what you believe about what they did to you that changes your life. If you can get rid of the idea that someone else is to blame for your problems, you will, at that moment stop being a victim. And when you can get rid of the false beliefs which began when they hurt you, that’s when you truly become free and mature.”

#2: (from the Sage John Bevere)

“As soon as you realize you are carrying resentment toward anyone, let it go. Resentment is an acid that eats away at the soul. Even if you are unwilling yet to forgive them, let go of the resentment and you will prevent a thousand other problems. And the earlier you let go of resentment, the easier it is.”

The final piece of advice is one I have lived by for many years. It was spoken by a woman who started two colleges in England, traveled the world as an itinerant preacher and teacher and accurately heard God’s voice. She epitomized grace and truth to me. That’s why I was so shocked when after we had lunch one day she answered a simple question I asked with this advice:

“God isn’t into rules like most people think God is. Just do the next thing the Spirit of God shows you and you’ll be fine.”

These are the best advice I have received so far in my life. I certainly hope there are more.

Five Ideas Which Can Poison you in 2015..and their Antidotes

Posted on January 1, 2015

poison_antidoteLeading up to Christmas, I noticed a seasonal increase in warnings about potential dangers around the house as the kids are now home all day from school. These are issued because the dangers are real: Children do not have the cautionary experience that most adults possess.

But we adults don’t often spot the most deadly poisons in our lives because they reside in our thought processes and not in a box under the sink. There’s an old adage that says “We overestimate what can change in a week and underestimate what can change in a year.” That Truth definitely applies to positive change. But poisonous thoughts can destroy us almost instantly.  Literature explains this ability we have to scuttle our lives through examples like Jean Valjean, who gave up 18 years of freedom because he thought it was his role to steal bread for his family, and Smeagol/Gollum who decided that killing his cousin to get a ring would be a good life decision.

So for all of our “precious” poisonous thoughts, let’s heed these warning signs.

1. Poisonous Thought #1:  “I am responsible for how my friends and relatives act.”

A few weeks ago, a counseling client called me in a panic because their life partner came home depressed. In the midst of this conversation, I heard these words, “I know if I just try to be more helpful, they won’t go back to drinking so much.”

Immediately I threw the brakes on that idea. This person is connecting their partner’s drinking with their own personal effort to be more helpful. This is a lost cause. Any time–I repeat, ANY TIME–you attribute someone else’s behavior to something you did, you have swallowed the Poison Pill. This is disrespect of the highest order, because it takes away another person’s right to make bad decisions for their own life.

The reality is much more healthy. No one does anything without choosing to do that. If your friends are unhealthy that has nothing to do with you. They are unhealthy because they make unhealthy choices. Your children are not messed up because you failed them, they are messed up because their thinking and behavior is childish and needs to grow up.

If one person could truly cause another person to make bad decisions, then every child in every abusive household would grow up the same. And, conversely, every child in every healthy household would grow up healthy. Neither of these scenarios is true. I know very healthy people who survived horrible upbringings. I also know of screwed-up individuals who had every advantage in life and all the love you could ever want. It’s all about the choices each of us make.

Antidote: If this is your particular “poison”, do a cleanse of the mind each night. Examine yourself and ask this question: “Am I taking responsibility for anything other people are doing?” The next question to ask is this one: “Have I loved the people in my life the way I ought to?”  This is the question that will keep you firmly focused on what you need to do and not what others are doing.

2. Poisonous Thought #2:  “There Is Something Wrong With Me.”

Let’s start with the reality. Of course, there’s something wrong with you. No matter what talents, skills, abilities, accomplishments you can claim, there will be glaring weaknesses in that resume. Howard Hughes was the world’s wealthiest man, an inventor, a daredevil, a mover and a shaker. And he struggled with Agoraphobia and OCD so badly it ruined the last years of his life. Tiger Woods was able to hit the golf ball better than most people, but we all know his raging libido buried him–perhaps permanently.

So why is this thought so toxic to people? It amounts to this: Even though all of us have things wrong with us, this is not a way to measure who we really are. The idea that there is something wrong with you is called Shame. Shame is debilitating because it makes several assumptions. First, it tells us we cannot or will not really change. Second, it attributes our failures to some undefinable thing we lack. Because of this, we conclude there are limitations we can never overcome. Third, because we live in shame, we feel that any time others hurt us, perhaps we deserved it.

Antidote:  Accept that you have weaknesses, and work on the ones causing you the most problems. If you believe in God, acknowledge that you need God’s help to work on those areas you fail at the most (this is step one in any 12-step program). Focus on your strengths. Finally, talk to God about the shame you have carried and see what God wants to say about it.

If you do not believe in God, find groups that will help you focus on those elements in your life you want to improve. Additionally, join groups that celebrate the areas in your life you are strongest. If you are a painter, a poet, a woodworker, a golfer etc., then spend time with those people who can appreciate these abilities.

3. Poisonous Thought #3:  “I Can Control the Future By Working it All Out in Advance.”

There is another word for this thought: Fear!

We often define fear by its effects on the surface. For instance, if we fear spiders, we assume that the problem is we just don’t like spiders. But that’s not Arachnophobia at all. I don’t like spiders and I’ve been bitten by Black Widows twice (I’m not that bright). But I don’t fear them. I know that spiders happen and that I probably will run across many of them in my travels. You can dislike spiders and not fear them. You can actively seek to avoid a spider and not fear it.

No, fear is a completely different thing when you dig below the surface. Brain analysis has shown a three-part process when fears begin to build:

  • Fear forms first in the Amygdala, which is the Emotional Memory center of the brain. When you have a threatening situation as a child, you release a chemical which stores that emotion and connects it to the details of that memory. For instance, if the threatening situation happens when it is dark, you may associate fear with darkness.
  • Fear “elongates” in the Hippocampus, an area of the brain where our autonomic nervous system and automatic responses are stored. When I say “elongates” I mean, this is where fear finds a permanent fixture. The Hippocampus may begin to tell the glands to produce sweat, the heart to beat faster so we can run, the throat to constrict, the blood pressure to build. All these symptoms can intensify and even bring on a panic attack. These phsiological responses then send the fear to…
  • The Frontal Cortex. It is here we make decisions. It is in this part of the brain we can actually decide not to act upon our fears. Or we can choose to protect ourselves. Choices are made with this part of the brain.

But here is the real source of the problem. Though this is the process we go through when we meet something we consider a threatening situation, this is the reverse of how we ever developed the process. At some point in our lives, we spotted a pattern with the Frontal Cortex. This pattern suggested to us that at the end of the process there will be pain, danger or an unwanted event. So we stored those feelings and memories together (in the Hippocampus) and in that storage process we decided that if we don’t want this to happen in the future, we will do whatever we can to avoid it (emotional reactions in the Amygdala).

This is what fear is. It’s a conscious decision at one point in our life to try and spot dangerous patterns and prevent them in advance. Well, when you put it that way, is fear so bad?

Let’s come back to our spider example. Let’s say you were bit by a spider in the backyard shed. From that point on, you associated spiders with: a) pain; b) a sense of being out of control; c) sheds; d) Any small rooms. There could be literally a hundred other possibilities. Now, as an adult, you have to clean up the yard. For some reason, you start to feel panicky every time you come near the shed. It seems irrational, but it is actually quite rational. You are reacting to a belief that you had where you felt unsafe and insecure as a small child about a particular building.

This is toxic because it gives us a false idea that we can ever control the future. The spider might be in your pantry; but it can also be on your pillow. (Mike, please, you’re not helping).  You cannot control the future. You never could, and this idea will poison your mind. Realize that these childish memories are not happening today, and do not need to be perpetuated.

Antidote:  If it is a simple fear, when you experience it, release the idea that you can control what is about to happen to you. Then make decisions based on what you feel you need to do for right now. If it is a much deeper-seated fear (like is often experienced with Post-Traumatic Stress) get some good memory-processing counseling with EMDR or TPM.

4. Poisonous Thought #4:  “I Will Not Be Loved.”

Dr. Robert McGee calls this thought “The Universal Destroyer”. It is the thought that can cut you off from the potential for love. It can destroy legitimate relationships over doubt and sadness.

Bill had been married in his early 20s. Even though he described his wife as “loyal, kind and funny”, he began to withdraw from her. In his heart, he firmly believed at some point she would come to realize how unlovable he really was. He pushed her away passively. He told her that she probably couldn’t love someone like him. Though she spent hours and hours reassuring him, he was never convinced. Finally, after enduring this for just so long, she left Bill and never came back. His personal belief that he was unlovable was now a fulfilled prophecy.

There are variations of this thought:

“I won’t be loved.”

“I can’t be loved.”

“I must earn love”.

Each of these variations has different origins, but they all poison our relationships. The reality is much healthier: Some people will love you, some will not. Some will appreciate you. Some will not. You however, can love whomever you want as much as you want. If someone will not love you in return, you are not required to be in a romantic relationship with them. But you can still love them.

The Bible tells us “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” The Bible talks about how love is a unilateral act by God, irrespective of how any of us feel about God.

In the book, “The Alchemist” there is a revealing statement about love:

“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”

This is simply saying that we do not need to be constantly questioning why people love us. If we feel love from them, then it is enough that we have that. We accept it from our dogs, why not from people?

Antidote:  There is a simple antidote to this. Accept that God created you and loved you and therefore, you are worthy of love. Or, if by choice you do not believe in God, accept that you are no less lovable than anyone else by virtue of being like all other beings. If you can give love you are capable of receiving love.

5. Poisonous Thought #5: “I Don’t Need Anyone.”

This is the unofficial motto of the old west cowboy. This independent mindset is drilled into us very young, hoping that we will gather from it that codependency is dangerous. But just as dangerous is the idea that you can do everything yourself.

I once had a person who worked with me whose favorite saying was “I just need to pull myself up by my bootstraps.” James Joyce is supposed to have coined this phrase in “Ulysses”. He meant it as a perverse joke (along with most of that book). He was implying that it is impossible for a man to pull up his own bootstraps, since his own weight weighs down upon him as he tries. He wrote this to describe how Leopold Bloom had wasted so many relationships not relying on the strengths of others.

When I was 8 years old, I had a horrible moment with this idea. My dad was an alcoholic. He was hung over every weekend. All of my soccer games were Saturday and Sunday mornings. He promised every weekend he would come and see me play. But he never did. Walking home after one discouraging game, I lamented that he had broken yet another promise to me. I was devastated. Then a thought occurred to me: “I don’t need him.” At the time, it felt liberating and life-giving.

Little did I know that it would suck life out of so many of my friendships. By the age of 36, I was depressed and failing. In a therapy session, we processed this memory. The counselor asked if this felt true (i.e. that I didn’t need anyone). It did feel true to me as an adult. As we processed the memory, I realized that most of my life I had cut off other people from me just as they got close. That day, I decided to let go of this poisonous belief and begin to include people into my life in a more intimate way.

Immediately it affected my marriage and the way I related to my children. My friendships began to soften and deepen. I have never been the same since.

The idea that we don’t need anyone is another self-fulfilling prophecy. We end up isolating and then wondering why no one ever gets close to us.

Antidote:  Take time to appreciate the people in your life right now. Tell them what they mean to you. Process older memories and look at how much people have done for you in the past. Perhaps write them notes and let them know how they have helped you. Develop gratitude for the people in your life. When you have to say goodbye to someone–whether it is your choice or not–decide that they still had an impact on you, even if they were not healthy for you. Never say goodbye completely without some sense of appreciation.

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