Emotional Freedom through Deliberate Thinking with Thomas Sterner

Reading Time: 20 Minutes

In this episode, Thomas Sterner offers a practical approach for or mastering our thoughts by rewriting our internal programming.

Takeaways We Learned from Thomas…

Performance takes time.

It requires repetition and practice to develop a skill. As a leader, understanding this can help you manage your expectations and support your team’s evolution process.

Mastery doesn’t happen overnight.

Consistency is key. To become a master of something, you need to be dedicated to consistently practicing it.

We are victims of automated thinking.

Our subconscious mind is always listening to everything that happens in our lives, watching how circumstances make us feel and correlating the relationship between the two.

The subconscious mind doesn’t think.

Or make conscious decisions; it simply records how we want to feel in a particular situation based on our past experiences.

Identify emotions.

Identifying the emotions and thoughts behind automated thinking requires being able to step back and observe yourself from a different perspective.

Break the cycle of automated thinking.

By noticing and observing your reactions, you can learn to respond intentionally rather than automatically.

Focus your mind.

Discipline is the ability to focus your mind on whatever you’re doing in the present moment. It’s a skill that can be acquired by anyone through understanding the mechanics of the skill and repetition of practicing it with the intention of accomplishing the task.

Fall in love with developing a skill.

Otherwise, you become at war with the process of achieving it, and the whole time, which is mostly where you spend your time, becomes a miserable experience.


Discipline is the ability to release yourself from the moment you have achieved the goal and to pull your mind into the moment-to-moment act of achieving it.


Focus is something that you make the brain do, but discipline is commanding the mind to focus.

Deliberate thinking.

Deliberate thinking means being the gatekeeper of your thoughts and making a conscious decision with your will about what thoughts to think and which ones not to accept.

About Thomas Sterner

Thomas Sterner is the author of The Practicing Mind, Fully Engaged, and most recently It’s Just a Thought: Emotional Freedom through Deliberate Thinking.

The CEO of the Practicing Mind Institute, Sterner is an in-demand speaker and coach working with high-performance industry groups and individuals, including athletes, to help them operate effectively in high-stress situations and experience new levels of mastery.

Prior to writing the bestselling The Practicing Mind, Sterner studied Eastern and Western philosophy and modern sports psychology and trained as a jazz pianist. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and Executive Business Coach Allison Dunn. Our topic today is emotional freedom through deliberate thinking. Our guest is Thomas Sterner. He is the author of the practicing mind, fully engaged, and most recently authored. It’s just a thought emotional freedom through deliberate thinking. He is the CEO of the practicing MIND Institute. He works with high performing high performance industry groups, and individuals, including athletes, to help them operate effectively in high stress situations and experience new levels of mastery. Thomas, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Thomas: Thank you, Alison. I love to kick these off with the corporate thinking conversation.

Allison: Okay. What would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners?

Thomas: Well, if you’re a leader, if you’re a leadership, meaning that you’re in charge of people, I’m looking at it that way. I think the I think it’s understanding that performance is performance takes time. In other words, I had a CEO one time that said, What are you going to tell my people today that’s going to make me more money tomorrow. And I said nothing. It takes time for people to, to evolve. And it also takes time for people to develop a skill, we always, you know, everything we do is a skill and skill takes repetition and practice. And so being the best employee being the best person takes time. And I think if we can look at people like that, it makes us more comfortable. And it makes them more comfortable in the evolution process.

Allison: I have a person on my team who just recently realized it takes 10,000 hours to become a master of something. And she’s like, how quickly can I do that. And I’m like, you can master something quickly, you can just be dedicated to do it consistently. And that’s the key, she’s like, will take me a year will take me two years. So it will take you years. In your book, you say that we are victims of automated thinking. Tell me more about that.

Thomas: Well, we are victims of automated thinking, what the way that our brain our conscious subconscious mind is set up is that the subconscious mind is listening to everything that happens in your life all day long. And it is watching how the circumstances outside of you make you feel. And that’s really important understand, it’s looking not so much at the words, it’s looking at how the circumstance makes you feel. And it correlates the relationship between the two. And then it makes a recording of when this happens, this is how you want to feel because it assumes that the feeling you have is the truth.

Meaning this is this is what you want. That’s and it’s you know, it doesn’t think it doesn’t know that the feeling it will give you in the future when that situation happens, makes you unhappy or makes you anxious or angry, it doesn’t know that it’s all it does is record there’s no conscious thinking or decision making or creative thinking that is going on the subconscious mind. So what ends up happening is as we go through the day, there are stimulus that are happening outside of us whether it’s something we hear something we see someone walks in the room, a circumstance that we have been in before or something that is similar to that. And the subconscious mind says, what do we do in this particular situation? And it goes and gets that file off the hard drive and it runs in that file is thoughts? And you are you experienced the emotional content of those thoughts, even if it’s not something that you particularly want?

Allison: Last week, I ran an emotional intelligence workshop. And so what you’re speaking of is definitely like a key to the techniques of the emotion and the thought behind it. What coaching guidance, or what guidance would you give to helping people identify the emotion? And maybe even the thinking that has been automated for us,

Thomas: What we’re talking about is a loop that happens and, you know, many people don’t think that they are in this loop.

You know, there’s two different perspectives. One is you are in the thought and the emotional content of the thought and the other is you’re watching it, you’re the notice or the observer.

And you know, I was having this discussion with a CEO one day and he didn’t buy into it and he just said I don’t agree with the modality I think that I am consciously making my choices all the time and to make a point and which was completely out of character for me. I said, Did I tell you this talk, I want you to sit there and shut up until I tell you to talk. And as soon as I did that, of course, he had the emotional reaction to it. And I said, you see, that wasn’t a decision on your part to react that way. You said you just it subconscious. Uh, whoa, when somebody talks to us, this is why this is how we’re supposed to feel. And this is how we’re supposed to react. And it was, it was an epiphany for him. I mean, he said, Thank you for the awakening. So, you know, getting back to what your question is, is that we have to be able to get outside of that loop.

And understand that there is a difference between thinking and being thought. And we are not our thoughts.

We think some thoughts because we have to make decisions, we decide where we’re going for dinner, you know, that sort of a thing. But most of the time during the day, this the neurosciences like 95% of the time, we’re basically just running programs.

So in order to get outside of that, you have to understand what an experience what it feels like to be the observer of your thoughts, you can’t be deliberate in your thinking, if you’re being thought. So I always work with people to get them to be aware of what their mind is doing without their permission. And that’s the key to the prison door. Because without that, you have no privilege of choice, you’re basically just always going to be manipulated by circumstances around you. So how do you do that?

Well, it’s very simple procedure is, you can call it meditation, you know, I don’t usually like to use that word, because it has so many connotations to it, not that they’re bad. But for what we’re trying to do, I don’t want, I don’t want to a scenario where you’re thinking that’s the reason why I don’t use guided meditations, I don’t want you to count when you’re doing this, like counting your breaths. But I usually have people sit in a chair upright with their eyes closed, I actually give people a recording of an ocean wave, just to help block out the external. And I tell them, I want you to just tell your mind to watch your body breathe. And it’s a very single one task. And we need that because we need a point of relativity. And then as you begin to try to do that, you will, you may last 15 seconds, if you’re lucky, the mind is a problem solving machine, it will say this is boring why you do that I’m going to go think about what we’re doing when we get home or where we’re going for dinner, or what report I have to do, and it takes off. And because you have followed it your whole life, you go with it, and you’re not even aware that you’ve gone with it. And then there’s a magical moment that many people misinterpret.

But the magical moment is when you wake up, and you realize that you are with your mind, and neither one of you is paying attention to your breath. And it’s in that moment that your consciousness shifts back to the observer of the thought, because you’ve noticed what your mind is doing, you’re no longer in the thinking you’re noticing what your mind is thinking.

And then you have to exert your willpower to bring the mind back on to the task. And that’s where the magic really happens. Because in that moment, you strengthen your anchoring in the observer, and you strengthen your willpower. And you really can’t describe how powerful that simple little thing is. And it doesn’t take very long, maybe not an hour week, two weeks. But of doing that for just 10 minutes, where you begin to experience you’ll have a situation will happen your subconscious will fire off a reaction to it. And you will notice that it’s you’re not the reaction, you will feel separate from the reaction. And that’s when you get to reprogram reactions, and you start to become a deliberate thinker.

I think that what people where they fall down is they interpret the fact that they can’t keep their mind on what they’re doing as that they’re bad at this process. And that’s not true at all. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been meditating. I’ve studied all different kinds of meditations. And I’ve worked for at this for four and a half decades. And I still have meditations where my mind is, it’s a day where my mind is agitated, or overactive. And it’s just running all the time. And there’s other times where it’s relatively placid and it’s not hard to do. But the object here is not to necessarily stop thinking. It’s to become aware of what is my mind doing that I don’t want it to do. And that gives you the experience of noticing and the realization i Hey, I’m not my thoughts, you know, and I want to be the gatekeeper of my thoughts. I want to make the decision, what thoughts I’m going to allow to evolve and for me to experience and which thoughts I’m not going to allow you

Allison: That’s a beautiful suggestion of a practice. So thank you very much for that. So outside of your body and have your think about what your body’s thinking, what your mind is doing, your mind will be working, you’re not your mind. I mean, you should be using your mind, you know, like your, your laptop, you know, you’re not the laptop, you use the laptop, to, to do all sorts of things, but you’re not in the laptop. And, you know, the mind, you should be not the puppet of the mind. But that’s actually where most people live their life. Okay, thank you for that, um, you have a definition for discipline, tell me what that is.

Thomas: Well, discipline is the ability to focus your mind on by your will, on whatever you’re doing in this moment, and when you know, most people have, I’ll call this present moment functioning.

You know, when you’re not in the present moment, it means that you are not using all of your cognitive abilities in the present moment. And you are not wholly in the particular moment.

And it’s, it’s a skill, again, it’s, it’s a skill, all of these things in life are our skill, and they need to be looked at like that, because any skill can be acquired by anyone. I mean, it just takes understanding the mechanics of the skill, and then repetition of practicing the skill with the intention of accomplishing the task. And when you do that, you can become relaxed in that learning process, and you will stop feeling resistance because you like is, my job is to be in the process of learning this.

And as long as you’re in the process of learning it, then you’re accomplishing the skill like, and people also need to understand that, you know, skill, start here, zero skill, that’s where you start, and then you’re on this line of mastery. And you get to interpret what this experience of mastery is, is the drudgery, like you’re just mentioning the 10,000 hours, you know, what I was, what I wanted to say then is you need to fall in love with the process of developing the skill. Otherwise, you put yourself when you become attached to the moment that you have mastered the skill, then you become at war with the process of achieving it. So the whole time, which is mostly where you spend your time is a miserable experience, when it really should be your joy. You know, when you want to be in the process, when you fall in love with that, and you give yourself permission to be in the process and accept that as this is where I should be right now in this moment, doing what I’m doing at the level of my skill that I’m at, then you’re happy and you’re not impatient, and things flow. So, so back to the discipline.

Discipline is the ability to release yourself from the moment you have achieved the goal and to pull your mind into the moment to moment act of achieving it. 

Allison: How would you say that? What is the difference between discipline and focus?

Thomas: Discipline is the ability to focus, you know, obviously, you know, that would be to me, focus is an is an act, but it’s there’s resistance and focusing, you know, like, I want to pay attention to this, but my mind doesn’t want to pay attention to well, the discipline.

Focus is something that you make the brain do, like the mind do, but discipline is you, you commanding the mind to focus.

Allison: Okay, thank you. I appreciate that. I just absolutely adore the term that you’ve come up with, with deliberate thinking. And I, I guess I would like for you to share, what does that mean? And what are some of the mental skills that are needed in order to be a deliberate thinker?

Thomas: Well, the first thing is what we talked about just a few minutes ago, with the thought awareness, you have, you can’t change what you’re thinking, if you’re being thought. So you have to notice, are you being thought, am I in that place where I’m being thought? And if you notice that then you’re not, you know, or, you know, am I in the observer place? You know, when you’re being thought you’re generally egotistically grounded, you know, and it’s a very weak position, because when you’re egotistically grounded, you’re easily manipulated. Somebody says something nice and you feel happy, somebody says something not nice and you feel not happy. And so you really aren’t you’re and you’re controlled by the environment and but when you’re in the observer, you’re impervious to what is going on outside of you because the egos the one that gets upset and worries and all that sort of stuff.

But you and you know, people ask me, what is the ego? Well, I mean, we’re talking about when we talk about conscious mind, subconscious mind ego, we’re talking about different aspects of one consciousness. And that’s it’s kind of divided up into these different segments. But, you know, to the skills that are necessary to be deliberate in thinking is me, what does the liver thinking mean? It means that, as I said, You’re the gatekeeper, you make a decision, a conscious decision with your Will you the real you, the one that lives in the gap between your thoughts, you know, and all that you are the one who decides, what am I going to think? And what thoughts am I going to not think I’m not going to accept them. And so, in order to do that, you have to be outside of that. And the very first thing is the thought awareness, you have to get outside of that, you also have to learn that, except the fact that this is a skill, it’s an it’s a faculty, and it’s something that you have the ability to do, but you have not been taught to do it from birth, Lee, and there are some, some cultures that they do teach that, you know, they are very, very focused on what is the mind doing, and you should be thinking of only what you’re doing right now, we can learn that, but we just weren’t brought up with it, most of us weren’t, were brought up with it.

So you have to accept that. And you have to not judge yourself in as in the process as you go through learning it, you know, repeating the mechanics, and you know, all of those sort of things, because that’s what happens with people is they become, as I said, a minute ago, they become very attached to the goal. And they think learning to be deliberate, I would say is similar to in some ways, just like learning music, you know, I’ve played several instruments. On the very first day of music, you are, you’re at your threshold, you don’t know where the notes are on the instrument, you don’t know where they are, what they are on the page time values, all that stuff. That’s your threshold, that’s where you’re at. And so the teacher shows you these things, and you begin to practice them. And how do you feel inside, the feeling is that this is the struggle, you know, I can’t do this. And then if he jumped ahead two years, and now you’re playing a simple Mozart piece, you know, well, where’s your threshold? It’s right there, you’re right up against the threshold.

So how do you feel inside, this is difficult, you know, now, what you the first day, that’s difficult anymore, you know, that’s way back there. But we tend to not look at the weight behind the boat, we always, you know, we’re always in when we’re developing a skill. And I think it’s an important concept to understand, you’re always up against your threshold, which is exactly where you want to be. So the feeling, the feeling doesn’t know that it upsets you. It’s just data, all it is, is telling you, you’re up against your threshold, your this is as good as you are right now, you know, and you’re pushing forward, it doesn’t know that it’s upsetting you, or making you feel impatient. It’s just information feedback. So I think it’s really important when you’re learning to be deliberate in your thinking, it takes some time, because it’s, you’re basically creating a new blueprint on how you function in your day. And, you know, we are so pushed for instant gratification, everything has moved so quickly. If you want to know anything, you’re going to Google and you just type it in there it is like, you know, you don’t have to wait for anything.

And so we’re not real good when we, when we step on a task, which has a time built in it. And the reason is because we fight the process, you know, so like, to me, you really have to give yourself permission to be in love with the process of developing this skill of being deliberate, deliberate, thinking is freedom, it’s total freedom, because it means that you will decide what you will think and what what thoughts you will allow to run through your system. Because as the thought is created, the emotion is created. And of course, your blood chemistry changes all that happens. But for most people, they just kind of sit there and happens to them. And one of the things that I say to clients is, if you’re in a situation where you’re upset, if I said to you, if you could stop this thought right now, once you do that, and the answer is always yes. That I said, That’s right, because the thought is happening to you. It isn’t you are outside of the thought. So, when you learn to really feel and record and have that realization, I am not my thoughts and I have the choice of whether I experienced this I can be deliberate about what my response is going to be. It’s a it’s a very freeing experience.

Allison: Thank you for walking through those steps. I think it’s a cheat, obviously human, a very human challenge, right? In, in your, in your book, you talk about interpretation creates experiences, what does that mean?

Thomas: That should be everybody’s mantra your interpretation of anything that is happening is going to determine what your experience of that is, and then that is going to impact how you perform in the situation. So, you know, I had a client one time who had been traumatized as a child. Not physically, but emotionally. And she was concerned that she was she had not was and had repeated some of that with her own children. And we were talking about that. And she said, You know, I’m feeling really, I’m feeling very guilty. And so I said, well, let’s just talk about the word guilt. I said, because I have a different interpretation than you do. And I said, your interpretation of the word guilt is, I’m bad. I said, my interpretation of that same feeling, I said, forget the connotation that the word guilt has, I said, is, look how far you’ve come. I said, that’s my interpretation of that word. I said, you know, what you’re seeing is what you did wrong, and what you would never do, again, I said, there are people that traumatize their children, and don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.

And you know, decades later, they’re still fine with it. I said, what your that it’s information I said, again, look at it is just data. Again, it’s information and the information, the universe is handing you this. And it’s saying, hey, look how far you’ve come. And I said, so it should make you feel happy, because but you’re interpreting the information differently than I did. And what was fascinating was, it was an epiphany for her, I mean, just completely turned around. She was like, wow, I never even thought of it like that, you know, that might. So what, as soon as he interpreted differently, her experience of it was different and different. And then she was able to her performance as a parent. In that situation, she let go of this. I’m a terrible parent. Like she was feeling good about herself, in terms of how far she had come from what she had come from. That make sense.

Allison: Absolutely, yeah. And a beautiful story to like, have like the just that understanding of it’s how you perceive it, right? And give it give it the meaning that it is, and you can look at I mean, all things.

Thomas: You know, I had a client who was injured recently, and it was a difficult situation for her because her husband was out of the country. She has a six year old, and she had injured her leg seriously. And she was in need surgery. And she couldn’t drive all the overwhelmed, you know, with these inconveniences and worries. And so we were talking about that. And I said, Well, I said if I asked you said the reason you’re feeling the way you are I said there are legitimate reasons. I said, because there are things you have to figure out. I said, but if I said to you, if I could touch you on the head with a wand, and you could be amazing at this, I said, Would you want that ability? And she said, Oh, absolutely. I said, so how do you get that ability? And she said, I don’t know what you mean?

I said, Well, you have to be in it. So you know, because this, I said, you can look at this situation as a terrible sentence. I said, but you can also look at it as a blessing in the, in the form of an opportunity for you to try different ways of interpreting it. And I said, like, and if you can do that, in this situation, I mean, that’s freedom. So like, you know, if you can take this situation and look at it and look at all that it’s presenting you with is that you, you can see what you can gain. And if you want to be I think I think most people would just want to be able to be in that situation and say like, this is not going to faze me, like, you know, like I have this stuff to do I have to do it. I mean, this is where I’m at, you know, so I have to do it. So I can either go through this six months, miserable and constantly reinforcing the negative energy and compromising our immune system and all this stuff. Or I can look at this, like, you know, you know, this is pretty cool because, you know, now I get to you know, I get to work on this aspect of myself that I don’t feel is as strong as it should be.

Allison: Another great example and it may even lead into my final question, which is what does it mean when we find ourselves in a situation that creates have a sense of struggle?

Thomas: Well, I guess we’re back to, when we’re in a situation that creates a sense of struggle. But what, again, we have, you know, we use the system of linguistics. And my problem with that is all words are, are our effort to take something we’re experiencing, and squish it into a word that the communicates that and the reason is, it really isn’t very good at it is, we know, one time I had a client say, I want to know what it goes, what it feels like to go through the day in your head, I want to know what that feels like. And I said, I’ll tell you that as soon as you describe the color blue. And, you know, he immediately was like, he had it was a second before he got my point. And you know, that we have these? You know, we can say, you know, I’m in love. What does that mean? Like you’re like, I mean, that’s just it’s a word, you know, anybody that’s been in love has an idea of it. But you can’t, you can’t translate that to someone who’s never fallen in love, or, you know, describe a sunset, you know, to someone who’s never seen a sunset on the ocean, you can’t do it, like so words are very in a very inadequate way of trying to communicate experiences.

So to me, you know, when we say the word struggle, most everybody has this idea of something I don’t want as something that’s unpleasant. But again, when you find yourself in that position, to me, all it is, is information. It’s just reminding you of where you’re at. And we really, it’s a feedback loop. And we need that, like we want to be to grow as human spirits. We want to know that we’re not practicing stuff we’re already good at. Well, you know, the stuff that you’re good at, usually don’t notice it, because you’re good at it. It just flows effortlessly. We only pick up on and use the word struggle when we’re up when something is difficult for us, which is another word. What does that mean? What is different is when we say difficult, oh, that’s bad, I don’t want that. No, or anything that you’re learning is difficult, because you haven’t mastered it yet. Like it’s perfectly normal for something to feel difficult.

But the feeling doesn’t know. It doesn’t know the word difficult. It’s just a feeling it’s information that’s coming in or that feeling doesn’t know that your interpret your language is making you feel bad. Like, it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know that you’re interpreting this feeling it’s giving you information to tell you, this is where you’re at this is right where you’re supposed to be at. Right? Like, it doesn’t know that you’re not interpreting it that way. It’s just giving you information. So to me, that’s what’s when you when I feel something, is a sense of trust, what I’ll call struggle, I’m glad. I’m glad because I know that this is where I want to be like, if I was good at this, I wouldn’t be feeling this is bad. I would I wouldn’t notice it, it would just go by. So when I’m in a circumstance, whatever it is, whether it’s a person, or situation, whatever it is. And I have that feeling. I just my interpretation of it is oh, heads up, you know, this, this is where I am, this is where I want to be like, I’m i and because of that I don’t my experience is not. This is horrible. I wish I wasn’t here, when is this going to be I don’t have that dialogue.

Allison: Thomas, I really appreciate the simplicity, but also the complexity of what you’ve shared this afternoon.

Thomas: Thank you, thank you, it was a pleasure.

Allison: What are the best ways or way for anyone who is listening to connect with you? Or learn more information?

Thomas: Well, they can go to my website, which is Tom sterner.com. They can always email me, which is Tom at Tom structures.com. You know, I do give people a free half hour, you know, like if they just want to talk about what they’re dealing with. And we can I usually give them some solutions to that and tell them how I work if you know if I if they if they’re interested in me working but it’s really there. It’s it’s no sell. You know, I enjoy people I enjoy helping people. And I I’m always interested in the challenge of trying to solve somebody’s give them to give them the tools to deal with a situation where they’re struggling and then after that, like I said, I give I just let them know how I work the coaching thing. I send them a link. If I hear from them wonderful. If I don’t that’s okay too.

Allison: Okay, fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today.

Thomas: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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