The self help section of any library or bookstore is filled with reading materials. A person could do many lifetimes just skim reading a small portion of it. See my list of suggested books in the left side menu.
What I'm offerring here is a variation. Over the course of my career, I've written a number of articles and papers to give my clients some additional support after the session is over. Usually clients find this helpful. So I present to you some reading. What you'll find here isn't written to replace or substitute for therapy. It's to enhance your personal power, and to entertain perhaps. In many instances, it will take you less than three minutes to read a particular piece; but I hope it will help you for much longer. And I hope too, that you enjoy the reading. (P.S. Each one has a download option so you can share it with others.)
In the bad ol days when humans were occasionally threatened with death from roving sharp toothed carnivores, our physiology developed fight and flight response mechanisms to help us survive. As each acute threat subsided, our physiology could relax and recover. These days, many of us perceive life as a continual low level threat. As such, our physiology is in a chronic state of fight and flight. There is no down time. This is stress. You can learn how to de-stress. Before bed for example, you can undress and de-stress.
We know from archeological remains that our version of human beings have been around for between one and three hundred thousand years. Being hunted by animals further up the food chain such as lions, tigers and bears was cause for concern. Over time, humans developed physiological coping mechanisms, called the flight and fight response which enabled them to run like the wind and fight like fury. Once the acute stress of battle with a beast subsided, those ancestors who successfully escaped the drooling jaws, enjoyed a period of physiological relaxation and recovery while the fight and flight response systems cooled down.
Today, most of us aren’t looking over our shoulders for stalking furry carnivores. But many of us perceive ourselves living in threatening situations and being stalked by other carnivores: high speed commutes, noise, crime, isolation, hunger, epidemics (and now we have pandemics too), terrorism, environmental threats such as runaway oil wells, antisocial personality bosses and employers, relationship problems, loneliness, parenting and financial worries. So, we live in a constant chronic state of physiological stress.
Our physiology has evolved for fight and flight arousal, followed by relaxation and recovery. We don’t do well with continual stress - it has a significant health cost; but there are ways to reduce this chronic stress.
When I Googled the word stress, I had 318 million results. When I searched Amazon.com for books on stress I had 19,783 results. When I searched Chapters.ca for books on stress I had 3,137 results. Even with some overlap, that’s a lot of information on stress.
Two Powerful Tactical Approaches to Stress Reduction.
- Watch yourself for self-generated home-made boogie-man stories, and put the zap on them before they get fully powered-up. Most of us run mental fantasies of “bad” events as a kind of ‘prepare for the worst' daydream. If you think such a thing is helpful as in disaster preparedness, be sure to actually problem solve it to completion and not let it run as a loop! If you don’t really problem solve the fantasy, you’re engaged in a horror-story type of self-entertainment; but with the accompanying adverse physiological responses.
- Learn a breathing or mindfulness meditation. I usually teach this to clients. The meditation is a practice of watching your thoughts and not allowing them to have dominion over you.
“There are no drugs that will make you immune to stress or that will by themselves magically solve your life’s problems. It will take conscious effort on your part to move in a direction of healing and inner peace.” - John Kabat-Zinn Ph.D. founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic, University of Mass. Medical Center, from best seller Full Catastrophe Living
“Of course, we realize there are individuals who remain cool, calm, and collected through all adversity, and they may indeed have their stress response under control. Others may have lifestyles free from the rigors of modern-day life, a perfect family or personal relationships, and a happy work environment. We suspect, however, that these individuals are the exception rather than the rule. Most people who believe they are not stressed have not taken a close look at their life and their health, and are not listening to their body. They attribute their fatigue, recurrent colds, anxiety attacks, and skin rashes to other factors, ignoring the hectic pace at which they live. Recognizing the 'red flags' of chronic stress and learning how illness and stress are related is vital for everyone.” - Penny Kendall-Reed N.D. and Stephen Reed M.D. from The Complete Doctors Stress Solution
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Anecdotal psychotherapeutic evidence has long suggested a relationship between stress and clinical depression. The 1970s saw experimental evidence of the relationship and the term learned helplessness was defined. Although commonly known in some health professions, the general public is mostly unaware of the effect of stress on mental health, especially depression. Chronic and/or intense stress = higher risk of depression.
Stressed Rats: Genetically identical lab rats are paired for this experiment. Both rats are exposed to an electrified floor that’s divided in half, such that a shock can be randomly administered to one side or the other. Lights above each floor section can be used to warn the rat when a shock will follow; except, for one rat the light is on a separate circuit and is itself, random. The rat that experiences the predictor light and subsequent shock, quickly learns how to move to the non electrified half of the floor to avoid a shock. The rat that experiences shocking unpredictability is, without therapy, permanently changed! Researchers label the change as Learned Helplessness.
Learned Helplessness: The lab rat with this disorder has a plethora of symptoms: won’t compete for food, won’t socialize, lethargy, sleep disorders, cognitive dysfunction, lack of motivation, loss of interest in food and sex and even grooming itself. The rat usually will not even attempt a coping response to a new task. Furthermore, some rats commence self mutilation! These experimental subjects seem to be suffering from a lab rat version of clinical depression. They have the typical elevated glucocorticoid (cortisol) levels and a sub group appear to gain some relief from antidepressants. It’s as if the unpredictable shocking stressor resulted in a decision “There’s nothing I can do to help myself – ever.” Even now as I type this, having known about this experiment for years, I find myself feeling sorry for those little black-eyed bundles of fur.
Not Species Specific: This type of experiment has been conducted on other rodents, insects, fish, cats, dogs, birds, primates, and the ultimate lab animal - university students – with the same outcome of learned helplessness typified by an attitude of giving up and hopelessness. It is these types of cognitions that underlie depression.
So what does all this have to do with you, and a strategic approach to depression and stress?
Well if you or someone you know is anxious or depressed, now you understand what’s probably going on – they’ve been zapped enough times to convince themselves that this is their future. They’re living on Helpless Street in Hopelessville.
But there is a bus outa town. It’s not easy to buy the ticket. Here’s what’s you need to know and practice. And practice some more. And again. (By the way, this is the essence of Cognitive Behavior Therapy.)
Nothing physical has meaning. We make a meaning with our thoughts, and attach it to the object, or event – as if the physical really does have the meaning. Read that again slowly and take it in. Did you read it again?
A physical object or event has attributes that can be measured such as height and weight or gallons per hour. All 6 billion humans would agree on those attributes. What the object or event means is something that each individual person gets to decide on. Meaning is not inherent or intrinsic to the object or event. But we invent meanings very quickly, and stick them to objects or events like ‘pin the tail on the donkey’; after which we believe the object or event actually has that meaning. The tail still isn’t really on the donkey, we just pinned it there.
If an object or event did have an attribute called Meaning, we’d all agree on it; but in reality we don’t all agree on what something means. In fact, a huge proportion of human conflict grows out of disputed meanings of objects or events. For example: Wife: “You want her don’t you!” Husband: “Who? What are you talking about?” Wife: “You ogled that woman. I know that look. I know what you’re thinking. It means you want to have sex with her!” Husband: “What? Her? No, she reminds me of my Sunday school teacher.” Wife: “Nice try buddy. I know what that look means; Sunday school sex!”
Tune into the nightly news and watch how a current event will be presented first with the facts; followed by three or four experts debating the meaning of the event. Hey, if it truly had a meaning as a fact there’d be no discussion. So, “meaning” is what we invent from our thoughts. We think something into a stressor. We think we are doomed to shocks because the floor is electrified! We think we have no choices. But …we can unthink just as well. We’re just not as practiced.
Last time I checked, none of my clients was a lab rat. Nor, was anyone living on an electric floor. So you’ve got a head start. Even incarcerated war prisoners and quadraplegics still have choice about their thoughts: inventing and creating meanings and coping strategies – living the idea that the whole floor isn’t electrified and a safe spot can be found, or that electrification is avoidable using new ideas or technology, or that occasional shocks are survivable and are not truly predictive of future shocks, and most importantly - that a happy, fulfilling and engaged life is achievable while problem solving a floor that shocks every now and then.
Experimental subjects like the little white lab rats should be so lucky.
Mission: Discover what mistaken beliefs you’re choosing to think that cause you anxiety. You’ll think they are truths of course; but they aren’t and it’s your mission to prove it to yourself. That’s the hard part – and the necessary part. I can tell you that your truth is crap but you won’t believe it simply because I say so. No, you’ll have to prove it to yourself. The results are worth the effort. Less stress, anxiety, and depression.
Go for it.
“There remains a realm of health and disease that is sensitive to the quality of our minds - our thoughts and emotions and behaviors. And sometimes whether or not we become sick with the diseases that frighten us at two in the morning will reflect this realm of the mind. It is here that we recognize our own capacity to prevent some of these problems beforehand in the small steps with which we live our everyday lives. Perhaps I'm beginning to sound like your grandmother, advising you to be happy and not to worry so much. This advice may be platitudinous, trivial, or both. But change the way even a rat perceives its world, and you dramatically alter the likelihood of its getting a disease. These ideas are no mere truisms. They are powerful, potentially liberating forces to be harnessed. As a physiologist who has studied stress for many years, I clearly see that the physiology of the system is often no more decisive than the psychology. We return to the catalog of things we all find stressful - traffic jams, money worries, overwork, the anxieties of relationships. Few of them are "real" in the sense that a zebra or a lion would understand. In our privileged lives, we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors and uniquely foolish enough to have let them, too often, dominate our lives. Surely we have the potential to be uniquely wise enough to banish their stressful hold.”
- Robert Sapolsky Ph.D. from Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
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Depression, its chronic cousin dysthymia, and anxiety have been with humans for at least 2400 years when Hippocrates referred to depression as melancholia. It can be subjectively experienced on a continuum from annoyingly problematic to desperately debilitating and life threatening. Arguably with the exception of the anxiety disorders, depression is the most studied of the mental health concerns. What is generally accepted as fact is this: depression, dysthymia, and anxiety are related to the thoughts a person has. Thoughts effect feelings & mood which in turn reinforce the same and similar thoughts. Because our thoughts and moods are mediated (carried) by our electrochemical physiology, medications are sometimes helpful in relieving the symptoms and breaking the cycle. A cure however is only possible from some form of cognitive restructuring. This 'thought change' can be done in many ways of talk therapy, shamanic practices, mindfulness meditation, and most recently psychedelic psychotherapy.
Mythology: Some groups in our culture would like us to buy the idea that depression is just chemistry. Others would like us to buy the idea that it’s genetic. Still others would like us to buy the idea that it’s some kind of flaw of character. And there’s a group who would like us to buy the idea that it’s a disease. Research cannot resolve the truth of these ideas because they’re all involved. So what we come back to is clinical experience providing an evolving model of depression that has observable positive outcomes. My colleagues and I talk about what works and what doesn’t. Some of my depressed and anxious clients arrive believing medications are useless; yet they need the symptomatic relief of a chemical intervention in order to do effective therapy. Others arrive to do therapy believing medication will cure them – if only their doctor was smart enough to prescribe the right cocktail. Others arrive believing a version of “three strikes and yer out” – that is, some people are doomed to be depressed if it repeats itself, which it has, so one or two more episodes and no one will be able to help them - I'm their last hope. Yet others arrive believing I’m Mr. Fix It. They want me to apply a technique – a submission hold, as it were, to their situation.
Antidepressants have a role in treating moderate and severe clinical depression and anxiety; however what they often cannot achieve is a long term cure. The reason is that depression is based on thought sequences characterized by negative thoughts/images about self and the future. These negative thoughts/images and the patterns that include them must be reduced or eliminated for life long relief. Medications can reduce the intensity of feeling response but cannot terminate the pattern or the thoughts/images themselves. Hence the need for therapy. Therapy renders these cognitions impotent. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in particular achieves this in a manner that teaches the patient/client how to apply the tool in any future episodes.
Automatic Thoughts: When thoughts/images are subjectively experienced as arising quickly, seemingly out of nowhere, we call them automatic thoughts. Usually, they take the form of a spoken phrase as a voice in the mind, or as an image. Frequently they are familiar, repetitious and even predictable to the psychologically minded individual. Automatic thoughts can be positive, neutral, or negative in terms of reference to self, others, and the larger reality. In Transactional Analysis (TA) we call this referral the existential position: I refer to myself as Ok or not Ok and I refer to you as either Ok or not Ok. Henceforth, thoughts and especially automatic thoughts about self will usually be within the decided position which in the case of depressed persons is I’m not Ok.
Hot Thoughts: From the collection of automatic thoughts that a person has about self and future of self, there are a few that by themselves represent the meaning of the entire collection – I’m not Ok. These we call the hot thoughts. They are highly charged with significance. As such, we target them first for treatment. Our goal is to cool them down. It’s The Thought That Counts: There’s no question that our thoughts influence our electrochemical physiology. Easiest example is a sex fantasy. You and your mind get together for a quickie. Pictures or a written paragraph might supplement fantasy thoughts but in short order your physiology is involved, and the party is underway. Same with depression, except it’s a blues party. Start a child off with pessimistic raw ingredients: “Nothing works out for you”, “You’re a loser.”, “People like you never get the goodies of life.”, “Nice guys finish last. Too bad you’re a nice guy.”, “It’s a dog eat dog world.” Then bake a few years with reinforcing examples of proof from the family, and culture into an habitual thought pattern. The person’s chemistry, their electrical and neurotransmitter pathways, their entire physiology is cooked into a vulnerability to the symptom list we call depression. What results is a mind-physiology complex founded on repeatedly believed depressogenic thoughts.
As a therapist my job is to help you learn how to find and disempower those thoughts. Let’s walk through this using anxiety.
Step 1 - Thoughts: With the exception of the startle and fight flight reactions, all feelings of fear, of which anxiety is one form, are preceded by an image, a thought, or sequence of thoughts. It is very important to understand this. The image or thought could be so fast and brief that we’re hardly aware of them. Hence the common experience that the anxiety ‘came out of nowhere’.
So the first step is to become skillful in catching these thoughts, and understanding that anxiety is not random or a brain problem. It’s a matter of thinking certain thoughts and/or images, and having an emotional response.
You’ve got to catch the cognition, or the pattern of cognitions.
Step 2 - Reality Check: Anxiety provoking thoughts come in two flavors, real and not so real. So we look for evidence and counter evidence on which the thought might be based. If it’s an unreal thought, we thoroughly disprove it until it’s so unreal as to be recognized as the fantasy it actually is. If the thought truly has a basis in reality, we problem solve it. What this means is walk through the fantasy and plan it’s solution.
Step 3 – Drill For Skill: To achieve excellence most of us must practice a new skill. Same thing here. Once we’ve completed the reality check and problem solving it’s time to practice. Some therapists call this exposure training; but I prefer the idea that my anxious client is building a life skill so here’s the exercise: willingly engage in the thoughts and or images (which might mean going into the actual situation), conducting reality checks and problem solving, and living with any residual anxiety. Repeat until calm.
For example, if you have a social anxiety it’s probably sourced from thoughts about people judging you. One of my missions for working through this is for my client, in this case – you, is to go to a movie by yourself and stand at the front of the theatre before the movie starts, looking at the audience. The anxiogenic fantasy is that the people in the audience are judging you. Maybe so, maybe not – doesn’t matter because what you say to yourself until you are comfortable standing there is “whatever they think of me makes no difference in my life.” Of course everyone probably will notice you standing there, and have an assessment of some kind, but will it affect you? Not unless they are a part of your life already, such as a friend or neighbor or co-worker in which case they’ll wonder what you’re doing – which isn’t much of an affect.
“Depression can be an illness by itself such as bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or dysthymic disorder. Or it can be a symptom of some other issue or illness such as infection, malignancy, endocrine problem, allergy, hypersensitivity, alcoholism, a stress related problem or unacknowledged grief. It’s important from the outset to do a careful assessment to determine what we might be dealing with.” - Curtis A. Steele M.D. - Redecision Therapist
According to Health Canada and the Canadian Alliance for Mental Illness and Mental Health, approximately eight per cent of adult Canadians will experience a major depression at some point in their lives.
“Rather than viewing him or her self as a helpless creature of biochemical reactions, blind impulses, or automatic reflexes, he or she can regard self as prone to learning erroneous, self defeating notions and capable of unlearning or correcting them as well. By pinpointing the fallacies in thinking, and correcting them, the patient can create a more self fulfilling life. “ - Aaron T. Beck M.D. - Founder of CBT - from Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders
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Consider yourself as a bundle of needs and wants. In my work with people, I find no advantage to distinguish between needs and wants. So I don't. All humans have needs and wants, and we strive every second to deliver on those needs and wants. Our feelings arise automatically in response to those needs and wants. It is part of our 'hard wiring' to feel emotional responses - comes with the package, like the five senses.
Feelings are common to us. If I tell you I feel sad, you have an idea of what I'm feeling because you know the feeling of sad. I'll never know what it feels like to birth a child; so I cannot really know how my wife felt giving birth; but I know about feeling frightened, so I can relate to her fear during delivery. Likewise, she probably will never pilot a plane, so relating to my description of doing spins will be next to impossible for her; but when I describe the feeling of excitement, she can relate because she knows about excitement. So we actually relate to people very nicely using feelings. Think about that. We relate and connect to others through feelings! If we shut off feelings, we shut off connectedness to others.
And we can relate to ourselves (our ego states) at the feeling level. So as an adult man I can have some understanding of my five year old Child ego state feeling of hopelessness because I know about that feeling.
The Major Five
If we think we're getting what we want we feel Happy. It's a present tense analysis: I'm getting this article typed right now so I feel content - a version of happy.
If we think we're getting something we don't want; or we're not getting what we do want, we feel Angry. It's a present tense analysis: I'm getting a back ache from typing so I feel frustrated. I didn't stop to do a workout this morning, so I feel doubly frustrated!
If we think we're losing, or already lost something, we feel Sad. Again, it's a present tense analysis: When I think about the horse I used to own and how I don't have him anymore, I feel forlorn. When I think about my father, and what I miss about him, I feel grief.
If we think we're going to get something we don't want, we feel Fear. This is a future tense analysis: If I fantasize/imagine my son will be killed, I feel terror. If I think I'll not get any more clients I feel anxious.
If we think we're going to get something we want, we feel Excitement. This too is a future tense analysis. When I think about my upcoming canoe trip to the Rockies, I feel thrilled.
A Feeling Vocabulary
Knowing a language contributes to your power by giving you options. The language used to convey emotions/feelings is therefore a study you might choose to undertake.
Happy: pleased, elated, overjoyed, contented, glad, blissful, high, bubbly, tickled, satisfied, delighted, carefree, bouncy, radiant, ecstatic, proud, merry, pleased, fantastic, terrific, exuberant, great
Sad: forlorn, disappointed, tearful, blue, bloomy, wistful, longing, grieving, mournful, weary, low, lost, alone, aimless, apathetic, pained, melancholy, dejected, hurting, heavy, flat, sorrowful, discouraged, lamenting, sorry
Angry: mad, spiteful, mean, frustrated, resentful, bitter, furious, fuming, revengeful, livid, irate, incensed, fed up, irritated, indignant, annoyed, infuriated, hostile, boiling, upset, disgusted, enraged, pissed off
Excited: elated, jubilant, expectant, eager, enthusiastic, lively, hopeful, anticipating, giddy, aroused, confident, looking forward, adventurous, curious, hyper, thrilled, bubbly, invigorated, energized
Afraid: frightened, uptight, scared, terrified, apprehensive, alarmed, anxious, suspicious, cautious, paranoid, worried, unsure, distressed, defensive, troubled, leery, tense, timid, uneasy
The Combinations - Well, not exactly combinations, but commonly occurring together is a more accurate description:
Guilty: Usually this 'feeling' is a complex soup of feelings resulting from breaking a rule, belief, moral code, ethical stance or something of that sort. In my experience, clients feeling guilty are responding from the Child to a Parent ego state transaction. The component feelings are often fear and sad. You feel afraid of what might happen, and sad about a loss. Often the sadness is stated as being sorry and comes from the thought that you've lost something such as a person's trust or love. The fear comes from the thought that you will not be loved or trusted in the future. Hence both the present and future are involved. If the rule is one that does not serve you, (a rule from your parents upbringing for example) it's possible you'll also feel angry - angry that you're feeling fear and sadness, or angry that you might be punished. In all cases, there is a broken rule lying around somewhere.
Jealous: Fear and anger. Usually fear about the future loss of the person's attention, love, devotion, commitment. And anger about the same thing but in the present tense. You think you are losing the other person, and you will also be losing the person in the future. Usually, jealousy is a Child ego state experience that 'feels' like abandonment. Grown up people cannot be abandoned however!
Hurt: In almost all cases, feeling hurt is feeling angry. But because of who or what the anger is about, it is directed inwards instead of outwards - and 'feels' like an injury.
Connecting Thoughts and Feelings
How people interpret events absolutely determines how they feel. For instance, recently one of my clients who successfully completed her therapy contract told me about the thoughts she had before each appointment while in my waiting room.
She would carefully watch when I would begin each session. When I was late, even by a few minutes, she would think to herself, "He doesn't want to see me," and would feel sad (loss of my attention and or approval). When I was early, she would think to herself, "I really must be doing poorly, since he is spending extra time to help," and would feel anxious (will not achieve goals). If I was on time, she would tell herself, "He's really got a factory going. I'm just a number to him." And she would feel irritated (getting impersonal service).
As you can see, no matter when I began the session (early, right on time, or late) this client would be thinking about the wait and make judgments – thoughts - that would stimulate feeling reactions. She could see the connection between her thoughts and her feelings. After she learned to pinpoint and report her thoughts, she realized these thoughts were actually unrealistic, and thus the feelings were inappropriate.
The next time she was thinking these sorts of thoughts and having the resultant feelings in the waiting room, she began to correct these interpretations. As she corrected them, her feelings changed – depending on what she thought.
An important skill for anyone who desires personal change is this form of self awareness. Our automatic thoughts significantly influence our lives, and often in a negative manner, so catching them the moment they occur has tremendous potential. Catch them, evaluate them for realism, and either accept them as valid or reject them as vestiges of an outdated historical past.
One final point about this skill. It takes practice, lots of practice, more than you might want to do. But the payoffs are HUGE and POWERFUL. Like learning any complex skill, if you invest the time and energy into it, you will be richly rewarded.
Some people judge feelings as positive or negative, or good and bad. I, and most therapists, prefer not to do this and encourage our clients not to as well. Judging feelings promotes avoidance, ignoring or “stuffing” some of the feelings. Since feelings give a very immediate clue as to what thoughts we’ve just had, ignoring particular feelings will remove the possibility of knowing the thought or thoughts that produced them – and thus leave us stuck with those thoughts, and the stuffed energy of the feelings.
Knowing what you’re feeling means you can analyze what you’re thinking, which means you can assess what needs and wants are involved. This will give you choice about how to respond to those needs and wants.
Here’s an example: Driving along in your car in the left lane of a four lane road, a vehicle in the right lane suddenly changes lanes and pulls in front of you. You feel angry, and swear at the driver! What was the thought that stimulated feeling angry? Well, anger comes from getting something you don’t want, or not getting something you do want (or both), so what was the thought? Perhaps – I’m being forced to follow someone, and/or now I can’t see up the road as far as I want. Ahhh, now you know what your needs and wants are: don’t want to follow someone and want to see a distance up the road. Knowing that, you have choice on how to respond. Think about options to achieving your needs (ie. you can change lanes, you can slow down and put space between the two vehicles). Or you could decide not to problem solve and simply vent in the usual road rage manner.
Don’t Trust Your Feelings
Contrary to popular mythology, you can choose to think about whatever you choose to. So suppose you recall the day in childhood when your favorite aunt/uncle/grand parent died. The memory – collection of thoughts – about that could center around your loss of a loved one, and thus stimulate a feeling of sadness. But it’s not a loss today. It’s a loss from years ago. Only the thoughts themselves are happening today, not the real loss. By recalling an historical event, or imagining a future event, we create present tense now thoughts – and experience the resulting feelings. They “feel” real. They “feel” just as valid as if the event was now. So just because you experience a feeling does not necessarily mean something real concerning your needs and wants is actually happening! The feelings could be coming from thoughts about the past or fantasies about the future. This is very important to understand about yourself and about other people.
In many situations our feelings are actually based on memories – thoughts about the past, or based on imagination – thoughts about the future. We don’t acknowledge that we’re traveling through time; but instead behave as if the present is the source of the feelings. We attempt problem solving what feels like a present time issue, but which is in fact, from another time zone. Guess how successful that’ll be!
The Feeling Mythology
Myth # 1: You Make Me Feel and Myth # 2: I Make You Feel – These are so widespread and popular that they’re considered common sense truths. Here’s how they seem true. Suppose I spill coffee on your favorite shirt. You’ll have a feeling response such as anger. The Mythology says I made you angry. Seems true because you were angry right after I spilled the coffee on you. Stimulus – Response.
Ok so if I spill coffee on you and make you feel angry then logically according to the mythology, when I immediately hand you a new shirt you should stop feeling angry and feel happy. Stimulus – Response. Furthermore, if the myth is true I should actually be able to control your feelings like driving a go-cart at the fair grounds. At any given instant I should be able to make you feel anything I want by applying a stimulus – to get the response I want. You’d be like a puppet on a set of strings for me to play with on a whim. Pause and really think about this - are your feelings controlled that easily? If I spilled coffee on you and then gave you a new shirt, would you be my puppet on a string?
Have you ever made someone angry and then tried to un-make them angry or happy? Ever made someone sad and then tried to make them cheer up? If we truly are responsible for other people’s feelings it should work all the time, every time, predictably and reliably. Does that really happen? Hardly ever. And the reason why is because these myths are untrue!
These myths are bogus! None of us make others have feelings, nor do others make us have feelings. We are each responsible for our own feelings. It’s more like this: I’m in control of my puppet strings (feelings). I’m driving my own go-cart around the fair grounds. I choose how to respond to what’s happening around me.
Myth # 3: Trust Your Feelings - Feelings can, but not always, be a source of information about reality; but they cannot be trusted as accurate until we apply some reality testing to them. The reason for this is that we have feelings in response to fantasy, daydreams, nightmares, memories, mental illness, and even physical disorders and illness.
For example: my wife Barbara and I are dancing and she looks at me with what I think is a stern glare. I feel guilty but knowing I cannot trust that feeling, I ask “What?” and she says “Seriously, you’re dancing well.” Barbara’s look was in reality not stern, nor a glare, just a look of sincerity. My guilt was based on a flashback (rubberband) to my first wife who would give me that look when she thought I’d screwed up, and the look went even further back in time to when my mother caught me stealing cookies. If I had responded automatically to my guilty feeling as if it was true in the present, I’d have acted inappropriately with Barbara. So I was actually imagining her look was a stern glare, and feeling guilty as a response to that fantasy.
Much interpersonal conflict comes from feelings erroneously based on fantasies, memories, and imagined meanings. The most extreme examples are the paranoid reactions. A person with paranoia imagines meanings and has emotional responses to them; but believes them to be true. The movie Aviator dramatically demonstrates the problems arising when a person trusts feelings and acts on them. Indeed, we cannot trust our thoughts either; but that’s a story for later.
Myth # 4: Feelings Are Not Important – Many people try to not feel. In many cultures, people especially men, are taught not to feel sadness, fear, vulnerability, and tenderness. Part of the currently popular “Be Strong” attitude incorporates the rule “don’t feel”. A traditional male role model would never complain, never show pain, be tough as nails climbing over every adversity dragging his guts along behind him through the dirt to a hero’s welcome. (Another myth: a dead guy as hero).
Such an attitude may be helpful under certain life threatening situations, or for exceptional and specific duration-limited high performance requirements such as extreme sports. But for the rest of us for most of our lives, taking this strategy is unnecessarily harsh, stressful and medically ill advised.
Feelings are like tastes and smells. They add depth to our human experience and when based on reality as described above, emotions provide excellent data about the present situation. Stuffing fear does not serve us. Fear could be a warning of danger. Swallowing grief does not serve us. Grief could be a notification of loss. Ignoring love and tenderness does not serve us. Feelings of love can identify who and what is important to us. Covering up loneliness doesn’t serve us. Loneliness could be saying that relationships are important. So feelings are important. They’re important aspects of our experience as human beings.
Myth #5: Feelings Are Most Important – Lots of people assign their feelings top priority as if feelings are the most important aspects of their inner life. These folks will make decisions solely based on their feelings. They prefer to act on how they feel rather than engage in a thoughtful decision making process. Of course they trust their feelings too. Often these people believe the old adage “Don’t just stand there, do something!”
The Feelings are Most Important myth includes the idea that BIG feelings are more important than smaller or less intense feelings and therefore should have some kind of priority. When two people who believe this myth get into a conflict, they usually believe that the person who feels more strongly should win. As such, both people escalate their feelings in order to prevail. I frequently hear the statement “I feel very strongly that …” as if the intensity of a feeling is a valid endorsement of the person’s position. The conflict has morphed into who can feel and/or express a feeling with the most intensity – a feeling competition.
Feelings are important aspects of being human; but they are not the only aspects. We humans also think and act. All three components are important, equally important, for us to be appropriately responsive to our needs and wants within the social and physical environment around us. Placing emphasis on one aspect or another in acute situations may be warranted; but as a general strategy for living it is less than optimal.
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CBT is perhaps the most often studied form of psychotherapy. This is because it is one of the easier types of therapy to learn and use. It’s not the best therapy; there is no best. There are types that are better for certain situations, and not so good for other situations, and it’s the therapist’s role to have an appropriate assortment of methodologies.
Let's start this brief orientation to CBT with some foundational ideas.
CBT is dedicated to changing habitual problematic thoughts, what we call hot thoughts. The first step is identifying these. The next step is reality checking: to what extent is the thought based in reality? This involves collecting evidence both supportive and counter to the thought. The next step is experimentation – direct experience, where we design tests for the thought. This is the first time the behavior component of CBT is introduced. Ideally, somewhere along this timeline the client decides the hot thought is invalid at which point we proceed to the final step, implementing a new thought or set of thoughts. This culminating phase involves both behavior changes and new thought/feeling repetitions.
Automatic Thoughts: Everyone has unpremeditated, spontaneous interpretations of events, self, and others. These thoughts are experienced as occurring to us without conscious control and are therefore called automatic thoughts. They can be very short, quick and almost reflexive. A benign example is when someone across the street calls your name: "Who, me?" and turn to look. Another automatic but less benign thought might be "Oh Oh, what's wrong?" Another automatic and dysfunctional thought might be "Someone's after me, I better run."
Underlying Assumptions: First let's articulate what we mean by the word belief. A belief is an assertion, proposition, claim or expectancy of reality that is either true or false, even if unproven and un-provable. As such it is a thought or collection of thoughts deemed to be true. Underlying assumptions are beliefs mistaken as truths. In the Cognitive model, these take the form of conditional statements that will be identified by an If or an If ... Then .... For example: If I get close to a person I'll end up getting hurt. If you let your guard down, then people will get you. If we reveal family secrets, bad things will happen. These underlying assumptions give rise to automatic thoughts.
Schemas: One step below underlying assumptions, even less conscious, are the constellations of thoughts that comprise core beliefs. They are unconditional (do not have an If) and serve as a basis for sorting, filtering, categorizing and interpreting situations, self and others. For example: I'm not attractive. I'm not loveable. You can't trust anyone. It's a dog eat dog world.
Now let's take action.
Catch a Feeling – Catch a Thought: Cognitive therapists typically use a think structure called a Thought Record /Sheet to help clients bring hot thoughts into awareness. Clients are asked to document feelings on the Thought Record, and beside these, the thoughts that preceded them, especially the “hot” ones. Since a cognition can be an instant in duration, such as a strobe-like flash of an image (or even a smell or sound), clients often are challenged by this first step; yet it is vitally important. Underlying assumptions and schemas are easier to identify; although they are usually more ingrained, habitual, and thus more challenging to change.
Client Detective: Once a hot thought is identified the next step is collecting evidence both supportive and non-supportive to the thought. Most clients have little trouble listing what they think is supportive evidence; until the evidence is examined, at which time they discover that much supportive evidence is in fact not evidence at all but more thoughts, such as assumptions or mind reading fantasies. Gathering un-supportive evidence to the hot thought is often harder to do initially; but when a client gets the hang of it, they frequently get excited about what they discover – that the reality of the hot thought is in doubt! Gathering counter evidence for schemas, deeply held core beliefs, is typically difficult because such beliefs act as filters so we don’t even perceive counter evidence. Schemas also influence recollection of memories, what we call selective recall, so counter evidence from the past is also discounted. The personality adaptations and in more severe cases the personality disorders of the DSM are sourced from the schemas, and CBT in this realm proceeds slower as the defenses are stronger. As the client comes into awareness of the unreality of hot thoughts, underlying assumptions and schemas, they start to consider how new thoughts will be of benefit to them.
Science Experiments: When a client starts to doubt the validity of hot thoughts, underlying assumptions, or schemas, we introduce the experimentation phase. Nothing is more convincing of an unreal thought or belief than direct experience. This is when the behavior part of cognitive behavior therapy comes in. Most people can talk the talk; but deep down we’re not convinced about ourselves until we walk the walk. And that’s what this phase is all about. Between client and therapist we design real world counter evidence experiments. For example, the belief that “I’m just a meal ticket to my wife” can be tested by talking to her directly about that and writing down her response. As you can imagine, we wouldn’t conduct this particular experiment if there already was conclusive supporting evidence (her true opinion), in which case the client’s hot thought actually is true.
Into the Gym: The final stage is problem solving towards cognitive, behavioral, and emotional change. I tell clients that building a new thought or belief is like building new muscles – you gotta decide on what exercise you’re going to do, then do reps, and you gotta feel it. In the above example, the client would continually watch for supportive clues or ask his wife for confirmation of his new thought: that she cares about him as a person. Then he’d say to himself: “I’m important to my wife for who I am” followed by taking the time to experience the feelings of peace and happiness that new thought stimulates. While all three components of the practice, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional are necessary, it’s the emotional that has the feel good positive reinforcements. It’s these goodies that keep the practice going. It’s the emotional aspect that sinks the new thought into the neural pathways. He can gather a truck load of evidence and tell himself a million times he’s loveable for who he is; but without allowing himself to feel the feelings of that new thought, not much will happen. In CBT we start with the feelings and we come back to the feelings.
Here's how we model the relationship between schemas, underlying assumptions, automatic thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and external events. (The numbers indicate where psychotherapy intervenes.)
Officially this model is referred to as the cognitive view of psychopathology. In my experience it describes much of human experience, not just the dysfunctional and inappropriate. The model also shows where we can intervene to break the closed loop nature of the system, and thereby introduce change. (1) Catch the automatic thoughts, and disempower them.
(2) Discover and modify or erase underlying assumptions.
(3) Discover and modify or erase schemas.
(4) Understand and intercept, then change emotional response and its effect on behavior
(5) Reduce the "filter" effect of selective recall and the influence of emotional response on it.
(6) Change behavior. Commonly called social control.
(7) Modify the influence of external events and the behavior of others on schemas and underlying assumptions.
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Overgeneralization - We take a single/simple thought, event, trait or characteristic and use it to explain a complex system. The complex system can be for example, a person, a life, a company, a family, a culture, or a social event such as a riot, war, revolution and so on. Example: After tripping over a doorsill (the simple event); you overgeneralize by saying “I’m such a clutz.”
Many of my clients have graciously consented for our therapy sessions to be audio taped. I was reviewing one of these sessions with my mentor as part of pro-development when I heard the client give a long intense sigh. A client’s sigh is to a therapist what a mouse squeak is to a cat; gotta follow it. I was surprised to hear it. I had not heard it during the session itself, nor during two other playbacks while preparing for my presentation. “What the hell, there must be something wrong with me to have missed that!” And that is a classic overgeneralization: taking a specific event – not hearing a sigh, and making it apply to a larger system – something wrong with my physiology or psychology.
A very skilled colleague, Mr. Therapist, engaged me for some consulting and related a session with a female client. Ms. Client reported to him a relationship event that proved her unloveableness. Mr. Therapist brought to her attention how she was overgeneralizing from the relationship event to her whole life. Ms. Client reacted strongly to this discovery by feeling ashamed, stupid, and even more unloveable. Mr. Therapist suddenly felt ashamed, stupid and incompetent that he had conducted the intervention in such a crude and unskilled manner as to make Ms. Client feel that way.
Both had engaged in overgeneralizations during the session. Let’s go through this in sequence: Ms. Client took the relationship event and overgeneralized it to mean she was unloveable. When Mr. Therapist pointed this out to her she overgeneralized that into meaning she was stupid and (once again) unloveable. Mr. Therapist took the single event of Ms. Client’s feeling response to his intervention, and overgeneralized it into meaning he was stupid and incompetent. Notice how easy overgeneralizing was for both people.
A couple of other points need to be made concerning this example. First, Mr. Therapist’s final overgeneralization; he engaged in the mistaken belief that our feelings can be created by people or events around us – as in Mr. Therapist made Ms. Client feel ashamed, stupid, and unloveable. Secondly, there is no such feeling as stupid or unloveable; those are thoughts. They would induce feelings such as afraid or sad.
Overgeneralization as a thinking error is rampant in western culture; and understandably so because we’re in the habit of generalizing and, in many contexts generalization is useful. You’re driving down the 4 lane highway coming up to an offramp. The sign with the arrow reads “Toronto”. A simple event – the offramp sign & arrow, is a generalization for a complex system - the city of Toronto. Another example: on your computer desktop (itself a generalization) are simple icons that generalize to complex systems. Another example: a simple blood test generalizes to a complex system – illness.
Remember back to a childhood experience that was emotionally difficult. Got one? Odds are that you’re holding it in your mind as a summary, a single scene – a mental snapshot of sorts. Most people do that with memories and it’s like those thumbnail images on your computer. Ok, so that by itself is a generalization: condensing a complex event into a single frame. (That’s what a photo actually does.)
Here’s a disabling overgeneralization many of us do with a memory. We take that memory and give it predictive power of the future.
For example: “With my history of dating losers I’ll never find a decent woman to settle down with.”
Another example: “I’ll never succeed at anything important. Want proof? Just look at my history.”
Final example: “I can’t dance. I even took lessons once and I still can’t dance. I’ll never be able to dance.”
In each of these examples, the author took a complex set of events (dating, achievement, dancing) and overgeneralized each into a single meaning, and then applied predictive power to that meaning into the future – itself an extremely complex system. Furthermore, nobody knows the future; it’s just a set of probabilities that can be altered.
A thoughtful and alternative statement is “if I continue using past strategies, I will likely get similar results”. Another way of saying that is “Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll probably keep getting what you’ve got.”
Notice how this statement actually suggests how to change probabilities of the future – discontinuing historical methods and experimenting with new ones.
More Examples of Overgeneralizations:
I forgot where I put my keys, oh brother I’m really losing it.
Kids today have no respect. Just yesterday at the grocery store I heard a girl tell her mother…
This is a crazy spring, what with these abnormal temperatures. Gotta be global warming.
Men only want one thing.
Women are all the same.
You can tell so much about a person by the kind of car they drive.
They caught that guy in the act. He’s American. Need I say more?
Most attorneys practice the law because it gives them a grand and glorious feeling. You give them a grand and they feel glorious.
Oh no, I failed that exam. Maybe I’m not smart enough to do this stuff.
That’s the fifth guy I’ve struck out with in the last 19 months. Is it me or is it them?
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A cognitive distortion (thinking error) that is problematic to many people is what we call Mind Reading. Seems innocuous; but from what I hear in my office, it’s endemic. Oh I know, you’re thinking “I don’t do that.” Well, maybe you don’t do any mind reading; but someone transacting with you right now does.
Did you catch how I slipped that mind reading example into the previous paragraph? Yea, I thought not. There’s another one. It’s subtle and like other nuances of language, can disempower, discount and abdicate responsibility in a moment.
So in that first example, I typed “Oh I know, you’re thinking …” which is the same as saying “I know what you’re thinking.” By making that specific statement, I’m lying about a personal capability and reinforcing unrealistic grandiosity. Some psychotherapies would say I’m expressing my infantile grandiosity; or a grandiose self organization. Fancy words for the fact that I have no idea what you’re thinking as you read this; but I imagine that I do.
Let’s consider the second example where I wrote “Yea, I thought not.” Once again I’m claiming that my thinking has the power to know what you are thinking.
I bet you’re asking “But isn’t mind reading actually possible Greg?” In this example I’ve backed off a straight forward claim that I know what you’re asking with the phrase ‘I bet’. I’m still claiming mind reading but I soften it with the inference to probability. Which leads us (there’s another one - how do I know you’re following this discussion) to that question about actual mind reading.
Consider this: how many thoughts do you have in a one minute time period? Well, if you’re a mind reader, you’d have to stop all those and tune into all of mine. Alternatively you’d have to double your processing power and read all my thoughts concurrent to thinking all yours – keeping them separate, remembering each, and keeping track of who’s thoughts were who’s! And all that just for a small sample. Another minute later I’ve done double the thinking and perhaps made new decisions about the topic. Or more likely I’ve gone on to a new subject. Even worse, suppose my IQ was 200 but yours was 100 and you were mind reading me; you’d be sayin whoa, slow the hell down. And what if there were three of us, or a dozen? Add in different demographics as well, and the problems associated with mind reading raise the probability that it would be a significant impairment to your own cognitive function.
Even if mind reading is possible for some people, each of us have a plethora of sequentially phased contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions. How would a mind reader sort through that volume and arrive at a single “I know what you’re thinking.” Often we ourselves don’t know what the heck we’re thinking!
Worse still, we all generate fantasies on an ongoing basis. Day dreaming is a national hobby. Internet porn is a trillion dollar business founded on day dreams. So how would a mind reader separate reality based thoughts from fantasy based thoughts? I shudder to think what a mind reader would do with the thoughts from a videogamer playing something violent like Counter-Strike. And let’s add in the problem of history reviews – those times when we go back in our memory banks and either re-live, or rewrite our personal history. How would a mind reader decipher history from present tense? And if a mind reader missed a present moment thought, could it be retrieved from short term buffer memory? Yikes, how would the mind reader know what was now and what was ‘just a moment before now’?
What we actually do, those of us who don’t mind read, is guess. We guess in general terms, on a subject of our choice, what another person might be thinking, or has reportedly thought in the past. Guessing is a probability assessment. So let’s be truthful and call ourselves mind guessers.
I’m convinced that little phrase is the most pernicious invitation to mind guess in our culture. Depending on how well you know me, you might just mind guess me accurately, oh, say, 75% of the time. And if you use an optimistic explanatory style you’d round that up to 100% and reply “yea, I know.” Or if you use a pessimistic explanatory style you’d discount the 75% down to 0 and reply “I have no friggin idea what you’re thinking.”
For some entertainment, and as an optional mission possible, start listening carefully to all the ways people invite you to mind guess them. Sometimes, when a person is searching for the right word, no searching’s not quite it, um, the word I’m looking for is like searching but stronger, hmmm what’s the word I’m looking for here…well anyways, we often want people to finish our sentences or fill in words with mind guessing, so we pause and …. whatcha just say? You were thinking something. Yes you were! Come on admit it, you know what I’m talking about. Every adult over the age of 14 knows what I’m referring to. Well if you didn’t then what was that look all about? Only someone who was thinking what you were just thinking ever makes that look. Oh I know alright! It’s obvious you know I know you know.
Mission Possible: ask for clarification, ask for details, ask for meanings. Instead of saying “I know” when you’re making a probability estimate, say “I’m thinking ____. Is that right?” These two communication skills will reduce your life drama significantly.
Mind Reading Part Duh.
Picture yourself as an itty bitty toddler standing in your crib, in your cutely decorated baby bedroom. It’s mid-afternoon and you’ve just roused yourself from a nap. You’re crying, with volume, because your tender derrier is cold, wet, and stinging. Your sensitive nose is flipping cartwheels from a stench – you have a fully loaded diaper. But you can’t communicate in words yet; so the best you can do to express discomfort is to use body language.
Here comes mommy into the room. She makes soft sounds, picks you up, kisses your face (which feels nice), and proceeds to take away the smell, the stinging, the cold and the wet. Ahhh, caregiving at its finest. You smile at her, she smiles back and kisses you some more. Love. Mommy loves you, and that’s how she knew you were in distress.
Again picture yourself as an itty bitty toddler standing in your crib, in your cutely decorated baby bedroom. It’s middle of the night and you’ve just roused yourself from a nap. You’re crying, with volume, because your tummy hurts. But you can’t speak that because you don’t know how yet.
Amazingly, daddy arrives making soft sounds. He picks you up, kisses your face (which feels nice) and sits down with you and cradles you in his strong arms. You know what’s coming and sure enough a nipple with warm milk is ready for you. Ahhh. As the tummy discomfort subsides, you smile up at him, he smiles back at you making more soft sounds. Love. Daddy loves you, and that’s how he knew you were in distress.
If someone loves you, that person knows what you need!
Fast forward to adult life. You’ve met that special person. Love is in the very air you breathe. The world has never been so… alive. The two of you have so much in common; could you be soul mates? Gazing into each other’s eyes, your lover gives you a beautifully wrapped gift to commemorate your anniversary; it was 13 days ago you met, and fell head over heels. You carefully open the parcel, hmm, an Ironman Timex watch.
You have a watch, of better quality in fact. Can you feel the love train going off the rails? How could this person who supposedly loves you, not know what would truly please you? Logically it must mean he or she doesn’t really love you! If someone loves you, that someone will know what you want; therefore reversing through that statement, if a person doesn’t know what you want, the person doesn’t love you! In this scenario the gift giver also follows the idea as in: “I love this person, therefore my choice of gift is good.”
“If someone loves you, that person knows what you need” is a belief established in childhood by a child’s way of thinking and making sense of parent behaviors. In technical terms we say this belief is in the Child ego state and contaminating the Adult ego state.
What we can do instead, using the Adult ego state, is observe, ask questions, collect data about someone’s needs and wants, likes and dislikes, interests and passions and so forth. Then based on that data, we can make probability estimates about what that person would like from us. When we love someone, we might choose to pay more attention over a longer period of time collecting that data. After twenty years with Barbara, I’ve collected a lot of info about what gifts pleased her; which helps me estimate a probability of her appreciating my choice for her next gift. It’s not mind reading based on love.
Adults who are parents gather data, based on learning and experience, about the range of needs and wants of children. It’s not mind reading. It’s not the power of love. If we, as adults expect our intimate others to mind read our needs and wants, we’re using a childhood strategy.
Ok, here’s your Mission Possible: Watch yourself with a significant other and take note of how often you give your personal power away to the mistaken belief that you or the other can or should mind read.
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A popular song has the refrain “You turn me on.” The singer states this over and over. Millions of people listen to this song; many probably sing along. And in doing so they reinforce the mistaken belief. In actual fact nobody has the power to turn someone else on.
Since the dawn of recorded history, poets and troubadours, writers and romantics have publicized the idea that we humans are turned on sexually by ‘the other’. It’s so commonly believed, that perhaps right now as you read this you’re saying to yourself “What’s he talking about? Of course the other person can turn me on.” Well read on because I’ve some ideas for you to think about.
Probably at some time in your life, you wanted great sex, right? Wanted to turn your partner on in order to have some of that great sex, right? Maybe wanted to turn your partner on so hot that the lights would dim, yes? So how consistently successful have you been at turning your partner on? Ah, but maybe this turn on business is a skill that must be learned and developed, practiced. That would explain poor rates of success. Don’t you think that if such a skill was possible, learnable and available it would be on YouTube as the most watched video of all time? Do a search and see for yourself; it’s not there! Don’t you think that if such a skill was possible, learnable and available it would dominate the self help section of all the bookshelves in the universe? Do a search and see for yourself; it’s not there!
Minding your own business, you’ve probably had someone say to you “You turn me on.” Hmmm, didn’t even know you were doing it did you! There you were mysteriously and subconsciously twiddling his or her sex buttons. Consider this: since that other person is turned on by you; they would want to return the favor and, hoping for some of that great sex, turn you on too, right? If we do indeed have the power to turn each other on at will; then why aren’t we doing it instead of all the shenanigans we do instead – like porn, prostitution, masturbation, dinner and flowers, chocolate, alcohol, or watching golf on tv. Ok that was a low blow to you golf fans.
And what about photos? Many people believe in the turn on power of photos. A bunch of ink dots on paper can somehow twiddle your diddle. How about moving photos – movies and videos – do they have the power to turn you on, like surrogates of the actual people? Think about it. It’s impossible! What you’re looking at is a bunch of images. Nobody else is present; just you. Nobody else is involved, just you.
Worse, the turn on belief says that a thing can turn you on, as in “that outfit really turns me on.” Hmm, if that’s true how come it’s not in every person’s closet? And what would happen if I wore that sex-turn-on shirt to the movies? Every woman and quite a few men would be turned on by my shirt. Whole crowds of people around me would be hot to trot. Is this not ridiculous? Yet we speak and act as if it was true: “That set of shoes gets me going!”
Actually, each of us is responsible for our own sexual response; or non response.
Out there on the dance floor I might be thinking about the music and timing my bodywork. My dance partner might be watching my butt and turning herself on. Her choice. Likewise I might be watching her jiggly parts and turning myself on; while she’s simply groovin. My choice.
If I share with my dance partner how I turn myself on looking at her jiggles, she might choose to wiggle for jiggles. Likewise if she shares with me how she turns herself on looking at my butt, I might rev up the hip flicks. But the actual power to turn on or off still resides internally as self choice. She might be jiggling just fine for me to turn myself on; except, my wife is just over there watching, so I decide to turn myself down and go into music and dance appreciation mode. As my dance partner is watching my butt and turning herself on, she notices her spouse doing bumper-kisses with a favorite cousin. Watching him with the cousin, she revs herself up even further.
It’s all about self determined choice.
Mission Possible: When you turn yourself on, say it truthfully “I’m turning myself on.” Similarly, when you turn yourself off, say it truthfully “I’m turning myself off.” By doing so, you will acknowledge your power of choice; that it’s up to you, not anyone or anything else.
Mission Impossible: This is for couples who believe the other person turns them on. One of you decide who will be the recipient of the magic turn-on rays; let’s call you Frosty, because you have to be melted. We’ll call the ‘turner-oner’, Ray Gun because you’ll be focusing your magic turn-on rays on Frosty. So Frosty, your role in this Mission Impossible is to resist being turned on; otherwise you’ll be melted! If Ray Gun has the power, you will be defenseless and melt under the heat. But Frosty, don’t relax your defenses. Don’t be melted. Ray Gun, go for it. Full power to melt Frosty. (And Ray Gun, don’t take it personally when you can’t do the meltdown, it was Frosty’s choice all along.)
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Many years ago when I was a younger man, I had a group of 8 male friends with whom I would go adventuring. Backpacking, canoeing, sea kayaking around the province mostly; but this time we were planning a 10 day sea kayak trip along the west shore of Newfoundland. Meticulous planning was vital since that maritime coast is treacherous and unforgiving; so we gathered together in Toronto for a summit meeting of sorts. Following the meeting we adjourned to a downtown Japanese restaurant for dinner. As we were waiting for our table, I noticed a display of authentic Japanese “snack foods”. One package in particular caught my eye since it contained what appeared to be those cute little aquarium fish we call Guppies. They were dried, but somehow retained a strong semblance of their beauty. Having had a large collection of pet guppies as a teen, I was intrigued by this offering. The guppies were mixed with small nuts and seeds of unknown types, sealed in cellophane wrapper. I bought a package on the spot, and while my comrades were led to our table I opened the wrapper and took a sniff, intending to pop the works in my mouth a moment later.
I can testify to this fact: The gag reflex is truly a reflex. The fishy stench that assaulted my olfactory receptors was beyond Lake Ontario smelt die-offs; was beyond low tide beside Vancouver’s sewage outflow; it was beyond fishy in another dimension all together. I was the Mayor of Gagville. A new definition of manhood was spawned. If my group members could down this putrid comestible, we could certainly paddle Newfoundland’s ocean.
So I bought another seven packs and took my seat at the table. After drinks were in place, I called for order and proposed that our project was at stake. A simple snack food, enjoyed by school children in Japan, was (as I passed them around) in front of us, representing the sea on which we planned to paddle. That if we were up to the simple challenge of consuming this trifling pot pouri of guppies and nuts, we were indeed worthy of the salty adventure to the east. “Down the hatch you sea dogs”, and with a smile I poured Neptune’s finest offal into my mouth, chewed and swallowed; surprisingly without a retch. I followed it up with a swig of Sake. Someone said “follow the leader” and I’m happy to say that the Newfoundland trip was a success.
A snack food in one culture; was a call to adventure in another.
So let’s have some tolerance and acceptance of differences between us all, shall we?
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Imagine yourself as a youngster of about three years old. Standing in front of you looking down at you is one of your adult caregivers. From your size and viewpoint looking up, this person is big, maybe even huge! And being older, bigger, stronger, this person can tell you what’s what, and who’s who. This person knows stuff you don’t know. This person can give life and take it away. This person can give love and take it away.
So when you tell this person your hopes and dreams, or your fantasy life, or a vision of your future, this person’s reaction can have a tremendous influence on you. If the person supports you in learning all you can about your desires, in reading, exploring, experimenting, and asking questions, then you might choose to do that with a joy and energy matching your hopes and dreams. If the person discounts your ideas, dreams, and hopes with facts and data, where does that leave you? Can you argue with this authority? Where’s your energy and zest for life?
Most of us heard plenty of the discounting. We heard so much that we carry it with us like an old CD or familiar stinky socks. And when we have a new idea, or a dream that’s off the well worn path of normality, or if we create a hope for a new future - that voice off the CD shouts the words of doubt, and the socks reek their stench. The idea dies before it sees even the light of day.
The skeptic doubtful voices or thoughts we have, eventually become like thorns in a finger. Puss filled, sore, and swollen, we avoid using the finger. We avoid being open to new ideas and possibilities. What’s the point, there’s always some reasons against it.
It’s as if we get stuck, in a rut, with a flat tire, out of gas, in bug season, with these relentless negative skeptical ideas.
Here’s an experiment. Watch what your mind says to you in the microseconds following this sentence:
It’s never too late to have a happier childhood.
Odds are you heard a skeptic. Here’s mine: “C’mon, that’s history. You can’t go back in time. You can’t change the past. That’s crazy talk.”
So, your inner skeptic’s job is to stuff, snuff, and sneeze out any idea that wasn’t or isn’t officially endorsed by the bigger, smarter, stronger, grown-up parent type people.
Seven Examples: Tune into and watch for how the inner skeptic, doubter, and critic manifests itself. Notice how ludicrously outdated the critic can be.
1) Greg and James are canoeing down a river when they come to a small lake. James says “let’s cross the lake and see if the river continues.” Greg replies “It doesn’t continue.” James asks “You know that?” Greg responds “Well twenty years ago I was canoeing on a lake just like this and there was no river on the other side!”
2) Greg and James are in a club for an evening of dancing and socializing with friends. James says “Oh man look at that woman. I’ll ask her to dance.” Greg comes back with “Don’t do it my friend. She’s bad news.” James asks “How do you know that.” Greg explains “A recent article in Psychology Today reported research findings that women with red hair are 72% more likely to reject advances from strange men.”
3) Greg and James leave the club later that night with James lamenting his lost opportunity. Greg says “Always keep in mind that they are the enemy!” James is startled and says “What do you mean?” Greg explains “Think of all the times you were emotionally hurt the most. It was with a woman wasn’t it – mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, first girlfriend. First cut is the deepest. Can’t live with em, and can’t live without em.”
4) As they walk home James says “Let’s cut through the park, it’ll be quicker.” Greg emphatically says “No way.” James asks “Why not?” Greg says “People have been walking around the park for years. There must be a good reason for it or there’d be a path through the park, right? If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? Haste makes waste, right? Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, right? If it was good enough for our fathers, it’s good enough for us, so don’t rock the boat!”
5) James says “Greg, it’s perfectly safe. There’s not been any criminal activity in this park for years.” But Greg replies “Ha, that’s politics for ya. We’re all spoon fed what we read and what we hear in the media. You can’t trust nobody. It’s a dog eat dog world out here. Nice guys finish last. Politicians and big business are in bed together and the cops are the doormen to Hotel Corruption. No sir, we’re walking around the park!”
6) The next day, Greg is over at James’ home watching James finish up an indoor water fountain project. James says “Gluing these rocks together will allow me to maintain the fountain easier.” Greg replies “Who told you to do that.” James says “I dreamed it up myself.” Greg says “Hmm, better not do it. You never know what might happen.”
7) James says to Greg “You have a number of negative, critical, out dated beliefs and skepticisms don’t you?” And Greg replies “I can’t help it, I’ve always been like this. The truth is people don’t change, you can’t teach an old dog a new trick, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, history repeats itself, like father like son, we’re born certain ways and that’s just the way it is.” James replies “What about the idea that a mind is like a parachute, works better when open?” Greg replies “That’s a typical slogan from liberal feminist post-modern philosophy professors.” James adds in “With red hair?” Greg ends it “Yep, while walking through dangerous parks at night.”
A few quotes on this subject ...
We could make our lives so much more interesting and develop so many new capacities if we sought to work with the unknowns of emergence, rather than try and plan surprise out of our lives. – A Simpler Way, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers
The theme of the Grail romance is that the land, the country, the whole territory of concern has been laid waste. It is called a wasteland. And what is the nature of the wasteland? It is a land where everybody is living an inauthentic life, doing as they’re told, with no courage for one’s own life. That is the wasteland! – The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
Nearly everything we have in our human world can be said to have emerged as a result of the powers of the mind and spirit. Imagination, creativity, insight, and the courage to explore and try new things are all intangible and ultimately mysterious and wondrous dimensions of the human psyche. Without them we would never have tamed fire, invented a wheel, built a city, planted a crop, baked bread or painted a picture. - Everyday Miracles, David Spangler
There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle The other is as though everything is a miracle. - Albert Einstein
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For most of us, when we step across the threshold into our homes, we relax from the rigors and vigors of life. It’s our haven of relative calm and peace; it’s a physical manifestation of our emotional, mental, and physical boundaries. Many of us kick off our shoes, settle ourselves, get centered, get connected. We take off our public masks and expose our true faces to our family. Sound good? Hmmm, in theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they never are. The problem is that we are not very thoughtful about what else we expose to the people we care about most.
If You Love Me, You Should Love My Dirty Socksb>
“I love the smell of dirty socks in the morning. It’s the smell of … love!”
Think about that. Does the smell of dirty socks mean love? I suppose it could; but for you personally, reader, does it? How about being yelled at? Does that mean the other person loves you? How about when your partner is late for a date, does that mean s/he loves you? How about when your spouse is critical, or condescending, or shows contempt, does that prove s/he loves you?
Well then, how about receiving the silent treatment, that must mean the withdrawing person loves you, right?
Odds are that none of these actions indicate love; yet these behaviors are common and frequent inside the privacy of our homes. We bathe and perfume, shave and cologne, we deodorize, sanitize, and agonize over our public exposure. But when, on return, we close the door behind us at home … we let it all hang out – justified with some trite panacea about how our family should love us for who we really are.
The whole idea that if someone really loves you they’ll love your dirty socks comes from infancy. Picture it: there you are in a dirty diaper, mommy or daddy is taking the soiled one away, cleaning your bummy, taking care of you. After the stinkyness, you get kissed and cuddled, soft words, and held close. Ahhh, if someone really loves you they’ll love dealing with your poop. Which is nonsense of course – just ask any parent. But we keep the childhood idea anyway, and use it to justify walking around the house with a full diaper.
If our loved ones have the same childhood belief, they too will be walking around the house with a full load. Everyone is justified: if you love me you’ll accept my shit, like mommy and daddy. And if I love you, I’ll accept your shit. See where this is going?
We don’t walk around our work places with full diapers; but at home it’s ok. We chat amiably with the neighbor, loan him our snowblower then walk in the house and crap all over our loved ones cause we had a rough day and this is how we really feel.
I invite you to redecide that: how about being thoughtful with the people you care about? When you come home to your family, be thoughtful about being loving, be thoughtful about respect, be thoughtful about being in an important, the most important relationship.
I’m not a fart aficionado. Neither is my wife. I’ve not met anyone over the age of 7 who is. I don’t think my farts are sublime glister-bubbles of love potion #9; nor are they stand-up comedians. So I choose not to expose my wife to the fart truth about me. Doing so serves no purpose. She’s important to me so I am thoughtful, caring, tender, loving, kind, and gentle with our relationship. I take responsibility for my half of the relationship, meaning I’m thoughtful about what I expose it to. I don’t expose it to farts for example.
And here’s the cool part. She responds by taking responsibility for her half of the relationship; likewise, with thoughtful exposure of herself. We build closeness based on mutual respect of the importance of the relationship. Neither one of us demands the other love our dirty socks or shit-full pants.
And here’s the extra cool part. This version of respect and responsibility builds intimacy and trust. It deepens and strengthens a relationship so that when we are, periodically, exposed to each other’s poop, which is inevitable, it’s easier to breathe through the moment – coasting on the momentum of respectful love, built up to that time.
So if you notice people are holding their breath when you walk in the door, consider cleaning yourself up.
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Perfectionism vs. Excellence
These two siblings may appear the same to an observer of overt behavior. But the subjective, inner experience is quite different. As such, without introspective self disclosure from another person, we cannot assess that person with much reliability. On the other hand, we can examine ourselves and determine if we are seeking excellence or are we driven to be perfect. And then decide to change or not.
What’s Your Favorite Emoticon
A story is made of chapters. Chapters are made of paragraphs. Paragraphs are made of sentences. And sentences are made of words and punctuation. Both words and punctuation are required to confer meaning of a sentence (in the English language). The meanings of each of a paragraph’s sentences determines its overall meaning. Likewise a chapter’s meaning is determined by a summation of the paragraphs. And the theme of the story in the book comes up from the meanings of the chapters. In a very direct manner, the story arises from the sentences. This probably isn’t a new idea. Have you thought about your life in the same way?
Inside each moment of your life are the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that together build the meaning of that moment. Moments group together into hours; hours into days, days into years, and years into a lifetime. So the meanings we build from each moment actually create a life story.
Suppose we put an emoticon at the end of each moment, what would the hours, days, years look like? What would your life story look like if it was that collection of emoticons?
Let’s go one step further. What would your life story look like if each year had a single emoticon to represent it?
Finally, you’re on your death bed - what single emoticon would you use to represent your entire life story?
Think about this: if you consciously put a smiley face into each moment, you’d have a life of smileys. Perhaps that’s impossible; but just imagine if you could choose smiley faces for 75% or 80% of your moments!
In my psychotherapy practice with clients, I use the image of a hummingbird to help put smiley faces into as many moments as the client chooses. The hummingbird can fly in all directions in the search for sweetness. It doesn’t give up its search after one sour flower, or ten, or a hundred – hummingbird is an epic optimist in looking for the nectar of life. Imagine if you treated each moment like a hummingbird, looking for a smiley face. Relentlessly. Passionately invested in finding the best of each moment, your days would have paragraph after paragraph of smiley faces; whole chapters filled with them. What a life story!
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How We Create Our Reality – Conscious Cognition
I celebrated 60 years by planning and anticipating a two week fishing and hunting trip to southwest Alberta. Barbara drove me to the airport, we said our goodbyes and I walked into the terminal with two really big bags full of gear as she drove off. At the check-in kiosk I discovered I’d left my wallet at home, an hour’s drive away. If I could catch Barbara by cell phone right away, I’d have a slim chance of making my flight. I pulled out my phone and called her; but to no avail, her phone was stashed deep in her purse out of hearing. Who else could I call, I pulled up my phone’s contact folder and opened it. Empty! Synchronizing it to my computer that morning I must have somehow deleted everything. I sat down.
Events by themselves carry no intrinsic meaning as an innate property. We put a meaning on an event. It’s a choice. So sitting in the airport without any identification or money or contact information I had the choice of what it all meant. Once I gave the situation a meaning I would have a feeling reaction and I would be living in that reality, and interpreting subsequent events from inside that reality.
My knee-jerk reaction (a script response) at the kiosk was “I am so screwed. I’m gonna miss my flight, pay full fare, lose my car rental, miss the rendezvous with my friends. The whole trip is messed up.” The feeling reaction to those thoughts was disappointment. I began living in a reality where I was getting screwed (I don’t remember hearing any Victim violin music, but it might have been playing in the background). Barbara not answering her phone as an event had no intrinsic meaning, but I made it into proof of the ongoing reality of getting screwed. Then I thought “maybe I’m not supposed to go on this trip.” And for proof, I’d lost all my contact information.
All human beings create meanings from events. If we hadn’t started doing this as a species, we’d have died out long ago. So it’s natural and necessary. The powerful part is that we really do have a choice about meanings.
Once I sat down, calmed myself with a few minutes of breathing meditation and started thinking instead of reacting, I began re-deciding the event’s meanings from a story about me as a Victim, to me as someone who wants to do a trip and needs to get his wallet delivered from Guelph to Toronto. I remembered my step-daughter’s phone number. Called her; she answered; my step-son-in-law was willing to get my wallet and drive it to the airport. I found an airline staff who confirmed that even if I missed my flight, they would get me on another one for fifty bucks or so; and they would help me contact the car rental so I would have a car on arrival. My conscious decision to enter into a new story where problem solving was the focus of activity changed my entire experience.
Every moment, every now, is an opportunity to create, and live in, a reality of our choosing. For me on that trip, I had lots of practice changing the story. Here are some other examples.
Either “Without my wallet I’m screwed”
or “I’m going on my trip. How can I get my wallet?”
Either “Oh no, the landowner has denied us hunting rights, our trip is wrecked”
or “We don’t need to hunt to have a great trip. We can hike and explore and fish in this beautiful countryside.”
Either “I’ll never fit into Barbara’s waders. How the hell did I bring hers and not mine. My fishing trip is ruined”
or “I can have a great time fishing even if I am restricted in my movements by her waders.”
Either “These damn waders made me fall into the river, and now my camera is water-logged”
or “Man what an adventure, icy cold water, just like the fish.”
Either “Waking up twice a night to reset the carbon monoxide detector is a pain in the ass”
or “Look at them stars, wow, what a sight!”
Either “What’s wrong with me that I can’t catch as many trout as my friends”
or “They’re good at fly fishing, what can I learn from them? And look at the color of this water, so gorgeous, and the smell of the aspens and cottonwoods is so sweet, damn it’s beautiful here.”
So here’s a Mission Possible: notice what is working in your life and verbally, explicitly (out loud) acknowledge it, and appreciate it. For example: “I notice I have a fully functional laptop computer and software that I’m typing with. I have a list of people who I can share my thoughts with. What a blessing!”
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When I was a youngster, a popular statement my mother made to me at the dinner table was “Finish your plate, there’s starving children in Africa.” This is illogical to people who have a functional level of cognitive abstraction; but to a child living in a literal reality, the ulterior directive is something like: “If you eat all the food on your plate, the children in Africa won’t starve” or “We took food from them to give to you, so eat up.” Whenever I left food uneaten, I felt guilty. A similar parental directive many of us have heard is this …
You Can’t Complain, It Could be Worse
If you believe this directive, or its corollary “I can’t complain, that person has it worse.” Then I invite you to follow along on this thought experiment.
Suppose you have a cut on your index finger. It stings and you want to talk about it with a health care provider, get it taken care of; oh but wait, Greg over there has a cut on his wrist, it’s a bigger cut. According to the rule, you shouldn’t complain because Greg’s cut is worse than yours. Oh but wait, there’s Sally, and she has a cut on her forearm. It’s even bigger than Greg’s cut. According to the rule, Greg cannot complain about his cut because Sally’s is bigger. Oh but wait, there’s Bob, and he’s got a cut across his abdomen that’s bigger than Sally’s. So according to the rule, Sally cannot complain because of Bob’s cut. Oh but wait there’s Jill, and she has a cut that’s even bigger than Bob’s. So only she can complain. And on it goes until we get to the one person who has the biggest baddest meanest ‘whatever’. According to the rule, only that person can complain, and only while they are the worst. And how would that person know they were the worst and therefore at the front of the queue and had the right to complain and receive treatment?
So according to the rule, only the worst can complain, whoever that is, is undefineable. Is this the world view you want to support? Is this a rule you want to keep?
Consider this alternative. If you have a problem, take steps to solve it. Don’t wait for other people to solve their problems before you solve yours. Just because other people have problems does not mean yours are unimportant. Another person’s problem may require more resources to solve; but your problem is important to solve as well. Another person’s problem may require a more timely application of resources; but your problem is important to solve as well.
This also applies to feelings. Your feelings are important and worthy of concern and care, compassion and loving kindness.
Mission Possible: Develop backup plans for asking for what you need and want; then ask for what you need and want.
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I Shoulda Known Better …
Hindsight Bias is self-criticism for not knowing what was unknown. Hold on now … what was that? Read it again: hindsight bias is self-criticism for not knowing what was unknown. Here’s how it works, and read this slowly so you understand it: In a present-tense situation requiring action, we assemble data, design problem-solving strategies, project those strategies into the future, and then assign probabilities of various outcomes to those strategies. Then we act. At a later time, after the outcomes are experienced, we revise/update those outcome probabilities in our knowledge base with what actually happened. We can choose to use this knowledge base in any future relevant situations: it’s called experience and wisdom. If we use this outcome knowledge to negatively judge ourselves (criticize), ex post facto, we’re engaging in a self-deprecating disempowering cognitive distortion called hindsight bias.
The “I Shoulda Known Better” Twins: When you say “I shoulda known better”, be aware you are engaging in one of two self-critical activities.
Shoulda 1: In some situations we have all the data needed to make a decision; yet we choose to ignore (discount) some of it, and perhaps suffer the consequences of the faulty problem-solving strategy. In this case, yes we could have decided differently. That’s water under the bridge. Time for a choice, criticize ourselves, or conduct insight inquiry into why we discounted some pertinent data. To criticize is to engage in hindsight bias. Criticism wastes energy and time that could be used problem solving.
Greg: Help Doc, I got bad diarrhea.
Doc: How’d you get that?
Greg: I was up in the Rocky Mtns fly fishing & hunting with a long time friend. He’s been living there for 27 years and has always been drinking water straight out of those picture perfect babbling mountain brooks. He’s never been ill from it. There’s no beavers at those altitudes, just pure glacier melt water, so I figured no Giardia, safe water right?
Doc: Wrong. When did you get sick?
Greg: Eight days into the vacation.
Greg: I did 6 courses of microbiology for my B.Sc, so I know there’s a plethora of organisms in every drop of untreated water. Those mountain lakes have all sorts of poop dropping mammals wandering around. I ignored that and went for easy. Easier to dip and drink than carry water for 12 hours a day. And I wanted to be a tough ol mountain man like my friend; drinkin it straight. I Shouldda known better.
Doc: Nice example of hindsight bias
Shoulda 2: In some situations we do not have all pertinent data; or we don’t know that we’re missing pertinent data; or we are constrained from acquiring the pertinent data within a decision making timeframe or structure. But anyways, a decision is made and action taken. Afterwards, we have access to data that was unavailable at decision time. So, at this later moment, our knowledge base has been updated. Time for a choice, criticize ourselves, or conduct insight inquiry into why we didn’t have all the data. To criticize is to engage in hindsight bias. Criticism wastes energy and time that could be used problem solving.
Doc: So’d you catch any fish?
Greg: Dozens, and one really nice 5 lb Cutthroat trout. We were gonna release it but the dog, Riley, got it. I’m dumb.
Greg: I was holding it up for pictures. It squirmed and slipped out of my grip into the shallows. Riley pounced on it, chomp chomp. I’d never heard of a fish eating dog till then. Once again, I shoulda known better.
Doc: So you didn’t know he was a fish dog till after the fact. Nice example of Hindsight Bias.
It All Starts In Childhood: As children we are constantly learning by trial and error – learning from experience how to assess outcome probabilities of various strategies. If we have parents or other caregivers who support us in this process by being compassionate, understanding, informative, guiding us to improve our data collection skills and problem solving talents, hindsight bias usually isn’t a future issue. In contrast, if we have caregivers who ridicule, criticize, or blame us/them when our/their learning experiences yield less than optimum results, we learn to conduct self-criticism.
The mistaken belief operating with self-criticism is that the criticism will stop us from making bad decisions in the future. It’s a type of punishment parents erroneously believe to be helpful. It’s totally false! What it does encourage is paranoia and decision anxiety. People who conduct hindsight bias are reluctant to take action, because they are never confident that they have all relevant data or that they aren’t ignoring some data, for taking an action.
The Way Out: Simple in theory, but requiring diligence and practice, the cure for “I Shoulda Known Better” is a committed refusal to self-criticize, replacing it instead with a different commitment: persistent self-nurturing, compassion, insight inquiry, and acceptance that life is a continuous process of learning experiences for which we’ll often NOT have enough data to make optimum decisions. Furthermore, as imperfect beings (you fart now and then, don’t you?) with complex psychologies, even if we do have all relevant data, we sometimes make sub-optimum decisions.
And being imperfect human beings, sometimes, despite knowing better, we go ahead and drink bad water.
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Do It Yourself Psychotherapy
Summary: Most people don’t fiddle with car repairs themselves, they go to experts. Most people don’t extract their own teeth, they go to experts. Most people don’t try and set their own broken arms or stitch up their own cuts, they go to experts. Yet the psychology self help section of every bookstore attests to the fact that many people attempt to do psychotherapy on themselves. Human psychology is vastly more complicated than a tooth extraction or a broken arm, or a cut; but most people ignore, put up with, medicate, or try to psychotherapy themselves.
I was at the grocery store checkout counter when a female friend from high school called hello from the next lane over. After a bit of ritual chit chat, I asked her if she’d received my most recent mailing, announcing an upcoming workshop. She said she had, “but I’ve done all that personal growth stuff on my own for years using the self-help section at Chapters.” I said “Ah, how’s that been working for you?” She replied “Great. Gotta run. See ya.” which I did a few months later. She was on her first date as a newly separated single. She’s divorced now. I hope she's using a therapist instead of reading a book on moving past divorce.
For understanding ideas, issues, problems, and often for inspiration and motivation, some self-help books have been quite useful to me over my 48 years of reading them. I’ve probably read several hundred. In terms of making real effective changes they were next to useless compared to therapy. The changes I made with a therapist compared to the changes I made using a book is like comparing driving to the corner store verses crawling there on hands and knees!
Doing therapy on self requires using self as a tool – and that’s the tool that needs modifying. From inside our beliefs, from inside our coping strategies, from inside our thinking disorders, from inside the family and larger culture that helped shape the way we are with our problems - we’re stuck. Yes we can understand why we’re stuck; yes we can see a better way; yes we know why we should or should not think/feel/do this or that; but regardless, we’re stuck in there. And no paint by numbers recipe is personal enough or powerful enough to get us out.
Which is more complicated, a car or a human being’s psychology? Which is more vital to happiness and fulfillment? Which do you take to experts, and which do you try and fix yourself?
Next time I get a tooth ache I might try the self-help route. How hard can it be, after all, we didn’t have dentists for a couple hundred thousand years or so and all those ancestors did or didn’t extract teeth ok. It might hurt a bit but I’ll save some cash. My friend John is handy with tools. He’s rebuilt several motorcycles so he can probably extract the problem tooth with some’o them needle nose pliers with the bent ends and locking jaws. After a glass or two of some single malt I’d let him just reach in there, grab hold, latch on, twist’n pull – easy schmeezy.
Last winter my snow blower was running a little rough, just a bit of a cough. It has a little single cylinder engine so I went to Chapters.ca, read the reviews and bought the best seller “Small Engine Care and Repair” thinking I’d clean the carburetor myself. How hard can it be after all. I’m intelligent, mechanical, handy with tools, I have a B.Sc. an M.A. and a pilots licence so what’s the big deal? I got to page three and a dozen parts on the garage floor when the book’s diagrams and my snowblower parted ways. I consider myself lucky to have reassembled it and that it runs at all after my excursion into unfamiliar territory. Anyone want a best selling book on small engine care and repair? I’ll give it away
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The following flowchart/diagram may be more technical than you want, but some clients appreciate knowing what's going on with their depression. For a majority of people with depression, this is a hypothetical explanatory starting point.
The following flowchart/diagram may be more technical than you want, but some clients appreciate knowing what's going on with their anxiety. For a majority of people with anxiety, this is a hypothetical explanatory starting point.
Show Me The Strokes
What I'm showing you here in the next few paragraphs is the introduction to a handout I give clients. The full document is available to you as a pdf download at the bottom.
When one of us recognizes the existence of another, it’s called a 'stroke'.
Examples: verbal transactions - “Good Morning”, “Hello”, “uh hu”, “hey you”, “screw you”
Examples: physical transactions - eye contact, smiles, frowns, nods, touch, eye brow raising, shrugs
Many people believe that recognition of existence is a basic human psychological need. Some people believe strokes are necessary to infants for physical survival. Even if a stroke isn’t a basic human need most people would agree that recognition is important.
Strokes are experienced on a scale from most pleasurable to most painful. For example receiving sexual pleasure from your lover is a set of strokes at one end of the spectrum, and receiving a beating from a bully is a set of strokes at the other end. Both are sets of strokes and what we know is that people will seek and/or receive any form of stroke even if painful rather than go without. And the stroke can be either physical or verbal. Verbal strokes are symbolic of a physical one, so not as satisfying. We call the pleasurable strokes positive, and the painful strokes negative.
Our parents preferred to give us certain kinds of strokes as we grew up. They also delivered strokes in specific quantities. If the supply was stable, these kinds and quantities of strokes are what we became comfortable and accustomed to. As adults now, we continue to prefer and seek out these forms and quantities, even if they are negative. Therefore, a man or woman typically marries someone who delivers a stroke profile similar to what they received from their parents. In the case of negative stroke patterns, as observers we can only shake our heads and marvel at how someone puts up with such abuse, aware of it, lamenting it, perhaps even hating it; yet ambivalent enough about it to remain in the relationship. In some cases, people reframe the abuse as a sign of caring. And indeed from a stroke perspective the abuser cares enough about the person to pay attention and deliver strokes.
This brings us back to the fact that negative strokes are better than no strokes. A child proves self existence because the parents respond : the child exists to the parents; he or she must exist and matter enough to the parents because the parents are responding with strokes. A child receiving no strokes, no recognition at all, feels emotionally abandoned at best and nonexistent at worst. There have been many tragic cases of this, and the child dies. There is a very effective method of interacting with children based on stroking called the Nurtured Heart Method which I’ll describe later (and see Suggested Books: Transforming the Difficult Child).
Up to this point I’ve only talked about person to person strokes, or what we call interpersonal strokes. If interpersonal strokes (I talk about pets next) are in short supply we will seek out intrapsychic/virtual (fantasy) strokes. These are called intrapsychic because they take place inside oneself; the inner part of us recognizes the existence of the outer part. This may or may not include actual touching. Much of the appeal of daydreaming is in the delivery of intrapsychic strokes – I’m receiving hearty accolades from the audience after my brilliant talk on The Stroke Economy.
In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks character needs strokes so he invents a companion “Wilson” the volleyball, with whom he exchanges strokes. The strokes are of course intrapsychic, projected onto Wilson, and their psychological value isn’t sufficient to sustain the guy; which eventually motivates him to leave the island. Looking in the mirror before going to a social function is a sequence of intrapsychic stroking, perhaps negative: “You look fat.”, perhaps positive “You handsome fellow”and if another person is willing to engage in interpersonal verbal stroking, so much the better.
A large number of people have pets in order to secure a source of strokes for themselves. These aren’t as good as human strokes but they fill the bill somewhere between interpersonal and intrapsychic. If an animal has the mental capabilities to deliver what we perceive as human type strokes, the animal is often a more favorable pet. For many people, dogs are preferred over snakes or frogs for example because the former acknowledge us with overt behavior we evaluate as recognition; for example we walk in the room and Fido wags her tail – close to an interpersonal stroke. Snakes and frogs are probably just as aware of us as dogs, and acknowledge us in ‘snakey’ or ‘frogy’ ways; but not in ways we perceive and evaluate as recognition, so we don’t receive strokes from them as we do with dogs. With either type of pet we could decide to fantasize some strokes as in “Ah the snake is smiling at me”, these would be intrapsychic.
For optimum health each of us need both positive and negative strokes. I know this might sound a bit weird at first but follow along cause it’s important.
You and I, as does every child, know deep down that we are not totally acceptable to all people. If we only experience positive strokes we will not have a realistic picture of ourselves as others see us. Therefore we must hear some negative strokes to validate the authenticity of our experience of reality. Negative strokes also validate and give relative meaning to the positive strokes we receive. Furthermore, we need to receive negative strokes to gain an appreciation for thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are unhealthy, dysfunctional, counter productive, or anti-social.
Strokes are perceived units of recognition of our existence. They can be physical, verbal, or virtual. They can be interpersonal, or intrapsychic. They can be judged as positive or negative based on the subjective experience being pain or pleasure. We need strokes; preferring interpersonal to intrapsychic, preferring positive to negative and preferring negative to none at all. We need both positive and negative strokes.
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In extensive videotaped sessions with over a thousand couples and then following up over time with them, researchers discovered a high direct correlation between specific modes of interpersonal communication and rates of separation and divorce. If you do the following with your intimate partner, the odds are high (+90%) that you’ll split up. These are the heart breakers, the show stoppers, the straws that accumulate to break two people apart who at one time loved each other.
1) Criticism – If you don’t like something, find a solution by problem solving it. If you say you need to complain or criticize because you can’t solve the problem then you’re fooling yourself into thinking the problem is “out there”. Actually the problem is yours! Trying to get the other person to solve your problem is self-disempowering; your partner will feel attacked and probably get defensive (number 2 on our list). Criticism doesn’t build intimacy – it rips it into shreds like french fries.
2) Defensiveness/Retaliation - When you feel the urge to defend, stop yourself real quick “Stop in the name of love, before you …” and move into active and empathic listening by telling yourself this: my partner has a problem and is suffering so I’ll listen for a request to help. Oh, and news flash – just because someone tells you their experience of you does not make it truly about you! Defensiveness doesn’t build intimacy – it mashes it like overcooked potatoes.
3) Contempt - In this culture the genders are trained in different acceptable behaviors to express anger. For the most part men are encouraged to be physical when angry; and women are encouraged to be verbal. At the same time we’ve been taught not to assault people, physically or verbally, when angry. What we are “allowed to do” is use contempt – the subtle assault. For example: rolling of the eyes, snide comments, ‘jokes’ at the other person’s expense. Contempt doesn’t build intimacy – it snaps it apart like a wish bone.
4) Stonewalling/Withdrawal – The Silent Treatment hardly needs any explaining. It doesn’t solve a thing, just sweeps whatever issue is current under the carpet. After a while the carpet is like a landfill site, spouting noxious fart gas that spontaneously and unpredictably bursts into flame, charbroiling anyone who’s nearby. Stonewalling doesn’t build intimacy – it builds pressure for a big fiery blowout.
The Foot Soldiers of the Four Horsemen – these three fellas run side by side with the Horsemen and spear any relationship left alive.
1) Needing to be Right – Ah, isn’t it sweet to be right? Erroneously founded on the assumption you actually know what’s absolutely right. Have you noticed how Mr. or Ms. ‘Know-it-all’ often doesn’t have many friends?
2) Controlling Your Partner – We control machines, not people. If you confuse the two, you need professional help - call me.
3) Unbridled/Unedited Self Expression and Self Disclosure - This guy is nasty because it hides a set of mistaken beliefs such as: I need to speak my truth; To be true to myself I need to express myself; If my partner REALLY loves me I can say anything. Balooney. If these beliefs were true you wouldn’t be nervous about job interviews, or first dates. Fact is, we judge others all the time based on what they say and do. So be thoughtful about what you say and do. Be your best with the people you care about most.
Consider this: Divorce is very expensive. And it hurts. Do yourself a favor, don’t feed the Four Horsemen and the Foot Soldiers.
1) A study led by Brian Ogolsky from the University of Illinois found four distinct ‘patterns’ in the way couples interacted over a nine-month period. Ogolsky tracked the progress of 376 couples in their mid-twenties - in terms of their ‘commitment to wed’. The most likely to wed are ‘partner-focused’ couples - where the two people think of each other’s needs, Ogolsky said. ‘People in these couples had the highest levels of conscientiousness, which suggests that they are very careful and thoughtful about the way they approach their relationship choices.’ In other words, a relationship takes care the needs and wants of both people, nobody comes second.
2) How often do you say, ‘Thank you’?
The key to whether relationships last over the long haul might be the frequency with which you and your other half says two little words. Not ‘I love you’, but, ‘Thank you.’ Researchers at the University of Georgia interviewed 468 married people - and found that gratitude was a key ingredient in making marriages work. ‘We found that feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your relationship, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last,’ said professor Ted Futris.
3) Do you tend to listen - or dismiss what your partner says?
Mathematician Hannah Fry observed hundreds of couples, monitoring everything from facial expressions to blood pressure. Fry believes that if couples react negatively to each other all the time - for instance by dismissing or ignoring what the other says, the entire relationship can be poisoned. Fry says such negative relationships hit a ‘tipping point’. She says, ‘In relationships where both partners consider themselves as happy, bad behavior is regarded as unusual. ‘In negative relationships, however, the situation is reversed. Bad behavior is considered normal. ‘A husband, for instance, might think his wife’s grumpiness is 'typical’, due to her 'selfishness’ or other negative personality trait.’ These relationships reach a breaking point.
4) Does your relationship have a lot of ups and downs?
Couples whose relationships have a lot of dramatic ups and downs are MORE likely to split up even than couples who argue. Brian Ogolsky from the University of Illinois’s study of 382 couples found that ups and downs are the most accurate predictor of couples splitting up. Ogolsky says there are four ‘types’ of couple - dramatic couples (34%), whose relationship goes up and down, conflict-ridden couples (12%), who often argue, partner-focused couples (30%), who spend lots of time together and focus on each other, and socially involved couples (19%), with a lot of interactions with family and friends. Ogolsky found, surprisingly, that conflict-ridden couples AREN’T the most likely to split up - the most likely to split up are dramatic couples.
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Levels of Perception
The reason for knowing the levels of perception is in order to attend to life and its challenges from a helpful or appropriate level. I’ll introduce each level, then describe how you might choose to use them. In order from most materialistic to most energetic:
1) The physical world of matter. This is the level of perceiving reality strictly from the 5 senses where only what can be experienced physically is real. A person living at this level will say “I accept as real, only what I sense.” Everything is just what it appears to be. We describe reality by using language of machines, parts, molecules, chemistry, mathematics, measurements and empiricism. This level is impartial; you could say cold blooded – like a serpent. And indeed, a serpent seems to perceive reality in this way: what is, just is. Furthermore, we humans have a component of our anatomy called the brain stem that is often referred to as the reptilian brain, so we have the capability to live at this level; for pure survival & instinctual purposes. We call this level of perception, the level of serpent.
2) The thoughts and feelings world of the mind. This level enfolds or encloses the level of serpent like another outer layer of an onion; and as such, adds a wider field of view. This is the level of perceiving reality using the mind. At this level, unlike the previous, nothing is just what it seems, everything is evaluated by thought and feeling into personal meaning. We describe reality by using the language of cause and effect, functional analysis, rational decision making and choices, curiosity and questioning. And we describe reality from feelings with words like happy, sad, angry, excited and afraid. This level is involved in the gooey-honey-pooey business of life. It is warm blooded, like a jaguar, which seems to perceive reality in this way, sniffing and pondering, tracking, aggression, mating, raising kittens, snoozing the afternoon, then hunting and killing what it needs to incorporate into itself. Jaguar circles around an object of its attention and gains different perspectives in its attempt to make meaning out of the world around; unlike a serpent that takes a singular point of view. Humans have a region of the brain that is referred to as the mammalian brain. We call this level of perception the level of jaguar.
3) The world of the soul. This is yet again a level that enfolds the first two. This is the level where reality is perceived as a sacred and epic journey. The language of this level is myth and story, poetry, music, vistas, visions and dreams. At this level, everything has much less weight. Everything is as it truly is – an expression of the divine. When you hear yourself or others say that having a human life, with all its good and bad has been a wondrous adventure, it’s from this level of perception. Extending the jaguar viewpoint with a lightness of being this soul level includes a higher view of reality. Not too high, but high enough to look for a bigger picture. We can symbolize this level with the hummingbird, a heroic and epic featherweight journeyer, able to fly around or hover in any direction, committed to seeking sweetness (the sacred) of reality. We call this level of perception the level of hummingbird.
4) The world of spirit. This is the outermost, highest level of perception. At this level, reality is perceived as mostly energy that structures itself into forms of matter. Reality is one really big field of energy from which forms arise. You’ve heard the saying “we’re all one”, or “we’re spiritual beings having a human experience” - that comes from perceiving reality at this level. It’s like what an eagle perceives soaring way up there – the world view. Take that eagle to the highest level and s/he flies wingtip to wingtip with Great Spirit, a cosmic view – a spiritual view. We call this level of perception, the level of eagle.
For most of us, moment to moment living is at the second, the jaguar level. However each level of perception can be helpful, especially if we go up a level.
As physicists were attempting to reconcile the general theory of relativity with quantum theory, they discovered that by adding another spatial dimension, the equations resolved. Similarly, a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve at one level of perception, may be solved at the next level up. Einstein alluded to this in his 1946 New York Times quote: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” (This has been paraphrased and attributed to him as “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them"). And this is the power of the levels of perception for us – to move up and down as a response to our experience of life. For example:
Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a land distant but not too far away, a foreigner was walking through a small city. Coming upon a site occupied by architects, sawyers, masons, carpenters and sculptors, the foreigner approached one of the workers and inquired as to his activity. The man replied “I am a brick layer, building a wall.” A short distance beyond was another man who overheard the question and volunteered his own answer. “I too am a brick layer, but I’m building a cathedral!” A third man, gazing at the scene with a smile on his face, seemingly in bliss of some kind was asked the same question. After a moment of being unaware that the question was directed at him, he looked into the foreigner’s eyes and whispered “Imagine what will happen here.”
The first man was living his moment to moment life at the jaguar level, the second brick layer experienced his life as part of a sweeter, bigger view, a grand story, a cathedral based vista. The third man, had an eagle view. Picture yourself as a worker on that site. Which level of perception would better serve you?
For many of the challenges we face in our lives, such as chronic illness, death of loved ones, or endings of relationships to name a few, the jaguar explanation is of little or no help. Going up a level to hummingbird or even to eagle often proves to be exactly what we need. Doing so gives us a greater perspective allowing more creative solutions to come into our awareness, just as the extra spatial dimension allowed the resolution of a seemingly unsolvable physics problem.
So here I am on Sunday the 13th of October typing on a keyboard watching letters appear on the screen in front of me. (serpent) I like what I’ve written and I’m feeling satisfied with the logical flow of ideas, and I’m confident you’ll get the intended meaning. (jaguar) Let these words rouse you to witness the sunrise of a new way for you to perceive the grandeur of your inner landscape and life journey across it. May the twinkling smile of a billion stars greet you at days end. (hummingbird) Ahhhh, Ho. (eagle)
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The Dramatic Family Celebration - Let's Just Get This Over With
Through the year, we all have major celebrations, birthdays, weddings, funerals, Christmas, Hanukkah, the Solstices, Ashura, to name a few. For many people and families, the meaning and full immersion into the experience can be tainted by interpersonal issues, and personal emotional difficulties. This short document isn’t a swap for counselling. It is, however, some tips anyone can use to help reframe these times.
(1) A Celebratory Period is Actually a Plannable Project.
If you wanted to drive to Naples Florida for the week Dec. 22-29 would you plan ahead? Or would you just jump in the car on the 22nd and drive towards the sun hoping everything would work out? Christmas is the same but because we're not taught to plan it out, doing so doesn’t seem like common sense. If you'd been taught from an early age to plan Christmas like a drive to Florida, would it not seem right?
The truth is: the probability you will have the kind of Christmas that you want increases with the amount of planning and preparation you do. A Christmas that is healthy, relaxing, nourishing, and fulfilling is not a miracle, not a fluke, not good luck and not beyond your capabilities. Oh, and by the way, driving towards the sun in order to arrive at Naples has a very low probability of success!
Here’s what the planning should look like:
(a) What do you want during the next few weeks? Write it down. Doing so makes it real and important. Be specific with dates, times, activities. Include personal discretionary time! And, believe it or not, you can take time for yourself, you should take time for yourself, you will be happier for it, you will have more enthusiasm and energy for other people's needs and wants if you do.
(b) What does your primary partner want, and what do your children want from the experience? Get their specific input and get it written down. Impress on them the necessity. Otherwise they're taking your route to Naples and it won't include Disney World.
(c) I suggest you also gather input from other family members. In some families, a tradition carries everyone along. The odds are that your needs are not really being met by that tradition. If you're an adult and you have a problem saying no to Mother/Father/Grandmother/Grandfather or the in-laws, do the following:
(i) Make your plan the way you want it, including your choice of time with the relatives
(ii) Script a phone call to the family authority figure that includes the phrase "Here's what our family has decided to do this year. .... " Plan the end of the call to include a stroke "Just before I sign off, I want to tell you how much I appreciate your understanding of our need to establish our own family traditions. Talk to you soon. Bye"
(iii) Drill for skill. Practice it with someone so you can hear all the objections. To each objection reply along the lines of "Well. this is what works best for our family this year." Or "We've decided to do Christmas differently this year, and this is what works best for us."
(iv) Once you have it smooth and flowing, make the call. Even if an answering machine picks up, leave the message. You might be tempted to txt the message, and depending on your relationship to the person, it could work – or it could be perceived as a ‘screw you’ message.
(d) Once you have the list of what everyone wants, get a calendar and start planning. Be realistic and conservative. Build in down time. This is more like a marathon than a sprint. If you've planned well, on January 2 you'll say "I'm rested and happy." If you've planned poorly you'll say "Thank God that's over for another year!"
(2) The most important item you can take care of over Christmas is your personal stroke economy. Getting positive attention from your loved ones, from friends, from acquaintances, and from strangers will enliven every cell in your body. Accept all the hugs, all the kisses, all the compliments, and all the smiles you possibly can. The two best ways to do this are (a) ask for them and (b) give them.
(a) Ask your partner for hugs. Set aside ‘cookie’ time. Sneak away for kisses. Make it a priority. It could be your last Christmas together so how do you want to remember it by, the jobs and chores you got done, or the closeness you shared by the Christmas tree. Ask. Ask. ASK.
(b) Make a list of what gifts you'd like to receive! Be Adult about it and price everything so that people's budgets are taken into account. Unless you've been openly expressive and shared what you want out loud, your family members won't have a clue - they are not mind readers. Matter of fact, neither was your mother, even though she changed your diaper when you needed that. "If they really loved me they'd pay attention and know me well enough to get what I want." Yep, if they had nothing else to do but follow you around all day. Like Mommy used to? If you care about someone, you'll listen to them and consider getting them what they request. Getting them what you think they want, or worse, what you want them to have - is a gift to yourself, satisfying yourself. May as well keep it.
(c) When you're out shopping, each sales clerk and cashier has a handy supply of smiles just itching to be set free if you smile first. Notice what the person is wearing and give them a compliment. The returning smile is like winning a prize. Every waitstaff wants a stroke. What ear-ring is he wearing? Tell him he's doing a great job. Tell him you're psychic and that Santa's gonna be good to him this year. Give. Give. Give. And here's a TA insider tip: when you give to someone else, the Child in you is listening and receiving.
(d) Give to yourself. Start a stroke file and save up all those delicious cards, notes, emails and so on that people send you containing strokes. Like a bank. When you feel in a deficit, open the file and draw on that line of credit.
(e) Give yourself a gift. Seriously! Buy it real soon and have it wrapped at the mall or the online retailer. By Christmas you'll look forward to opening it and enjoying it. This technique will ensure you get at least one thing you really wanted. It’s a bonus prize if you follow suggestion (b) above.
(f) Return and exchange gifts you don't want. Make it a policy during the planning meeting (see above) that your family understand this is an OK thing to do and that everyone should keep receipts. It's like this, suppose you ask for a hug from your sweetie but forgot about that sore spot on your shoulder. Once you felt the pain from the hug you'd say "Whoa, I have a sore spot. Will you give me the hug differently?" Same thing, "Honey, I really appreciate the stroke that your gift represents, so I'd like to get it all over again with a slightly different gift, OK with you?"
And in the spirit of demonstration, I have two requests: (1) Call me for an appointment if you think you need help with this, and (2) if you appreciate this reading, or the others on my website, how bout giving me a gift card from The First Cast Fly Fishing shop in Guelph? Thanks …
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MICRO SELF CARE
‘Little and Often’ is a phrase to describe how to create new life style habits. Whatever change you want to make in your life-style, develop a plan for little changes you can do often that yield the desired result. Applying the little and often strategy to self-care results in a process called ‘Micro Self-Care’.
Micro Self-Care is a proven method for preventing burnout. Here are several practices I recommend.
7 Squared Breathing
When: Stress or anxiety
What: Inhale to the count of 7; hold it to the count of 7; exhale to the count 7; hold it to the count of 7. Repeat for as long as you want. You can vary the ‘counting’ either faster or slower to make it relaxing.
Why: Variations of ‘breath work’ have existed for thousands of years in traditions around the globe to promote the relaxation response. This particular version is easy and quiet to do.
Ease on Down the Road
When: After a particularly tense interaction or event.
What: Progressively tense four major muscle groups for 5 seconds and then relax for 10 seconds. As you relax, say a cue word or phrase such as “I’m relaxing” or “I’m releasing” or “it's okay now”, and notice how feelings of relaxation enter your muscles. Repeat the cycle of tense and release twice before you move on to the next muscle group. Start with your lower limbs and feet, move to your chest and abdomen, then to your shoulders and arms, and end with your neck and face.
Why: Progressive muscle relaxation has been shown to stimulate the body's relaxation response. It's become a standard intervention for stress and pain relief in many settings. Its benefits are threefold: it relaxes the body, focuses the mind, and renews awareness of our feelings and inner sensations.
Wring It Out
When: At the end of the workday, before you go home.
What: Sit upright in a chair. Slowly and gently twist your body to the right from your hips to your head. Turn around as far to the right as you can. (You might wish to grab the chair handle to help you turn further.) Hold for 10 seconds or longer, allowing your muscles to relax and stretch. Add an extra stretch with a deep inhale, letting your chest expand. Then exhale as you come back to the front. Then repeat this process to the left. As you wring yourself and exhale, imagine that you're a sponge that's absorbed other people’s energies. You want to squeeze out this sponge, freeing yourself from their concerns. Take a moment to notice how your body feels after you twist. Once you're done, shake your arms in front of you as you release the day's work.
Why: The essence of this micro self-care practice is in the stretch. As we sit in our offices, conference rooms, lunch tables, and in our cars, the muscles of the back, chest, and shoulders tighten and clench to keep our posture. These tight muscles act as reservoirs for our stress and create discomfort and pain. Gentle and slow twisting relaxes them, signaling to our bodies and minds that it's time to leave work at the office and lighten our load for our homecoming.
Circle of Community
When: First thing after you've settled into your office and before you begin your workday activities.
What: Take a circular object and hold it in your hand. I have a small rose quartz circle that I keep in my desk drawer. Hold the object in your hand and say, "I'm part of a vast circle of like-minded people around the globe." As you say this, close your eyes and imagine people of all persuasions in your town, state, country, and in countries around the world. Know that you're part of a web of people engaged with life, doing the same work/activities as you.
Why: Whether we work or are engaged in activities of private practice, in clinics, or other settings, at some point we close our doors and are alone with ourselves. This can feel isolating, as if we're alone in the world. If there's one thing all schools of psychology agree about, it's that relationships are crucial to our well-being. This brief technique reminds us that we're part of a tribe.
When: Just before you start a stressful or responsibility charged activity.
What: Think to yourself, I do this because …. Maybe you do this activity because you want to alleviate suffering, help people, understand yourself better, make a difference in the world, or simply because it's interesting. Get in touch with your motivation and intention before each engagement with the activity.
Why: Many people overlook what propelled them into the particular activity in the first place. That initial motivation may still be the primary glue keeping you involved. Or perhaps different motivations have surfaced through the years. Whatever it is, something is inspiring you to do this activity on this day. It's too easy to get bogged down by the day-to-day tasks and details, especially if we lose sight of our purpose. Placing your primary motivation front and center in your mind initiates a sense of purpose before initiating any action.
Hark How the Bells
When: At the start of a stressful or responsibility charged activity.
What: Ring a Tibetan singing bowl (or other chime) three times. Listen to the sound as it dissipates into the air around you and then begin the session.
Why: This mindfulness-based ritual helps you transition into the activity. Mindful awareness not only offers us resilience in the face of uncertainty and challenge, but is a crucial determinant in our ability to think and act.
Imagine That (or Go to the Beach)
When: When you feel disconnected, anxious, spaced out, or melancholy.
What: Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a favorite place, happy and peaceful. It could be a real place that you remember or a fantasy place of calm and bliss. Summon as many aspects of the place as possible, including sounds, smells, temperature, tastes, and visual details. Let these sensory cues come alive in your imagination and then bask in the glow of warm, happy sensations. Enjoy this image for a minute or two.
Why: When you summon a happy place in your mind, your brain and body begin to respond as if you're actually there. You feel instantly at peace. In psychotherapy, safe-place imagery is taught to clients as a way to de-escalate when they notice being triggered by their emotions.
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