I feel sorry for my kids sometimes – can’t be easy having a psych for a mum! I had this conversation with my eldest recently when he didn’t want to give a new sports class a go:
Him: I don’t want to go. I won’t like it. I’m no good at it. I just KNOW.
Me (inside my head): Oh that’s so not gonna cut it, son, you’ve got no idea who you’re dealing with.
Me (out loud): Do you remember how you didn’t want to go to the school disco? How was it when you just gave it a go anyway?
Him: Really good fun.
Me (a few turns in conversation later): Do you think maybe it might be the same with this class, could we give it a go and then decide?
Me: For The Win!!!!! (oh yeah, inside my head again)
It’s not an exceptional conversation – families have “chats” like these all the time – often at the dinner table “you’ve never had this before, you don’t KNOW if you don’t like it…”. When we’re dealing with our kids, we work hard with them on the message that maybe their minds are giving them a bum steer on some things. Maybe they should just see what their experience tells them rather than trusting their mind. Isn’t it curious how we can see this so clearly with our kids, and yet when it comes to our own thinking, we take it SO MUCH MORE SERIOUSLY?
We’ve already looked at how your brain might lie to you. Don’t get too caught up in this – it’s mostly a useful function our brains provide, it’s just that sometimes we need to open up to the possibility that the story isn’t entirely accurate. For other ways our brains play tricks on us, have a read of “Why Smart People are Stupid” (I liked it so much, I’d rather we could just pretend it was a planned sequel to The Brain That Lies). We also had a look at “cognitive fusion” in my last post about babies and microwaves – when we hold tightly to a thought, so much so that we lose sight of everything else around us.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it doesn’t matter whether a thought is true so much as whether the thought is helpful. For example, when my son’s mind tells him “I won’t have fun or be good at this new sport”, he and I could come up with a host of evidence for and against (our minds are great debaters) – but the question of real interest is: “If we take that thought seriously, does it help him live the life he wants to be living?” If the answer is yes, then so be it, we can thank his mind for being useful. Often, however, these thoughts are not so helpful – these are the ones we can play with differently.
The “Bad” News
Here’s a hard fact to just get clear on straight away: Those thoughts – the ones we don’t like, the ones we don’t want, the ones that might be lies, the ones that hurt – they are going to keep showing up for the rest of your life. Sorry about that, I didn’t make the rules. Our minds are very clever, and our negative thoughts serve a purpose – they’re not going to stop. If you’re not sure, make a quick list of all the things you’ve done to try and get rid of them – and check out how many of them have worked. While you’re at it, also check out what those attempts have cost you (more on this another time). If you still want to argue – hit me up with a comment below. I could labour the point, but my chief editor pointed out my last post was a bit too long – I’m working on brevity this week 🙂
The “Good” News
What we CAN do is transform the relationship we have with our thoughts. We can learn how to take them a little less seriously. We can create a little bit of space between us as “the thinker” (or, more accurately, “the one who thinks as well as feels, and a whole lot more”), and “the thought” our mind is busy having. We can evaluate it, check in with what our other information sources are telling us (the present moment coming in through our senses; the views of people around us) and decide whether acting in accordance with that thought is going to take us closer to the life we want to be living – or whether we just let the thought bounce around doing its own thing while we get on with doing the stuff that matters.
Learning to Play
One way to start developing some flexibility with your thinking is to make a regular practice of just “noticing” your thoughts – observing them as they come and go, without holding on to any of them in particular. When I do this with kids, I get out sticky notes and pop them on matchbox cars – the thought cars can race or go for a leisurely Sunday drive – but the child that has the thoughts can just watch them from the footpath. This starts to create some objective distance between “The Thinker” and “The Thought”. There are some great online resources to help with this – such as MP3/CD options by Russ Harris; free meditations by Inspired Living Medical; or a mobile app called Headspace (there’s also an iTunes version).
Go Further Now
First, start playing with some of those links above! There’s so much more to say on this topic – this post is a teeny tiny little bit of an introduction. However, rather than waiting for me, you could get started with a really good book. It’s hard to go past
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT by Russ Harris as an excellent starting point.
Meanwhile, why not send me a comment – let me know how you’re going playing with this stuff; or what topic you’d like to see me touch on next.
Apologies, this took a while
Admittedly, I’d hoped to post this last week. I got side tracked making an advent quilt for my kids. It lined up better with my values last week.