How to do safe experiments for yourself

This page is the nearest thing to me offering instructions. My page on Motivational Interviewing demonstrates how even the best-intentioned advice or instruction can undermine progress of good therapy.

I was not sure whether to include this page as it tells you more about my thoughts and ideas and that could end up just another self-help sheet. As I’ve said elsewhere, self-help books only work when the words are translated into your own world.  For instance,  I had one person interested in sleep-related issues. In the end, what worked for him were pictures of World War One planes flying sorties; who’d have predicted that one!!

Even so, I want you have available the opportunity to adapt ideas – from anyone and anywhere –  to your ways of thinking and operating.

If you look back at my inverted tree, you will see that you can use small, safe experiments to create a route to a new normal that is more of your own choosing. In effect, you are moving out of a comfort zone Dan Siegel calls the Window of Tolerance, and into the working area where you  manage your own changes. A revised version of the Window of Tolerance (WOT) can be found further down this page.

The tricky thing is that even the smallest and safest experiment can have unexpected consequences. Often, the amygdala coming into play and it does so very rapidly.  If it picks up danger signals when you do something a little bit different, it can appear to be dangerous. Then it will want to protect you. It operates with good intention but can promote an extreme reponse.  Four of those extreme responses appear in each corner of my WOT illustration, below.

In the work I do, I ask people to ‘just notice’ each and every response they make in order to appreciate both small and large responses arising from doing things just a little bit different. You can measure that response on the Subjective Unit of Discomfort Scale (SUDS) using ‘1’ as the mimimal response and ’10’ as the most extreme reaction.

Please bear in mind that the purpose of this Scale is to help us notice whether a reaction is going ‘up’, ‘down’ or staying the same. If we cannot register such changes, then it is tricky to know what to do next.  When SUDs go down it possible to recognise a ‘small victory’ and build on the action taken. When SUDs go up it is possible to consider “what small thing can I do differently next time“, rather than simply repeat history.

That said, I’d ask you to be careful with your own feelings. High emotions are not ‘bad’ things to be kept under control; they provide invaluable clues to our relationship with the outside world.  Sometimes, that ‘outside world’ needs to knwo how we feel – but not always!

Most folk tell me that they move to a ‘favourite’ reaction;

  •  a yo-yo between catastrophising and ritualising;
  •  a yo-yo between catastrophising and chaos;
  •  a yo-yo between ritualising and rigidity or, finally,
  •  a yo-yo between chaos and rigidity.
  • It’s possible, as you might imagine, to simply head for one particular corner. In my experience, catastrophising is common for many of us.

You can explore these ideas further on web page: does this make sense?

When things go wrong, do you find you slide towards the left hand side of the diagram (the dreadful and the awful), or the right (the strict and ordered way of doing things). The other alternatives are towards the top (yo-yoing between the awful and a strict way of doing things) or toward the bottom (yo-yoing between disorder and rigidity)?

That said, we are all individuals and you may find it is difficult to find a pattern. If this is so, then just notice what happens when the going gets tough and your order of things is threatened.

In the Spring 2020 public health crisis, you will have found opportunities to notice your own reaction to disorder, loss and destruction of a sense of ‘normal’.

These principles for doing ‘safe experiments’  in the ‘working area’ are included as I think you may find it useful when you want to design your own experiments. Tell me how you have developed your own ideas after completing some experiments and you have assessed some result.

Let’s start, in no particular order, to summarise some of the principles and practices used to inform the ‘safe experimental’ way to ‘nudge’ ourselves along.  I encourage myself and you, the reader:

• To value any experience and to ask: “what do I learn from this and in what way is it inviting me to change”.

• To welcome change through safe experimentation, even if the results are not always what was expected.

• To improve the ‘safe’ element by taking small risks and inviting small changes one after another.

• To shift your attention to  small details and respecting them. Dismissing ‘small’ outcomes as unimportant or trivial may block your ability to change. It is important to ‘just ntoice’ often very ‘small’ experiences. Noting them down can be important as they are so small, they can be easy to miss.

• To be patient in the face of defeats and victories and learn from all of them.

• To translate other peoples’ ideas into your own view of the world. Please do not just read this blog or any self-help book. Find a page that means something to you and make it work in your own way.

• To work and play with your experiments and keep just noticing any outcomes you obtain.

• To be creative. Do not assume this web site, or any other teacher, has The Answer; it offers possibilities only.

• To be open to spontaneous change when something happens, just because …

• To keep moving. If you find an exercise continues not to help you then let it go for now, and move on to another one. Even so, be willing to come back later. Discover what works for you and when it works. Timing might be crucial.

• To find other ways of viewing your past, present and future. Look again at the inverted tree at the head of this blog. A range of changes lie ahead of you; work to see how you are journeying from your ‘old normal’ to your ‘new normal’.

• Make notes. This does not require you to write a journal. As stated, I recommend you to note outcomes in bullet-point form, as they arise.

• Revisit notes and experiences as often as you wish.

There is a useful brief, self-help note-making guidance available to assist you at:

Return to:

Welcome to Find Your Nudge

How to give yourself a nudge