Nudges are a number of safe experiments to move yourself along a scenic route to change, not necessarily in a straight line.
Nudges are not intended to be used by you to shove other people along. There are examples of just this, heavily disguised. For instance, the Government Cabinet Office had a Behavioural Unit devoted to finding ways to foist ‘small’ changes on the public. It was so successful that the government sold it off to its senior managers and these people became very wealthy! So, please avoid the temptation to get rich and devise what works for you.
It is not what you can do to others, but what you can do for yourself (with apologies to John Kennedy).
INTRODUCTION to safe experimentation. Why bother with it!
All the material in this web site has been generated by a large number of people over decades; I am only one of them. None of this material would have been tested without the support of many clients, colleagues, supervisors, teachers, family and friends.
The practical nudges, or safe experiments, included here have worked for somebody, at some time.
You will chose your own way to use this material. Make it your own and find out what works for you – in the knowledge that no-one can tell you what will work until you have a go. You will need to cast around to find material most suited to you and your present circumstances.
You will need to find material most suited to you and your present circumstances. When you take a step, it will lead to an improved ability to build on success (a ‘small victory’) and to adapt when you get it wrong (a ‘small defeat’). There could be a mixed result so make what sense you can of that!
I may use technical words. I will try to minimise this problem and I am open to your comments via email. That way, I can learn and make changes. The great thing about a web site is that I can make alterations very quickly! It can be a conversation. My task is to find out what works for me, as much as what works for you.
Where the technical details flummox you, just ignore the words. Focus on the ‘do-able thing’ that should emerge from the other words I use. DO things, rather than think too much about them. Please keep looking for your ‘do-able thing’ and still know that doing is not all and everything.
Now, all that said, some people asked me about my own models or approaches to therapy. Its a fair question to ask as I do have a map inside my head and it has changed over the years. Take a look at the Acknowledgements page for further information, as well as other articles listed on the right side of this blog.
If this helps, fine: but this blog is a road to designing and implementing your own safe experiments – in order to focus your understanding of your own world.
The material you are about to generate can provide a tool for your own personal development. However, some of it may have an emotional impact on you. Therefore, you may want to work on your personal development with a consultant. If you need some leads to follow up, then let me know. There are many people who can act as a consultant. The important thing is to find some-one reliable and discreet outside your immediate circle of friends or family.
WHAT’S NEXT – ACTION
I would advise you to record the results emerging from your experiments. That way to collect data can help you build your own MY-NUAL. It can be argued that without any records and results, there is no experiment. That said, you can keep your records brief: use concrete, short sentences, even bullet-points, to help keep your focus. I have included some detailed headings on another page.
A diary or a journal is not needed. Journals and diaries are detailed documents; they can help a lot but you may not be used to that sort of thing. The important thing is to make a start and have some record to supplement your memory. In my experience Post-Its will do just as well, as long as you can organise them so the information remains coherent as you may need to come back to some of your results.
Such data will need to be used, and re-used, to move things along. Keeping the material in your head sounds convenient, but it is not likely to work. My main concern is that a fleeting experience, often valuable to move things on, is too easily missed. We forget stuff or overlook it. A similar ‘lesson’ may come again, but the process of change can be slowed or fragmented.
EXPERIMENT: write down the following items on a piece of paper, in any order:
Experiment; outcome; records; commitment; just noticing, small details; building on victories; acceptance of defeats.
Come back to your list in 24 hours. How many items would you have recalled if you had not written them down?
If in doubt, try just remembering the items and see how many you can recall twenty-four hours later – without consulting your list or this blog. Which one(s) do you leave out? Do you think the forgotten items might be ‘telling’ you something about the way you work?
You may ask why I used that particular itemised list. In my opinion, it contains the key ingredients you will need if you want to nudge your life in a different direction.
A more humourous version of this experiment is: stop for a moment and see how many of the seven dwarves you can recall from Snow White? A lot of folk cannot get to five and most of us struggle to name a seventh.
Let me now get to a word of caution. Progress may not be evident unless it creates some discomfort. That feeling can motivate us to do something else (“no gain without pain?”). Consider that feeling as a ‘small defeat‘ if necessary but – whatever you do ……
…. don’t blame yourself or me!
Instead, decide what you might do differently.
That attitude will lead to your next experiment. You can still make useful change even though you are disappointed by the first results. It is easy to be deterred and feel put off. A record of the successes and failures arising from your experiments provides a balanced record of results that can help you to move forward.
There are some unexpected challenges; for example, getting things right can lead us to brush off our successes with false modesty! With any result, encourage yourself by saying “what more might I do… what might I do differently“. When you succeed, please enjoy it and consider how to build on that ‘small victory’.
A WORD ABOUT MODELS
This is not Page Three of my Blog! There are hundreds of models of therapy. Examples such as Gestalt, Body Psychotherapy. Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) come to my mind. There is even a movement to integrate different models but, even then, it often seems an excuse to invent another name – without having enough respect to acknowledge others who preceded them! For a commentary on groups of models have a look at:
Some models may be more helpful than others; I am thinking, here, of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – less a model and more a way of going about things. ACT is consistent with the dominant ideal in this blog so I have written more about this approach. Similar things can be said about Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).
If you do the research you may find ‘models’ offer a coherent and ordered way to understand what makes us ‘tick’. They offer guidance on how to behave differently if our ‘tick’ becomes erratic. So ….. models are fine, but they do tend to use assumptions and assertions to explain human behaviour in general, but not specifically your behaviour.
Safe experiments will help you test these basics. The results will help identify what model might best apply to your current life and what seems not to apply. Tomorrow? You may need to change the working model!
Models find it difficult to respect the uniqueness of each of us. They offer general observations. Models, by their nature, cannot apply to all people, all of the time, across our globe.
With any model you will need to decide where you fit in. Do you fit the majority pattern or do you see yourself in the minority – an awkward fit, at best? Beware the tendency to fit yourself into what is available. Instead, use the ‘bits’ that work for you.
For many years, research has consistently demonstrated that models are less reliable indicators of success in therapy, when compared to the quality of the relationship created by therapist and client.
In short, models are not a ‘be all and end all’, but rather a means to learn how to be skillful in the art of safe experimentation. For some detailed information on how to continue with safe experiments, take a look at:
getting it together: or
I have said that success with your safe experimenting may mean feeling rotten. That is unavoidable. Please make a point of noticing how you feel – whether good or bad. This is the key safe experiment of just noticing‘. Record your reaction, your feeling, as a ‘fact’ – nothing more. Later, you may find an experiment that helps to explain what that reaction might mean to you. – what your body is ‘saying’ to you.
The art of ‘just noticing‘ is seeing, hearing and becoming aware of something, however small, especially the small and fleeting experiences. Just noticing can turn your awareness to your advantage. Furthermore, planning small steps may, only may, reduce the intensity of good or bad feelings and help us to avoid a ‘hard’ landing.
Safe experiments that promote small changes make it possible to step back and redirect our energies when we have moved in the wrong direction a little bit. Beware of learning to tight-rope your way over the Grand Canyon, only to find yourself at the wrong destination. Take pleasure in deciding what you are going to do differently, tomorrow, fully accepting that you will have to live with the consequences.
Practise through repetition of small victories will be necessary. Decisive and visible change rarely arrives first time around. The brain needs to learn and absorb what it means to be different. Our brains operate at quite a speed, but learning is a complex process. Consider how long it took you to ride a bike?! Only practice can build confidence.
This notion of experimenting, here, is saying that effective therapy does not need to provide an immediate or ‘complete’ solution. Problem resolution can emerge from some change and the ability to experiment. Russell L. Ackoff put it like this: “the way to make a big change is to start with a very small change or ‘input’ and just see what happens”
Now, is there anyone thinking: Oh, that’s interesting but what about these experiments? When will they really get going?
That’s an important question. Didn’t you notice that you have already started! You are reading this web site and I am fairly confident you are thinking about it. The thing is – there is no need for me, or my words – to give you permission to get started.
More importantly, some of us get started and don’t notice.
NOW THAT IS A PROBLEM – something’s happening, but you did not realise it.
Sometimes the experiments are simple and easy to do – the word ‘experiment’ can make it all sound too fancy!!
So, consider this. How much time did you give to reading which bit of this web page? Did you skip a section? Did you read it through it like a book, or dip in and out? Was there one sentence, or part sentence, that grabbed your attention? If so, how come; have you made a note of that sentence and its impact on you? As said, making a note is essential; that is making the ‘result’ manifest:
Observing or just noticing, how you are already reacting to my writing is an experiment in itself.
Why? Because you chose to do this reading. You could have done something else with your time, and you’ve been reading this instead. Therefore, you have done something a little bit different and that’s a basic feature of ‘safe experimenting’.
Even if you are reading the material for the second time, there is still a chance your experience will have been a little bit different. There is a saying that ‘you cannot step into the same river twice‘. Rivers move – imperceptibly – the running water changes it constantly.
EXPERIMENT: Go back, or ahead, randomly, to some part of the page. Your reactions to it may change. Your feelings about what I have to offer may be different or, maybe, there are sensations in your body that are different. Perhaps you are sick of it or excited by it. I don’t know, but you will; as long as you take time to notice it and record the fact.
The point about the experiment you’ve just done is that it has an outcome. It becomes a safe experiment when you’ve noticed what that outcome is and have learned to live with the result. You’ve created a ‘result’.
Two features of an experiment are:
1. doing something a little bit different; and
2.. noticing the result or outcome.
I’ve repeated this a few times, but it’s something that may be so central that it deserves repetition.
It is easy to think that experimenting is something only scientists do. In a science laboratory, experiments are much more controlled. However, in our real world, a high level of control is not possible. What is possible, however, is to notice something a little bit different and to learn from it. That is the’ experiment’ and that is the reason for doing it. Experiments can be very ordinary and some can be quite extra-ordinary.
On this web site, safe experimentation helps anyone to become aware of their thinking and actions and to work out how to investigate those experiences differently.
- listening as deeply as we can to ourselves and to others.
- bringing a quality of openness into our lives.
- introducing some small, different behaviour into our daily action.
… and doing it without choosing sides; not being for or against the results you get!
‘Experimenting’ has become rather trendy in recent years. This arises from growing evidence that our brains are rather more flexible than we once thought. This flexibility is referred to as “neural plasticity”. The practical implications of ‘plasticity’ are becoming increasingly obvious.
Take a look at a book by Leonard Mlodinow’s “Elastic: flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World“. He has said “we must welcome experimentation – and be tolerant of failure“. Sounds a bit like me, doesn’t it, except I am saying that you can, or you cannot, rather than you must!
So there is a problem with this growing interest in living with ‘plasticity’. It prompts another generation of writers and professionals to find increasingly sophisticated ways to tell you what you should do!! Beware this “mustabation”, as it has been termed; you can do as you are told or you can use any advice, from anywhere, to design your own safe experimenting, and learn to live with the consequences. Your own impulses and intuitions are able to inspire you as much as other people.
The opposite of experimenting is assuming—assuming that we already know how things are. Us humans are good at that. We establish a present normal (see my inverted tree) and work hard to stick to it, not realising that it has become an ‘old normal’. Be prepared to test the obvious; when you do, your experience may become less obvious.
Like the outcome or not, us Brits voted for Brexit and the Americans tried a large experiment by electing Trump as their President. I do not recommend you to do the same thing with your own life. Those election outcomes were not small steps! Whether they were safe has yet to be assessed. Notice how, in 2020, we faced the global crisis of the corona virus. This has forced governments to experiment with unprecedented strategies. Government actions have a large knock-on all of us. It is difficult for governments to devise small and safe experiments. We can do better when the focus is on me. We can be less cautious and still live with the consequences.
Experiments are open trials; they have a quality of quiet and provisional probing. Think of them as generating a quality of affectionate curiosity in you. It comes out of caring about ourselves and others.
It is not a cold, superficial analysis; it’s affectionate, it’s warm, it’s intimate, and even playful. It is an investigation into the nature of your life. This quality of investigation is, of course, strong in most children. They are good at not assuming things and they are often more able to let go of a treasured perspective (often through energetic crying in the first instance!).
Each one of us has the ability to observe and that includes observing your emotional experience when experimenting. It is not an easy task to stay with a discomfort until you see it change, but it is possible to learn from it. An important part of any investigation is observing those experiences we find difficult to focus on.
With experiments we are not trying to make anything happen. We are simply open to something happening and remaining vigilant – to notice the result. This includes paying attention to important relationships and the attitudes and preconceptions we hold towards others. In a later experiment, you may notice how our attitudes, and attitudes of those close to us, can prevent us engaging in relationships in an open and direct way.
Consider this challenging assertion: when we think we really know someone, I assert that we are no longer in a relationship with a living, changing being!! Instead we have arrived in a relationship with an idea of that person —- our own idea, at that! Safe experimenting can bring new energy and joy to relationships when we pay attention, with curiosity, to changes in ourselves and the relationship we are generating together.
The issue, here, is that I sit in my world and, however it looks, I tend to assume it is normal. This can lead to acceptance – a reduced ability to question things that are in plain sight. The context in which I operate becomes a ‘given’ – not a suitable case for treatment.
This is not a new idea: the philosopher, Wittgenstein (1953), said:
“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – because it is always before one’s eyes.)… and this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”
When you design and implement a safe experiment, you are disrupting that ‘normal’ by some action. That action will expose the ‘social context’ in which we live to observation once we ‘just notice’ it. You will be using, in part, a sophisticated research method called Linguistic Ethnography!!
There is no better way to stifle investigation than to become caught up in our fears and anxieties. This can deter us from practising new skills, diluting our courage to take other actions. The aim is to remain open to the experience – being a little different with ourselves or that other person – just for this moment.
Each plays a part in determining who we are – the problems that are presented to us, the way we face them, and what milestones we achieve (or not) as we develop and grow.
Please see hyper-linked pages, some listed just three lines up, to research some of these elements.
PAIN MANAGEMENT: is a special case of the body being out of kilter. When that pain cannot be wished away, the ‘safe place’ can provide some temporary relief.
That said, there some ways in which we perceive pain does involve a “learning” process. Pain exists for an evolutionary, biological purpose – to protect us, so that we don’t move a part that shouldn’t be moved because it is injured. There will be other benefits from pain, it can protect us. by ensuring we put the hurt area in a state where it might be better healed.
The system has not evolved to be perfect. The brain ‘learns’ that there is a problem, and it just gets better and better at receiving a pain reaction. This, can widen our experience into a chronic pain and that can spin out the time it takes to lose the experience of discomfort.
Basically, we learn ‘bad habits’ that reinforce themselves. As Ron Siegel said, the brain just gets used to it and we fall into a ‘rut’ that predispose us to go in a certain direction. This can happen as ‘neurons that fire together wire together.’ Many things are self-reinforcing; there’s a kind of positive reinforcement that comes from that. Consequently, the brain develops a habit of focusing with anxious, vigilant attention on certain kinds of signals and, in doing that, the brain amplifies those signals. Just the thought that something is going to be a big problem amplifies it tremendously.
Pain management, for the most part, has moved in recent years. Rather than seek to see ‘how do I get the pain to be less’, the emphasis has turned to ‘how do I get function back?’, or ‘how do I get to live my life?
Is it feasible to direct our attention away from vigilant anxiety on my pain sensations and direct focus on the sensations of walking, sitting, or engaging in normal life activities?’
Doing that, may mitigate the fear and minimise magnification of the sensations – reduce our tendency to catastrophise.
If pain management can get use back into our life activities, then we are less likely to conclude ‘I’m going to be disabled by this’. Instead it is may become possible to live a life, even though it hurts. This mitigates the fear, which also retrains the brain to not focus vigilantly on the pain.
So can we help unlearn some of this process so the healing is less protracted? I’d like to think this possibility would have much to offer here by way of experiments. The truth is that pain management is a difficult process and not easy to sustain on your own. Here, practitioners from a range of professions can be helpful to sustain motivation and advise on medication.
The best management is undertaken in pain clinics staffed by doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and home support and social workers. It is an issue that depends on a good working team. It may help to explain why it has to be this way and then I will add a few comments about clinical hypnosis..
This diagram demonstrates that physical care of your body is not sufficient to ease pain. Our experience of pain is known to be shaped by our thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Some people are well equipped to develop thoughts that assist pain management; such thoughts focus not on cure but on training our mind and body to a certain relationship with the pain we experience.
This is NOT a statement that pain “is all in the mind” – it isn’t – it’s in the body and mind, and it can really hurt. My observation is simply saying that different attitudes contribute to our experience of pain in different ways. Pain cannot be abolished by thinking it away. It cannot be removed from chronic conditions. Some people are more able to say ‘hello’ to their pain and others spend much time seeking to wishing it out of their lives. The key to effective management appears to be telling the story of our experiences in a different way.
I will offer one safe experiment in the art of noticing your discomfort.
Find a place that is as comfortable as you can be; certainly, a place where you can have some peace and quiet for a time. Then:
- Give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling, however unpleasant that may be. Do it and allow it to be.
- Remind yourself that the pain you have does exist. It is valid because it is.
- Get into the rhythm of controlled breathing and remind yourself that you can ‘go inside yourself’. You may not know how quickly or deeply you will go inside but you can do that.
- You may or may not notice when you first start to relax more.
- Make a suggestion to yourself, e.g. I can experience some numbness (in that part of you that is experiencing pain). That numbness can be increased until you really notice it. Use the Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD )system to ‘measure’ your experience of pain and numbness.
- Increase that numbness by imagining a cold wave of experience filling your body from the very bottom, by your feet, travelling slowly upward, through your body, to the very top of your head. Do this as you keep up the controlled breathing and calling for that numbness to increase on your outbreath.
- Use your imagination to travel to a safe place of your making in which you can allow that experience of pain and numbness to exist for as long as you wish to do so.
- When you stop, remind yourself of your ‘ external reality’ (a practical example would be “I am sitting in this chair, in my living room on [date]”.
- Before you finish, consider future, positive safe experiments that appear to emerge from the result of your experiment today
- Consider using this affirmation at any time and in any place: “I can continue to eliminate any unnecessary discomfort and attend only to the necessary pain.”
There are versions of the relaxation and mindfulness that can be developed into useful experiments particularly as there a number of CD’s available to help here. I like to think that practising with these resources can bring some relief to some people, but always be prepared to consult your family doctor about local pain clinics as well.
Alternatively, research the Lightening technique. This uses the brain to make changes to our body’s level of health. These topics include: how important words are in activating brain pathways and how movement can change brain activation and health. This technique can help you to develop a supportive internal dialogue, or self-talk.
DEATH, DYING AND CHANGE
Our bodies come and go. Because no-one is exempt from death, much research has been devoted to the subject. That research has been helpful in telling us about the processes of change. Below is one version of the change process likely to follow after a shock or major life change.
Research and practice seems to conclude that we are not all guaranteed to work through our changes, as listed. It is possible not to notice one or more ‘stage’ and some people find they will move back and forth between stages. Do not think of this diagram as offering a straight line towards change and, indeed, nothing is inevitable.
That said, the process appears to arise from our ‘hard-wiring’, an internal neural activity that is ‘universal’ to human beings. Therefore, few of us, regardless of culture or nationality, are immune from the process but we will manifest it in many ways and, indeed, there will be a number of us who will defy the pathway.
Our initial reaction to a major change is the release of adrenaline; the body’s signal to arms. Initially, this alerts our body to pay attention and it can improve concentration for a time. Some of that energy can go into denying that anything has happened at all! However, adrenaline works most effectively in short bursts. Prolonged release of adrenaline will pull us down – make us tired and lose attention – we become less able to manage daily tasks. Over time, often slower than we might think, our bodies let go of that adrenaline overdose and turns our energies to testing out the ‘new normal’ that has entered into our lives with that change. If all goes well, we find a ‘new normal’ that ‘explains’ our new position in the world. We begin to tell a revised story but that does not mean we forget the old one.
This may be a familiar process to many. It helps us think about changes we can make in our lives. Most of all, however, it reinforces the adage that “time is the great healer” and that there is a time to act and a time to wait and a time to reflect. Therefore, despite what I have said to date: now may not always be a time for experimenting and creating change and uncertainty in our lives. I hope I never promised you any consistency in writing this blog!
ANOTHER VIEW OF CHANGE
Margaret Stroebe broke with mainstream researchers such as John Bowlby and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her understanding of the grief process. Bowlby had reasoned that attachment behaviour has survival value for many species. The grief response was regarded as a distressing aspect of a lost attachment – a general response to separation.
This view gave a central place to the construct of ‘grief work’; a cognitive process of confronting the reality of a loss through death, revisiting the experience of that loss and events associated with it, prior to working towards detachment and change.
Stroebe, by contrast, developed a transcultural perspective paying attention to the use of language. She saw grief a s,primarily, an emotional reaction to the death of a loved one but it does not have to have detrimental consequences. Mourning was a social expression of grief shaped by the practices of the host culture. There are visible signs of grief such as crying but there are cultural differences. In the Western world is it usual to view depression as a psychological process associated with bereavement but Stroebe was concerned to emphasise that the phases of grieving are not found to exist universally. She advocated a model that sees change as an active process in a vastly changed world. She likened the grieving process to an intricately-balanced, dynamic battle that requires expenditure of large amounts of energy and re-adjustment on a number of levels.
In practice, Stroebe and Schut take aspects of the traditional phase model and introduce a dynamic competent into the change process. This is achieved by formulating a set of tensions between a loss orientation and a restorative orientation. It conceives of people coping with two different types of stresses – those orientated to loss and those orientated to restoration. Each person will respond to this tension in their own way and in varying proportions according to individual and cultural expectations and variations.
The model infers between concentration on the aspects of our loss and the opportunity for adjustment imposed by substantial changes in our life-style. The shock of bereavement makes the shift rather dramatic and unpredictable in some settings, and carefully controlled. Cultural and family norms will be powerful determinants of the tendency to approach or avoid one or other response.
Stroebe and Schut saw everyday experience leading the individual through an appraisal process in to cope with change in their life through an active review and rewriting of our ‘story’.
Such an approach emphasises a search for meaning; an appraisal of events and one’s own coping strategies. The individual, the family and the larger society to find a different place for lost opportunities and deceased people.
This model, with its often catastrophic shift in states of mind, is termed The Dual Process Model of Coping with Loss (DPM).
SOME POSSIBLE EXPERIMENTS
Under pressure, it can help to be ‘kind’ to yourself with different experiments. Affirmation work helps here, as described below. Affirmations are short, positive statements we can hear in our heads, or even say out loud. I am including a small sample that may help you to design a brief phrase tailored to your present needs. It is not possible for me to know what will work for you.
Select one or two only and experiment with them. Do so consistently over a period of several days and several times a day. Notice the impact of the affirmation upon you over time, particularly when you doubt it. If it is a foreign idea, you can expect to reject it in the first place.
Use the body scan experiment to observe and record the thoughts, feelings and sensations that come to be associated with any affirmation.
I am learning to accept me. I am learning to accept others and accepting me.
I am able to give and receive love as a natural part of my living.
I trust the way my life unfolds. All is going well.
My past is for information only. I am learning to release the past and to live in the present moment.
I am able to learn and to improve.
I embrace change with confidence.
I am doing the best I can under my circumstances.
I view others as if they are doing the best they can do under their circumstances.
I can cope with whatever comes my way. I am fine.
I am safe and secure. It is safe to be me.
I am able to bend and lean with the wind. I am adaptable.
I respect myself, and I respect others as well.
I am responsible for making sure my needs are met. My needs are just as important as everyone else’s needs.
I am able to tell other people what I need and what my limits are. This is part of taking care of me.
Closely related to this topic is the issue of assertiveness. This is a large topic and you may well find it helpful to seek out a local course. These are often provided by local authorities and local colleges. Just attending could be seen as an experiment as the courses are usually very practical. They will provide you with a number of more specific experiments to promote any change you want to make. For the present, let me present a few principles of assertiveness followed by some practical strategies based around communication in everyday situations.
ASSERTIVE BEHAVIOUR – some principles
… is joining with another, not arguing with them.
… is seeking clarity. This may require that we are not too involved; we can stand back. The ‘just noticing’ experiment in this blog helps here.
…. is being specific about the behaviour under consideration – combining this with an equally clear statement about any preferred behaviour that may bring change.
… is being creative with the other person in developing any ‘preferred behaviour’.
… is focusing on just one thing at a time. Notice how easy it is to distract yourself – and be distracted.
Notice the value of the ‘first person’ (I). How often has some-one said to you: “you do this or you did that”. It’s often irritating; is it obvious how the phrase becomes annoying? Often the statement contains an implied criticism and an implicit judgment, rather than a description of some mutually understood ‘facts’. “I” statements avoid this; we speak only for ourselves. This helps us take responsibility for our own words and actions.
Look at, and listen to, the other person. In ordinary conversations it is normal to talk over one another and, most often, we get away with it. . Indeed, as we listen to the other person we switch off even earlier on to think about our own reply – before we even open our mouth!
A problem that arises here is that some people just do not stop to let you get a word in edge-ways! One strategy, here, is to be patient and let the other person run out of steam. It does happen – most times!
What helps that process are ‘minimal encouragers’. These are simple to use, but so often we do not! Minimal encouragers are small words, few words and a lot of gestures. These steps are know to help others talk as they do not need to interrupt you and, indeed, they will often feel encouraged by you!!
Minimal encouragers might include:
- a positive nod of the head.
- an encouraging use of hands that say ‘do go on’.
- attending the other person with ‘good’ eye contact. That is, not staring, but still. However, do move eyes around the face, as it might appear that you are staring and that will interfere with a ‘good’ conversation. Do not do these movements in a rapid and distracted fashion. If this is difficult for you, and it is for many, try focusing on the tip of other person’s nose.
- A body posture that is straight and still. Beware of slouching and letting your body drift away.
- a curious look on your face – not puzzled – but a look that says ‘that sounds interesting ….I wonder what else you have to say …’
- noises or words that encourage include ….Mmm, do go on, wow, anything else?, what more.
There are two ways of doing this; one is safer than the other!!
Next time you are involved in any conversation at all, make a point of slowing down your own delivery. Appear to be taking your time – being considerate. Be prepared to stop yourself or edit your own words. Say less, and listen more. Use language described above; a language showing interest in what they have to say. See if that encourages the other person to talk more easily and openly .This may not happen; it is likely that they will notice you have changed – you are not your normal self – and this might well prove unsettling for them. Do this for only a short time and be prepared to stop when things do not feel right.
LESS SAFE EXPERIMENT
Do the opposite. Talk even faster and more passionately in the conversation. Do not look at the other person; look around, here and there. Try using ‘you …’ in the discussion. These are typical ‘Stoppers’ to a good quality conversation. Do this one for a very short time!
LOOK OUT FOR THIS MORE COMPLICATED EXPERIMENT
As you meet people and prepare to talk with them – attend to what you say and how you say it. Consider using:
- Personalise pronouns: that is, use I statements rather than ‘you‘, ‘it’, ‘we‘, and ‘one‘. Use of that personal pronoun, ‘I’, helps us to emphasise that the statement is only true in your experience and that it may be different for other people.
- Consider changing the verbs, or doing words. Where possible and helpful:
- i) Change “can’t” to “‘won’t” where can’t is not an appropriate restriction; you could do something, but do not want to. It says I am making a choice when deciding to do, or not do, something.
- ii) Change ‘need‘ to ‘want‘ and differentiate between need and want. This change helps me to be realistic my own needs, important and often essential things, rather than wants, that are desired, but may not always come our way. It can help to be clear about the difference between the two.
- iii) Change ‘have to‘ into ‘choose to‘ and ‘should‘ into ‘could‘. Again, these changes acknowledge that we are able to make choices and are not necessarily surrounded by obligations. We are responsible for those choices, and each one has a cost and a benefit.
- iv) Change ‘know‘ into ‘imagine‘ or ‘believe’ as we are too inclined to think something is a ‘fact’, when this is not the case. For example, we might state something about another person which we hold to be true, and others might not. It is helpful to differentiate between what is known, imagined, felt and thought in order to make clearer statements.
3. Change passive statements (“it’s not my fault …”) into active ones (“what I have done is …”): part of good communication involves recognising that we share a responsiblity for most (not all) of the things that happen to us. For example; ‘When I allow people to take advantage of me, I often feel angry‘, is different from: ‘Things keep happening to me that make me feel angry‘, in which the person blames things, situations or other people for how they feel.
4. Change some questions into statements: questions such as ‘don’t you think....’, are often indirect ways of stating ‘what I think….’. When a person is clear and direct about what they are stating, then they will be a better communicator – in our own mind and with others.
Often, in a conflict, we will draw up ‘battle lines’. We tend to be against each other rather than with each other. This can lead to non-assertive or ‘win/lose’ ways of dealing with the conflict. When two people respect each other, and the differences between them, we are more prepared to work towards an outcome which is mutually acceptable. This may be particularly helpful for a couple seeking to work out common purposes in their relationship.
5. Take one issue at a time: in most conversations, one thing leads to another. That can work out well until one arguable thing follows another. Avoid confusing one issue with another issue. Be careful about using examples from the past to illustrate your point. Using the past can lead to distortion since the other person is likely to have forgotten or will remember the incident very differently. Consider the past as ‘for information only’.
6. Look at and listen to each other: often we avoid looking directly at each other and this can help us stop listening to each other. Look at – and listen carefully to – one other and we will hear more clearly and understand better, even if you do not agree.
This is an impossible experiment in many ways. How about simply trying out one item in one situation, and another item some other time! The key thing is what is the outcome. How does that result help you practise what works, and to avoid what stops you being a successful communicator.
By now, each reader will view their progress through this blog differently. Maybe, the long list of experiments has become irksome: ‘there is too much to learn‘, or ‘I can’t make sense of all this‘. Such reactions are reasonable. Management of them will now need to be part of yet another experiment, I fear! Your reaction is telling you something important. Take a look at this cartoon:
This graph describes the normal process of learning or change. Humans do not learn in a straight line – from not knowing to knowing. Emotional blocks appear as we become faced with the enormity of what there is to be learned. We question our own abilities and, quite often, the abilities of our teachers/parents/friends etc.
Please note: the term ‘incompetent’ used here is not intended to be an insult. It simply saying all of us, including me, do not know some important things or possess some valuable skill. We are unaware of them; we are unconsciously incompetent. The cartoon suggests we can go through life happily if we are blissfully unaware of the learning we could do, but obstacles to learning can make things sticky when we make the effort to change, become aware of what might be possible – and then the going gets tough.
Before I can learn, I need to become aware of what I do not know (consciously incompetent). This is the discomfort that will arise when a safe experiment feels like it’s going wrong. Anyone who has been on a training course or lengthy university programme, will recall what it felt like around the one-third/mid-point of that training.
The only way forward is further practise and this leads to awareness of our improving competence. Although we may feel better at that time, we are likely to remain a little unsure. This is well evidenced in my earlier example of learning to ride a bike. It is only when that sense of uncertainty eases, we may become more confident – unconsciously competent -and ready to press on to new horizons once again (only to find the process happens all over again!).
I emphasise this phenomenon as it tells us that the pathway to understanding and improvement follows a scenic route. We need to take this into account when planning our own learning and designing the next round of experiments. Rushing into things can be counter-productive.
EXPERIMENT: recall some training you did, short or long. Note down one time when it seemed difficult. It does not need to be in ‘school’; it could be in work, at home or in your community.
How did you react at that time? Maybe you gave up the programme? I did on one occasion!
Maybe you talked to other people or maybe you worked extra hard?
What was the outcome of the steps you took? Were you pleased or did you regret something?
In retrospect, what might you have done differently, if anything?
Does this experiment highlight how safe experiments depend on your approach to the task? I can point a finger and make suggestions, but none of that works without your active interest in re-designing, repeating and observing what goes on. That very conclusion can, itself, be a source of irritation; you are having to do all the work!
If it helps at all, my contribution to the work you are doing is to help you keep focus and to benefit from my experience of designing experiments. If I am helping here, let me know. If not, please tell me what’s getting in the way. That’s another experiment; you have to take time to gather your thoughts and send them to me – it is not obligatory, but it may help both of us!
I will return to experiments relating to the responses of our own bodies several times. For the present, I want it to simply address the point that we can make changes to our bodily reactions. We are not ‘slaves’ to them.
EXPERIMENT: Stop, for a moment, and pay attention to how you feel now; are you curious about the material you are reading? There could be an important sensation associated with those experiences. Use the graphic, above, to locate your place on the learning curve. Also, consider some practicalities. Are your eyes tired from reading; do you feel laggardly from a lack of exercise? If so, what might you do differently; take a rest now or do something else?
One other step you can take is to develop a practical approach to relaxation. There are several things you can do to benefit from relaxation. There are DVD’s and CD’s on the internet that can help but it’s tricky to ensure good quality material. Also, specialist classes in Yoga in your area might help, but this blog focuses on what is do-able today, in your own home.
EXPERIMENT: Choose a good time to practice when it is unlikely that you will be interrupted for around 5-10 minutes.
Relaxation and breathing experiments will get longer as you experiment with a range of extra skills such as managing your posture.
- practising a range of breathing strategies. For example, try breathing out for a little longer than you breathe in.
- becoming more familiar with BODY SCAN and your growing sensitivity to the thoughts, feelings and sensations that you will observe.
- increasing your confidence in your ability to focus on, or just notice, internal experiences, as well as focus external objects such as sound, changing lights and the touch of your clothing.
- moving your attention at will. Instead of being dragged to an experience, you will learn to attend to a range of experiences – your internal dialogue, the pattern of your breathing, any body tension and other sources of information about your current state of body and mind.
- use of eyes, including your ‘inner eye’, to allow yourself to create images around a fixed object. This will help you relax down and meditate.
EXPERIMENT: Use a comfortable chair, recliner, or bed: A comfortable position is important while doing this exercise. Select a place where there are few sounds or lights to distract you. It may help to close your eyes throughout the practice.
Don’t force the relaxation. There is no “right” way to do this. Concentrate on how you feel as you use controlled breathing. It may be sufficient to monitor the count of your breathing; around 3/4 in and 3/4 out.You can count down from 1000 on the out-breath.
Think about a 1 or 2 syllable word that has a very relaxed sound to it. Some people choose the word “one,” some the word “easy,” some use the sound “mmmm.” Keep this word, and take it with you as you begin the experiment.
Once you have the chosen word, you may notice a reduced Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD): systematically relax all of the muscles of your body. Start at your feet and progress up through your face. Do this by tensing a muscle and then letting that tension go. Tense up on your in-breath and let go on the out-breath may help.
As you progress you may notice an area of your body feels particularly tense. Pay extra attention to this experience and tighten the muscles in that area even more and then let go. Use the SUD measure to note any changes. If it is important, do record this information, although it will temporarily disrupt your move into a relaxed state.
If an area still seems tense take your time. Stay there for a while and do not move on. Allow relaxation to come at its own pace. As you attend to the tension, use your skills of visualisation to watch that tension depart from your body. Imagine, for instance, placing that tension on a very small feather located in front of your mouth. Blow it away from you very gently on an out-breath.
As you continue the controlled breathing, and repetition of your chosen word, remind yourself that various parts of your body are beginning to feel heavy and relaxed.
Do not worry about whether you were successful in achieving relaxation. When distracting thoughts enter your mind, just notice them with, say, “I’ll think about that later”. Let your mind return to your chosen word; slowly repeat that word to yourself over and over.
Continue for 5-6 minutes. Do not use an alarm clock. When you feel it is time to finish, with your eyes still closed, sit or lie quietly for a few more moments. Then open your eyes and remain quiet. Take your time to do each and every step.
With practice, relaxation should come with little effort. Practice once or twice daily but not within 2 hours after a meal since digestion seems to interfere with the relaxation response.
Once you are well practised, you may find that you are able to relax in stressful circumstances by giving yourself a few moments to relax your body, concentrate on your breathing, and focus on your chosen word.
MORE BREATHING EXPERIMENTS
Practised daily, breathing experiments can help re-establish a healthy living pattern. Two of these exercises would be quite sufficient as a daily practice.
1. Before going to sleep or when you wake up, put your right hand on your upper abdomen, with the little finger directly above the navel and the fingers spread so that the thumb is almost touching the chest. Place the left hand on the upper chest.
As you breathe through your nose concentrate on the air moving down into the upper abdomen (as if you are filling your stomach with breath). Feel your right hand rising with every inhalation and falling with every exhalation. You should feel a slight motion in the lower part of your chest, but your upper chest should remain still.
Allow the breathing to be gentle and effortless. Notice how even after a short time your thoughts can start to quieten and you may feel more relaxed.
2. Calming breath (up to one or two minutes per practice). Sit comfortably and upright. Make sure your back is straight, your shoulders are relaxed and both your feet are flat on the ground.
Now become aware of your natural breathing rhythm, breathing through the nose and concentrating on the inhalations and exhalations, noticing the pauses at either end of the breath, feeling the difference in quality between the in breath and the out breath. Do this for a minute or two.
Now, without changing the rhythm, start counting the length of your in-breath … and the length of your out-breath. Are they of equal length or is one longer than the other? Also notice which, if either, feels more comfortable. Do you have a preference for breathing in or out. Again do this for a minute or two.
Now see if you can influence the length of your out-breath. Make it longer than the in-breath. Start with making it just one count longer.. .then see whether you can make it two counts longer.
See if you can establish a rhythm where the exhalation is two counts longer than the inhalation.
Finally see if you can breathe at the back of the throat, rather than just in the nostrils. This breathing practice, where you make a gentle snoring sound, mirrors the rhythm of deep sleep.
Again see if you can make the out out breath longer than the in-breath.
3. Alternate nostril breathing (once a day for up to two minutes)
Sit comfortably and upright. Make sure your back is straight, your shoulders are relaxed and both your feet are flat on the ground. Alternatively lie with your back flat on the ground and your arms by your side, palms facing down.
Become aware of the natural rhythm of your breath and gently deepen the breathing. Now, imagine that you are breathing in through your left nostril and breathing out through your right – then breathe in through your right and out through your left. Finally count to five as you inhale and exhale through both nostrils. Then keep repeating the sequence.
Now add counting. As you breathe in through your left nostril count to five. And on the exhalation through your right nostril count to five. Again count to five as you inhale through your right nostril and count to five as you exhale through your left. Finally count to five as you inhale and exhale through both nostrils. Repeat the sequence.
4. One minute exercise
Sit in front of a clock or watch that you can use to time the passing of one minute. Your task is to focus your entire attention on the passing time. Notice what happens when you focus your mind on the clock or watch. You might find your mind wandering. When this happens just gently draw your attention back to watching the clock.What matters is that you teach your mind to `be’ in the present. Being in the present appears to calm the mind.
5. Mindfulness foundation
Sit comfortably and upright. Make sure your back is straight, your shoulders relaxed and your feet are on the ground. Become aware of how you are experiencing your body right now.
Scan your body.
Start with your toes and feet and move slowly upward through the different parts of your body.
Notice any areas you feel tension and where you feel relaxed. Notice different temperatures in different parts of your body. Notice those areas of your body which move when you breathe.
Is there any tension in your body that you don’t need to hold on to? See if you can breathe into those areas, letting go of any tension on the exhalation.
Now become aware of any feelings that are present for you right now. Explore these feelings. Are they related to something in the past or something which you anticipate might happen. Become aware that there is nothing you have to do about these feelings right now, just observe them and let them be.
Now become aware of the thoughts going through your mind right now. Just watch these thoughts without trying to hold on to them or push them away. Just notice these thoughts and let them be.
Now become aware of any images which might be in your mind. Again try not to change them or hold onto them, just observe them and let them be.
When you find your mind drifting just bring your awareness back to what you are experiencing right now, your sensations, thoughts, feelings and images.
Doing this for a few minutes at a time is enough to begin with. The more you can focus on who you are right now the more it enables you to observe your experience and to keep some perspective on your symptoms, feelings and thoughts.
This experiment can be a foundation exercise for pain management. Be aware that any experiments relating to pain control need to be taken under the supervision of a qualified and experienced health professional. Item six that follows may be useful to help you to decide whether to consult such a professional.
MORE COMPLICATED EXPERIMENTS IN RELAXATION
There are several things you can do to receive benefit from relaxation. Choose a good time to practice when it is unlikely that you will be interrupted for 10-20 minutes.
Use a comfortable chair, recliner, or bed: A comfortable position is important while doing this exercise. Close your eyes throughout the practice.
Select a place where there are few sounds or lights to distract you.
Using more Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) experiments.
You cannot complete these experiment by reading this – you will have to practice and this may take about 20 minutes each day! After practicing PMR for about six or eight weeks you may notice that you become more composed and recover from strains and stresses more quickly. Seek some professional support if this does not happen. Obstacles to relaxation are many and varied and suitably-trained professionals should be able to help you identify them.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
The Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique was organised by Edmund Jacobson. The basic idea is to systematically tense and relax groups of muscles. During the first training session, each group of muscles (forearm, upper arm and so on) is exercised separately. Later these exercises are combined so that at the end you should be able to relax the whole body at once.
This first lesson will take about one hour (your daily training and the following two lessons will take less than half this time). In this first session you learn to tense and relax muscle groups in a given order. First you simply go through the complete sequence. Next you actually do your first training.
Sit on a chair or on whatever you can sit upright with both feet flat on the ground. Now just do the following exercises in a quick order to learn the sequence and how to do it.
- Right hand and forearm
make a fist
- Right upper arm
bend the arm and “show off your muscles”
- Left hand and forearm
make a fist
- Left upper arm
bend the arm and tighten the muscles
raise your eyebrows
relax your face
- Eyes and cheeks
squeeze the eyes
- Mouth and jaw
clench your teeth and pull the corners of the mouth back
- Shoulder and neck
a little pre-training first: lock your hands behind the neck and push back the head against this resistance (the head does not alter its position) – got the idea? That’s how this should feel:
pull up your shoulders and press your head back against their resistance (horizontally – not like when you look up)
let your shoulders hang, relax
- Chest and back
breathe in deeply and hold your breath pressing the shoulders together at the back at the same time
let your shoulders hang, breathe normally
tighten the abdominal muscles (or draw in the belly)
- Right hand thigh
shovel the right foot forward against resistance (while it keeps its position)
- Right hand calf
lift up the right heel (be careful not to cramp)
- Right foot
crook the toes
- Left hand thigh
shovel your left food forward
- Left hand calf
lift up the left heel
- Left foot
crook the toes
Repeat these exercises once in a quick succession so maybe you can do them by heart next. Preferably you should do the exercises with eyes closed. But if you print out the checklist and lay it somewhere near you, you might want to glimpse at it from time to time.
Tighten each group of muscles and hold the tension for about 5 seconds, then relax for about 30 seconds. While focusing your inner perception on the muscles just exercised you will sense that the process of relaxation progresses a little after releasing the muscles. Let it happen that way and enjoy it. Repeat each exercise once.
At the end keep your eyes closed for a short while and enjoy the rest a little longer. Breathe in deeply and move your fingers and toes playfully. Breathe in deeply again and stretch yourself. Breathe in deeply and open your eyes. Do this at the end of each session. This breathing and stretching shall make sure that your circulation is reactivated. Usually you will feel quite refreshed afterwards.
Before you now actually start, close your eyes and enjoy the rest for a minute or so. Accept any perceptions or emerging thoughts but let them pass by like leaves floating on a creek. Do not ponder or brood, try not to start daydreaming. If some important idea comes up you can come back to it later, when your exercise is finished. Okay? Now start tensing and relaxing the muscle groups in the order you just have trained.
Further Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This further experiment may take you about half an hour. First you go through the given sequence of exercises.
Sit on a chair in an upright position, both feet flat on the ground. Now just do the following exercises in a quick order to learn the sequence and how to do it.
- Right hand and arm
make a fist and bend the arm (the muscles must feel real tight)
- Left hand and arm
like right hand and arm
close the eyes, lift the eyebrows, clench the teeth, and pull back the corners of the mouth (or just: grimace)
- Shoulders and neck
pull the shoulders up and press your head back against their resistance (do not bend the head)
- Chest, back, and belly
breathe in deeply and hold your breath, make a hollow back, and tighten the abdominal muscles (if you cannot do this just draw in the belly)
- Right leg
pull up the heel, pressing the leg forward and down at the same time
- Left leg
like right leg
As for the face muscles find some grimace you can easily reproduce (don’t bother to check each muscle group separately). Then repeat these exercises once in a quick succession so you can do them by heart next.
Tighten each group of muscles and hold the tension for about 5 seconds, then relax for about 30 seconds. While focusing your inner perception on the muscles just exercised you will sense that the process of relaxation progresses a little after releasing the muscles. Let it happen that way and enjoy it. Repeat each exercise once.
At the end keep your eyes closed for a short while and enjoy the rest a little longer. Breathe in deeply and move your fingers and toes playfully. Breathe in deeply again and stretch yourself. Breathe in deeply and open your eyes. Do this at the end of each session. This breathing and stretching shall make sure that your circulation is reactivated. Usually you will feel quite refreshed afterwards.
Before you now actually start, close your eyes and enjoy the rest for a minute or so. Accept any perceptions or emerging thoughts but let them pass by like leaves floating on a creek. Do not ponder or brood, try not to start daydreaming. If some important idea comes up you can come back to it later, when your exercise is finished. Okay? Now start tensing and relaxing the muscle groups in the order stated.
Relaxation: ongoing practice
Within the next week you should practice this succession of experiments each day. Find a convenient time for your training. Usually the best times are either in the morning before breakfast or in the evening before dinner or supper. Never directly after meals!
Regular practice is more important than frequency. Many people give up too early because they somehow don’t manage to find two training times each day. Others do their exercises four or five times at the weekends but never within the week. Better to practice a little less, but regularly!
Relaxation Programme: practice and further experiments
In the next few weeks you should practice this sequence of exercises each day. Find a convenient time for your training. Usually the best times are either in the morning before breakfast or in the evening before dinner or supper. Regular practice is more important than frequency. Later you can reduce the number of training sessions to, say, three times per week.
By now you may have noticed that you can sense muscle tension and tightness much more easily than before the training. You can train this a little further by concentrating your attention, from time to time, on the muscle groups you exercised during this course. You can do this as some kind of internal checking in any situation (while phoning, while watching the TV, while waiting at the dentists …).
Just focus your attention on your hands, your arms, your neck, your chest, and so on. When you realize that a particular group of muscles is tense you simply give it the internal command “relax”. You will see that it works! You need not always tighten the muscles first to relax them. Train this inner awareness of muscular tension whenever you feel like it. Eventually you will find that you can calm down and relax very quickly and easily in many situations you found stressing before.
Relaxation for people experiencing discomfort: please note that this refers to minor discomforts; anyone with an history of pain should consult a health practitioner for a more individualised training programme. Do not over-exert yourself; remember, all experiments are about designing small changes for small victories. That said:
become fully aware of your area of discomfort and focus on it.
Be curious about it. Where exactly is it located in you body? Use a Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD ) to record how intense is it on a scale of 0-10?
How ‘large’ is it – what area of your body does it cover?
If the discomfort was a shape, what would it look like?
Has it got colour?
How hot/cold is it?
If the pain was a sound what sound would it be?
If the pain was an object what would it be?
INFORMATION: When we experience discomfort or pain our first response is to resist it or to fight it. Typically this is often not helpful. Instead, I would ask you to experiment with accepting what is so. Accept there is discomfort and give it your full attention. Observe it. This may seem daft; doesn’t paying attention to something make it worse? That is possible but, on the other hand, we are able to notice a discomfort by becoming an observer of it.
As we observe and experience, so we can become more able to consider how we will relate differently to our discomfort, rather than ignore it. If it helps, consider some ‘rules’ of managing our feelings. This may help you design further experiments:
When a crisis generates high emotion
- Although you may feel frightened, bewildered, unreal, or unsteady, these feelings are normal bodily reactions to stress that have become somewhat exaggerated. Having these sensations does not mean you are sick. They may be unpleasant and even frightening but they are not dangerous.
- Nothing lasts for ever and the strength of our emotions is hard-wired to go up and down. This ‘wiring’ may unintentionally magnify a feeling or sensation. Powerful feelings can drive that magnification.
- Nothing worse is likely to happen to you now. Don’t try to run away. When you feel high emotion, use breathing exercises to relax, just notice, and then let go.
Deliberately generate an unpleasant memory (carefully chosen). Make yourself as comfortable as possible, e.g. lean against a post or a wall or sit for a while. Do not drive or be prompted into hasty actions. Take your time.
Just notice the memory you have resurrected. Say ‘hello’ to any of the self-critical messages this may generate in your head – without dwelling on them.
Just notice other thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Use the body scan to notice what is really happening to your body at the moment, and what it is telling you NOW.
If necessary, with your eyes fully open, describe the outside world you are seeing and hearing. Say what you can hear and see or what is going on it.
As you wait and watch, just notice that things change. How do they change and in what way? I am not promising that the change will be well received, but I do want you to notice it, rather than chase it away.
Remain curious and be aware of ways in which you can be in control of your body, your thoughts and your present situation.
Each time you learn something from high emotion, you are more likely to reduce the way in which it troubles or intimidated you.
This attention to a discomforting experience, brings me to mention THOUGHT STOPPING. Up to now I have encouraged you to start something else, rather than stop an experience. It is not easy to stop things; the human body and mind operates 24/7. That said, some thought-stopping in relation to negative thoughts can be helpful as they reduce your energy and promote poor motivation. Your world-view can become skewed and your behaviour can become self-defeating. Carried on long enough, this pattern of thinking promotes beliefs such as ‘I’m no good‘; ‘ `Life has no meaning‘ and `I will always feel this way‘
RESPONDING TO NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Negative thoughts like these have several characteristics. They are:
- automatic; likely to pop into your head without any effort on your part
- distorted; do not fit all of the facts.
- unhelpful; making it difficult to change and likely to stop you from getting what you want out of life.
- plausible; encouraging us to accept them as facts and stopping us from questioning them.
- involuntary; you do not choose to have them.
Negative thoughts can trap us in a vicious circle. The more depressed we become, the more negative thoughts we have, and the more we believe them. The more we believe them, the more depressed we feel become. There are experiments to help us break out of this vicious circle.
Consider this: you already beginning to break the circle by attending to these words. You may not be aware of doing so, but reading this may increase your awareness of what you are doing. For a start, you have already learned to recognize a negative thought. You will be more aware of what happens when you dwell on such thoughts. You may begin to feel more positive and start to seek a realistic way to test out some alternative actions.
Step I: Become more aware of negative thoughts
It is not easy to catch negative thoughts. Notice feeling discouraged and resolve to go on practising. The more you practise, the sooner other responses will come naturally to you.
The first step in overcoming negative thinking is to become aware of the thought and its impact on you.
The best way to become aware of negative thoughts is to write them down as soon as they occur. Every time you notice an uncomfortable feeling, there will be a negative thought attached to it somewhere.You can use a Dysfunctional Thoughts Record to help here (you will find an example of a completed record below). Write down:
The emotion(s) you felt. Give each one a rating out of 100 for how bad it was. Zero, for example, would mean no emotion, 50 a moderate degree of motion, and 100 an emotion as strong as it could be. You could score anywhere between 0 and 100.
The situation. What were you doing when you started to feel bad? This includes, in general terms, what you were thinking about at the time. only put down the general topic here (e.g. `Thinking about how difficult life is’). What precisely was going through your mind should go in the next column.
The automatic thought(s). What thoughts were running through your mind at the time you started to feel bad? Try to record them as accurately as possible, word for word. Some of your thoughts may take the form of images in your mind’s eye, rather than words. You might for example imagine yourself being unable to cope with a situation in the future. Write down exactly what the image was, just as you saw it.
There may be times when you cannot identify any thoughts or images as such. We avoid them as we know, at a deep level. We hope that ignoring negative thoughts will go away. In practice, the thoughts make us feel bad and generate anxiety, sadness, depression, hopelessness, guilty and anger.
Instead of being overwhelmed by these feelings, you can learn to use them as a cue for action.
Notice when your mood changes for the worse, and look back at what was running through your mind at that moment.
Over the course of a few days, you will become more sensitive to changes in your feelings, and to the thoughts that spark them off. You may well find that the same thoughts occur again and again.
AFTER THE EXPERIMENT
After a day or two, return to your notes. Ask yourself what you understood was going on it that situation, as described. What does it tell you about yourself, your situation, your future? It may provide a clue or two; an argument, for instance, might mean to you that a relationship is ending or, maybe, that you will never be able to have a proper relationship with anybody. Once you can identify the meaning, you may be able to challenge it.
EXPERIMENT: PART TWO
As you become more fluent with spotting and recording your negative thoughts, images or meanings, give each one a rating out of 100 according to how far you believe it. One hundred would mean you believed a thought completely, 0 that you did not believe it at all, 50 that you half believed it, and so on. You could score anywhere between 0 and 100. This is a Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale and your experiments will have to adapt to the strength of that belief.
Notice that it is possible you will find yourself making excuses not to record, for reasons I have mentioned. This may be because you have hit on something important, so be extra vigilant and make yourself write a summary down. Of course, you can divert yourself by engaging in a distraction exercise if you want to but ignoring a thought will not make it go away.
What do you feel? How bad is it (0-100)?
What were you doing and with whom?
What were your thoughts? How far do you believe each one (0 – 100)?
As your record grows, you are likely to see patterns in your thoughts and actions. At this point, you can consider some antidotes.
- Can you change the situation you are in? That changes our thinking patterns.
- Can you observe your mood and notice the impact on your mood when you affirm yourself, e.g. say to yourself: “even though I am feeling [this mood – name it specifically], I can still deeply and completely accept myself. when you repeat this affirmation in your head, or even in front of a mirror, what changes arise in your thought pattern? even if it is only to laugh at ourselves!! That’s a difference.
- Can you be objective enough to seek out some evidence that supports a negative thought; often there can be some sound reason. However, always follow this up with working on evidence to counter the negative thought. There is usually something to be found to contradict any thought we are having. note all of them down.
- When you look at all the information, and initiate some controlled breathing: what is the ‘balanced’ view that emerges?
- Use rating to ‘measure’ the extent to which you believe the thoughts: use the scale of 1 – 5, where 1 is “I scarcely believe it all” and 5 is “I really believe it thoroughly”. How do the ratings change, if at all, as you proceed through steps 1-4, above.
EXPERIMENT: Another way to talk directly to your body, and the sensations it creates, is a process often referred to as ‘tapping’.
Tapping emerged from the Emotional Freedom Therapies (EFT) and the Meridian Therapies usuallyincluded under the general term Energy Psychology. There is some scepticism about Energy Psychology in the worlds of therapy. A leading light in the UK, in this field, is Dr Phil Mollen, a practitioner who has interesting things to say about it and it is worth researching if only because it produces some visible results, for some people. Please note that I am including this information here as yet more data on ‘models’. No inclusion of a ‘model’ is intended as an advert or an endorsement. That said, using the knowledge and skills of others to help yourself may prove helpful as you develop your own technique in safe experimentation.
My observation, here, is simple: if it works, don’t knock it. If it seems not to work, don’t pack it in immediately. Ever practised doing something new and got it right first time? Try something out for a reasonable amount of time before moving on to something new.
Keep in mind that small victories are easily missed and they may come from any quarter.
You can use tapping as a development of the Body Scan and the ‘just noticing’ experiments. The difference is that once you become aware of a negative thought, you can do something in addition to the AFFIRMATION WORK I have mentioned already.
Observation shows this experiment can reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
What you do is to tap the back of one hand with one or two fingers on the other hand. At the same time, he can AFFIRM yourself with a message in your head. Thus:
Copy this position approximately and then tapping gently and rhythmically just below the back of the (ring) finger, as illustrated. Repeat the affirmation:
“although I am feeling [name the feeling], I can still deeply and completely accept myself”
Bear in mind this may be difficult to take seriously at first. It may feel silly and embarrassing. Remember that ’embarrassed’ is a feeling and name THAT reaction. Continue, despite any discomfort, for a short period. Stop and engage the controlled breathing and use the body scan to notice your thoughts, feelings and sensations.
It is likely, with practice, that you will notice a reduction in negative feelings when you use the Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD) to measure changes, over time.
From this experience, you may find an the opportunity to revisit your characteristic feelings as well as some of your negative thoughts and to consider what steps need to be taken to change those beliefs.
Design a chart to monitor some information about anxiety events. As before, have columns to note who you were with, where you were and what was said or done. Use the SUDs to measure the intensity of your feeling. Then scan your thoughts and look for any negative belief associated with this experience, e.g. I’ll never get away from this horrid experience. Record that belief and note how strongly you believe it where 1 is not believing it hardly at all, and 7 where it appears to be an absolute certainty.
The scale you are now using below is another Validity of Cognition (VoC). As stated, it can help to identify just how large an obstacle a belief is and safe experiments will have to be designed differently according to the strength and character of those beliefs. As you do the experiments, consider:
- in what way is my belief helping or hindering my behaviour and, as ever,
- what might I do differently?
- By the way, you can change some beliefs: some sit at the root of your opinions and all of us are entitled to change our minds as far as opinions are concerned. These root beliefs are called CORE BELIEFS in the cognitive behavioural model (CBT).
A RELATED EXPERIMENT
Try a different chart to focus your attention on symptoms when harvesting negative or core beliefs.
|LIKELY SYMPTOMS||DAY||TIME/PLACE||SYMPTOMS and
|NEG. BELIEF AT TIME VOC 1 – 7|
EXPERIMENTING FURTHER WITH THOUGHTS
It is tempting to think our thoughts stand alone; they just exist. However, our thoughts can be shown to change according to our situation and:
- our mood
- images in our head
- other ideas we have about right and wrong/true or false, often shortened to ‘beliefs’
- our ability to look closely at our thoughts and/or stand away from them
For instance, what is your first thought about this image:
This is a well-known visual illusion. Sometimes you may see one image and another time you may see something quite different. If you have seen the picture before, you may find it easier to move between one image and the other. For a newcomer, it may be difficult to discern two very different pictures: What are you seeing, now? For the present, I’ll keep the answers to myself and return to this picture later.
It is likely that our frame of mind will have some impact on our interpretation so, for the present, simply use the charts, above, to note what you are seeing as well as your feelings and any SUD, etc.
There are other images in our head that are not so benign and they, too, can take on a range of forms. The beliefs associated with those images can help make our life more or less un/bearable. Here are some common beliefs held by many people – but likely to get us into difficulties:
“I should always put other people first”
“I should be happy all the time”, or “I am entitled to be happy”
“I should always know the answers”
“I should always be strong and in control”
“I am never wrong”
“I must succeed”
…. even taking the “always” out of some such beliefs can still lead us into murky waters!
These examples demonstrate some well documented patterns of thinking that can get us into trouble. Patterns include:
Selectively attending to things that are convenient to us; preferring to get it right, rather than accurate.
Asserting something with little evidence.
Exaggerating some things and minimising others; e.g truth and beauty are all; there is nothing you can do about it.
Relying on generalisations resulting in always getting it wrong.
Personalisation; you are always getting it wrong (and, maybe, inferring I must be right).
Inferring things in an arbitrary way; “if only you did things my way .….”
Maybe you can think of some patterns of your own; my list is not intended to cover all and everything.
Float back to a time when you had an argument with some-one.
What was it about?
Who said what, to whom?
What assumptions appeared to keep the argument going?
What stopped the argument slowing down?
What beliefs did you, and the other party, appear to possess that made it difficult for the two of you to agree?
Has the argument recurred a few time in the past? If so, what set off the arguments each time?
What stopped the argument in the end.
Put your notes down and take a break. Pick them up after an interval of time – a day or so – and consider, from the list above, what pattern of thoughts you used during the argument. Do not infer anything about the other person’s thoughts. What conclusions do your draw about your own thinking patterns? Bear in mind – if this proves a difficult experiment to conclude – that you may need more time to distance yourself from the patterns you do possess!! Come back to your notes at an even later date.
WHEN ACTION MAY NOT BE ENOUGH
Up to now I have placed store on action. Experiments are all about action and doing something a little bit different. There are times when, as it says in the Green Cross Code, we should STOP, LOOK and LISTEN, rather than act hastily. There is an experiment to help us look at some prior steps such as judging the situation and, even before that, thinking enough to make a judgement.
Use the worksheet below, with one example already in place. Record information about a disturbing event. Include a date and time and SUD the distress it created in you.
Note how easy it is to mix up thoughts and judgments and work to separate out the facts of the matter and your opinion about the event. Note, also, that in the example I have provided, the action – to work just one more hour – is based on a judgment about balancing the need to work late with getting up early in order not to feel rushed before making an important presentation. In such matters that balance will vary from person to person. It helps to be sure where you stand on the issue. That rather assumes you’ve gathered enough information to ask yourself the question.
It is important to come to a conclusion – to make a judgment – BEFORE taking an action.Not doing this can undermine the usefulness of any experiments you implement.
Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher, had something useful to say about questioning ourselves and others. His famous sayings include:
An unexamined life is not worth living; and,
He has had a large impact on modern therapy. Note this work-sheet, courtesy of:
You will see the similarity between this work-sheet and other cognitive behavioural approach to information-gathering.
Your problem, when designing your own safe experiments, may well be to decide what to record and how to record it. So, now back to actions, once more.
MORE EXPERIMENTING WITH TAPPING: SOME SAFE SUGGESTIONS
When you notice a discomfort, whether it is an emotion or a sensation, stop for a moment and cross you arms over your chest.As you do this, take a SUD reading of the intensity of your experience.This will be an entirely subjective rating of your experience between 1 (low intensity) and 10 (the highest possible intensity). You do not have to justify it or explain it.
Then tap your chest with each hand gently – alternating between the left and right hand slowly. Do not rush these things!. Continue this for a short time, maybe just 30 seconds and take a SUD rating of the intensity of your experience.
Your experience will have either lessened, stayed the same or increased. Make a note of the factors that may have contributed to this change. Try other strategies, such as controlled breathing or counting backwards from one thousand on your out-breath. After a further 30/40 seconds, note your new SUD for the same sensation. Again, note the factors that may have contributed to this change.
Be curious; if the SUD goes down, you may be relieved, but stay curious. What have you done differently to make it so. If SUD’s go up, be challenged to just notice that experience and to ‘go with the flow’. Do not fight it.
At a later time, return to your notes and seek out further patterns and/or ‘do-able’ things for a similar situations in the future.
RE-EXPERIMENT: Take a look in the mirror. Complete the controlled breathing and the Body Scan. Notice the thoughts, feelings and sensations that are arising. What do these often small internal experiences tell you? Consider whether you can find a belief about yourself amidst all that information – judgements or views about your appearance, who you are and where your future lies.
This can be a moving experiment and, indeed, for some people, a very difficult one. Remain aware that an experiment can touch you strongly and unexpectedly. Only do as much experimenting as is helpful and remember to have that ‘consultant’ available to you.
Print off this picture if it helps. It represents your face. Makes brief notes arising from your experiment.
FURTHER EXPERIMENT: Take a break from your note-taking. Later, when you return to the picture, consider this:
… do I still view these notes the same?
Is there anything I would change?
How would I prefer things to be?
What might stop me working towards slightly different outcomes?
Then design some ‘do-able’ things that flow from your ideas. As ever, make a note of the results you obtain and save your results for further review.
The results from all the experiments, above, will give you some insight into your own ways of thinking – about yourself and other people. Too often, those thoughts are not pleasant. Some arise at will and often such thoughts are automatic and negative. So common is this tendency in human beings that the Cognitive Behavioural therapists (CBT’s) call them NAT’s (negative automatic thoughts). Like the other gnats, these thoughts bite and irritate.
Therefore, this ‘internal dialogue‘ that goes on in our head 24/7 is a common source of disturbance. Later I hope to demonstrate how these thoughts often arises from external experiences that can be changed. For the moment, however, I will focus on the thoughts, feelings and sensation happening within our bodies as internal negative thoughts and messages are particularly troublesome.
Most of us who have been depressed at some time and will have observed our biased and negative ways of viewing the world that come with depression. That awareness might arise only after our moods have become more stable. At the time, however, they are powerful and are very real (and seem not the least bit distorted). They can create patterns of behaviour and generate views of ourselves that promote certain actions, e.g. “I’m no good” leading to self-harm; “Life has no meaning” leading to suicide bids and “I will always feel this way” leading to a sense of futility and resignation.
EXPERIMENT: note down some of your negative thoughts when life becomes a challenge for you. Afterward, as you review them, notice the characteristics of some thoughts. Can you see elements that are:
• automatic and involuntary.
• difficult to switch off.
• just popping into your head without any effort on your part.
• distorted as compared to your ‘normal’ way of thinking.
• not fitting in with all of the facts….
• …. yet plausible, so you sometimes accept them as facts.
• make it difficult to change.
• stop you from getting what you want out of life.
The main goal of many of your experiments will be to break out of a vicious circle created when these characteristics begin to feed one off another. Without a break-out, it is easy to exaggerate the ‘badness’ and magnify our gloomy view of our existence.
EXPERIMENT: recognise when you are thinking negatively.
Part One: Name a Negative Automatic Thought or NAT. Speak it out clearly, in your head. Reply to it with something like:”you are not my best friend … and you may be trying to tell me something useful. I wonder what that is?”). Like any skill, it takes regular practice to catch them ‘on the fly’. Do not feel discouraged if you have difficulties to start with.
Part Two: Can you, just once, become more accepting of some negative thought as you ‘wonder’ about it. Some will make you feel bad – anxious, sad, depressed, hopeless, guilty, angry. You are likely to notice this as you practice the body scan mentioned earlier. Instead of being overwhelmed by these feelings, can use them as a cue for action. For example, can you speak out the negative thought, label the bad feeling and then, as before, follow up with:
…. even though I feel [name the bad feeling], I can still deeply and completely accept myself.
This phrase is an affirmation. It may prove more difficult than you think to say it and certainly more difficult to accept it. It can feel false and even embarrassing. Do not be put off by this reaction. Persist, and repeat the statement in italics. Bear in mind you are dealing with a belief here. Beliefs do not, generally, change overnight. They take some working on. Here, you have one that says you are not OK when you feel bad and another says you can feel bad and still remain an OK person. Which one might prove more helpful over the years to come?
If it helps, one further action is to write down this affirmation and blu-tak it somewhere prominent, such as on your PC screen. It may not be tomorrow, or next week, that the phrase starts to make any sense. Even so, at some time to come, you will be able to accept the view that: I prefer the belief that I am an OK person when I have bad feelings.
FURTHER EXPERIMENT write down another negative automatic thought (NAT) as soon as it occurs. Note, as before, any feelings or sensations that arise from it. Add notes using some of the headings listed below:
Where you were at the time;
Who were you with;
What time of day was it?
What was happening just beforehand?
What did you do immediately afterwards.
This will be familiar to you by now from previous experiments I have put forward. There are many cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) Record Sheets that could be used to record your answers. Some will appear as we continue with these experiments. An excellent overview of the connections listed here, and developed by CBT, can be found in Greenberger and Padesky’s(1995) ‘current bun’ model.
Use these headings, within the ‘bun’, to help organise your experiments.
Your records can include information from each area – for each experimental situation. for example, who was there with you and where were you. The records can identify the mood you experienced, the behaviour displayed by you and the other person and any other information available to identify the thoughts that were in play:ANOTHER EXPERIMENT: Rate just one emotion you felt as you completed the last experiment – using a Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD), a personal measure rated from 1 – 10 where one means the experience you are having is only just noticeable. Ten is the measure for the worst possible level of experience. Never feel the need to justify the measure you apply. It is merely ‘true’ for you at the time you use it.
Review your situation using SUD’s and consider:
- What were you doing when you started to feel bad?
- What feelings mean ‘bad’ for you?
- Are some or all of those feelings familiar to you from the past? If so, from recent or distant past?
It is generally true that most of us have a ‘favourite’ bad feeling – may not want it, but it hangs around like the proverbial bad penny. In the Transactional Analytical (TA) model of therapy this characteristic bad feeling is called a RACKET.
Float back to a recent event that gave you a tough time. When was it, and who was there? Notice your response at the time. Did you have familiar response, e.g. backing off, hiding or hitting out? As you reflect on it, are you aware of this being one a several similar situations. What negative feelings come into your body as you remember such events? These old, familiar feelings are called racket feelings in TA,
How long could you hang on to them? More importantly, what happened when, in due time, you could not hang on to those feelings any longer? When you have recorded some notes, and taken some time out, consider what alternative actions were available to you then and, indeed, to you NOW.
In the past, this tendency to hold on to bad feelings was called “stamp collecting”. This idea emerged at a time when the Green Shield stamp saving scheme was strong in the US and UK. Transactional Analysis was identifying a different form of loyalty scheme. Bear in mind that the purpose of that scheme was to bring a reward when you cashed in the Stamps. So with the Racket; we store up the familiar, negative experience until we can justify acting out and blasting some unfortunate with phrases such as “I am fed up with this …..” or “I’ve had enough so…..”
EXPERIMENT PART ONE
Are you aware of times, say, in your family or in school, when you seemed to receive ‘guidelines’ as to which feelings are OK and which are not. Families and organisations often have different “feeling rules” and you may have noticed that such rules were conveyed in explicit words or with a simple look or tone.
Re-read some of the records you have made about your own automatic negative thought(s). Some of your thoughts may take the form of images in your mind’s eye, rather than words. Reflecting back, what was the familiar feeling that arises for you as you remember. What do familiar bad feelings tell you about yourself, your present situation and your future prospects? Are there any clues as to what situations make you anxious, or angry, or whatever.
EXPERIMENT PART TWO
Once you can identify the meaning, you may be able to challenge the thoughts and feelings. Go back to this diagram:
The vertical column,labelled Anxiety (it could be any feeling, anger, despair, hopelessness) can be marked 0, at the bottom, and 10 at the top to superimpose the SUD’s ‘measure’ onto drawing. Note how the diagram demonstrates that feelings rise and feelings fall. They could stay the same, but most often, they are going one way or the other!
In the lower reaches (SUDs 0-3), you may find ways to talk to yourself or, indeed, talk to others, about those negative feelings. Your own words, rather than the words of others, may well help you find a different perspective.
In the middle (SUDs 4-7), many of the experiments I have described will help you to divert and distract yourself from a particular feeling. Diversion has the effect of helping us to step back or away from a particular experience. Instead of focusing on a racket feeling, we may be able to dilute the experience – to step back and see a different or larger picture.
At the top of the curve (SUDs 8-10)s, the experience may well feel over-whelming. It is very difficult to step back and/or see things differently. Instead, you may have little alternative but to go with the flow. Now, you can feel bad about that, or you can accept the experience. In accepting the feeling and just noticing it, you may find that it is not killing you and that nothing lasts for ever.
In phobia management, there is a technique called Graded Exposure; this provides for a slow and managed exposure to a feared object. If the exposure programme is very carefully graded, it is possible to get used to a low level of fear – to accept it and notice you can live with it. After that, we can move on to a ‘higher’ level of exposure until the time comes when I am able to say “whatever was I bothered about.…?”
As you persist with your experiments, you may find you are exposing yourself to things once avoided. In time, you may feel more confident about your ability to move up close to an experience and then move back from it.
Part of the instruction you will give yourself about what to do, how to do it and how often to do will be inside your head. This conversation is called an ‘internal dialogue’. It can be regarded as a ‘conversation’ between what I call, as odd as it may sound …..
YOUR SMARTER AND YOUNGER BROTHER OR SISTER versus YOUR NOT SO SMART AND OLDER BROTHER OR SISTER
The information I am about to summarise may prove very helpful. Clients have said this material has helped them to understand the way their body behaves. More importantly, it helped highlight just how feasible and practical the ‘safe experiments’ can be.
The brain consists of many parts, but for practical purposes and for now, think of it as two brothers or sisters, often referred to as siblings. One is older than the other; another is smarter than the other. Rather crucially, one is faster than the other.
Look at this photograph:
Consider the arm as your spinal column, connecting each and every part of your body to your brain. On the top of that spinal column, the first fist, there is the older and not so smart ‘sibling’. Surrounding that one is a smarter and younger ‘sibling’. Which of the two is the faster, do you think?
What you are looking at is a vastly over-simple representation of your brain. The oldest part, the lower fist, has its origins in our pre-human existence. It even includes elements of our earlier mammalian form as we crawled out of the water millions of years ago. Over the ages, that old brain has been joined by other parts providing more visible human qualities – the ability to talk, think and reason. The upper fist, surrounding the lower fist, provides much of that thinking and calculating part. It is often referred to as the cortex. There is a ‘switching’ station connecting the two – the thalamus – helping both siblings keep in touch.
EXPERIMENT: consider whether the lower (older) or the upper fist (younger) is the faster? That is, when the electro-chemical innards are at work, which one arrives at a course of action before the other?
Really, there is no contest, but it may not be obvious whether the smarter and younger sibling, with youth on its side, is quick off the mark or does our more ‘primitive’ part get there? As you reflect on your information, can you consider why your conclusion is right; why is one faster than the other. More importantly, what will be the consequences of the one being quicker than the other?
Write down some thoughts so you can come back to the important points here and weave them into any other experiment of your own making.
The photo provides a simpler and easier ‘map’ of those siblings. The reality is rather more tricky. In case you want to look into this more deeply, let me provide a different map:
The Two Siblings
Older, and not so smart
If all this detail is unhelpful to your experiments, then please pass over it and read on. Otherwise, what experiments might come to mind? We will return to this theme again.
For even more information, see if you can track down:
a BBC 4 broadcast from January and February 2016. The second of four episodes, on memory, seemed, particularly helpful. Look out for the use of a percussion section – a very practical metaphor.
So, these two ‘siblings’, and various other parts of our nervous system, are experiencing and responding to a range of sensations and events throughout the day and night, twenty-four hours a day, from our early conception to our death.
I will address the impact of sensations from external experiences later on. However, within our bodies, our muscles and organs are creating sensations via a vast array of neural pathways. The information going along those networks is meaningless without the brain helping us to attach some order it. This will be a key issue when our experiments address trauma-related matters.
The workings of the human body are complex but, in the experiments I will address, I hope to show the way the different ‘parts’ relate one to another. Also, I will concentrate on ‘do-able things’; ones that do not require a degree in medicine to make sense of it!
One of the more interesting systems we need to know about is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This system comprises two parts that can either battle one with another or promote harmony and balance in our bodies. I have already referred to the two divisions called the ‘sympathetic’ and ‘parasympathetic’ systems. These ‘parts’ arouse or encourage some reactions in our bodies and inhibit or suppress others.
Take a look at some of the key arousers and inhibitors in the diagram below. Some very basic human behaviour are shaped by the reactions of our eyes, lungs, stomach, intestines, and sex organs.
In The Body Remembers (2000), an American therapist, Babette Rothschild, focuses on the role of memory in influencing our Autonomic Nervous system and our responses to events. Her book describes in detail how a State Dependent Memory and Learned Behaviour (SDMLB) cycle operates.
Although her primary focus is on trauma, much of what she is saying can be generalised to the treatment of anxiety (bearing in mind that PTSD is a generally considered to be a special case of an anxiety-related disorder).
The diagram, above, focuses attention on the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
Common responses of the ANS
|Sympathetic branch||Prasympathetic branch|
Quicker heart rate and pulse
Increased blood pressure
Pale skin colour
Cold and clammy skin
Digestive processes such as peristalsis decrease
|Slower, deeper respiration
Slower heart and pulse rate
Decreased blood pressure
Flushed skin colour
Digestive process increase.
It is the ‘ups and downs’ of these branches which will feed, and be fed by, high emotion and feelings of anxiety in particular. According to the severity of the ‘swings’, you will be tempted to flight, fight or freeze.
Freeze is often overlooked, but this will arise when the normal ‘ups and downs’ are replaced with a marked ‘up’ for both branches. It is a drastic survival-laden strategy that helps predators lose interest in you or to anaesthetise a victim at the point of death or experiencing serious injury. It is in such states that some people, faced with near death experiences, reported watching themselves separated from their bodies.
Attend to your external environment
Without looking at the floor, desk, seat, can you identify the surface on which you are standing, sitting? Is it hard/soft; warm/cold?
What are the sounds around you?
What is the texture of the materials you are wearing? Are they smooth or scratchy; comfy or otherwise,
What is the temperature surrounding you. Is it comfy, too cold or too warm?
Without looking in a mirror, can you estimate the position of your shoulders, back, neck, and head? Are you comfortable on/in your feet. Do you notice any tension anywhere in your body? How do your respond to that tension?
Where, and in which direction are you looking. Are you sitting up straight? Are you relaxed or tense?
What sensations cause you to shift posture?
What experiences do you notice when you shift posture?
Do you notice and specific tastes or smells? Perhaps you notice feelings of hunger/thirst/tiredness/restlessness/stiffness or a wish to go to the loo.
Do you notice how easy it is to become more aware of internal body experiences: thoughts, feelings and sensations?
Does this kind of experiment help you to recognise just how much information is taken for granted and often left unobserved? If yes, and your notes are getting thick, then proceed on.If not, and much of the experiment seems alien to you, then return to the controlled breathing experiments and the strategies for ‘just noticing’ your inner world.
A FURTHER EXPERIMENT
Close you eyes and describe to yourself your current body position. Be specific about, say, your right arm, left leg and back. Is the palm of your hand facing up or down/what is it next to? Are either of your feet turned out or in? In what direction is your head tilted?
Try writing down on a piece of paper your name, the day and date and where you are. How easy or difficult is that. Can you write it without thinking? Can you/do you do other things at the same time?
Now try writing the same information with your non-dominant hand. How easy and difficult is that and how much more/less ‘thinking’ goes into it?
Notice how, sometimes, it is more difficult to multi-task than we might think.
The controlled breathing experiments already mentioned, play a large part in helping the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems to fight or co-operate. Thus, controlled breathing can counter-act the over-activity of our lungs when we begin to feel anxious. It may decelerate our heart rate and reduce rapid breathing – reactions that arise quite automatically when we feel under threat.
Above all else, and crucial to our experiments, is that fact that controlled breathing is able to moderate rising emotions. Relaxation strategies help us to become more aware of what we are experiencing. The autonomic nervous system, in full flight, will make us less aware of our experiences and less able to manage our bodies in a thoughtful way. It places us on auto-pilot and our thinking and reasoning can go out of the window. These reactions are the well-known ‘flight-fight response’.
I have already mentioned a third ‘f’, freeze. Our experiments are not so likely to address the even more crucial ‘f’. Any-one guess what that is? Talk about that later, maybe!
PREPARE FOR ANOTHER EXPERIMENT: how to meet the experiences that you notice within your body.
Take a look at this model intended to help us attend to any high emotion we experience. I have chosen anxiety as just one such emotion. It could be anger, despair or even joy (though most folk are not too troubled by that last one!).
This graph suggests there are three sets of experiments you may want to develop.
The first involves ‘talk’ and ‘self-talk’. Here, I am back to that internal dialogue I mentioned (self-talk) as well as the actual conversations we have with others (talk). Therapists are often interested in the supports that their clients have – because their network of people to talk to may make a decisive difference in the path to healing.
When you do a body scan and notice any feeling, you can identify a Subjective Unit of Disturbance (SUD) to measure the level of feeling. Where the SUD is lowish, say, 1-4, it is possible that conversation and inner re-assurance alone will lower that SUD.
In the middle ground, around 4 -7, you may need more active strategies, termed distractions or diversions.
In the higher ground, from 7 upwards, there is but one experimental strategy that will help. It is a strategy,however, that can take many forms. The ultimate intention, here, is to acknowledge that, by and large, people do not die from high emotions. This is despite the many sayings that suggest we can, e.g ‘you are killing me‘, ‘I will die of a broken heart‘ or ‘he died of fright‘.
Instead, is it possible ‘to go with the flow’ in the certain knowledge that human beings are hard-wired for our emotions to become more intense and, inevitably, come down again. This is epitomised in the phrase, ‘this cannot last for ever‘. The neural pathways creating the flight, fight and freeze responses are not designed to go on persistently even though there are occasions when those pathways give a good impression that they can! Of course, you may faint but even that is one way to help the level of emotion to subside.
The problem is that humans can imagine – notice the hashed line in the graphic. We can imagine our SUDs continuing, onward and upwards, relentlessly. It is that imagining that can create much trouble.
Once it is possible to ‘just notice’ the experience we are having, it may be feasible to step back and watch it coming and going. Nothing lasts for ever.
AN ACTUAL EXPERIMENT: cast your mind to a time when you were highly anxious. How did the incident actually pan out? Some people tell me it petered out with a whimper, because all the imagined fears came to naught. Other people tell me that they experienced panic symptoms in their bodies. They survived it but became sensitive to the possibility that similar things might happen again.
What happened to you? What conclusion did you draw from the experience? Do you view it differently now, compared to then? Does the diagram offer you some alternative experiment to try out in similar situations?
SOME TYPICAL EXPERIMENTS
The diagram above is central to the management of high emotion.Consequently, where this is an issue for you, a whole range of experiments will have to be developed. Create yourself the best ‘toolbox’ you can. Your toolbox will be different from mine; this has to be personal.I can only introduce some typical experiments:
TYPICAL EXPERIMENT WITH TALK
This might seem easy. After all, we talk all the time to other people. However, the initial experiment is to choose some-one and the next step is to chose what to say.
Be careful with your choices; for instance, please avoid your children, if you have any. Even grown-up child might be best avoided lest you ‘put upon them’ and they feel reluctant to say ‘no’. For a start, make sure it IS some-one who can say ‘no’ and that you can respect their choice and go on to do something different.
That said, it does not have to be a big deal. It may be sufficient simply to say ….”can I tell you something that is important to me …..”. Please note that asking for support here is not optional.
With those preliminaries complete, speak slowly and personally, using the first person, “I”, to describe what you are noticing. If the person you are with knows about SUD‘s, you can use them to describe what you feel – the emotion you have now – and the strength of that feeling.
As and when they reply, simply accept whatever you get. If you do not like it, wait until they have finished, and ask to say more. That said, avoid explaining, and re-explaining. At the end of the day, your experience cannot be fully known to any other person. You, in your turn, cannot fully know what prompts another person to reply as they do.
Accept what you are told at face value and focus more on your inner experience. Name, in your head, the feeling you have and apply a SUD to help identify whether the intensity of that feeling goes down, stays the same or increases.
If it persists in going up, then do something different, say, take time out for yourself. If it stays the same, discuss with your partner ways in which you might reduce the level of feeling further. They may be very willing to help you experiment. If it goes down, be curious. What made for that change?
Accept any safe experiments put forward, and notice how, sometimes, you will want to argue about it. Don’t; just listen to them and notice what you are feeling!
EXPERIMENT WITH SELF-TALK
Again, this sounds simple. After all, I have already mentioned ‘internal dialogue‘ and the fact that it is with us 24 hours a day. However, the problem with a lot of self-talk is the quality. Too often it is critical. Just stop for a moment, and notice your ‘internal dialogue’ as it is running, now. If you have struggled with this part of my blog, what are you saying to yourself? It could be a rude remark about my writing style but, as often as not, it will be a self-criticism: “why can’t I understand this ... “. It is only too easy to blame ourselves, if not others!
In this typical experiment, however, I want you to notice both the problem you are experiencing, when it rises, and to use language that is more kindly – about yourself. Typically, this might be “I notice that I am struggling [with whatever it is; naming things is important in such experiments] and I will give myself some more time to consider it further [or re-read something]” .
The key is the use of that first person, I, plus the ‘and‘ – the intention to do something that will help you. Watch out for buts instead of ands. But often heralds an excuse and it won’t help here.
A second issue is to keep it brief and direct: what is the feeling? What can I do about it now?
Other ‘kinder’ internal dialogue might be: “I am feeling [what ever it is is] now, and I am going to respect it.”
Here is a sample list of common ‘cognitions’, that is, beliefs about ourselves. How many negative beliefs, in square brackets, and how many positive beliefs do you subscribe to easily?
I [do not] deserve love;
I am [not] a good (loving) person.
I am [not] fine as I am.
I am [not] worthy;
I am [not]honourable.
I am [not] loveable.
I am [not] deserving (fine/okay).
I [do not] deserve good things.
I am (can be) healthy.
I am [not] fine (attractive/loveable).
I am [not] intelligent (able to learn).
I am [not] significant (important).
I am [not] okay just the way I am
I [do not] deserve to live.
I [do not] deserve to be happy.
There is a large number we could develop. Do you have another that makes more sense for you, now? Most of us have a few ‘favourites’ – we might not want them on one level, but they hang around!
What have you done in the past to neutralise unwanted beliefs?
If little specific comes to mind: what antidote might you design now to face up to one or more negative cognition?
EXPERIMENT WITH DIVERSION
Let’s move away from talk and self-talk. There are many diversions and distractions we could use in experiments. The words are not really so separate one from another so I will use both words inter-changeably..
Controlled breathing can be a diversion. You notice some discomfort and you start to ‘think-about-breathing’. Instead of doing it on auto-pilot, as is normal, you stop, take a longer, gentle in-breath (not a sharp or deep in-breath, as is often recommended). You take this breath in only through your nose. Use a slow count of three, possibly four, as a guide, but do not let your breathing become laboured. It is not a competition.
Use the same slow count to breath out. Continue this for around 30 seconds, no more than 45 seconds, and then stop and complete a body scan. This body scan will help you notice what you are experiencing in even more detail. From that information you will design further experiments to become more at peace with yourself.
Another diversion experiment is to do something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. Just as ‘thinking about breathing’ can help, so do other actions. This can include tapping on different parts of your body, as mentioned earlier on. Also, very practical tasks such as getting out a notepad, making notes or a developing a ‘to do’ list would be practica
EXPERIMENT WITH DISTRACTION
Typical distractions can involve using your body. In your mind’s eye it may be possible to create different images. One very important image is the use of the safe place.
The safe place experiment is so important that I will address it in detail later on. For the moment, just consider whether, in your mind’s eye, you have a safe place to go when the going gets tough. An alternative to a safe place in your head is simply to take time out, that is, remove yourself from the vicinity of the current source of stress.
Another distraction is to use your eyes. If you notice a strong emotion, some people find they can do ‘first aid’ by raising their eyes up, say, toward the ceiling. Do this without straining; a small move up should suffice. At the same time, look to your left and move your eyes slowly to the right. Repeat this back and forth movement of the eyes, still raised, for a short while. Record a SUD of the intensity of any feeling from time to time. Use the body scan to notice discomfort within your body. Devise ways to ‘talk’ to that discomfort differently.
In time, I may well re-record digital records, mp3’s or mp4’s, to help with this part of the experiment.
Experimenting with the Dan Siegel approach to Body Scanning
This American doctor has some very interesting things to say about the process of change. Those wanting to research his work may want to start with:
The reason why I mention his work is that his Wheel of Awareness fits very well into the Body Scanning experiments I have included many times. I cannot reproduce his wheel for copyright reasons, but take a look at it. It may help you devise experiments that lead from the ‘inner’ body scan I have focused on. See if your next experiments can incorporate the ‘Seven Senses’ Dan Siegel describes.
His wheel is helpful in adding a scan of our relationships into the process. This moves us from the internal experience into our much more complex social world.
EXPERIMENT WITH ‘GOING WITH THE FLOW’
A typical experiment here is to ensure that the feeling you’ve got is named. Most often, you will find a word that describes an emotion: anxious, angry or puzzled etc. Be aware that this label is something you are applying to a whole load of sensations in various parts of your body. That is you giving meaning to the otherwise meaningless.
Use the body scan to identify and explore those sensations. Note where they are located: nausea in the stomach, tightness in the chest or a lump in the throat. Most emotions are accompanied by a number of different sensations in different parts of our body. Look, again, at the diagram above relating to body reactions where several such sensations are listed.
The aim of ‘going with the flow’ is not to do the body scanning, the labelling and the location of sensations but these are helpful preliminaries.
Going with the flow is the seemingly simple act of saying ‘hello’ to what you’ve got. As I have said, nothing lasts for ever and your emotions are not going to kill you. What goes up must come down. These are all everyday sayings that may help you find your way of ‘going with the flow’.
Don’t fight it and you will recover. The key experiments will come after your recovery as you take small steps to generate small victories and become more confident in your ability to build that ‘toolkit’ and manage your emotions just a little bit differently.
ARE YOU FINDING SOME PROBLEMS WITH EXPERIMENTING
By now, you have had an opportunity to do a number of experiments. I’m rather hoping your record shows you’ve designed and implemented a few for yourself.
As I do not want you to lose heart, now seems like a good time to mention what might be done about some complications. There will be things that get in the way of regular, organised and systematic experiments.
Timing: ideally, it is best to record your thoughts and our body experiences as they occur. This is not always possible. It would look odd, for example, if you got your record sheets out in the middle of a party or a meeting! In this case, make a mental note of what has distressed you, or jot down a reminder on any handy piece of paper. Then set aside time in the evening to make a more organised written record; it can still be brief. Run through an `action replay’, as you record, seeking to recall in as much detail as possible what happened, and notice how you felt and what your thoughts were.
Avoidance: it is very common to put off doing something different. This is particularly so when writing down negative thoughts: beware of making excuses that keep you from focusing on your thoughts and emotions. You may say to yourself, for instance, `I’ll do it later‘, or `It would be better to forget all about it’. You may find that you are very unwilling to look your thoughts in the face. Perhaps you are afraid they will overwhelm you, or you dismiss them as ‘stupid’ and not worth the time of day.
It is quite natural to avoid hurdles and sometimes it even appears to work! Do not let that occasional good fortune be your answer to everything.
If you find yourself making excuses, this is probably because you have hit on something important, so steel yourself to write something it down. Ignoring negative thoughts will not usually make them go away.
Motivation: Paul Grantham has specialised in helping us with our motivation to change. You may find his company has something to offer:
What is helpful about his learning programmes is the range of ideas that inform his work. His guidance is drawn from a number of sources – including Motivational Interviewing (MI), Cognitive Behaviour
Therapy (CBT), Brief Solution Focused Therapy (BSFT) as well as Client
Centred Therapy (CCT) approaches.
Keep in mind that this material, and most other materials, need to be ‘translated’ into your world.
Paul identifies a number of learning principles for change. I have adapted them to the design of ‘safe experiments’.
- what are you dissatisfied with something. Knowing this is essential for motivation.
- being dissatisfied comes either from wanting something you haven’t got, or getting away from something you don’t like.
- experiments can lead you to attend to something. This amplifies our perception of it. That can be a good thing or a bad thing! Knowing the difference, here, is rather important. Therefore, consider ….
- what is the significance to you of anything that is being amplified?
- listen to your own reasons. I need to hear them from my own mouth – not other people!
- one of the best ways to discover how to use a strategy is to repeat an experiment, wherever you get it from!! Use it for yourself.
- scale the extent of any feelings or sensations when doing a body scan. This will help identify the degree of personal concern to you.
- ensure that you see that you are already doing things to deal with an issue; ensure you know what it is you are doing.
- ask yourself what you are doing in order to build motivation further.
- identify change you make that lead to solutions that promote great comfort and self-confident.
- act to emphasise your own autonomy.
- edit your own language to improve small victories without ignoring the small defeats.
- what might you do differently in the face of a small defeat?
- engage with your own agenda – not that impressed on you by others.
… all this may well sound familiar, and I trust it is still worth repeating.
This is not an easy area to work on. Finding some concrete and do-able experiment works against us as our ‘spirit’ is a rather elusive part of our being. For the present purposes, I will focus attention on motivation and direction of our energies. Also, we will visit, briefly, contemplation as an activity with the potential to lift our attentions above and beyond our bodies and the space and time we currently inhabit alongside other people.
I have had a number of clients telling me that motivation is a problem. Too often this manifests in procrastination. The theory, here, is that we delay action when we cannot find the simplest and quickest safe experiment to complete. The task simply looks too large and daunting.
EXPERIMENT: go to your email inbox and work on it, with me, for five minutes. If you do not ‘do’ email then make a ‘to do’ list or examine your current correspondence for around the same amount of time. As you go through the inbox or list, you will note some junk things that do not deserve your attention – and you will get rid of that without further ado. Emails, like telephone calls, are simply invitations to do something; not obligations to act.
However, there will be some emails that would benefit from some action. As you arrive at each item in this category, decide whether the appropriate reply, or action, will take longer than two minutes to complete. If it is less than two minutes, just do it. Get shot of it, now.
If it would evidently take longer, then skip over it or allocate it to an action box, if you do that kind of thing. When you review your work after the five minutes is up, your in-box will be emptier. More importantly, several tasks will have been completed quickly.
Consider this: reading those actioned emails may well have taken a minute or two. What is the point of putting them to one side, and coming back to them, when it may take two minutes to read it all again?
if you can sort it in a two minute period, do so. Alter the time gap, as you think fit; I chose two minutes simply as an example. This experiment is known as the ‘one touch rule’. If you can do the task in a short period of time, then touch that task just the once. Do not put it to one side when you will have to return to it another day.
FURTHER EXPERIMENT ON SELF-MOTIVATION: recall a task you have been putting off very recently. On a piece of paper describe it as briefly as you can. Underneath, consider what has stopped you acting on it before now. List those ‘stoppers’, as I call them.
Take any one stopper and look for the smallest, concrete task that would help you overcome the same thinking it. see if there are other small steps that might help further. Apply the same thinking to any other stoppers.
When completed, review your list and decide on two or three small tasks that are do-able and a higher priority. Set a time limit within which to complete each of those priorities. At a later date, review again and notice what was achieved and what was further delayed.
Consider what it was that made it easy to complete the finished tasks and what stopped you, again, from finishing a priority task that was of your own design. Notice whether you are self-critical or what other excuses are made for the inaction.
Consider whether the task could benefit from an even smaller safe experiment. Look for the smallest outcome possible and go on repeating the experiment until you have achieved what you want.
You could, of course, decide it is a junk task and, by all means, give it up if this is so. If you chose this latter option, make a note of any cost to you of implementing that decision.
FURTHER EXPERIMENT: being your own therapist.
Here are a few questions a good experimenter would ask themselves. Sit down and have a conversation with yourself about some tasks you have to undertake very soon. It could be a task to do in the home, at work or even simply in your head!
¬ How long do you think it will take …….
¬ What do you predict will happen …..
¬ Can you guess the consequence of …..
¬ What needs to happen … for that to happen ….
¬ When will you know it’s happened?
¬ What might you do differently as you make it happen ….
What do you need to do to make yourself lucky
That last item may seem like a left-fielder, but do keep in mind that the more you practise, the luckier you are likely to become!
What seems to happen is that when we put together our whole being – the two siblings and every single part of ourselves – human beings experience ‘consciousness’. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves; we can look inward and experience ourselves as some entity. We make meaning about who we are.
With this seemingly unique and rather awesome skills can come problems.
Very few of us will not have experienced something call ‘depression’ at some time in their lives. The term is so vague that it really can be applied to some many common human experiences. These stretch from the inconvenient to the disabling and dangerous.
Let’s look at depression as a example of the SPIRIT faltering. The common symptoms include:
• Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
• Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
• Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
• Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
• Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
• Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
• Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
• Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
• Restlessness, irritability
• Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
If you go to the doctor and you are offered some medication, then some of the commonly observed side-effects can include:
• Dry mouth _ it is helpful to drink sips of water; chew sugarless gum; clean teeth daily.
• Constipation _ bran cereals, prunes, fruit, and vegetables should be in the diet.
• Bladder problems _ emptying the bladder may be trouble-some, and the urine stream may not be as strong as usual; the doctor should be notified if there is marked difficulty or pain.
• Sexual problems _ sexual functioning may change; if worrisome, it should be discussed with the doctor.
• Blurred vision _ this will pass soon and will not usually necessitate new glasses.
• Dizziness _ rising from the bed or chair slowly is helpful.
• Drowsiness as a daytime problem _ this usually passes soon. A person feeling drowsy or sedated should not drive or operate heavy equipment.
• Headache _ this will usually go away.
• Nausea _ this is also temporary, but even when it occurs, it is transient after each dose.
• Nervousness and insomnia (trouble falling asleep or waking often during the night) _ these may occur during the first few weeks; dosage reductions or time will usually resolve them.
Now the first-aid available from the doctor can be very helpful, particularly if you undertake some self-management strategies
A RANGE OF EXPERIMENTS
As you have done before: identify and pursue realistic goals. This will help you to assume a reasonable amount of responsibility for your recovery. Please do not depend on the drugs.
Set some priorities, and do what you can as you can. Where this is a challenge, break large tasks into small ones;
Commit to being with other people and to confide in someone; it is usually better than being alone and secretive. Let your family and friends help by letting them know what you want from them. If you don’t ask, you will not get (although asking does not mean you will get!).
Participate in activities that may make you feel better. This can include mild exercise, e.g. walking part of the way to work, walking up and down stairs, ball games.
Participate in some social activities as well.
Expect your mood to improve gradually, not immediately. Feeling better takes time.
Postpone important decisions until later. Before making a significant transition- a change jobs, getting married or divorced-discuss it with others who know you well.
People rarely “snap out of” a depression. But they can feel a little better day-by-day.
Remember, positive thinking will replace the negative thinking that is part of the depression and your perception of the small defeats and small victories can shift over time.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: WHEN OUR BODIES START TO CREATE A MIND
This does not happen in a vacuum. It happens as our bodies develop and grow, It happens as we meet and relate to other people. Tricky term, mind, so let’s not get into that too much and, instead, start to consider some tricks our mind can play on us. Take a look at this picture below I used before; it may be familiar to some people:
What’s the first image you get? Whatever it is, there is a second one there. Some people pick up the one, and other people see something quite different. The point is that our ‘two siblings’ and our internal wiring do not work perfectly together. Not only can we catch diseases, but we create problems for ourselves by jumping to conclusions. We can compound this by sticking with a pattern once we have found it, long after it would be wiser to let it go. That can lead us up a cul-de-sac. In Transactional Analysis (TA), this life pattern is labelled a Script. A journey we decide to take in our life, as though there were no alternative routes or destinations available to use to follow.
So, looking at the image above is yet another experiment and it can lead to rather different outcomes for different people. If your life depended on getting it right, assuming we knew what ‘right’ was, then this could prove to be a unsafe experiment!
This is just one of an infinite number of judgements humans make everyday and too often we assume that what we are seeing and hearing is ‘right’. As the years go by, and we get older, those judgements become more complex, based on more information and, only too often, vulnerable to error.
EXPERIMENT: float back in time, maybe helped by your road map developed earlier on in this blog. Find just one occasion when you realised, later on, that you had made a mistake. Choose a mistake that is not too serious, but big enough for you to feel some embarrassment, maybe, and for it to have had an impact on later events.
Note down the incident and the outcome. Note down the ‘cost’ to you of that error. Consider how that mistake came about. If you find it arose from the actions of others, then put it down and find another. Find an error arising from your own actions or beliefs. Locate something that made you inclined to make that error. What was it about you that led you one way, and might have led some-one else to a different result.
As you review your information, consider what you might, now, do differently to avoid a similar result. Can it be worked into a safe experiment?
A general rule that I have observed is that the earlier in our life time that we lead ourselves up the path, the greater the impact of an event. More recent errors can, sometimes, be put right more easily. There are obvious exceptions to this, especially when we reach a cross-roads in our life, but the rule is helpful as it explains why therapy, in general, can be so concerned with our early years and the impact of our early relationships with people who cared for us.
It is in the environment of home that we come to know ‘normal’. Of course, often the ‘normal’ that emerges there is far from ‘normal’! For more on this: take a look, again, at:
What messages do we absorb during our early and formative years?
Some therapies really focus on this part of our history. It is very difficult to remember the important influences of infancy and to work on them. Long-term therapy exists to help this process. For present purposes, however, I will concentrate on two things that can lead to some useful experiments. These two elements are attachment patterns and script development.
The first comes from the traditional theories of, amongst others, Sigmund and Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott. There have been modern revisions of their ideas in the work of the Relational thinking of writers such as Petruska Clarkson and Allan Schore.
[work in progress]
Script issues emerge from the work of Eric Berne and other Transactional Analysts. It is a model you can explore in Berne’s original text “Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy” (1961) or Claude Steiner’s “Scripts People Live” (1974).
In short, the Script idea helps us to predict our own behaviour and considering lines to follow when wanting to make changes. Also, it casts light on the life decisions we make and how they came about. Berne described how Script Analysis can cast light on our internal and private beliefs to generate our perception of ourselves and others.
TA makes much use of diagrams and even if it means little to you at this first read, here is a diagram of
[work in progress]
ATTACHMENT and BONDING
There is a mass of research material relating to these subjects. The topics take us close to some of the traditional areas of therapy. concerned with our history- indeed, our very early history.
In my tree diagram, at the front of this blog, I have suggested that this data is “for information only”. Here, I will work to demonstrate how insights into our early experiences, as infants, might assist us to make change today and tomorrow.
Health warning: I cannot do justice to this complex topic, so be prepared to make your own enquiries around this subject if you find that it engages you and/or become important. It is in this area that you may find the support of a therapist is essential as we cannot know what our experiences of exploring attachment and bonding might be.
As ever, I will focus on the ‘do-able’ things.
EXPERIMENT Return the to Road Map experiment. Expand it by concentrating on your first five years. Where were you born and where did you live? What was your place in the family? Who were your parents, brother, sisters and relatives. Who lived close by and who lived at a distance. Who did you see a lot and who were the distant, if not mysterious relatives?
Draw an ecomap (with thanks to this web site for download able templates) of your wider family and community:
These examples are designed for social workers and you can see this in the examples I am offering. You may well have a different network to encompass your family, but ensure you cast your net widely.
You can use thick lines to highlight a strong relationship. You can use broken lines to highlight damaged or negative relationships. You can place more ‘distant’ relationships on the outer edges of the ecomap.
…. an alternative approach to describe just your family, and not the wider community, might be:
The top line covers your grandparents’ generation; the middle line, your parents and the bottom line is for you and your brothers and sisters. The sign // refers to a separation or divorce and, of course, you may have to find space for step-parents and step-sisters and brothers. The dates included are dates of birth and dates of death.
This experiment helps you see the larger picture if your early years and it will give you lines for research when you realise what you don’t know about your family. This may include children who did not survive long – this was not so uncommon in generations back.
There is really no limit to the amount of data you might collect. At the end of the day, you will need to reflect on what you have learned about your family, your early years’ experiences and the quality of your relationships with key people – particularly mothers, fathers, care-takers and your siblings (brothers and sisters).
How might this reflection take place?
That smarter and younger sibling can get us into a lot of trouble from time to time. We may think we are sophisticated in our communications. It all sounds so sophisticated – especially if you can do it in several languages! Unfortunately, it is not the words we speak that are really so important. Look at this picture:
Whose going to tell me you’ve never been there, or something close to it. A lot of problems arise when our communications are masked and indirect.
Recall a recent misunderstanding with someone. Take a piece of paper and recall at least some part of what you said and what A N Other said. That’s what is actually said.
Underneath, note your own unspoken idea behind your own words. Speculate on what A N Other might have been thinking. Underneath that consider your own interpretation of A N Other’s words. Do the same with The Other. This is pure speculation but be open to the almost inevitable fact that they did not interpret your words as you intended them to be.
As you review your material, consider:
- How did I mask my own intentions from A N Other?
- What would have been the more direct words to use to convey my intention?
- How might I have responded differently in order to be sure about the actual intentions of A N Other.
You can undertake this kind of enquiry after your next misunderstanding given that it is only a matter of when this will happen – not if.
Transactional Analysis (TA) is very helpful in taking our understanding of our communications to a deeper level. This is a model using three ideas – The Parent, The Adult and The Child ego states – as sources of very different ways of communicating. The model helps us understand how those communications often get crossed.
Assertiveness training programme can help us improve our own communications and you may well find some suitable via local adult education programmes in your area.
In the meanwhile, practise designing experiments to develop more awareness of what you say, and of how you express yourself. In your conversations, introduce some of the following; not all at the same time. Overdoing it can be counter-productive and rather challenging.
1. Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’, ‘it’ or ‘one’.
When we use the personal pronoun ‘I’, we are acknowledging that the statement is true in our experience and that it may be different for other people.
2. Change verbs. Change “can’t” to “‘won’t” where can’t is not an appropriate restriction.
This change of verb encourages us to take responsibility and to be aware of what we can and cannot realistically do. Also,it says we can make a positive choice when deciding to do, or not do, something.
3. Change ‘need’ to ‘want’ and differentiate between need and want.
This change of verb encourages us to be realistic and responsible about our own needs and wants and to be clear about the difference between the two.
4.Change ‘have to’ into ‘choose to’ and ‘should’ into ‘could’.
These changes acknowledge that we make choices all the time and we are responsible for them.
5. Change ‘know’ into ‘imagine’ in case your ‘fact’ turns out to be a fantasy.
Often we will state that we know something about another person when it is based on fantasy. It is helpful to differentiate between what is known, imagined, felt and thought in order to make clear and unmasked statements.
6. Change passive into active
We can place ourselves into a passive role when talking of things that are happening to us. . For example; ‘I allow people to take advantage of me andI often feel angry’, is different from: ‘Things keep happening to me that make me feel angry’. The latter statement appears to blame other people or events for how I feel.
7. Changing questions into statements.
Questions can be useful. They stimulate thought and discussion. Other times, questions – such as ‘don’t you think….’ – are often indirect ways of stating ‘what I think….’. If you have something to say, say it and work with the consequences.
8. Take one issue at a time.
Avoid confusing an issue with a load of others. Notice how, in arguments, often the past is used to identify a number of example to illustrate a point. Using the past can lead to distortion and manipulation since the other person is likely to have forgotten or to remember it very differently. Concentrate on specifying the experience you are having NOW.
9. Ensure that you understand each other.
If you are unclear and confused about the issue, summarise or paraphrase what you think you are hearing. For example, ‘So what you’re saying is…., is that right?’
10. Without being over-effusive, can you appreciate the other person? It costs little to acknowledge and appreciate them, especially if you can briefly describe to them what was said that has helped you.
These are just some elements to work on. There can consult whole books and web sites on this subject.
The problem with my experiments thus far is that the focus on words can prove misleading. What we DO, rather than what we say so often speaks volumes.
EXPERIMENT: putting feelings second. That seems an unusual for a therapist to say! However, it can be a different step to take. Have you noticed how talking about feelings can add to some rows, e.g. “I don’t care how you feel” or “and what about my feelings” etc.
Try this ‘feeling-fact’ experiment instead. It requires you to respond quickly to some miscommunication by describing the actual behaviour that is troublesome, rather than the feeling it generates in you.
Thus, “I’m fed up with your nagging” becomes “when you tell me to sort out this bill several times, I feel inadequate”. It is vital that the words describing the feeling are spoken in a neutral tone. There may be some feeling leaking through, but it is important that the other person hears about the troubling behaviour first and then hears your present feeling as an account of your experience, not a complaint.
What is said first needs to be heard and too often our feelings eclipse the stated change we are seeking to make.
This is more difficult to do than it appears as it goes against the grain. Most of want to say how we feel and most of us are reluctant to be specific about the actual behaviour that is troubling us. I will say more about this under the terms direct and unmasked communication as we go along.
EXPERIMENTS WITHOUT WORDS
1. Eye contact: how I look at some-one can convey how I feel about them and what they are saying. It is a powerful self assertion to look someone directly in the eye – not wise with bank robbers. Often we will give away our power by looking away. When we look directly at the other party, we communicate that we are alert. That said, too much gaze and eye contact can say other things – it can be challenging and over-intimate. The Other may feel embarrassed by it.
2. Posture: how we stand and sit communicates how we feel about ourselves and what we are saying. In my village, I have been described as ‘laid back’ and that has arisen, for the greater part, from my tendency to slide down in chairs with legs outstretched.
So, you will have noticed that too much of something has one set of consequences, and too little results in something quite different. Where will you place the balance?
3. Stepping back: often heated arguments bring people closer together in a confrontation. In practice, it helps to step away, even if only a little bit. This reduces the risk of physical confrontation and, psychologically, it can help us keep a clear picture of the person and yourself separate from the issue.
4. Listen to other: most of us like to be heard. Our own ego can too often stop us listening and giving time to another. Problems arise when we feel impatient and speak over another person. More importantly few people can keep up a flow of words forever, so your time will arrive to speak and you now have lot’s of time to think of the words that will help the most. More importantly, again, that moment will arrive when the other has given off steam and is less likely to be emotionally aroused. Use the SUDs experiments to monitor how emotional levels change as people talk.
Please note, this is not always true and different steps may be needed to protect or care for yourself.
5. Choosing your time and place. There may never be the best time to complete some important communication, but how you go about it is helped or hindered by the place and the time chosen to do it. Is there a neutral or more comfortable time and place to do what you want to do? In particular, consider how much time you want to spend on it; open-ended, is not always a good idea! Consider this: when the phone rings, it is only an invitation to talk. You can decide how much time to give to a call and it can help others to know what that time limit is.
TRAUMA: this response is a special case of internal mis-communication.It is then aided and abetted by some of our external communication. The ‘two siblings’ and the interconnected set of brain structures lying deep within the brain can initiate mis-communication. Experiencing any shock and sudden discontinuity can do this, e.g. being hit, being involved in a bank raid or caught by a blast from a bomb.
It is vital, as a first principle, to accept that the ‘miscommunication’ may be a nuisance, but the ‘two siblings’ do not realise this. They are reacting to events that feel real and their reactions are intended to help and protect the body-mind. Unfortunately, in the 21st century world our reactions do not always return us to a sense of well-being. Bear in mind that the principal task of the brain is to make meaning and to mediate between our internal and external worlds; a divide that only too easily becomes out of kilter. Remember the visual illusions used earlier on.
One feature, not the only feature, of a trauma response is the intrusion or flashback; the ability to relive an experience as though it is happening now, in real time. There are two very different forms of this response/
Intrusive memories are vivid pictures, smells, sounds that are experienced as being very real, although the individual remains aware that they are actually recollections. of a traumatic event. Intrusive memories can often produce intense physical sensations and it is very common for people to try and block these memories out or push them away when they occur.
During a flashback, some aspect of a traumatic event is experienced as if it were happening all over again. One might re-experience sights, sounds, the presence of others, smells or things touching you. Any sensory information registered in the memory may be replayed vividly. Reactions like these tend to make people feel like they are ‘losing their minds’, or that their minds are playing tricks on them: they know logically the event can’t be happening again, yet it seems to be so. Flashbacks can be terrifying because of their unpredictability.
Both intrusive memories and flashbacks can be triggered by very subtle reminders in the everyday environment, such as a brief sound, a smell, or just a feeling. Both intrusive memories or flashbacks can make you feel very much out of control, especially because they seem to come totally out of the blue. They can elicit such strong physical reactions.
Some revision before any EXPERIMENT
If you are aware of any trauma response, see that you are properly supported before learning to manage it. A number of resources are needed to address this feature. That said, be confident that you can work at your own pace and don’t push yourself too hard.
Recall what I have said about feelings of discomfort and remember my re-assurance that such feelings are neither usually harmful or dangerous, even though this may not feel right at the time.
The aim of change here is for you is to find a workable place for those experiences and to regain some control over them. Trauma management can include these basic experiments before anything more sophisticated is tried.
For instance, use the anxiety model to explore and understand what is happening.
Also, revisit the arousal curve model to inform and plan interventions.
COMMUNICATIONS WITHIN COUPLES
Safe experiments are not easy. When you are working for yourself there are fewer complications as you set your own rules and stand by the results in your own unique fashion.
At this point, I am going to introduce the complication that arise when you ask some-one else to join you or, at the very least, to help you out.
In my experience, one of the problems that most couples will meet at some time is the loss of common purpose. What are we doing together, and what are we setting out to achieve and why bother. When we set out, mother nature has her own way of over-riding these questions with the permitted temporary psychosis called ‘falling in love’.
In time, her impulses or drives lessen. The smarter and younger sibling has a task on hand at that point as two of them have to reach some other kind of understanding about what tomorrow will bring.
Take a look at this work-sheet. If your partner is willing, each take a copy to a corner and complete it privately. DO NOT consult on it or work on it together at this time.
Use bullet-points to record your position within this current relationship. Reflect on:
What do you expect, yourself, to bring to it?
What do you expect, of your partner (other), in your relationship?
What do you believe your partner expect of you?
What do you expect of the relationship itself?
After an agreed amount of time, come together and review the results for an agreed period of time. Do not require yourselves to ‘sort it’ there and then. Come back to it, if necessary.
Work out a running order so there is sharing of the information, bit by bit, and one at a time. Agree that one person will not take too much of the time available yet find ways to avoid interrupting your partner and/or being offended by any particular piece of information.
Include a second experiment by using all those communications skills listed above.
I predict you will surprise yourself and your partner some where along the way. The experiment is likely to provide much material for future experiments.
Be careful with one another.
Recently, Autumn 2018, an interesting phenomenon came up a few times, after a period of rest.
That phenomenon, from the school of transaction analysis, goes by the forbidding name of a “competitive symbiosis”. It is a feature that lies behind a number of conflicts between two or more people. If you are not already familiar with transactional analysis (TA), take some time to research ‘Ego States’ as the competition is between individuals fighting for one ego state over another. Often a conflict between Parent and Child Ego States, the important behaviour is the ‘flip flop’ operating between one person and another.
One comes on ‘Parent’ and the other fights to regain that same ground. Initially there may be a Child response – such as petulance – only to followed by patronising put-downs. The other may respond in Child as well, but only en route to further Parent-oriented control actions.
For example, person one complains about the ironing being incomplete and person two responds with a stamp of the foot followed by a number of recriminations listing person one’s short-coming.
Review the ‘interrupt’ strategies recounted elsewhere. Can you negotiate a neutral word that will permit the two of you to stop for a moment, just a brief moment, in order to complete a Body Scan that may identify the FEELING behind the words. We can only identify our own feelings – others cannot do this for us. SO – notice the inconsistency when I say -in the example above, the feelings may include neglect for person one and feelings of resentment for person two.
Agree that person one will talk about their own feelings, as they are NOW, for just two minutes as person two simply listens. Before any discussion starts, person one will take the same length of time to listen to person two with the same focus.
Take a break if you need and when you feel able to talk further, do so for another brief period of time. Bear in mind the primary task is to consider what can be done differently to just notice those feelings and relate to the differently. Consider what can be done to help both of you listen and not react to words immediately.
WHY ONLY BRIEF PERIODS OF TIME? Because it is difficult to focus on our own feelings, as they are NOW, without returning to the other person and their behaviour!!
PUTTING THINGS INTO BOXES
Therapy and medicine are rather fond of helping our understanding of life problems by putting them into boxes. This is the world of diagnosis. Personally, I do little in this area but I have known clients feel a sense of relief when there is a label for some of the things that are happening to them.
At this late stage in my blog I will introduce just one ‘diagnostic’ tool that I have found very helpful. I put it in as it may assist you with the design of rather more complex experiments, once the idea of experimenting has become second nature to you. This tool is called the:
taken from page 16 of Transactional Analysis: Treatment of Psychosis by Jacqui Lee Schiff and others (1975).
Now you can see why I left this to the later part of my blog. Actually, it may be simpler to manage than it looks, so let’s do that!
THE ‘HIERARCHY’ OF DISCOUNTING BEHAVIOURS
If you want, make a connection between this chart and the Johari Window. In the Johari Window, the therapeutic journey is from top left to bottom right; from the knowns into the unknowns.
In the Discount Matrix, our route is from the bottom right to top left; the ‘easiest’ bit – things that are within our reach, to the hardest bit when we do not accept there is a problem at all.
In the Discount Matrix, we are being invited to consider:
1. Can we identify all our choices and can we act on them one at a time, in an ordered or systematic way.
2. When responding to choices are we able to come up with experiments to remove any blocks to solving those problems.
3. When we are unable to even see an obstacle, or even consider it an obstacle at all, are there ways we can help ourselves move things on. Can we react differently or does history have to go on repeating itself.
TURNING THIS INTO ACTUAL EXPERIMENTS
Do you agree with the idea that we have issues, problems or obstacles in our lives – ones that we simply do not know about?!
That is the highest level of discount – ‘I see no ships’, as Admiral Nelson is supposed to have said on one occasion. This is the top left box and you cannot experiment on that one, for obvious reasons.
So let’s travel to the more promising box in the bottom right.
Think of a simple problem in your life today. Nothing too threatening; may be a communications issue with some-one. One in which you are confident you can react differently. you have the ability to be flexible, to change and try out something new (T4). You have the ability to solve problems (T5).
BUT can you see your choices (options) (T6)? This should be the level of discounting most easily addressed. It only requires you to say what your options are – a lot of experiments in this blog have focused on generating your choices or options.
So: remind yourself about that issue. Have you written it down in the shortest possible form? How would you prefer it to be NOW. Get that written down. List three ways you might get from here to there. You could write down more, but three is a handy number of options to create!
Spend time looking at your list of three or more. What needs to be done to move one of them on; just one of them. You may well notice that one is easier to sort, than the others.
Start with the easiest and, as you experiment, you will discover that you develop further options and, indeed, address them one at a time – from the one you find easiest, to the one you find more tricky.
That’s an experiment focused on your PERSONAL ABILITIES to change – the bottom right box only. There are eight more to go!!
Let’s try another example in the middle.
T4 is about SOLVABILITY and CHANGE POSSIBILITIES. It assumes you can see a problem, but it does not assume you have the personal ability to generate a needed change.
In this example, write down an issue and some notes on why it is an issue for you now
Ask yourself: what’s stopping me getting grips with some of the whys and wherefores of this issue. Just write down all and everything – anything that comes into your head. On this occasion, I rather hope there will be a longer list.
When you’ve done all that you can, take a break and come back to your list when you are more refreshed. Work on each item bit-by-bit in an ordered and systematic way. Has the passing of time enabled you to look at things differently? Has it let you see the possibility of change and, if you are lucky, some ways in which the issue might be solved?
Please note that the highest level of discount – at the level of existence – is not so easy to address. Sadly, outsiders are often needed to make changes here. In my first career – in the probation service – I was often me who played that part. Plainly, the police serve a similar function. Partners who put their foot down may be able to create change, Sadly, those kind of ultimata are too often discounted by individuals unwilling to act or appear, seemingly, beyond reach.
All the experiments I have mentioned about relaxation, mindfulness and self-hypnosis, including the Safe Place experiment, can all contribute to helping you address aspects of our tendency to discount problems in our lives. I have spoken a lot about relaxation and I hope your experiments have helped you become more aware of what gets in the way of your own personal development.
With that in mind, I thought it might help to put an entire process of relaxation together in one place. There are many others to choose from and I’d recommend attendance at a Yoga or mindfulness class as a reasonable experiment. There should be one near you!
In the meanwhile consider this: when you have found a place and time to relax, have regard to:
POSTURE: this should be upright, looking straight ahead, hands on knees or upper leg, with feet firmly on the floor.
BREATHING: with mouth closed and breathing in only through the nose (this regulates the volume of air you will take in). Change your count to observe the impact of it, but start with the same count for both in-breaths and out-breaths. When you investigate this further, you will find different breathing patterns to follow. These are all experiments to try.
BODY SCAN: attend to the thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body starting with your feet. Allow your attention to move up one lower leg and then the other. Continue this ‘scan’ with your upper legs and posterior region Move slowly and methodically to your stomach and lower back, continuing up into the rib cage and lower neck. Finish by scanning your neck and head until you reach the tallest hair on your head. As you do all this, be attentive to any experience in your body. When you notice something that makes you curious, attend to it and develop an experiment to explore it. Allow any tension from that spot to ease as you let it go on each out-breath. You can complete the body scan when you have given attention to each and every tension in your body and reached the very top of your head.
FOCUS: if you still have your eyes open, you can focus your attention on a fixed object in your upper vision and just to one side. If you have closed your eyes, focus on each and every disturbance of thought feeling and sensation. Repeat the body scan, if it helps. From time to time, ‘just notice’ your experience and let it pass. Sometimes it may help to simply say ‘hello’ to an experience and ask it to pass.
ATTENTION: continue to use your breathing to attention to any unwanted tension in your muscles or body. Use internal dialogue to acknowledge some disturbances or use other self-talk or diversionary strategies, as you wish. In time these strategies may become surplus to requirement.
EYES: if your eyes remain open, they are likely to feel tired. This may become more so as you play with any images around the fixed object. Allow your eyes to close in your own time. Meditate on any image created within your ‘inner eye’.
This process can continue for a few minutes or for parts of an hour, as you wish, or as time allows.
This movement is a current favourite in therapy circles as it combines some of the benefits of structured cognitive behavioural, Western psychology with the Eastern traditions of meditation and contemplation.
As this approach encourages a lot of experimenting, and places emphasis on ‘just noticing’ already mentioned a few times by me, you may want to do some of your own research. Take a look at:
I’d encourage any reader to consider attending a Mindfulness course in their home area. For further information, you could visit the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice (CMRP), at Bangor University.
For the present, it may help to include my observations on Mindfulness.
- It will offer you an effective way to manage the thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body. It will help you develop an an ability to observe the detail of internal experiences. One aim of mindfulness is to strengthen that `observing’ function by promoting an experience of ‘being in the here and now’ as well as an acceptance of `what is’.
- Mindfulness helps you to be aware of what is happening in the present, on a moment by moment basis. It helps us to become aware of our bodies and minds and the world about us, whilst not making judgments about the things we find.
- Mindfulness accepts that feelings and high emotions are real and need to be respected – but the perceived threat or danger is often not real.
- Mindfulness practice is a form of self-awareness training similar to meditation but not dependent on any belief or ideology. It is proven to benefit a wide range of people and health conditions.
- When our minds are constantly occupied we feel disconnected from ourselves and our immediate environment which blocks our attempts to alleviate our distress. Being aware in the present allows us to disengage the automatic pilot and respond to life’s challenges with a clear mind. It makes it possible for us to respond rather than react to situations.
- When we observe our symptoms closely we find that it is often not the `monster’ that it first appeared to be. It has many different forms and shapes, and is liable to change when observed. The attitude of mindfulness is to be curious about our experiences and not judge them.
COMMUNICATING BETWEEN BODIES
….. in progress
SOME HEALTH WARNINGS
Therapists and teachers know from their experience that the process of learning and change does not proceed in a straight line – onwards and upwards. There is a point in much therapy when some-one will give up. The challenges feel too much. Maybe the experience is disillusioning. Experience suggests that this withdrawal can be close to a useful point of change – a kind of feeling of ‘cold feet’ which might warn you off doing anything more.
Now, the theme of my blog is that you choose the direction and pace of your own change so you can stop and start as you wish. Even so, this ‘health warning’ may stop you sabotaging the work you have already undertaken.
Take a look at this cartoon:
Please note: the term ‘incompetent’ is not intended to be an insult. It simply saying all of us, including me, do not know some important things or possess some valuable skills. We are unaware of them; we are unconsciously incompetent. The cartoon suggests we can go through life happily if we are blissfully unaware of the learning we need to do. Obstacles to learning make things sticky when the going gets tough.
Before we can learn, it is necessary to become very aware of what we do not know (consciously incompetent). This is the discomfort that will arise when any safe experiment feels like it went wrong. The intention is that practise and persistence will lead us to become consciously competent. We will feel better at that time, if still a little unsure; do you remember my example of learning to ride a bike?
When that sense of uncertainty eases, we will become unconciously competent and be ready to press on to new horizons once again.
I emphasise this phenomenon as it tells us that the pathway to understanding and improvement follows a scenic route. We need to take this into account when planning our own learning and designing the next round of experiments.
This pathway is well illustrated in the next graphic. In theory, progress could be from top left to bottom right – from things we know to things we do not know. However, learning often requires the stimulus of others around us, so the pathway can move freely from box one, into box two or three, and back again, if necessary. Arriving at insights into the unknowns of box four can be long and convoluted.
I hope these diagrams will provide some encouragement to you as you finish this blog. It is highlighting the very personal and unique experience of learning as we move along the pathway between birth and death. It is intended to help you design those steps in a spirit of realism and with enough energy to make it all happen.
Here is some advice: I want there to be a little advice in my Blog, but some of it seems unavoidable, especially when I am so insistent on some action. I will include advice when it is based on the consistent experience of others who have learned the hard way!
ADVICE: Beware making a large moves after a major event such as a trauma, bereavement or other major loss. Such events tend blow your current time structure out of the water. Sometimes this is unavoidable, say, after a death or divorce. Even so, the advice is to minimise large moves and really consider the question: ‘is my journey really necessary?’.
It is always possible to make that same, big move a little bit later, but only after careful thought and discussion.
THINKING ABOUT THERAPY
Some of these experiments may well lead you towards some therapy shared with a professional. There are some experiments you can undertake even before that – or to help you reflect more on the idea. Here are some questions to consider; I’d suggest you makes some notes about.
What do you want from therapy?
When you ask that question of yourself do a body scan and ask: what do you experience (in your body, mind, brain)?
What, in particular, do you notice first?
What steps have you taken, already, to deal with any problems arising?
What prevents you, now, from dealing with your present difficulties?
When do those obstacles arise?
What would you want from therapy – the longer term ambition?
What would be your more detailed objectives for completing some therapy? This will include identifying some of the behaviour you want to change.
In what situations am I most vulnerable to ‘getting it wrong’, as you see it?
How come do I seem to continue to ‘get it wrong’? Write down the costs and benefits arising from what you do. Be prepared to be surprised as it is rather too easy to continue with the unhelpful but familiar and rather more difficult to step into the unfamiliar.
How will you know when you have reached one or more detailed objective?
What would you need to do to sustain things when you’ve reached an objective?
What might prompt you to backslide after you have achieved something worthwhile?
LIMITATIONS OF THERAPY
If you go into therapy, bear in mind that even the most conscientious client is not likely to spend more than 30-40 hours a year working on their issues (there are models encouraging even more sessions, but …..). There are 8760 hours in a non-leap year. That means over 200 hours are spent in your every-day world for every hour you spend in therapy. More problematically, you will not spend your life-time in therapy so you do the math on that!
Conclusion? Therapy needs to be but a preparation for savouring our everyday world. Experiences shows therapy can become a substitute for some people and this is not always helpful. Outside therapy, there are unlimited minutes to spend on practising conscious changes, and noting outcomes, thus increasing the prospect of a result. Consider this graphic:
LIMITATIONS TO EXPERIMENTING
I have suggested that therapy has the potential to be unhelpful. I suspect the same must be true for the experimental approach I have described. A fellow blogger, Karuna, pointed out just one such limitation with a poster, as follows:
Please Listen to Me
“When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice, you have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problems, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.
All I ask is that you listen. Not talk or do, just hear me. Advice is cheap. I can do for myself I’m not helpless. Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself you contribute to my fear and weakness. But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational, then I quit trying to convince you and can get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice. So, please listen and just hear me, and if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn; and I’ll listen to you”.
I’ll make one addition to this; if we want others to listen, how good are we at listening to ourselves?
That said, if this blog has disregarded your feelings, then I’d ask you to say so and to identify what more I need to do differently ………
This blog has focused on the experiments each of can do. The truth is there are larger issues that may be beyond experiment. Sometimes only whole communities can experiment and it would appear t hat 2016 was a year when both the UK and the US embarked on such an enterprise. Sometimes we need to step back and look at the large picture.
Throughout this blog, to this point, I have not mentioned one factor that undermines the effectiveness of experimenting, and and our ability to build up a series of small victories. This factor goes by the name – structural inequality. That is, each person does not have equal access to resources to solve their problems. Those resources are not always personal – motivation, resilience, desire or sheer ability. Too often there is too little money to get by and a large minority of others who hang on to wealth not available to most people.
POLITICS, ECONOMICS and COMMUNITY
More the concern of sociology, you might say, structural inequalities are differences created by forces outside an individual’s control. On occasions, I have hinted at the large influence our environment can have on the way our life evolves. Even so, most of this blog has focused on what you might do to make a small difference in your life. The theory is that a string of small differences will nudge you towards success. A series of nudges will help you feel more at ease and help you to perform better in your home, work and community.
The reality is that our lives continue to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves; the education system and the capitalist employment culture in which the UK is immersed. Even our communities, often with benign intention, ‘ask’ us to behave in certain ways as we talk to neighbours, visit the shops and play our part in some local social event.
This may sound gloomy; how can ‘small victories’ compete with the daily oppression that is imposed on the individual by these larger factors?
All is not lost, as it is possible to look these features in the eye and, like facing down the big bully, we might call its bluff. Occasionally, we can get hurt by it but our integrity can still feel intact.
How might this be done?
- by remaining realistic about what is ‘do-able’ and respecting small changes and having the wisdom to know when larger actions are needed by more people working together
- by remaining alert to the cunning and subtle ways in which our understanding of ‘normal’ stops us noticing those small differences and allowing for the possibility of something different.
- by knowing when the ‘current normal’ needs to move to a ‘new normal’ and being willing to play our own part in making it so.
- by knowing that it is rather difficult to know the nature of the ‘real’ world. Some modesty in this matter may make it easier to understand the very different view of the next person.
ME AND MY MODEL
All models have a bias. Some of them are made more obvious than others. Here is one way of viewing them. Notice there is a YOU and THEM dimension intended to demonstrate how therapy can be pre-occupied with you and your experiences, or it can help see you in relationship with others. The INNER and OUTER dimension addresses the tendency of some models to focus on our internal experience and a fewer give attention to ourselves in our environment and community.
Proponents of different models will look aghast at this table. In some ways, they are right to do so, as it presents an over-simplification of some complex and valuable insights offered by psychological models, old and new.
I am still including the table here as it may help you with experimental designs. Note how some of the suggestions I make ask you to focus on your inner experience (the body scan) and others advise attention to you communications with others (assertive communications) or even your larger community (The Road Map).
The radical element in my blog, as I see it, relates to the idea that any effective experiments have to operate in your ‘real world’. It provides a warning that many therapies, and a lot of therapists, under-play the social setting in which you have to operate. Modern ‘mass’ therapies, particularly those offered by the NHS and Employee Assistance programmes (EAPs), have opened the world of therapy to many more people, but you may find their programmes have an implicit message about you fitting in (to your work place or a medicalised environment running on increasingly tight budgets). I should emphasis that there are many therapists who will not implicitly encourage you simply to ‘fit in’ but the higher management of mass programmes do find it difficult to really focus on changes you might need to make when that might be inconvenient to their wider world.
For instance, the Government’s recently privatised Behaviour Insights Unit exists to devise nudges to help you help the government achieve governmental goals – reduced costs and greater efficiency. There is NOT a great concern for the way any costs fall on you and your family. They use their psychology to attain mass goals; your outcomes might need to be very different.
Also, bear in mind that the table helps emphasise that doing work in a laboratory is not often so helpful. Note, therefore, that you can do experiments in a therapy room but, even then, the results have to be re-tested in your everyday world.See my LIMITATIONS OF THERAPY commentary.
Slow and steady changes need to be tested and re-tested in the ‘untidiness’ that comes when you live with others. The process may be helped by researching information into the full range of models offering insight into ourselves, our bodies, our sensations, our behaviour, our relationships, our ways of communicating and belonging – all shaping our place in the world
Can you use ‘safe experiments’ to help others?
The general answer here is ‘no’. Experiments can only give you insights into your own life. You cannot know how they will impact on another person. Too often we over-estimate our ability to ‘help’ other people. In my work, I often invite people to try safe experiments but I can never make some-one take up the invitation. Also, there is the ever-present risk that our safe experiments, when involving others, do so in a manipulative and indirect fashion.
In my work it is unacceptable to do that and I’d prefer you to follow that ideal as well.
That said, I am aware all this can sound very ‘cold’ and anti-social. Most of us want to help others. Also, there are times when others need us. One such time is after some-one near to us suffers a loss. This might include an accident, a family bereavement, a divorce or a loss of home or employment.
In these situations, it is possible for experiments in listening to help. For instance, an awful lot is known about the likely responses an individual will make in the face of a loss. It is predictable because known neural responses are made by our bodies, almost entirely on auto-pilot. However, the range of reactions can still vary a great deal. There is nothing more infuriating that tell some-one how they will be. Research only tells us what thousands of people have done, not what you will do. Avoid the temptation to state the obvious (“time is a great healer” may be true, but it’s still not helpful!).
Talk and practise, instead, the art of just noticing and listening:
Things to watch out for – without needing to comment on them, include:
- feelings of horror and anxiety;
- emotional numbness and a sense of disconnection on the other;
- forgetfulness; finding it difficult to remember significant parts of what happened.
- recurring memories or feel as if they are re experiencing the event through painful flashbacks.
- Emotional reactions such as shock, fear, grief, anger, resentment, guilt, shame, helplessness, hopelessness, emotional numbness.
- Difficulty feeling or expressing love and intimacy or taking interest and pleasure in day to day activities.
- Cognitive reactions such as confused, disorientated, and indecisive thinking.
- Shortened attention span, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, unwanted memories and self blame.
- Hyper-arousal or over-alertness accompanied by panic attacks, rage, extreme irritability, intense agitation, exaggerated startle response.
- Severe anxiety creating paralysing worry, extreme helplessness, compulsions or obsessions.
- Depression typified by loss of energy, interest, self worth, or motivation.
- Anniversary reactions when any of these experiences return, or get worse, around the anniversary of the event.
- Physical reactions such as bodily tensions, fatigue, edginess, difficulty sleeping, nightmares, aches or pain, being startled easily, racing heartbeat, nausea, change in appetite, change in sex drive.
- Interpersonal reactions: distrust; irritability; conflict; withdrawal; isolation; feeling rejected or abandoned; being distant, judgmental, or over controlling in friendships, marriages, family, or other relationships.
Grief symptoms may include strong feelings of yearning or longing for the loved one and feeling empty or like a part of the survivor has died.
People often speak of a generalized pain or heaviness in their chest, feeling depressed and hopeless about the future, and having things that were once important not seem to matter so much any more. They may cry easily, lose interest in eating, or experience stomach upset, headaches, and feelings of restlessness.
Please bear in mind that lack of support from family and friends, and the presence of other serious problems, such as major health problems, may extend the recovery time. That said, people who suffer loss are known to withdraw from social contact sometimes. This is unfortunate, because it cuts them off from interactions with you that could be healing. Wondering if you have done something wrong should not be taken too far and be prepared to go on listening or attending.
The immune system and the cardiovascular system may be affected by grief, so it is important for survivors to eat well and to stay in contact with their family doctor. Any chronic health problems should be monitored. Survivors are prone to other sorts of mishaps, such as automobile accidents, because they are often preoccupied by their grief. It may be unwise to make major decisions during the first several months after a loss since they may bring on additional stress.
Grieving is a difficult process because it involves remembering what happened. These memories may be so upsetting that it is almost more than the survivor can bear. This can manifest in a number of avoidance responses and it is important to learn strategies to manage that and to calm themselves down. These might include such things as taking a walk, taking a warm bath, exercising or watching a film.
ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT (ACT)
This is a relatively recent addition to that long list of models I talked about. Even so, it is an approach that offers us even more experiments and challenges. It is a behavioural approach to therapy using the Mindfulness approach mentioned before.
It is an approach that can help us to increase flexibility in our thoughts, feelings and actions. In particular, it emphasises experiments around distancing ourselves, or stepping back. The intention of the experiment is to help us see a larger picture and, if necessary, to ensure we win the war, not just every battle.
As Wikipedia says: the objective is not the elimination of difficult feelings but getting to know unpleasant feelings. I have raised this possibility before in those experiments designed to recognise unpleasant feelings rather that acting upon them.
Experiments can help us do less avoidance and even initiate a positive spiral where feeling better leads to more confident acceptance of the changes we can make.
Some regular themes
My otherwise convenient ‘boxes’ of SPACE, TIME, PLACE and SPIRIT do not help me address the full range of issues I have shared with clients over the years.
Therefore, I will end with some common themes and the experiments others have developed to address them. there is no particular order to these themes, at this stage.
All addictions offer another area where the support of others, as much as experimentation, can make all the difference to your personal intention to change. Support can come from many directions, including specialist and voluntary services such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous.
An unwillingness to seek help and support can, itself, provide evidence of an addiction being a problem. Why? Because shame and pride are two emotions known to sustain addictive behaviour. The very thought of sharing our concerns about our addictive behaviour with others is well able to trigger those emotions. Experimenting on your own is, in this case,not always the effective strategy.
What can be done on your own here is to keep a drink diary. Fact-finding, as I have already asserted, is a key first step to designing an experiment. Fact-finding can help bring home the nature of the issues you are facing.
Note this diary is not simply concerned with the volume of your drinking; it will help establish the pattern of drinking – not only what you drink, but when, with whom and where. By now it will not surprise you to know that mood and emotion can play a large part in initiating and sustaining any addiction.
Complete this diary for at least seven days before looking for patterns that make sense to you. Notice, for example, if you have any alcohol-free days. If there are none, then one experiment would be to observe your reactions, in some detail, when you determine to do a little something different and go without for 24 hours.
OTHERS, such as Internet use and sexx
Procrastination appears to arise from the fact that our time on this earth is time-limited. Some of us find it easy to fit things into our allotted ‘slot’ and others struggle. For the latter group, life becomes a race against time but time doesn’t have to be your enemy.
Using the Transactional Analytic model (TA) or any other ego state model, it is evident that different ‘parts’ of ourselves struggle and pull our available energy in different directions. This tendency generates confusion and ambivalence – in two minds about something. That inner conflict can create the behaviour we call procrastination.
The overall aim of any experiment to manage procrastination is to bring about some harmony between the conflicting inner forces. Experiments will focus on listening attentively to your different ego states. In time, experiments will enable us to meet different needs without neglecting one or more ego state. Experiments will help you develop the ability to be act like a diplomat and to run your own life in a balanced way..
There are a number of ‘Stoppers’ that your experiments will have to address:
* the existing thought, possibly now well established, that you are a procrastinator. This needs to be replaced with observation that that you sometimes use procrastination as a behaviour to cope with an aspect of your past or current way of life. You are not procrastination-personified
- the tendency, over the years, to become more disciplined, to try harder, get organized. This sounds good, doesn’t it! However, such get-tough schemes can cause a backlash over time. This will dry-up your motivation and, possibly, in time, create burn-out.. We can lose the will to go on.
- a personality driven by a ‘Be Perfect driver‘. Second best and good enough no longer work for you. If your results aren’t perfect, you will withhold any effort in the future to hide your imperfect self.
Most of the experiments that will help will take care over the language you use – either in your head, or in conversation with other people. Such key differences include:
* replacing “feeling obliged” or “must do”, with choosing to do.
- replacing “when I’m done” with “I will start with”.
- big ideas replaced by smaller but do-able actions. This means working safely, not over-reaching yourself.
- replacing perfect with “good enough”
- replace “living to work” with “I work to live”. This involved committing yourself to a better quality of life, not mere existence.
Any of the breathing exercises can help manage procrastination; when it comes to body scanning, look out for the negative thoughts. In particular, listen out for those thoughts about not wasting your time meditating and relaxing!! Edit those thoughts and change the language. Look out for the Core Belief that the thought are supporting, e.g. Work Hard To Live or Life is not for Enjoyment etc. consider what alternatives are available to you, even though you may not believe them.
Compare the alternative beliefs available and consider which one might be most helpful to you. What actions will be required to make an alternative belief work.
EXPERIMENT: exploring some common beliefs
Often it is difficult to separate out our beliefs from things we accept as ‘fact’ or simple ways-of-the-world. Looking at some extreme beliefs may help make the distinction:
On a scale of 1 – 7, how much do you believe the following statements (where 1=hardly at all, and 7=absolutely).
I can be liked or accepted by every important person in my life.
I can be successful and competent in everything I do.
It’s bad when things are not the way I would like them to be.
Unhappiness arises when things are beyond our control.
Now, all these items are beliefs. Each one allows us to say ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to varying degrees. Some folk reckon that beliefs can only come true if you stick with a score of 7!
Beliefs raise more questions, than answers. What do we mean by ‘accepted’, ‘successful’ or happy’. A dozen people in one room, might well come up with more than a dozen answers to the question.
By contrast, if I say that I did a certain things, on a certain day, at a certain time, in the presence of certain people, then the statement can be verified or contradicted. This does not mean that everyone will affirm every detail; police studies regularly demonstrate that witnesses vary considerably from one another when trying to describe an event. However, for practical purposes, enough affirming evidence can be gleaned by a systematic recording of events.
That’s one reason why I have encouraged the regular practise of systematic recording of your safe experiments.
Through these experiments it may be easier to use the time available to you to your advantage, with time no longer working against you.
COUPLES and RELATIONSHIPS
Most experiments I have offered really focus on the individual and I have identified some complications that arise when experiments move beyond the individual – toward the community.
Another ‘special case’ that cannot be over-looked are couples.
AN EXPERIMENT for couples
Complete the work-sheet below without consulting one another.
TOP LEFT include your expectations of yourself in the relationship. What do you think you are bringing to it. This may, or may not, accord with what your partner includes in their top right box – that’s why I do not want you to consult one with another!
TOP RIGHT include what YOU expect of your partner – in your relationship. This may, or may not, accord with the items your partner puts in their top left box!
BOTTOM LEFT speculate on what your partner wants from you within the relationship. This is least likely to match their top right box!
BOTTOM RIGHT when you think about yourselves as a couple – what do expect to achieve together. This may prove to be the most useful box to address in any later joint work. This box will create a focus for generating some common purpose – without which many relationships founder.
When you have given time to looking at the result on your own, agree on a sensible amount of time to talk together. This may be difficult to arrange as you will be tired if it is late in the evening and unhelpful if either of you have been drinking.
Make sure you have an agreement on how to behave towards one another, e.g. no talking over one another; listening attentively, and without criticism, to what is said; focusing on your emotional reaction to what is said – when it is time to comment – without turning it back on to your partner etc.
Here, we are touching the tip of the iceberg. Specialist help from therapists with additional training may be necessary so you can stand back and notice how you work as part of a couple. ‘Additional training’ is often referred to as ‘Systemic’ training although voluntary sector Organisations such as Relate offer a well-respected training to its counsellors.
NEARING SOME CONCLUSION
My apologies to all and anyone for any failure to attribute ownership of an idea in this blog. This applies, in particular, to any diagrams that have been designed by other people. All my learning material has been gathered over several decades and the origins of some of it are lost in time. Help me put that right by drawing my attention to an independent source for any of them.
I have not include routine references, just the occasional hyper-link. I have added additional pages and some posts to address some relevant piece of research.
You, too, can make your own on-line inquiries if you want to deepen your research and to investigate a ‘nudge’ in more detail. The page on:
should be worth visiting now as it is intended to help you go on designing your own safe experiments into the future.