When Doing is Not Enough

Stop to take it all in

My web site places emphasis on action – getting something done. So here’s a bit of heresy against myself. Doing is not always enough or appropriate to the moment!

How so, and when?

Doing is only one way to experiment

Doing is not always a respectable word in therapy as action does not always ‘bring home the bacon’.  Some client-centred (Rogerian) therapists might well say this. They are right to do so sometimes as action can be a substitute for ‘real’ change in some situations. Action is a handy disguise; a diversion from deeper obstacles to change.

We can ‘pretend’ to change by over-looking our other options, particularly our own discounts. Do you notice when you run around like the proverbial ‘headless chicken’, getting no-where very fast?

Ever heard of the French expression: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“.  Roughly: the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

All us humans can be sneaky

One reason why safe experiments may not work is that our cunning minds find actions-of-convenience that are, in truth, sneaky avoidances.  Going into a new relationship without saying ‘goodbye’ to the last one, is one such example. One way to face this possibility is to use words, not actions.

Socrates, an ancient Greek was great at helping here.  Socrates was a philosopher and he had something useful to say about questioning ourselves and others. His famous sayings include:

An unexamined life is not worth living;  and,

I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.

So, you see, he was keen on thinking before action!  This lead may help to show that the first therapists were ancient Greeks (oh, and probably sages from even more ancient civilisations). 

What did Socrates say?

As I understand it, Socrates was advising that actions assume we have made a judgement that so-and-so is a ‘good’ action. He is saying that such judgements assume we have thought enough to know what full range of options are open to us.

In fact, Socrates asserted that we cannot make a judgement about which option to follow until we’ve thought through the range of possibilities, and which ones seem most helpful.

As a by-the-way, this issue of how to identify our options is particularly important when life feels so rotten that there appear to be no options.

One safe experiment relating to thinking, instead of acting, is half-way down this page:


An alternative approach is to remember how many of us, as children, were taught the Green Cross Code – that is, how to cross roads. The aim was to stop us rushing out into the road using the mantra: STOP-LOOK-LISTEN. 

That way it is possible to identify the options facing you; selecting an option requires that you make judgements about what is best for you. That’s not so easy without a list of possibilities in front you – from which you will make that choice. Selecting something is something we do inside our head in the first place. That ‘thinking’ leads you to an informed decision and avoids the knee-jerk response based on preferences too often chosen habitually.

It is not easy simply to STOP, just like that, so anything that helps me to reflect – before I respond – can help.  Elsewhere, I have touched on the value of CURIOSITY, as a quality that can make a difference in therapy.

Finally, the amended Chinese proverb on this page, relating to adult learning, may help us to see the greater value of ‘reflection’ in the scheme of things. Action is not seen as top of the hierarchy on that page.

Therefore, we can act, but that’s best done after we’ve judged the situation and that’s best done when we’ve exercised on our ability to think on things.

A safe experiment

So, Socrates has had a large impact on modern therapy.  Note this work-sheet, courtesy of: https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/socratic-questioning.

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You will see the similarity between this work-sheet and other cognitive behavioural approaches to testing  information.

Other Socratic skills

So what other things did Socrates say that seemed to help others? For example, he used Ironic Modesty: once he was challenged by a claim that “No one is wiser than you.”  He tried to  disclaim the award, but ended up concluding that his wisdom  was greater as he possessed awareness of his own ignorance.

His great skill was the Questioning Habit in his conversations with others (see item 7 for more practical ideas on ‘questions’ –  way down the hyper-linked page).  Socrates was argumentative and cross-examined others to improve our self-knowledge.

He was said to be devoted to the truth so much so that he died rather than give up his philosophy and his home.  He was obliged to poison himself when a jury of his peers convicted him of being too clever by half! He believed in the power of reason and, after his conviction, he was said to have continued to argue about his fate after death.

He saw the sneakiness of his fellows and appeared to test himself to the death.

Thought experiments to look ‘sneaky’ in the eye

To become more aware of our own sneakiness requires us to pay attention to our thoughts, beliefs, values and attitudes. In these areas, the experiments you may have to do are thought-experiments. Albert Einstein was the celebrity thought-experimenter and you can find out more about them at:


To work on inoculating yourself, try saying ‘hello‘ to your own sneakiness and just notice the ways in which you are sneaky. Notice all the benefits of sneakiness to you and consider whether sneaky may, indeed,  help you from time to time and, if so, how.

When you find a way in which sneaky is getting in the way of your preferred change, go back to this web site and design a safe experiment once more. Let Socrates keep whispering in your ear.

A conclusion

One of the principles I have mentioned is that no ‘safe experiment’ will always work for everybody or even work always for some people. The most sensible thing to expect is that all experiments can work for some people, some of the time.

Sometimes it helps to think about things and to just notice our thoughts.  A 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.

Return to the Welcome Page of my Web Site

…. or some further lines to consider

More on the History of therapy

What is a nudge

How to design safe experiments

Obstacles to safe experiments

…. as they appear on the scenic route

Models of change

Writing up your own pathway to change

An Index of all pages on Your Nudge

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