• Kevin Patton

Skills for Change

Updated: Sep 17, 2019


Cross your arms, easy, right? Now cross your arms the other way, the reverse of what you just did. That’s a different story. 90 percent of people struggle with this.

When people cross their arms, they do so naturally, without even thinking about it. When they are asked to fold them the other way they, for the most part, stop, refold their arms again and then try to figure out which arm was on top, which arm moves first and so on.

  • How did it feel when you were asked to cross your arms the other way?

  • Did it come naturally or did you have to stop and think about it?

  • Were you comfortable with doing this differently from your normal process?

Believing that change is hard and brings trouble is a major inhibitor to moving on and improving our lives. We hold onto damaging beliefs and ideas about ourselves and often allow the “liabilities" in our personalities to dominate our situations. We use unhelpful language such as “can’t” or “won’t” and fear failure so much that we often won’t try to do things differently.

Facing our fears and changing our language from disabling to enabling is the key to moving forward.

"Often the biggest obstacle in meeting life’s challenges is actually our own fear of failure. But it is not failure that we should fear. The only real failure comes when we allow our fear to prevent us from taking on new and unknown challenges.

Just about every important figure in history has in fact lived a life marked by one mishap after another. But these individuals rose up again after every setback, prodded on by a spirit that refuses to concede defeat and relishes challenge, to eventually crown their lives with victory.

Even if you have problems, even if you have done things you regret, or have made mistakes, your whole future still lies ahead of you. If you can just keep moving forward, telling yourself, “I’ll start from today,” “I’ll start afresh from now, from this moment,” then a whole new world of possibilities will open up before you".

Daisaku Ikeda

We often feel that we need to be given permission to move forward in our lives from others.

In other words when we are struggling we want to hear the people close to us say things like; “you can do it”, “Don’t worry, it will all be alright”, “I believe that you won't do that again” or “I believe you're telling the truth” and so on.

The real truth is that it doesn’t matter what others may or may not say to us.

Thousands of thoughts pass through our heads each day. Thoughts are sentences we tell ourselves. Some are factual, such as “Today is Monday.” Others may be more workable or unworkable because of how they make us feel. We often don’t pay attention to all these thoughts, but with practice you can learn to notice your thoughts and decide whether they are working for you or not.

At Living Well we talk about “Workable” and “Unworkable” thoughts. These terms are just shortcuts—a thought is not powerful all by itself. The power of thoughts is in how they make us feel and act.

The person in the cartoons can’t change what is real—it is raining. But he can change his relationship to the rain, and that can change his mood. When he had more helpful relationship to what was going on, his mood was better.

On the other hand, I don’t expect you to see the world through rose-coloured glasses. But this practice will teach you to notice your thoughts, identify your harmful thinking habits, and refocus on activities that make you feel better. It’s important to remember that EVERYONE has BOTH helpful and unhelpful thoughts, so this is normal. You are in no way “bad” if you have unhelpful thoughts. The most important thing, as we will learn in this blog, is how you manage or “live with” your unhelpful thoughts and refocus on being the person you want to be and living the life you want to live.

Let’s take a closer look at your behaviour and try to identify some things that bring your mood down. We call these things “Unworkable.” Can you remember a time in the last week when you felt down? Take a moment and try to picture yourself in the situation you were in when you felt down. Now, try to remember what you were thinking and doing at the time.

What thoughts did you notice? .

It takes practice, but you can learn to notice your thoughts. You can examine your thoughts and actions by asking these two questions.

How do you feel when you think/do this?

What would move you closer to being the person you want to be, living the life you want to live?

Ok, so we’ve identified things we do that move us away from the person we want to be and the life we want to live. We call these things FEAR.

F = Fusion (stuff your mind tells you that gets in the way when you get caught up in it)

E = Excessive goals (your goal is too big, or you lack the skills, time, money, health, or other resources)

A = Avoidance of discomfort (unwillingness to make room for the discomfort this challenge brings)

R = Remoteness from values (losing touch with - or forgetting - what is important or meaningful about this)

Imagine there is a deep pit between us. In this pit are all the things that make your life horrible and miserable. You don’t want to be in there, do you? The fears generated by your monkey brain try to pull you into this pit. Our brain evolved to find and solve problems that, otherwise, might kill us; of course it’s going to focus on things that make our lives horrible, so we can avoid them or overcome them.

You can pull against these thoughts to avoid being pulled into the pit, but it comes at a cost. As long as you’re caught up in avoiding the pit, you’re not really able to do anything that makes your life better and, sooner or later, you’re going to get tired. There’s always going to be another thing ready to pull you in.

Let go.

Those thoughts haven’t gone anywhere but you’ve stopped holding on to them and they can’t pull you in!

What have you tried (deliberately or unintentionally) when painful thoughts and feelings started showing up?

Some things people do include: distraction, opting out, worrying, dwelling in the past, fantasizing about the future, imagining escape scenarios (eg leaving your job or your partner), imagining revenge scenarios, imagining suicide scenarios, thinking ‘It’s not fair …’ , thinking ‘If only ….’, thinking of killing yourself, blaming yourself, blaming others, blaming the world, talking logically to yourself, talking positively to yourself, talking negatively to yourself, analyzing yourself (trying to figure out why you are like this), analyzing the situation (trying to figure out why this happened), analyzing others (trying to figure out why they are like this), substance use…

What did this cost you in terms of time, energy, money, health, relationships, and vitality?

Did this get rid of the painful thoughts and feelings in the long term?

Have these things you tried brought you closer to a rich, full, and meaningful life?

Our aim is NOT to feel better, nor to get rid of unwanted thoughts

Our aim IS to reduce influence of unhelpful cognitive processes upon behaviour; to facilitate being psychologically present & engaged in experience; to facilitate awareness of language processes, in order to enhance psychological flexibility

When we have an unwanted thought, we may try to avoid it or push it away. We may also try to get rid of unwanted feelings or bodily sensations. This is sometimes called experiential avoidance.

When we get “hooked” by thoughts it is as though they push us around or bully us, like a critical coach who stands on the sidelines giving very negative feedback (e.g. “that was stupid”, “I bet others are doing much better”).

Acceptance refers to experiencing the unwanted thoughts without evaluating them or trying to change them. That is, paying attention to the experience of having the thoughts, rather than focusing on their meaning (i.e. there must be something wrong with me). This doesn’t mean that you have to like or want the thought. It is more to do with acknowledging that you are having the thought and that pushing it away may not have been very helpful. Has it worked yet? Or if it works sometimes does it seem to work in the longer term for you? For example, have you noticed that when you try not to think about something (or someone) that you end up thinking more about it? Distraction may help for a few minutes or hours but does it make the thoughts and feelings go away in the long term?

We can build up our willingness to have unwanted thoughts by practicing a technique called “mindfulness” or mindfulness meditation. This is about “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Mindfulness skills are really helpful in developing greater awareness…so just like we can exercise to build (physical) muscle we can practice being aware to develop mental “muscle”.

Four Quick Steps To Emotional Acceptance

1. OBSERVE. Bring awareness to the feelings in your body.

2. BREATHE. Take a few deep breaths. Breathe into and around them.

3. EXPAND. Make room for these feelings. Create some space for them.

4. ALLOW. Allow them to be there. Make peace with them

Some people find it helpful to silently say to themselves, ‘I don’t like this feeling, but I have room for it,’ or ‘It’s unpleasant, but I can accept it.’

Living Well is about living a vital and meaningful life by choosing and committing to values that are important—NIKE Therapy “Just do it!”, make a plan, don’t procrastinate, take action. Letting go and letting be is also a way of taking positive action.

Ask yourself what is really important to you (relationships, parenting, other family, health, fun, job/career, fun, helping others, hobbies, education, spirituality, etc)?

Ask what could hold me back from living my life based on what’s most important to you?

What will you do to deal with those things that could hold you back?

The other meaning of happiness is “a rich, full, meaningful life”. When we take action on things that truly matter deep in our hearts, when we move in directions we consider valuable and worthy, when we clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich, and full, and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality.


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