Myth busting: Thoughts

“Nothing can bring you peace, but yourself”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

MYTH
I had a thought so it must be true

FACT
I had a thought and it is just a thought

MYTH
I had a thought so action must be taken

FACT
I had a thought and it is just a thought

MYTH
I had a thought and it says a lot about who I am

FACT
I had a thought and it is just a thought

 

While some thoughts do hold truth and can create uneasiness (and that is valid), the point of this myth busting exercise was to recognise that thoughts are no more powerful than we allow them to be. If we step outside our heads for a minute and observe what is going on, we can clearly see these thoughts as words or images floating in our mind. The meaning or judgment attached to them comes from us.

It is common for people to over-identify with a thought (e.g. I had a thought that I failed at something, therefore I am a failure), or to amplify them in their minds to become ‘truth’.  When we do this, we tend to feel pretty overwhelmed and often there is a sense of urgency to act on the thought. That’s when we know we have gotten caught up, or fused, with our thoughts, and they begin to take over.

Side note: we can choose to think anything we want,  but that doesn’t make it true. For example, I told myself dogs could talk, sadly this is not true. 

 

Ask yourself…

“How attached am I to my thoughts?”

“When I become attached, or fused, with my thoughts, how much distress does this cause me?”

 

Make a conscious choice to notice your thoughts instead. Really acknowledge them. Then, let them come and go, rather than getting caught up in them and making judgments about them. This is what we call defusion. When we do this, we no longer allow our thoughts to control us. Letting go of the struggle with our thoughts is real.

Like ‘leaves on a stream’, notice your thoughts and let them float by. When you do this, you’re not trying to ‘get rid’ of your thoughts, but allow them to come and go at their own pace. You may be pleasantly surprised with how this makes you feel.  Note: The picture above was taken at the Gawler Foundation retreat I attended in 2017, where I got to practice the leaves on a stream exercise in real life.

To learn more about this topic, read Dr Russ Harris’s work on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

 

With thanks

As we wrap up 2017 (and all of our Christmas presents), we may find ourselves thanking others for all they’ve done for us during the past year. For some people, it’s easy to think about what they’re grateful for. Some feel grateful for the love and support from family and friends. Others are grateful for their health, their home, and the clean air they breathe.

Neuroscience and positive psychology research has demonstrated that there are many mental health benefits of expressing gratitude. That’s because, this seemingly simple practice can activate the part of the brain that produces dopamine, which is the chemical responsible for giving you that ‘zest for life’. But, before you go out a buy a new gratitude journal, consider whether this is the practice for you.

If you are going through a hard time, it’s not always easy to think about what you’re grateful for and it is probably the last thing you want to do! While it won’t hurt you to write a list of all that you are thankful for, if keeping a gratitude journal becomes more of a chore than a pleasant experience, you might like to try this instead (or in addition)…

Start by asking yourself what you need (and I certainly do not mean a new car or new gadget – save those items for Santa’s list). Think about the universal human needs, such as the need for connection, kindness, love, and peace. Write them down.

Then, turn your needs into wishes for yourself. For example:

May I be connected to others

May I be kind to myself and others

May I love myself just as I am

May I live in peace

Pick one or two phrases and offer them to yourself. Maybe you will offer the phrase to yourself when you need it the most, or maybe you will get into the habit of offering yourself the phrases on a daily basis as part of your morning ritual. See what works for you.

These phrases are truly gifts that you can be grateful for when you receive them.

 

Connection Matters: 5 Ways to Thrive in the Digital Age

It’s Psychology Week and this year the focus is on Thriving in the Digital Age. That is, how to be a balanced user of technology so that it can form part of a happy and healthy lifestyle.

According to the Australian Psychological Society, Australian adults spend over two hours a day using social media while many young people can find themselves ‘constantly connected’ due to fear of missing out (FOMO). The more time spent online has been linked to higher levels of depression, but more important than time spent online, is the way in which that time is spent.

People use social media because it has a number of benefits, including a sense of connection with others (near or far). But on the flip-side, social media offers various opportunities to make comparisons with others, which can be destructive for ones self-esteem.

How social comparisons can be harmful

Those of us raised in the modern Western world would have been taught from a young age that it is not okay to be average. We are taught that we must feel above average in order to be valued and worthy. Logically, it is impossible for us all to be above average, so what does that mean then for how ‘good’ we feel about ourselves?

Often, attempts to raise self-esteem (i.e. feel ‘good’ about ourselves), results in narcissistic and self-absorbed behaviour. People develop a tendency to think of themselves as superior to others, while ignoring their own shortcomings. For example, they regard themselves as smarter, more attractive, more successful, and they do this by putting others down.

The problem with self-esteem is that it is completely dependent on one’s latest success or failure – so it is constantly fluctuating. There is always going to be someone smarter, more attractive, more successful… Then what?

As soon as these feelings of superiority slip (and they, of course, will), a person’s sense of worth comes crashing down. This causes individuals to disconnect or withdraw from others, so that others won’t see them as unworthy as they see themselves. This only perpetuates feelings of depression and increases opportunity for social comparison.

What can I do?

If you find yourself disconnecting from those around you despite spending more time ‘connected’ to social media, remind yourself why you’re on social media in the first place. I’m guessing, like most people, it’s because you want to feel connected to the people around you and the world in general.

Here are some ways to increase human connection on social media:

1. Notice judgments and let them go
You may notice yourself making negative judgments about what other people post online – notice this. Ask yourself, “Is this judgment helpful?” It’s natural to have negative thoughts so don’t beat up on yourself if you do, but get curious with what your mind throws at you. Then, let it go.

2. Focus on what you have in common with others
Rather than focusing on how you are different, try to notice what your similarities are. Perhaps you share an interest, have similar life experiences or have friends in common. This will bring you closer to others and make you feel less withdrawn.

3. Connect offline
There is nothing wrong with using social media, but try not to rely on it for meeting all of your social needs. It can be a great way to connect in the first instance, but then take the connection offline (if this is available) and spend quality time with others.

4. Remember, quality not quantity
You might have over 1000 ‘friends’ and still feel incredibly lonely, and you could also have very few close friends/family and still feel highly connected. Social connection is more about a subjective feeling of connection not the number of ‘friends’ you have. Focus on quality when it comes to relationships.

5. Seek support
If you’re experiencing frequent negative thoughts, loneliness or feel disconnected from others, talk with your health professional. They can help you figure out what’s making you feel this way, and work with you on building skills to feel more connected.

SUM UP:

  • Australians are spending a lot of time on social media, so it is important to manage how that time is spent
  • Social media offers opportunity for human connection, but it can also facilitate social comparisons
  • Social comparisons can be harmful for one’s sense of self-worth
  • There are healthy ways to connect with others – on and offline

 

If… then…

Today, I attended a workshop on changing behaviours through brief interventions. As a psychologist with a special interest in health, I am open to learning new ways of motivating people to make healthy changes, whether that is a change in their diet, physical activity, or even an addiction. Changing behaviours can be really hard! So, it’s good to try new things and get different perspectives.

In my practice and research, I focus a lot on being mindful. Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally. By focusing on the ‘here-and-now’ experience, mindfulness can reduce the impact of difficult thoughts and feelings, while increasing emotional stability and self-acceptance. Research shows that mindfulness interventions can lead to improvements in depression and anxiety, and increase healthy eating and physical activity. Mindfulness is an important and evidence-based intervention. But, this blog isn’t really about mindfulness.

At the workshop, attendees were encouraged to think about actions that might be done impulsively (that is, without thinking or being ‘mindless’). This includes, being aware of what prompts a person to act, even when the action is in conflict with their motivation. For example, a person may eat doughnuts when they’re trying to lose weight. Even though they have a clear goal for their weight loss, they still struggle when it comes to sweet foods, like doughnuts. They may even find themselves tempted by sweets because they often pass a great bakery on the way to work, and because the feeling they get from doughnuts is usually “comforting”.  They know that eating doughnuts only provides a temporary relief, and in the long-term they feel worse, but they still struggle to change this behaviour.

Sound familiar?

A possible intervention for this may be, “If… then… planning”. This is where a person not only sets goals for what they want to achieve, but also plans for risky or tempting situations that inevitably arise. A study1 among women who were taking part in a Weight Watchers program, investigated whether “If… then… planning” would make a difference when it came to how much weight they lost. The women were split into two groups – the first group completed the Weight Watchers program as usual, and the second group completed the program but they were also given an extra ‘planning’ session where they were encouraged to plan for risky or tempting situations. The plans looked something like this:

“Many situations may tempt you to eat something that you had not meant to. Make a plan about how you would react to these risky situations and fill in the form.”

The form provided three prompts:

“I have my own plan that will help me to maintain my healthy diet. If I am hungry, then instead of eating an unhealthy snack I plan to … (write down what you plan to do). If someone offers me my favourite unhealthy food then in order not to eat it I plan … (write down what you plan to do). If I meet with my friends or family over dinner, then in order to eat healthy food I plan … (write down what you plan to do).”

At the end of the study, it was found that the women in the “If… then…” group, lost significantly more weight, as compared to the other group. What this study suggests is that this simple and brief intervention works among people who are already motivated to make changes.

There are a few things that can help with “If… then… planning”. These include:

  • Recognise the things that prompt the behaviour and avoid them. Using the previous example, the person recognises that walking past the bakery every day is risky! So, they might consider an alternative route where they won’t be tempted.
  • Develop easy, rewarding alternatives. Think of behaviours that can substitute the old behaviour and practice them so they become more automatic.
  • Seek support. Sharing goals and intentions with others can be a helpful strategy for sticking to a plan.
  • Unlearn emotional associations. When a person anticipates that a behaviour will make them feel ‘good’ or ‘comforted’ it will strengthen the impulsive impact. Replace these messages with automatic negative evaluations. For example, “eating sweets may make me feel good for a very short time, but in the long-run I feel worse and it’s not worth it.”
  • Practice the above, again and again. Like I said earlier, changing behaviours is hard work, especially when you’re so used to doing something. Don’t expect huge changes overnight because this will set you up for failure. Be patient, and practice, practice, practice!

TO SUM UP

  • Changing health behaviours is challenging, and it can be difficult to know where to start!
  • “If… then… planning” is a simple yet effective intervention for those who are motivated to make a change
  • “If… then… planning” requires awareness of cues that prompt the behaviour and strategies to overcome temptations
  • Changing health behaviours takes time and practice, but it is possible

 

Reference
1. Luszczynska et al. 2007. Health Psychology. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.26.4.507.

The wish to be loved

In a previous post, I discussed the Mindful Self-Compassion retreat that I attended in the Yarra Valley recently, and how the emotion shame came up for me during the retreat. I wanted to dedicate a post to this emotion, as it is one we often don’t recognise in ourselves when it appears. And, it is probably the most difficult emotion we will ever have.

What is shame?

Dr Chris Germer describes shame as “an innocent emotion”, because it comes from the wish to be loved. When we fear that we won’t be loved, this is shame (not to be confused with guilt).

Shame = I am wrong, I am bad
Guilt = I did something wrong/bad

Because it isn’t easy to identify, shame can be difficult to work with.  Dr Germer says, “shame erases the observer” as it has a way of dislocating us from our bodies, suspending us in time and space where we are unable to act rationally.

Shame is a common human emotion – we all feel shame, but it causes us to separate from others as if we are the only ones to have ever felt this way. For some, this means holding onto a secret for days, months, years, or even a lifetime where there has been significant trauma (e.g. child abuse). But, what sustains shame is silence

What can we do?

It takes great courage to break the silence because it will likely change things, and this can be overwhelming. The expectation is often, “I might lose this person”, or “they won’t like me anymore”.

Self-compassion is known as the antidote to shame because it can give us the love that we fear is lacking from others when we feel shame.

Ask yourself, “What is it that I would be afraid about other people knowing about me in this moment?”  Is it,  “I am incompetent?” or “I am a fraud” or “I’m not as smart / capable / confident as they think I am”.

Whatever it may be, approach it with tenderness. Say to yourself as you would a dear friend, “Oh, you’ve been feeling that you are incapable for so many years”.

Acknowledge, that all humans feel this way – it is natural, as it comes from the universal wish to be loved.

To learn more about self-compassion, read my previous post. To learn more about shame and vulnerability, read some of Brené Brown’s great work.

 Rather than summing up this post, I’d like to end with a beautiful poem:

With That Moon Language – Hafiz

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me”.
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one that lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?

The Dance of Anger

As we come to the end of Women’s Health Week, I wanted to reflect on a valuable new addition to my bookshelf. The book I am referring to is called The Dance of Anger by Dr Harriet Lerner, and was recommended to me by a mentor and fellow psychologist. I’m only half way through, but I feel confident that this is a must-read for all women (and men who want to better understand their female counterparts’ experience).

In her book, Dr Lerner explains that women are often discouraged from expressing anger, because it is perceived as “unnatural and unladylike”. But, anger is a very important emotion – usually it is the cover for other feelings such as sadness and frustration, and it can tell us a lot about our present moment experience. For example, it may be a message that we are being hurt or violated in some way. However, as Dr Lerner explains, when anger is misdirected it surfaces in destructive ways, such as denial or guilt.

“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to”

Talking about anger isn’t new. Actually, it’s a hot topic, but usually its focus is very different. For starters, we often talk about ‘unhealthy’ anger being the expression of too much anger, and generally when we speak of the unhealthy consequences of anger, including aggression and violence, we often associate it with men, not women. The Dance of Anger carefully explores women’s anger, specifically, how women often get caught in the “anger trap”.

What is the “anger trap”?
Women have long been discouraged from expressing anger, as the stereotype goes, it is a woman’s “job” to nurture, protect and placate the world.

When a woman shows her anger, she is likely to be dismissed as irrational or worse”.

Consequently, women tend to silence their anger or deny it entirely, or they vent it in a way that leaves them feeling completely powerless. Dr Lerner groups these expressions of anger into two categories: The “Nice Lady” Syndrome or The “Bitchy” Woman.

The “Nice Lady” Syndrome
Nice ladies keep their anger to themselves to avoid conflict that would make others feel uncomfortable. Generally, nice ladies will stay silent or become self-critical or “hurt”. At the expense of expressing themselves, nice ladies protect others by trying to preserve harmony in their relationships. Over time, this behaviour results in a loss of clarity of their own sense of self because all of their energy is on ensuring they don’t upset others. This leads to a self-defeating and self-perpetuating cycle: the more she gives in and goes along, the more her anger builds.

“Although nice ladies are not very good at feeling angry, we may be great at feeling guilty.”

The “Bitchy” Woman
These women are not shy about expressing their anger. However they tend to vent their anger ineffectively. By not clearly voicing their complaints, these women get painted with a disapproving brush, labelled things like “unfeminine”. Words like this have the power to intensify feelings of injustice and perpetuate feelings of powerlessness.

“Words like ‘nagging’, ‘complaining’ and ‘bitching’ are words of helplessness and powerlessness, which do not imply even the possibility of change”.

Two sides of the same coin
While it seems that these two ways of managing anger are very different, they are actually more similar than you think. They both serve equally to protect others, which means the woman loses sight of her sense of self. Her self-esteem suffers because she has not been effective at clarifying and addressing the real issue. The Nice Lady and Bitchy Woman are both left feeling helpless and powerless, and in the end, nothing changes!

These women tend to be “stuck” in a self-perpetuating downward spiral, where they do have something to be angry about, but because their complaints are not properly voiced and in turn, heard, they grow increasingly bitter and feel a stronger sense of injustice.

It is not surprising that women fall into the anger trap. Anger has long been something to be feared or denied. It’s unlikely that women (or men) have ever been taught how to manage anger. In her book, based on her experiences as a psychotherapist, Dr Lerner teaches women how to identify the source of their anger, and importantly, how to use anger as a powerful tool to clarify and strengthen themselves and their relationships.

“It requires courage to know when we are angry and to let others hear it”


TO SUM UP:

  • It’s Women’s Health Week: Read more about it here
  • The Dance of Anger by Dr Harriet Lerner is a valuable resource for all women (and men) focusing on the expression of anger among women
  • Anger is an important emotion that we should all pay attention to
  • Dr Lerner teaches women how to use anger as an effective tool for positive change

 

 

The Guest House – Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of it’s furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.