Sunday, 20 November 2011

ACT explained by The Eels

connecting with the present moment, defusion, and values - all in one song by The Eels - here

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


There are many great metaphors in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. But to the best of my knowledge this is the first Mo-taphor.

I'm growing a moustache as part of the Movember fundraiser for the battle against Prostate Cancer and Depression. Two great causes, and a great way to raise money. I grow a mo and look like a fool, and then people make a mo-nation in exchange for laughing at me and telling me how ridiculous I look. Feel free to laugh and donate here:

While I've had beards in the past, this is my first ever Mo, and I must say having a mo forces me to practice all aspects of the ACT Hexaflex.
I need to defuse or hold lightly all those thoughts that keep telling me how foolish I look (and boy am I getting a lot of those) and make space for all those feelings of embarrassment, letting the emotions be there without struggling against them. I have to be present to all the feelings, sensations and especially the itches and scratches that are happening below my nose and above my lip (today a client laughed at me because I was absentmindedly playing with my mo while she spoke). I can view all my thoughts from the 'observing self', I am no more my thoughts than I am Magnum PI, but I will listen to either if they are helpful. And despite all these unhelpful thoughts and emotions, I can take steps towards my value of supporting charities that do good work.

That's one hell of a thought-provoking mo

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

thoughts about thoughts adapted from Dr Seuss

one thought two thoughts red thought blue thought
black thought blue thought old thought new thought.

some are red and some are blue. some are old and some are new.
some are sad and some are glad. And some are very, very bad.
Why are they sad and glad and bad? I dont know. Go ask your dad.

Some say thin and some say fat. Some don't even like my hat.
From there to here, from here to there, funny thoughts everywhere.
Here are some who call me dumb. They make me want to hide or run.

Oh me! Oh my!
Oh me! Oh my!
what a lot of thoughts go by.
Some are gentle and some cause pain.
Some go round and round again.

Where do they come from?
I can't say.
But they seem to have a lot to say.

We see them come.
We see them go.
Some are fast.
And some are slow.
Some are high.
And some are low

Not one of them is like another.
Don't as us why.
Go ask your mother.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


wow, my last post was more prophetic than i'd expected. I promised to write a next column talking about how to manage sticky labels and then i didn't get around to it. not so much because i'm lazy, more because i put pressure on myself to be funny, eloquent, and original. It's a great goal, but the reality was less appealing. i became so worried about getting it all perfect that i ended up not finishing it. Actually, that's an exaggeration, i didn't even let myself start it because my mind kept generating unhelpful stories about how the column won't be good enough or funny enough or whatever. My mind would put me off doing anything in case it isn't everything. What if the column isn't spectacular and I don't get to be considered as great a writer as Russ Harris or Kelly Wilson? Then i might not get to be a writer and express my ideas and then I'll have to keep doing what i'm doing now and...

My brain has been so busy trying to protect me from failing that i've ended up not writing at all. and let's face it, doing nothing has got to be worse than possibly failing (especially when it's not really a competition).

so right now i'm going to thank my brain for trying to protect me from failing, let that thought be there and then go ahead and publish this post anyway.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Sticky Labels

I meant to write this column last week but I didn’t because I’m lazy.

How do I know I’m lazy? Because I didn’t write this column last week.

Did anyone else just spot the logical flaw in those last two sentences? I just mistakenly used a description or label as an explanation. This is what philosophy geeks call a ‘Nominal Fallacy’, but they would also point out that I only call them philosophy geeks because they know this so that too is a nominal fallacy.

Once you start looking for examples of using labels as causal factors, it is amazing how often you see them.

For example: “She won the competition because she has talent”

“I hung out by the Bucket Fountain because I am cool”

Or: “He couldn’t do his homework because he was depressed”

Actually she probably won the competition because throughout her life she received lots of praise and enjoyment from playing her Theremin so put in more hours of practice. He may have been feeling depressed for a number of reasons, but those were the reasons that made it difficult for him to do his homework, not because he had the label ‘depressed’. Don’t know what makes someone cool in Wellington, but I don’t get to be cool just by calling myself that (nor by hanging out at the bucket fountain, that just leads to being splashed).

Giving out labels and names is another useful tool we have developed in order to avoid being eaten by tigers. I label a certain type of tree as ‘dangerous’ because that’s where tigers like to hide and I label one of the other cavemen as ‘slow’ and ‘fat’ so I know that they will need extra protection should a tiger attack (and not so that I know to hide behind them should the tiger attack my tribe, I’m not that kind of caveman). In order to survive, cavemen needed labels as much as they needed clubs and fire and food.

In 2011, labels are equally helpful tools to manage our environment. I choose a film because it is labelled as an action film and I like action films, I apply for jobs that require a set of traits that I believe I have etc. However because labels can be perceived to be as vital to us as physical property, we also find ourselves defending them as if our lives depend on them, and holding tightly on to them even if they are no longer useful.

There are people who define themselves as ‘Left Wing’ who find themselves defending actions or policies that may not have been considered Left Wing at the time that they gave themselves that label. Or I might define myself as ‘intelligent’ and then be too anxious to sit tests because if I don’t do brilliantly then my identity will be lost. Or I could have failed several times in the past so label myself as a failure and not even attempt things which I may succeed at.

Is the statement “I’m Lazy” true or false?

I don’t like thinking of myself as lazy, so my first inclination is to argue with the statement and try prove to myself it is not true. But the more I argue with that thought, the more that thought argues back. Every time I cite a time when I wasn’t lazy, my brain has no problem listing all the extra things I could have done in that situation if I hadn’t been so damn lazy. I argue with my brain about the extent of my laziness for a minute, or a day, or a year, and at the end of it I’m no closer to winning the argument, and nor have I achieved anything so I still have those thoughts that I’m lazy.

The statement ‘I’m Lazy’ is actually neither true nor false, and always true and false. There is always someone more lazy than me and always someone less lazy than me. There is always more I could have done, and always less I could have done. Trying to establish the truthfulness of that statement will get me nowhere.

If however, I ask myself ‘Is this label helpful?’ then I get guidance as to whether I should bother put energy into its message. If I know that I am more likely to choose watching TV over writing this article or going for a run or cleaning the bathroom, then I also know that I need to allocate specific times for myself to do those tasks and give myself rewards for doing them, rather than just waiting to see if they happen. Suddenly the label ‘I’m Lazy’ has become helpful.

If that label isn’t helpful, for example it is leading to me not volunteering to write articles or putting me off cleaning the bathroom then I need to find ways to just let that label hang around in my head without taking it too seriously.

I’ll share some strategies on how to take labels and self-imposed stories less seriously in my next column (if I’m not too lazy to write it).

Having a Brain is like living in Wellington

In Wellington, summer is a state of mind. We decide it is summer and we do summery things even if the actual weather has other ideas. We love it if it is a glorious 22 degrees (because – let’s face it – our expectations of summer aren’t too high to begin with) but if it's a cool 17 with rain and a Welly southerly we still try to get out there and enjoy summer.

Some of the best summer barbeques, picnics and weddings I’ve been to in this town were on grim days, but were still great fun. We don’t need to wait until the weather is amazing before we act like it is summer. In fact if we did, we’d only leave the house a few times a year.

Sometimes we just need to put on a jacket and go out anyway.

Thoughts are a lot like Wellington weather. We wish they were positive all the time and we enjoy it when they say happy things to us, but if we avoid doing what we have to do just because we’re waiting for the uplifting thoughts, we’d be waiting a hell of a long time. Sometimes we just need to thank our brain for thinking of all the potential dangers and crap stuff (remember that’s what our brains are for), and notice all the unpleasant feelings that appear when our brain thinks those thoughts, and do stuff that we care about anyway.

In Part Two we discussed thoughts of being a failure, so let's stick with those (but obviously this illustration works with any thought). Look at these two sentences:

“I’m a failure.”

“I’m noticing that I’m having a thought that is saying I’m a failure.”

Which sentence kicks you in the guts and hurts just to read it? The first one?
Now which sentence is true? The second one. Yet despite that, the second sentence doesn’t seem so painful.

By stepping back and observing our thoughts rather than being in the middle of them, we can remove some of the painful feelings associated with the thought, so it has less impact on what we do. And watching a thought takes a lot less energy than fighting a thought.

Easier said than done?

Next time, we’ll look at some strategies to help us gain space from thoughts and self-imposed labels. But in the meantime, where’s my winter coat? It’s time to head to the beach for a picnic!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Og vs Wild

We have brains to keep us alive. They achieve this by thinking of all the possible dangers that might be around and telling us to avoid them. Dangers might be tigers tailing us from trees or alligators lying log-like by the lake (try saying that ten times fast). Equally dangerous in 2011 is social rejection: because if others think there is something wrong with us then it’s all over. So despite what we’re told by all those people promoting positive thinking, the only way we’re going to live a value-filled positive life is by accepting that our brains will think about all the things that could go wrong, and more specifically all the ways that we could do wrong, stuff up with our friends, offend loved ones, or be laughed at by total strangers.

There’s another thing we need to understand about brains, and again it is a skill that we have developed over millions of years to keep ourselves safe from tigers. So let’s jump into our time machines and go back to watch some cavemen develop these skills.

Caveman Og leaves his cave and goes walking through the jungle. He’s busy thinking about what shape he should make that new Wheel™ he is working on and wishing someone would invent Fire® so that he can cook that mammoth he caught yesterday. But then he looks ahead and sees a tiger. As we already know, his brain is going to run through everything he learnt on Survivor Serengeti about how to best get away from this foe. His body is going to prepare to run or fight – his heart will beat quickly, his breathing will speed up, and his arms and legs will become tense – all the things required to best help him not become tiger food.

Now let’s imagine that instead of seeing the tiger himself, his caveman buddy Zog sees the tiger and yells out the Caveman word for ‘Tiger’.

What will Og do when he hears the word ‘Tiger’?

Exactly the same things as if he sees the tiger himself.

His brain will think of ways to keep himself safe and his body will prepare to run away or kick some tiger ass. He doesn’t need to wait until he sees the tiger himself before his brain and body kick into action.

Millions of years later, our brains still operate in the same way. We hear a word or even think a word and our bodies feel as if that thing is happening right now. This is why we don’t like it when people talk about puke or poos at the dinner table. It’s also why it hurts so much when we imagine failing, being rejected, or any of those other things which our brains are programmed to think about.

We have a thought like ‘I might fail’, and we feel like we are failing right now – which is painful, so we try find a way to stop having that thought. But the more we try get that thought out of our head, the more we are telling our brain that this thought is dangerous (because it causes pain), which means we will think about it even more. Which means we feel even more like a failure, so we try to battle that thought even more, and … you get the idea.

We try to fight these thoughts through avoidance, or alcohol, self-imposed isolation, drugs, risky behaviour, antidepressants, procrastination, therapy, personal reinvention … The list goes on. We keep trying to find ways to stop having thoughts that our brains are programmed to have. Maybe now it is time for us to stop this impossible struggle.

Ok, not right now, you’ll have to wait for the next instalment…

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Brains, Brains, Delicious Brains

A long time ago a man was nailed to a post and made some profound statements that got me thinking. He said “I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers… If I only had a brain.”

Why do humans have brains?

I’m pleased to report that I do have a brain and can confer with the flowers (although I’m not sure about my ability to scare away crows) and that recently I was talking to a daffodil when I wondered if this was the point of having brains.

The question seemed so obvious that it was odd I’d never thought about it before. Why do humans have brains?

To contemplate?

To calculate?

To communicate?

All that stuff is useful.

But it turns out the reason humans have brains is the same reason that hamsters have brains. And the same reason humans have livers and kidneys – to keep us alive.

All that other stuff we do with our brains is just a bonus treat we get to do when we aren’t in immediate danger.

Test it out – go climb into a cage with a lion and try to plan out the menu for tomorrow night’s dinner, or calculate the square root of 736. Can’t do it? All you can think of is ‘how the hell do you get away from the lion?’. If your brain was able to think about anything else you would rapidly become lion food.

Our brains keep us alive by thinking about dangerous things and it’s lucky they do or else we’d be dead (in which case our brains become nothing more than a tasty zombie snack). We contemplate where the dangers are most likely to be lurking, calculate the best strategies to keep us safe and communicate warnings to other people. Which is why we can contemplate, calculate, and communicate at other times too.

This ability to think about potential dangers has kept humans alive for millions of years. But in 2011 there aren’t a whole lot of lions walking down the street trying to eat us, so what is the greatest danger threatening us these days?



Peanuts Allergies?

It’s true that these things can injure or kill us, but they are also things that we can probably cope with if we have people who care about us – give us shelter and food if we lose our homes, nurse us when we’re sick, and support us when we’re down. The number one danger in our modern era is being alone.

So the number one job of our brain is to be on the lookout for social rejection. It does this by being on guard for all the times we might stuff up in social situations, attempting to guess what other people are thinking about us, and worrying that we’re not good enough.

Wait a minute? Haven’t we been told by people around us that we should cheer up, not worry so much, and not think such depressing thoughts? And told to stop putting ourselves down? Haven’t we learnt from books such as The Secret and The Power of Positive Thinking that if we want to be successful then we have to think successful? But we just figured out that the brain’s job is to think negatively.

Which means whenever our brain does its job and thinks of all the things we’ve done wrong, we’re then going to think that there is something wrong with us and try even harder to not think those thoughts, because if we think those thoughts we’ll be miserable, or a failure. So we just made those thoughts dangerous. And as we learned above, the brain’s job is to think about dangers.

The more we try and fight negative thoughts the more we are going to have them.

So are we doomed to think negative things? Yes.

But does it matter?

Stay tuned for part two...