Unhooking from Your Negative Thoughts

One of the biggest issues in life is dealing with thoughts that really push us around.  All of us have these. The most common is the thought that says, “I’m not good enough.”  There are variations on the theme like “I’m defective,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not worthy.”

 

These are all part of a story we have been telling ourselves for years.  For those of us new to recovery, these thoughts can really get crankin’.  (Stay with me to discover techniques that will cut the connection with these tormenting thoughts.)

 

The problem is not that we have negative thoughts; it’s getting hooked by them.  When we allow this to happen, we are immediately hijacked from what we are doing in the present moment.  One minute we’re talking with a loved one and the next we are miles away reliving a negative experience from our past.  All courtesy of these hijacking thoughts.

 

I know all too well how much anxiety and pain these thoughts cause.  So I understand the importance of getting out from under their spell.  So what do we do about them?

 

Some self-helpers will try to smother them with affirmations.  Others will argue with them or try to disprove them. Still others will roll up their sleeves and get in the trenches to fight them.  Research shows that these techniques produce a rebound effect that only  intensifies these thoughts later.  Then we find ourselves, one again, in the emotional dumpster.

 

At some point, we will say, “They’re beating the hell out of me.”  And in that moment, we have struck upon truth!

 

That truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who we are.  The key word here is SEPARATE.  We are not our thoughts.  Once that ray of light has entered our minds, we are ready for radical approach that allows us to be free from these tormentors and live a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.

 

Drumroll…This approach is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  And it has helped me as well as my clients tremendously.  Another tidbit of good news is you can do this with or without a therapist or coach.

 

The biggest concept that ACT deals with is fusion.  That’s what I have been talking about in this post.  It’s when we get hooked by a negative thought. In ACT language, this is called fusion.

 

All of us get pulled around by our mouths from time to time with thoughts that hook us.  What I want to teach you is how to get unhooked—or defused.  The way that we do this is to change our relationship to our thoughts so we’re not controlled by them.

 

Try this simple exercise to see what I mean.  It’s courtesy of Russ Harris, a leading practitioner of ACT.  It’s called Thoughts as Hands:

  1. Imagine that out in front of you are all the people you love, all the things you cherish, all your challenges, and all the tasks that you have to do.
  2. Your hands are your thoughts and feelings
  3. Bring your hands up until they cover your eyes and mask your vision. Keep your eyes open.
  4. Look around and notice the things that you’re missing out on because your hands are over your eyes.
  5. Notice how difficult it is to focus on, connect with, and engage with these things in front of you.
  6. Notice how difficult it is to take action—to do the things that make your life worthwhile.
  7. Now, lower your hands, and put them by your sides. See how much easier it is to focus, to connect, to act.
  8. Realize that our thoughts and feelings—our hands—still exist. They have useful information to tell you now that they’re just resting beside you rather than blocking you from your life in the present moment.

 

Through this exercise, you have created a new relationship with your thoughts: it is the  subject/object relationship in which you are the subject and your thought is the object.  As subject, you have become the observer self because you are watching your thoughts as though they are characters interacting on a stage.  It’s important to note that we are not avoiding our thoughts or trying to get rid of them—we are distancing ourselves from them so they don’t prevent us from engaging with what we truly value in our lives.

 

Harris recommends that you follow the Thoughts as Hands exercise up with techniques that help you to defuse from your thoughts. To begin, think of a thought that has recently hooked you and name it.  Then say, “I am having the thought that…” and state the name of the thought, such as, “I’m not worthy.” Follow that up with, “I notice I am having the thought that…”

 

Just saying these two sentences creates a little separation from the thought.  You’re now experiencing the beginning of the defusion process.  To increase the defusion, bring a little humor into play. Below are some techniques Harris suggests for any thought that has hooked you. Again, start with the two sentences from above to create some initial defusion and then do one or more of these exercises Harris suggests:

 

  1. Say the thought in a funny voice over and over again.
  2. Say it with a foreign accent.
  3. Sing the thought to the tune of one of your favorite songs.
  4. Project the thought onto a mental screen and imagine a karaoke ball bouncing along the words.
  5. Project the thought onto a mental screen and put it in some crazy fonts.

 

One of the best techniques for defusion it to imagine yourself sitting above a river and placing the negative thought on a leaf.  Just watch it move along the river.  Don’t talk to it.  Just silently let it float by.  Or put the thought on a cloud and watch it drift away.

It’s my hope that you experience a new relationship with your thoughts.  It may be that as you defuse from a thought that you can now also see the positive in a former negative memory that keeps generating the thought.  As you practice defusion, you will find that you become more and more present to your life. And you’ll find that you are increasingly empowered by what’s important in your life rather than being disempowered by your dark thoughts and feelings.

 

Have fun!

RJ Handley

Spiritual Life Coach

The connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.