Influencing our Thoughts and Feelings

We all have times when we want to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings. It would be odd if we didn’t – pain is unpleasant and wanting it to go away is sensible.

What strategies have you tried to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings?

You might have tried:

  • Distracting yourself (focussing on something else or doing something useful);
  • Soothing yourself  (taking some slow, deep breaths; eating some chocolate; finding someone to reassure you)
  • Challenging the thoughts (Is it really true that I am lazy?)
  • Problem solving the issue that caused the pain (I am anxious because I am running late delivering this project so I will come up with a workable plan to get it finished on time).

Often these strategies are helpful BUT (yes, it is a big but!) they don’t work all the time and the times when they don’t work are often when we are most distressed. At those times nothing seems to stop our mind thrashing about. When we engage with those thoughts and try to make our mind see sense, we often actually increase how hooked we are. When we try to hold back or change the direction of the waves of emotional pain that are buffeting us, we just get exhausted.

The A in ACT stands for Acceptance. One of the things we may need to accept is that although we may be able to influence our thoughts and feelings, we can’t control them and sometimes in trying to control them we get actually get more hooked.

So what could we do instead? The best option seems to be to use mindfulness:

  • Observing our thoughts and feelings with curiosity and compassion
  • Allowing our feelings to rise and fall
  • Letting our thoughts come and go
  • Bringing our attention to this moment now – what we are experiencing through our five senses
  • Connecting with our valuesWho do I really want to be? And then,
  • Taking action based on our values.

Stop Wasting Time

Our lives are terribly short and we are fragile creatures. Wasting the time we have seems wrong. But how do we decide whether we are wasting time?

I watched the movie ‘Click‘ the other night. Not a movie I would recommend to you but at it’s heart was a really good point. It is easy for us to live our lives wishing we could fast forward through the boring bits and the painful bits. But hidden in those moments is the potential for meaning and purpose.

Hank Robb recently suggested writing down every evening what you did that day that was, in your opinion, time ‘well spent’ and also what you will do tomorrow that will make that day worthwhile. This is a wonderful suggestion.

I would like to add some ‘Click’ inspired questions:

1. As you decide whether something is or is not time ‘well spent’ think about the internal rules you use to discriminate between wasted time and time well spent. We often make the same mistake as Adam Sandler’s character and view working and achieving as time well spent whereas a whole raft of research suggests that time spent on family, friends and community is what gives life meaning.

2. Is it possible that something that seems like wasted time could become meaningful if you approached it with openness and curiosity? Listening to a loved one? Eating? Parenting?

Life is precious – shall we make it count?

Ken Robinson and The Element – Holding Passion Lightly

On my career psychology blog I wrote about Ken Robinson’s excellent video about finding and connecting with your passion.  I love this talk, and his book ‘The Element’, but I think there are a number of problems with his viewpoint from the perspective of finding one’s passion at work.

Your passion does not always translate into a career.
As Seth Godin once argued, some things are best left as hobbies. For example, my early talent was in sport, but I could never make it professionally and turning that passion into something sport-related is not going to meet the other criteria I have for a job. A passion is one element of many that needs to be considered.

 Passion is learned
It’s rare for us to have a truly natural, God-given talent or passion. More often, the things for which we have a ‘natural’ capacity are in fact learned. If they are learned, then unless we have already learned them we will not know what they are. Therefore, searching for your passions is misleading – we should be creating passion.

Passion is contextual 
The things we love are loved for many different reasons, and for those in difficult jobs the things they love are loved because they are a release from their troubles. Very often, ‘what we love’ is simple behavioural reinforcement of the relief we experience when not working. That’s why so many of us want to run B&Bs or cafes.

The flipside of what we really value is what we really fear.
For example if I value counselling people, I will fear the consequences of failing to help them.  Following a passion often comes with higher states of anxiety and fear. In my experience it can also come with higher states of uncertainty. ‘Is this really my passion’?

Exploring passion is a fantastic exercise. But if we cling too rigidly to the idea of passion, then we risk getting stuck right where we are.

What’s the answer?
We need to hold all thoughts – what we love, what we’re like, what we need to do to succeed – lightly. Thoughts can help us and imprison us. Far better to focus on identifying broad, valued directions to move towards, and developing a willingness to keep moving towards these.

Following your passion means bargaining with life that you must or should feel passionate about something. When we subsequently do not feel passionate about something we conclude we have lost our way.  In contrast, following our values is a moment to moment choice, that is available to us all right now.