Even ACT Trainers Get Hooked By Their Thoughts

This guest post has been written by Annick Seys. A lovely ACT trainer based in Belgium. Annick has twelve years experience as a social worker.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a try-out training session for a few linkedin-connections. I prepared with a lot of help from Rachel and Rob (and Skype). The workshop was about getting to know ACT and what it can do for the wellbeing and level of performance of personnel at the workplace.

At a certain point in the session, I asked people some questions that were not so easy to get an answer to in an instant.  Things like: – ‘What can you see yourself doing that pulls you away from the things that are important in your life?’ and, ’What do you already do that brings you closer to what’s important in your life?’.

Participants became quiet, looked at each other, looked at me as if I was asking something very awkward.  Rob had suggested I say something at the beginning of the session about how this new conceptual framework would take some time to sink in, which I totally forgot to mention! The reason for that is simple: I was a bit nervous and thinking a lot of what my audience was thinking of me, I was looking for that moment where you can see people ‘getting’ ACT and when I couldn’t find that, I started looking for explanations for what was going on and how they probably didn’t get it and how this was my doing. Which of course meant that I was spending some time in my head instead of in the session! In other words, I wasn’t present in that moment at all!

Or perhaps this is too much of a judgment towards myself because the participants gave a lot of good feedback at the end, so everything worked out well. But… if I would have been able to focus more on the situation itself, I would’ve probably been able to ask the group much more quickly if something wasn’t clear, if I had to explain it again etc. Because everything that popped into my head was really not of much use during the session in my analysis after the workshop!

Do you recognize how you can be totally caught in your head, stuck in thoughts that really aren’t of any use and just cause distress? A good question to ask yourself is: is my behavior based on the situation I’m in right now or am I focused on my perspective of how I see the situation? And if you’re stuck in your head, do those thoughts get you closer to what you’re trying to achieve or do they really tear you away from that goal? Because if you’re making decisions based on what your head is telling you, then you could be missing out on the solution, which probably is part of the situation you’re in!

Thanks again to Rachel and Rob for helping me in the preparation of this session!

How to Pitch an Idea (or, How ‘Dragon’s Den’ Relates to ACT)

Dragon’s Den is a show where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a group of successful business people in the hope of winning some investment.

The show fascinates me. I love spotting academic theories about influence and negotiation being played out in real life. The show also demonstrates how more psychologically flexible entrepreneurs tend to be more successful in their pitches. Professor Frank Bond has done some cool research at the BBC to support this idea.

There seem to be a few key principles if you want to get the approval of the investors.

1. Consider the perspective of the investors (Why would they want to invest? What will they gain?); potential customers (Why would they buy?) and competitors (How easy would it be for them to steal my idea?). Perspective taking is a key aspect of psychological flexibility.

2. Hold ideas like ‘This is a brilliant idea and I am going to be incredibly successsful‘ lightlyFusing with these sorts of thoughts seems to increase the risk of throwing good money after bad and doesn’t seem to convince others.

3. Understand the difference between solid, real world facts and what your mind is telling you. Others find facts much more convincing than your opinion. Smart business people consider the facts (Sales figures, profits, awards won) when they make decisions.

4. Learn to perform well even when you are feeling incredibly anxious. This is a great strength of the ACT approach. ACT teaches people how to perform even when they are feeling strong emotions. Rob and I have a course on this.

5. When you are having an important conversation – really listen to what the other person is saying. Get present with them and give them your full attention. Be open to their feedback and also be willing to give them facts that might change their mind.

6. Know your values and live those values in the interaction. You then come across as vital, authentic and trustworthy (assuming those are your values!)

7. Know how this ‘pitch’ fits with what you want your life to be about. Is this a drive to make money or does it connect to something deeper?

7. Demonstrate willingness. What are you prepared to do to make your idea successful? Live on very little money? Work hard? Face rejection? Acknowledge what you don’t know and ask for help?

Here is someone who nailed it – sadly he completely misses the reason he nailed it.

Why Is Taking A Break So Difficult?

I took a ‘sicky’ the other day (is that just an Australian word? In case it is – it means an ‘unplanned absence’). I wasn’t sick. I was just tired. Normally I am full of energy and enthusiasm for my life. I feel that each moment drips with meaning and purpose. From writing the speech I am giving next week on goal setting to attending my daughter’s commencement ceremony at school, it all matters so much. And this is wonderful, but now and again I get very, very tired.

A pot of green tea on my deck

So I made myself a pot of green tea, downloaded a Georgian Historical Romance onto my ipad and spent a few hours on the day bed on my deck, snoozing and reading.

Now I feel better.

You would think that taking a few hours off would be an easy thing to do… but not for me. My mind alternates between reminding me of all I have to do and busily problem solving (‘I need an activity to illustrate that point about goal setting, what would work? I must remember to ring the plumber. That balustrade needs painting…’). Of course, if I had decided to carry on working, my mind would have gone on and on about how tired I was (‘I am sooo tired. I need to rest. I can’t concentrate. I wonder if I am getting sick?’).

A few years ago, Russ Harris taught me, ‘Your mind is not your friend’. I find it is helpful to know this. Whatever I do, part of my mind will chatter away in an unhelpful fashion. This is part of being human. The trick is to do what is right in that moment – whether it is to rest or work or play – and take my chattery mind along with me.

We Can’t Get Rid Of Our Mental Junk – So What Do We Do Instead?

The Big Clear Out

People in my neighborhood are throwing out their junk. They are sorting out their stuff and leaving it on the side of the road. In a few days some lovely people from the council will come and take it all away. Wonderful!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that with the junk in our minds? If we could choose which of the rules about ourselves and the world that we carry around in our minds, no longer work for us and just get rid of them?

Sadly, behaviorism tells us that this isn’t possible. We can’t unlearn something (unless we are willing to suffer brain damage – which seems a little extreme!). We can only add to our learning.

Let me give you an example. When I was a medical student I learnt that it was a very bad thing to make a mistake. When I practiced medicine, this was usually a very good rule to follow. I think my patients were glad I took that approach!

However, I don’t practice medicine anymore. Although doing an excellent job is still very important to me and my clients, generally it isn’t a disaster if I make a mistake. In fact, trying too hard to avoid mistakes can impair my capacity to do a good job. I can end up being too much of a perfectionist.

I can’t unlearn the rule I learnt as a medical student. It will always be with me. But what I can do is learn some new ways of behaving so I have more options. And I can get better at recognising when an old rule like ‘I mustn’t make any mistakes’ isn’t appropriate and 80% is good enough.

What internal rules do you have that are no longer useful for you?

Getting Some Distance From Your Thoughts – Even If It Is Only Half an Inch

Most of us live in a culture that gives the message that our thoughts control our actions. This assumption seems benign but it actually creates a problem for us. The problem is, if we treat this assumption as true, then, if we want to be successful, we have to first get our thoughts ‘right’ (‘I am capable of being a great team leader’; ‘I will do a good job of giving this feedback’; ‘I am going to write a really good blogpost’) and that is actually really hard. I tell myself ‘I am capable of being a great team leader’ and my mind says ‘Yes, but what about the time you...’

A more useful approach is to build our capacity to observe our thoughts and then choose which thoughts to act on and which ones to just let play in the background. To get some space between ourselves and the endless stream of thoughts our minds come up with.

The more skilful we can become at observing rather than acting on our thoughts, the more freedom we have to take actions that create the outcomes that are important to us.

Gilbert sharing some interesting view on creat...
Elizabeth Gilbert (Image via Wikipedia)

In this beautiful TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert, (author of Eat, Pray, Love‘)  explores the strategies she used to get some distance from thoughts that were plaguing her that her ‘greatest creative success was behind her’ and ‘creativity is inherently linked to anguish’.

As she explores these idea’s, she uses the gorgeous phrase:

‘You look at it even from half an inch away’.

It is in that space. The space between you and your thoughts, even if it is only half an inch, that freedom can be found*.

When that space is available to you during your next feedback conversation, you can be present with the other person. You can really notice their responses. You can observe your own behaviour and shift it from moment to moment as you see what is and isn’t working. And in the background your mind is gabbling away –  ‘She is going to hate me’; ‘This is going terribly’; ‘I hope I can get out of here soon’; ‘What if she puts in a bullying complaint against me’ and having those thoughts is okay because it is just your mind doing what minds do and you don’t have to pay it a lot of attention.

(*For any ACT experts out there – this is a quote from someone but I can’t remember who! Let me know so that I can credit them!)