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!

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!)

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?