I’m having the thought that. . .

photo
Taken while walking my dog. Rocky Mountains in the distance.

If there is anything that tests my patience, it is computer problems. We are so reliant on computers today to get our jobs done that when they don’t work it is like being a pizza delivery guy with a broken down car. You’re just not going anywhere.

Added to this indignity is the cost of tech-support (shouldn’t the damn thing work anyway?), the incredulity that people don’t even support the products they produce anymore, and the fact that my attention deficit disorder is not helped by waiting for the computer to decide to wake up and do its job. Of course, if you have a job where you actually don’t have to produce anything, then I’m sure you love computer problems because you can sit there and blame your lack of productivity on them. But if you rely on this thing to work to earn a living then I get your frustration. Or, as Russ Harris says, “I’m having the feeling that I’m frustrated.”

Much of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is based on the Serenity Prayer. Author of The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living is careful however to remove the religious overtones from this concept as the principles of ACT are scientifically based, but the principle remains the same.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” The Serenity Prayer

Harris’ uses a secular version: Develop the courage to solve those problems that can be solved, the serenity to accept those problems that can’t be solved, and the wisdom to know the difference. The basis of ACT is Acceptance. The true meaning of acceptance is to fully open yourself to the present reality and letting go of the struggle with life – it is the most effective way t make a change (Harris 58).  If you’re walking on ice, you have to establish a firm foothold before taking the next step, and that’s what acceptance is (Harris 58). Tony Robbins phrased it this way: see things as they are, not worse than they are – then, see things being better than actually are, which is what leaders do, then take action to make them better. Dr. Phil simply calls it, getting real. But, once you’ve accepted the situation at face value, the only sensible thing for you to do is to take action to change it (Harris 59).

The wonderful thing is that our minds don’t see things as they are anyway – we see things as we want to see them, and THAT we can change. Harris uses a great example (that I’m going to modify – he uses a lemon but who eats those?): think of a warm chocolate chip cookie. Think about the smell of fresh baked cookie dough, the chocolate dripping off the edges of the chips and onto your hand. Think about biting into it; there is a slight crunch as your teeth push through the sugar and your tongue experiences a sinful nirvana.

Now, what happened to you as read this? You probably experienced the sight, scents and sounds of eating a chocolate chip cookie, yet you didn’t eat one. You just thought about it, but once those words entered your head, you reacted as if you were eating a real cookie. Same thing happens when we read horror novels or thrillers – we experience something mentally and emotionally, even though it’s not actually happening (Harris 36).

“It’s important not to confuse thoughts with the mental pictures or physical feelings that often accompany them,” says Harris (37).

When you think about something you may notice “images,” forming in your mind. You may notice feelings in your body and probably some words moving through your head (Harris 38).

  • Thoughts are words in our head
  • Images are pictures in our head
  • Sensations are feelings inside our bodies

In ACT, the main focus is not whether a thought is true or not, it’s whether that thought, image or sensation is helpful (Harris 38). When we react to words about a chocolate chip cookie, or we react to something scary written in a Stephen King novel, we see may fuse together a thought and the thing it refers to: when fused, thoughts become reality (like its actually happening); thoughts become the truth; thoughts become important; thoughts are orders; thoughts are wise; and thoughts can even be threats (Harris 40). But, remember, the thought is just that, a thought. YOU are the one that attaches all the other stuff to the thought.

One of the key strategies in ACT is to see the thought for what it is – a thought, not the God’s truth. Harris says that one way to keep the thought from being fused into our own “reality,” is to use the term “I’m having the thought that. . . ” Rather than, “every time I have an important project my computer crashes or slows down and I end up spending six hours in tech support hell,” I should say, “I’m having the thought that every time I have an important project my computer crashes or slows down and I end up spending six hours in tech support hell.”  Oddly enough, this works to some extent. This helps separate you from the thought itself. This is called defusion. In a state of Defusion:

  • Thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories or bits of language
  • Thoughts may or may not be true
  • Thoughts may or may not be important (I really thought I blew something once when I embarrassed a client by saying something really dumb in the a news report, but when I called them later, they brushed it aside – wasn’t even an issue in their mind yet for several days before I could reach them, I’d made it out to be a significant and important problem)
  • Thoughts are definitely not orders (you still have the human choice whether to act on them)
  • Thoughts may or may not be wise (you’re probably giving yourself more credit for thinking your so smart than you should)
  • Thoughts are never threats (as they say in academia, ‘more research is necessary.’)

When I’m having difficult thoughts, a surprising strategy (and the point of the whole book) is to focus more on the present – the reality that is around you today. Whenever the weather is good enough I try to get my dog out for a walk in the morning. When I look at the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains I see a view that I’ve seen since I was a little boy growing up in Golden, Colorado. This was in the age before the Internet, email and social media, and the best video game we had was Pong, so, we had a lot of free time on our hands as kids. I used to study the mountains intensely, noticing every small detail, the rocks, the trees, where the roads cut into them and what lights were on which houses at night (I used to live closer to the mountains than what you see in the photo).

I noticed the other day when I was on deadline for several projects and had been experiencing tech support issues seemingly without end for weeks, that when I looked up at the mountains during the walk, and I focused on noticing the details of my surroundings, several things happened: First, I could transport myself back in time a bit, remembering a simpler time in my life, remember playing as a kid near the foothills and around my home, and also remembering that I’ve had hard times in the past yet here I am and everything still somehow worked out. I noticed the park where my kids play in the summer. I noticed the water in the lake which reminded me of how much I enjoy the ocean, and so forth. I returned from my walk feeling even more refreshed and with new perspectives on how to tackle the issues of the day.

Remember, thoughts are just that, thoughts. While you can’t “unthink,” something, you can change your thinking and thus change your reality by focusing on the present. Tomorrow, we’ll address the times when the thought actually is a reality and is a major problem.

Harris, RussThe Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008. Print.

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