Tony tackles an essential skill needed for lasting change, "cognitive flexibility," from the book ACT Made Simple - Second Edition by Russ Harris https://amzn.to/3FsneJ0
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Hey everybody. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Festivus, I can't remember if you say Merry Festivus. Happy Festivus, but it is that time of year. And what time of year? Well, I feel like people coming into my office are either experiencing a lot that is going on that can feel very overwhelming or possibly the opposite of that, not enough going on, which can feel a bit underwhelming, but either way, that familiar pang of the holidays can bring around the old familiar, and you may have guessed it, what's wrong with me? What's wrong with me that I simply can't feel grateful or appreciate what I have? Or why doesn't anybody reach out to me? Or if I didn't put myself out there to my fill in the blank? Family, friends, neighbors. Nobody would even notice me or what's wrong with me that another year has passed and I don't feel like my marriage has improved or my parenting is any better, or my financial situation is any different or I'm in the same place financially or worse than last year.
And so I think a lot of us right now feel like we are moving past this almost the great pause of the pandemic is over, so either we should already be in a much better place or again, fill in the blank, our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our health, our faith, any of those things should be better. But the truth is, most likely we will be finding ways to continually beat ourselves up. And we are constantly playing out the “what's wrong with me?” dialogue. And to make matters worse. Well, let’s not say worse. Let's reframe it and say what makes things more challenging is that, as I've shared before, our brain is a don't get killed device and its default programming is to keep us in a constant state of fear and anxiety because it really does think that it's clever the brain that is, that it thinks that's what's best for us. And it doesn't give much of a rip about whether or not you have a happy holiday because to your brain it's check, another year down. Let's just keep kicking that can of change down the road because as your brain is thinking, I can't trust this guy all talking about change. What if that change comes with somebody abandoning him, or what if that change comes at the cost of his physical health? I mean, if I let my own brain, literally my brain do its thing, it's probably telling me, okay, okay. Yeah, you ran a little further than you have in the past few years, a few weeks ago. But, really? You're thinking about ultramarathons again. Can't we be happy with just a nice 5k, maybe a 10k? Seriously, you're 53 years old, in the Middle Ages you'd be sending a carrier pigeon to the Guinness Book of Worlds Records at the time to come etch your story on some stone tablets of how is this guy still walking around past the age of 50? I mean, what are the secrets to this insane longevity? So how about we dial back that enthusiasm and look, there are so many great shows on the streaming services and food is really tasty these days, so let's just relax a bit. We'll tackle those new things later, but for now, let's just get back to the worrying and comparing all that new stuff, because I promise you we'll do everything that you want to do, all this change, we'll do it later. As a matter of fact, how about next Monday, right? There you go. Next Monday we will do all the new things that you want to do, all this change that you talk about, but for now, well, since we're starting on Monday, I will bet that you cannot eat that entire pint of ice cream. And actually, what a better story if you start your transformation after an ice cream induced coma. So again, happy December of 2022 and honestly, many of you may legitimately be looking at starting some seriously big changes in a couple of weeks, the start of the new year. So let me help give you the tools to be as successful as possible. Coming up on today's episode of the Virtual Couch, we are going to take a look at a thing called cognitive flexibility or more simply put the very most bestest way to help you do some changing, and we're talking about the good kind of change. And we're going to talk about that and so much more coming up next on today's episode.
Hey everybody. Welcome to episode 351 of the Virtual Couch. I am your host, Tony Overbay.. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four, and creator of the Path Back, as well as Waking Up to Narcissism and several other podcasts that are so close to being released. And I'll tell you about that more in a second. Now, a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that if you were interested in taking my Path Back Pornography Recovery course and being part of a pretty amazing group hosted on Zoom once a week with people from around the world, quite literally, shoot me a message at email@example.com and I will throw a discount your way and maybe give yourself a little gift to improve your marriage. It's $19. It's my 90 minute workshop on basically what we don't know that we don't know about marriage, and that's at tonyoverbay.com/workshop. And go follow me on Instagram or on Facebook at Tony Overbay Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist because I'm going to start sharing so much more about a lot of things; the Magnetic Marriage Podcast, a revamp version of the Magnetic Marriage Course, different from the workshop, but the course. And this is the first time that I'm able to talk a little bit more about a premium podcast through Apple for the Waking Up to Narcissism podcast. So this is going to be a second completely different podcast, a second episode a week that is called Waking Up to Narcissism Questions and Answers. It will be a premium subscription, but I now have dozens and dozens, maybe even hundreds or over a hundred questions that I get on almost a daily basis around emotional immaturity, narcissism, addiction, marriage, you name it, and those will be answered on that new podcast. So you'll see a free zero episode on your feed soon. If you do already subscribe to Waking Up to Narcissism, and in addition, there's going to start being an option to get the next episode of the Virtual Couch a week ahead of the standard release as well. So follow me on Instagram or Facebook or sign up for my newsletter tonyoverbay.com to get the latest on all these things.
So let's get to today's topic. A couple of weeks ago, I had Dr. Michael Twohig on the Virtual Couch, and he is one of the world's most leading acceptance and commitment therapy researchers. And that episode was a blast. It was so much fun, and there were so many great quotes from there. So not only am I going to get him back in the not too distant future, but it looks like I'm going to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as Russ Harris, author of most of my favorite acceptance and commitment therapy books, The Happiness Trap, Act and Trauma, The Confidence Gap, and one that we're going to take a few pages from today is called ACT Made Simple, the second edition. So I want to lay some groundwork with some ACT principles that I believe will help you with the holidays and beyond, as well as lay the foundation for some of the things that I hope to talk about with Dr. Hayes and Harris about soon. So let's get to this concept that I mentioned earlier about cognitive flexibility, which is a large portion of ACT..
So, Dr. Twohig shared a couple of quotes a few weeks ago that I've gone back to that led to this episode. Here's one of the quotes. He said, “An interesting thing about humans is we decide the way the world works and then we follow that. And the truth is, it's never fully accurate. It could be close to the way the world works or it could be totally far off.” He said, “That's an interesting thing about human beings is that we all make this rule about what we're supposed to do and then we just keep following it.” And he said, “A lot of research has said it's really difficult to help people do things differently. It's hard to create variability in behavior.” So if somebody has a problem or they have a way of living that's not really functional, some of that is that they've determined, well, this is how it all works. And then they've been doing the exact same thing for 20 or 30 years, and part of the therapist's job is to create flexibility in different behavior patterns.
So flexibility is incredibly essential when it comes to creating a better version of you. To which you will, in addition, create a better life. So today I'm going to reference chapter 27 in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Act Made Simple, the second edition by Russ Harris. And it is entitled, “Simply Cognitive Flexibility”. And I'm going to add plenty of personal examples and thoughts of the principles. I almost feel like saying, so class open your textbooks to chapter 27, Cognitive Flexibility and let's begin. So right out of the gate, Russ does say, “Yes, ACT does change your thinking.” He said, “One of the biggest misconceptions about ACT is that it doesn't change your thinking.” And he said, “I hope and trust that you can see that isn't the case. When clients and therapists encounter ACT, it usually dramatically changes the way they think about a vast range of topics and issues, including the nature and purpose of their own thoughts and emotions, the way that they want to behave, the way they want to treat themselves and others, what they want their lives to be about, effective ways to live and act and deal with their problems. It changes what motivates them and why they do things they do and so on. But act does not achieve this by challenging or disputing or disproving or invalidating thoughts, and nor does it help people avoid or suppress or distract from, or dismiss. Or rewrite their thoughts to try to convert their negative thoughts into positive ones.”
And I know that's something that I talk often about was my own shift from the cognitive behavioral therapy model of just change your thought, change your life, into the ACT model where I feel like it's more of a, I'm noticing these thoughts. Matter of fact, I have a lot of thoughts and so I am not going to give them as much energy or juice, and I'm going to start to then move toward things that matter and value, and I might even have to bring these thoughts along with me, which I cannot stress enough, has been such a change, I want to say game changer. I feel like I overuse that phrase, but a game changer in my life and then eventually in the lives of the people that I work with. Now, I say eventually because, we go into a little bit more about what Russ Harris talks about, which is a big reason I wanted to bring this up today because, we still have these just deeply rooted, neuro pathways of the ways that we currently think and as Dr. Twohig talked about, it's because we've believed that this is what we need to do. This is the story that we've told ourselves for sometimes 20, 30, 40 years, that I just need to be happy, that I just need to change my thought that for some reason, beating myself up and throwing some guilt and some shame to myself is somehow going to be this motivator to change. So we keep doing that pattern over and over again, and then what happens is we feel like I really must not be a good person, or I cannot figure life out because I'm doing this. I'm doing it over and over, and it's not working. When in reality, the fact that you're doing it over and over is the reason why it's not working.
So again, Russ Harris says, “ACT doesn't achieve this by challenging, disputing, disproving or invalidating thoughts. Nor does it help people to avoid, suppress, distract from, dismiss, or rewrite their thoughts to try to convert their negative thoughts into positive ones.” ACT helps people to change their thinking through A, diffusing from unhelpful cognitions and cognitive processes. We'll talk about that in more detail. And B, developing new, more flexible and effective ways of thinking in addition to their other cognitive patterns. Now, why did I stress and why did, in the book, he italicize the words “in addition”? Because we don't get to eliminate unhelpful cognitive repertoires as the ACT saying goes, “there's no delete button in the brain”. And that is a powerful concept to remember. So there's nothing wrong with you when a thought or a feeling or an emotion comes up, because there's no delete button in the brain. Now we can develop new ways of thinking, but that does not eliminate the old ones.
And Russ Harris says that he often says to his clients, if you learn to speak Hungarian, that will not eliminate English from your vocabulary. So again, and again, we emphasize this important point to clients in so many different ways. For example, we may say, okay, logically and rationally, you know that these thoughts aren't true, some of the negative self-talk that you have, but that doesn't stop those thoughts from reappearing. Or, yeah, you can clearly see this pattern of thinking and you can understand that it isn't very helpful, but that won't stop your mind from doing it. As a matter of fact, I would add that the more that you think about the fact that you're doing it because you think what's wrong with you, or I need to just tell myself to stop thinking this, the more you'll continue to think that.
So he said, can also say, so you know when this story hooks you, it pulls you into these away moves, moving you away from the things that really matter to you, and even knowing that won't get rid of the story that your brain is continually telling you, whether it's the “what's wrong with me story”, the, “I'm not enough story”, the “unlovable story”, but, so even knowing that, it won't keep those thoughts from coming back. So here are some of the main ways that ACT actively fosters flexible thinking, and we're going to talk about each one of these, just so you know, reframing, flexible perspective taking, that one's really powerful. Compassion and self-compassion. Flexible goal setting, which is going to be, again, one of these game changing kind of philosophies. Problem solving, planning and strategizing, and then conceiving your mind as a guide, a coach, or a friend. And I would add in there, sometimes you have to acknowledge that your mind might be kind of a jerk as well, so, we'll talk about that.
So reframing, this one's probably one that we'll spend the least amount of time with, but there's a lot of reframing in the ACT model and most obviously, it's normalizing and validating. And oftentimes I almost neglect or forget the fact that when people come into my office, that they are sometimes coming in and I'm the first person they've ever dumped some of their, what they've deemed to be their most crazy or horrendous or unbelievable thoughts, inappropriate, you name it. So when they share those, and this is where I used to call it, my “holy crapometer” that I would set on my shoulder and I would say, you're not really going to see this thing move. And it's not just because I've heard everything, because I still get to hear new things from time to time, but when you start to just recognize that, okay, that's your experience, but there's nothing wrong with you and you're having these thoughts and feelings and emotions because you are, because it's the very first time that you've ever been in that situation, then you can start to give yourself more compassion and more grace. So normalizing and validating, normalizing is, I will guarantee you I really mean this, and please, you can email me through my website or firstname.lastname@example.org and say, okay all right, Mr. I've heard everything. How about this one? And I really do feel like I really am going to normalize that.
And this is one of those kind of interesting things where sometimes we almost feel offended when if I tell a client, oh, I'm sorry, was that the big, the bombshell that you were going to drop on me? Sorry. Yeah, no, I've heard that one before and sometimes I feel almost dismissive with that. And clients I feel like can take it one of two ways. One, they feel a sense of relief, like really you've had other people that are going through something similar? Or sometimes it's so wild, but we almost feel like, well that feels invalidating, and it's almost coming from this place of wait, but my situation that I'm so caught up in or afraid of has to be special and unique or else that will mean that I could have been dealing with this a long time ago.
But regardless, I want to normalize that your feelings, your emotions, your thoughts, are yours, it's kind of normal, and most likely, there are people that are going through that right now. Might even be a lot of people. But, there's also some power in normalizing and validating, and that's why it's so important, I think, to talk to somebody who knows what they're doing in the world of whether it's therapy, coaching, that sort of thing. Because there's some pretty interesting data that shows that if we try to get things out of our head and we do so to someone that is saying, well, why'd you do that? Oh, well, you know what I would've done? Or if they say, oh, you think that's a big deal? Let me tell you how much worse my story was or how much bigger my story was, that, then that doesn't feel like we've done anything helpful. So then we just keep things back up in our head. But if you can go to somebody that is really trained in how to really help you feel heard and understood, and then help you take action or do something about the things that you are now sharing, then that can be incredibly validating. And it can be just this life changing experience to be able to express some really heavy emotion or experiences or trauma or even, hey, here's these crazy thoughts or dreams, or you name it. And to be able to unload that to somebody that knows what to do with that can just be so powerful. So normalizing and validating. And Russ says again and again, we help clients to reframe their difficult, unwanted thoughts and feelings as normal rather than abnormal, valid rather than invalid. And he says that many models of therapy do this of course, but ACT does go the extra mile, he said these caveman mind metaphors or lizard brain metaphors, or Neanderthal brain metaphors, any of those help reframe these unhelpful cognitive processes as normal, they're valid and they're purposeful. So when we can look at thoughts, it's just like, check this out, this is what I'm thinking. It's pretty normal and it's maybe my caveman brain just going into this reaction mode.
And then we can even say, well, why? Well because it's trying to protect me because I never felt safe in these certain areas of my life. So there are these things called diffusion techniques, and they reframe thoughts and images as nothing more than just words and pictures because that's really what they are. Our thoughts are just these words and pictures that we give a whole lot of meaning to. So, there's some concepts in the book Act Made Simple and in a lot of ACT data that really help reframe emotions allies. And they can be these valuable resources rather than enemies to avoid at all costs when we can step back in context and say, check this out, you know, I reached out and really started to communicate with somebody outside of my relationship. Well, you tell that to anyone and they're most likely going to say, well you shouldn't do that. Well, that's where somebody that comes into my office is gonna say, right, I know, that wasn't what I started my relationship about so that I could reach out to somebody else.
But sometimes when we can step back and reframe emotions as allies, then they can provide these resources, resources to say, well, what was I missing in my relationship that caused me to seek a connection outside of my relationship? Even just a verbal connection at work. Or do I not feel like I can be heard or understood? So reframing these emotions as allies and resources rather than enemies can be a really helpful part of this reframing concept. And then add some values-based living, and then that helps you really powerfully reframe a lot of the notions that are out there of success and happiness instead of, well just choose to be happy and then do something that everybody else tells you you should do.
Well, you've just got two problems right there. Just choose to be happy. Okay? I choose it and now something comes up and my brain says, well, that didn't work. Or, and I was listening to yet another example of this one. I have people that come into my office and they have an older home, and they start to be overwhelmed with the amount of maintenance or cost, but everybody's telling them, hey, it's a good investment though, you need to own a home, says people, that really does matter to them, but to somebody else, that might not be a big, safe, sound investment. It may cause them more anxiety, and depression than it does causing this any kind of inner wealth, so to speak. So we honestly have to look at what matters to you and then we can work with that. We can reframe, we can normalize, we can validate. So let me move on to the second way that Russ Harris says that ACT actively fosters flexible thinking, flexible perspective taking. So in this one, in ACT, there's a couple of different examples or a couple of different meanings to this term self as context. And this is a really important concept in ACT. So most commonly self as context refers to the experiences of the noticing self. So I am stepping back and I am noticing that this is what I am doing. I'm noticing that this is how I react and more of a check that out because when I can step away from just me being in a moment and say, and then look what I do in that scenario. When I am hungry and angry. When I am lonely and tired. And then I get met with somebody that I don't feel very safe around. Then I react and I get a little bit explosive. So check that out. So I'm viewing myself in the context of that moment of the noticing self, but less commonly in ACT, the term refers to this wide range of behaviors collectively known as flexible perspective taking. So Russ Harris says we can divide flexible perspective taking interventions into two broad but interconnected in overlapping classes. One class includes all of the mindfulness skills that you learn in ACT. We learn how to do diffusion skills and we learn how to accept, we learn about this noticing. And then there's a metaphor called dropping the anchor and so on. And all these skills involve flexibly changing your perspective or changing what you notice and how you notice it. And I want to spend a minute, and I think I'll need to cut this out and make this a separate track of some sort, but I want to talk about what that concept of even dropping the anchor means because this is one of the most powerful skills, tools, and metaphors of ACT that I believe that I have used in sessions.
So dropping the anchor is a grounding skill from acceptance and commitment therapy, and it was developed by ACT trainer and author of The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris. So this mindfulness exercise will support you kind of making contact with the present and really opening up to the thoughts and feelings that you're experiencing even when you're experiencing some really heavy emotional thoughts while choosing to consciously engage in an activity or a situation that's right in front of you or at hand, and dropping the anchor takes you out of this autopilot and helps bring you back from this, I love one author said, “future time travel” or worrying about the future. And I'll give you an example that I think will make a lot of sense or ruminating about the past. So dropping the anchor provides a steady ground and it offers a way to circuit break problematic mental activity so anybody can benefit from dropping the anchor. It's a skill and it's a way to develop an awareness of the way that your mind works, the way that your brain works, but also it makes room for what you can control.
For example, I'll show you how you can control your movement or your posture or your breath, and then you consciously engage in the present moment. So, drop an anchor, let me walk you through a script. But dropping the anchor is based off of this acronym “ACE”. And there's an analogy that helps make more sense of this. So the analogy of dropping anchor. So imagine you are a boat and you're being tossed around at sea. So the weather's rough, and that weather represents all the external storms or crises around you that you have no control over, along with the inner emotional storm that you might be experiencing. So it might be the holidays, it might be a feeling of feeling overwhelmed financially.
You might not be in a healthy relationship. You might be in a position where you are again, your job might be in jeopardy. Your kids may be frustrated. You might have some loss in close personal friends around you or family, but there can be a lot of things going on that you feel like you have no control over. So rather than being tossed around in every direction by these rough seas of all of the motions that you're experiencing, you drop anchor to steady your boat and to steady yourself. So this dropping anchor exercise will help you hold steady until the storm passes. Now it won't stop the storm. The weather is still happening, all the things are happening around you. However, you are less affected by it, and that's why we drop the anchor to be steady while the storm passes. So the way to drop the anchor is the first, A, again, we've got this acronym, ACE, A, acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, your bodily sensations. So one way to do this is to pause and notice what is coming up for you.
In ACT they call it your inner world, the things that you can sense, but nobody else can see. Again, what's happening inside of you. So another way to do this is a lot of times, even in the world of therapy, psychology, we say the “I feel” statement, I'm feeling, or I'm thinking, but what I love about ACT is it takes it another step further and it says to say to yourself, okay, “I'm noticing”, I'm noticing that I'm having the thought of being overwhelmed. Or I'm noticing that I'm having a feeling of sadness because I am a completely individual person who these things happen to on occasion or regularly, these feelings, these thoughts, these emotions. So check that out. I'm noticing that I'm feeling really sad right now, or I'm noticing a sensation of feeling overwhelmed. So while acknowledging your thoughts and your feelings, this is not distraction, and I think that's what can be misinterpreted, but it's a practice of making room for what's here. So I'm noticing that I'm feeling frustrated, I noticed I'm feeling angry. I can notice I'm feeling hungry. So from that, from the acknowledging, you move to the C and the acronym ACE .
So you come back, you come back into your eyes, you acknowledge now you come back into your body. You can do this in a lot of different ways. And it's funny, I'm doing it right now as I'm talking. I just sat up and squared up my shoulders and I sat up straighter and my, actually, my hand is on my chest. But you might focus on feeling your feet on the floor. And you can wiggle your toes or you can, what I'm doing right now, lengthening my spine. You can stretch your arms, you can drop your shoulders with a shrug, you can put your head down, your chin down to your chest. Here's where you can start to do a little bit of breathing and it really can be so helpful. Deep breath in through the nose and you can even hold it two or three seconds and then breathe out through your mouth. And you do a few conscious breaths in the way that you might have found helpful before, because we're starting to create a pattern that you can start to rely on when you need to drop the anchor.
I was doing a mindfulness meditation a few days ago that was doing this, you breathe in for a count of four, you hold it for a count of four, then you breathe out for a count of four, and that was helpful to me. I did another one where it was, breathe in seven, hold eight, and breathe out. I can't even remember because I couldn't do it because it got me feeling a little bit hyperventilated. So you really can just find a technique that works for you or just breathe in through the nose and say, in, in your brain and then out through your mouth and say out. And so these techniques are a grounding technique and this step is about just bringing yourself into this awareness to be more than just the thoughts and feelings that you're having because you can also be aware that I can, I can wiggle my toes, I can breathe, I can feel my body, I can feel my feet against the floor, my butt on my seat. And this acts as a reminder. And it might sound a little bit cheesy, it might sound woowoo, but trust me, this is one of these game-changing principles that I didn't even realize how powerful it was until it became part of my own routine.
So it can act as a reminder of what you have control over. It's this very moment that you are creating with your body. I promise you it's not a distraction technique, it is empowering. So that's the C. And then E, engage in what you're doing or with where you are. And this is where I start to, I can't help myself but to go into jokes because one of the times I remember somebody saying, okay, now I want you to look around and notice five things that you can see. And then what are five things that you can touch? And then I start making jokes in my head, what are five of my favorite foods? What are five songs that I can remember from the eighties? I don't think that was what was in my initial training, but it doesn't matter because I'm engaged in what I'm doing.
And then the concept with this drop the anchor is how long do I need to do it? Well, there's no real answer, it’s as long as you want to do it. You can do it for 10 or 15 or 30 seconds, or you can do it for as long as a minute or two or anywhere in between. And one of the best times to practice this dropping the anchor is when you are not feeling overwhelmed so that your body will kind of know, this is what this guy's doing when we go into this concept of wanting to drop the anchor. Now let me give you a script, and this is from actmindfully.com.au, which is a site by Russ Harris. And I want to give you a specific problem because I'm dealing with a lot of people as a couple's therapist that are feeling overwhelmed in their relationships and they feel, they just feel like this is not what they want. They feel like they have no control. They worry about the future of their kids. They worry about whether they will ever be able to be in a loving relationship. They worry, why didn't I know this earlier? Why couldn't I have done something sooner? And they just worry. They worry. And that starts to feel overwhelming and they can start to feel down and they can feel stuck and they can just spend entire days or even a week or more just worrying and not feeling like they're doing anything that really is of value or matters to them, which can actually add more to that anxiety and that feeling of depression.
So in an ideal scenario before starting this exercise, you will want to identify what you're experiencing. You know, what are these thoughts, what are these feelings? What are these emotions? What memories are coming up? Because then you'll be able to refer to them specifically so as a therapist, let me walk you through this dropping anchor, this script of dropping anchor.
So there is something that's painful. It might be very painful or it might be difficult that's showing up for you right now. And so I have to tell you, I'm sure if you are in here in front of me, I know I could see how much you're struggling with it. And if we were talking on the phone, I could probably tell from your voice how difficult, whatever this is that you're going through, and I really do want to help you handle it. So I would love for you to follow these instructions first. Just see if you can push your feet hard into the floor. Push them down and then do it, feel that ground beneath you. And now sit forward in your chair and straighten your back. And I want you to feel that chair beneath you. And I want you to notice your back supporting you.
And now slowly press your fingertips together. And as you do that, gently move your elbows, move your shoulders, and feel your arms moving all the way from your fingers all the way into your shoulder blades. And so I want you to take a moment, and I want you to acknowledge that there's a lot of pain here, that there's probably a lot of things that you're struggling with and you didn't ask for it, and it's not fair. But here it is and it's challenging and it's difficult, and you want it to go away, but it's not going away. So I want you to silently acknowledge yourself. What type of pain it is. For example, say to yourself, here's sadness, or here's anxiety, or here's a painful memory. And again, if we're talking about relationships, this is where you'll say, I didn't want this to happen. I just wanted a happy relationship. I wanted to feel connected to my spouse. I wanted the very best for my kids. And so taking that moment to acknowledge that there is a lot of pain. Now notice that as well as this pain, there's also a body that's around that pain, and it's a body that you can move and you can control.
So straighten your back again and notice your whole body now, your hands, your feet, your arms, your legs, and gently move them and feel them moving. Have a stretch. Notice your muscle stretching. Again, press your feet down and feel the floor. Now look around the room. Look up and look down, side to side. And try to notice five things that you can see.
What can you see right now? And then also if you can notice three or four things that you can hear, sounds that are coming from me or from you or from the room that's around you. And also notice that right now, in this moment, you and I, even though you're listening through your EarPods or your speaker, that we're working together as a team. So notice there's something very painful here that you're struggling with, at the same time see if you can also notice your body in the chair and gently move that body again. Stretch it. That's it. Take control of your arms and legs. Notice the room around you. And also notice that you and I, we're communicating in a sense right now, we're working together.
So we will do this for as long as needed until you feel grounded , and then that's where I can bring this exercise to an end, this dropping the anchor exercise by asking, do you notice any difference now? Are you less caught up in the emotional storm? Are you less hooked by these difficult thoughts and feelings? Are you less swept away by the storm? Do you feel less pushed around or jerked around by these feelings? Is it easier for you to engage with me right now to be present, to focus? And do you have more control over your actions now over your arms and your legs, your mouth? So check it out. Move your arms and legs. Have a stretch. Do you notice that right this second, you have more control? Now, those thoughts, those feelings, those things are still there, but you just did a grounding exercise, and for some of you, that might be the first time that you've done that. And it may not feel like it really addresses the big elephants in the room. There might be a bunch of elephants. But if you continue to do that exercise, that practice that over time, what it feels like to be you is somebody that can notice these big thoughts and emotions and then come back to a place of grounding, so that over time, you can then even invite some of these feelings and emotions to come along with you while you engage in things that really matter to you. And over time, then you're gonna create this pretty amazing neural network that when I start to feel overwhelmed, now my body, because my emotions are traveling faster than my thoughts and logic, that my body's already gonna have me stretching my spine and taking a breath in through my nose and out through my mouth because my body already knows that we do best when we get grounded and when we drop that anchor in this storm of all the things that are going on around us. So when you can do that, you can bring yourself back to the present moment, and that is the time where you can really start to make change.
So I would highly recommend learning how to drop that anchor, use that exercise, and try it over and over again, because the more that you can become grounded again, the more that you're training your brain that this is what we can do to be able to absolutely feel and recognize those emotions. But we're going to work through those difficult moments so we can come back to the present and then take action on things that matter.
So Russ Harris also talks about the other class of these flexible perspective taking interventions that include thinking skills that develop our ability to perceive events and understand concepts from different points of view. So he says, “In everyday language, that's to see things differently.” So for example, some exercises might invite you to imagine yourself in the future and looking back on your life today. And from that perspective then reflect on your current behavior. And I think that this one's important because often, it's so hard to see what's going on in the moment, but if you fast forward a few years, then look back at this time of your life, I think you would give yourself more grace. If you realize, man, I have four or five little kids, I'm in the midst of trying to figure out a job and a career. Our finances are a challenge. There's been a pandemic around the world, so you can give yourself a lot more grace. And again, we're still so prone to just going to this place of thinking we have to beat ourselves up or shame ourselves, to be able to move forward, but that is absolutely the exact opposite.
The shame that we feel that wells up in us, that we think we're a bad person or we have to beat ourselves up or we won't make a change, comes from our inner, inner, inner childhood. Because when you are a tiny little, and you think the world revolves around you and you want a pony for your birthday and you live in an apartment where your parents can't afford a pony anyway, it's not a good idea to get a pony. But then when they don't give you that pony and you are a little kid, you don't say, oh my gosh, there is not really a place to place a pony. Or, I don't even know how much a pony costs. Or ponies are a bunch of upkeep. As a kid you think, they don't love me. Something must be wrong with me. So we default to shame because that's what we did in our childhood because we didn't have an understanding of what was going on around us. So we still will find ourselves beating ourselves up in the moment and thinking for some reason that's going to help us. If that helped us, all of the problems in the entire world would be solved. If beating yourself up in shame was the way to go, then there would be world peace and harmony because we all continually keep beating ourselves up. So it is absolutely the wrong approach to do in order to move forward in your life. So seeing things differently again, look at yourself in the future. Look back on your life today, reflect on your current behavior, and others involve, and this can sound a bit cliched, but it's true, involving inner child work where the client imagines their current day adult self going back in time to comfort and care for and instruct or support a child or an adolescent version of yourself.
And this is the part where I want to say, man, I really do. I'm back on this side of our parents, bless their hearts, tried their best based on all of the information that they had at that time. So that doesn't mean though, that I can't have feelings and emotions or wish that they would've done things differently because that's okay. The more that we wake up to our own experiences and our adult life, it's absolutely okay. This is part of emotional maturity. If you are harboring some emotional immaturity or narcissistic traits and tendencies, we lack this thing called whole object relations, where we can't have both good and bad feelings about somebody, in the same frame. We feel like we have to go either all or nothing, black or white. So it is absolutely okay to love your parents and appreciate all that they've done for you, but also to be frustrated that, man, why didn't you let me go out for little league and tell me that I wouldn't like it? How about we would've tried?
And that's okay. It's okay to feel that. And I've had a couple of my kids do some lovable confrontations about some of the things that I felt really good about doing when, I'll tell you one for an example. One of my daughters recently said that we had created an interesting relationship with celebrations and food. And it was funny because my first reaction was, oh, no. But then it was, she was so spot on. Because I recognized when I was growing up, we never, we never went out to eat. So going out to eat for me was the biggest celebratory I have made it thing in the entire world. And it was also, it grew to be this thing of, that's when everybody would come together. If the kids were teenagers and they were all going in different directions, it seemed like we could get everybody together when we would go out to eat. So going out to eat, to me is this amazing event that I absolutely love, but I didn't even think about the fact that it would cause an interesting relationship with food and going out to eat with my kids as they become adults that maybe their first go-to is we have to celebrate, we have to get together, we have to do things, so we must go out to eat. Where if their spouse grew up and that wasn't the case, then, you know, I don't want my kids to think, oh my gosh, what's wrong with me? If that's where I go because, that's what my experience was. So I love this stuff. I love this stuff where you can go back and then talk to your inner child and if you have a good relationship, an emotionally mature, healthy relationship with your spouse and even with your parents, then it's nice to be able to process these things and then feel heard and understood. So other things, other interventions that can help you take a different viewpoint is, and these almost feel cheesy and cliche in therapy, but I really think they can be helpful. You know, the old, if your roles were reversed, how would you feel? If roles were reversed, how would you want this person to treat you? If you were in someone else's shoes, what would you be thinking and feeling? And if the same thing happened to somebody that you love, what would you say to them?
And I love that one where there are times where I will have somebody lay out a whole lot of stuff that they're going through. And I would, I would say, hey, if somebody came to you with all this information, what would you tell them? And typically, the answer is gonna be, man, that sounds hard, and I'm here for you, and forgive yourself and give yourself grace.
But we have such a hard time doing that to ourselves. So at times, Russ Harris said, we might ask a client to take the perspective of their values, guided self, and this is where things get really good. So, for example, right now, you might be making a lot of very judgmental comments about your spouse, and that is completely understandable, given all the difficulties that you've been having and what you bring to the table and all your experiences that you've had. But the problem is when you get hooked by these thoughts, then you tend to do things that make the relationship even worse, such as shouting or yelling, blaming, name calling. So Russ Harris framed it in this way, he said, so I'm just wondering, you know, you said earlier that you wanted to be more loving and patient and kind. So again, I'm just wondering if you were really able to be that sort of loving patient, kind partner that you want to be, how might you think about this differently? And that will typically lead you to have a little bit more empathy. And so is there another way of looking at a situation that might help you handle it better in a way that's healthier for you based on your values or a way that might be better for the relationship?
And he said, “We might even ask a client to take the perspective or parts of himself.” If this emotion could speak, what would it tell you to do? Because sometimes if you were going to listen to what your anger wants you to do, your anger might say, well, I want you to go punch that guy in the neck. And so that might be an opportunity for you to then confront that anger, and say, okay, I hear you, and we could always do that, but what do you think would come from that? And a lot of times I think when we really can get out of our own head and say, well, I might feel good for a minute, but I guess it's really not going to do anything about the problem, so that's where we can start to learn to accept these emotions, talk to these emotions, advise these emotions, listen to the emotions.
But that doesn't mean that we have to take action on them. Another concept that he talked about was compassion and self-compassion. So ACT places a great emphasis on both self-compassion and compassion for others, and for so many people, these are radically new ways of thinking because the consciously acknowledge suffering, our own or that of others, and then remain open to it and be curious about suffering instead of ignoring it or dismissing it or turning away from it, or trying to just avoid it at all cost by turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms. I mean, we don't like to sit with discomfort. If you really stop and think about it throughout the day, how often do we sit with discomfort? We may feel discomfort, but then we do not want to sit with it. We want to do anything that we can to avoid it. And that experiential avoidance or doing something just to get through the moment or even the day, we may turn to those things that are not very helpful, not very productive, like our phones or streaming movies or games or that sort of thing. And while I will often tell my clients I would rather have them do that than really go down this deep, dark path of suicidal thoughts or ideations. And at some point we need to recognize that, okay, I need to start doing things that matter to me, but let's get back to that suffering. It is difficult to consciously acknowledge suffering and then respond with kindness as opposed to judgment or hostility or any other non-compassionate reaction.
And Russ Harris says that does not come naturally or easily to most of us. He says, “Suppose that we're in pain. And we say to ourselves, this is a moment of suffering and life is hard right now. So let's see what I can do to take care of myself.” He said, “This is obviously an extremely difficult way of thinking from ruminating.” When ruminating, which I feel like so many people do, probably the majority of people do, is why am I feeling so bad? What's wrong with me? Or self-criticism. I should be tougher than this. I am such a pathetic loser. I should not be doing this. I shouldn't be thinking these things. And he said, “Usually we need to deliberately, actively, and regularly practice new patterns of thinking in order to develop our capacity for compassion.”
And that is absolutely difficult. It's a difficult endeavor that people will resist. And I love how he says we have to practice because our deeply rooted neuro pathways are going to keep going back to these, what's wrong with me? I'm a piece of garbage. I need to beat myself up in order to make progress. So we have to recognize, notice those thoughts and those feelings and those emotions and acknowledge them. And if we have to do that, drop the anchor exercise to then get through that moment of wanting to beat ourselves up, then that might be a time to use that tool so that we can then take action again on things that matter. So which leads perfectly to, he talks about flexible goal setting, problem solving, planning, and strategizing. And I just have to say that Russ Harris has one of the funniest things about goal setting at this point. If you go back a few chapters in the book Act Made Simple where he says, when we're assessing goals, whether it's a formal or an informal goal, we need to consider the following question to make sure it's an effective goal. Is it a live person's goal or is it a dead person's goal? So what does that mean? It's actually pretty simple. He says, “A dead person's goal means any goal that a corpse can achieve better than you can. If a dead body can achieve your goal better than you can, then it's really not much of a goal.”
Here's the classic example. I am not going to yell at the kids this week. Now, a corpse will never yell at the kids under any circumstances. You can guarantee that is gonna be the case. He said, a living person's goal is something that you can do better than a corpse. For example, when the kids are pushing my buttons this week, I am going to drop the anchor, breathe into my anger, connect with my values of being calm and patient, and speak to them in a calm, assertive manner.
So any goal that describes what you won't do is a dead person's goal. Behavioral goals, describe what you will do, not what you won't do. So if you find yourself saying, I am not going to do X, and I'm gonna stop doing Y, or I won't do Z, then we can ask, what will you do instead? So if a client says, I am going to quit smoking. Honestly, that's more of a dead person's goal because a corpse is never going to smoke. And Russ Harris has so many funny things in his book I have to tell you because then he just says in there, “unless you cremate it.” But we could then ask, so when the craving to smoke shows up, what will you do? From this, we can generate a live person's goal, such as when I crave a cigarette, I will drop, anchor, acknowledge, make room for the urge, and do some mindful stretching or mindfully drink some cold water instead of smoking. So I think that alone is something that can really lead to this cognitive flexibility. And just as a reminder from the beginning of this episode, what we're looking for here is the very most best way to do some change, aka cognitive flexibility.
So talking about the flexible goal setting, then again, problem solving, planning, Russ Harris says, “Committed action requires a lot of flexible thinking around goal setting, problem solving, action planning, and strategizing.” Because so often if we set these very rigid standards for ourselves, which sounds like a great thing to do, to hold myself to the utmost standard, but then if I'm a human being and as my friend Preston Pugmire says, all of a sudden life just life's all over you, then are you able to be flexible? Can you give yourself some grace? Can you drop the anchor? Can you breathe into the pain? And then can you take action on things that matter? So Russ Harris says, “When it comes to preparing for action, we may ask clients to consider what's the worst thing that might happen, and if it does, how will you deal with it? What can you do to reduce the likelihood of that?” Which can sound counterintuitive at times because I know that sometimes I'm sitting in a session and somebody feels on fire with positive vibes and possibilities of all kinds of change in their life and you almost hesitate at times to want to bring up, okay, so let's just, this sounds great, let's just say that you don't get the job, or let's just say that things don't play out the way that you think that they will. What's a plan B? And what I think is so fascinating is you hear these cliches often of, we need to, I think there's a burn the ships down when we get onto land. An old Viking thing that they used to do.
Because if we burn our ships down, then we can't leave and we have to fight. We will be fighting like crazy to gain this new land because we have no plan B. Or I've heard people say before that I just have to go out and just have no plan B and put myself out there. And that might work for a small percentage of the people, but for normal human beings who still do have commitments, financial commitments, responsibility, those sort of things that it can sound intoxicating to say, I'm just going to go for it, whatever that looks like. Plan A or bust. But we have to be able to be flexible. And we have to be able to make room for a plan B and even a plan C, because that's more of how life happens. And I love talking about this concept of we might be at point A in our journey and we might say, you know what? It's point Z or bust and A to Z. But the reality of life is when we start taking action and move from point A to B. Then when we get to B, we might think, oh man, I didn't even expect that point B would look like this. And I might even go in a different direction. But the point is we're continually moving forward, this constant forward motion. And as I've noticed that in my own life when I left technology, I looked at going into a couple of different fields and then started going back to grad school. And I wasn't going to do therapy in the chair. I was going to write books and I wanted to continue to write this newspaper column I was doing. And then I started seeing clients so that I could get the master's degree, and I started enjoying seeing clients. Then I was only going to be a part-time therapist while I still dabbled in technology, and then I realized that I love what I'm doing and I wasn't going to start a podcast or I wasn't going to write a book, but then those things happen as well.
So it's just been a journey of this flexible goal setting or this cognitive flexibility. And so he talks about, yeah, so what's your plan B if plan A falls through? It's not acting as if you have no hope in yourself. It's saying, I'm going to be realistic because that might even help me be more engaged in plan A because I can go for it knowing that, okay, but I do have a plan B. Or he said, what's the best thing that might happen and what can you do to increase the chances of that and what's most likely to happen? And if it does, what's next? There we go. And if it doesn't happen, what's next after that? And what strategy are you going to use there? What will that require? And is there another way to think about this that might help you handle whatever you're trying to do better? So he says, conceiving your mind as a guide or a coach, or Russ Harris says, last but not least, ACT often uses metaphors that can compare our mind to a guide or a coach or a friend. We can play with these metaphors in a lot of different ways to foster flexible thinking. So here are a few examples. The Wise Guide or the Reckless Guide. So as the therapist I would say sometimes our mind is a wise guide. It gives us great advice to help us get on in life, but other times it's a reckless guide and it encourages us to take reckless risks or put ourselves in danger. So right now, which guide is doing the talking? So the client can identify, it's the reckless one. Okay. So what advice might the wise guide give you? So now we're viewing ourself in the context of the moment and we are allowing this opportunity for our own brain to do some coaching our wise part of our brain to coach our reckless part of our brain.
Or there's a metaphor of the overly helpful friend or the genuinely helpful friend, the therapist. Okay. Here's what I would say. Remember when we talked about how our mind can sometimes be an overly helpful friend? Do you think that maybe that's what it's doing right now? So suppose your mind wanted to be genuinely helpful rather than overly helpful what might it say about this particular situation? Or sometimes you might have that harsh coach or kind coach. So I might say, you know, there are two types of coaches in school sports. There are harsh coaches who yell at the kids, call them names, come down hard on every mistake, constantly judge, compare, and criticize. And there are the kind coaches who encourage the kids, build on their strengths, and give genuine feedback about the mistakes in a kind and caring way. So the good news is, the harsh coaches tend to be a rapidly dying breed. And you know why? And if the client asks why, then I get to say, because kind coaches get much better results.
And so right now, the way your mind is talking to you is that a harsh coach or a kind coach? And often we'll find that our mind is a harsh coach. So then you can ask, well, what would the kind coach say in this situation? So the takeaway to this very most bestest way to do some change or cognitive flexibility, Russ Harris says, “I hope you can see that ACT usually changes your thinking significantly. However, it does not do this through challenging, disputing, ignoring, dismissing, or distracting from difficult or unhelpful thoughts.” It does this through diffusing from thoughts. They're just thoughts. Accepting that they make and will keep reoccurring. And finally, at the same time, actively cultivating new, more flexible and effective ways of thinking.
So you put this combo pack together of recognizing that the things that we do so often that we think are the right things to do, like challenging our thoughts, disputing our thoughts, ignoring them, dismissing them, is actually making things more difficult. And diffusing is the way. It's a thought. A thought is a thought. You're going to have a whole bunch of them. Notice that thought. I'm noticing that thought. I can notice the thought right now that I am thinking I want to, or even need to, or have to raise my right arm, but I'm not doing it. It's just a thought. I don't have to take action on the thoughts, but I can take action on a value if I have a value of health and being hydrated. I am literally right now reaching over and picking up my water bottle. So I'll follow that thought. That's a good one because it's something that's more in align with what my goals are, my value-based goals, and then cultivating new, more flexible ways of thinking, knowing that we're going to have thoughts that are gonna keep coming and coming.
And I really believe that we're handling the way that we treat our thoughts in an unhelpful way. So first of all, when we say what's wrong with me for having the thoughts I'm having or feeling the feelings I'm feeling, we need to start with nothing. Because you are a human being. You are you. So check that out. You're having that thought or feeling. And next I think it's so unhelpful to say, I know I need to stop thinking that because right now stop thinking about a pineapple. Stop thinking about a pineapple sitting next to a watermelon. So we can't tell ourselves to stop thinking about something because it's built in that we will do even more of that thinking. It's that cognitive or it's that psychological reactance and then even saying, okay, instead of thinking of a pineapple, I'm going to think of a watermelon. Then I still have to think about the pineapple to get to the watermelon. So what we really need to do is, I'm noticing that I'm thinking about a pineapple, that's the thought. That's fascinating. But if my goal is to go take action and do something different, then the fact that I'm thinking about a pineapple is somewhat irrelevant. You bet. I'm thinking of it. So replace pineapple with, I'm thinking of the thought that I can't do what I'm trying to do, or I'm a horrible person, or this person doesn't like me, or any of those things like it's a thought.
So there it is. And now I can start doing or taking action on the things that matter. So I think this is going to prime the pump a little bit as we head into the new year to set yourself up so that you can make some change, whether it's gonna be through New Year's resolutions or just a little bit of a new year, new you, but this truly, this concept of cognitive flexibility is the very most bestest way to do some change. So I would love your feedback. Feel free to send me any questions, send this along to somebody that you think it might help. And then taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented, Aurora Florence with her song “It's wonderful”. So have a great week and we'll see you next time on the Virtual Couch.