Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 4: Get to Know Your Inner Helpers

You’ve started to put your sentiments into words. What you’ve experienced may not seem all that profound to you so far. But you’ve actually opened the door to a new dimension of personal growth. In this lesson we’ll show you how to take it even further!
My client, Jack, was getting better at catching emotionally loaded thoughts and putting them into words. Here’s a text I got from him one day:
I am feeling some pull to look at pornography. Feeling felt like I wanted some recreation and something to distract me from all that must get done. Also, feeling anxiety about a test I took. I feel like I didn't do well. Also the feeling at looking at things I've seen before has come into play.
A few minutes later he added:
Then there’s also the feeling that nothing is real.
Catching desire in the act and stepping back from it enough to say, “I am feeling a pull” is quite different from only feeling the pull and leaving it unstated. We’ve already removed ourselves one step from the experience of the feeling and we’re not quite so swept up by it.
Those who study consciousness contend that having unhelpful (unwanted, immature, or even downright destructive) thoughts in and of itself is not a problem. The problems come about when we fuse with those thoughts. Fusing with a thought means buying into it fully.
Being fused with a sentiment means we’re looking at life through the lens of that sentiment. When we “take our glasses off” and look at that sentiment, we have defused from it.
The part of the brain that wants a porn fix doesn’t say, “I am feeling the pull to look at porn” the way Jack did. In fact it doesn’t even speak to us in words, but if we had to put into words its message, it would be something like, “Go find porn now. It’s exactly what you need. Don’t even think about passing up this opportunity.” For Jack to text me in that state of mind was no small accomplishment. He had had to unhook from the thought enough to be able to realize that it was a mere thought, not a clear, truthful appraisal of reality at the time that was imperative for him to act upon. Instead of staying fused, he had defused.
He not only caught the sentiment in the act, he stated it. By expressing that thought (and other accompanying thoughts) in words, Jack took defusion to a new level. Multiplying its power 4x. Texting those words to me acted as another force multiplier, as my friend George Collins puts it.
Profiling Your Helpers
Once our thoughts are out in the open, we can use that increased awareness to explore the energy that’s driving our destructive habits.
Instead of viewing your desires as threats, view them as information. You don’t have to succumb, but you don’t have to constantly struggle against them, either. Instead, take time to explore them. Attune to the energy inside of you where the unwanted desire originates. Even if you don’t like an urge, it’s good to be sympathetic with the energy that’s driving it. Our cravings are not imperative, but there not baseless and worthless, either. They’re informative.
Derick Cuthbert taught that every one of us is a storehouse—even a powerhouse—of desires and energies, which may be used for good or ill. In order for us to use this great potential for our own and others’ benefit, we need to harness it.
If we’ve been in the habit of struggling against temptation, it will be a profound and liberating shift to start to see as potentially helpful the desires and energies that have been fueling our temptation!
So what energies and desires can we identify in Jack’s text to me? I dialogued with him a bit in an effort to discover.
Recall that in his texts he’d said he was feeling the pull of porn, wanted some recreation and a distraction from everything he had to do, felt some anxiety about not doing well on a test, things that he’d seen before had started popping into his mind, and he had the feeling that nothing’s real.
Mark: Great Job teasing it all apart Jack. Are these the voices? Escapist: “Don’t stay on task. You should forget about all you have to do and go do something fun.” Critic: “You know you bombed that test.” Librarian: “There’s such a vast archive of pornographic images here in your brain. I can give you a slide show anytime. Like how about this? Or this one? Oh yeah, remember that? You could find something like that again if you’ll just enter this search term…” Tell Bonnie about this committee of mindsets that’s working on you.
Jack: Yeah, I think those sum it up. I’ll tell Bonnie about them, too. The “Nothing’s real” voice is getting stronger.
Mark: Oh yeah, I forgot about the “nothing’s real” feeling. Which helper is that? Phantom? Try putting it into words.
Jack: Phantom: “Since everything’s fuzzy right now it wouldn’t be a real choice to look at real pornography, it would just be this halfhearted, hazy little detached thing you could do over here with no real consequences. Looking is okay. The only thing that matters is that release.”
Mark: Okay, so Phantom’s doing his sales job on you. “Your life is like a movie you’re watching. You’re not really living it, you’re detached from it. And think of the excitement! The payoff is very real, and it far outweighs any of those barely visible costs that you can hardly imagine right now.”
Jack: Yeah, that’s what it was like. Thanks. It does help to put them into categories and name them.
That exchange occurred between 1:06 and 1:28 on a Thursday afternoon. At 5:49 p.m. I checked in with Jack again:
Mark: Is the committee still nagging at you?
Jack: Nope, they all shut up once we took roll.
Twenty minutes later he texted again: Thanks!!
This kind of work reminds me of what the bomb squad does. They bring in their x-ray machine to look at the explosive device. Once you can see more clearly all the parts that make it up, it’s easier to disarm the thing.
My dialogue with Jack gives you an idea of what it’s like to start to profile the protagonists inside your mind. Over time, you can call roll again when you’re tempted or when you’re in another state of mind that doesn’t serve you very well. Sometimes the same helpers come back again and again. Rather than get frustrated with these mindsets, remember that they’re trying to help you in their own way.
A man I really trust once taught me that urges and cravings are usually springing from deep and unmet needs. Rather than get down on ourselves for even having those desires, we need to look deeply into our own lives or the lives of others to identify the root causes of our failures and shortcomings.
Try thinking of unwieldy desires and energies as “helpers” who are doing their best, although certainly at times are quite misguided. We can appreciate the help they’re trying to give, while at the same time remembering that they don’t always guide us toward the options that are best for us because they’re not fully informed. And since they don’t see the big picture the way we can, we certainly shouldn’t let them take the driver’s seat of our lives.
Seen Any of These Helpers Lurking in Your Mind?
As you explore your sentiments when you’re in mindsets that don’t serve you well, you’ll become familiar with your own helpers. You’ll start to identify some dominant ones that come around all the time and some secondary ones that only visit periodically. To get you started, here are some fairly common ones that my clients and I have discovered lurking in their minds:
Shell-less Snail: “You feel so raw, exposed, apprehensive. You need to find something to make you feel better.”
Castaway: “No one cares about you. You’re on your own in life, suffering and neglected. It doesn’t really matter if you give in.”
Fortune Teller: “It’s always going to be this bad.”
Soother: “You can feel good again so quickly; relief is waiting for you.”
Tom Sawyer: “Throw off your responsibilities and play hooky from life.”
Salesman: “You really want that, it would feel so good.”
Ed McMahon: “Are you really going to slam the door when a million dollar opportunity like this shows up?”
Lester the Luster: “Sex is the best thing in the world, nothing else compares!”
Riveter: “Oh my! Wow! You can’t turn away from that!”
Dopamine-Deprived Screamer: “Don’t you dare make me go without gratification! I’m miserable without that release!”
Jason Bourne: [Silent. May be inactive and go unnoticed for years, but when there’s an opportunity to act out, stealthily gets to work again with a vengeance.]
Dreamy: “In another life, can’t you just picture yourself with that person? You should find out if they might be attracted to you!”
Pressure Cooker: “These urges will just keep building until you finally give in.”
Critic: “You blew it. You failed. You should be so much better than you are.”
Idealist: “Life would be wonderful if only you could manage to… [do whatever it is you’re failing to do at the time.]”
Comparer: “Look at the great things so and so is doing. What’s wrong with you?”
Scolder: “It’s so lame you can’t get on the ball and manage your life better!”
Bullwhip: “Look at this mess you’ve made. Come on, pull yourself together!”
John Henry: “You can do it, but only if you push harder than ever!”
Plow Horse: “Don’t think, don’t feel, just keep plugging along, doing your duty.”
Brooder: “Your life stinks. Nothing’s going right. You’re miserable.”
Worn-Out Warrior: “You’ve tried and tried, but you’ve got no more to give.”
Lookout: “Unwanted thoughts keep coming over the horizon!”
Frantic Dutch Boy: “Can’t keep up to stop all these thoughts and urges and cravings and temptations.”
Catch Your Helpers in the Act—and Talk Back to Them
When you catch an urge or feel a surge of emotion, see if you can state the sentiment and then repeat it back in "you" form (make it a statement said to you instead of by you). Attribute that thought to a part of your mind that commonly has those type of energies or desires and give that part a name. Once you identify which helper is active at a given time, you can then dialogue a bit with it.
Irene had committed to watching her calorie intake. But halfway through an afternoon of hassling with tax documents, “I started to wonder if those were the leftover donuts I could hear, beckoning me all the way from the break room.” She was gung-ho, now she was starting to waver.

So she stated the sentiment: “I just thought, 'I should go see if there are any donuts left.' Oh, 'go see.' That's an interesting way of putting it--not necessarily eat one, just gather recon. Which part my mind said, 'You should go see if there are any donuts left'? Let's see: Is that Hunger talking? Not really. Still full enough from lunch. Sweet Tooth maybe? Actually, I think it's Rebel talking: 'You're not going to just keep working, are you? Well okay, but if we can't play hooky, the least you can do is feed me another glazed with sprinkles!’

“So I said, ‘Thanks Rebel, I appreciate you calling attention to the fact that it’s been all work and no play lately. Remember we’re going out of town this weekend for some long awaited R&R. Just hang in there a couple more days!’”

Aaron had avoided porn for a couple of months, but his wife was at her sister's place for the weekend. He walked in to get ready for bed and discovered her iPad on the dresser. Unlike his laptop, it's not password protected. "’Nope,’ I said to myself, and I turn to walk into the bathroom. But then I realize my heart's pounding and I'm breathless. Ahh. Wow! That suddenly: launch sequence initiated. I need to explore that a bit. What was I just thinking? 'I didn't go looking, the opportunity just fell into my lap!' Okay, which one of you in there said, 'You didn't seek it out so, hey, you get a free pass'? Was that Lester the Luster--always hoping and hungry? Not particularly. It's not so much sex itself I'm craving. Just been a long day and I'm still feeling tense. Soother, that's you in there, isn't it, looking for a little tenderness. Or maybe Escapist, craving blissful oblivion. Well, I appreciate the input guys, I really do. But that hasn't worked out so well for me in the past, as you'll recall."

Lyle caught himself checking out a pretty girl as he drove by the high school as class was getting out. “I should get a better look in the rearview mirror,” he thought. Usually he would have either given into that urge and perhaps continued to think about the girl… or berated himself for having the urge: “Seriously? Half your age! What’s wrong with you?!”
This time, instead, he caught that he’d had the thought. He switched it from “I…” to “You should get a better look in the rearview mirror.” Then he started a dialogue. “Hey, who in there said that, telling me to take another look?” He quickly realized, that’s Teenage Brain. He thinks I’m still sixteen. He thinks if I swung the car around and pulled over to flirt with her she just might recognize me from behind the KFC counter [where he used to work as a kid]. If we hit it off she might even eventually go to prom with me. “Well,” he said to Teenage Brain, “Thanks for the suggestion, but no thanks. You may not even know this, but I’m actually 33. And I’m driving right now to pick up my daughter from preschool. Checking out a high school girl in the rear view mirror doesn’t serve me very well. In fact falling to temptations like that have actually really messed up my life.
“I understand that you’re just doing what you think is your job by trying to help me by find someone cute, but I actually found someone long ago. Katy is a beautiful woman, a grown woman, and I’ve committed to be true and faithful to her. Whenever I’ve listened to you, let you take the helm of my life, I end up doing things that really hurt her. She wants to know that I’m faithful in body and mind.
“I know you made life very exciting by always being on the lookout for the next cute girl, but what you don’t understand is that life’s not just about going gaga over someone who’s hot. It’s okay that you don’t understand that. It’s my job to remember the big picture, not yours. I know I need to temper that kind of eager enthusiasm by healthy doses of wisdom and restraint.”
Kelly was riding the stationary bike at the gym one day when he noticed an attractive woman running on the treadmill right in front of him. He turned away only to see another beauty using an elliptical machine to his right. Before learning acceptance based coping strategies he would have ogled and lusted away for awhile… or gritted his teeth and stared blankly into space and hoped against hope that he wouldn’t see anyone else he found attractive or “triggering.”
This time, instead, Kelly couldn’t help but laugh to himself. My mind is sort of like a fishnet, he thought, picking up everything in it’s path. Then he realized, That’s exactly what I do all day. At the refinery all I do is notice. I’m supposed to catch any equipment that’s out of order, any safety rule that’s being ignored. They pay me 80K a year to show up in Fishnet mode. Fishnet feeds my family! He’s one of the most important features of my mind!
“Okay Fishnet,” Kelly said to himself, “You’re there, your strong, and your good at doing your job. But today’s my day off. I’m here to work out. I appreciate that you think you need to keep noticing 24/7, but this is one area where your noticing is just not that helpful. So thanks, but no thanks Fishnet.”
Instead of locking horns with their energies and drives, Irene, Aaron, Lyle and Kelly all acknowledged the benevolent intent of their helpers. But then they proceeded to give their helpers additional information that they hadn’t previously been privy to. They kindly but firmly let them know they wouldn’t be taking the driver’s seat and explained why. This was so different from previous attempts to forcefully wrestle the steering wheel away from these helpers, which only met with resistance and served to heighten the helpers’ strength and determination to get their way. 
Homework Assignment:
Pay particular attention this week during moments of temptation and/or other states of mind that don’t serve you very well. See if you can identify one or more of your inner helpers and what they’re trying to do for you. Take time to profile them, exploring when and why they might have developed in your life.
What function were they trying to play then? Are they convinced that that is a job that still needs to be done? Why?
Come up with a name to address them by. If you can’t think of a fitting name, just call them by the name of a color, such as “Red” or “Gray.”
Dialogue with them, letting them know that you’re starting to understand that they’ve been doing their very best to help you. But then remind them that they’re not fully informed; they don’t see the entire picture the way you can. Let them know that, with their limits, they will no longer be allowed to take the driver’s seat of your life.
Try writing out one or two of the dialogues you have with your helpers to see if that process is as productive for you as it is for many people. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 3: Look at Your Lenses

A week after I'd sent lesson #2, my missionary friend wrote:

I have been reading your lessons and following your guidance and it has been helping! I have seen a notable difference in the past week. I definitely have been more happy and focused, so thank you! I'm looking forward to this weeks lesson.

I was glad he'd begun to see a difference. I knew he'd need all the motivation he could get to pull off the challenge I was about to set out for him.

Desire Is Not Enough

A student came to Aristotle asking how he could gain wisdom. The teacher waded down into the water with him, grabbed his head, submerged it, and held it under until the student was struggling with all his might. He let the young man get a breath, then said: “When you are as desperate for wisdom as you were for air in that moment, you will be ready to learn.”

My client, Greg, had been told this story by a mentor. “You need to get to that same point in your recovery. If you’re still relapsing, then you don’t yet want to be free from your addiction with the same intensity that student was yearning for air.” This instruction was consistent with an approach Greg had been trying to follow for years:

While I’m still in my right mind, I need to really think about how bad my destructive habit is for me and all the reasons I never want to give in again. Build up all the energy I can moving in the opposite direction. Hopefully then, in the heat of a tempting moment, my sane thinking will still have enough sway, my determination will hold, and the momentum I’ve established will keep me going in the right direction.

For weeks after hearing about Aristotle, Greg tried to muster more desire, spent time pondering why he wanted out of the addiction, and prayed harder than ever for his freedom. He’d been waking up at five o’clock in the morning to study his scriptures; he decided he’d get up at 4:45 so that he could study longer. All of this, he was hoping, would help him build up immunity to temptation when it hit.

Although Greg’s efforts along these lines may have had other positive effects on his life (more scripture reading can’t be bad for you!), they didn’t diminish how tempted he was or how often he relapsed.

Greg’s friend was sincere, had admirable intentions, and his teaching story may have been just what someone else needed. Greg, however, is like many of the folks we see whose addictive patterns seem to survive and thrive despite quite high levels of desire for freedom.

The truth is, we can spend all sorts of time and energy stoking the fire of motivation, psyching ourselves up, becoming more and more gung-ho and determined... only to have all of that drive and energy evaporate in the moments when we need it most.

The Problem of Shifting Mindsets

When they hit urges can be very convincing and potent. They can also be quite immune to our reasoning powers, at least in the moment. We find ourselves in a very different mindset than the one in which we stoked the fire of desire so that it would be available to help us at times like these.

To improve our success in recovery from addictive patterns, we need to understand how mindsets work and learn to manage them.

Throughout a typical day, we shift into and out of a variety of different mindsets. Each one is sort of like a trance. In our morning routine trance we get ourselves fed, cleaned up, and transported to the job site. Under the spell of our "fan" trance, we set aside our usual sense of decorum and yell and chant and boo with abandon. In the airport security checkpoint trance, we start taking off our shoes and belt.

We don't have to choose each action consciously. Once the state of mind gets activated, the autopilot system in our brain takes over, initiating the associated actions and feelings in perfect sequence and with impeccable timing.

It's exquisite--breathtaking even--when this process helps us play our part on the violin in the city symphony’s performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—or the bass guitar part in our garage band's cover of “Won't Get Fooled Again”. But it's degrading to the extreme when it drags us to a sexual outlet no more elevated than the dogs in heat at the park.

Exposing the Sentiments that Power Our Mindsets

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer said, "To attain true inner freedom, you must be able to objectively watch your problems instead of being lost in them."

As we become more observant, more like a scientist, one of the most helpful realms for us to focus our attention is our thinking and how it changes throughout the day as we go into and out of various mindsets. In a way, it may sound odd to gather and compile data that is nothing more than our own thoughts. After all, our minds are always with us. It seems that if we ever want access to our thoughts we could just consult our own minds again and bring those thoughts back into consciousness.

When it seems to us that we could actually pull this off, it is because we are suffering from the illusion of continuity of consciousness. We experience ourselves as thinking with the same mind all the time. The reality is quite different than that. As we’ve been discussing, we actually change states of mind quite often. However, there’s a reason we miss it: once we find ourselves in a new mindset, we immediately start suffering afresh from the illusion of continuity of consciousness. A sort of emotion-induced amnesia kicks in. Whatever we were thinking and however we were feeling before seems long gone, and how we’re viewing things right now seems to be the actual truth in a very convincing way.

We have an amazing capacity to fully “buy in” to one track of thinking and feeling and to be convinced in each moment, “I’m seeing things clearly now!” We have the sense that our appraisal of life and our experiences is dead on. In most moments, if someone were to grab us by the arm and say, “Life might actually be different than it seems to you right now!” the very idea would strikes us as odd, perhaps even absurd.

Any given mindset of the moment is very convincing in this way, despite the fact that when we look back over time we can see that a variety of very different states of mind enveloped and entranced us very convincingly when they were cued up. In just the past couple of weeks, for example: during one period my life really seemed to stink. I felt forced by events to acknowledge that I’d failed at teaching my kids responsibility because it was like pulling teeth to get them to help with chores around the house. At another point I watched in amazed satisfaction as one of them straightened out our messy firewood pile and then built a support to keep it tidy. And again as another proceeded to mow the back lawn, too, after only being asked to do the front. From gloom to glee and back again. Our mindsets are always shifting.

To become more aware of this lack of continuity and to get better at managing it, it really is helpful to articulate and track over time our thoughts. Not just any thoughts; it is particularly helpful to put into words our sentiments, which are defined as attitudes or conclusions based primarily on emotion, not reasoning. When we feel a subtle or distinct shift in the way we feel, it’s helpful to put our thoughts into words by writing them on a 3x5 card, emailing them to ourselves, talking with a loved one, or texting someone who is supporting you in your recovery from your destructive habit. I encourage folks to “watch for when you shift into an emotionally loaded state of mind, particularly one that doesn’t serve you very well.” Feeling resentful? Articulate that sentiment. Feeling tempted? Describe the pull in words. Feeling deflated? State exactly what you’re feeling as best you can.

Mission (Nearly) Impossible

This task of stating our sentiments may not sound all that difficult or complicated, but there’s a factor that presents a nearly insurmountable obstacle to pulling it off. It’s a problem called reciprocal inhibition. When the language-capable part of the brain is running the show, then the emotionally aroused mind is typically at rest. Not just taking a voluntary rest break, but prevented from firing up and operating actively. Likewise, once we get swept up by emotion, the language brain center is usually not just shoved into the back seat, but locked away in the trunk of our consciousness.

Overall, this process is helpful, enabling us to shift in and out of various adaptive “modes,” pursuing a wide range of goals at different times without being overwhelmed by competing thoughts and feelings and needs and drives all the time. When you’re sitting in church, you can forget about a full bladder for a time. When you lay down to go to bed at night, you can put aside work concerns for the time being. When you’re working on your homework, you can forget about a growling stomach for a time. You can lose contact with your “real life” for a time when you’re sitting in a movie or on vacation. Thanks to shifting modes of consciousness, we’re not overwhelmed constantly by competing pulls, struggling against ourselves like the Pushmi-pullyu in the story of Doctor Dolittle.

Despite how adaptive this “design feature” of ours can be, it’s also what makes us vulnerable to the pull of destructive urges. Much of the time we may feel distaste for our addictive behavior, immune to the draw of relapse. We may even marvel at the stupidity of that path.

But once we’re swept up again by cravings or urges, we become just as distasteful of abstaining, just as immune to reasoning, and yet walking with just as determined a gait as when we were on the path heading in the diametrically opposite direction.

Fortunately, things don’t have to continue on forever in this way! The different modes we go into don’t have to remain so distinct and mutually inhibiting. We can practice integrating our various states of mind, developing the capacity to have our language function simultaneously active with our feeling function.

I encourage this in my counseling practice by asking clients to put some feeling—any feeling—into words at least once per day over the period of one week. State a sentiment. Doesn’t matter what it is, just take a feeling that comes to you at some point throughout the day and put it into words. Text it to me if that’s the easiest way to keep a record of it over time. At the end of the week I expect to see their record of at least five statements.

“You’re paying a lot of money to meet with me. If I give you an assignment for you to complete this week that will take five minutes or less and quadruple the value you’re getting from counseling for the week, will you commit to do it?” That usually gets a quick and easy yes. Still, it’s amazing how hard it is to actually pull off in everyday life.

Here what one client, Dale, turned in to me at the end of the week:

Th: Feeling okay. Seems neutral. Nothing there really. I guess if push came to shove and I had to put words to any sentiment right now it would be, “My life and work are going pretty well.”

F: “Something’s wrong with me that makes people uncomfortable so they don’t like hanging out with me.” (Invited three people over; only one came.)

Sa: too much mess for me to clean up. Nobody else who made it is cooperating to help clean. Frustrated and overwhelmed.

Su: Excited about what I’m learning in my study of the Bible.

M: my life seems filled with chore after another.

Tu: Another glitch on this project. Am I cursed?

W: Satisfying meal. Pleasant weather. Backyard’s beautiful. Life’s great.

Recall from earlier in this lesson that Michael Singer encouraged us to objectively watch our problems instead of being lost in them to attain inner freedom. Because many of our problems show up in the arena of our thinking, as we start to track your thoughts the way Dale did, we’ve begun to practice watching our problems instead of being lost in them.

In a way, it’s like taking our glasses off and looking at the lenses. We spend most of our lives looking at the world through those lenses, but now we’re pausing to check out their tint and curvature. That’s what we’re doing with our thoughts: instead of looking at life through the lenses of our thinking, we’re looking at our thinking itself.

As we step back and achieve a bit of distance and objectivity, we become freer to respond as we choose to our thoughts rather than being compelled and driven about by them. Our thoughts may still come at us in very convincing ways, but as we continue to practice watching our thoughts, we keep amplifying the little voice in the back of our minds that says, “Objects in view may be different than they appear.”

The homework I’ll give you next may seem simple and easy. It might be hard to imagine that it would make a significant difference in your long-term success. Not only is it harder than it sounds, it can get your momentum moving in a better direction in a remarkable way. As you complete this homework, you begin to erode the ability of your mindsets to hold you in their trance.

Homework Assignment: State Your Sentiments

Each day over the coming week pause for a moment at some point during the day and put some feeling—any feeling—into words. State a sentiment. Doesn’t matter what it is, just take a feeling that comes to you at some point throughout the day and put it into words. Text it or email it to yourself or write it on a 3x5 card or sticky note. You may miss a day or two but try to record at least five statements during the next week.

You’ve taken the time and gone to the trouble to read this. Now if you’ll take just five or ten minutes total spread over the coming seven days you can quadruple the value you’ll get from what you just read. I strongly encourage you to make a commitment to yourself right now that you’ll do it. It will be a challenge to remember to do it, so you might want to set a “SAS” (State a Sentiment) reminder on your phone or calendar or put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or the steering wheel of your car.

Note to readers: If you find these lessons helpful, please comment below on what you're learning or how your applying the homework. It's one thing for others to read explanations of concepts, but if they can see how you're applying them they'll be better able to put them to use for themselves!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 2: A Gentler Way

My missionary friend described “struggling” and trying hard to kick unwanted thoughts out of his mind. He was resisting, fighting, and making every effort to succeed at it.

So many men and women who are failing at self-control are working just as hard, and just as unsuccessfully. In our first meeting one of my clients said,

“No matter how badly I want to stay on track, once the thoughts start they just keep building. I try to distract myself, but my mind keeps finding its way back to it. After a couple of weeks resisting, it’s constantly on my mind. Giving in seems to be the only thing that can reset my mind and provide some relief from the constant struggle.”

Torture by Chocolate

To begin to explore a better, gentler way, consider this research study by Evan Forman of Essex University.  He asked each participant to carry around a see-through plastic box that held about 45 Hershey’s kisses over a two-day period. They were to keep the box with them at all times if possible. Each subject made a commitment not to eat any of the Kisses or other chocolate during that period.

In an attempt to help them keep their commitment, Dr. Forman taught one group several control-based strategies for dealing with chocolate cravings. He told them to try not to look at the chocolates or think about chocolate. If they had an urge to eat one, he encouraged them to argue against it: “You don’t really want to eat it. You’ve promised not to.” And finally, if eating chocolate was on their mind, he encouraged them to distract themselves by turning their attention to something else.

Dr. Forman taught a second group of participants several acceptance-based coping strategies. He told them that although they were in control of whether they ate any chocolates, thoughts and feelings about chocolate are not under voluntary control.  Therefore, he encouraged them to accept any chocolate thoughts or urges that came their way. He taught them to mentally step back and observe the experience of having an urge, almost as an outsider looking in. He encouraged them to be willing to experience the discomfort that goes with having—but not giving into—a craving and to remind themselves that they were doing it in order to follow through on their commitment not to eat any chocolate. The researchers used the initials DAWN to remind participants four of the key principles that characterize acceptance based coping: Distance, Acceptance, Willingness, and Noticing.

Dr. Forman and his colleagues found that the control-based strategies were more helpful for those subjects who didn’t have a particular vulnerability to chocolate cravings. If chocolate wasn’t typically a struggle for them, it worked better to try not to dwell on the chocolate and simply fight off any cravings that did come their way.

By contrast, if chocolate happened to be their thing, struggling to beat back their own thoughts and feelings did not end up being an effective strategy! Those subjects who were more prone to crave chocolate found much more success utilizing the acceptance-based coping approach. Chocolate fiends in the acceptance group:

·      Experienced lower overall cravings
·      Rated their cravings as less intense
·      Found themselves less tempted by the cravings
·      Reported that cravings hit less frequently
·      Had less difficulty resisting their cravings and
·      Experienced less distress from their cravings

Interestingly enough, there was some chocolate sneaking by a few of those who unsuccessfully relied on control strategies to try to beat back the tide of their urges. By contrast, no one in the acceptance group brought back a box containing 42 chocolates, shaken up to look like it still held 45, or containing replacement Kisses that were missing the subtle markings the researchers had made on each of the chocolates they originally placed in the boxes.

From Firefighter to Scientist

To shift from struggling against temptation to accepting means adopting an attitude more like that of a scientist than a firefighter. Here’s the way one of my clients experienced this shift.

Cameron was driving home from work and saw a billboard that he found triggering. Then he started worrying. “Oh boy,” he thought, “it’s Thursday so my roommate’s going to be at his lab class tonight so I’ll have the apartment to myself. If I’m not in a good place it could lead to disaster.” With this kind of set-up, he would typically get into a tug of war with temptation that might continue for hours. But then he remembered, “Scientist! What would a scientist do? Observe.” He turned his attention inward, to what was going on in his body. For the first time ever, he noticed the visceral sensations that went with temptation: a distinct tingling in his torso. As he scrutinized it, he realized it was almost columnar in shape. It was hard to tell exactly, but if he had to map it, he estimated that it might stretch from the level of his belly button up to his chest. He tried to estimate its diameter: seemed to be about three or four inches. What else could he examine about it? He decided to track what happened to the sensations over time. “After about 45 seconds it had faded considerably,” he recalled.

“Okay,” I said, interrupting Cameron’s recounting, “Which would you rather deal with: An evening consumed by a battle between raging urges and heroic resistance… or a three inch column of tingling that lasts for 45 seconds or so?

"Yeah," Cameron laughed. "This is different.”

Adopting scientist mode—taking a mental step back, investigating with curiosity, measuring, tracking, and then recording what we observe—actually changes what we observe. Our experience becomes less threatening to us; it doesn’t feel so intolerable.

Be the Fingerprint Technician

As you try to become more scientist-like, don’t fall prey to the pitfall some of my clients have. At times one will come in to a session and report, “I tried what you asked me to do. I took some time and really tried to figure out why I relapsed (or why temptation was hitting me so hard, or why I was feeling so resentful, or whatever the case may have been). But I never figured out anything. It’s still a mystery to me.”

I usually respond, “If you were trying to solve a crime, it’s natural to go into detective mode. You’re hunting for a likely suspect. You’re looking for a motive. However, instead of trying to solve the entire crime, think of yourself as the fingerprint technician. Your job isn’t to figure it all out, but simply to gather data. Take your fingerprint tape and gather samples from the doorknob, the phone receiver, the computer keyboard, the armrests of the chair.”

“Less drama, more data.” That’s what one client said was different about his life since we’d started working together. That sums up perfectly the facet of recovery we’ve been exploring. It entails an attitude of curiosity and a systematic approach. It’s an effective way to learn about ourselves and what makes us vulnerable to destructive habits. It’s a formula that’s conducive to long-term success.

Homework Assignment

You've just gotten a taste of this gentler approach to self-control. Over the next few days, consider whether this gentler waymight be worth trying. And ponder this: If you do try it out and it works to help you shrink the size of the footprint of the problem in your life, as it does for most of the clients I work with... where would you like to direct the time and energy that's freed up? What would you choose to focus on instead? What would you do with the extra mental horsepower? Is there a purpose or passion you'd find interesting and engaging? Is there a contribution you'd like to make that will add beauty to the world? Make your life better? Make someone else happier? Help create more joy in the world? Each day over the coming week, consider these questions and fill in one or more blanks differently each day--brief or lengthy answers are fine: 

"In time as I enjoy a freer mind and am less burdened by my destructive habit, I'd love to devote myself more to ________. I'd enjoy spending more of my time ______. It would be meaningful to me to be more involved in ________."