“You are not your thoughts”

thinking-person-hiYou’ve seen this before, right?  And another: “Don’t believe everything your mind tells you.” Easier said than done. Especially if your mind is telling you that you are stupid. Ugly. Bad. Yep, the yucky stuff – the kind of messages we’d like to silence or ignore.

As I make my way through “The Weight Escape” book, I’ve found it helpful to review some of the principles and exercises from the Acceptance and Commitment
Therapy (ACT) model once again. To think about ACT principles, like how we all try to control our internal experience (and how that doesn’t work); how easily we can become fused, or caught up in our thoughts; and the value of living more fully in the present moment (if we’re willing). During a training, I heard one ACT expert say that we are trying to move away from a “feel good” agenda to a “feel your feelings well” agenda.  This can be hard, right? I know when I have a painful thought or feeling, I still want to run away! (Although I’ve gotten much better at recognizing this impulse, and staying, when it is in line with my values.)

I’m an experiential learner. I’m not just a psychologist, or a mindful eating educator, I’m a human being, too, with my own struggles. Today, as I was reading through The Weight Escape, I had a chance to practice the ACT skill of “defusion” in my own life, yet again. I hope the following example is helpful.

This week, I didn’t have the time I needed to write, a creative endeavor that I find rewarding as well as restorative. Instead, I’m torn between my responsibilities at my private practice, our small hobby farm, and an energetic child on her last week of summer break. To boot, my husband is also home today with an injured ankle. Looking back over the past few days, I realize that I’ve spent much of my time organizing a variety of activities – the kind that always seem like a good idea, initially, but often leave me feeling exhausted. I’m craving silence, a commodity I’m always short of as an introvert.

Fast forward to this afternoon: I’m at my wit’s end, and miserable. I notice that my back is aching. I am definitely NOT behaving in a way that is conducive with my values. The “story” that is going through my head: “I should be more giving. What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m just a selfish person, after all.” Every attempt I make to “dig deeper” seems to backfire, in some snarky or passive-aggressive comment (“Don’t bother, I’ll do it – again!”) or in feigned stoicism that even my poor, limping husband can read through. Helpings of misery are delivered, all around.

Finally, my husband leaves to take my daughter to a swimming pool (hurt ankle and all). The sudden silence in our house – something I’d craved all day – now rings with the scolding tone of self-criticism: How selfish I am. How ungenerous. How self-absorbed. My mind has a LOT to say. I feel angry with myself, and ashamed. I finally have the alone time I crave, but I’m struggling to enjoy it.

In The Weight Escape, the authors help us to recognize the ways that our mind can put each of us “in a cage.” A cage in which we feel stuck and miserable. A cage in which we might believe there is no hope for escape. Many readers might relate because they, too, are saddled with some version of “I’ll never be good enough,” a story that might appear at times and take them for an unwanted ride. Perhaps “being good enough” = losing weight or looking a certain way. Or being successful professionally. Or never losing your temper.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, “defusion” is defined as the ability to see our thoughts for what they are – just words and images. A story that we might have formed over time.  As I observed the emotionally laden thought “I’m a selfish person,” I practiced noting to myself: “I’m having the thought, I’m a selfish person.” Then I took another step back, with these words: “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m a selfish person.”

This exercise reminded me of an old mindfulness exercise I used to do with clients. I’d ask an individual to imagine that he or she was in a giant movie theater, with hundreds of rows of seats. Then we’d summon up a painful experience and place it up on the “movie screen,” at the same time that they brought awareness to their bodies – fully acknowledging and allowing the sensations that might arise. Then, I invited them to imagine standing up, looking behind them at all of the empty rows of seats, and choosing a seat further back, if they’d like. Not leaving the theater, or attempting to shut down the difficult experience. Merely creating a little more space, while they stayed with their bodies and observed the sensations that came and went.

This afternoon, as I gave myself space to observe these experiences, I began to notice another feeling emerge: sadness. I decided to stay with the exercise, as the authors suggested. I continued to “defuse” from the critical story I’d told myself, by playing with the words themselves in a writing exercise:

I am a selfish person.

I           am         a          selfish             person.

Iamaselfishperson!

I

am

a

selfish

person.

I am a selfish person.

I am a selfish person.

I AM A SELFISH PERSON.

I am a selfish person.

Umm, no. I’m not really buying this thought anymore. Now, it even seems a little silly. I can see, once again, that when I ignore my own needs, I become, quite predictably, overwhelmed. And then I behave in reactive ways, which I often later regret. That makes me human. Not selfish (or a bad person, as my mind suggests).

The thing I love so much about mindfulness- and acceptance-based approaches is that through awareness, we experience greater freedom. If we’re willing to experience some degree of discomfort (at least initially) and bring an attitude of curiosity to the situation, we’re able to observe our experiences and see them more clearly for what they are. Then, we are presented with a wider range of options for living our lives (that go beyond our “story” of ourselves, or our efforts to avoid painful experiences) and we have a chance to move forward, in a new way. 

So I’ll close by posing this question to you: Which thoughts and feelings cage you in, hijack your attention, perhaps even lead you to behave in ways that you don’t like? Are you willing to give this exercise of observing, noticing and naming a try?

Meanwhile, I plan to finish The Weight Escape, and move on to the next book I’m reviewing: The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs & End the Weight Loss Struggle Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. I’ll keep you posted!