Sorry the post is so long, but I haven’t written anything for five months 😀 I’m making a return to posting by picking up the same theme I left off with: the possibility of actively changing your thought patterns and beliefs.
In addition to the book I mentioned in my last post:
I’ve now read another couple of relevant books:
The second of these is based around Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which attracted my interest as it claims to be scientifically backed; it seems to incorporate mindfulness and elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), both of which have been shown to be effective at giving you control over your automatic thinking. The book is annoying in some respects, not least in its bold assertion of ACT’s uniqueness and its continual rubbishing of other strategies – annoying when I’m trying to put different ideas on the same table and see where they overlap or complement each other as well as to clarify any conflicts. This biased trumpet-blowing seems typical of self-help writing, though; I guess it’s a competitive marketplace…
The Chimp Paradox was even worse; a writing style dumbed down to the point of actually obscuring the points it tries to make, and a lot of cute metaphors of chimps and gremlins, computers, autopilots and so on, that – as far as I could tell – doesn’t actually amount to anything original or deep. Its method seems to boil down to essentially the same principle as CBT: using reason to challenge distressing thoughts. This is mostly what I’ve been trying to do. And, I’ve come to think, it’s essentially what I’ve always been doing in my private diaries. It’s really just a natural mental process, in a way; we all have reason, and we try our best to use it to keep our thoughts in check. Self-aware people are already slogging away at CBT before they even know about it. The main benefit of talking therapies, as I see it, is to have an outsider’s perspective to help identify wrong thinking – not to teach you how to reason (which you already know, and which clearly hasn’t helped much if you’re getting therapy).
So I’ve come to accept that change is a lot harder than it looks. I used to look back over my diaries and feel ashamed that I was still struggling with the same issues despite repeatedly “reasoning them out”. Now, I sympathise with myself; I see only a mammoth effort, a valiant and brave attempt to change things in the face of terrible odds, and I don’t see it as a failure. I am wrestling hard with my mind and my mind is unfortunately winning a lot of the time. It’s not my fault. But why? Why the constant battle? Why, after all these months of writing, am I still falling into the same negative unhelpful thoughts and feeling awful?
The ACT book likens changing your thought patterns to learning a new language and trying to stop using your native one. Apparently neuroscience has shown that new thought patterns are laid on top of the old, and do not replace or erase them. One thing I do love about the book is its no-nonsense debunking of popular self-help myths; I suppose this has helped as much as anything. It’s validating to be shown (with evolutionary arguments) that the mind naturally produces negative thoughts, and that it isn’t possible – or necessary – to stop it. I also rejoiced at the citing of a pile of evidence that self-esteem isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (you can read an article on this here). I suppose one consequence of our cultural optimism about self-help is the disappointment and shame that comes when we struggle. You ought to increase your self-esteem; you ought to get rid of that negative thinking. Well, no, actually – and perhaps these expectations are making it all worse.
I’m not saying that nothing can or should be done to improve one’s condition. Just that I’m bloody tired of debating with myself over my thoughts, trying in vain to get them to change with real conviction, and that lowering my expectations has felt beneficial. One ACT idea that does seem helpful to me is simply to practise identifying your recurring thoughts, recognising the same old unhelpful mental broadcasts like a radio show – with a sense of humour, even. A bit like spotting a bird that you remember because you sketched it in a notebook the last time you saw it – “Aha, it’s the blue-footed booby again!”. Where ACT differs from CBT is that it doesn’t try to replace that thought with another; instead it puts the emphasis on ‘de-fusing’ yourself from the thought. Seeing the thought as an event that you can just observe, like a leaf passing down a stream. Feelings are similarly treated by ‘expansion’ – making room for them to be there, without judging them as a problem and wrestling with them. Mark Tyrrell similarly suggests asking the question: “Am I reacting to something in my imagination, or something in reality?” Even just realising that your mind is throwing up things to torture you would probably mean you have already de-fused from those things, separated yourself a little bit from them. Why is this helpful? Ultimately so you can avoid acting on it; so you can get enough of a moment of sanity to remember what’s important and act on that instead. Difficult thoughts and feelings are only a problem insofar as they sweep us up into their grasp.
My conclusion is that it’s very hard to overcome problematic thinking patterns, and mostly that’s OK – no-one is without problems, and yet we somehow manage to carry on our lives. What I’m going to put my efforts into now is a quiet combination of (1) identification and de-fusion from troublesome thoughts, and (2) yes, practising new, more helpful thought patterns – so that there’s something better that might be able to jump in in that moment of sanity. I think seeing it as a new “language” is the right analogy though, as there can be no expectation that unhelpful thoughts will ever dry up. And they don’t need to if you have a way of dealing with them.