Have you ever felt anxious about something that turned out to be nothing?
Worried about an event that never ended up happening (except maybe in your own imagination)?
Perhaps you’ve caught yourself planning for trouble before it actually hit.
And feeling the feelings that comes with all of this…
It can be pretty sickening – a lurch in your gut, a fast-beating heart and sometimes you might even get the sweats. And no wonder. For your thoughts are joined to your feelings – intricately linked. As one moves, the other will probably follow.
So it’s important to keep an eye on your thoughts, to monitor them a bit, so a sudden downward spiral into darker feelings doesn’t catch you unawares. And so you can nip any unnecessary anxiety in the bud if you want to.
I have a love-hate relationship with one of the major therapies endorsed by psychology today: cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Both as a therapist, and as a client, I know it can work. It can bring fast relief in acute times. So it’s a good thing to have in your inner toolbox when you’re working with the challenges life can throw you.
In a (very small) nutshell, CBT asks you to question your thoughts, and the beliefs that underpin them. It asks you to have another look at the way you’ve got things set up in your mind. To see if the conclusions that it’s so easy to jump to in the heat of the moment are actually even real or right. To renovate the interior of your inner-most home. And it has a few user-friendly formulas to do it with.
Which all sounds great, right?
But something about CBT also irritates me. Because it seems a bit patronising, sometimes, to be sort of “taught” to “un-think” or un-learn your so-called “negative thoughts.” To sort of shuffle things around in your skull to just think a little differently.
Sometimes that seems a bit fake. A bit try-hard. A bit rose-tinted glasses goody-two-shoes to suggest that there are “right ways” and “wrong” ways to think.
But then I have to remind myself that there’s also a whole lot more to CBT than just hoodwinking yourself with word games and tricky thinking. For at another level, this seemingly formulaic therapy can also reflect elements of much deeper, much older wisdoms such as:
“You are not your thoughts”
(which I once heard spoken by a Buddhist monk on the radio).
What do you think about that idea?
Are you in pain?
Not just the emotional or relational or physiological or existential pain that most of us will feel sometime in our lives. But the purely physical stuff – especially the chronic, ongoing kind that can accompany you for many years.
It can be such a challenge to live with. The constant nagging of your nerves or muscles can really get you down. It can strip your life of joy. It can transform you from who you once were to someone you no longer recognise. It can leave you feeling empty and pointless. Or angry and alone.
But there is hope.
Even if there are no physical or pharmacological solutions left to you. Even if you may have to live with some degree of pain for the rest of your life. Even if it’s been the hardest road you’ve ever walked down. Or crawled… There is hope.
For there are a number of therapeutic approaches that can really help you through this. They can help you make all the difference. And invite some of the beauty, some of the life, back into your days.
So let’s take a look at a few…
Have you ever felt sometimes that your life was going ’round in circles? That you were stuck on some broken record? Repeating the same cycles – the same patterns? I know I have.
And it can be frustrating. Dizzying. Maddening. And hard to know what to do about it.
So what are some options?
Well, maybe it depends on how you look at it…
There are enough limitations in this world.
Physical ones, depending on your age and agility and health at the moment. Existential ones, in terms of having a finite lifespan and knowing that death awaits us somewhere. And the limitations that the dominant social norms of society might like to try to contain you with (prescribing what we’re all “allowed” or “supposed” to do or be in certain situations).
So there’s plenty.
Yet do you find yourself sometimes adding to this list?
Creating even more barriers for yourself?
Arguing for yet more limitations and making a watertight case for why you can’t possibly try or succeed or excel?
(Isn’t there already enough holding you back?)
And is it possible to drop that baggage and move on with a little less weight and a little more possibility?
Have you cast a glance within yourself lately? The world outside, with all its splendour and pain, all its surprises and change, can be so compelling that it’s easy to forget that you are a part of that picture, too.
What’s in you can impact how you respond to what’s out there. It can affect how – and even what – you see in the world… how the world is for you.
So what’s in there, inside you, right now?
They sound like pretty dull words.
And it seems we know best what they mean when things go wrong with them. We hear general statements about what mental health ‘should’ (or ‘shouldn’t’) look like for everyone. So it often seems like a kind of one-size-fits-all expression.
But if you dig a little deeper beneath their surface, buried within these two words lie all manner of riches. And there’s meaning to be found here that’s for you alone.
So grab your shovel and come dig with me for a moment.
How often do you hear yourself thinking this?
Or does this kind of thought feel a bit out of place in your mind? Like it sort of doesn’t belong there. Doesn’t sit comfortably.
(Maybe you’re more used to being visited by its darker twin: “you can’t”…)
Either way, if Henry Ford (1863-1947) was right,
“Whether you think that you can,
or that you can’t,
you are usually right.”
What if that’s true? What if it really matters what you think? What if your mind’s not just some private, secret palace where your inner critic can run rampant, but a kind of place that helps sets the very tone of your life? The possibilities. The dreams. Maybe even the realities.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) thinks so. But it’s not alone. For the idea that maybe our thoughts influence our lives isn’t new (or just some new-age notion). In fact, it dates back hundreds of years, across many cultures.
So how can you draw upon all of these centuries of thought to enhance the life you’re living now? Lets wander back through time a bit and find out.
What’s your relationship with perfectionism like?
Does it sometimes storm in wielding a red pen?
Does it make it hard for you to even begin things sometimes, knowing that it’s waiting to judge you?
Or have you learned to negotiate with it?
There’s something that’s always struck me as a little strange about perfectionism. It assumes completion – that a thing can be finished. Whole. Over. Done. So in a world where it seems that ‘the only constant is change’, perfectionism demands a static ending.
It wants the destination over the journey…
That’s so different from this little handwritten note on an otherwise blank noticeboard in a stiflingly, clinically (‘perfectly’) refurbished waiting room:
“I’m a work in progress”
So how do you want to approach your life?
This chalk drawing on the pavement made me smile as I wandered past it yesterday. And then I noticed the bits of chalk laying alongside it, like an invitation. A chance to add to the picture; to build on what’s already there; to join the dots anew…
And it struck me how easy it can be sometimes to do exactly the opposite in life…
Instead, to sort of stand before the image you’re faced with (the image of your life), and just wish it was different. Or to compare it to some idealized picture of how life ‘should’ be, or ‘could have been.’ Just standing there and willing it to simply change somehow. To be ‘better’ somehow; different somehow.
A funny thing about this kind of wishful thinking is that a lot of it seems to happen in your mind and not so much on the canvas of your life. So getting swept up in reveries of how things would look if they were as they ‘should be’ or ‘might have been’ may actually stop you from clearly seeing what’s actually there right in front of you.
And it might even stop you picking up the chalk…