Santa and other fun fairy tales

Remember when you believed in Santa? It was great fun, and then you grew up. Our beliefs change over time, we don’t have to hold onto them too firmly.

Santa Claus and other fun fairy tales
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This is even after the Easter Bunny turned out to be a lie. Even after Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and Saint Christopher and Newtonian physics and the Niels Bohr model of the atom, this stupid, stupid kid still believed the Mommy

Someday, when he’s grown up, the Mommy tells the shadow, the kid will come back here and see how he’s grown into the exact outline she’d planned for him this night.

It wasn’t until years later, until this stupid little loser was through college with honors and he’d busted his hump to get into the University of Southern California School of Medicine—until he was twenty-four years old and in his second year of medical school, when his mother was diagnosed and he was named as her guardian—it wasn’t until then that it dawned on this little stooge that growing strong and rich and smart was only the first half of your life story.

Chuck Palahniuk. Choke.

At some point you probably used to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy or dragons, goblins and vampires. And almost everyone changes some of their beliefs about religion, politics, money, family or health at some point, as they grow older. So by all means, have your beliefs— but hold them lightly. Keep in mind that all beliefs are stories, whether or not they’re ‘true’.

Russ Harris. The Happiness Trap.

Don’t take your thoughts too seriously

Even funny stories and myths can help us see the truth behind negative thoughts. Comedy shows us that we don’t always have to take out thoughts too seriously.

‘Myth is a directing of the mind and heart, by means of profoundly informed figurations, to that ultimate mystery which fills and surrounds all existences. Even in the most comical and apparently frivolous of its moments, mythology is directing the mind to this unmanifest which is just beyond the eye.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Don’t take your thoughts too seriously
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Ask the client to choose a cartoon character he thinks might represent or symbolize how he feels or behaves, and particularly a character he could never take seriously. Using thoughts that are typically sticky for the client (i.e., that prevent psychological lexibility or pull him away from his values), have him imagine these thoughts being spoken in the voice of that cartoon character. For example, a client who’s anxious and detail oriented might pick Brainy Smurf because Brainy is always worrying over every little thing, yet the other Smurfs dismiss him and never take him seriously. In this case, ask the client to hear his negative thoughts in Brainy’s annoying but comical voice.

The hope is that the client won’t be able to take those thoughts seriously. Instead, he will see that it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong, and that he has a choice about whether to attend to them or not.’

Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari (eds.). The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy.

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Don’t trust your memory

You can see the scene clearly in your mind, you can play it like a movie, but does your memory of the event give a true picture of what really happened? Probably not.

‘As they toiled towards land, Morgan, who was sitting with Goldie at the rear of the little boat, saw Searight at the front, next to the Indian passenger, and suddenly an unsettling memory came back to him.

We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise
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‘I wonder why Searight wanted to kill him,’ he said.

‘What?’ Goldie said. ‘Whatever do you mean?’

He reminded Goldie of the incident, which had occurred nearly two weeks before, at Port Said. A strange story had gone around the ship: the Indian had reported his cabin-mate to the steward for wanting to throw him overboard, but then the two of them had made it up and became the best of friends again. Morgan hadn’t thought much about it at the time, but now it had returned to him, in the shape of this troubling question.

Goldie blinked in confusion. ‘Oh, but you’re mistaken,’ he said. ‘That wasn’t Searight.’


‘No, certainly not. It was Searight who told the story to me.’

Of course,’ Morgan said, suddenly very embarrassed. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’

It was a leap of logic to assume that Searight was sharing a cabin with the Indian; such an arrangement was unlikely. Morgan didn’t know how the idea had come to him. But afterwards, even when he knew it was untrue, he continued to be fascinated by what he’d imagined.

Damon Galgut. Arctic Summer.

Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear, in reality these records can be remarkably scanty. What we retrieve often is filled in based on gist, inference, and other influences; it is more like an improvised riff on a familiar melody than a digital recording of an original performance. We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise, and we cannot readily separate those aspects of our memory that accurately reflect what happened from those that were introduced later.

Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us.

Tune out of your bad thoughts

Unpleasant thoughts can fill your head like a radio station that only broadcasts bad news. Let those thoughts disappear into the background like you’ve turned the radio down low.

Tune out of your bad thoughts.
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‘He … switches on the radio to shut off their conversation. The four-thirty news: earthquake in Hawaii, kidnapping of two American businessmen in El Salvador, Soviet tanks patrolling the streets of Kabul in the wake of last Sunday’s mysterious change of leadership in Afghanistan. In Mexico, a natural-gas pact with the United States signals possible long-term relief for the energy crisis. In California, ten days of brush fire have destroyed more acres than any such fire since 1970. In Philadelphia, publishing magnate Walter Annenberg has donated fifty thousand dollars to the Catholic Archdiocese to help defray costs of the controversial platform from which Pope John Paul the Second is scheduled to celebrate Mass on October the third.’

John Updike. Rabbit is Rich.

Our mind is a bit like a radio, constantly playing in the background. Most of the time it’s the Radio Doom and Gloom Show, broadcasting negative stories twenty-four hours every day. It reminds us of bad things from the past (You really screwed up there!), it warns us of bad things to come in the future (You’re going to fail again!), and it gives us regular updates on everything that’s wrong with us (Your life’s a mess!). Once in a while it broadcasts something useful or cheerful, but not too often. So if we’re constantly tuned in to this radio, listening to it intently and, worse, believing everything we hear, then we have a sure-fire recipe for stress and misery.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to switch off this radio. Even Zen masters are unable to achieve such a feat. Sometimes the radio will stop of its own accord for a few seconds (or even—very rarely—for a few minutes). But we just don’t have the power to make it stop (unless we short-circuit it with drugs, alcohol, or brain surgery). In fact, generally speaking, the more we try to make this radio stop, the louder it plays.

But there is an alternative approach. Have you ever had a radio playing in the background, but you were so intent on what you were doing that you didn’t really listen to it? You could hear the radio playing, but you weren’t paying attention to it. In practicing defusion skills, we are ultimately aiming to do precisely that with our thoughts. Once we know that thoughts are just bits of language, we can treat them like background noise—we can let them come and go without focusing on them and without being bothered by them.’

Russ Harris. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Introductory Workshop Handout.

Myths and metaphors reveal all

Metaphors, like myths, stimulate feelings and thoughts that the mind can comprehend, clarifying concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.

Metaphors, like myths, stimulate feelings and thoughts that the mind can comprehend, clarifying concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.
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‘To grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world—all things and beings—are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.

The apprehension of the source of this undifferentiated yet everywhere particularized substratum of being is rendered frustrate by the very organs through which the apprehension must be accomplished. The forms of sensibility and the categories of human thought, which are themselves manifestations of this power, so confine the mind that it is normally impossible not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle. The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump—by analogy. Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Metaphors make abstract concepts concrete by providing a rich verbal context that evokes thoughts, feelings, and behaviors similar to those evoked by the client’s actual situation.

The story-like quality of metaphors has the advantage of providing instructive lessons that are rich in emotional and perceptual detail, mimicking direct contact with the environment and making the experience more memorable. Metaphors create a verbal world where clients can explore new behaviors and discover the contingencies for themselves, circumventing the potential traps of learning by rules. Metaphors also draw attention to salient features of a situation that may go unnoticed in clients’ real-world environment, thus liberating them from the cage built by language.

Matthieu Villatte, Jennifer L. Villatte and Jean-Louis Monestès, in The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. (Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari (eds.).

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Where psychology meets mythology

Symbols, metaphors and myths help us understand complex ideas, and psychologists can use them to help us heal or unravel their meaning when there is confusion.

Where psychology meets mythology
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‘Mythology is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. The modern psychologist can translate it back to its proper denotations and thus rescue for the contemporary world a rich and eloquent document of the profoundest depths of human character. Exhibited here, as in a fluoroscope, stand revealed the hidden processes of the enigma Homo sapiens—Occidental and Oriental, primitive and civilized, contemporary and archaic. The entire spectacle is before us. We have only to read it, study its constant patterns, analyze its variations, and therewith come to an understanding of the deep forces that have shaped man’s destiny and must continue to determine both our private and our public lives.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

As this tribal species called human beings learned to use symbols, the capacity for reason, problem solving, and imagination grew. We added new cognitive relations. Cultural development began with a vengeance.

The accelerator in that process was metaphor. Through metaphor, we could take an existing network of knowledge, the vehicle, and bring it to bear on a new domain, the target. If the vehicle contained relations and functions that were missing in the target, and if the link between the two was apt, entire networks of knowledge could be transferred to new areas in the length of time it took to tell a story or draw an analogy.

With that new process in hand, we had the cognitive tool we needed to transform human life. We could construct subtle differences, or extend similar forms.

The importance of this process to human knowledge and human development is revealed in the ubiquity of frozen metaphors, such as those I have just described. But it is also revealed in how extensively we use stories and metaphors within education and in psychotherapy.

Good psychotherapists are good storytellers. They know how to open clients up to what is truly new by using knowledge that is old. They know how to create experiences that inform and heal.

Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari. The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

The perfect personality

The best stories describe a character’s struggle to overcome the flaws in their personality. In reality, perfection doesn’t have to be so difficult to achieve.

The perfect personality
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‘In most modern stories it is the Hero’s personality that is being recreated or restored to wholeness. The missing piece may be a critical element of personality such as the ability to love or trust. Heroes may have to overcome some problem such as lack of patience or decisiveness. Audiences love watching Heroes grapple with personality problems and overcome them. Will Edward, the rich but cold-hearted businessman of Pretty Woman, warm up under the influence of the life-loving Vivian and become her Prince Charming? Will Vivian gain some self-respect and escape her life of prostitution? Will Conrad, the guilt-ridden teenager in Ordinary People, regain his lost ability to accept love and intimacy?’

Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey.

It can be worthwhile to tell the client about the etymology of perfect. The first part of the word (per) comes from a term that means “thoroughly.” Fect comes from the same root as the word factory and means “made.” In normal language, wholeness and perfection seem to be issues of evaluation. If to be perfect is to be thoroughly made, perhaps perfection is more a matter of presence or wholeness. The idea “I am missing something” also comes in a moment that is always absolutely whole. No second contains more life than any other second, even the seconds that are filled with thoughts of how incomplete we are. The experience of that very thought can be complete.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.

Observe your river of thoughts

Take time to observe your thoughts, to listen to them and watch them as they pass by. Try not to get caught up in them, or let them pull you away into their stream.

Observe your river of thoughts
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He began to pay careful attention to his thoughts and ideas, and to admire them. For example, it occurred to him that if he were to die, the world in which he had been living would cease to exist. At first, this thought just flashed through his mind, but aware now of his inner originality, he did not let the thought escape as so many other ideas had done earlier. He grasped it, observed it, examined it from all sides.

He was walking along the river; now and again he would close his eyes and ask himself whether the river existed even when his eyes were closed. Of course, every time he opened his eyes the river continued to flow before him, but the remarkable thing was that this in no way proved it was there when Jaromil was not looking at it. This seemed extremely interesting to him, he spent the better part of a day on this experiment and then told Maman all about it.’

Milan Kundera. Life is Elsewhere. Translated by Peter Kussi.

‘As you observe thoughts or feelings, you’re separate from them in a sense, because you’re watching them. It’s like sitting on a riverbank as the water rushes by rather than being in the river itself. As you watch the water (emotion or thought) pass by, you may sometimes feel like you’ve been sucked into the river and washed downstream. But you’re not the river itself. You can simply step back out of the river again. De-centring is an important aspect of mindfulness.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook for Dummies.

Break through your NaNoWriMo barriers

After seven days of NaNoWriMo, many writers, like their heroes, will be facing their own obstacles. The key is to be flexible as you follow your path and achieve your ultimate goal.

Break through your NaNoWriMo barriers
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All heroes encounter obstacles on the road to adventure. At each gateway to a new world there are powerful guardians at the threshold, placed to keep the unworthy from entering. They present a menacing face to the hero, but if properly understood, they can be overcome, bypassed, or even turned into allies. Many heroes (and many writers) encounter Threshold Guardians, and understanding their nature can help determine how to handle them.

Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

In the process of engaging in life-goal directed activities, clients inevitably encounter barriers. Most of the time, they are related to anxiety-related concerns that literally seem to hold clients back. An important recurrent task for therapists … is to help clients handle barriers to committed action and focus on making and keeping action commitments and on recommitting to action after they have broken a commitment. The focus is on teaching clients how to move with potential barriers rather than try to overcome or push through them. Therapists constantly encourage clients to stay with difficult situations, unpleasant feelings, thoughts, and other anxiety-related barriers to valued living by practicing mindful acceptance and defusion skills. The major goal here is to help clients develop more flexible patterns of behavior when relating with the stimuli, events, and situations that elicit fear or anxiety.

Georg H. Eifert, John P. Forsyth, Joanna Arch, Emmanuel Espejo and David Langer. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Three Case Studies Exemplifying a Unified Treatment Protocol.