Sometimes you need to pause

A pause, even a long break, can be good to gather your thoughts and decide where you want to go next.

‘A pause at the top, you need a pause at the top to generate momentum.’

John Updike. Rabbit is Rich.

Sometimes you need to pause
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Sometimes our minds say really unhelpful things that are best left unsaid. Sometimes we hold ourselves back from saying what is important because our minds tell us we will look stupid. Instead I would like to encourage you to communicate thoughtfully. To ask yourself what you want to achieve, and then what you need to say and do in order to make that outcome more likely. It is okay to pause.

Paul E. Flaxman, Frank W. Bond, and Fredrik Livheim. The Mindful and Effective Employee: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Training Manual for Improving Well-being and Performance.

Mindful listening

Movie week on the Fiction Therapist continues with Shall We Dance.

You often know the answer to your problems, but sometimes you need someone to listen while you work out the solution. Sometimes you need a witness. Other times, you need to wtiness.

There is a scene that has always touched me in the movie Shall We Dance? A man whose marriage has ended asks, “Why do people get married?” His companion says, “Because we need a witness to our lives. You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will witness it.’”

There is a Buddhist recitation for invoking compassion, and it highlights the role of listening in caring for others. “We shall practice listening so attentively that we are able to hear what the other is saying—and also what is left unsaid. We know that by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other.”

Therapists trained in absorptive listening say that it can, by itself, catalyze healing. There are types of therapy in which the therapist does not say anything, letting the wisdom emerge from clients as they listen to themselves talk.

Jan Chozen Bays. How to Train a Wild Elephant.

Make a perfect mess

Striving for perfection won’t help you achieve your goals. Taking committed action and doing what you believe in will help you to live the life you want to lead.

‘Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.’

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird.

Make a perfect mess
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In ACT, we don’t spout perfectionist slogans like ‘never quit’, ‘never give up’, ‘always do your best’. They sound good in theory, but in reality, no human can possibly live up to these ideals. The philosopher Haridas Chaudhuri said it succinctly: ‘The greater the emphasis on perfection, the further it recedes.’

In ACT, we encourage acceptance of the reality that we’re all imperfect – and yes, there will be times that we quit, give up, or get lost. And at the same time we also encourage commitment: to get better at staying on track for longer periods, better at catching ourselves when we go off course, and better at starting again from where we are.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

The benefits of a smile

A smile, even a fake smile, can have many positive effects on the people around you, such as gaining trust and making new friends. It might even make you feel a lot better too.

The benefits of a smile
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He shouted for silence from his companions, and then turned to me with the widest and most radiant smile I’d ever seen.

‘Good mornings, great sirs!’ he greeted us. ‘Welcome in Bombay! You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn’t it?’

He stared straight into my eyes, that enormous smile not wavering. There was something in the disk of his smile—a kind of mischievous exuberance, more honest and more excited than mere happiness—that pierced me to the heart. It was the work of a second, the eye contact between us. It was just long enough for me to decide to trust him—the little man with the big smile. I didn’t know it then, but it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram.

Have you noticed that people who smile tend to be surrounded by a lot of people (and it’s not because they’re thinking, ‘What’s that wise guy smiling about?’)? The reason is that being in their company is pleasant. After all, you broadcast your emotional state from your facial expression. Some researchers have discovered links between how intensively people smile and the quality of their relationships, and even claim to be able to predict how long people will live from old photographs of people smiling.

Also, when you focus on smiling, you reduce your stress levels, encouraging more peaceful and relaxed sensations. By putting a smile on your face, you automatically begin to lift your mood. You don’t even have to be genuinely smiling – begin by just faking it and see what happens!

Shamash Alidina. Mindfulness for dummies.

What happens next?

We act based on our experience, on our expectation of what might happen next. It is only when we take action, though, that we finally know the truth of what actually happens.

What happens next
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We believe we’re free to make any decision whatsoever to take any action whatsoever. But every choice and action we make and take, spontaneous or deliberate, is rooted in the sum total of our experience, in what has happened to us in actuality, imagination, or dream to that moment. We then choose to act based on what this gathering of life tells us will be the probable reaction from our world. It’s only then, when we take action, that we discover necessity.

Necessity is absolute truth. Necessity is what in fact happens when we act. This truth is known and can only be known—when we take action into the depth and breadth of our world and brave its reaction. This reaction is the truth of our existence at that precise moment, no matter what we believed the moment before. Necessity is what must and does actually happen, as opposed to probability, which is what we hope or expect to happen.

Robert McKee. Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and endless plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.’

W.H. Murray (partially quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) The Scottish Himalayan Expedition 1951. Cited in: Get out of Your Mind and into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith.

Jump that threshold

When confronted with the unknown, you don’t have to continue with your old way of life. Take the bold step, like a mythological hero, and cross the threshold into a new way of living.

Jump that threshold
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The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Life is asking you a question. The question was once mumbled, misunderstood, or nearly inaudible. It’s not surprising that you haven’t answered yes, but, unfortunately, failing to answer or answering no have nearly the same results, and they have those results whether you know that you are being asked a question or not.

It’s time to begin to jump. Answering yes to the life question, no matter how narrowly it’s cast, is such a jump. It is a jump into the unknown. It is a jump into a world in which getting rid of or managing your own history is no longer required in order to begin to live the life you truly want to live. It is a world of self-acceptance, openness, ambiguity of content, and clarity of purpose. It is a world of psychological flexibility, in which you let go of the struggle, give up and live, less concerned about being right than being alive.

You do not have to say yes. Life will accept either answer. There is, however, a cost to silence or to saying no. Indeed, you’ve been experiencing those costs. Your pain is your biggest ally here. Have you suffered enough? Have you?

We don’t want to scare you. You don’t have to begin by jumping from the Empire State Building. You can jump off a sheet of paper, or a thin paperback book. But if you are going to start, you must start.

Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith. Get out of your mind and into your life: the new acceptance and 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.

Dealing with your partner’s flaws

When we get to know someone very well, we also see their imperfections. For a healthy relationship, it’s important not to dwell on those negative thoughts.

‘I feel like Amy wanted people to believe she really was perfect. And as we got to be friends, I got to know her. And she wasn’t perfect. You know? She was brilliant and charming and all that, but she was also controlling and OCD and a drama queen and a bit of a liar. Which was fine by me. It just wasn’t fine by her. She got rid of me because I knew she wasn’t perfect…Friends see most of each other’s flaws. Spouses see every awful last bit.’

Gillian Flynn. Gone Girl.

‘Truth is, there’s no such thing as the perfect partner, just as there’s no such thing as the perfect couple. (As the old joke goes, there are only two types of couples: those who have a wonderful relationship, and ACT with love 10 those whom you know really well.) But how hard is it to truly let go of this idea? How hard is it to stop comparing your partner to others? To stop fantasizing about the partner you could have had, or would have had, or should have had? Or about the partner you really did have, but for one reason or another it didn’t last? How hard is it to stop dwelling on your partner’s faults and flaws and shortcomings, and thinking about how life would be so much better if only your partner would change?

‘Answer: very hard indeed, for most normal human beings. But it doesn’t have to remain that way. Change is possible, if you want it. Let’s just take a moment to look at what it is costing you to get all caught up in these patterns of thinking. How much frustration, anger, and disappointment does it create for you? Of course, I’m not advocating that you let your partner do as she pleases, whenever she wants, without any consideration for you; that would not give rise to a healthy, vital relationship. What I am advocating is that you take an honest look at your own internalized beliefs about how your partner should behave and what your relationship should be like; notice all the negative judgments you make about your partner and your relationship; and notice how these thoughts affect you when you get caught up in them. Are they helping your relationship or harming it?’

Russ Harris. Act with Love.

The responsibility to be yourself

When you take responsibility – the ability to respond – you can stop blaming others and finally become the creative, innovative person you have always been.

The responsibility to be yourself
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If the first requirement of an adult is that he should take to himself responsibility for his failures, for his life, and for his doing, within the context of the actual conditions of the world in which he dwells, then it is simply an elementary psychological fact that no one will ever develop to this state who is continually thinking of what a great thing he would have been had only the conditions of his life been different: his parents less indifferent to his needs, society less oppressive, or the universe otherwise arranged. The first requirement of any society is that its adult membership should realize and represent the fact that it is they who constitute its life and being. And the first function of the rites of puberty, accordingly, must be to establish in the individual a system of sentiments that will be appropriate to the society in which he is to live, and on which that society itself must depend for its existence.

In the modern Western world, moreover, there is an additional complication; for we ask of the adult something still more than that he should accept without personal criticism and judgment the habits and inherited customs of his local social group. We ask and we are expecting, rather, that he should develop what Sigmund Freud has called his “reality function”: that faculty of the independently observant, freely thinking individual who can evaluate without preconceptions the possibilities of his environment and of himself within it, criticizing and creating, not simply reproducing inherited patterns of thought and action, but becoming himself an innovating center, an active, creative center of the life process.

Joseph Campbell. Myths to Live By (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell).

In [one example, a] person realized over time that having or not having a job was his response-ability#, even though his father had hit him and then abandoned the family. This man explained that deep inside he had struggled with whether or not he was to blame for hanging in there for so long and not standing up to his father. He had put all this adult responsibility on the child he was then. Staying stuck in this cycle of blame was interfering with his ability to be effective now. The discussion on focusing on response-ability instead of blame allowed him to feel more empowered to take control of his life. It became an issue of letting go of being right so that he could build a stable life for his family, something he valued.

Who would you be now if you could let go of the struggle with judgment, blame, being right (or wrong), and all the other passengers on your bus? What if you begin to have compassion and acceptance for yourself? For many trauma survivors, the first step in this direction is to begin to identify a sense of self—the you who has always been present.

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding life beyond trauma: using acceptance and commitment therapy to heal from post-traumatic stress and trauma-related problems.

# The root of the word responsibility is actually “response-ability” or the ability to respond (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999). This ability is something that can empower people to take control over their lives.


* 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.

Commitment and the call to adventure

The commitment part of acceptance and commitment therapy can mean taking a leap into the unknown, very much like the heroes of ancient myths, and even modern day stories.

Commitment and the call to adventureThe first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated the ‘call to adventure’—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from the pale of his society to a zone unknown…[a] fateful region of both treasure and danger.

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The job of the therapist is to create situations in which the clients engage in a leap of faith into a future that is unknown and—to the best they can tell—in the direction of their values. A leap of faith implies the willingness to have whatever happens when one makes that leap, to touch down wherever one lands.

Jason B. Luoma, Steven C. Hayes, and Robyn D. Walser. Learning ACT: An Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Skills-training Manual for Therapists.