Accept your beautiful mind

Movie week on the Fiction Therapist continues with A Beautiful Mind.

Although John Nash, a brilliant mathematician suffering from schizophrenia, knows his hallucinations won’t stop, he takes a moment to say goodbye to the characters created by his mind.

A Beautiful Mind. Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. Nominated for eight Academy awards and won four, including best picture.

An excellent example of acceptance appears in A Beautiful Mind, a 2001 movie about John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner in economics. The movie portrays his struggles with psychotic symptoms throughout his life. One of the powerful aspects of this movie is that the viewers see things from John Nash’s perspective and therefore get to experience what it’s like to be overwhelmed by images, thoughts, and feelings that are totally in his mind. As the movie progresses, the viewers, like the main character, experience a change in perspective as the hallucinations are revealed to be passengers on his bus (our wording). That is, the main character starts treating these very convincing, often flattering persons as characters convincing, often flattering persons as characters conjured up by his mind and not what they claim they are: an FBI agent recruiting him for a special assignment or a best friend who rescues him from his loneliness. In a very moving scene toward the end of the film, John tells the images, “I will not be able to speak to you anymore” and walks away. It is understood that although he will no longer be engaging in conversations with them, these characters created by his mind will continue to follow him.

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.

You’re already complete

To commemorate the upcoming Academy Awards, the Fiction Therapist is running a movie week, beginning with a scene from Jerry Maguire.

Jerry Maguire announces to his wife that she ‘completes’ him. Although it’s a touching and brave scene, looking for someone else to complete you can be very unhelpful.

Jerry Maguire. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Tom Cruise. Nominated for five Academy awards in 1996, including best picture.

When it comes to movies, I’m a big sucker for romantic comedies: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, When Harry Met Sally. I just love them. One of my favorites was Jerry Maguire, which gave us the great phrase, “You complete me.” This is the phrase that Jerry Maguire says to his girlfriend at the very end of the movie, to prove how much he loves her—at which point, I suddenly choked on my popcorn!

This is such an unhelpful idea to buy into. If you go along with this myth and act as if you are incomplete without your partner, then you set yourself up for all sorts of problems. You will be needy, dependent, and fearful of being alone, which is not conducive to a healthy, vital relationship.’

Russ Harris. ACT with Love

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
Photo credit: Workload via photopin (license)

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 mystery of mankind

We all use labels to describe who we are – a mother; baker; blonde; lazy – but such narrow definitions limit who we really are and who we can be.

‘Science has dispelled many traditional myths so that we no longer believe them. There are, however, still many mysteries to be solved, especially those that are within us all
Man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The mystery of mankind
photo credit: www.thameralhassan.com Thamer Al-Hassan via photopin cc

As a child, you saw things afresh, but as you grew up, things became familiar and no longer exciting. A rainbow doesn’t get you jumping for joy, washing the dishes isn’t a fun task and you ignore a plane flying past. Mindfulness encourages you to reinvigorate the miracle of being alive and see things with a beginner’s mind. The fact that you’re alive is a huge mystery itself. By being mindful, you can begin to live in this exciting way, as if everything is miraculous.’

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


* 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.

You’re not the story you tell

The story you tell about your life isn’t always accurate. And neither are all your self-judgements. The stories you tell others, and yourself, don’t reflect the real you.

‘You don’t have to look much further than Ira and me to see why we go through life with a generalized sense that everybody is wrong except us. And since we don’t just forget things because they don’t matter but also forget things because they matter too much– because each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint–it’s no wonder that the shards of reality one person will cherish as a biography can seem to someone else who, say, happened to have eaten some ten thousand dinners at the very same kitchen table, to be a willful excursion into mythomania. But then nobody really bothers to send in their fifty bucks for a forty-fifth high school reunion so as to turn up and stage a protest against the other guy’s sense of the-way-it-was; the truly important thing, the supreme delight of the afternoon, is simply finding that you haven’t yet made it onto the “In Memoriam” page.’

Philip Roth. American Pastoral.

You're not your own story
photo credit: loungerie via photopin cc

Is a biography of Nelson Mandela the same thing as Nelson Mandela himself? Clearly not; it is nothing more than a construction of words and pictures. And regardless of how true or false those words are, and regardless of the quality of the photographs, they cannot come close to the richness and fullness of the living human being himself. (If you doubt this, then ask yourself: which would mean most to you – meeting your personal hero, or reading their biography?)

The same principle holds true for all your own self-judgements and self-descriptions; the biography of you is not you. Whether your mind describes you with glowing praise or sums you up with scathing criticism, the words it uses are nothing more than words. And you may recall, in ACT we’re not too interested in whether those words are true or false; what we want to know is: are they helpful? If we allow these thoughts to guide our actions, will that work to make our lives richer and fuller?’

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

Plan for now

You can spend a lot of time planning for next week, next year or even your retirement, hoping things will be better then, never realising how good life is right now.

Twenty five years working for the state
Saved all your money, got a good rate
Always thinking ’bout that pension plan
The day of retirement, the promised land, well

The day of retirement has finally come
Get a gold watch and your work is done
One month later your heart gave out
What was all that planning about?

Well, they finally lay you in the ground
Your wife and the children standing around
Now they got that pension plan
Rather have you, don’t you know it, man

What a way to go
What a way to go

Seasick Steve. What a way to go on the album You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.

This can be a real wake-up call. If like many people you find yourself constantly planning for a future but never really enjoying the present moment, perhaps you can try the practice of savouring the now. This practice is essentially mindful, but with a slight twist – the idea is to tune into the pleasantness of an experience in the moment. Savouring present-moment experiences is one of the core hallmarks of leading a life of wellbeing, and so it’s worth having a go.

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

Lose the labels

We all use labels to describe who we are – a mother; baker; blonde; lazy – but such narrow definitions limit who we really are and who we can be.

‘The preliminary meditations of the aspirant detach his mind and sentiments from the accidents of life and drive him to the core. “I am not that, not that,” he meditates: “not my mother or son who has just died; my body, which is ill or aging; my arm, my eye, my head; not the summation of all these things. I am not my feeling; not my mind; not my power of intuition.” By such meditations he is driven to his own profundity and breaks through, at last, to unfathomable realizations. No man can return from such exercises and take very seriously himself as Mr. So-an-so of Such-and-such a township, U.S.A. — Society and duties drop away.’
Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Lose the labels
photo credit: Kasaa via photopin cc

While we do our best to find ways to describe, interpret, and otherwise work with the experience of being human, we aren’t even close. Whatever labels and deictic frames we have come up with are at best representations of aspects of being human. While it may seem that we are learning more and more about ourselves when we learn to apply such terms as “girl,” “daughter of Mary,” “sister of Tom,” “brunette,” “tall,” and so on, we actually make ourselves (whatever that is) smaller. Each description draws an ever- narrowing boundary around the mysterious combination of energy and matter we have learned to experience and identify as the “I.” In recognizing this process, particularly by detaching from the conceptualized self, we can come closer to freeing ourselves from these verbally created constraints. In recognizing that our self-identity is a luck-of-the-draw construction (we could have been taught that we are worthless, or we could have been taught that we are magnificent), we are free to decide who we want to be in this moment and the next.’

Darrah Westrup. Advanced Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Experienced Practitioner’s Guide to Optimizing Delivery.


* 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 problem with self-judgement

Your mind will always judge you. It’s what a normal mind does. It’s more important to look at your actions, learn from them and let those judgemental thoughts just drift by.

 

The problem with self-judgement
photo credit: oliochelle via photopin cc

‘When he was a small boy Nilssen had stolen a precious button from his cousin’s treasure chest. It was a cuff button from a military jacket, brass in colour, and engraved with the lithe body of a fox, running forward with its jaws parted and its ears cocked back. The button was domed, and greyer on one side than on the other, as if the wearer had tended to caress its edge with his finger, and over time had worn the shine away. Cousin Magnus had rickets and a bandy-legged gait: he would die soon, so he did not have to share his toys. But Nilssen’s longing for the button became so great that one night when Magnus was sleeping he crept in, unlatched the chest, and stole it; he walked about the darkened nursery for a while, fingering the thing, testing its weight, running his finger over the body of the fox, feeling the brass take on the warmth of his hand—until something overcame him, not remorse exactly, but a dawning fatigue, an emptiness, and he returned the button to the place where he had found it. Cousin Magnus never knew. Nobody knew. But for months and years and even decades afterwards, long after Cousin Magnus was dead, that theft was as a splinter in his heart. He saw the moonlit nursery every time he spoke his cousin’s name; he blushed at nothing; he sometimes pinched himself, or uttered an oath, at the memory. For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done—a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.’

 

Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries.

 

When we make a mistake, or things go wrong, it’s important to assess our actions; to reflect on what we did and what the results were. This is step 3 of the Confidence Cycle: ‘assess the results’. We want to take a good, honest look at what we did, and assess it in terms of ‘workability’. Workability refers to this question: Is what you are doing working to give you a rich and fulfilling life?) But this is very different to judging ourselves. Assessing our actions is workable. Judging ourselves is not. Here’s an example to draw out the difference.

 

Assessing my actions:
‘When I got caught up in worrying about the shot, and lost my focus on the ball, I threw poorly and missed the basket.’

Judging myself:
‘I am such a lousy basketball player.’

 

So self-acceptance does not mean that we pay no attention to the way we behave and the impact of our actions; it simply means we let go of blanket self-judgements. Why would we do this? Because judging ourselves does not help us in any way; it does not work to make our life richer and fuller.’

 

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap.

Follow your values

It’s difficult to live the life you want to live when your thoughts tell you to go in another direction. Be brave and let your values guide you. You don’t have to follow your mind.

It’s easy to risk her life, and even easier to get herself killed. What takes real courage is choosing to live, choosing to save herself at all costs. Which means looking into her darkness and pain, and figuring out how she got there, and how she can get out.

Kira Salak. The White Mary: a novel.

© Jim Dempsey 2015
© Jim Dempsey 2015

If we remember that the point of the therapy is to help clients get unstuck (in other words, to have psychological flexibility), then it follows that a client who learns she can make value-based behavioral choices despite the presence or potential appearance of aversive private events—who, in short, can choose to live life in the way she wants to be living—has received what ACT has to offer. Such a person may not fully grasp why she is not her thoughts so much as that her thoughts (and feelings and bodily sensations) are not in charge. She may have come to learn that she can hold uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without needing to avoid or control them. These discoveries in turn free her up to make choices based on something besides the thoughts or feelings of the moment (or the past or perceived future). All good.

Darrah Westrup. Advanced Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Experienced Practitioner’s Guide to Optimizing Delivery.