Be the chessboard, not the pieces

Our thoughts can be like a chess game, a constant battle between two sides. We could also choose not to always play those pieces and be the chessboard instead.

Be the chessboard, not the pieces
photo credit: Charley Lhasa via photopin cc

I set out the chess board. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.”

Raymond Chandler. The Long Goodbye: A Novel (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

The Chessboard Metaphor, a central ACT intervention, connects the client to the distinction between content and the observing self:

Imagine a chessboard that goes out infinitely in all directions. It’s covered with black pieces and white pieces. They work together in teams, as in chess—the white pieces fight against the black pieces. You can think of your thoughts and feelings and beliefs as these pieces; they sort of hang out together in teams too. For example, “bad” feelings (like anxiety, depression, resentment) hang out with “bad” thoughts and “bad” memories. Same thing with the “good” ones. So it seems that the way the game is played is that we select the side we want to win. We put the “good” pieces (like thoughts that are self-confident, feelings of being in control, etc.) on one side, and the “bad” pieces on the other. Then we get up on the back of the black horse and ride to battle, fighting to win the war against anxiety, depression, thoughts about using drugs, whatever. It’s a war game. But there’s a logical problem here, and that is that from this posture huge portions of yourself are your own enemy. In other words, if you need to be in this war, there is something wrong with you. And because it appears that you’re on the same level as these pieces, they can be as big or even bigger than you are—even though these pieces are in you. So somehow, even though it is not logical, the more you fight the bigger they get. If it is true that “if you are not willing to have it, you’ve got it,” then as you fight these pieces they become more central to your life, more habitual, more dominating, and more linked to every area of living. The logical idea is that you will knock enough of them off the board that you eventually dominate them—except that your experience tells you that the exact opposite happens. Apparently, the white pieces can’t be deliberately knocked off the board. So the battle goes on. You feel hopeless, you have a sense that you can’t win, and yet you can’t stop fighting. If you’re on the back of that black horse, fighting is the only choice you have, because the white pieces seem life threatening. Yet living in a war zone is no way to live.

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

Failure is only a word

Frustrated by rejection, new authors can feel like failures. Their feelings of impatience, even anxiety, can lead to bad career decisions. Or to even give up on their dream.

Failure is only a word
photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc

Frustrated newcomers can begin to do silly things to get the attention of publishing pros. A friend who edits romances for a major paperback publisher told me how at one conference an overeager author followed her into the ladies room—right into an empty stall—in order to pitch her manuscript. Did it work? No way!

Typically, authors express their anxiety in more subtle ways.

What is this anxiety really about? It can be experienced as the desperate feeling that no one in book publishing cares a damn about you or your manuscript. One can feel it as anger over slush piles (stacks of unrequested, waiting-to-be-read manuscripts), fury over long response times, frustration with uncaring editors or agents—one can even begin to resent the success of others. What began as bliss can turn to utter misery.

I would like to suggest that these overt signs of anxiety actually mask fears of a more fundamental sort. One is the fear of failure, the terrifying possibility that one has wasted years of one’s life. A second is the fear of humiliation—so many expectations to fulfill!
Especially one’s own!

Most fundamental of all, I believe, is the anxiety that derives from the need for validation. Above all things, writers want acceptance. They long to be judged worthy of publication. They want to be assured that they are not crazy. They need to know that all this time and effort have not been for nothing. If the breaking-in period becomes too lengthy or too frustrating, most writers will sooner or later get desperate. Some will start to avoid the whole process, refusing to push themselves. Others will keep at it doggedly but cynically, losing all excitement and hope.

That is too bad, because that kind of burnout can lead to ill-considered career decisions. And, these days, there is little room for error in the big, bad world of book publishing.

Donald Maass. The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success

James, a single, 31-year-old Caucasian male, is an aspiring actor and screenwriter…It became clear during the initial treatment sessions that it was his dissatisfaction with the current state of his life that was most distressing for James. He was frustrated with the lack of progress in his career and was struggling with thoughts of not having accomplished enough to this point in his life and fears of being a “failure.”

Through a series of direct experiential exercises in session, James gradually became less emotionally reactive to the word “failure.” For example, when presented with the word “failure” written on a flash card, James reported wanting to rip up the card and throw it in the trash. The therapist then asked James whether he was willing to put the card in his lap, simply read it, let it be, and have the card touch him as a thought. James agreed and was surprised to notice that he could do this without getting tangled up in what the card says. He was also willing to take the card with him over the next week everywhere he went. In addition, James and his therapist did an exercise in which they rapidly repeated the word “failure” for approximately 30 seconds while observing what happens to the quality of the word when doing so. James reported that after saying the word repeatedly “failure” was reduced to merely a string of almost unrecognizable sounds and he could see that it was ultimately just a word.

Exercises such as this helped James to become a better observer of his own thinking and he learned that he does not have to take his thoughts, even historically difficult thoughts, so seriously and do what they say. For example, during the course of treatment James completed his screenplay and put together a team of actors to present his screenplay to an audience for the very first time, despite experiencing occasional thoughts of failing throughout the process.

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

Discover your moral compass

Your thoughts and emotions are not the best guides. Discovering what truly matters to you – your values – will give you a more stable direction in life.

The Ambassadors by Henry James
The Ambassadors

If ever a man had come off tired Lambert Strether was that man; and hadn’t it been distinctly on the ground of his fatigue that his wonderful friend at home had so felt for him and so contrived? It seemed to him somehow at these instants that, could he only maintain with sufficient firmness his grasp of that truth, it might become in a manner his compass and his helm.”
Henry James. The Ambassadors

‘Thoughts about the past, emotions, bodily states, and the like are often very poor guides to action, especially when they are viewed in the contexts of literality, control, and reason giving. Chosen values provide a far more stable compass reading. This is true because thoughts and feelings often lead in contradictory directions, and they invite a focus on irrelevant process goals (e.g., getting rid of a certain feeling or having only certain thoughts). Values can motivate behavior even in the face of tremendous personal adversity.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists

It’s not what you feel, it’s how you feel it.

Instead of trying to change or avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, try to change how you feel about your experiences.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds

‘I had less and less control over my own history each day. I suppose I could have made some kind of effort. It should have been easy to trace: this happened, I was here, that happened next, all of which led inevitably to the present moment. I could have picked up a handful of dirt from the street outside, some wax from a candle on the altarpiece, ash from the incense as it swung past. I could have wrung it out, hoping I might find an essential thing that would give meaning to this place or that time. I did not. Certainty had surrendered all its territory in my mind. I’d have just been left with a mess in my hands anyway, no more. I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.’

Kevin Powers. The Yellow Birds.

‘Finding a way to transcend the content of thoughts and other internal events may be the most useful strategy for being able to start living life after surviving a traumatic experience. Because of the power of language, we know that initially you may start avoiding one or two things that remind you of your trauma, but, over time, a wider circle of events will start having the same impact on you. Chances are, you’ve already noticed this impact of an ever-widening circle of things that cannot happen, places that you can’t go, people you feel you shouldn’t see, or things you cannot talk about. Eventually, you may simply be wracked with tension and no longer able to trace it all the way back to the original trauma. That’s the impact of language: Events, including mental events such as thoughts and feelings, start having the same impact on you as the trauma itself.

‘Your life can become about something other than trying to get away from a big part of yourself: your memories, your feelings, your thoughts, your own bodily sensations—basically, the passengers on your bus. In ACT, instead of changing what you experience (thoughts, feelings, memories), we focus on changing how you experience them. If you can experience all aspects of yourself with awareness and without all the pitfalls associated with language, you can begin to move forward in ways that are consistent with values and goals in your life.’

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.

Don’t be bullied by your thoughts

You don’t have to let your thoughts lead the way. Find out what’s important to you, what truly matters to you, and let those values guide your actions.

The Writers Journey by Christopher VoglerTom Dunson, played by John Wayne in the classic Western Red River, makes a terrible moral error early in his career as a cattleman, by choosing to value his mission more than his love, and following his head rather than his heart. This choice leads to the death of his lover, and for the rest of the story he bears the psychic scars of that wound. His suppressed guilt makes him more and more harsh, autocratic, and judgmental, and almost brings him and his adopted son to destruction before the wound is healed by letting love back into his life.

A hero’s wounds may not be visible. People put a great deal of energy into protecting and hiding these weak and vulnerable spots. But in a fully developed character they will be apparent in the areas where she is touchy, defensive, or a little too confident. The wound may never be openly expressed to the audience — it can be a secret between the writer and the character. But it will help give the hero a sense of personal history and realism, for we all bear some scars from past humiliations, rejections, disappointments, abandonments, and failures. Many stories are about the journey to heal a wound and to restore a missing piece to a broken psyche.

Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition.
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Often we know full well when we’re making excuses—we just need to be honest with ourselves. But if you’ve set a valued goal, and your mind gives you a reason not to attempt it, sometimes it’s not so clear that this is just an excuse. So if you’re genuinely unsure whether the thought is merely an excuse for inaction, or a statement of fact about something that truly is impossible, just ask yourself this question: ‘If the person you care about more than anyone else in the world were kidnapped, and the kidnappers told you they will never release that person until you take a particular action toward your goals, would you then take action?’ If the answer is yes, then you know that any reason (for not taking that action) is merely an excuse.

‘Ah, yes,’ you may be saying, ‘but that’s just a silly hypothetical question. In the real world, the person I love has not been kidnapped.’

Right you are. But what’s at stake in the real world is something equally important: your life! Do you want to live a life in which you do the things that are really meaningful to you? Or do you want to live a life of drifting aimlessly, letting your demons run the ship?

‘Okay,’ I hear you say. ‘I agree that I could attempt this goal, but it’s not that important to me.’

The question here is, are you being honest with yourself? Or are you just buying into another thought? If the goal you’re avoiding is truly unimportant to you, fine, don’t attempt it. But make sure you check in with your values. And if this goal really is something you value, then you are faced with a choice: either act in accordance with what you value, or let yourself be pushed around by your own thoughts.

Russell Harris. Introductory Workshop Handout.

How to observe your own thoughts

Sometimes, when life gets a little too ‘soap opera’, it can be useful to step back and observe your thoughts and emotions.

Choke by Chuck PalahniukAt this point, how my life starts to feel is like I’m acting in a soap opera being watched by people on a soap opera being watched by people on a soap opera being watched by real people, somewhere.

Chuck Palahniuk. Choke

‘Once you’re relaxed, imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater. This is your own private theater. It’s safe and no one else is in it. You’re sitting several rows back from the screen, and it’s comfortably dark. Up on the screen you begin to see the thoughts, emotions, memories, and sensations that pass through your awareness.

Just sit and watch. Don’t follow any particular thought or emotion into the screen, just as you wouldn’t try to jump into the screen during a movie. Just watch without judgment, reaction, or distraction

As you observe your big deal mind, simply take note of what it presents; simply watch and name. Notice which thoughts have a pull on your attention and emotions. And also note any physical sensations you experience. Stay with this for a few minutes before moving on to the next part of the practice.

Now imagine that there’s another ‘you’ in this theater, sitting all the way in the back of the theater, in the very last row directly behind the first you. This second you is just sitting there watching the you up front, who is still just watching the screen.

Stay with this for a few minutes and notice what happens, paying particular attention to your emotional, physical, and mental reactions.

Now imagine that there is a third you, standing back the door of the theater. This third you is simply watching the second you, seated in the back row of the theater, who is still watching the you in the front, who is still watching all that is passing across the screen.’

Thomas Roberts. The Mindfulness Workbook: A Beginner’s Guide to Overcoming Fear and Embracing Compassion (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)

Memory isn’t a video

Memory doesn’t record life like a video camera. Instead, it adds associated details and becomes, like Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘a story-telling machine’.

The Light of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter“What is human memory?” Manning asked. He gazed at the air as he spoke, as if lecturing an invisible audience – as perhaps he was. “It certainly is not a passive recording mechanism, like a digital disc or a tape. It is more like a story-telling machine. Sensory information is broken down into shards of perception, which are broken down again to be stored as memory fragments. And at night, as the body rests, these fragments are brought out from storage, reassembled and replayed. Each run-through etches them deeper into the brain’s neural structure. And each time a memory is rehearsed or recalled it is elaborated. We may add a little, lose a little, tinker with the logic, fill in sections that have faded, perhaps even conflate disparate events.

“In extreme cases, we refer to this as confabulation. The brain creates and recreates the past, producing, in the end, a version of events that may bear little resemblance to what actually occurred. To first order, I believe it’s true to say that everything I remember is false.”

Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The Light of Other Days

‘Memory doesn’t store everything we perceive, but instead takes what we have seen or heard and associates it with what we already know. These associations help us to discern what is important and to recall details about what we’ve seen. They provide “retrieval cues” that make our memories more fluent. In most cases, such cues are helpful. But these associations can also lead us astray, precisely because they lead to an inflated sense of the precision of memory. We cannot easily distinguish between what we recall verbatim and what we construct based on associations and knowledge.’

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us