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If you want to know where you can get the leverage to positively change things in your life, indeed how to change yourself in a desirable way, you may find that these 5 “Power Points” provide some answers. Having given it a great deal of thought over a long period of time in the context of my work as a psychotherapist, but also in my personal life; I cannot imagine any kind of meaningful change happening if it doesn’t happen somehow in one or more of these 5 areas.
As an “integrative psychotherapist” I am familiar with many different approaches to therapy. One of the approaches that I have found useful, among many others, is cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. I have had training in this approach and used it in my work for a long time. There are many different ways to do it, in fact many different kinds of CBT. The 5 power points that I will describe shortly emerged in my thinking as a distillation of the essence of different forms of CBT. It boils down to some of the most basic things about us as human beings. We have perceptions, thoughts and feelings. We do things based on this. What we do results in something, or has consequences. This seems to me to be an inevitable and indisputable fact that can be useful to reflect upon.
What I am calling the 5 Power Points are like train depots on a journey. There is a starting point, stops along the way and a destination. So, they are sequential. However, this train track can be circular, where the destination turns out to be the starting point for the same journey next time around. If we don’t like the scenery we may have to transfer to a different train at some point. Okay, enough metaphor. Let’s get into it.
Things happen. Or, as some would have it, “shit happens”. The beginning of our conscious experience is our awareness of an event. It may be something in our environment that we perceive with one or more of our senses. It might involve inanimate objects or the behaviour of people. Someone said or did something. A flowerpot fell off a window ledge and crashed on the pavement. We also become aware of our “internal environment”, in the form of our own thoughts and feelings. These are also events, as I am using the word. The point is, something happens and we notice it.
This is the first place where we can begin to find our power. It starts with realising that we don’t and can’t notice everything that happens. We are selective about what events even register in our awareness. We pick and choose what to pay attention to and this is based on what is called our “cognitive bias”. We look for things that confirm what we already believe about the world and ourselves. We tend to ignore or dismiss events that contradict this. If we believe we are not very interesting or likeable, then we will be vigilant to notice any evidence of being ignored or rejected. If we believe we are “unlucky” or that the world is generally hostile toward us, we will look for that and usually find some evidence for it. To begin to leverage our power we need to notice how habitually we direct our attention to certain events and not others and shift our focus a bit. Instead of focusing exclusively on what we don’t have, how we are offended, what we have failed at and our many weaknesses, we could notice instances of the opposite. They are there to notice if we are willing to look. We have things we could be grateful for. Sometimes people are kind and supportive. I don’t care who you are- you have succeeded at something and you DO have strengths. If you want to insist it is otherwise, you are passing on the first step of claiming your power. It is not necessary to put on “rose-coloured glasses”. Yeah, bad stuff happens and we do disappoint ourselves, but if the tint of our glasses is constantly too dark, we simply can’t see what is actually there.
There is a long story about how we develop certain cognitive biases, about why some people look for and see positive, life-affirming events all around them and others see the opposite. The gist of it is that we learn this through our early experiences in life. We are taught what to expect from the world and from people in our early childhood in relationship to our parents and other significant people. These are lessons that we aren’t conscious of learning. We take our perceptions as simply the way things are. So, the first step is to question our assumptions and let our attention settle on new things that provide an expanded and more life-affirming view. It’s like Neo in the Matrix being able to see the computer code that is making up the illusion of Mr. Smith. Once he can see how this is a constructed illusion, he finds the power to easily overcome it, even though it looks so damn real.
Our first stop after having departed the Event station is Interpretation. Noticing something is one thing and interpreting what it means is another. Usually, we skip right over this and assume that our interpretation is a raw fact delivered to our perception. It’s not. One of the most impactful areas that we make interpretations of meaning is in our relationships. We assume we know the intentions of people when they say or do something. If, based on early experiences, we learned and tend to believe that people are critical and unkind and that we are “not good enough”, we can easily assume that a comment was meant in a hostile way and/or that we deserved it in any case.
Just as there are an infinite number of events that we can choose to pay attention to, there are an infinite number of ways to interpret the meaning of those events. Not all interpretations will be equally valid or useful. What is useful is to stop and consider multiple possibilities and not let ourselves be stuck with our default interpretation. What else might be true about why our boss or partner or friend said what she or he said? What else might have motived them? Instead of assuming we know, we could actually ask. At least we could consider other plausible alternative interpretations.
When it comes to events involving inanimate things, we also find ourselves assigning meaning. We can have the belief that the universe itself is against us and so it makes sense that we were in a minor car accident that prevented us from getting to that job interview. Since I’m not meant to succeed, of course something like this would happen. When this becomes a strong tendency, we often shrink from even trying, from taking any risks at all. Conversely, I think about my father-in-law who has a belief that he is incredibly lucky. One of his forms of luck is “parking luck”. If he is driving the family into London for dinner, he will always go right to the restaurant rather than find the nearest parking garage. He believes there will be a space just for him. Interestingly, against the odds, he is often right and we all have a very short walk to the restaurant. It doesn’t always work that way and sometimes he has to drop us off while he finds the closest parking he can. Regardless, he still believes in his parking luck and will always give it a try. I might add that he has been wildly successful in his life. While good things do seem to randomly happen to us at times, I’m not sure they are caused by a mysterious force called luck. I do think that believing that one is lucky tends to make a person try things that they otherwise wouldn’t and that this allows them to succeed more.
So, we notice an event and assign it a meaning and depending on the meaning we give it, we will have an emotional response. When it comes to the event being the behaviour of another person, our interpretation will be our belief about their intention as well as what we imagine the likely consequences will be. What else might they do? If we think someone is out to get us, we may feel hurt and/or angry about what they have said. We may also be afraid about what may happen next. If we think they had good intent, we may feel grateful and take their words or deeds as meant to help us somehow. We could even interpret good intentions even if what was said was not skillful and could be taken badly. In this case, feelings of hurt, anger and fear are not likely to come up, nor the typical reactions associated with these feelings.
A good example of how our interpretation can determine our feelings became clear to me as a parent of toddlers. In the early stages of learning to walk there is a lot of falling down. Maybe other parents have had this experience. Your toddler is charging back and forth across the room and suddenly falls down. They look up at you as if to say “That was a surprise. Was that bad?” If you react as if something horrible has happened and swoop in to comfort them, they start crying. Clearly, they conclude, something bad just happened. Or, if you do as my father did and smile and say “You dropped something”, a child will interpret the event of falling as not a big deal and so it will feel less distressing. Clearly there are limits to this, but hopefully you get my point. Much in our adult lives could be seen as “falling down” and just maybe it isn’t as catastrophic as we think.
So where is the power at this depot on our “train journey”? It is in our ability to simply notice that we feel something and not draw any conclusions. It is to notice that we are having a feeling and not allow the feeling to have us. We then reflect on what meaning or interpretation we have given the event such that it gave rise to the feeling we are having. We then try on a different plausible interpretation and see what kind of feeling that evokes. Sometimes our power lies in being clear about what we are feeling, which can motivate us to speak up or do something about it. Other times our power lies in NOT acting on the emotion. Maybe we sense that our interpretation may be off and that there is a better explanation for the event, yet we continue to feel everything associated with the initial interpretation. Then we simply choose to feel that but not let it dictate our behaviour. We imagine the consequences of acting out the feeling and avoid those consequences by letting the feeling be until it passes and not put it in the driver’s seat of our words or actions.
Having said all of this, however, I must add that it is not always clear that much thinking goes into our feelings. Sometimes an emotion seems to be triggered instantaneously by an event. I think this has to do with the way our brain works. We evolved to have very rapid emotional responses to things without having to think about it so that we could take equally fast action. This makes sense, as important life-saving reactions being delayed by a lengthy thought process could leave us dead. So, many of our problematic interpretations may be almost entirely unconscious. Identifying them is an exercise in asking ourselves: what is it I seem to believe, such that I am left with this feeling?
Okay, so this is where the rubber meets the road. What we notice, what we think and how we feel set the stage, but action is where we engage with the world and move things around, for better or worse. Until this stage our power has been focused on our mind or internal world, which has profound effects and implications. If we want to have an impact on the world “out there”, we have to take action. I want to quickly be clear that by action, I include the act of communicating in any form. Since what constitutes effective and ineffective behaviour is such a vast topic, I will focus on just a few basic considerations here.
First, in order to know if our action is effective, we have to be clear about what it is we hope it will produce. What are we trying to accomplish? This takes some thinking. We have to consider a variety of possible responses to any given event and imagine the desirable and undesirable results that might follow from our different action options. It is also important to consider both immediate and longer-term consequences. Sometimes we are tempted to do something to produce an immediately desirable outcome, without considering the long-term effects. For instance, in an argument with a partner we may choose to apologise and concede whatever point is being disputed. This may establish some immediate sense of peace in the relationship, but at what cost in the future? Have we just rewarded someone for trying to manipulate and bully us, so that they have an incentive to continue doing this? Conversely, we may decide that we need to forcefully assert our opinion and do something that will displease another and, in this way, have the immediate gratification of getting our own way. The long-term impact of this may be that we damage an important relationship beyond repair.
In another blog I have written about 4 fundamental dimensions of our lives: mind, body, relationships and environment. You may want to check out that blog for a basic description of these. When considering desirable and undesirable consequences of our actions, it is useful to consider these four dimensions. Will it benefit or harm each of these areas? Again, with some sense of immediate and future consequences.
At the most basic level, whenever we do something, we are either trying to avoid something undesirable or acquire something desirable. We are either trying to protect ourselves from an unwanted intrusion or fulfil a desire or need. Considering safety and autonomy a need, we might just say that behaviours are aimed at getting needs met. Do we know what we need? Are our desires ever at odds with our needs? If we don’t know what we want or need, our behaviour will have no particular orientation and will tend to be reactive. We will unreflectively lash out at threats and grab a hold of whatever looks “good”. There is little wisdom in this and the results are costly over time.
What I don’t have space to include here has filled countless books, but I do want to mention one more thing about action or behaviour. Some acts are simple and singular. Something happens (an event) and we do something about it. Someone throws a snowball at our head and we block it with our forearm. Some events, however, have complex implications that require a complex response. Instead of one act, we may need to conceive of a sequence of actions over time. This requires the ability to strategise, to identify steps or objectives along a path that leads to an ultimate outcome. To make this even more complicated, sometimes the steps we take don’t produce the results we had hoped for, so we may need a strategy that accounts for contingencies and so provides alternate routes to our destination. To insist on carrying out a plan because it “looks good on paper”, without taking account of reality, i.e. what actually happens, is a sure formula for ineffective action, or worse.
We started with an event and moved through our interpretation of that event and then the feelings provoked by that interpretation. These feelings then motivated whatever action we took in response. If our actions have produced the results we had hoped for and intended, we are generally happy and satisfied. In this case, what more is there to say except to acknowledge the validation that we have gotten. Story over. Perhaps we can now feel confident that we know how to handle this kind of event effectively, make a mental note and try not to forget this next time that event rolls around.
But what if our actions don’t make things better, or make them even worse? What if our tendency in the first place is to give our attention to whatever seems unfortunate or problematic and to ignore anything we might be grateful for? What if we tend to interpret these unfortunate events in the worst possible way, i.e., to see them as catastrophic or harbingers of catastrophe? What if this leads us to feel great fear, anger, shame or envy? What if we impulsively act on those feelings? What kind of results do you imagine we are likely to get? You’re right-not very good results.
In fact, we tend to get the kind of results that confirm our initial interpretations. We were right. People don’t like us. People judge us and exclude us from their group. When we feel hurt or offended by someone, it might be that our feeling is based on a false interpretation of their intention. There are 3 basic problematic ways that we can then react. We can lash out with aggression, withdraw and avoid the person, or attempt to appease them through inauthentic agreeableness. Each of these reactions has its own costly consequences, which tend to provide evidence to confirm our initial interpretation. Each tend to feed the other’s negative judgment of us and lead them to behave toward us in the very way we suspected in the first place. It’s a loop. The result of our action has become the next event for a cycle that spins in a downward direction. Our lives can become trapped in such an eddy.
So where is the power in this last stage? In a word, learning. We have to examine precisely what we did and why and consider the results. We have to be willing to ask ourselves some questions and suspend our assumptions. We have to be open to the possibility that things and people have not been what we think they are and that our actions have missed the mark. We have to explore alternative interpretations of events. We have to recognise our cognitive bias around what we allow ourselves to notice and the meaning we assign to what we do notice. We have to see how this is connected to the kinds of results that we produce with our actions.
As difficult as this mental reorganization may be, the bigger challenge will be to act on our new interpretations, which we could also call beliefs. To change anything, we will have to risk taking actions contrary to our cognitive biases. These biases most likely were formed once upon a time based on real experiences which gave rise to beliefs and corresponding behaviours that, at the time, kept us safe. Behaving otherwise can fill us with fear, so courage will be required. What starts as a new belief or hope will need to be validated with experiential evidence. We will have to do scary things and discover that the world has not ended and we haven’t been destroyed. We would like to wait until we feel a strong sense of confidence and comfort before we take these risks, but it actually works the other way around. By taking these risks we strengthen our confidence and begin to feel more comfortable.
None of this is possible unless we get real about the results of our actions and admit that we keep making the same mess. We also need to be sick of doing this. We need to quit blaming others for the results we produce and take responsibility for changing it. It turns out that our revulsion for the results we produce is the feeling that pushes us to be courageous and take the risk of trying something new. If we are not sick of it, or if we persist in blaming others for our own results, we will remain stuck.
We might consider the unfortunate results of our unskillful or misdirected actions to be like manure. On the one hand it’s “shit”. It smells bad and we’d like to just get rid of it. On the other hand, it is rich with potential value. It can be used to grow things, like ourselves, if we know how to use it. That is the power of this 5th depot on our metaphorical train journey.
It only takes a moment to write down or read these 5 words: event, interpretation, feeling, action and result. But they are merely the names of the stations at the different towns and cities along a journey that we take multiple times every day. We tend to travel along so fast that we scarcely even notice that we are passing through important places. My intention with this mug is to invite you to remember to get out and explore each station. You might be able to get a transfer ticket if you don’t want to wind up in the same place every time. If the destination on the front of the next train says Misery or Regret or Hell, you don’t have to get on it. I hope that what I have written will give you a way to start thinking about this and going where you truly want to go.
May your journey be fruitful!
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