I once worked with a client, who upon anticipating that she was about to lose her job, started putting money away, payed her car notes and rent six months the in advance, and then mentally prepared herself for the storm to come.
In fairness, she had good reason to suspect she might lose her job, and all indications suggested that she was a very competent professional. I then introduced her to an exercise, in which she used her imagination to prepare for a positive experience. For example, a new job she better enjoyed with much better pay. While this exercise caught her off guard, she pleasantly surprised herself in learning that the steps she would take to prepare for this opportunity, where realistic and beneficial towards getting that job she wanted.
It is easy to focus on our daily struggles or major events in our lives not going our way, and it may seem like the right thing to do. “I have this problem, so therefore, if I focus on how best to deal with the problem it will go away.” But this doesn’t work like that, focusing on a problem only turns your attention to more of the problem, which only makes the problem more of your everyday life. The solution is the focus more on the opposite of the problem, or more specifically a desired outcome you wish to experience, followed by realistic measures by which to realize that desire.
Take for example, you live on island A, you are sick and tired of living on island A, so you go into a travel agent’s office and you inform said agent that you are sick and tired of living on island A and you want out. Naturally, the travel agent is going to ask you; “where would you like to go?” Instead of giving a desired destination, you shrug your shoulders and state, I don’t know, and continue your rant about how much you are done living on island A.
Then consider the second scenario, where you walk into the travel agent’s office, with the intent of removing yourself from island A. However, instead of lamenting how much you don’t like living on island A, you ask specifically for a plane or ship ticket to island B. Out of curiosity, the travel agent may ask you why you want to travel to island B, and you respond that you have heard so much good things about island B that you want to go and experience these good things for yourself.
This is how best to approach your problems, acknowledge them for what they are, and identify a realistic alternative to the experience. Then come up with a plan to realize this new experience. With this technique, you are not and never will be in denial about things not going your way, you will simply be taking radical steps in your life to surround yourself with the preferred reality you wish to experience.
“A friend of mine was learning how to swim, when he suddenly felt he was starting to drown. He began splashing wildly about when his instructor told him to stand up. Much to my friend’s relief and embarrassment, he discovered he was okay.”
Anxiety is based on primal fear, and primal fear is based on the idea of not having enough. Not having enough of your basic needs met and perishing before you reach a ripe age, not having not enough social support and being vulnerable, and the list could go on. The point is that when we are struggling with anxiety our mindset operates on the idea of scarcity. When we think from a place of scarcity, we are fearful, we are timid, we are excessively selfish, we are desperate and hurried in our decision making. The mind of the anxious person is irrational, like the story of my friend learning how to swim and pessimistic, picture yourself at noon in the middle of any desert during the summer months with less than a quarter of warm water left in your canteen.
The anxious person does not take any risk, because he operates from a place of what he might lose as opposed to what he might gain. This leads to a self fulfilling prophesy, where like the unfortunate hiker in the middle of the desert, the anxious person is careful about not exerting too much energy, least they might end up losing the little they have left.
By now the answer may have become obvious to you, to rid anxiety visualize yourself having enough of what you need. So once my friend learned that he was in the shallow end, he exercised more courage in his swimming lessons. So in essence, his level of safety was enough. Or you can also practice imaging yourself as a hiker with enough water to last you to the next well or tap.
How the mental practice of visualizing yourself easily getting your needs met, is not enough. This is because people who struggle with anxiety, have experienced anxiety for most of their lives. This means that for most of their lives, their brains have become wired to think in regards to scarcity. So they have become habituated to thinking in regards to timidity, desperation and primitive survival instincts. The good news is that our brains are malleable, meaning that it is never too late to learn new ways of thinking and doing.
There are cognitive behavioral strategies you can learn and implement which would make your practice of visual exercises fruitful. Here’s one, start small. Visualize yourself engaging in a small challenge, which you have passively dreaded due, to your perception of the risk to reward ratio, or your lack of confidence in yourself. Create a plan to follow through with this small challenge in which you create a narrative which consists of the best possible scenario and outcome for this challenge. Then when you are done engage in the challenge.
The mere process of your creating a plan for the challenge, rewires your brain to how you see the situation and increases your motivation to make you overcoming this challenge a reality. It is not uncommon for people to experience some emotional difficulty when practicing this exercise. These are usually due to past traumas. If you are experience difficulty completing this exercise due to difficult feelings you can’t get past, a therapist can help you process these difficult feelings and get you back on track.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a professional life coach.
Driving to my office this morning, I listened to some broadcast information, I found disturbing. A happiness guru was giving giving advice on how to be happy.
He started out with an example of a retail worker, who was not happy with her job, and went to detail how she could immediately begin experiencing happiness, simply by changing her perceptions. Listening further, he appeared to state that she would be able to experience happiness by practicing a number of cognitive exercises simply geared towards looking at her situation in a different light. The problem I had with his message was that the change in perceptions where not tied to any follow through actions.
That line of thinking is based on the old glass half full or half empty analogy. That is to say, that you can either see a half glass of water as either half full or half empty. The issue I have with messages like these is that they are based on half truths. It is true that your thoughts influence your level of happiness, however if you find yourself experiencing unhappiness, who is to say that your thoughts are wrong? Take again the glass half empty or half full analogy, in reality a glass of water at any level is either on it’s way to being emptied or filled. It all depends on what decisions you intend on following through on. Are you going to empty the glass or refill it? Perhaps both.
Let’s explore a concrete example using the story of the retail worker who is unhappy with her job. What if she does not earn enough wages to get her basic needs met? Yet she believes that there are no immediate opportunities she can pursue where she is generating sufficient income. Telling someone in this situation to think happy thoughts is deceitful and insulting. It reminds me of a high school English teacher I was working with, who stated, “thank God I don’t live in India”. As she said this, I couldn’t help but notice the gaping hole in her right worn tennis shoe. I am not one to be materialistic, but I decided that based on her statement, her daily appearance was not one of self imposed frugality but one of impoverishment. Further, her comparison of her current situation at the time, to her perception of life in India, was meant to generate feelings of happiness about her situation. Which amounted to nothing but a false positive.
Back to our fictional retailer, if I knew someone in that situation, I would immediately share with that person that her unhappiness made sense. Further I would share with her that her feelings of unhappiness was her brains’ way of informing her that her current line of employment isn’t working out. If so, what is a retailer to do? I would introduce the retailer to cognitive exercises meant for her to brainstorm realistic alternatives for generating income. From my experience, such a process usually leads the person to come face to face with her fears generated by unhealthy beliefs she developed during her early life experiences.
At this point the goal would be in assisting the retailer to discard her old unhealthy beliefs and adopt new beliefs that steer her in the direction of practicing the courage to pursue her passions. So it is just not enough to think happy thoughts, instead happy thoughts are generated by decisions we make and intend to follow through on in either pursuing meaningful change in our lives or continue practicing habits to maintain a meaningful and fulfilling life style we are already living.
In my opinion, the key to happiness is the practice of courage. I will write more on this on the next post.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.