Blondes Have More…

marilynThe final word of that sentence has been burned into the hard drive of your brain from some of your earliest experiences. That is why learning to replace a thought is often impossible. Try it. Just repeat the phrase, “blondes have more…” and see if you can avoid thinking about the word, “fun.” You may notice it came to mind and then you replaced it with another word just to prove me wrong but, “fun” is still there and you cannot erase it. Barring significant damage through invasive surgery, a debilitating disease, or suffering a stroke your mind will retain every memory.

Why is it that so many therapies for addiction, depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns offer solutions like, “change your playgrounds, playmates, and playthings,” thought replacement, or thought suppression? I don’t know. You are going to expend a lot of extra mental energy trying to avoid a thought rather than simply recognizing its presence. Often that extra energy comes at the expense of getting better.

“Blondes have more fun,” is not a very troubling thought for most people but consider the other automatic thoughts that we have. “I am…” Complete that sentence and you will most likely notice some challenging thoughts and feelings even when you try to crowd them out with positive self-talk. What about troubling memories of abuse, abandonment, or loss? What of chronic pain and your work to avoid it through filling your mind with as many alternative activities as possible? Or how about those nagging cravings for food or other substances that you try not to think about?

Learning how your mind works and exploring your own personal values can go a long way in sorting through painful thoughts, memories, emotions, and other sensations. The power of human language has given rise to the most creative of souls. It allows for problem solving skills that are of such exponential power that humanity is far from the reaches of our potential. Language is also the source of our greatest suffering because within our mind we have messages that will never be forgotten. The neurological term is cognitive fusion.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT involves the process of learning to observe and accept all of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions without allowing them to lead our life. It doesn’t erase memories but it can help you to “defuse” (cognitive defusion) from them so that they don’t lead your life. A much more reliable map to guide one’s life is our own personal values. Those, you will find are sometimes or often at odd with what you actually think or feel. The “win” in therapy and in life is when we learn to expend our energies not on suppressing thoughts that we don’t like and instead learn to have them while using the energy we have to follow the values that we hold dear.

Thoughts are like advisers. In my experience, every adviser has a bad day meaning not every thought is accurate. Emotions should be followers; never leaders. Otherwise, you and I will get lost very easily. If you are struggling with emotions, thoughts, and sensations leading your life rather than the values that you hold most dear, maybe it’s time to pick up the phone and make that call. Having a thought that blondes have all the fun? Maybe it’s true that brunettes, gingers, black hair, or no hair at all can have just as much fun as a blonde any day.

Do You Want To Get Well?

That is a question posed by a famous rabbi with a reputation for healing all sorts of problems, to a guy who had been a paraplegic for 38 years. “What a ridiculous question,” one says. Anyone who has lost the benefit of two healthy legs would want to experience the freedom of walking on their own power. The answer of the man who had suffered through almost four decades without the use of his legs was not what you might expect. He hesitated. He made excuses. I have done the same thing and it is likely that you have had the same experience with some of your problems.

How? For me, it starts with one particular phrase, “I will try.” The word, “try” comes from a word that originally means to “discover or to sit in judgment of.” That’s why court proceedings are called a “trial.” The problem with trying is that it is only a process of evaluation. It is not actually doing anything. Trying something is more about evaluating it or observing it and is really a passive sort of word. 

How does this apply to getting better? Trying to get better or trying to understand why I’m not better is not a solution. It is an evaluation. Evaluation is one of our biggest struggles. For those who suffer with anxiety, depression, addictions, and other issues, it is a constant process of self-evaluation that often becomes one of the most debilitating issues.

What are we evaluating? What are we “trying” that keeps us stuck? It’s not really a secret. We are conditioned in our culture not to feel bad things. Avoidance is our “go to” solution meaning instead of feeling what we feel and owning our experiences we are often evaluating how “we should feel.” We chase solutions to not feeling what we feel in needles, bottles, on the internet, at the movie theater, in a pint of ice cream, earbuds full of music, rocking the gym, running the road, buying destination experiences, anything not to feel what we genuinely feel. Meanwhile the alert system in our bodies sounds off with anxiety, depression, autoimmune disorders, irritable bowels, erratic blood sugar, disrupted sleep, and the beat goes on. Don’t worry though, just turn on your television or do a Google search and you will find a pill for that.

“An important and growing cost of our modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs or reflect social realities” (Is Modern Western Culture A Health Hazard?, International Journal of Epidemiology, 22 Nov., 2005). Our culture is predicated on not experiencing what we don’t want to experience. But that takes work…unnecessary work that expends unnecessary energy and time often resulting in a rash of mental health issues. 

What if you were simply willing to get better? Getting well begins with willingness not trying. Willingness is an action. Willingness is acceptance. Willingness is simply answering yes or no to my present experience. Willingness is not about trying to feel what I don’t feel. It is about noticing what I already feel.

How will this help me get better? I invite you to participate in an experiment with me right now. Take a moment to move your right hand to touch your left arm. Notice what it feels like. Now pause for a moment then take your right hand and touch your left arm again and feel absolutely nothing. 

Which of those two options required more effort? Did you have to “try” to feel what it already feels like or did you simply feel it automatically. Chances are you had to expend some extra effort and “tried” not to feel the second time. You were probably able to do so because you are already well practiced at this.

Using acceptance and commitment therapy, an evidenced based therapy, I have witnessed many individuals and couples experience relief regarding the concerns that brought them to therapy. You can learn this tool as well. It will change your life. Willingness always does.