Meet the Sages (and Get A Free Poster!)

how-are-you-thinking-today-13by19
In recent years there’s been a surge of interest in ancient philosophers. Three of my favorite books in this vein are Expect the Unexpected Or You Won’t Find it: A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger Van Oech, Breakfast With Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day by Robert Rowland Smith, and The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m going to add to this growing body of literature by introducing the ancient writers of Hebrew wisdom literature. These sages said many interesting and often astonishing things, especially given how long ago they wrote. For example, two millennia before Freud and modern psychotherapy the sages wrote, “Many are the purposes of a person’s heart; one with wisdom draws them out.” There are things that go on in a person’s psyche about which we are simply unaware. In 2011 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in Thinking Fast and Slow (read my summary here). Over one hundred years before that (1902 to be precise) William James said this about consciousness and perception, Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different, ” (Varieties of Religious Experience). These are all fancy ways of explaining what we mean when we say…
  • “Perception is reality”
  • “Appearances can be deceiving”
  • “My brain has a mind of it’s own”
  • “There are two sides to every story”
  • “Life is not always as it appears to be”
Woe to the person who doesn’t know that their consciousness can be altered an a variety of ways or that our minds can play weird tricks on us. Even neuro-scientists remind us that feelings of being right are not necessarily right. Click here to read an interview with Robert Burton, author of the fascinating book, On Being Certain. Which brings me to a free gift I have for you. The sages were preternaturally aware that things like emotions, health, hunger, sleep, and other factors trick us. I’ve collected (and drew faces for) thirty of their sage warnings that remind us that we can’t always trust our thoughts. You can download a free 8.5″ x 11″ color printout of this poster by clicking here. (Signed 13″x 19″ color posters are available for $30 (+$4.99 shipping in USA) on Amazon; small size posters are free to readers of this blog). The brilliance of these sage warnings is that being skeptical of our cherished beliefs will lead to open mindedness, mental flexibility, and a willingness to contemplate alternative ideas. This is often our focus when doing mediation or therapy–when emotions or other mood altering factors hi-jack our brains we don’t think rationally or clearly. I hope this handout (poster) will inspire careful self-reflection.

Optical Illusions and Emotional Illusions

del.prete folded chess del.prete.double window

Sandro-Del-Prete-Quadrature-of-the-Wheel

spinning-wheels-entwined

While M. C. Escher will always have a warm spot in my heart for his mind-bending images, there’s a new contender for world’s best optical illusionist–Swiss artist Sandro Del-Prete (b. 1937). As we feast our eyes on the images above two things occur to me.

1) Artists are very clever at tricking our eyes. Just when we think visual tricksters have run out of ideas some cool new optical illusions show up.

2) Emotions are very clever at tricking our brains. Just when we think emotional tricks have run their course some new troublesome emotional illusions show up. Consider the following:
  • Feeling wounded does not mean we are being wounded.
  • Feeling unloved does not mean we are unloved.
  • Feeling blamed does not mean we are being blamed.
  • Feeling guilty does not mean we actually are guilty.
  • Feeling ignored does not mean we actually are being ignored.
  • Feeling unsafe does not mean we actually are at risk or in danger.
  • Feeling hopeless does not mean things actually are hopeless.
  • Feeling powerless does not mean we actually have no power.
  • Feeling manipulated does not mean others are trying to manipulate us.
When we see an optical illusion it takes a deliberate act of the will to convince our brain that our eyes are deceiving us. And when we feel a strong emotion it takes a deliberate act of the will to convince our brain that our emotions may be deceiving us. When things feel true we tend to believe they are true. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Just as our eyes can trick us, our perceptions can trick us. Remembering this protects us from jumping to conclusions, misreading others, and letting our emotions run away with us.

Five Interventions That Calm Anger

A new client once looked around my office and asked, “Where’s the bucket?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “You know, the place where I’m supposed to spill my guts.”

I laughed and reassured him there were no buckets. He looked at the Anger Reduction Gadget! sitting on the counter and said, “What’s that? A coffee maker?”

I said, “No, that’s an object lesson on how to control anger.”

He said, “That’s why I’m here, to work on my anger. How does it work?”

Here’s what I told him.

Anger begins with something or someone pushing our buttons. It’s important to be aware of our buttons so we can avoid places where they are pushed or be prepared when they are. These are also known as triggers, sensitivities, or trip wires.

Something pushes our buttons

Something pushes our buttons

Once pushed we “filter” that activating event through our perceptions, grids, frames, and lenses. In the Anger Reduction Gadget! this intervention is symbolized by a carburetor screen. The button pushing doesn’t make us angry, the stories we tell ourselves about those irritations is what makes us angry. This is good news because if you can’t stop the button pushing we can tell ourselves different stories.

We filter our circumstances through our beliefs.

We filter our circumstances through our beliefs.

Some stories we tell ourselves are guaranteed to make our blood pressure rise, symbolized here with a pressure gauge. Psychologists call this the cognitive approach to anger management. Our perceptions (cognitions, thoughts) trigger or inhibit hormones that make us anxious, depressed, sad, or in this case, angry. My unscientific estimate is that 95% of our emotions are due NOT to our circumstances but how we think about those circumstances.

Emotions build up pressure in our bodies.

Emotions build up pressure in our bodies.

Why do angry people scream, yell, hit things, or kick chairs? The chair didn’t do anything wrong! People explode because all that built up pressure feels uncomfortable. By discharging the built up hormones we feel better. Of course, everybody else is ducking for cover because we look like crazy out of control people. By the way, the reason zebras don’t get ulcers is because when they see a crouching tiger they expend their built up hormonal fear energy by running for their lives. If stopping button pushing or changing our stories doesn’t calm us down, go for a run!

Our bodies feel the tension like a finger in a vice.

Our bodies feel the tension like a finger in a vice.

I first built the Anger Reduction Gadget! (ARG!) for foster kids in DSHS workshops. During what I’m sure was to them a boring lecture I needed something to hold their attention. I’d ask for a volunteer to put their finger in this toy vice and gently apply pressure. The message here is sometimes our bodies feel the tension before our brains realize it. By getting in tune with our bodies we can pause and ask, “What was the trigger?” “What is my story?” “What emotion am I feeling?” and “Where in my body do I need to relax?” It’s up to us what to do with that build up energy–we can either freak out or channel it into productive solutions. In the ARG! this is symbolized by an African Thumb Piano. We can either use our anger to play a beautiful tune or go nuts and make chaotic noise.

Do we channel our anger energy into making beautiful music or chaos?

Do we channel our anger energy into making beautiful music or chaos?

It’s helpful to remember “E” for energy + “motion” for action = “E” + “motion” = Emotion. They give us energy we need to take action. This is what Mothers Against Drunk Drivers do, crime fighters do to catch bad guys, and zebras do to flee tigers.

Now you’ve got five ways to interrupt the anger sequence: watch for trigger, change your story, identify the emotion, relax your body, and channel the emotion into actions that promote justice, solve problems, or avoid disaster.

And no buckets in sight!

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Click here for additional free resources on ANGER.

Four Tips to Slow Down the Constant Traffic in Your Head

overly active brain

 

Compulsive worriers, obsessive thinkers, and anxious fretters share a common trait–the brain they are trying to reign in goes with them everywhere.  It’s one thing to walk away from a tempting doughnut; we can’t walk away from an over active mind.

If the traffic noise and congestion of thoughts, worries, and “what ifs?” are distressing, if you find it hard to let go of ruminating, mental hand wringing, or replaying the same tapes over and over, and if you need help slowing down the constant traffic in your head, here are four tips that may help.

1.  Access the amount of traffic in your head. Many worriers already know how much they worry and if this is true for you, go to step two. But if you’re unsure of how much time and energy is wasted in rumination pay attention to the following. Where does your mind wander when you’re waiting at a red light, and how often does it wander to the same place? How long does it take you to fall asleep and do you stay asleep or does the traffic in your head wake you up at two AM? Are your inner dialogues so well rehearsed you can quote them from memory? Do you find it hard to concentrate on tasks or are you distracted by regrets, anger, or replaying scenarios and imaginary conversations? Are your inner monologues positive and cheerful or negative, self critical, depressing, or anxious? If you were to keep a worry journal, what patterns, common triggers, and regular times and locations of your worry would you notice?

2. Practice a rumination free moment. Set the timer on your phone and sit silently for one minute during which time you discipline your mind to relax. Deny intrusive thoughts entry into your head. If 60 seconds is too long, shoot for 30. Since it’s impossible to turn our brain off completely, it’s okay during that time to repeat soothing words. Christians find the Jesus prayer helpful in this regard. Non Christians find other mantras a good antidote to obsessive thinking. This forced silence decreases the amount of adrenaline in your brain and with constant practice you will soon wean yourself from adrenaline addiction. Many compulsive worriers would never bungee-jump or watch a horror flick, but they don’t need to. They keep their brains on high adrenaline with constant rumination. Increase that 60 seconds to two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes or longer. As your skill increases at some point you’ll be able to schedule a daily 30 minute worry break where you allow yourself to worry like mad for 30 minutes and then enjoy the next 23.5 hours worry free. Then reduce that 30 minutes to 25, 20, and so forth.

3. Identify and combat the fearful thoughts that lead to compulsive worry. Here are some popular culprits:

  • If I worry I will avert disaster.
  • If I worry then upsetting things won’t be as upsetting when they occur.
  • If I don’t worry bad things will happen.
  • I was born to worry and cannot change.
  • If something bad happens I will not cope.
  • If I don’t worry I’m being irresponsible.
  • Worrying demonstrates how nice, how caring, and how responsible I am.
  • If I ask the “Why did this happen?” question long enough I will eventually get an answer.

These are, not to put too fine a point on it, lies. While they may feel true they are not. Replace them with true statements and the compulsion to worry decreases. There’s truth in the old saying, “The truth shall set you free.”

4. Get out of your head and do something physical. Instead of indulging the habit of brooding change your location. Get out of the chair, out of the room, out of the house. Get your heart pumping. Tackle a project. Clean something. Organize something. Call someone. Distract your brain with physical tasks that require your full attention.

Since our brains are problem solving machines we’re wired to think. But there can be too much of a good thing. I hope these tips that others have found helpful help you.

If you think this blog will be helpful to others, please forward, like, and/or share. Thank you!

Marital Mind Reading

 

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Sensing what others might be thinking or feeling is a good social skill. But believing we know for sure what another person thinks, feels, wants, or needs is dangerous.

Four examples of mind reading.

1) If your spouse is silent and you say, “You’re mad at me!” that’s mind reading.

2) If your spouse is late getting home and you say, “You’re cheating on me!” that’s mind reading.

3) If your partner forgets to buy milk and you say, “You did that on purpose!” that’s mind reading.

4) If your partner cleans the kitchen and you say, “You don’t think I’m capable of doing this myself!” that’s mind reading.

Two factors that fuel this bad habit.

1) anxiety.

2) depression.

Two ways to look at this phenomenon:

1) negative mind reading leads to anxiety and depression. Who wouldn’t be depressed if we thought our spouse had such negative feelings, motives, or thoughts?

2) anxiety and depression lead to negative mind reading. Looking at our partner’s through a negative lens colors everything negatively.

Two things make this habit highly vexing.

1) the tendency for the mind reader to conjure up negative motives, negative thoughts, or negative intent in their spouse.

2) the tendency for the mind reader to believe they are absolutely, 100% correct.

Two reasons counselors find breaking clients of this habit very difficult.

1) Nobody likes to be told their beliefs might be wrong. The mind reading client then reads the mind of the therapist, “He’s minimizing my fears,” “He just doesn’t get it.” “He’s a jerk.” “He doesn’t know my spouse as well as I do. I KNOW I’m right!!”

2) If the spouse is not guilty as charged this means the mind reader has issues to work on. It’s much easier to blame others for our unhappiness.

Two ways to get out of this dysfunctional pattern.

1) drive each other so crazy with false accusations, negative spins, and erroneous mind reading that one of you leaves. You can’t mind read if there’s no mind around to read.

2) Get so fed up with poor communication that one of you admits, “My interpretation might be wrong.”

Two ancient Proverbs on this topic.

1) “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”

2) “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.”

Four practical things a mind reader can do to break this habit.

1) Check the accuracy of your speculations, “I have a feeling you’re mad. Am I right?” If they say no, believe them.

2) Get in the habit of coming up with alternative explanations why your spouse does what they do. “He’s silent because he’s problem solving.” “She cleaned the kitchen because it was messy.” “He was late for dinner because of traffic.” “She forgot the milk because the kids were distracting.”

3) Look inside yourself and see if mind reading is a subconscious plot to provoke your spouse, reinforce negative self esteem, feed your anxiety monster, or conjure certainties in a world of uncertainty.

4) Look at the lens through which you look at life. If it’s negative, change it. If we can’t change our spouse we can change our view of our spouse.

What Was I Thinking?

"I've tried to manage my irrational thoughts but needed a hobby that wasn't so hard."

“I’ve tried to manage my irrational thoughts but needed a hobby that wasn’t so hard.”

 

I recently watched two movies about Hitler’s confiscation and destruction of the world’s great art, The Monuments Men and The Rape of Europa. My sadness, anger, and hatred for Nazis grew until I realized I was crying over paintings and not the horrendous evil of gas chambers. What was I thinking valuing paintings over people?

 

This reminded me of my childhood love of sci-fi movies and how I’d cheer when Godzilla leveled Tokyo but cried like a baby when Old Yeller died. What was I thinking valuing dogs over people?

 

This reminded me of other ways my mind plays tricks on me.

 

Last year I bought a tablet without batting an eye. I paid dearly for it. A short while later I donated some clutter to a local second hand store and received a coupon, “$3.00 off if you spend $10.00.” Sweet! I went inside and found $9.00 worth of stuff to buy but couldn’t find that last one dollar item to earn the $3.00 savings. I agonized over this, passing by two dollar items because I only needed a one dollar item. I must have spent a half an hour sweating over ways to spend one dollar in order to earn a $3.00 savings all the while forgetting I spent one hundred times that for the tablet. What was I thinking?

 

Hand me a revolver that holds a million bullets saying, “Spin the chamber and play Russian roulette,” and I’ll say, “Forget it! I might lose!” Hand me a lottery ticket with the odds of one in a million and I’ll say, “Thanks! I might win!” What am I thinking?

 

I often write in my journal, “I’ve got too much paper! I’ve got to get rid of this clutter!” and then file that stupid note with millions of other pieces of paper on which I’ve written, “I’ve got too much paper!” What am I thinking?

 

Decades ago I took a kid (not my own) fishing and we didn’t catch anything for hours. But just when that kid adjusted his baseball hat he caught a fish! He said, “I’m going to adjust my hat again and see if I get another one!” Wouldn’t you know it, he adjusted his hat and caught another fish. We spent the rest of the afternoon stupidly adjusting our hats convinced there was a relationship with hat adjusting and fish catching. This is how superstitions are born! What were we thinking?

 

It’s embarrassing to admit how many times on-line I’ve clicked, “I have read and agree to these Terms and Conditions” without reading a word of it. I sometimes leave the house with the radio and porch light on to create the deceptive illusion that I am home. For a guy who values the truth I sure lie a lot. What am I thinking?

 

I grouse when I pay extra for organic fruits and veggies, whine when I pay $5.00 for one measly teabag and a squirt of vanilla at a coffee shop, and complain when gas prices go up ten cents. These are all tangible products I use and enjoy. At the same time I shell out way more money for intangible products I don’t enjoy and will likely never use: car insurance, health insurance, life insurance, home insurance, professional liability insurance, cell phone insurance, and insurance on my office rental. Isn’t this called, “Straining at gnats and swallowing camels?” What am I thinking?

 

Against all evidence to the contrary, I entertain the fantasy that someday my collection of hand made paper round charts (volvelles), clipped New Yorker cartoons, and mixed metaphors will be worth money. The hope that springs eternal isn’t always rational. What am I thinking?

 

My consolation: at least I know I am irrational. It’d be really sad if my brain was on the blink and I didn’t know it.

 

How about you? What are you thinking?

 

When Optimists and Pessimists Marry

glass half full

“The glass is half empty AND half full!”

Some people are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias. Either by training or temperament they:

  • Walk around feeling lucky, blessed, cheerful.
  • Don’t need to be told they are lucky. They already feel it.
  • Look on the bright side of everything.
  • Are resilient when things go awry.
  • Dodge depression, illness, and anxiety.
  • Live longer, take better care of their health, adapt to hardship more readily than pessimists.
  • Take greater risks in business, invention, and investments.
  • Think failure happens to others, not them.
  • Inspire morale in employees, loan officers, family, and friends.
  • Are persistent in the face of obstacles.

But not all is rosy in optimistic land. Optimists also tend to:

  • View the world more benign than it actually is.
  • View their attributes more favorably than they actually are.
  • Think goals are more achievable than they actually are.
  • Exaggerate their ability to forecast the future and predict outcomes.
  • Think they are being prudent and cautious when they are not.
  • Gamble more than most.
  • Throw good money after bad.
  • Confuse optimism with delusions.

Some famous optimists: Pollyanna “Let’s play the glad game,” Winnie the Pooh, “Oh joy, oh rapture” and Baloo, “Accentuate the positive.” Some famous pessimists: Eeyore and Puddleglum.

When optimists marry optimists both are happy. When pessimists marry pessimists both are happy.

But in a mixed marriage the pessimist says to the optimist, “You’re so unrealistic!”

And the optimist says to the pessimist, “You’re such a downer!”

Solution? Mutual influence. Optimists do well to let the realism of the pessimist temper their over confidence, and pessimists do well to let the hope of the optimists temper their doom and gloom.

When optimists and pessimists work together they see a half empty glass as full and a full glass as half empty.

Challenging Negative Thoughts When Things Go Bad

blackboardHere’s a handy truth to keep in mind the next time things don’t end well. The end of an experience does not define the beginning and middle of an experience.
 
If on day fourteen of a two week vacation we lose our luggage, it rains cats and dogs, and we run into grouchy people it doesn’t mean the whole vacation was crummy. And yet we’re prone to think the whole vacation was a disaster even if the first thirteen days were great. 
 
If we enjoy 40 minutes of musical bliss listening to a vinyl record but the last minute has a scratch on it, we tend to think, “The whole record was ruinied!” conveniently overlooking the first 39 minutes of pure enjoyment.
 
If a pregnancy goes well but the delivery is hard mommies tend to treat the whole pregnancy as an ordeal (so I hear).
 
If the last years of a long and fruitful life end in a depressing nursing home it doesn’t mean that person’s whole life was depressing. Yet we are prone to equate how a life ends with how it was lived in the beginning and middle.
 
If a 400 page novel engages, inspires, entertains, and delights but has a crummy ending we tend to forget the 399 pages of enjoyment.
 
If a long term marriage ends in a painful divorce people tend to think their whole marriage was bad, forgetting the fun times in the beginning and middle.
 
Our tendency to let a bad ending color the beginning and middle of a good experience seems unavoidable, doesn’t it? 
 
But try it out. See if you can catch yourself letting a bad end define the whole thing. 
  • Don’t let a bad dessert erase the memory of a great dinner.
  • Don’t let your teenager’s surliness erase the good memories of that first step, first word, first day of school.
  • Don’t let a repair bill when something breaks erase all the years that stove, car, tent, bike, computer, or lawnmower worked great.
It will be hard at first but by learning to resist letting an unpleasant end of an experience define the whole experience we’ll have happier memories, less discouragement, and greater control over a mind that’s prone to negativity. 
 

Retribution and Snoopy

Peanuts.Retribution.PE4

I wish I had Snoopy’s courage to stick my tongue out at those who link suffering with sin. The tendency to attribute trials and tribulations to retribution is problematic on so many levels.

  1. Claims that suffering is divine punishment can’t be falsified and falsification is one of the ways we establish truth. The claim that all swans are white can be falsified by producing a black swan. The claim that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit can be falsified by boiling water at a different temperature. There’s no way to falsify the claim that tornadoes hit lands with laws that displease God.
  2. Claims of retribution are inconsistent. “If a brothel burns down it’s holy justice; if a church burns down it’s divine mystery.” Huh?
  3. Claims that sin lurks behind disease is cruel. I’m no fan of blaming the victim.
  4. Claims that tragedies are acts of divine retribution for sin contradict the words of Jesus who said, “What about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? I tell you no!”
  5. Claims that sickness happens to those who do wrong is absurd when one considers the suffering of my saintly wife.
  6. Claims that benefits happen to those who do right is absurd when one considers Job, Ecclesiastes, and the writer of Psalm 73.

So, Ms. Lucy, I must agree with Snoopy on this one. Your kind deserve to be bleahed!

If You Were A Coach For The Worry Olympics

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If You Were a Coach at the Worry Olympics

Most people trying to overcome the worry habit invest a ton of energy avoiding, fighting, and ignoring their worries. And those strategies work for many. But counselors know that some worries are so stubborn, so nettlesome, and so vexing that a different approach is needed.

Here’s a new way to overcome the worry habit: pretend you’re a worry coach and you’re getting your team ready for the Worry Olympics. How would you train calm and cheerful people to become first class worriers?

  1. List the Benefits of Worrying (motivate each team member to embrace the goal of worry)
  • Worry motivates me.
  • Worry helps me solve my problems.
  • Worry keeps me from being surprised.
  • Worrying is a great way to spend my time.
  • Worrying makes me a responsible and valuable human.

II.  List things to worry about (the longer the list the less your team will relax)

  • We’ll worry when bad things happen. This would give the team only a few things to worry about since the best worriers worry only about things that haven’t happened yet.
  • We’ll worry when bad things are about to happen. This would give the team even fewer things to worry about since we never know when something bad is going to happen.
  • We’ll worry about bad things we imagine might happen. Now you’ve given the team an infinite number of things to worry about.

III.  Find evidence for impending doom (turn the team’s molehills into mountains)

  • If I think it, it must be true.
  • My thoughts create reality.
  • My elevated heart rate proves my worrisome thoughts are accurate.
  • Statistics, studies, and odds in my favor are all bogus.
  • Things are not merely correlated, they’re causal! 

IV.  Eliminate distractions to worry (help your team stay focused)

  • Avoid faith, hope, love, and prayer
  • Avoid friends, hobbies, and work
  • Avoid family, romance, and sleep
  • Avoid everything that gets our minds off of worry

V.  Create worry-prone neural pathways in the brain (develop the team’s worry habit)

  • Remind the team of all the bad things that could happen.
  • Repeat this mantra over and over, “What if…what if…what if…?”
  • Imagine all worst case scenarios.
  • Tell yourself that if it’s possible it’s probable.
  • Reinforce worry by engaging in superstitious rituals (checking, washing, ruminating).

VI.  Remove all uncertainty from the team (demand 100% certainty about everything)

  • Obsess over “why?” questions.
  • Avoid reading books on probability, randomness, and the law of large numbers.
  • Make the team prove they’ll never get laid off, sick, broke, old, die, or rejected by others.
  • Treat everything like an emergency…solve all problems right now!
  • Reject anyone who reassures them things aren’t as bleak as they imagine.

VII.  Reinforce worries with Google (feed the team’s adrenaline addiction by finding sites run by…)

  • Conspiracy theorists
  • Fear mongers
  • Hand wringers
  • Snake oil salesmen
  • Pessimists

Do you want to get over the worry habit? Do the opposite of this list.