Strange wisdom

Photo by KT on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been noticing lots of things that seem to be true – and at the same time, completely counterintuitive.

Here are some examples:

  • Being kind to yourself sometimes involves doing things you don’t want to do.
  • When changing your behaviour, it helps to start by accepting yourself exactly as you are right now.
  • In order to have a productive day, there are times when the best thing you can do in the moment is – absolutely nothing.
  • If you want someone to listen to you, the most powerful thing you can do is listen to them.
  • When you’re struggling to solve a problem, the solution often appears when you give up and pay attention to something else instead.
  • Sometimes the best way to help another person is to stop trying to help them.

Having previously had a very rigid way of making sense of the world, I’ve found that the more my psychological health improves, the more I am able to tolerate paradoxes, both-this-and-that-ness, not-knowing.

Perhaps my new-found willingness to be in the presence of confusing and apparently contradictory ideas without demanding that one is right and the other wrong has come from learning about Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. DBT is an approach which can be helpful for people who find it difficult to regulate their emotions, thinking and behaviour (particularly those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, eating disorders or addictions, or at risk of suicide or self-harm).

The dialectic at the heart of DBT is this: we can accept ourselves exactly as we are right now, whilst also committing to doing things differently from this point onwards. It invites us to be gentle with ourselves for the things we are not able to control (for example, what happened to us when we were younger, how we behaved in the past when we didn’t know better) and to step up and take responsibility for improving things in the future (by learning to do things in new and healthier ways).

In life (as in DBT) it seems there is a constant balancing to be done, a strangeness to be embraced, a middle path to be found which is neither-this-nor-that.

Increasingly, what I find to be wise and true cannot be expressed directly in language. It shows up in the spaces between words – an oddly beautiful, indescribable thing.

Thinking in colour

It has many names:

  • Black and white thinking
  • Absolutist thinking
  • Dichotomous thinking
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Splitting

Whichever one you choose, the tendency to see things as being all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, all this or all that, is a common type of cognitive distortion.

A cognitive distortion is ‘an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern involved in the onset and perpetuation of psychopathological states’. In other words, an unrealistic way of thinking that interferes with our happiness and psychological health. 

We routinely use thought patterns to conserve time and energy and help us to make sense of the world. We use them to help us predict what will happen, how people will behave, how we will feel – and they often serve us well. But when these patterns are over-simplified, or skewed towards a negative interpretation, we can start to have problems.

A 2018 study found that people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidal thinking are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ language than people who aren’t. Here’s a list of the kind of words the researchers were looking for:

Absolutely – All – Always – Complete – Completely – Constant – Constantly – Definitely – Entire – Ever – Every – Everyone – Everything – Full – Must – Never – Nothing – Totally – Whole

As someone who previously qualified for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and experienced decades of anxiety and depression (conditions which are strongly associated with this kind of language use), I can remember all too well what it felt like to think in these terms. Until a few years ago, if you had climbed inside my head and listened to the inner monologue there, you would have heard a lot of things like:

“It will always be like this.”

“You’ll never get better.”

“They all think so.”

Everything’s gone wrong.”

Nothing helps.”

In fact, at the point when I reached rock bottom, this was all there was to hear. I felt sure I knew how things were and how they always would be. It seems inconceivable now – but at that moment in time, and at many others like it, it felt completely and utterly believable.

So for me, the process of learning to be well has involved learning to think differently. I’ve come to understand that things are rarely as black and white as I used to imagine them to be. I’ve learned to see not just shades of grey, but a whole range of colours that simply weren’t visible before. I’ve found that it takes conscious effort and repeated reinforcement, but little by little, those old patterns of thinking can change.

Occasionally an old pattern will surface – most often when I’m tired or hungry or under a little more pressure than usual – but they rarely hang around for long. Because, as time goes by, I notice that life is infinitely more complex, more changeable, more subtle, more paradoxical, than seemed conceivable before – which makes concepts like ‘always’ and ‘never’ a bit harder to take seriously.

So if you sometimes find yourself imagining that everything is completely, absolutely, entirely and totally a certain way, if you fear that everyone, everywhere is doing something, or that you never, ever will – take a moment, if you can. A moment to stop and breathe and search for some colour in the situation. For some inbetweenness. For some not-quite-this and not-quite-that-ness.

Because somewhere, amidst the messiness and the blurred distinctions, there is relief, I think. The relief of discovering that things are often so much more than we allow them to be.

Music lessons

Years ago, whilst working as piano teacher, I noticed that many beginner students seemed to struggle with one particular thing. Focusing so hard on playing the notes on the page, they would rush from one to the next without allowing them to last their full length, often ignoring the rests altogether. It was as if the notes were all that mattered. It generally took a little while of learning and a bit more confidence for the person to become as comfortable about not-playing as playing. For a recognition to emerge that it was only through allowing everything to take the exact amount of time it needed – even if that meant waiting in silence* – that the piece of music could come alive.

Over the years I’ve noticed a similar tendency showing up in all sorts of other places. The sneaking suspicion that if we’re not doing something, we should be. The inclination to rush from one event from the next, as if it is only when conscious effort is involved that progress is being made.

Through playing eQuoo – The Emotional Fitness Game (created by recent podcast guest, Silja Litvin), I discovered that there’s a name for this tendency to think that doing something is better than doing nothing: the Action Bias.

Whether the pressure to act comes from within ourselves – as an attempt to escape uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty – or from others – like the goalkeeper who chooses to jump right or left in the face of a penalty shoot-out (despite the fact that statistically-speaking it would be better to stand still) simply because ‘doing something’ is expected – it can be hard to resist. And yet, it is so often from times of not-doing that good things emerge.

So here’s to allowing. To silence. To patience. To a willingness to tolerate uncertainty. Here’s to sitting through discomfort. To trusting the process. To planting a seed and allowing it to grow (without feeling the need to dig it up repeatedly, just to check that something’s happening). Not that I’ve ever done that, of course…

*Oh go on then. I can’t help resist linking to this. The ultimate in musical silence. (Some of the YouTube comments are pretty entertaining too…)

On saying yes (and Sesame Street)

One of the most enjoyable sections to write in last week’s A to Z of Behaviour Change was the letter Y.

I was up to my elbows in Yoga and Yodelling and really not getting very far at all when I stumbled across the “Yes….Damn!” Effect. 

I’d never heard of it before but when I read this passage on ‘dynamic inconsistency’ in Wikipedia I recognised it immediately:

People display a consistent bias to believe that they will have more time in the future than they have today. Specifically, there is a persistent belief among people that they are “unusually busy in the immediate future, but will become less busy shortly”. However, the amount of time you have this week is generally representative of the time you have in future weeks. When people are estimating their time and when deciding if they will make a commitment, they anticipate more “time slack” in future weeks than the present week. Experiments by Zauberman & Lynch (2005) on this topic showed that people tend to discount investments of time more than money. They nicknamed this the “Yes…Damn!” effect…

In combination with the ‘planning fallacy’ – our tendency to underestimate how long tasks will actually take to complete – this can cause us problems. 

So if, like me, you often find yourself doing both of these things, here are some ideas that might help:

  • Imagine that the thing you are committing to will actually take twice as long as you imagine. Would you still say yes?
  • Imagine that it is taking place later this week, instead of further in the future. Would you still say yes?
  • Give yourself a day to consider before responding. Do you still say yes?

Of course, if you decide to say no – particularly if you find saying no uncomfortable – that can bring challenges of its own. I’ll write a little about that next week.

p.s. As someone who received much of their early education from Sesame Street, I couldn’t help but wonder how they introduced the letter Y. Turns out ‘Y’ was having time management problems of his own. A classic.