The subject of choice has come up regularly in the therapy room recently. Usually because clients feel that they’re stuck in a given situation.
At the basic level, if something is not right in our lives, we always have three options:
Walk away from it
Change our response to it
And it all comes down to have much control we have over the situation.
One of the questions I ask clients in the therapy room is, ‘What would be different if some aspect of your life was better?’.
Sometimes they say, ‘The sun would be shining.’
Obviously, we have no control over the weather, so if our happiness depends on whether the sun is shining, we’re up a gum tree unless we leave the UK.
But we do have control about what we wear when we go out, what activities we choose to do, whether we decide to go out regardless of the weather or to adapt our plans.
Another common response is, ‘My partner / boss / colleague wouldn’t be so bad-tempered.’
If we’re unhappy about someone’s else’s behaviour then we usually only have two options, walk away or change our response.
We cannot directly change someone else’s behaviour unless they’re motivated to change.
Walking away isn’t always practical.
But changing our response to how someone else behaves is absolutely, 100%, in our control. And it’s weird how, when we interact differently with someone, they often adapt their responses. I’ve seen huge shifts in client’s relationships for the better, simply because they chose to deal with the other person’s behaviour differently.
I remember when I worked in IT, we often found ourselves working at client sites where we weren’t welcome. They saw outside consultants as a threat and it meant that we had to be very diplomatic in our dealings with sensitive staff.
On one project I worked alongside an older client manager who was determined to make life difficult for me. No matter how hard I tried, he would not share information that we needed to progress the project. I pulled out all the stops and tried hard not to come across as threatening. I could fully understand how difficult it must be for him and his colleagues, so I was as pleasant and accommodating as I knew how. But I just met with outright hostility.
After several months of his aggressive behaviour, I’d had enough. I decided ‘no more Mr Nice Guy’, so I switched off the charm and became completely matter-of-fact. Not rude, I just stopped trying to cajole him.
Within hours he went to my boss and said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with Debbie, she’s not her usual cheerful self’. He was genuinely concerned.
From then on, he only saw the cheerful me when he co-operated in some way, and gradually our relationship improved.
By changing my approach to the relationship, he adapted his behaviour.
And this same principle of changing our response to situations is key to being able to cope with whatever life throws us. We may not be able to change things directly. We can’t always walk away.
But once we recognise that, at some level, we are choosing how to respond to unhelpful situations, all kinds of possibilities open up.
We all have the power to choose.
When clients seek help with anxiety, they sometimes think that if they can just learn how, they would never feel anxious.
But that wouldn’t be a good thing. Feelings of anxiety arise because our fight-flight system detects danger. Our heart rate increases, our stomachs churn and we go sweaty. We might feel light-headed, irritable or begin to tremble. These symptoms crop up because our nervous system is preparing us to fight or flee in the face of danger.
If we were to switch off the fight-flight system forever, we might not recognise a dangerous situation until it was too late. So even the calmest amongst us can rest assured that if we are in genuine and immediate danger, our inner protection system will kick in.
It’s all a question of degree. If a vicious dog is running towards you, it’s entirely appropriate that your fight-flight system would kick in. You would absolutely want it to. But it’s not appropriate if fight-flight kicks in when you merely want to leave the house, speak up at a meeting or meet a friend for coffee.
So, our aim in therapy is to help you manage your fight-flight system so that you recognise the inner warning bell and respond appropriately. And that means recognising that sometimes we can mistake ‘innocent’ signals as anxiety.
A classic example is hunger. If your blood sugar levels drop you may feel like your stomach is churning, you may feel light-headed, shaky and irritable. These symptoms are very similar to anxiety.
In fact, the same neural networks that trigger hunger sensations also trigger the stress response, so it’s no wonder we can mistake hunger for fear.
Of course, hunger is easily remedied by having something to eat. But if you don’t recognise that your symptoms are caused by hunger, you can begin to convince yourself that you’re in danger, your anxiety increases and then you end up in a self-fulfilling loop.
So the next time you start to feel a bit on edge, do a self-diagnostic to work out whether it’s just that you need to eat something.
As the Snickers commercial says, ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’.
When you sit down to enjoy a cuppa, do you remember putting the water in the kettle, switching it on, getting a tea bag from the tea caddy and putting it in your mug? Waiting for the kettle to boil, filling the mug with hot water, taking out the teabag at just the right moment and adding the perfect amount of milk? Do you even remember whether you had to wash your mug first, or did you grab a clean one?
Chances are, if you’re like most of us, you don’t recall doing every minute action to make that cup of tea, you did them automatically. But perfectly safely.
And yet there would have been a time when you had to consciously think about every manoeuvre. You would have taken extra care because of handling boiling water and you would have concentrated hard on keeping the mug level while you carried it to the table without spilling any.
So, how did you reach a point when you’re so unaware of the process that it’s almost as if the tea appeared from nowhere.
The answer is repetition. You’ve made tea tens of thousands of times, so the pathways in your brain that represent ‘tea making’ are nicely embedded. The connections between the nerve cells are so strong, they fire automatically once you initiate the sequence.
And it’s the same with any task that you do over and over again, driving, brushing your teeth, using the phone, drying your hair. You’ve done these things so many times you don’t have to apply any conscious effort. They have become subconscious habits.
There’s a very good reason for this. If we had to apply our conscious attention to every waking action, we would have no capacity for learning something new. So, once something’s been repeated often enough, we can do it automatically.
And that frees our conscious mind up for learning new skills.
The same principle applies to how we respond to situations. If we have developed a habit of caving in when someone is being unreasonable, or getting angry when the traffic makes us late, or feeling anxious in social settings, then these responses are as automatic as making a cup of tea or brushing our teeth.
So they feel ‘natural’. They feel as if they are the right thing to do in those circumstances.
That’s fine, if your responses work well for you. If you have peace of mind and feel like you’re leading an enjoyable, fulfilled life. If you get to the end of the day feeling nicely satisfied and looking forward to the future with optimism and enthusiasm.
But if you’re stressed, anxious, angry, feeling down or lonely, maybe your automatic responses are not serving you well.
So, what’s to be done?
Well, changing your automatic thoughts is just like learning any new skill. At first you have to apply some conscious effort, just like you would do if you were learning to play a musical instrument.
But if you apply yourself and repeat the new behaviour regularly and consistently it will become an automatic, subconscious response.
And when your default reaction to situations is one of ‘I got this’, life becomes so much more enjoyable.
As a therapist I see many clients who want to make big changes in their lives.
It may be that they want to overcome lifelong anxiety, become more confident in social settings or instil order in a chaotic, overwhelming lifestyle. And they often feel helpless, as if their issues are insurmountable. They are disheartened at the thought of the huge task ahead.
And that’s because they are looking at the task as a whole, rather than as a series of small, do-able steps.
And as we say in the Solution Focused world: ‘Small steps can lead to big changes’.
In our work together I encourage the client to picture the first small step towards their goal. And I mean, small step. Typical answers might be:
- Open the living room curtains – the first step in decluttering hoarded items that have been a source of stress
- Wash their hair – the first step in feeling more confident when they leave the house
- Buy some bin bags so they can empty the shredder – the first step in getting on top of a mound of household paperwork
Taking action, no matter how small, makes them feel good. It provides motivation to do the next step, and the next. And before they know it, they’re well on the way to achieving their preferred future.
So, if there’s something you want to achieve that seems daunting and you don’t know where to start, here are a few top tips:
- Just start – anywhere, it doesn’t matter. Just make a start and that will give you the spark needed to build momentum
- Break the task into small, do-able steps. If the step is too big or complex, you’ll run out of steam before you complete it
- Focus on the next step only. If you keep thinking about the whole staircase, it will be overwhelming and demotivating
- Commit to spending a set time each day / week towards your goal. That might be half an hour a day, or half a day a week
- Congratulate yourself on each small achievement along the way Reward yourself in some way, maybe having a cuppa or listening to your favourite music
- Keep reminding yourself of how good you’re going to feel when the whole task is complete
- Track your progress, either draw a grid and colour in a square for each achievement, or create a Pie Chart. If you’re really techie, use a project tracking tool like Trello
And remember: Small steps can lead to big changes.
Two of the underpinning principles of Solution Focused work are:
If it works, do more of it
If it’s not working, do something different
Sounds simple, right? Blindingly obvious? Maybe.
But you’d be surprised how often we fall into a habit of continuing to do things, even though they’re not working for us. It can be small things, like having to move six things out of the way to get to the kitchen appliance you use regularly. Spending 10 minutes reorganising the cupboard could make that so much simpler. Or it could be big things like continuing with a volunteering commitment that once inspired you, but now fills you with dread. Taking time out to re-evaluate your priorities and deciding to step away could release so much mental energy.
I often quote the saying, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’. So if you want a different outcome, do something different.
The flip side of the coin is when we fail to notice when things are working well and tell ourselves a story that ‘there’s nothing good in my life’.
When I’m explaining this to clients, I use the example of being at work and having a pretty productive day. But before you finish up, you take a call from the client-from-hell. They’re really angry about something and vent all their frustrations on you. Nothing you can say will placate them and they hang up before you can resolve the issue. You get home, and your partner says, ‘How was work?’. Chances are you say, something like ‘It was awful. I had this really horrible call from a client who was really aggressive’. You’ve forgotten that most of your day was absolutely fine.
And it can be like that in life. One of the features of being anxious or depressed is that our brains can play tricks on us. We can become convinced that we’ve never been happy, or we’ve never had a moment when we’ve been free from anxiety, or we’ve never stood up for ourselves. Our memories become distorted. But it feels real.
Part of my job as a therapist is to help people identify what’s working, even when life seems hopeless. And it comes as a pleasant surprise when clients start to identify times when things weren’t quite as bad. When they were able to have a relaxed conversation without second guessing themselves, when they popped to the shop without taking Imodium or when they immersed themselves in the pages of a good novel.
These are small wins but are hugely significant in recognising that there are things that are going well. And as we say, if it works, do more of it.
The aim of therapy is to help clients gain a clearer perspective on what works and what doesn’t. Once they have that clarity, they can make better choices about how to use their valuable time and mental energy.