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  • Kevin Patton

Flexible Thinking

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

In this blog, we’re going to explore how helpful and unhelpful feelings affect us, the importance of changing unhelpful ways of thinking and how to use psychological flexibility to accept yourself and what you are feeling.

We all have emotions at times that can lead to unhealthy outcomes and, if this happens regularly, it can be destructive.


Think about an extremely stressful event that happened recently:

Review how you felt and how strongly you felt about it by putting a check mark next to the feeling and rating its intensity Moderate or High (M or H):

____ angry ____ guilty ____ anxious _______ depressed

Remember what you did (how did you behave?)

Was your behaviour helpful? Did it help solve the problem in the short-term?

Did your behaviour help solve the problem in the long-term?

Did your extreme feelings help you to think clearly and solve the problem or deal with the upsetting event?

In order for you to think clearly and thus effectively handle stressful situations and solve practical problems, you first have to find a way of living with difficult emotions.

The first step is to become more aware of your habitual emotional stress reactions and to understand clearly that they are not helping you get what you want. Once you are motivated to change how you react to situations, you are then ready to change those things you can change and to accept (though not like) those things you cannot change.

Regardless of what your problem is – whether it is a physical illness, a difficult relationship, a work situation, a financial crisis, the loss of a loved one, a severe injury, or a clinical disorder such as depression - when we dissect the problem, we usually find four major elements that contribute significantly to the issue.

Entanglement With Thoughts

Memories, worries, fears, self-criticisms, or other unhelpful thoughts that you dwell on, or get “caught up” in can make the emotion stronger.

What thoughts do you allow to hold you back or push you around or bring you down?

Struggle With Feelings

Trying to block out emotions, feelings, urges, impulses, or sensations usually ends up in them coming back stronger.

What feelings do you fight with, avoid, suppress, try to get rid of, or otherwise struggle with?

Avoiding Challenging Situations

Avoiding or staying away from situations, activities, people or places sets you up and makes them harder to deal with the next time, making it more likely that you‟ll avoid them, making it even harder, and so on….

What have you quit, withdrawn from, dropped out of? What do you keep “putting off” until later?

Life-draining Actions

Some of the things we do to cope with our difficult emotions actually make our life worse in the long term.

What are you doing that keeps you stuck; wastes your time or money; drains your energy; restricts your life, impacts negatively on your health, work or relationships and maintains or worsens your problems?

Do you see the old woman? Do you see the young woman? Can you see them both at the same time?

What we experience has as much to do with what’s in our head as it

does with what’s going on in our lives.

Upset feelings are usually caused by the way we are thinking about what is happening, not the events themselves. To change the way you deal with your feelings (and start living better), try the following "exchange vocabulary."

When you first try this new way of thinking, it might not feel right. The more you do it, however, the more natural these realistic beliefs will become. I think you will like the results, but prove it for yourself by giving it a fair try. Good luck

Instead of Saying: Try Saying: Must Prefer Should Choose To Have To Want Can't Choose Not To Ought Had Better All Many Always Often Can't Stand Don't Like Awful Highly Undesirable Bad Person Bad Behaviour I am a Failure I Could Do Better At

Instead of Saying: Exchange With: I have to do well. I want to do well. You shouldn't do that. I prefer you not do that. You never help me. You rarely help me. I can't stand my job. I don't like my job. You are a bad boy. I don’t like that behaviour. I'm a loser. I didn’t do well at this one task. I need love. I want love, but don't need it.

Unhelpful Feeling Words vs Helpful Feeling Words

Unhelpful Helpful

Anxiety Concern Depression Sadness Anger Annoyance Shame Regret Hurt Disappointment Jealousy Concern for relationship Guilt Remorse

Add your own!

Coping with Difficult Feelings It‟s important to look at the impact that constricting emotions have on us, and how to work on natural expansive emotions.

Feeling bad when bad things happen is natural, so you don‟t need to make things worse for yourself by fusing with constricting emotions. For example, feeling sad is a natural emotion when something bad has happened; however, feeling depressed is an emotion that shuts us down and prevents us living a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Let’s look at a very common emotion: GUILT

It was Friday night and Bob was in the pub with his mates. One of Bob’s friends offered him some cocaine which Bob felt like using but he didn’t have a lot of money on him. He just had enough for a few beers and a present for his girlfriend who was turning 30 on Monday.

Bob thought to himself that he could buy some cocaine off his mate as he was owed money from Peter who was paying him on Saturday. Bob had quite a mad night and felt pretty groggy the next day. He tried to contact Peter who didn’t answer his phone. This left Bob with a problem as he did not have any money left to buy a present for his girlfriend.

Monday came and Bob felt very guilty for not having a present for his partner, who was not happy with him.

Bob felt guilty (an unhelpful emotion) – and this is how it turned out

Type of thinking: Rigid and demand based. Bob concluded he had done a bad thing and assumed more personal responsibility than is legitimate. He felt some form of punishment was deserved. He thought “I‟m useless”.

Focus of attention: Bob looked for more evidence of his wrong doing, or looked for evidence that other people felt he had done wrong.

Behaviour: He wanted to escape from guilt in self-defeating ways, begging for forgiveness, punishing himself and trying and make excuses

INSTEAD, He might look at the situation differently and feel remorse (a natural expansive emotion) but experience the following:

Type of thinking: Flexible and preference-based. You look at actions in context and with understanding and do not seek punishment. “I wish I hadn’t spent the money, but I regrettably did”.

Focus of attention: He doesn't look for further evidence he has “sinned‟ or look for it in others (look at it as Peter fault). He looks at how he can be with his partner and help them enjoy their birthday.

Behaviour: He faces up to the healthy pain that comes with knowing he should have done something different. He can ask for, but should not beg forgiveness. Bob understands that what he did was wrong but is not defensive or excuse making.

It is important to be realistic – If he keeps feeling guilty, he may end up doing more and more unhelpful things to remove the discomfort and avoid reality.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and move on!

Sometimes, we fixate on a negative experience and lose sight of all the positive things going on in our lives.

The Costs of Avoidance Avoidance is a safety behaviour by which we tell ourselves we are coping by not having to cope. When feelings of discomfort appear, we find ways of not experiencing them.

Avoidance is one of the most common defence mechanisms in stressful situations.

Procrastination is another form of avoidance where we put off to tomorrow those things that we can avoid today.

Complete the following sentences:

The thoughts I’d most like to get rid of are:

The feelings I’d most like to get rid of are:

The sensations I’d most like to get rid of are:

The memories I’d most like to get rid of are:

Take some time to think of every single thing you’ve tried in order to avoid or get rid of these unpleasant thoughts or feelings. Try to remember every strategy you have ever used (whether deliberately or by default). Below is a guide to help you:

Distraction: list everything you have ever done to distract yourself from, or „zone out‟, or take your mind off these painful thoughts, feelings, sensations or memories.

Opting out: list all the activities, interests, events, people, or places that you have avoided or withdrawn from, and all the opportunities you have missed out on, because you did not feel good or wanted to avoid feeling bad:

Thinking strategies: Think of all the different ways of thinking you have tried (deliberately or unintentionally) when painful thoughts and feelings started showing up.

I've made a note of the most common ones here Worrying Dwelling on the past Fantasizing about the future Imagining escape scenarios (eg leaving your job or your partner) Imagining revenge scenarios Imagining suicide scenarios Thinking "It's not fair …‟ Thinking "If only ….‟ Thinking of killing yourself Blaming yourself Blaming others Blaming the world Talking logically to yourself Talking positively to yourself Talking negatively to yourself Analyzing yourself (trying to figure out why you are like this) Analyzing the situation (trying to figure out why this happened) Analyzing others (trying to figure out why they are like this)

Any Others? Substances: list all the substances you have ever used to try and feel better, including foods, drinks, cigarettes, recreational drugs, and prescription drugs

Think about anything else you have ever tried to make yourself feel a bit better, or not so bad, when these painful thoughts and feelings showed up.

Once you’ve done that, go through your list and for each item, ask yourself:

1. Did this get rid of my painful thoughts and feelings in the long term?

2. Did it bring me closer to a rich, full, and meaningful life?

3. If the answer to question 2 is “no”, then what did this cost me in terms of time, energy, money, health, relationships, and vitality?

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