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CBT

The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

Having goals, dreams and desires implies looking forward and planning ahead. However, focus on the future is often accompanied by worries about hypothetical situations. Indeed, the things we care about the most are often ambiguous and unknowable. Because humans are hard-wired to prefer certainty to uncertainty, we experience this ambiguity as highly uncomfortable, even distressing. Considering that the future is uncertain and that being faced with the unknown is uncomfortable, we tend to develop strategies to avoid or reduce uncertainty. These may work in the short term. When intolerance to uncertainty becomes the rule, however, striving to eliminate it altogether paradoxically contributes to increased anxiety and suffering, and ultimately impedes our ability to reach our goals (Dugas, Gosselin & Ladouceur, 2001).

According to Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of Things May Go Horribly Terribly Wrong (a perfect title for a book on uncertainty), the first step to changing the way we relate to the unknown is to become aware of the myriad strategies we engage in to neutralize ambiguity (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

The list below may be helpful to begin thinking about which intolerance to uncertainty tactics we engage in the most and to prompt reflection on what uncertainty means to us.

1. Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?

Approach Strategies:

  • Worrying to “solve” uncertainty. Worries are often plans, predictions and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel “productive” to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an “intolerance to uncertainty strategy” and only leads to more worry.

  • Reassurance seeking. Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to “feel certain”. Ex: Asking a loved one if they love you multiple times a day, asking multiple sources about an upcoming decision, getting second and third opinions…

  • Searching online. Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and, ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that intolerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones. Ex: Googling health questions as they occur, searching through someone’s or one’s own social media, excessive online-researching before making a decision (Carleton et. al, 2019).

  • Double checking. Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more. Ex: Repetitive checking of one’s bank account and email, repetitive-checking that the door is locked, double-checking the route to get to a destination.

  • Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting. To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.

Avoidance Strategies

  • Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Will I be able to succeed? Am I good enough? Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing (Rassin & Murris, 2005).

  • Avoiding new opportunities. Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether. Ex: turning down a promotion for fear of not being good enough, not going to a party with new friends, not travelling to unknown places.

  • Cognitive avoidance. Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.

Beliefs about uncertainty

  • It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.

  • Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.

  • Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go (“I will not be able to manage”).

  • Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.

As mentioned, everyone uses some of these strategies some of the time. Intolerance to uncertainty becomes most problematic when reliance on these types of strategies interferes with what’s most important to us.

2. Observe and notice: What are the costs?

The second step is to become aware of how regular use of these strategies interferes with one’s goals, relationships and general wellbeing. We may ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Are worries about the future getting in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment?

  • How much time am I spending trying to “solve” uncertainty? What else could I be doing?

  • What meaningful experiences am I avoiding or putting off due to intolerance to uncertainty?

  • Does my intolerance to uncertainty affect my relationships with loved ones?

3. Observe, notice and feel: Sitting with it. The final step implies doing the opposite of efforts to move away from uncertainty. In fact, it involves leaning into it and requires the willingness to experience its discomfort. If the only thing that is certain in life is that life is fundamentally uncertain, then acceptance of uncertainty, in all its discomfort, is necessary. Allowing oneself to simply experience ambiguity is not to love it, but to learn that it is both uncomfortable and tolerable.

  • How to sit with uncertainty? When resisting the urge to engage in strategies to reduce uncertainty, take a moment to explore your internal experience. Identify what you are feeling. Observe the sensations in your body, notice the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts. Remember, no matter how intense your thoughts and emotions become, they are temporary and they will pass. It may be helpful to remind yourself of the following coping statements: “This too shall pass”, “I do not know and it is okay”, “It is uncomfortable and I can feel it”, “It is uncertain, I do not need to solve it”.

  • For more information on sitting with difficult emotions, see this blog post.

4. Be flexible. The objective of these steps is not to eliminate our response of discomfort towards uncertainty. It is alright and normal to worry and feel anxiety at times. Rather, the objective is to become aware of how consistent efforts to not feel discomfort get in the way of engaging in experiences that are unknowable and likely to also be highly meaningful such as connecting with others and moving towards goals (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

Building tolerance to uncertainty is like strengthening a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes!


Rhea Marshall-Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 48(2), 121-136.

Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.

Rassin, E., & Muris, P. (2005). Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1285-1291.

Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). Things might go terribly, horribly wrong: A guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

CORE BELIEFS - A WAY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND AND EMPOWER OURSELVES

CORE BELIEFS - A WAY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND AND EMPOWER OURSELVES

Meet April. She is a young woman who is content at her job but struggles in relationships. She feels quite down and disconnected from others at times. She has good friends that she has fun with, but she doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to them when she is having a hard time. She finds romantic relationships to be very challenging, and notices that she can get quite anxious when she starts to feel vulnerable with someone. Sometimes she wonders whether she is better off alone, but at other times she feels lonely and wishes she could feel closer to people. She has been to therapy on and off over the years to work on improving her relationships.

Therapy is an opportunity to take the time to get to know ourselves better, and to work on goals that are meaningful to us. An important part of this process can be to acknowledge the parts of us that drive our feelings and actions, that can operate beneath the surface. For April, these are the parts that she struggles with- sometimes she feels that she doesn’t quite understand herself, or know what she wants.

Let me introduce you to core beliefs. For those who are familiar with cognitive behavioural therapy, this may be a concept you have heard of (see here for a description of CBT).

 

So first of all, what are core beliefs?

These are the beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Core beliefs are deep-seated, and act as a lens through which we see ourselves and the world. These beliefs often go unrecognised, and yet they constantly affect our lives. They are fashioned by our experiences, our upbringing, and significant figures in our lives.

 

How to identify our core beliefs

A helpful exercise is to practice completing thought records to better understand the automatic thoughts that influence your emotions and reactions. Over time, you can start to identify themes from your thought records. You may notice that certain situations seem to be particularly sensitive for you, or that particular thoughts may re-occur. You can ask yourself questions like “What does this thought mean about me as a person?” “What is it about this thought that bothers me so much?” “If this thought is true, what does it imply? About me? My future? Other people? The world?” You may have particular memories associated with these thoughts or experiences, and have a sense of what makes them poignant to you (think back to significant people and experiences in your life).  

Through using thought records, April realises that one of her core beliefs is that others cannot be trusted. April has had several life experiences that she realises may have fed into this core belief (e.g., having witnessed her parents’ separation and her father’s feeling of betrayal, and having felt judged by her peers growing up when she spoke to them about feeling down). April has developed the belief that others will reject her if she is too open or vulnerable, and has got into the habit of being selective with the personal information that she shares. She keeps people at arms’ length, especially in romantic relationships.

 

How to challenge core beliefs that are unhelpful: a three-step process

1) Gather evidence against your unhelpful core belief (to identify a more balanced core belief. Questions to consider are “What are the experiences that show me that this belief is not true all the time?” “When have I observed something that goes against my core belief?”

In April’s case, this involves asking herself questions like: “When are the times people have been there for me?” “Is it possible that some people might be understanding if I allow myself to share some more vulnerable parts of myself?” She could talk to other people about their experiences in relationships, and how much of themselves they allow themselves to share.

The key thing to remember here is that core beliefs are rigid, and typically provide a “one-size-fits-all” answer. The goal of asking questions and gathering evidence is to allow yourself to be more flexible in your thinking style.

 

2) Behavioural experiments. This is your opportunity to test your core beliefs, by allowing yourself to take risks that your core beliefs would usually prohibit. An important thing to remember is that core beliefs are self-fulfilling, and that we can often avoid putting ourselves in situations that trigger them. This reinforces our belief that they are true, and can feel like a vicious cycle.

For example, in April’s case, she does not allow herself to express her more personal feelings to other people. This means that she never gets to experience what happens when she does. She continues to feel distanced from others and have the impression that they are not dependable. Behavioural experiments for April would involve gradually testing out some of her fears. She could choose someone with whom she feels comfortable, and test out what happens when she allows herself to divulge something personal. This can allow her to compare what happens in real life compared to her fears.

The key thing here is: taking action is important. Allowing yourself to test out some of your fears gradually and to experience the outcome is a great learning experience, and can help you make a more realistic appraisal of your core beliefs.

 

3) Give yourself time!!!  Remember that your core beliefs have been entrenched for a long time, and that they may even have been helpful for you at some point (even if they are not any more). Over time, you can make note of the results of your behavioural experiments, and see how much evidence you can accumulate that allows you to nuance (or even contradict!) your core beliefs. You may also find it helpful to discuss your core beliefs with people you trust, in order to have some more input into the process- and even see how their beliefs differ from yours!

Happy experimenting!


Maeve O'Leary-Barrett is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: A cognitive therapy treatment manual for clients. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Riso, L. P., du Toit, P. L., Stein, D. J., & Young, J. E. (Eds.). (2007). Cognitive schemas and core beliefs in psychological problems: A scientist-practitioner guide. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Wearden, A., Peters, I., Berry, K., Barrowclough, C., Liversidge, T. (2008). Adult attachment, parenting experiences, and core beliefs about self and others. Personality and Individual Differences, 44 (5), 1246-1257.

Le perfectionnisme: un avantage ou un inconvénient?

Le perfectionnisme: un avantage ou un inconvénient?

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Lorsque je me remémore mon parcours académique, je me souviens à quel point il était difficile d'entrer aux études supérieures. Il m'a fallu sans doute (et je soupçonne mes collègues également) une bonne dose de travail acharné mais aussi une dose de perfectionnisme. En clinique, lorsque le thème des exigences élevées et du perfectionnisme est abordé, j'entends souvent la phrase suivante: «Si je ne l'avais pas été, je ne serais probablement pas rendu où je suis aujourd'hui». La question se pose. Dans une société axée sur la performance, est-il avantageux d'être perfectionniste?  Nous pouvons facilement penser aux nombreux bénéfices pouvant découler des attitudes et comportements perfectionnistes (promotion au travail, organisation de la maison, etc.). Par contre, à quel moment et comment peut-on déterminer si le perfectionnisme est néfaste ou devient contre-productif? Pour répondre à cette question, il faut établir la distinction entre le perfectionnisme sain de celui qui est problématique.

Le perfectionnisme sain se caractérise par la présence de standards de performance élevés. Toutefois, les attentes et les critères de réussite demeurent réalistes (ex: selon les capacités et/ou les conditions dans lesquelles la tâche doit être réalisée).  

Voici quelques indications pouvant aider à mieux situer le perfectionnisme sain.

1) Le perfectionnisme sain permet aux individus de retirer une satisfaction personnelle suite aux efforts déployés ou à l’accomplissement d’une tâche.

2) Les attitudes ou comportements associés au perfectionnisme sain ne visent pas uniquement l’approbation des autres ou encore l’évitement de conséquences négatives (ex: crainte d'être critiqué). L'individu ne va donc pas évaluer sa valeur personnelle en fonction de ses performances ou des jugements portés par les autres.

3) Les attitudes ou comportements perfectionnistes sont considérés comme étant flexibles en fonction du contexte et de l’importance de la tâche.

Contrairement au perfectionnisme sain, les attitudes et comportements de l’individu présentant un perfectionnisme problématique sont orientés de façon à obtenir l’approbation des autres ou à éviter certaines conséquences négatives (ex: être jugé négativement) plutôt que sur la satisfaction pouvant découler d’un objectif réalisé. Cette présence de standards personnels élevés peut fréquemment s'accompagner d’une tendance excessive à l’autocritique.

À titre d'exemple, voici quelques indications lorsque le perfectionnisme peut devenir problématique:

1) Les attentes et les standards établis sont difficiles voire impossibles à atteindre;

2) Le perfectionnisme est présent même pour les activités de moins grande importance (ex: est-il vrai que cet objectif doit être atteint?);

3) La présence de standards ou attentes élevés altère la performance (ex: temps déployer à la tâche excessif);

4) le perfectionnisme est fréquemment associé à d’autres difficultés (p.ex., anxiété, dépression, crainte d'être jugée, etc.).

Si jamais vous vous reconnaissez dans la catégorie du perfectionnisme problématique et que cela engendre des conséquences négatives dans votre vie, voici quelques petites suggestions rapides d'exercices utiles:

Remettre en question nos perceptions et nos croyances. Si je fais une erreur au travail, quelles sont les conséquences réelles? Si cela arrivait à un/e de mes collègues, de quelle façon je percevrais la situation? Est-il vrai que cet objectif doit être atteint?

S'exposer à des imperfections. Le but de l'exercice ici est de volontairement s'exposer à des imperfections ou à des erreurs et d'en observer les résultats. Bien souvent, ces exercices permettent de contredire nos perceptions des conséquences que l'on redoute.  Vous pouvez par exemple oublier de faire un dessert lors d'un souper entre amis, envoyer un courriel en ne le relisant qu'une seule fois, défaire un ordre de rangement quelconque ou encore déléguer certaines tâches qu'on aurait tendance à prendre sous notre responsabilité.

Fixer des objectifs réalistes et à prioriser. Pour y arriver, il peut être aidant par exemple de séparer nos tâches à accomplir en sous-tâches, plus réalistes et moins longues.  Les tâches à accomplir peuvent également être classifiées en trois catégories : urgente, importante et peu importante/peut attendre.

Prendre des risques: La peur de faire des erreurs ou d'être jugé peut parfois nous limiter dans certaines activités/sports/loisirs que l'on voudrait entreprendre. Le fait de prendre des risques (ex: participer une activité) et de se focaliser sur le plaisir procuré plutôt que sur le rendement peut contribuer à diminuer nos traits perfectionnistes.


Jacinthe Lemelin est une psychologue à la clinique Connecte Groupe de psychologie de Montréal. L’équipe de Connecte aime bien écrire sur les diverses façons d’améliorer notre santé mentale et inclure la psychologie dans notre vie quotidienne. Pour plus de conseils utiles, consultez les blogues de Connecte, les baladodiffusions, suivez-nous sur Instagram @connectepsychology ou aimez notre page sur Facebook.


Références

Antony, Martin, et Swinson, Richard (1998). When perfect isn't good enough: Strategies for coping with perfectionism. Oakland, CA : New Harbinger.

Boivin, Isabelle et Marchand, André (1996). Le perfectionnisme et les troubles anxieux. Revue Québécoise de psychologie, 17 (1), 131-163.

Ramirez-Basco, Monica (2000). Y’a-t-il des perfectionnistes heureux? Le jour, éditeur.

 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.  

Getting off tilt

Getting off tilt

I’ve been trying some new things and recently I decided to branch out into poker. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the game - keeping track of the odds, reading the other players, deciding on your risk-taking comfort level - that I’ve actually found to be helpful for me in my day to day life. In fact, probably the most useful thing I’ve learned about so far is being “on tilt”.

In poker, when a player in on tilt, it means that their emotions have taken over and reduced their ability to make decisions. So something negative happens like they lose a big pot, and then they get really upset and make decisions in the next hand that are not ideal. And of course, they get into a bit of a spiral, with negative emotions leading to poor decision making, which then leads to more negative emotions and so on. Sound familiar?

We have all had similar experiences - we get really angry, or sad, or frustrated, and then react in an unhelpful way. Maybe we yell at a family member and say something that we regret, or hit someone and end up escalating the situation. All of us know what it’s like to be on tilt, the questions is, how do we right ourselves?

In the moment, Linehan (2014) recommends that we STOP. So we:

  • Stop what we are doing

  • Take some deep breaths

  • Observe what is happening

  • Proceed effectively

The key is to not react impulsively, but to give ourselves time to calm down. See Natsumi’s blog post for other great ways to handle strong emotions.

This is also a wonderful time to put your deep breathing and other relaxation skills to use. Again, inserting some time between the situation and our reaction can only be helpful.

Once you’ve moved past the initial emotion, engaging with your thoughts can be helpful. Is this the worst thing that could happen? Will this matter six months from now? Why has this affected me so strongly? What are other options for reacting that may be more helpful? In cognitive behavioural therapy, the focus is on the thoughts that lead to the emotions, with the goal of reducing unhelpful thinking.

Sometimes, the urge to do something can be overwhelming. However, it’s important to recognise when we are not in a space to make good decisions, and to take the time we need. After all, as a great philosopher once said “To tilt is human, to break out of the cycle is definitely possible with some practice” :)


Ava-Ann Allman is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Linehan, M. (2014). DBT skills training manual: second edition. Guilford Press.