Do You Think
Like a Hare?

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August 2012

Most of us know the fable of the hare and the tortoise. The tortoise challenged the hare to a race. The hare thought the tortoise was mad and accepted the challenge, after all, how on earth did the tortoise think he could possibly win?

The race began. The hare zoomed off. The tortoise set off at his usual steady plod. 

Before long the hare was way ahead so he took the opportunity to stop for a nap. But the hare fell fast asleep. He slept so soundly that he didn’t notice the tortoise come plodding past until it was too late. The tortoise crossed the finish in front and won the race.

When we are very young we are all quite happy to be tortoises. Our world is made up of people who are bigger and wiser than we are, who can do things faster and better than we can. As little tortoises we aren’t deterred but we keep trying again and again...

The baby eventually manages to pull itself up and stand on its feet. As the days pass it moves around the furniture, hanging on. In time it will take a few faltering steps unaided. It will fall over again and again and there will at times be tears. But the baby will get up and try it again... and again... and again...  As many times as it takes. 

When do we lose that tendency?

little boy playing with footballif at first you don't succeed - keep trying

As the years pass and we get more accomplished at various tasks of everyday living, we also appear to lose the ability to be a tortoise.  I recall my own children, when I showed them how to sew on a button or iron a shirt, whining and asking me to do it for them because I could do it quicker. At which point I reminded them that I could only do it quicker due to years of practice!

It seems that once we become hares in some respects, after years of practice and experience, we tend to start believing that we will then be hares at everything or we won’t do it at all. I can think of no other reason why I am so often confronted by people who, when instructed in the skills which they need to practise in order to reverse various anxiety tendencies or negative thinking habits, come and tell me that they couldn’t do it or that it doesn’t work! On closer questioning it turns out that they have only attempted it a handful of times, then given up. The tortoise mentality of childhood having been superseded by the adult hare thinking. 

Why do we do this? Why do we assume that simply because we have acquired a certain proficiency in many everyday skills, that we will not still have to apply the tortoise slow and steady mentality to learning new ones?

Negative thinking habits are instilled in us by our everyday life for many years. People around us focus on the negative rather than the positive, the media throw this at us constantly. At school no doubt it was the bits that we got wrong that attention was drawn to rather than the bits we got right. So whenever we try to learn a new or different way of doing things, or learn something new, all we focus on is the bits we get wrong. The result of this is that unless we are truly dedicated and determined, we tell ourselves that it’s ‘too hard’ and we can’t do it. So we give up.

But if we are going to give up so easily, why are we attempting it in the first place? We spend years, even decades, perfecting our bad habits so what makes us think that we will lose them just because we do something different once or twice?

One of the key concepts of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is COMMITMENT.  This says that once we have identified something which we want to achieve, we commit to achieving it. That means that everything we do must be taking us towards our goal and, if it isn’t, why are we doing it?

All those everyday things which adults consistently attempt and fail - giving up smoking, dieting, learning something new, giving up bad habits, monitoring bad thinking habits and moving our focus elsewhere.... all of these are achievable if we do them the tortoise way.

If you are on a diet and have given up chocolate biscuits, when one is offered instead of telling yourself you can’t have any chocolate biscuits because you’re on a diet, you ask yourself, “Do I really want to be thinner?” If your answer is yes, you tell yourself that you won’t then have a chocolate biscuit on this occasion. You are not giving up chocolate biscuits for ever - you must merely focus on this moment and your choice here and now. That’s what baby steps are about. It’s the here and now and what you do in this one moment that counts. Get each moment right and the results stack up.

In adult life, if we want something enough we need to focus on it and plod towards it, just as we did as babies. We are always too ready to say, “It’s hard!” when something doesn’t happen instantly for us. What we really mean when we say something is ‘hard’ is that it hasn’t happened instantly and we can’t be bothered to persevere. In reality, it isn’t usually ‘hard’ at all, it just requires patience and persistence.

It is easier to persevere when we focus on the path rather than on the goal. If we take pleasure in each baby step we take, regardless of the end result, we will find it easier. This is a good policy to apply to life in general.

child walking along path with quote:

The point of life is to make the most of the journey rather than always looking ahead at the goal.  We need to stay in the moment we are in and notice the positives in it, keeping the focus on the matter in hand.  Yet all too often we allow ourselves to be distracted by the immediate issues of the moment - the slice of cake when we are on a diet, the unsettling thing that happens when we are trying to stop smoking, etc. We all know what they are because we have all been there.

If we truly want to achieve something we can, but we have to keep our focus on it. If we don’t really have enough motivation, however, isn’t it far better to be honest with ourselves and go for something we do want instead? 

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