Prisoners of Our
Own Making 

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July 2012

If a fairy appeared to you today and announced that with one swish of her magic wand she would change whatever it is you don't like now about yourself or your life, what would you ask for?

I have written much in these newsletters about the need for us to accept what we don't have the power to change. But ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is about more than just acceptance. A very significant second part is Commitment.

For me this aspect seems very relevant at this time whilst many of us are spending many hours watching the Olympics whether we are fortunate enough to see events for real or whether we content ourselves with watching on TV. Never has coverage for those of us unable to be there in person been so extensive.

Those competitors exhibit one quality in common - commitment. Nobody gets to compete at that level if they haven't committed themselves to many years of practice at their chosen sport. 

But what form does commitment take in everyday life?

What is the relevance of commitment if you've left it too late in life to take up a sport and train hard? What does being committed actually mean to the average person?

Each of us, from time to time, feels that whatever it is we are going through it is not what we signed up for. What makes the difference though is what we then do about it.

In first place are the whingers.

These people complain about their lot. In doing so they are directing all their energies to this thing or situation that they don't want. This incessant negative focus then causes them to feel bad, because moods follow thoughts. Their constant miserable state tends to make others do their best to avoid them because negative mood is catching.

toddler peeking through back of chairPrisoners of our own making

Second are the escapees

These people don't like the way their thoughts or what's going on is making them feel so they try to escape from these feelings by swamping or burying them under others. Well known methods of escape include excessive alcohol, drug addiction, comfort eating, spending money you don't have, compulsive rituals, self harm etc. All of these involve attempts to escape by blocking out the unpleasant feelings with something else.

There are also many more common ways people try to escape in everyday life simply by changing their life in order to avoid the thing that makes them feel bad.

This type of escape involves taking action in order to avoid something you don't like or want. By way of example, how many people choose to get divorced because they actually want to be single again rather than because they want to get away from an unsatisfactory relationship? True, there are some, but not the majority.

Last but certainly not least come the committers

The members of this group are different because the focus of their lives is generally positive. They move towards what they do want as opposed to away from what they don't. In order to do this they need to be aware what it is that they want in the first place. Their response when things don't go their way is also very different from that of the whingers. In recent days I've watched many Olympic competitors interviewed after their event when perhaps they've come fourth and missed a medal, or not done as well as they'd hoped. I haven't heard a single one say, “It's hopeless, I'm going to give up...”

What they say is something to the effect that they have enjoyed the experience and will now go away and work on what wasn't quite right ready for the next time.

The rest of us tend to be constantly reminding ourselves of what we don't want, don't like, don't enjoy in our present lives. I used to be constantly amazed that, when I asked people what they wanted, I either got the reply, "I don't know…" or they would give me an answer in terms of what they didn't want or wanted to get rid of. I still get those same answers to my question most of the time, but it no longer surprises me.

We live in a culture which focuses on what's gone wrong, the downside, of everything.

One refreshing exception has been the coverage of the Olympics over the past couple of weeks. In Great Britain at least the focus has shifted to what's been done well. Many people have been trying to get late tickets for any event at all. Often this is not because they know anything about that event necessarily or have ever before even considered watching it, but simply because they want to mingle with the crowds and soak up some of the feelgood factor.

If you happen to want to become an Olympic champion the steps you need to take towards your goal are probably fairly obvious. You need to train, to practise your skill and perfect it as far as possible.

If, however, your goal is less obvious, more mundane, it isn't always clear where your focus needs to be. For example, suppose you have excessive anxiety or depression. Your goal isn't going to be to overcome either of these because if that's your goal you are focusing on what you want to get rid of.

Instead, your goal needs to be something like allowing yourself to feel the best of which you are capable each moment. Depending on how severe your difficulties, this may not in itself be a huge step. But it's the baby steps that count. Some moments may be better than others - focus on the better ones...

I'm not saying here that we need to single-mindedly focus on achieving various goals. The greatest pleasure in life comes from enjoying the journey. But for any journey, we have to be going somewhere, however vague the destination. If you aren't aware of what you do want or of the person you want to be, how can you possibly commit to achieving it?

It's our thoughts that cause our emotions whatever they may be. If you want better emotions you have to keep your thoughts on each and every little positive thing in the here and now. This doesn't require struggle or huge effort. All it takes is the patience to notice when you are indulging in non-positive thoughts and moving your mind onto better things. 

Flight of steps with quote,

Each of us has the power to control what we focus our thoughts on. If we allow ourselves to constantly remind ourselves what has gone wrong, what we wish we didn't have to put up with, what our problems are... then we end up as prisoners of our own minds.  But we are still prisoners with a difference – we each have the key to our own cell but do we have the commitment to use it

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