Situations come and go more often than we are usually comfortable admitting, in which we wish we’d done other than what we did in fact do. We may attempt to pass the behavior off as a result of hunger, sleep, another person’s actions towards us, the weather, hormones or a mental diagnosis, but all of these are simply pointers to some version of the common phrase: “that wasn’t who I really am.” In other words, we are quite comfortable with imaginatively projecting a version of ourselves who acted other than what actually happened. We empathize with, and perhaps even envy, a version of ourselves that exists only in our mind.
Explore Your Future Self
Thankfully imagination is not tied only to a past of recrimination and self-doubt. It can move into the future as well and bring with it versions of yourself that indeed do exactly what you desire to do. The same mechanism can be a tool for leaving us stuck in a past of impossibility, where we get caught up in a world that now never could be, or allow us to explore a future that we in fact do want to live in.
The nature of the present rarely allows us to consciously select what we supposedly find most important. Only in contemplating what we wish we’d done differently or in looking to how we’d like to be, does what we seemingly most highly Value come into focus. That Value is used to color an entire situation in what has become fixated as being most important.
Narrow Perspective is A Trap
There’s a trap here though, one of narrow perspective-taking. Bring to mind those occasions when something seemed to suddenly appear out of your peripheral vision. When driving and paying attention only to what’s in front of you, suddenly to have an animal dart from the side. When focused on a task and startled by someone suddenly being next to you. Perspective-taking is powerful, but it is also extremely limiting. We lose sight of what is around us. While this is great for pushing behavior in service to a goal, it is incredibly poor for keeping in mind the broader world and all its influences.
What you’re doing when using the past to pass judgment is funneling it through a present already mired in its own limitation. Values guide the selection of behavior to support them. When you say you should have done otherwise you’re effectively saying you should have cared about something differently in that moment. But that’s the problem right there, you’re no longer in that situation which existed. Further, you’re no longer the you that existed then. You’re someone new, someone who has more information than previously, someone who has the capacity to judge what has come before because there is now a ‘before’ to consider.
A Value Always Exists
The fact is that the you in the past did care about something, a Value that called out a behavior to support it. The behavior was something which, in that context, was seen as the only possible thing to do. If you pause and reflect for a moment, odds are you’ll be able to see what that Value was and perhaps acknowledge that it’s still something you care about.
Here is where the imagined you of the future can be greater than the past. It simply has more to build with. The future can be one of recognizing how in every situation is a Value that may be selected to guide behavior, yet acknowledging how there are always more Values that matter to you. Rather than getting caught in the trap of narrow perspective and risk behaving in a way that undermines or ignores a Value, you can take the time to contemplate what all there is you care about and how best to support them.
Self-control is not about control or shaming or manipulating yourself through a technique. Self-control is the flexible mental space to see the many Values that exist in a given moment and act within that greater appreciation towards the best version you believe yourself capable of being.
The future awaits the you that you want to be.
Yong, Ed. Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self. The Atlantic. December 6, 2016.
Question from Quora:
Can one heal from PTSD without using medications? I hear PTSD doesn’t just apply to war veterans. It could be affecting anyone and we wouldn’t know it ourselves unless someone brought it to our attention.
Absolutely you can move forward in life into personal growth, greater expression in experiences and healthy relationships. If that isn’t healing, I don’t know what is. And none of these things require medication, no matter what label has been applied to a set of maladaptive behavior.
PTSD is not, as you correctly point out, solely happening within our women and men in military service. Any traumatic event has the potential of generating behavior classified as PTSD. Importantly, this trauma nor the later behavior says anything about your worth as a human being. Nor does this say anything about your level of “strength.” Who you are is not limited to any label, whether such is a healthy one you’ve chosen for yourself or one given to you through diagnosis.
Medications can help but they are not required for living healthy lives. Further, sometimes they may be helpful for a short time and then later removed. Also, like the label, whether you use them or not says nothing about who you are or the “strength” of your character.
Moving through PTSD involves looking at your resources, particularly your relationships, both with others and yourself.
- Are you accepted for who you are and engaged with by others and yourself in ways that allow for personal exploration, challenge and growth?
- Are you comfortable with identifying what you Value and finding new ways to express your support for them?
- Do you have a community that encourages new experiences, lets you explore interests in new ways and includes people who share these interests?
The reason these previous questions and determining support systems is so important is that PTSD, like other issues related to anxiety/trauma, often results in isolation and removal from self-exploration. In the, totally understandable, desire to avoid feeling the anxiety, terror and discomfort, we build walls that eventually block us into a smaller and smaller space. The horrible irony is that ultimately this process results in us having only the terror itself as our companion.
Thankfully the world and each one of us, is bigger and filled with possibility, no matter how debilitating and limiting a label leads us to initially believe.
It can be helpful to consider each of us as tiny lenses peering through a dark veil covering the whole of reality. We only identify what’s important based on the lens or identity we’ve pre-selected as being who we believe ourselves to be. Unfortunately all labels, or the means of relating us within experience, hide as much as they reveal. This doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. Instead, the journey ahead of us is in constantly working at being aware of what lies in wait outside of the stories we’re telling, to be discovered, to be explored and to spur us on to greater understanding of ourselves and those who we have been blessed to be connected to.
Searching for inner peace leads us down many paths. From the shelves of books in the self-help section to gurus, coaches and spiritual leaders, we’re often looking for a direct line from uncertainty to calm. This isn’t about a quick-fix. Far too many are mocked for supposedly wanting that. I think the vast majority are quite willing to put in the time and effort. Unfortunately explanation and instruction often replace clarity with obfuscation, as if a struggle of understanding is required for wisdom. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery.
What is being mindful?
Mindfulness is an active mental state of reflective awareness about the present.
– While mindfulness is often looked at as meditation, too often meditation ends up being a passive behavior. To be active is to be intentional and focused. This isn’t about relaxation, though that can happen, but deliberate engagement with mental life.
– Don’t let the “mental” make you ignore the physical. Our minds are embodied. Mindfulness acknowledges our physical reality and how our bodies are the means through which we put thought into action.
– Being aware is one of those behaviors we often think we’re doing, but is not as broad as we think. To be mindfully aware is to actively seek out and allow more of your experience to be seen and known. This means having no single thing take over your mindsight to the exclusion of everything else.
– Time is, within the human experience, at least as much about our perception as it is a thing we live within. To be present is to recognize the transitory nature of our experience. Every present moment is immediately followed and replaced by the next present moment.
As Daniel Siegel, in his book “Mindsight,” puts it:
“Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things “should” be. We let go of expectations and receive things as they are, rather than trying to make them how we want them to be.” (Mindsight)
Not Getting Lost In Your Own Thoughts
There are many ways to talk about mindfulness and even more declarations of what its practice can bring into your life. The focus here is on broadening the contemplation of our lives to make room for new behavior. For that, we turn to how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) utilizes mindfulness.
ACT breaks mindfulness skills down into 3 categories:
Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories
Mindfulness allows us to see the transitory nature of our thoughts. Mental states do not last for long at all. We only think they do because of how they loop on themselves through attention and focus. The feeling of being stuck is due to being caught in one of those loops, where all potential action becomes fused to a narrow singular thought or story. Defusion is the process of breaking free of that narrow vision.
Acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle
Our mental states change with the speed of thought. We trick ourselves into thinking they last longer through our attention and obsessive focus. This is how pain leads to suffering. Our focus is often on ‘moving past’ or avoiding the pain, but the irony is what we avoid is what ends up running our lives. Acceptance isn’t about being a doormat to be stepped on. It’s an acknowledgment that pain is an inevitable and natural part of living, an indication of change.
Contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity
Personal stories or narratives are how we split reality into what we call experiences. No single story can hold the entirety of reality and so there are always more to our lives to be explored. The present moment fades into the next present moment seamlessly and inevitably, a fertile ground for curiosity to find new growth.
Mindfulness: The Present is Calling
We are more than any single thought, emotion or story. No single action can or should define the whole of who we are. Our Values manifest in constantly evolving behavior. Shame ties us to a past that has already gone by, holding us to a falsely narrow vision of who we are capable of being. Mindfulness skills help us explore the present to find the inner peace of healthy questioning, the calm of accepting uncertainty and the personal growth of letting go of our thoughts.
Learning mindfulness skills can be an integral part of moving forward, contact me for more information on Coaching
Article: Forget Mindfulness, Stop Trying to Find Yourself and Start Faking It
Book: The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Book: Mindsight: the New Science of Personal Transformation
Website: About ACT
Triggers are a fascinating part of our humanity. Mentally, a trigger is a perception inspiring an emotional and cognitive assessment. Externally, triggers are any act or situation that provokes a perception. Importantly, what we perceive never holds the entirety of a situation. We only see what fits within our worldview. From this, a trigger is as common as the air we breath and the blood coursing through our veins. Unfortunately, because our minds evolved to be more wary of potential suffering rather than pursuing potential enjoyment, triggers get associated with what leads to heartache and uncertainty. A great deal of difficulty results because we do not separate our perception from the event itself, believing that what we see is all there is.
Down the Rabbit-Hole
Our stories or personal narratives provide the structure for our perception. They guide which parts of a situation are selected to support a particular trigger’s continued empowerment. Combine this with the human need to feel each and every opinion is right and the result is an enormous barrier to individual change. Ruminating, spiraling or obsession are only excessive forms of actions we all do. An event happens, we’re triggered, the story we have about it reinforces our response and that behavior inevitably supports the whole process. We simply don’t act unless doing so supports our narrative about the situation we’re in.
A result of focusing so strongly on negative assessments from triggers is moving away from self-reflection. The external object, whether event or person, bears the burden of responsibility. Lost is the other side of the relationship, that of the person doing the assessment.
Pushing Away Suffering
Pain is inevitable, suffering is the product of recurring focus. To get rid of pain is a fool’s errand, but suffering can be mitigated when we see our own role in its perpetuation. When triggers are viewed as inherently negative and we cease questioning our role in the perceiving end of the relationship of suffering, the result is an abdication of any responsibility. The other person holds all the cards, they possess all the power. Everything they do carries with it an inevitable connection to our hurt and limitation of self.
In an attempt at turning the table, the other person ceases being a person in their own right. Gone is any attempt at understanding the nuances of decision-making. Absent is any consideration of enlarging one’s own view of the situation. Instead, responses are automated and centered on demanding dismissal of the perceived offensive act. Further, anything contributing to the negative trigger must be removed. This, regardless of any functionality or worth the action of the other may have.
This isn’t an excuse for horrible behavior. This recognizes the varied relationship between an act and our reaction to it. When the perception of the hurt person is all that matters, simply by virtue of their suffering, there is no room for personal growth. It’s easy to look at verbal abuse and say the reactions of the person its directed at should matter. What about when it’s not abuse? What happens when it’s another person’s success or achievement?
Removing the Positive
A person who strives to better themselves is not concerned with the perceived grievances of others. Nor should they be. Engaging in exercise and losing weight to contribute to a greater self-image is not a knock against those struggling with eating disorders. Working hard to achieve business success is not a mockery of those who are poor and disenfranchised. Simply having been born in a family with greater access to societal resources is not an inherent slight against those who weren’t.
An exclusive focus on being negatively triggered by looking at success and achievement diminishes the legitimacy of any work that went into those results. Further, it closes us off to a more nuanced look at the systems in place which facilitated personal progress.
Moving from Value
We can maintain or regain a sense of empowerment without dismissing or belittling what another person has done. This involves turning back to the other player in this drama, your own self. Nobody gets upset about something they lack concern about. Flipped on its head, we only get triggered over the perception of things we care about. Here is where strength can be found:
- Identify the core Value being violated (or supported).
- Reflect on why this Value is important to you.
- Assess whether what the other person has done takes away what you Value.
The easy answer to that last question is: it doesn’t. What the other person did is far less important than you being a person who Values what is important to you. Further, by reminding yourself of what’s important, the space is open to search out what may be learned from the other person’s successes. You may not want your life to look completely like theirs, but there are many ways to express an appreciation for what you Value.
If you’re finding yourself faced with difficult emotional reactions and want to live a freer, more expressive life, I can work with you to achieve that goal. Check out Counseling or Coaching.
For further exploration, check out the podcast episode covering triggers: Our Humanity Is Being Triggered