When the world gives you a hammer…
At some point between the easy, effortless strides during mile one and the crippling, nausea inducing grind of mile 4, I became cocky with my mind. When things go easy, I tend to find that I don’t even notice my thinking. More accurately, my thinking is almost entirely wieldable. Like a well-trained dog, I can walk my mind down an array of streets and alleys, past crowds of people both friendly and not, and never worry once about how it will behave. However, when the stress of a situation (a hard run, a bad day at work, a fight with someone) mixes with the feelings of distress (my heart pounding, my stomach turning, my head hurting), my dog tends to become a little more unpredictable.
Dragging myself past a series of windows, I caught my own reflection and heard the echoing of, “ugh, so fat” through the cavern of my mind. To my credit, I caught the thought quickly. Tasked with catching and defusing, I started to sing the thought:
ugh…so fat…dun dun dun…so so so so fat…dun dun
It worked…slightly. The problem was that in that tired, near-desperate moment, my concept of “worked” became warped. I was looking to get rid of the thought (and the feeling it caused) instead of just letting it lie. I became engulfed in the label – my mind conjured up exploded images of my body, my legs felt heavy under my growing weight and my brain screamed to stop running. I sang louder, trying to get rid of the thought. I laughed but it wasn’t the laugh of someone getting the upper hand – it was the chuckle of resignation.
…all you see are nails
I had committed two cardinal sins of defusion – (1) don’t try to remove anything and (2) don’t get caught up on one strategy. In a struggle between my destination and my route – I became too committed to the road I was taking and now I was stuck at a roadblock.
There are, of course, hundreds of ways to practice defusion. The problem I experienced was that “sing the thought” was too fresh in my mind and I was too committed to practicing for the sake of my writing. I was a white belt who just learned to punch and then went out to try to fight crime – woefully under matched and quickly overpowered. In my post-run post-mortem, I started to brain storm other ways I could defuse – what other moves could I use for when my brain throws up roadblocks.
Tools for when your mind tells you things…
To stick with the original, language-based, “my brain is yelling at me” theme, I have found three other strategies that tend to be helpful to get some distance from the chatter of a doubting brain.
- Character voice:
This strategy is very similar to “sing the thought,” only with less musical skill involved. Character voice goes like this – catch the thought (always how we start), then repeat it back in a voice that is easier to reason with. Remember – these thoughts are hard to work with because they are in our own voice and they feel very real. If you think someone is going to yell at you, you feel anxious and are more likely to avoid. But, if Droopy Dog tells you that someone is going to yell at you, you feel like he is being dramatic and it is easier to not alter your behavior. Do you have frequent catastrophe thinking? Match the script to a more suited actor – Gilbert Gottfried, Lewish Black, or Al Pacino. The key is to find a voice that is recognizable and easier to discredit.
- Imaginary friends:
Creating an imaginary friend sounds juvenile and discrediting. I don’t care. The vast majority of us have had an imaginary friend in our lives (65% of 7-year olds have them) and it is an extremely adaptive strategy. Research suggests that imaginary friends help kids to retain information better, to develop linguistic skills, develop social skills and build resiliency through helping “someone else” through their problems (thus, working themselves through problems).
One time I was having lunch with a friend while her young daughter was playing under the kitchen table with their cat. In typical feline fashion, the cat bit my friend’s daughter abruptly and (seemingly) without reason. The daughter started bawling and ran out of the room. Once away from cat danger, I heard her start talking:
Why are you crying?
The cat bit me
The cat bit you? Why did it do that?
I think because it got scared
That’s okay, the cat still loves you
I asked my friend who she was talking to. She told me her daughter had an imaginary friend and she sometimes pretended her “friend” was hurt, scared or otherwise upset and she helped her. Within minutes, the daughter came back into the room and kept playing.
At some point as we transition into our teen years, we get punished for having imaginary friends. It’s a shame, really. It is a fantastic tool to help build emotional strength and we avoid it for fear of seeming weird. This coping strategy embraces the weird and tells you to bring back your imaginary friend.
Here is what you do: Collect up all of your common thoughts and feelings that cause problems. These are the ones that you struggle with, fight with and wish would go away. Now, place all of them onto a character/imaginary friend. Add details to this person – what do they look like, what do they sound like, what are some other characteristics about them. Make them real.
Now, and this is the most important part – rework the intention of what they are saying to you. This person is your friend – misguided, sure, but your friend none-the-less. We all have had those friends that give us horribly misguided advice. These are the friends that love us but also tell us things we know we will never follow-up on. This needs to be that friend.
The shift becomes – instead of you saying that something awful will happen, now your high anxiety friend (the squirrely one always in a sweater, nervously drumming their fingers and just buzzing with nerves) is telling you something awful will happen. Thanks, Carl, but I’ll be okay. That’s the move! Thank them (because they mean well) and then move on. Do you hear a voice yelling at you, telling you that you aren’t good enough and need to try harder? Thanks, coach.
- Catastrophe radio:
This last one is part language based and part image based. When you start noticing the thoughts that are interfering, imagine them coming from the radio (or, through your headphones). Try to listen to them as if it was some sort of broadcast – This is catastrophe radio and we are fucked! The weather today is fire. Nothing is going to go right. Your mother is absolutely mad at you. More on that when we return.
Try to play with the sound of it. Can you imagine it sort of crackling? Can you change the voice to be more official?
Then, turn the channel. This is reality radio, where it is boring but accurate. Your left foot just hit the ground. Now, your right foot. This just in, that lady over there is walking a bird on a leash. Over head the sky is still standing. More on that after these boring commercials.
Let the radio narrate the present, boring, plain world. The stations may bleed over into one another – that’s okay. For every line from catastrophe radio, try to tune back into reality.
You’re too tired to go on.
There are 13 people sitting on the grass.
God we are fat and slow
Two birds are flying overhead, more on that after this commercial
This pain in my stomach is cancer
You are currently wearing black shorts, an orange tank top, a white head band, sunglasses and a running belt…
Bonus tools for when you aren’t running…
I don’t want to give the impression that these interfering thoughts only impact me (or people in general) when I am running. Any given phase of the day, take a look into my mind and you are likely to find some sort of dialogue going on – a soupy mix of judgement, labels, rules, should, shouldn’t, fears, predictions and ruminations. Sometimes it’s a soft murmur (sometimes it is not there at all) while other times the sheer volume can be both shocking and paralyzing. In the comfort of one’s own home (or office, or car) there is a bit more freedom to practice defusion and do some exercises that would be impractical to do mid-run.
- Write it down, throw it away:
Take a stack of paper and tear it into roughly 3″X5″ pieces (this is to conserve paper – not crucial for the experiment but important for the environment). Now, let your mind flow. Write down thoughts as quickly as they come in. With the conclusion of each thought, push that piece of paper off the top of the stack and let it fall to the ground.
No thoughts coming? Then write that down – I don’t know what to write (throw away) I feel awkward (Throw away) I am a fraud (Throw away) Peanuts aren’t as salty as they should be (Throw away)
The purpose is not to erase the thought – only turn on the spigot of your brain and let ALL the thoughts flow through. Writing, sometimes, helps our minds to slow down and also gives perspective on our thoughts. Throwing the thought away is a physical action with metaphoric consequences. We aren’t destroying the thought. We are moving it out of the way. We can still see the thought lying there on the ground. Only, now, the though is where it belongs – on the perifery and not blocking us. If the thought keeps coming back, then keep writing it and throwing it again. You are literally accepting the thought, acknowledging it and then getting unstuck.
This strategy is the writing version of “sing the thought” or “character voice.” Remember – the whole goal of defusion is to experience the thought in a different way. For this works: write down the thought on a piece of paper. Write it big and bold in plain script. Sit there for a moment and look at the thought – take stock of how you feel and what other thoughts may be bubbling up. Now, take your pen or pencil (even better, grab some markers, colored pencils, whatever) and start drawing around, over, through and on top of the words. Don’t try to cross the words out! We don’t want to try to get rid of any of these thoughts. Just draw something – anything! Draw squiggly lines, draw butterflies, little hamsters chasing each other around the words. Draw a UFO trying to abduct your thoughts. Draw anything that will make you laugh! Once you are done, look back at the words and compare how you feel. Are the words still there? Of course. Do they look ridiculous? Hopefully! Now move on and do what you know you should be doing
- Mirror Games:
This is a gem of an exercise that is an expansion on doodles. This has to do with difficult self-image stuff. Too often we carry with us really unpleasant, unhelpful and nasty self-images. We call ourselves fat, ugly, stupid, boring, lame, etc. It’s awful and it’s cruel. When this happens too much we develop this conditioned response to ourselves – seeing ourselves triggers automatic, unpleasant thoughts and subsequent unpleasant feelings. I have worked with clients in the past who haven’t seen themselves in the mirror in years because of these unpleasant reactions. Similarly, I have had people who look at themselves and cannot help but say “hello, loser” (or things far worse) the moment they see their reflection. That sets yourself up to think unpleasant thoughts about yourself, make self-judgments and ultimately do things that keep you stuck in that distress.
How can we defuse from this? Go to a mirror. Look at yourself in the mirror and study what your brain gives you. Where does your brain look to? What are the labels, the thoughts, the urges? Treat it like an experiment (this is the Running Experiment, after all) and do this with curiosity. Now, grab some dry erase markers. Doodle on the mirror. Draw flowers around your face, draw glasses over your eyes. Try to make the mirror look goofy or ridiculous. After a little bit, take a step back and look at your reflection again. Compare your experience – did your brain have the same quick reaction? Also, did you notice that you were likely able to draw on the mirror (while looking at yourself) without having any of those same thoughts? You just effectively took your first step into unlearning that strong, unpleasant conditioning.
Keep up the good work.
You deserve it.