The Things We Tell Ourselves Determine Our Lives

The things we tell ourselves determine our lives.

It was a hot afternoon in July 2015. My whole life flashed across my eyes. Have you ever read a book and suddenly your life, along with its problems, seems to make sense?

I had just returned from US, having completed my masters. With a little less than a $100 in my savings, I would spend my days at Starbucks, Rochester. It was a place of refuge.

I was broke. I didn’t know how to share what I had spent all my savings to learn at UPenn to a pragmatic society like Singapore. Seated at the corner of the old colonial building that has now been refurbished as Starbucks made me feel safe.

There were many negative thoughts rampaging across my mind. But then I thought to myself, “What better opportunity than now to put those resilience skills that I have learnt at UPenn to use?”

In order to distract myself from the worry, I set a goal to read The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté again. Karen was my lecturer at UPenn and taught us the resilience skills described in the book.

Karen made a name for herself as the resilience expert. Karen, along with Martin Seligman, designed the Penn Resiliency Programme (PRP) back in the early 1990s. The core resilience skills in PRP would eventually go on to impact the US soldiers and form the backbone of resilience training in the movement of positive psychology.

This was not the first time I read the book. I read it during my course at UPenn. And I had also read a number of books by Seligman that talked about resilience skills before going to UPenn. I wasn’t new to the resilience skills.

What made it different now, was experiencing these negative thoughts while having the opportunity to reflect on these ideas.

As I delved deeper into the book, the problems in my life became clearer and clearer. My life, along with its pain and tribulations, made sense. There was a surge of liberation and a stir of excitement overwhelmed me.

I thought to myself, “If everyone knows this, they don’t have to go through what I have gone through.”

Time stopped for me.

Enlightenment

Five years later, on a full moon night in May 2020, I was explaining the resilience skills over a webinar – Happiness Initiative’s Brown Bag Sessions. Coincidentally, it was also Vesak Day – in celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment.

The world is a different place now. The Coronavirus pandemic has brought the world to almost a complete standstill. Many countries have enforced lockdowns. Planes are grounded. Tourism comes to a complete halt.

For weeks, Singapore has not seen any physical gathering of any size. And the Brown Bag webinar sessions were born out of this safe distancing necessity.

There were about 20 participants attending this Brown Bag webinar on resilience. I read the resilience book again in preparation for the webinar, along with all my readings from UPenn.

That night, as I heard the participants apply those resilience skills to their lives, there was a stir in me.

The revelation experienced five years ago at Starbucks, tucked away by the busyness of life, creeped back into the foreground.

I have always taken an interest in the philosophy of Buddhism. One key idea of Buddhist philosophy is non-attachment, including to our thoughts. But resilience is all about our thoughts. And for years, I have been trying to reconcile this seeming tension.

Have you ever learnt something that made a strong impact on you, then dissolved away to the corner of your mind, but suddenly resurfaces back with deeper insights? It is like this body of insights has been maturing all this while in a wine barrel, stored away in a cellar.

Now, I finally see how the dots connect.

To understand resilience, we need to go back to 1897 when Ivan Pavlov first published his work on digestive glands. Pavlov performed one of the most famous experiments in psychology – the bell and the dog.

The Birth of Resilience

In 1962, a book with the title: Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy by Dr. Albert Ellis was published. Ellis challenged the psychological practice prevailing at that time.

Ivan Pavlov discovered that if he rings a bell just before giving food to his dog, his dog will soon salivate at the sound of the bell even if no food is presented. The dog has been conditioned to associate the bell with food.

Interestingly, the reverse is possible. If we now repeatedly ring the bell and stopped presenting the dog with food, the dog will soon be de-conditioned and stopped salivating at the sound of the bell.

Ellis noted that the key tenet of psychoanalysis stems from the theory of conditioning. Much of the work in psychoanalysis is to find out how did our irrational fears came to be conditioned earlier in our life.

Take for example, an individual, from a very young age, has been conditioned to fear something by the punishment that he received, if we repeatedly present what he fears without any punishment or show him that there is nothing to be fearful of, his fear should soon vanish. At least, in theory.

But that was not what Ellis noted in his patients. Even when his patients gained insights that those fears were irrational and that holding on to those irrational fears was punishing in itself, it didn’t stop his patients from holding on to those irrational fears.

Ellis reasoned that humans are quite different from our best friends, dogs.

Humans have the capacity for language and giving meaning to symbols. For a dog, this meat is tasty, I shall go for it. Or this meat is tasty but I don’t like the electric shock that comes along with it, I shall avoid it.

Humans, on the other hand, merely have to be told that they are less worthy than someone else, can come to believe what they have been told. She can hold on that belief even when evidence suggests otherwise or she may only be drawn to evidence that confirms that belief.

Ellis wrote:

“… that my patients were not merely indoctrinated with irrational, mistaken ideas of their worthlessness when they were very young, but that they then inertly or automatically kept hanging on to these early ideas during adulthood.

Much more to the point: they (as human beings normally will) most actively-directively kept indoctrinating themselves with the original hogwash, over and over again, and thereby creatively made it live on and on and become an integral part of their basic philosophies of life.”

It was what they were telling themselves that have to change.

As Simple as ABC

Almost 60 years have passed since Albert Ellis made headway into treating with people with fears and inadequacies. Could it be as simple as ABC?

It turns out, it is really as simple as ABC. While the model in which we can apply to understand our emotions and actions is as simple as ABC, it takes a lifetime of practice to change what we tell ourselves.

I wandered back to the webinar.

My co-presenter, Sherman, began sharing his story to illustrate how to apply the model.

Sherman is also my co-founder of Happiness Initiative. It is a social enterprise that promotes the science of happiness and well-being. It was founded two years after returning from UPenn. We figured that, for a society like Singapore, we need to translate the science into actions that people can take to improve their own lives and the lives of people around them.

In the earlier days of Happiness Initiative, we experimented with almost everything to try to engage people. From focused group to film festival, we tried different mediums. Some sign-ups were good; some were mediocre.

Sherman shared, “Every time when the sign-up for any of these events was low, I would feel sad.”

He added, “I thought that no one cared and I was not good at marketing these events.”

This was a real-life example for me to illustrate how to apply the ABC model.

What Is ABC?

This incident can be easily dissected into its parts – A, B, and C.

A refers to Activating Event or sometimes also known as Adversity. In this case, A is “low sign-up for an event.”

Often, we think that it’s A that leads to our emotions or actions we take, which is the C – refers to as Consequent Emotion or Action. In Sherman’s case C is “feeling of sadness.”

The key to this model is identifying the B, which stands for Beliefs or things we tell ourselves. Sherman’s beliefs were “no one cared” and “I am not good at what I’m doing.”

Once we identify the B (Beliefs), we need to gain awareness as to how our emotions (of sadness) were not due to the event (low sign-ups). Rather, our emotions were due to our beliefs (no one cared and I’m not good enough).

Imagine how you think Sherman would have felt if he had told himself that people were interested but they needed more time to discover it.

The more we practise, the better we are at noticing the link between our beliefs and emotions (and actions too).

What Do We Do With Our Beliefs?

Once we discovered that what we tell ourselves is debilitating, we need all the effort to change it.

When something happened to us, what we tell ourselves or our beliefs can be broadly classified into three categories.
1. What it means to us? (What-Meaning)
2. Why it happened? (Why)
3. What will happen next? (What-Next)

When Sherman received a low sign-up for our events, his beliefs can be classified as into the following:
What it means: “No one cared.”
Why it happened: “I’m not good.”
What will happen next: “Our event will fail.”

What Letter Follows After ABC?

Seligman offers three Ds to address what we tell ourselves [1].

1. Dispute

We can practise disputing our beliefs through the following ways:
⁃ Evidence (What is the evidence against our belief?)
⁃ Alternatives (What are other ways of looking at this?)
⁃ Implications (What do our beliefs imply?)
⁃ Usefulness (Even if we think our beliefs are true, is it helpful to think this way?)

Imagine Sherman put the above skill to practice. He has earlier thought that the low sign-up was because people didn’t care, he was not good and the event would be a failure. Let’s try to talk him over to dispute his beliefs.

Evidence

He can think to himself, “What is the evidence against my belief that I’m not good?”

Perhaps there were other events that he marketed and the turnout was better than expected?

Alternatives

“What other ways can explain the low sign-up?” can be another question that he asks himself.

Perhaps Friday night is not an ideal time to organise such an event.

Implications

Assuming that Sherman still wants to hold on to the belief that no one cares, he can follow up by asking himself, “What does that imply when he thinks that no one cares?”

Does it imply that people will forever not care? Perhaps people might not know enough to care? Can there be an opportunity in this situation?

And if he thinks that, “The event will be a failure.” What does that imply? Does it implied that people are not going to benefit from it even when sign-up is low? On the contrary, it could imply that the participants who turn up may have a more intimate session to share their stories.

Usefulness

“Is it useful to think this way?” is something that Sherman can ask himself, assuming that he continues to hold on to his debilitating beliefs.

Will it help to continue to think that people don’t care; that he is not good; and that the event will fail?

Definitely not, right? Because since the event hasn’t happened yet, giving it the best shot might create good word of mouth. And hence attract more people for future events.

The ability to argue with others seem to come so naturally to us. The above techniques are no different from argument strategies.

When we argue with others, we can find evidence to disprove the other person or find alternative ways at looking at an issue. We often fight over what the other person is trying to imply. And when all else fail, we would argue that what the other person is thinking is not useful.

Sounds familiar? So instead of arguing with others, we need to practise arguing with ourselves.

2. Distract

Sometimes, the negative thoughts may be raging on in our mind that make it difficult for us to focus, least dispute them at the moment. Then, we need to distract. There are three strategies for distraction.

STOP

Simply make a loud clap with your hands or snap your fingers and say STOP. There are different variations but the idea is snapping yourself out of the conversation in your mind, much like how an actor snaps in and out of a character.

Schedule

This technique involves telling yourself that you’re scheduling a time to think about it.

Scribe

If you can get those negative thoughts out of your mind, you can try writing them down. You may be surprised at how they just go away.

3. Distance

Do you remember that time when someone said something negative at you but you didn’t seem to take it to heart? You heard it but it didn’t bother you. This is distancing.

Each of us has our triggers but also many things that don’t bother us. When Jane was walking her dog along the footpath, a lady passing her made the comment, “Stay clear the footpath!” That would have triggered some of us but it didn’t bother Jane.

Jane was being accused of being inconsiderate with her dog blocking the footpath. But she managed to distance herself from that accusation. In the same way, we can distance from the accusations that we launched at ourselves.

Another way to understand distancing is to imagine yourself in a mindfulness practice.

In mindfulness practice, we observe our thoughts without attaching a judgement to it. “I am not good,” is a thought – and it is nothing more than just a thought. If we don’t judge it as good or bad, like or dislike, it loses much of its control over us.

Humans have the capacity of not just experiencing the thought but being aware that we are the person experiencing the thought.

When you observe yourself thinking of a belief, you are creating a space between yourself and the belief. Mindfulness practice can be a good place to start strengthening our distancing ability.

Among the techniques of disputing, distraction, or distancing, one may be must appropriate to deal with the belief on hand. But you may have to follow up with the other techniques to be really effective in managing those debilitating beliefs.

The Next D – Deeply Seated Beliefs

Even if we can dispute, distract, or distance those debilitating beliefs, they may surface again and again. This is because they are driven by deeply seated beliefs, often unconscious to us. Unless we target these beliefs at its source, debilitating beliefs are likely to arise time and again.

These deeply seated beliefs are the What-Meaning beliefs and can be teased out by examining layer by layer of what something means to you?

Let’s take this example of Jenny.

“What made you so upset at your mum when so asked if you needed meals?” I asked Jenny as she confided in me that she her mum was driving her crazy when she was trying to work at home.

“She kept knocking on my door and asking me if I needed this and that,” Jenny explained. “It’s just so irritating!”

“What does that mean to you?” I probed deeper.

“She is intruding!” Jenny exclaimed. “It’s very intrusive! I don’t like to be asked or interfered.”

“What is it about that action that matters to you?” trying to probe deeper into her deeply seated beliefs.

“Like I said, it’s intrusion.” Jenny explained with a quiver in her voice. “It’s intrusive. Just like with my boyfriend, I told him not to speak to me in the mornings because it is my time. Sometimes, after work, I don’t call him either because it my time. It’s my life.”

Even if we were to ask Jenny to dispute her belief of intrusion to one that her mum was trying to care, it would not be possible.

Because of Jenny’s deeply seated belief – “what belongs to me cannot be shared.” Anyone that comes into her physical or psychological space is deemed as threat.

Unless Jenny wants to re-evaluate what she holds so dearly and unconsciously – what belongs to her cannot be shared – her surface beliefs will revisit her again and again.

Thinking Traps

Our surface beliefs may emerge over and over again not just because of what was driving them. They could arise as a result of how we think.

Because of the huge amount of information that our senses receive, we need to process them efficiently – hence, we take cognitive shortcuts. Often, these shortcuts come with a cost. And when these shortcuts cost us more than they benefit us, we call them thinking traps.

There are a number of thinking traps [2]. Generally, it can be classified into two broad categories – overgeneralising and jumping to conclusions [3].

These two cognitive skills – generalising and concluding – are important. Sieving through huge body of information and seeing a general pattern help us to make better predictions. Coming to a conclusion quickly helps us to make a timely decision.

These cognitive skills have evolutionary benefits. But up to a point. If we overgeneralise, we may fail to see exceptions. If we jump to the conclusions too quickly, we may fail to take other important information into consideration.

Your subordinate, Joseph, has been late three times this week. You said to yourself, “He can’t be trusted.” Joseph’s late-coming became overgeneralised as a flaw in his character. Have you taken into account that he has never failed to deliver a report on time?

You are giving a presentation to your bosses. One of them checked his phone and stepped out. He didn’t return. You said to yourself, “They don’t like my idea.” And you stopped explaining it as enthusiastically as you had started off. You jumped to the conclusion without seeing the nodding approvals of your other bosses.

Once you are aware of how you think drives you to arrive at those premature and bias beliefs, then you are better able to dispute, distract, and distance them.

These thinking traps could be second nature to you. But the more you are aware of them and the more you work on them; the better you are able to break free of them.

A Lifetime of Discovery, Development, and Deepening Leading to E

Borrowing what Angela Duckworth says in her book in Grit, breaking free of the burdens of what we tell ourselves is a lifetime to discovery, development and deepening.

With these resilience skills, you can discover those debilitating beliefs that have been holding you hostage.

Gaining awareness is just the first step. You need to put in a lifetime of work into developing the skills to dispute, distract, and distance.

As you deepen your awareness into your deeply seated beliefs and beliefs that arise out of your thinking traps, you begin to transcend those debilitating beliefs. And once you are able to change these negative beliefs, the possibilities become endless.

I promise you that this will be an enlightening experience for you, as it has been for me.

Afterword – Enlightenment

I have always wondered at the intersection between science and the sacred.

As I remarked earlier, there seems to be a tension between the practice of resilience and the philosophy in Buddhism.

Finally, I saw how the dots connect.

Much of Buddhist philosophy is about taming the mind. Because the mind is often preoccupied with the past and the future.

The past is made up why things happened and what they meant to us. The future is made of what will happen next?

But, what we really have, is only this present moment.

We should learn from the past; and we should prepare for the future. But, if the thoughts of the past and the anxiety of the future are paralysing us from seizing the only moment that we have, what good does it serve?

As I sat there on that full moon night of Vesak day listening to what the participants said about resilience, I found that intersection.

———-

Notes:

[1] Disputation, Distraction, and Distancing: For a more detailed explanation on the techniques of disputation, distraction, and distancing, refer to Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

[2] Thinking Traps: The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté listed eight thinking traps. Broadly, they can be categorised into two groups. The first group consists of: Overgeneralising, Personalising, and Externalising. The second group consists of Jumping to Conclusions, Mind-reading, Tunnel Vision, Magnifying and Minimising, and Emotional Reasoning. For a more detailed examples, you may refer to the book.

[3] Two Most Common Thinking Traps: The two most common thinking traps are Overgeneralising and Jumping to Conclusions. Most of the other thinking traps are related to these two thinking traps.

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