As a psychotherapist in private practice, clients regularly ask, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I stop doing X, start doing Y or figure out Z?” People I meet have often spent years beating themselves up, reading self-help books to get unstuck and telling themselves they are a failure, hypocrite or loser. And often, when they are honest and vulnerable, they are deeply afraid that something is wrong with them.
Hands as Thoughts Exercise
One exercise I like to use on the journey to breaking out of these patterns is called “hands as thoughts” as originally developed by psychotherapist Russ Harris. I will have the client pick one of the most painful things they tell themselves and I will have them hold up their hands, which are a metaphor for thoughts in this exercise, and slowly bring them up in front of their face.
I then ask them, “When your thoughts and feelings are this close and intensely personal, how much of the room can you see?”
“Not much,” they reply.
I then ask, “How distracting are your hands right now in your ability to see and engage with me?
“Now, slowly move your hands away from your face and into your lap. Notice that your hands, your thoughts and feelings, are still there. They haven’t gone anywhere, we haven’t gotten rid of them. Now, how much more of the room can you see? How much more able are you to engage with me or engage with something important to you?”
“It’s much easier,” they admit.
We Are All Doing Our Best
Most of the time, clients are doing the best they know how with the information they have been given in their lives. They are trying to think positively, distract themselves, stay busy and be productive … until they are exhausted, anxious and depressed. This can lead to feelings of failure while acting in self-defeating ways that are impulsive or compulsive. This spiral takes them away from the life they want to live deep down in their hearts.
These clients are engaging in life with their hands over their faces. Their negative self-talk and distressing emotions become so suffocating that it is virtually impossible not to act in self-defeating ways.
Unhooking from these thoughts, not getting rid of them, can change the amount of power and influence they have over our behavior. This is one of the most important skills we can develop in therapy and in life. This skill is not commonly taught in school, work, churches or any other common domain or activity of western life.
Practicing Cognitive Defusion
Learning to look at our thoughts and feelings rather than from our thoughts and feelings, using cognitive defusion or “unhooking” skills, is a strategy we rely heavily upon at the Kaizen Center for Mental Health.
There are many alternative strategies to unhook from painful thoughts and emotions and these strategies can empower us to respond effectively to life’s pain. We can learn to handle our pain in a manner that is mindful while living in service to our values and becoming the kind of person we desire to be.
For more information on how to unhook from painful thoughts, emotions and destructive behavior and into a life of greater vitality and meaning, schedule an appointment today.