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Breaking the Pattern

Breaking the pattern
06 02 2007 Irish Times by kind permission
Mind Moves Tony Bates
"When anyone moves on, no matter how little, It is like Jesus walking on water"
 – Antonio Marchado
When you find yourself stuck in some aspect of your life, revisiting the same old conundrums with the same old unsatisfactory outcomes, the bitter taste of deja vu makes it easy to lose heart.
In your mind, you may think everyone else is fine. Humanity is on the move, the train has left the station, while you, a pitiful wretch, have been left behind on the platform wrestling with your excess baggage.
In my last column I talked about some ideas for getting unstuck. I spoke about "self-monitoring" or writing down one's thoughts and feelings - one of the most tried and trusted ways for giving yourself a little distance from self-attacking and defensive thought patterns.
Becoming aware of how easily we become tangled up in these patterns allows us to think more flexibly about where we are stuck.
With some practice, it can enable us to choose not to "go there" and not to slip into what we know makes us feel even worse.
Each time we catch ourselves falling into self-defeating patterns of behaviour, each time we choose to "take care" of ourselves and do something that really benefits our hearts and bodies, we move on a little, we "walk on water".
Carl Jung said that humans behave oddly in the face of an emotional crisis: we behave like someone who, upon noticing evidence of a fire in the basement, runs upstairs and hides in the attic.
Rather than take time to get to know what is troubling us, we retreat inside our minds and re-run the same old narrative about how pathetic we are or, if you're younger, how "life sucks".
Taking time to stay connected to our present moment realities - rather than to regrets or worries - grounds and steadies us.
You become more balanced and ready to listen to yourself and to respond more creatively to your distress.
You start to appreciate that your feelings are evidence of a part of you that is probably in pain and that is trying to communicate with you in the only way it knows.
Growing emotionally, freeing ourselves from difficulties that mire us in the mud, takes time and courage and steadfastness.
Psychotherapies and a host of spiritual movements encourage self-awareness as though it were a joy you've been missing out on and something you should get into as soon as possible.
In truth, it's not so easy. It's vital if you want to live a life that's interesting rather than a series of boring re-runs, but therapists could do with being a lot more honest about how tough it can be.
It takes a lot of courage to face up to where you are blocking yourself, where you are holding onto pain and holding back from living.
It's not hard to see why you would opt instead for distraction, denial or blissfully losing yourself through whatever is your thing.
More recently, therapists have been recognising how critical our values are to our mental health.
It is important that we remember what really matters to us in our lives, what we hold near and dear to our hearts.
Our values enable us to stay focused in our inner journeys and to bring an energy to our difficulties that enables us to face them.
A simple example from the work of Tom Borkovek showed how important values were to overcoming a phobia of bees.
When asked to allow bees to fly around without engaging in avoidance, people with a bee phobia usually freeze with their eyes anxiously watching for the bee.
To encourage a more whole-hearted confrontation with their fears, Borkovek asked subjects in one of his experiments to hold their hand out to the bee, as if inviting it to land on their hand, and to feel themselves positively approach their worst fear.
Other means of engaging the subject's values included seeing bees as makers of honey, as complex social animals, as one of nature's creatures, were also employed depending on the value orientation of a particular individual.
This "whole-organism approach" maximised exposure to long-standing fears and produced a much improved outcome.
Reviewing Borkovek's work, it seems to be the case that our emotional and psychological development depend on some very practical skills of self-reflection, listening to our emotions, and taking practical steps to face our fears.
In addition, it helps to engage with our present moment realities, whatever they are and bring to them a quality of presence that comes from our deepest values.
In this way we live each moment of our lives as if they mattered.
By remembering what's most important to us we stay connected to what we love and avoid becoming lost in some mental narrative that we mistake for our lives.
Be patient, you'll get there.
Tony Bates is a clinical psychologist and chief executive of Headstrong - The National Centre for Youth Mental Health.
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