Day 49: Fight, Freeze or Flow Forward

This morning, whilst listening to “The Psychology of Performance” by Dr Eddie O’Connell, another piece of the habit change puzzle fell into place for me.

If you’ve ever struggled with negative thinking, anxiety or limiting beliefs, this might resonate with you too.

Start by imagining your goal as a thing, maybe a trophy a huge pile of cash or your happy, smiling family at one side of a large room. You are standing at the other side and have to make your way over to your prize and claim it. You have to take purposeful steps to get to your goal.

You start walking but suddenly you lose sight of it. Your vision is obscured. Directly in front of your eyes is a board, covered with all of your negative thoughts, your cravings, your anxieties and limiting beliefs. You simply can’t see anything except these things. They become the sole focus of your attention and you stop moving, not because you are powerless but because you simply cannot see past them. You feel powerless. You’re still aware of the trophy but since you can’t see it, you gradually lose faith in its existence or minimise your desire for it. You tell yourself it’s not worth the hassle.

After a while, something ignites your energy to try again. You decide this time you’re going to fight those negative feelings, anxieties and limiting beliefs. You are going to fight HARD! You pour every ounce of energy into the fight. You work and struggle and exhaust yourself and little by little, you take small steps forward. Sometimes you get too tired to fight and you lose ground. At some point, you either win or get too tired and give up. Either way, throughout the fight, your attention remains fixed on the negative thoughts and the problems, not on the goal so they continue to hold your focus and drain your energy.

As an alternative, O’Connell talked about something called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” which is based on accepting the presence of negative thoughts and emotions, letting them be and continuing to move towards our goals. Instead of trying to change or get rid of the thoughts and feelings, we can decide whether or not they’re helpful and then choose to act on them or disregard them.

O’Connell explains that we have the capacity to distance ourselves from our thoughts and feelings when they don’t serve us well – in fact, we do it all the time. If you’ve ever been so angry you could scream and yell but you’ve remained composed or wanted to storm out of a meeting at work but you stayed and made a contribution, you’ve already succeeded in acknowledging the presence of a thought or emotion and then acting against it. Yet somehow, when it comes to our fears and anxieties, we treat them as though they are real and must be listened to. We’re far more likely to say, “I can’t give presentations. I get too nervous” than we are to say, “I have to practice a lot if I’m to give a great presentation because I get really nervous.”

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy involves commitment to a clearly defined goal alongside the acceptance of the feelings and thoughts that could hold you back. It’s about doing what you need to do even though your thoughts and feelings are pulling you in the opposite direction. Success isn’t dependant on shutting down those feelings and their presence doesn’t indicate failure.

Although I’ve spoken about acceptance as a major part of my strategy over this 100 day period, hearing it explained as part of a formal psychological theory helped me make sense of why it worked and how I might use the same strategy again. It won’t be long until I’m ready to go sugar free!

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