What we choose to focus on determines in large part the meaning of our lives. We know neurologically that mental focus amplifies and magnifies, i.e., makes the object of focus more important. Due to the brain’s proclivity to form habits, repeated focus eventually yields rigid sequences of conditioned responses, which we experience as habits. These shape the day-to-day experience that forms the fabric of our lives.
Obviously it’s important to choose wisely what we focus on repeatedly. This calls into question the self-help tendency to explore and express feelings. When we focus on how we feel, we bring into implicit memory past instances that evoked similar feelings, creating an illusion that it’s always been that way and, by implication, always will be that way. If the feelings are painful or aggressive, the brain must interpret, explain, and justify them. This whole process serves to habituate them, i.e., make them habits that are certain to recur, especially under stress. In adults, the vast majority of emotional reactions are habituated.
A better strategy is to focus on how you want to feel, which will be more future-oriented and less susceptible to the feed-back loop of past mistakes. I use a process called TIP (think, imagine, practice) to develop new habits. For example, “I feel resentful, but I want to feel kind.” I think of times in the past when I have felt kind, and recognize that I really like myself better at those times. I imagine myself doing things that will bring those feelings to life, such as wishing others happiness and wellbeing. Then I practice allowing myself to be concerned with the wellbeing of my significant others. Then I practice behaviors that embody my concern for them. Repeating this association - resentment with kindness - several times a day for about six weeks will develop a conditioned response, such that when I start to feel resentful, I will begin to think and act kindly.
Of course, for the process to work, I have to really want to be kind, rather than resentful, i.e., I have to want to feel more valuable, rather than temporarily more powerful from the tiny dose of adrenalin that comes with resentment. I have to really want to improve my relationships, rather than be validated as being "right."
Whatever behavior problem repeatedly dogs you, it likely has very generalized triggers - anything that makes you feel devalued, isolated, or attacked. Over time, the mental states themselves – powerlessness, vulnerability, worthlessness, etc. – trigger habitual responses - anger, aggression, drinking, overeating, workaholism – independently of the original causes. Therefore, we must develop general responses to general mental states, rather than specific triggers of the mental states.
Most CompassionPower clients have formed habits of empowering themselves against vulnerable mental states with some kind of aggression, a habit which, of course, must be changed for health, safety, and wellbeing of the entire family. The steps of TIP are:
Think repeatedly about the desired change and write it out (Example - “When she says I’m selfish, I’ll allow myself to care that she’s hurt and show her that I care.”)
Imagine in detail how to overcome any barriers (usually guilt, shame, anxiety) to the desired change (Example - “I feel guilty about having been selfish in the past, but caring about her and feeling connected to her are more important, so I’ll try to focus on what’s most important to me – showing her that I care.”)
Practice the specific behaviors likely to lead to the desired change.
To apply TIP to your own undesirable habits, examine several instances of the habit and then:
Write down, in as much detail as possible, what you were thinking and feeling immediately before you did the undesired behavior.
Develop a repertoire of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are incompatible with the negative response you had immediately before the habit was activated.
Think of specific behaviors that will make you feel more valuable. (The bad habit was an attempt to make you feel temporarily more powerful, but resulted in more feelings of powerlessness in short order.) These will fall into one of four categories: improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.
- Practice the behaviors every day for about six weeks (an optimal time for building self-regulation habits).
With practice, your brain will automatically replace states of vulnerability - usually shame or anxiety - with more deeply empowering, solution-oriented states, which will allow you to act in ways that make you feel consistently more valuable.
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