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How to Activate Sage Mode and Start Reversing Neurotic Loops

Going meta is the first step.

Key points

  • Shifting from a mindless reactive stance to a mindful responsive stance can help you break out of neurotic thought loops.
  • Activating your sage mode means adopting the position of a metacognitive observer.
  • Going meta means your thoughts and feelings become the object of your attention, and you can reflect on what they mean to you.

This post was co-written by Marcia Gralha, MA. This is the third in a series of seven posts laying out how to break out of maladaptive cycles and move toward greater well-being.

A familiar anxious jolt of jealousy ran through Alice’s body as she watched her husband send a friendly text to a female friend. At her core, Alice knew her husband was faithful and loved her very much. Even so, these kinds of things would activate her jealousy. As the feelings grew, a set of critical thoughts started to emerge: “I am pathetic for being so jealous,” and then “I must not be enough for him.” She felt an intense urge to unleash her emotions and say something hostile or shaming.

But then she paused and remembered what her therapist had told her: Instead of either blocking her emotions or becoming overwhelmed and acting on them, she could learn to take a step back and observe them from a distance. She then imagined what her therapist would say. This shift was useful. Feeling more centered, she was able to obtain a more accurate and helpful view on her situation. She thought: “Here is that familiar feeling again... It sucks, but it is temporary and will pass. When I feel calmer, I will be able to reflect on this and find the best way forward without hurting my relationship or my self-esteem.” We might say that Alice had just activated her “sage mode,” which is the MO in the CALM-MO approach to psychological mindfulness.

Going Meta on Your Thoughts and Feelings

Most of us have experienced an emotion powerful enough to consume all our attention. Often, these emotions make us react impulsively, with attacks against ourselves or others. The result is a vicious cycle. The bad situation makes us feel lousy, and we proceed to respond to it with self-criticism, excessive blaming, or a desire to control our feelings, which then makes us feel worse. Consider Alice’s reaction. She felt jealous and then had the urge to criticize herself or even defensively react and blame her husband. These secondary negative reactions would have been like bringing water to a grease fire and making the situation much worse.

The previous post in this series described neurotic loops, which consist of a negative situation that elicits a negative feeling, which gives rise to a secondary negative reaction that is "CRITICal" in nature, and tends to avoid, blame, or control (the ABCs of negative reactions).

CALM-MO is a psychological tool that has been developed to reverse neurotic loops. As this recent dissertation shows, it integrates the wisdom of many different schools of thought in psychotherapy and organizes them into an easy-to-understand (but often hard-to-enact) framework. When bumped by negative situations that elicit negative feelings, CALM-MO guides us to be curious, accepting, loving, compassionate, and motivated toward valued states of being. Upcoming posts will describe each of those elements in further detail. This post focuses on the “MO” part, which stands for the "metacognitive observer." It can also be referred to as “sage mode,” and, although it will not give you special ninja powers à la Naruto, it is an invaluable skill to have.

Alice was able to access this perspective when thinking of her therapist. When she zoomed out, she could observe her thoughts and feelings instead of being them. Most of us already have practice with the MO stance. Think of a time when you felt overwhelmed by a problem in your life and, when you narrated it to a friend, you could see it with more clarity. This is your MO: a meta (that which is above or beyond) observer of your experience. In the MO stance, you de-identify with the stream of your thoughts and feelings and see them as temporary modes rather than defining features of your identity. In addition to offering a broader view, as we will see, the MO is also about adopting wiser point of view, hence activating a sage mode. When one is in sage mode, instead of being consumed by one’s negative feelings, one can listen to what they are communicating and find the most adaptive path going forward.

Importance of the MO

When we adopt the MO perspective, we can learn to see more clearly and respond more adaptively. Specifically, it allows us to see (a) the reality of the problem, separated from our distorted interpretations of it; (b) our understandable primary emotional reactions, separated from our secondary maladaptive reactions; and (c) the path toward our valued goals, separated from our problematic defense strategies.

Let us return to Alice’s example. We can imagine that, when shifting into MO, Alice could see that the only factual reality was that her husband was texting a friend and that her interpretations of that fact (e.g., he is having an affair) were a distortion of that reality. She could also understand that those interpretations were anxiety-provoking, so it made sense that she would have negative feelings associated with them. Alice also noticed that she added a layer of negative reactions to her primary feelings: She blamed herself, making generalized statements such as “I am not good enough.” Lastly, from the MO viewpoint, Alice realized that her urge to say something hurtful to her husband was an impulsive defense strategy. His actions made her feel lousy, and she wanted to take it out on him.

How to Cultivate the MO Sage Mode

Cultivating your MO or sage mode is the first step in healing from neurotic suffering. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes to access it in moments of distress. Eventually, your MO can turn into your go-to approach to navigating problems and even your way of being in the world. The MO can also stand for your modus operandi as it gets more developed. When afflicted with strong negative emotions, it can be hard to feel centered enough to shift into MO, but these four steps will put you on the right path:

  1. Understand what the MO is and why it is valuable. If you go see a therapist, it is very likely that the first question you will get is: “What brings you in today?” The very act of seeing a therapist and asking this question is an example of an “MO” frame. It shifts from being in the problem to stepping outside the stream and reflecting on the problem.
  2. Engage in grounding exercises. If your distress is so intense that you feel consumed by your emotions, mindfulness or breathing exercises can be a helpful way to de-intensify your bodily sensations and bring you to the present moment.
  3. Gain distance from your negative thoughts and feelings. A helpful way to begin de-identifying with your distress is to separate your core self from your thoughts and feelings. An example is to shift from thinking “I am worthless” to thinking “I am having thoughts that I am worthless” or “I am observing myself experiencing feelings of worthlessness.” This distancing sheds a light on the transient nature of negative feelings. It also highlights that your core self is independent of these feelings and not defined by them.
  4. Embody the MO. One way to think of the MO stance is as a mode you can embody. This is why we are calling it sage mode here. You can also consider giving it a name or internalizing someone you know and look up to, like Alice did. Similarly, it might also be helpful to name your less-adaptive self that engages in neurotic loops; maybe that is your “inner critic,” your “neurotic voice,” or you can even give it a specific name.

Cultivating a metacognitive observer is the first step to using CALM to effectively break out of neurotic loops. The next post in this series will begin to teach the specific elements of CALM, starting with how to become curious about the situation and your feelings rather than critical or closed.


Part I: A CALM Guide to Reversing Neurotic Loops.

Part II: The Neurotic Loops at the Core of Many Mental Disorders

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