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Andrew Bernstein
Andrew Bernstein

The Transformational Power of Insight

What is the opposite of stress? (Hint: It's not relaxation.)

In my posts so far, I've been explaining why stressors don't exist, and that stress really comes from your internal thoughts, not your external circumstances. Consequently, anytime your thoughts shift, your emotional experience shifts as well. In this post, I'd like to share how this shift takes place.

You might think that shifting your thoughts is as easy as setting your mind to it. But stressful thoughts aren't held in place through choice or will power. They're held in place through perceived truth value. What that means is, if you believe that you're unsuccessful, for example, you can tell yourself otherwise, but as long as you still believe that this statement is true, it will stick. Conversely, when something is seen as false, it stops sticking and falls away. No one holds on to a false belief once they recognize it as false.

I call this movement from seeing something as true to seeing it as false "insight." It's the realization that what you had believed to be the case, upon closer examination, is actually mistaken. So the opposite of stress isn't relaxation. The opposite of stress is insight. The more insight you have, the less stress you experience.

And this is the key to real psychological transformation. Anyone who has seen legendary psychologist Albert Ellis lay into clients has witnessed the attempt at insight. Byron Katie provokes the same thing in a noticeably softer style, as do cognitive therapists. I've spent years studying a wide range of processes that provoke insights, trying to create an approach that maximizes targeted insights and minimizes extraneous effort. Out of this grew my own process, called ActivInsight.

ActivInsight is seven steps done on paper. You use a guided worksheet because it helps you focus better than if you tried to do it out loud or in your head. I'll explain now how it works. (You can download a free worksheet from to follow along.)

First, you identify the belief that is provoking your negative emotions. The next time you feel angry or upset, just notice what you're thinking about. For example, let's say Joan is angry and she notices that the thought provoking it is "People on Wall St. shouldn't be so greedy." So Joan would write that statement on the lines of Step 1.

In Step 2, you rate the strength of your belief on a scale from 0 to 10, 10 being the most. This gives us a way to quantify and benchmark our progress. Someone who really gets worked up about Wall St. would probably give this a high number. Joan circles 10. (Note to Spinal Tap fans, your worksheets can go to eleven.)

In Step 3, you circle the feelings and behaviors that take place when you think this thought. Joan circles angry, resentful, and frustrated, and for behaviors, she notes that she complains, smokes, resents people on Wall St., and overeats. These would be different for each person, and you can always write in words that aren't listed. The lists are just meant to give you ideas.

Steps 4 and 5 are where the transformation happens. Step 4 asks you to negate your belief. Negation is a term from logic. The negation of "should" is "should not." The negation of "should not" is "should." You just flip the main verb from positive to negative or negative to positive. The rest of the sentence stays the same.

So the negation in Step 4 is "People on Wall St. should be so greedy." That seems strange, but we'll come back to it in a second. First, I want you to add a few qualifying words that will help us in Step 5. You add "In reality" at the beginning, and "at this time" at the end, like this:

"People on Wall St. shouldn't be so greedy" becomes:

"In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time."

If that seems to you like the most backward thing we could come up with, that's a good sign. It means we've put our finger on the knot in your mind that is producing stress.

Think about this for a moment: If this process simply confirmed what you already believed, it would be useless. The whole point of ActivInsight is to shift the ground under your beliefs so that you see things from a startlingly different point of view. It's this shift that results in less stress, because the stress is being produced from your perspective. So this approach is inherently designed to challenge the way you think.

The advantage to this is that it makes psychological transformation into a repeatable skill you can do on your own whenever you need to. The disadvantage is that you're going to have to argue against your own position, which takes real open-mindedness. (It does get easier with practice.)

Let's say Joan is open-minded and tired of living with stress, so she continues. In Step 5, ActivInsight asks you to find proof for why the negation is true. How could it possibly be true that, in reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time?

Joan blinks. "It isn't true."

But consider this: Do you think that these supposedly greedy people just materialized one day, or was their greed (whatever Joan is calling greed) built somehow? "Yes," Joan says, "It must be something they learned while they were young." So that's part of why in reality, they should be so greedy at this time. Can you see that? It's an effect of prior causes.

In ActivInsight, "should" isn't what you imagine ought to exist. Should is what is, the real world, because the real world is a product of factors that have built it. For example, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time (not tomorrow, not forever, just right now), because they grew up believing in the power of money, because they value it, and because Wall St. has turned those values into an industry.

"I never thought about it like that," Joan says. "You're not saying that they should be so greedy forever because that's a good thing. You're saying that, in reality, they should be so greedy right now because that's how they were raised, that our society has fostered that, so it's what exists."

Exactly. Step 5 connects your mind back to the real world. The more effort you put into this step, the more you get out of it. It's important that you emphasize the words "at this time" so that you see that we're only taking about now, not forever. In other words, we're not condoning anything. We're merely describing it. So doing this, Joan could come up with the following:

  • "In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time because that's how they were raised to think."
  • "In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time because they believe that making money is the most important thing in life."
  • "In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time because from a young age kids play games like Monopoly that are all about accumulating money, so it gets ingrained in us."
  • "In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time because our society emphasizes the importance of money in finding happiness."
  • "In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time because as a culture we equate making money with being successful."
  • "In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time because they believe that if they make lots of money, they can give back to society more effectively (so they justify their greed)."
  • "In reality, people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time because they think that making money is what keeps the economy going, even if it isn't really working that way for most of us."

Do you see how this works? Joan would spend some time thinking through this and writing down whatever she came up with.

Then she reads her list out loud to herself, taking it in. She hears the proof explaining why the negation — as odd as it sounded a few minutes ago — is actually true in reality and at this time. Through that realization, a shift takes place. The knot in her mind begins to loosen.

Next, in Step 6, Joan looks at the feelings and behaviors that come with the negation. When she realizes that people on Wall St. should be so greedy at this time (because that's how they were raised, because our society values money, etc.), she feels more understanding. She feels calmer, and less angry. Distractions like smoking or eating no longer feel necessary, and new actions come into play. She might get back to focusing on her own life. She might think about ways to ensure that her children or grandchildren have certain priorities or values. She might look into regulatory reform to keep greed in check, or educational resources that help more people think about the bigger picture. But it all comes from understanding — from insight — instead of from anger.

The last step is simply re-rating the belief we began with. "People on Wall St. shouldn't be so greedy." That was a 10 for Joan when she started. But now, having looked at this belief more closely, she sees it as less true and rates it a 3. (What number did you give it on your worksheet?) And that change, from a 10 to a 3, plays itself out in her life in a number of positive ways.

That's the transformational power of insight. Whenever you experience stress, you're unknowingly believing something that isn't true, and ActivInsight gives you a simple tool to reveal the error and correct it step by step.

Like any skill, this takes some practice and guidance. In The Myth of Stress, I explain how this works in greater detail, and walk you through a dozen topics like the one above, from relationships to money to weight loss. I'll continue to blog here about the nature of insight and stress, and how to work through issues that may be bothering you. Let me know in the comments area what questions you have, or what you'd like to explore.

Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight, a simple process that is changing the way individuals and organizations understand stress and resilience. His new book, The Myth of Stress, reveals how ActivInsight quickly transforms problems at work, at school, and at home. You can ask Andrew questions in the comments here or through twitter @mythofstress.

About the Author
Andrew Bernstein

Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight and the author of The Myth of Stress.

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