The lost art of joy – Regret

I took my son to see the latest Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi” this afternoon. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment for anyone.

What I can say is that one of the strong themes of the movie was regret. In this movie, Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, was in self-imposed exile, hiding physically and ‘spiritually’ (from the power of the force), because of the choices he made.

Everyone has regrets, the ‘what could have been’ … the one who got away, the job you could have had, the fight you wish you hadn’t, the investment you didn’t make or possibly the one you did. Like death and taxes, whether big or small, we all collect some regrets as we walk along life’s path.

Regret isn’t necessarily bad, it can be an opportunity to move forward into joy if it’s handled the right way. If regret is eventually going to lead to joy, then it has to spur us on to make adaptive changes. It’s learning from our mistakes. We might realise how we have been too busy to spend our time according to what’s valuable for us, or not given enough, or not looked after ourself enough, and we resolve to eat better, work less, or give more to others. There are so many different examples of how joy can come from acting mindfully and adaptively on our feelings of regret.

But sometimes regret becomes overwhelming, where instead of riding the wave of regret to power us forward, it dumps over the top of us and we are swamped by it’s deluge. They can sometimes merge into an overall feeling of being wrong or bad, it may cause paralysis because you mourn what you could have or should have done, and can’t seem to make a better decision going forward.

If any good, if any joy, is going to come from those experiences we may be regretting, then we have to grab our surfboard. Remember:
1. It’s ok to fail. Failure is inevitable. Without it, there can be no success. What’s done is done.
2. Make lemonade. Learning from what happened takes the lemons that you’re stuck with and makes them into something better.
3. Keep looking forward. Once you stop looking to the past mistakes, you can start focussing on future opportunities
4. Be mindful. Engage in the present moment to enhance your current joy.
5. Be values driven. You’re much less likely to regret decisions that you make if they are based on your values. But if things don’t go according to plan, you can always go back to step 1.

It’s that committed action to our values that ultimately enhances our joy, now and in the future.

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The lost art of joy – Loving yourself again

How many doctors does it take to change a lightbulb?

That depends on whether it has health insurance.

None of the lightbulbs in my house have health insurance, but that’s not why I don’t like changing them. I’m just not the handy-man type, that likes to climb around on ladders, pulling off light covers, changing the bulbs and putting everything back together. It’s not that it’s particularly difficult, but unless all of the lightbulbs in a room are broken, I’m not going to go through all of the bother. I would much rather have lightbulbs that never die.

Of course, lightbulbs inevitably burn out. Some will work for an hour and then stop, others will last for years before finally giving out. An engineer who designed the light bulb would have an idea about how long the light bulb should work, and according to their tests, the light bulb would be expected to work for a certain time. For instance, say that I put a light bulb into my office lamp that is rated to last for 2500 hours, and it lasts for 2600 hours before it finally gives out. It’s lasted 100 hours longer than it’s rated for, and so to the engineer who designed it, the bulb is a success. But it’s still stopped working, and I’m in the dark. To me, it has still failed.

It’s interesting that failure is as much about the standards that people set, either individually or collectively, than anything else. My standards for light bulbs are probably unrealistic – I want them to work forever because I hate replacing them.

Sometimes we judge ourselves by an unrealistic standard, or we allow others to judge us by an unrealistic standard.

It’s easy to look at the people on magazine covers or on TV who look so perfect, and use that as our yardstick for self-comparison. We yearn for their perfect figure, or their talent, or their business acumen.

We compare ourselves to our ‘friends’ on social media and wonder why our lives aren’t as good.

We remember the criticism from our parents or our teachers – who wanted us to be skinnier, or smarter, or stronger – and strive to please them.

There’s nothing wrong with striving with the right motivation, but when our goal is unattainable or unrealistic, the energy we expend for no perceived gain just sucks the life from our soul, resulting in cognitive overload, resentment, anger and despair. None of these things helps us build joy in our lives.

The antidote is to love yourself again. We need to forgive ourselves and set goals that are realistic and attainable.

Setting realistic and attainable goals first comes from understanding our values and living by them, sailing in the direction that our particular breeze is taking us, not fighting against it.

We also need to understand our own capacity based on our own particular skills and talents. If you’re a Ferrari, you’re not going to be driving up rough mountain tracks, through rivers and around sand dunes. If you’re a Land Rover, you’re not going to be carving up a race track. Use the talents that you have to set your own course, not try to drive someone else’s.

It’s also ok to fail. We succeed because we fail. It’s ok to set some seemingly attainable goals and still not attain them. Beating yourself doesn’t help anyone, all it does is leave you bruised and bloodied. Love yourself even when you fail, and forgive yourself. Remember, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)

This Christmas, love yourself.  Don’t try to live up to the unrealistic standards of others, but set your own goals based on your values, even if you don’t always attain them.  And, forgive yourself. That will allow joy to flourish.

Running of the Elephants – Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Have you ever found yourself about to give a speech or sit an exam, and one of your friends tries to calm you down by saying, “Stop worrying … just don’t think about it!”  Does that ever work?  Not usually!  The more you try to intentionally block it from your mind, the more it wants to pop up again.

Why is that?  It seems intuitive that if you don’t want to think about something, all you need to do is to take control and block it out of your mind, right?

One of Hollywood’s better movies in recent times was “Inception”.  In one of the key early scenes, Arthur is explaining to Saito why inception is impossible,

Saito: If you can steal an idea, why can’t you plant one there instead?
Arthur: Okay, this is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?
Saito: Elephants?”

This is a great little dialogue about thought suppression.  Thought suppression is the process of consciously trying to avoid certain thoughts, either by trying to replace the unwanted thought with another thought, or simply trying to repress the unwanted thought.

Our minds tend to focus on the content of a subject.  If the subject is elephants, no matter what words I put in front of it, your mind will think about elephants.  Like if I say, “I love elephants, or I say “Don’t think about elephants”, your brain hears, “blah blah blah elephants.”  And having been sensitized to the idea of not thinking about elephants, when your mind inevitably brings it up again, you’re primed to pay even more attention to it, “D’oh, I’ve just thought about elephants again … stop thinking about elephants …”.

This phenomenon is even more pronounced if your mind has already been focusing on the subject.  If you’re mind is going over and over a speech you have to give and I say, “Oh, don’t worry about that speech”, all your mind registers is, “blah blah blah SPEECH”.

Although it’s been discussed in the psychological sciences for decades, it’s only been since the late 1980’s that considerable attention has been given to the concept of thought suppression.  Despite our natural tendencies to try it or recommend it to people, the conclusion of nearly all the research is the same: thought suppression doesn’t work.

Wenzlaff and Wegner, two American psychology researchers, looked at all of the different research on thought suppression and came to the following conclusion,

“What has compelled the interest of the scientific and clinical communities is that suppression is not simply an ineffective tactic of mental control; it is counterproductive, helping assure the very state of mind one had hoped to avoid. The problem of thought suppression is aggravated by its intuitive appeal and apparent simplicity, which help mask its false promises.” [1]

I’m not really sure why we naturally gravitate to thought suppression.  Perhaps it’s part of our natural delusion of control.  Perhaps it’s a throwback from the pop-psychology assumptions that we can control our destiny, or the common myth that our mind is in control of our brain.

Whatever the reason, as time has passed, researchers are coming to understand why thought suppression is so unhelpful.  This quote from Magee and his colleagues helps to explain why:

“This shift in focus parallels advances in cognitive theories of intrusive thoughts, which suggest that having intrusive thoughts is a normative phenomenon; instead, the way an individual interprets those thoughts is expected to lead to benign versus serious outcomes … Similarly, having difficulties with thought suppression is a common experience … it is the way an individual interprets that experience that may be key. Previous discussions of thought suppression have frequently implied that people having difficulties with thought suppression often ascribe negative meaning to their difficulties.” [2]

We naturally struggle to suppress intrusive thoughts because intrusive thoughts are normal.  Trying to suppress them is like trying to suppress any other normal biological process.  Try to stop breathing for any length of time and you’ll see what I mean – it’s impossible, and trying is simply counterproductive.

The key is how we react to or feel about our thoughts.  If we feel like our thoughts might be somehow causing us harm, then our failure to stop them from bubbling up to the surface of our consciousness is going to cause us distress.  It’s a double whammy – we’re stressed because we’re expecting the negative consequences of our thoughts, and we’re distressed by our ‘failure’ to stop them.

Since it first started more than a century ago, the death toll from the famous Pamplona event, “Running of the Bulls” currently stands at 13.  Countless others have been gored and trampled.  Who are the people who get injured during the event?  Certainly not the smart ones standing behind the barriers on the edge of the streets, or the ones watching it broadcast on TV?  Only the morons who try to outrun the pack of foot-long bony skewers attached to the half-ton lumps of very cranky steak.

Similarly, the best way to manage our thoughts is to learn not to fight with them in the first place.  By non-judgmentally observing them, we can simply observe our thoughts for what they are … just thoughts.  By stepping back from our thoughts and giving them room, we find that they don’t have any real power over us.  Stepping back away from our thoughts and letting them be is the skill of defusion, one part of the process of psychological acceptance.  It’s the first step in living a life abundant in meaning and significance.

So just remember: don’t try to suppress an unwelcome thought.  Having intrusive thoughts is actually a normal process, not a sign of disease or mental weakness.  They’re not toxic or harmful, they’re just thoughts.  Give them space, like you would a charging angry bull (or elephant!)

References

[1]        Wenzlaff RM, Wegner DM. Thought suppression. Annual review of psychology 2000;51(1):59-91.
[2]        Magee JC, Harden KP, Teachman BA. Psychopathology and thought suppression: a quantitative review. Clinical psychology review 2012 Apr;32(3):189-201.