Over my years practising as a therapist, first as a Counsellor and then a Psychologist, people tend to assume that I’m “sorted”. They think I’ve got life sussed and that I must be able to handle pretty much any situation that crops up.
Well, as much as I’d like to say the above is true, it isn’t! Us therapists are ‘only human’ and we experience all the ups and downs life throws at the ‘non-therapist’.
One such problem that I experienced recently relates to my private practice. I’d not long set up the business and it had been a huge learning curve in many ways. However, despite all the things I’d sorted out (e.g., renting a room, business insurance, my website) the biggest barrier to pushing my business forward was actually my MIND!
It suddenly became filled with all sorts of negative thoughts around whether I actually deserved to be a therapist in private practice. I was wracked with self-esteem and self-confidence issues and doubted my capability of doing the job. Being stuck in this negative mind-set meant that I put off doing the things which would help expand my practice, simply because of my belief that I wasn’t good enough!
Where do all these negative feelings come from??
Our brains have evolved to scan the environment for threats and danger. As cavemen/women, we’d support our families, find that day’s lunch, while avoiding all sorts of scary animals that wanted us for their own lunch! This instinct to be ‘on the alert’ isn’t really needed so much in the modern world, but our brains still go back to that default way of working because it’s been engrained for so long. This short animation illustrates the point really well:
How to get out of your own way
So, drawing upon my own experience I want to talk about how you can stop your mind from getting you stuck, so you can keep moving your business in the direction you want it to go.
Now, I cannot credit myself with having thought of the exercises that follow. These tools and techniques come from an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Please bear in mind that this is a very brief ‘whistle-stop tour’ and if you feel you’d benefit from learning more then go to www.happinesstrap.com where you can download lots of free resources, or you can buy The Happiness Trap book by Russ Harris. I’m not a commission or anything, I just really like this approach and it’s personally helped me a lot 🙂
Step 1: Identify the problem
The first step is to identify that there is actually a problem. After all if you’re coming up against obstacles, but dealing with them okay then there’s no problem! So, focus on things which are causing you difficulties.
It’s worth remembering that whilst there might be problems which are external to us, what we’re going to be working on is our internal responses which may/may not be related external situations.
So if, for example, if the external problem is that your supplier isn’t delivering on time then you’d need to take necessary action to chase them up (e.g., ring them and give them a bit of a talking to). However, if there’s something internal going on which is getting in the way of you actually ringing them (e.g., lack of confidence/not feeling able to be assertive), then this is the sort of thing we’re focusing on.
So, have a think about your business. What is it you’re stuck on right now? Is there a current situation you’re finding difficult? Is it causing you to avoid things or put things off? Whatever it is, write down the specific situation. Then write down your thoughts and feelings associated with that situation.
An example scenario might be that you’ve been asked to do a presentation in front of a potential client. You have such thoughts as: “I’m no good at presenting”, “The client will see how nervous I am”, and “It’ll be a disaster so there’s no point”. As a result you might feel anxious, on edge, get knots in your stomach, or even feel physically sick.
Now, write down what you’ve been doing as a consequence of your thoughts and feelings. Do you avoid doing the things you need to do?
Continuing with the example above, you might keep putting off writing the presentation until the last minute, or you might not prepare the presentation at all and then bail out on the client. Not good for you or the reputation of your business!
Step 2: Identify your values
This might seem like a bit of a tangent from above, but bear with me!
It’ll help if you download this document from The Happiness Trap and print off pages 13 and 14 which comprise a Values worksheet and Bullseye diagram.
Fill out the worksheet under each of the headings: 1) Work/Education; 2) Relationships; 3) Personal Growth/Health; and 4) Leisure. Think about what’s important to you under each of these headings. What things matter to you the most? What sort of person do you want to be? What strengths and qualities do you want to develop?
Then, using the Bullseye diagram, mark with an ‘X’ to represent where you stand today for each of your values. The closer your ‘X’ is to the centre of the Bullseye, the closer you are to living your values. As this is the ATOMIC blog we’re going to focus on Work/Education (i.e. your business) for now, but feel free to look at the other values too 🙂
Step 3: How does your response to the problem(s) impact on your values?
So, you’ve identified your current problem relating to Work/Education, your thoughts and feelings about the problem, and you’ve got a list of the things you do/don’t do (your actions) in response to the problem.
What did you write down under the Work/Education value? Where did you mark yourself on the Bullseye diagram in terms of how closely you’re living this value? Would you like to be closer to the centre of the Bullseye?
How are your current actions in response to the current problem impacting upon your Work/Education value? Do your actions move you towards or away from the life you want to live/the person you want to be within your business? In other words, do your actions move your closer to the centre of the Bullseye or further away from the centre?
If we take the example of the person who’s worried about their presentation. One of their values in Work/Education might be “Providing a professional service to clients”. However, their action of not preparing for the presentation is likely to mean it doesn’t go as well as they’d like it to. The presentation is likely to look a bit amateur, which will probably not impress the client. In this instance, the person’s actions are moving them away from their identified value.
This video explains more about how we can easily move away from our values when challenges arise:
From this exercise, you might start to see that at least some of the things you’re doing in response to the problem might be moving you away from what’s important to you regarding your business.
The next part, then, is to help you start moving towards your Work/Education values (i.e. closer to the centre of the Bullseye).
Step 4: Dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings
As much as we might want to move closer towards our values, our thoughts and feelings often get in the way and we can end up doing things which move us further away from our values. It’s therefore important to try and work with our thoughts and feelings so they don’t stop us from moving towards our values.
An important thing to remember about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is that it is never, ever, ever the aim to get rid of difficult thoughts and feelings. Never.
The reason being, that our thoughts and feelings are out of our control. If you tell yourself not to think about a pink elephant, what happens?? If you tell yourself not to feel scared in a really scary situation, do you suddenly feel calm? No! Here are some scary pink elephants for you. You’re welcome.
The problem we have is not so much the thoughts and feelings we experience, but how we attach to them.
For example, two people have the exact same thought of “I’m going to make a mess of this presentation”. One person might become low in mood, despondent and wonder what the point is of creating the presentation. However, the other person might acknowledge the thoughts/feelings, but carry on with the presentation despite them. The second person didn’t get rid of the thoughts or feelings, but they didn’t attach to them which enabled them to keep doing what was important to them.
Techniques to deal with difficult thoughts
When we talk about “accepting” thoughts and feelings, we’re not talking about passive acceptance, nor about resigning yourself to having these thoughts and feelings. Acceptance in this sense means “to make room” for the thoughts; letting them come and go as they please.
One technique to deal with difficult thoughts is to insert “I’m having the thought that… ” before your thought. So, for example, instead of thinking “My presentation will be a disaster” you say to yourself “I’m having the thought that my presentation will be a disaster” .
By adding the “I’m having the thought that…” this can help create some ‘distance’ from the thought and take away some of its power. After all, just because we have a thought it doesn’t mean it’s true.
Another technique is to visualise thoughts as words on a computer screen, where you can change the font type, size or colour, and add animations or other special effects. This technique can help people see the thought for what it is – a set of words – and, again, take away some of the impact.
Notice again that we’re not trying to get rid of the thoughts, they’re still there; we’re just trying to take the sting out of them so that we can carry on working towards our Work/Education values.
Here’s another technique using the metaphor ‘Leaves on a stream’:
Techniques to deal with difficult feelings
When we attach ourselves to difficult thoughts we’re highly likely to experience difficult feelings alongside them. We might have anxiety, anger, frustration; it could be anything.
Focus on the feeling
One technique to work with difficult feelings is to focus on where you feel the feeling. Is it in one particular part of your body, or is it in multiple places? Try and visualise it; what does it look like? Is it solid or fluid? Is it moving or staying still? Does it have a certain colour or texture?
Keeping the visualisation in mind, focus on your breathing and breathe into the feeling. Allow the feeling to be there and observe it with curiosity. Remember, this isn’t about trying to get rid of it.
This process can help to make room for the feeling. The feeling may not go away; if it does then that’s a bonus, but it’s not the aim of the exercise. Being able to accept the feeling can help release you to carry on taking action towards your values.
If the feelings are really overwhelming, for example, you’re waiting to go on stage to deliver your presentation, then you can do a grounding exercise to help bring you back to the present.
Start by tuning into what you can hear. Sometimes we can hear things which are nearby and some things are far away. Just notice that – take time to listen to the sounds you can hear in the room for a few moments. Then switch to what you can hear further away. Take your time before moving onto the next step.
Now focus on what you can see. Look around the room. Look with the same intensity as an artist – look at the colours, textures, look at the way the light hits objects in the room.
Now move on to what you can touch/feel. Notice what you’re sitting on – what does that feel like? Notice the feel of your feet on the floor – what is that like? What are your arms/hands resting on – notice how they feel.
How did you find that exercise? How did you feel doing it? Notice that when you were doing it, you were in the moment; not really thinking about other things. If you find your mind wandering back to thoughts of the presentation, just notice that it’s wandered and bring your attention back to what you were focusing on.
Here’s an example of a grounding exercise:
Step 5: Taking values-guided action
Once you’re able to use some techniques which help you sit with difficult thoughts and feelings, you can focus on what actions to take to move you closer to living your Work/Education values.
Remember, this is about taking action despite the thoughts/feelings coming up. We have little control over our thoughts/feelings, but we can control our actions.
If we return to the example of creating a presentation for a client, what action could you take to help you with this which fits in with your Work/Education values?
Perhaps one of your Work/Education values was to “Seek support/training to help grow my skills”. One action might therefore be about getting support from someone who has used presentation software before if you’re unsure how to use the technology. You might want to search online for speakers to inspire you in how to deliver your presentation.
Perhaps you could practice the presentation in front of family members so you feel more confident on the day. You could even practice in front of the dog. However, if you have a cat forget it; they’re harsh critics and you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
Using page 19 of this document might help you get clearer with your goals, and the actions you want to take which align with your values.
And that’s all there is to it 😉
Like I said, this is a whistle-stop tour of the tools and techniques you can use to help get out of your mind’s way and move forward with your business. It probably sounds easy on ‘paper’, but, like any new skill it takes practice. Certainly for me, the techniques are something I put into practice on a near-daily basis, and I’m getting better at them.
Remember we’re only human and we’re not going to get it right all the time. However, if we keep practicing we’ll get better at allowing our thoughts and feelings to come and go without them paralysing us. This then frees us up to do awesome things with our business!
I hope this has been helpful and inspired you to keep pushing forward with what’s important to you. If you have any questions then please feel free to contact me and I’d be more than happy to speak to you 🙂
Dr Jo Robinson is a Psychologist working at Aperture Therapeutic Services, her private practice in Staffordshire. She specialises in supporting people who are experiencing anxiety to live more fully in the present. You can find her online at https://