Thoughts become things – cognitive behavioural coaching and taking psychological responsibility

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of themLast week I wrote about learning more about cognitive behavioural psychology as part of my ongoing professional development – often encountered in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but also increasingly employed in the coaching domain. This post also links to my previous post on freedom where I wrote about making active choices.

I think the quote above, from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, sums up the core of CBT very pithily. The origins of modern psychotherapy can legitimately be traced to classical philosophical schools like Stoicism, which is, if you will, the original cognitive therapy (Albert Ellis, who founded the first form of CBT, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), has acknowledged the lineage from Stoic philosophy).

There is a great deal of synergy between the cognitive behavioural approach and coaching, particularly from a constructivist perspective. People can fall into the trap of being a passive participant in their own lives, and it’s very easy to tip over into becoming a victim of your circumstances. I often talk to clients about becoming actively involved in constructing their own realities (note: which is not the same as ignoring objective facts!) rather than playing a part in a story someone else has written for them. Learning and growing occurs when you are actively involved in a process of making meaning in your life, understanding the thoughts and beliefs that you hold and then taking conscious control of them.

The concept of mental control, heavily distilled, might look somewhat like this.

 

 

In a nutshell, there are things we can control, things we can influence, and things we can’t really do anything about. Although we might have legitimate concerns about what other people do and what’s happening in the world, very often we have little to no control over these things. What we do have control over are what we choose to think and feel, and how we choose to behave. And the kinds of thoughts and beliefs and feelings that we hold, and our subsequent behaviour, can make our realities happy or miserable. This is at the core of the cognitive behavioural approach. CBT and its coaching counterpart, CBC, teach that it is the meaning that we attach to events that causes our emotional reactions, not the events themselves, and that we can learn to choose different behaviours through retraining our thoughts and beliefs.

A key word here is ‘choice’. Everything that we do is a choice. Sometimes we may think that we have no choice but to respond or react in a certain manner – we say things like “she made me angry”, “I was forced into a corner”, “he is the reason I am in this predicament”. The trouble with this is that it opens up the door to everyone else being the cause of your problems, and us discounting or forgetting the part we have played in any given situation (often also the part that we continue to play, if we’ve fallen into the role of victim).

What’s the alternative? Accepting responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Viktor E. Frankl said that “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I very much like this quote because I think taking psychological responsibility – responsibility for our thoughts and feelings – is fundamental to our psychological wellbeing. This is a world away from a damaging  blame game – it moves us right across into the empowerment of realising that you do not have to rely on changing others, or your situation, before you can feel better or act differently.

Your thoughts don’t have to become your reality. They’re opinions, not facts. (Opinions welcome in comments below!)

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Awareness

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I’ve been doing a fair bit of mindfulness meditation recently. Last week I went for a walk in Tocil Wood and the bluebells were still going strong. I was listening to a guided walking meditation and it reminded me that it was natural and ok for my thoughts to be wandering. I did notice them wandering several times, but each time I simply reminded myself of what I was seeking to focus on, and brought my thoughts back.

It occurred to me that this is very much like life in general. I’ve posted before about the chaos theory of careers, and how we shouldn’t expect to continually be on the path that we may have mapped out for ourselves. On the road we will see things off to the side that catch our eye. There will be holes in the path, and unexpected diversions. The important thing is not dogged faithfulness to the road but the awareness of when we are travelling away, and the ability to stop and correct our direction of travel as required.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Choose happiness

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When are you going to be happy? When you get there? Or when you realise that happiness is already here with you for the taking – and all you need to do is choose it? Yes, I’m telling you that you can choose to be happy. If you don’t know how, come work with me and find out.

Photo: Happiness Ahead, Silvia Otte

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Attachment and detachment

IMG_7338In the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to people about the difference between a goal-oriented mindset and a systems mindset, and the difference between commitment to action and attachment to the outcome of that action.

I recently learnt about two terms in Ancient Greek, telos and skopos. The distinction is that, unlike skopos, telos suggests an end or goal not in the sense of the thing you aim at, but rather your aiming at that end. In other words, telos = doing or getting something, and skopos = the thing done or begotten.

I like this distinction because the way in which we set goals for ourselves can affect our motivation and sense of achievement. To give an easy-to-visualise example – if you were an archer learning to shoot, your skopos might be to hit a bullseye, whereas to shoot well might be your telos. Similarly with the difference between aiming to lose twenty pounds in two months and eating well every day, or making a million pounds vs. building a business that’s true to your values. Your telos is absolutely within your reach, but your skopos is likely to depend on factors not always within your control.

So what’s the lesson? The importance of learning to detach yourself from the results of your actions. Another way you might choose to look at this is learning to appreciate the process, not just the outcomes. Achievement is not always marked by the tangible and the concrete. And life should not be viewed through the lens of success and failure, but rather in terms of all the experiences that make you who you are.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

I choose everything

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What do you think of when you hear the word ‘acceptance’? If we can’t undo or change something, we need to learn how to accept it, rather than living in the ‘what-if’ and the ‘if-only’; all this serves to do is freeze and frustrate us and stop us from taking positive and meaningful action. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation, and it doesn’t signify giving up. It means understanding that this life has a rhythm, a heartbeat; space for both the beautiful and ugly, both pain and joy. I like the way St. Therese of Lisieux puts it: “I choose everything.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I choose this life. I choose everything.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd