The Four Hijackers of Life Part 1 of 4
Do you ever find that you set goals to do something and then find yourself moving away from the very thing you wanted to do? On the other hand, do you ever find yourself trying to avoid doing something and, later on, find yourself doing that very thing you were trying not to do? If this is you, then you are in good company!
This same predicament was described long ago in history by a man named Paul where he said, “…for what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do”. The Holy Bible, Letter to the Romans 7:15
In Psychology today there is modality of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which, through research, has identified that there are FOUR key things that keep us in this cycle and prevent us from doing what we actually value in life. These four factors can be broken down into the acronym of FEAR:
2. EXCESSIVE GOALS
3. AVOIDANCE OF DISCOMFORT
4. REMOTENESS FROM VALUES
In the coming weeks we will delve into each of these in detail in this four -part series. Today we will begin with exploring the first of the four, ‘Fusion’.
Fusion is the process where we become enmeshed or hooked into the thoughts that are going on in our head. It is another way of describing the times where we are caught up in, dwelling on, worrying about, or being pushed around by the contents of our mind.
The important thing to note is that the more that we fuse with our thoughts, the more power they have to influence our behaviour. Think of this scenario; your alarm goes off in the morning when you’ve planned to exercise. At that moment, your mind says “It’s too early! Just go to back to bed and have a bit more rest…you’ll need it for the big day ahead.” Before you know it, you find yourself hitting the snooze button, rolling over and pulling up the covers.
The mind generates countless thoughts through the day, and fusion is often an automatic reflex when difficult or ‘negative’ thoughts show up. Once a problem arises in our lives, we naturally get caught up in the thoughts about that problem, often without even consciously choosing to do so.
Below we will explore 4 categories of unhelpful thoughts which, if we become fused with them, can hijack our attention and pull us away from living out our values:
a. Reason Giving – The mind is a great justifier and provider of reasons why you should or should not do something. It can come up with a convincing list of reasons why a goal you’re working towards can wait until tomorrow, or why you should just have one more bite, one more drink, one more roll of the dice or one more episode. On a more subtle level, the mind can give us reasons to support decisions that we’ve made that actually go against our values, such as, why it’s okay to avoid going to that party or social gathering. In doing these things, it provides us with the illusion of a rational reason to be dominated by emotions such as depression, anxiety, fear, doubt or inadequacy.
b. Time Travelling – Unlike that in most animal species, our human mind can travel through time on demand. You can right now think of something that happened yesterday or a week ago, and then choose think of something that you’re probably going to do after you finish reading this article. While our five senses are grounded in the present moment (that is, you can’t see, hear, taste, smell or touch something that isn’t right here right now), the mind is not time-bound and this is one of our greatest gifts that allows us to plan for the future and learn from the past.
However, the time-travelling capacity of our minds can also be one of our greatest curses as human beings. When combined with the natural tendency for the mind to fuse with the problems of life (as described above), our mind’s time-traveling capacity becomes biased towards generating thoughts about past failures, present issues and potential disasters. In this way, the mind can be like ‘Radio Doom and Gloom’ – a radio that plays the worst hits of the past, present and future; reminding us of what we have done wrong and telling us what will probably go wrong. When we fuse with unhelpful thoughts of our time-travelling mind, we create a reality for ourselves that is outside the scope of actual reality and yet it becomes our truth. For example, our mind may come up with a worst-case scenario for what may happen if we go to a party, and in turn, when we fuse with this thought we believe that this will actually happen. This in turn can lead to behavioural paralysis, where we avoid moving towards our values because our mind has already told us it won’t work or that we will fail.
Importantly, fusing with thoughts about the past can be as detrimental to our lives as worrying about the future, particularly when we create labels or draw conclusions about ourselves or others based on past occurrences. For example, your mind may replay several arguments that you have had with your partner over the years and conclude that there’s no point communicating openly with them because they ‘will probably just not listen anyway’. In turn this sabotages any chance to re-create an open and trusting relationship. It should be noted that fusion with the time-traveling mind isn’t always a problem. It can be very helpful, however when fusion happens as an automatic reflex to every pain from the past or worry about the future, it can strongly deter us from doing what matters in our lives.
c. Judgements – While the mind is certainly skilled at both time-travelling and reason- giving, one of its most well-rehearsed skills is its capacity to judge. Our mind is always judging, looking at whether something is good or bad, or whether we do or do not like something. From the temperature of our morning cup of tea (herbal of course!) to how our body looks in the mirror, the mind generates judgements almost the instant as our eyes perceive the very thing itself. Fusion with judgements can have several unhelpful effects. When we fuse with judgements about ourselves, such as that we are inadequate, unworthy, unlovable or incapable, we place these labels in a position of being a reality for our life. In so doing, we create a set of walls for ourselves to live within, such as avoiding trying anything new because we have already judged ourselves as being incapable. Judgements can go hand in hand with time-travelling where our mind can play back situations of the past where we have experienced challenges, and in turn draw a judgemental conclusion about ourselves or others. For example, we may play back occasions of where we failed an exam or task, and in turn conclude that we are stupid or dumb. When we fuse with judgements about ourselves, we carry them around as labels that define us, and we prevent ourselves from ever living outside of those walls.
d. Rules – Rules are the most subtle yet also the most powerful form of thoughts that can hijack us from doing what we value in life. Throughout our lives we all have developed rules about our reality, from our life-experience right from childhood until now. Unlike the other three types of thoughts discussed above, fusing with rules is not just a reflex. It is more like a default setting that we are under until we recognise the existence of the rule itself. Take for instance a situation where a person was unfairly treated or bullied in their childhood and learned that by giving into the needs of others, they were better accepted. That person may develop a rule like “For me to be accepted by others, I need to conform to their needs.” In turn, they may live in a way that is always giving and never asking for many years beyond their childhood. This may sound like a good rule to fuse with in part, however the dark side of fusion with this rule is that it may mean that person finds it a real challenge to ever being assertive in their relationships, or able to express what they need. Instead, they have a pattern of behaviour that is based around catering to the needs of others.
As another example, consider a person who from childhood was always praised for their successful performance (e.g. sporting, exams, and achievements) and criticised for when they did not do so well. That person may develop a rule such as, “My value and worth is based on my performance and achievement.” In turn this rule will dictate that individual to always strive higher and higher, which again sounds like a good thing. However, it will also place immense pressure on that person to achieve, creating an ever-present atmosphere of needing to do more and, should they ever fall short of an achievement, it will lead to significant distress and even depression because of the fusion with this rule.
Rules by nature are quite inflexible. Once developed, they lie underneath our conscious awareness. Yet they affect everything in our psychology including our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Rules can be thought of much like the roots of the tree while largely invisible, determine the quality of the fruit that is produced by that tree. Perceiving the rules we hold can be quite challenging. It is, in fact, often one of the focuses of psychological therapy to help discover these. One of the ways we can attempt to do this is to take notice of any ‘bad fruit’ in your life. That is, any behaviour you often find yourself doing that is ‘not you’ or unlike how you actually want to be. From this, work backwards in an attempt to find the underlying reasons behind why this behaviour is happening. Sometimes you can find a rule that you’ve bought into and fused with as the root underlying this toxic fruit.
Each of the above ‘categories of thought’ are normal experiences for all human beings. Experiencing these does not indicate a mental illness. It is important to highlight that the issue is not that our mind generates these thoughts. The problem is fusion itself. When we are unable to see our thoughts as thoughts, and instead perceive what our mind says as reflective of reality, and we take it all on board without question and allow it to dictate our behaviour. We are no longer in control of our life and we become hijacked by the four types of thoughts described above. This isn’t to say that the mind is a ‘bad-guy’ at all – it has a lot of useful information to share. The key is that we are able to step back from our thoughts and consider them as advice rather than a dictation of truth.
In the final scenes of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends find the Wizard who was pretending to be a big scary wizard when in actual fact he was the opposite. He then tells the group “I’m sorry, I’m not a bad person, I’m just a terrible wizard”. The mind is much the same as this. It’s not a bad advisor, but it can be a horrible dictator of our life!
In the next article we will be exploring the second factor that often stops us from living in line with our values –Excessive Goals.