Mind hacks, strategies and ways of getting on with life – part one
Psychologists love metaphors, ways of converting intangible ideas and concepts into real life 3d representations.
One common one throughout my first degree was of a mental toolbox filled with different skills and techniques we can draw on. After all, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Rather than a toolbox, hopefully, this is a small van full of ideas that can be drawn on to help with the challenges involved in defeating addiction – or other issues in life.
Perfect and dull, or imperfect and interesting?
I’ve mentioned before the Japanese art of restoring broken pottery and porcelain using metallic, ending up with a restored piece arguably more beautiful than before. A similar idea would be to imagine two very similar Georgian pieces of furniture in a shop window. One is in mint condition, having been preserved in storage since it was made, the other has burn marks, even a big hole in it, and is generally the worse for wear. Yet it is the second piece that commands the higher price and by a considerable margin.
Going inside to find out why, the shopkeeper explains why – the burn marks are from the time when the piece was caught in the fire at Windsor Castle – it has a royal provenance, and the hole was made by a musket ball during the time it was owned by Sir Arthur Wellesley (before he came to the Duke of Wellington). So one piece was made and then languished unused and unloved, the other has been at the heart of history and has a full and rich story behind it. I suggest that we are the same, knocking around life (and being knocked about by it) ends up giving us greater value than those who are never tested, who avoid at all costs any risks or unconventional experiences.
Small, regular celebrations
Sometimes it is easy to focus on the negatives and miss the positive experiences in life. Small celebrations can reinforce progress and help shift our focus on our successes, as well as bringing a little joy along the way. I have permission to share the method developed with one client who grappled with and overcame issues that had previously dominated their life. Due to their childhood upbringing, candles and cakes both had positive meanings and significance so once a week they would celebrate the success in reaching goals by having a ceremony of having a small cake with a candle in it to mark their progress. I asked in our last session what they would do after a year – ‘Big cake, lots of candles’. We each need to find our own rituals and ways to celebrate moving forward, things that have both significance and a resonance to who we wish to become – and are becoming.
Again, another story I have permission to share. To mark the end of a bad part of their lives and to celebrate a new future, this client went on holiday with their new partner to a favourite spot – a beach in the sunshine. Using a felt marker to write initials on to stones to represent all the parts of their life that were being discarded, these were thrown into the sea one by one – timed with the sunrise to mark the transition between the old and the new. I still have and treasure the stone they brought back for me to mark the occasion, perhaps moving on from a therapist represented another step forward?! Again, whatever we do has to have a strong meaning just for us – even if no-one else. I have a longstanding agreement with a friend that we mark particular milestones by treating the other to a meal on a train, together with our partners. Although these trips are rare (the milestones being pretty big ones), the trips are more significant, more memorable because of that.
This was a technique I learned very early on in a placement from a client who put together a box full of reminders about all the things that had value and meaning in their life pictures, souvenirs, old toys – anything that had a positive significance for them. When they could feel cravings creeping up on them, temptations to dive back into a bottle, they would pull the box out from under the bed and go through all the item in turn. Each and every one of them was a reminder of the good things in their life, what they stood to lose by reverting to old habits, by the time they had finished going through the box, the temptations would have been defeated.
Along the same lines, anything that redirects our focus away from cravings and on to something to do can help break the cycle of negative thoughts. In the same way, a sound system can catch a particular frequency and amplify it back through itself again and again until it feeds back and turns into ‘howlround’, left by ourselves negative thoughts can chase around our minds in a self-reinforcing pattern – becoming stronger all the time. Finding something distracting to do can break the cycle, cutting the power to the unwanted thoughts as we give our mental resources a constructive task. Adult colouring in books have become popular recently, jigsaws have a long history and there are many crafts that can either provide the comfort of a regular action or else demand so much attention to detail that we have no time left to worry about anything else. These crafts can be as creative, demanding, professional, intricate and as large or small as you want – just so long as you are absorbed by them, and gain a sense of achievement on completion.