Relieve Distress By Allowing It: Compassionate Abiding 101

Picture of A Pink Lotus FlowerI am now going to take a short break from our tour of the Mindset Mood Lenses to introduce you to one of the most powerful techniques I have ever found for increasing internal peace.  This advanced Mindset method is extremely useful in bringing relief to a wide variety of uncomfortable and unwanted physical, emotional and cognitive states.

The practice of Compassionate Abiding operates on a premise exactly counter to the one most of us use in times of distress; that is, we tend to try and run in the direction opposite our uncomfortable or “hooked” experiences as quickly and vigorously as possible.  We understandably do this in an effort to negate our discomfort, to annihilate it, ignore it, suffocate it, analyze it, judge ourselves for having it, fold, spindle and mutilate it, run it over with our cars, and beat it up really badly.

The disadvantages to applying this very human “solution” are many.  First, if we try to attack any part of ourselves (such as our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations), we are not only acting as the rejector/aggressor, but also as the recipient of such rejection/aggression; the more successful we are in hurting ourselves, the more hurt we are.  Second, the momentary relief we might gain in temporarily warding off our uncomfortable experience is just that; perhaps only moments later, the discomfort returns, and is now more severe due to the rejection it just suffered.

In stark contrast, the practice of Compassionate Abiding involves a radical shift in the nature of the relationship we have with our discomfort, and with ourselves.  And just to save you a possible trip to the dictionary, abiding simply means “allowing,” “enduring” or “tolerating.”  In this context, we strive to abide our experience with full acceptance versus annoyed resignation.  The ultimate goal of this technique is to make peace with our unwanted feelings, thoughts and sensations; to become friendly toward our “internal enemies.”  It has been said that, to the degree we can achieve a peaceful relationship with these internal adversaries, not only will we feel better about ourselves, but the potential distress triggered by external sources (and their overall relevance to us) will also notably reduce.  This is fully in keeping with Mindset’s assertion that growth truly is “an inside job.”

As you might have already guessed, the concept of paradox is central to the practice of Compassionate Abiding; the less we fight against that which is disturbing us, the less disturbing these experiences become.  Counterintuitive, yes.  Effective? Most definitely. Because once this acceptance-based technique is mastered, change is more easily achieved.  As Dr. Carl Rogers, the extremely influential proponent of humanistic psychology wrote, “acceptance is a pre-condition of change.”  Although the premise may temporarily challenge your preconceived ideas about how to approach “problems,” you may find significant benefit in giving it further consideration.  Best of all, this method is quickly and easily learned, and can be performed “on the spot,” in a very short period of time.  Positive results are almost immediate.

Okay, that’s the good news.  I must note, however, that, as an advanced technique of The Mindset Method, the optimal use of this practice does rest on the assumption that you have already developed some basic technical and attitudinal abilities, most of which have been described previously in this program.  These “prerequisites” include: 1) an ability to gain awareness of the painful thoughts, feelings and physical sensations with which you struggle, 2) an open-hearted and courageous motivation to release these unwanted experiences, and 3) a willingness to adopt a sympathetic and compassionate stance toward yourself; to be gentle and respectful with yourself in understanding the unfortunate circumstances under which you ever developed such self-defeating ways of treating yourself in the first place.

If you have not yet acquired these skills, or been able to access the compassionate motivational stance, not to worry.  You can still benefit from the practice of this technique, and may even develop greater ability to strengthen these skills through the repeated use of Compassionate Abiding.  You can also gain insight into areas for further personal development by noticing the aspects of the practice that you find most difficult.  I will give you more direction on how to do this after describing the basic practice.

One last note before we start.  I strongly recommend that you read through the entire exercise before trying it, and that you review these written instructions as many times as necessary to gain a basic understanding of it before doing so.  This will facilitate your having the most fluid, comfortable and enriching experience.  So, without further ado, here is how to begin the practice of Compassionate Abiding:

1)  Start by contacting and becoming aware of the basic fact that you have become hooked or triggered by your internal enemies.  You will typically begin the practice after you have already noticed the presence of the hooked feeling, however you can also elect to conjure it up for the purpose of practicing this technique; both approaches are useful.  So, how do you know when you are hooked or triggered?  Most often, this will come from an awareness of unpleasant, painful emotions, such as sadness, anxiety or anger, troubling thoughts involving worry, self-criticism, or frustration, or uncomfortable physical sensations such as muscular tightness, pain or gastrointestinal distress.  You might notice the presence of all three, or any combination thereof.

2)  Continue by further grounding yourself in, and focusing upon, the quality and location of the tight, unpleasant, squeezed, numb or painful sensations.  Try to identify exactly where in your body these sensations are clustering.  Often this will be felt in the belly, the chest or the shoulders, but it may also be noticed in the neck, back, head, feet or hands.  Most of us have an area in our bodies where we are most likely to experience tension, and we usually know where this is.  If you don’t, simply spend some time focusing awareness upon your physical experience of your body, and the tight area will typically become apparent to you.  As this area may or may not be troubling you at the time you first experiment with Compassionate Abiding, simply pick the physical location that most commonly acts up, and make that your focus for the exercise.

3)  Once you have localized the most intense areas of physical uneasiness, begin to attune further to the specific thoughts and feelings that are accompanying these unpleasant sensations.  For example, what are you saying to yourself as you experience this uneasiness?  What images might be coming to mind at that time?  What painful “script” or “storyline” unfolds as you focus on your discomfort?  Again, most of us are quite keenly aware of the “self-talk” or meaning we have attached to these feelings.  They are typically quite limited in number, and comprise our “greatest hits” of pain, so to speak.

It may be helpful, especially as you first begin to experiment with this practice, to speak and describe your process aloud, as doing so will further ground your attention to it (saying something aloud, and hearing yourself do so, activates a much broader level of neurobiological and emotional processing than does simply thinking it).  You may also find it useful to record this exercise process (the iPhone’s “voice memo” function is ideal for this purpose), so that you can review it, refine it, and perhaps use it as a guide for further practice.  You may also find it helpful, at least initially, to close your eyes while practicing this technique, or to at least “soften” your gaze, and direct it toward the floor a few feet in front of you.  This may help prevent you from experiencing undue distraction by your environment.  With increased mastery, you will likely find you are able to engage in this practice just about anywhere at any time (I have done it while driving, walking, doing therapy with patients, and even while engaging in challenging conversations with others).  In fact, the universal portability of this practice, and it’s opacity to others, are a few of its greatest strengths.  At least during the initial learning phase, however, you will most likely benefit from performing it in a relatively quiet and solitary setting (especially if you are going to take my advice and speak your internal process aloud!).  You may adopt a seated or standing posture as you practice the technique, whichever feels most appropriate, and so long as you are comfortable.

Again, please do ensure that, in addition to the unpleasant thoughts or cognitions you are experiencing, you focus as well upon the unpleasant emotions that accompany them; these may include fear, sadness, hurt, frustration, anger, guilt or worry.  Notice that the thoughts you are having will typically echo the feelings.  For example, if you are feeling anxious and worried, you might be thinking about the great pressures or expectations you are experiencing in your life, the burdensome weight of living up to these in order to meet your own or others’ approval.  Or, you might be thinking about the mistakes you fear making in the future, the potentially negative outcomes or events that you are anticipating, or the unpleasant feelings you fear having if such negative outcomes were to actually occur (the fear of experiencing significant anxiety, depression or anger, sometimes referred to as “emotion phobia,” is extremely common in individuals who suffer from anxiety).

If you are feeling mostly hurt, sad, and depressed, you may be thinking about ways in which you view yourself as having “screwed up” in the past or present, how you have been rejected by others, or how you are seeing yourself as deficient or inadequate in some way; you may therefore be the throes of guilt and self-criticism.

Finally, you may be filled with the molten heat of anger and frustration, because you believe you have been lied to, betrayed, cheated, overwhelmed, disrespected, deceived, treated unfairly, or taken advantage of.  Of course, it is entirely possible that you are experiencing varying levels of of all of these thoughts and feelings as you increase your awareness of what is accompanying your physical discomfort.  These various “flavors” of discomfort are all quite common, are all typically felt as unpleasant, and are all manufactured and housed within ourselves; these are our internal enemies.  Although these cognitive, physical and emotional phenomena may be triggered or related to some aspect of the external world (financial distress, relationship conflict, work challenges, etc.), the emphasis in Compassionate Abiding is placed solely upon the internal impact of these external triggers.  In this practice, we will be attempting to respectfully and gently abide and allow these aspects of our internal experience rather then try to eliminate and annihilate them by acting upon the external circumstances to which they may be related.  Again, acceptance is a pre-condition of change.

4)  As this technique is called Compassionate Abiding, you may still be wondering about the “compassion” part.  This is an extremely important component of the practice, and yet it is also one you may find the most challenging to access (which is exactly why you need the practice!).  First, please understand that the most basic shift here, from attempted annihilation to attempted abiding, is in itself, a hugely compassionate one; this is true whether we are speaking of the stance we adopt toward ourselves, toward others, or toward events and circumstances.  And the deepest compassion we can have during this practice extends beyond simply acknowledging the pain or discomfort we are experiencing; this awareness is good, and yet we can go further to sympathize with this suffering of ours of which we have now become aware.  We go further by cultivating compassion for the fact that we ever learned to think and feel in these distressing, uncomfortable, self-attacking, unyielding and burdensome ways in the first place.  We know that we did not emerge from the womb hating ourselves, living in terror, carrying deep feelings of hurt or rage, or believing that we are inadequate and that we can never be loved just as we are.  We were not born with an overwhelming sense of pervasive and unreasonable worry, rumination and anxiety.  So, it is the lamentable fact that we ever learned to become so proficient at thinking and feeling in these painful ways in the first place for which we now want to practice compassion.  Again, the compassionately abiding stance is precisely opposite to that which we most typically adopt in regard to these difficult aspects of our internal experience.  More commonly, we blame ourselves for feeling depressed, anxious or angry, and see our failure to overcome such feelings as a sign of our moral, emotional, intellectual, spiritual or physical weakness, ineptitude or deficiency.  Thus, we feel bad for feeling bad.  If you have not already read about this awfully common phenomena, which I refer to as Level 1 and Level 2 Thinking, you may wish to do so now by clicking on the highlighted concept.

5)  Once you have become sufficiently aware of the general physical location of the discomfort, and of the quality and content of the thoughts and feelings, and have begun to cultivate compassion for the fact that you are experiencing all of these, you will then begin to inhale deeply and fully, directing this breath right to the uncomfortable location(s) in your body you have identified.  Intentionally visualize the incoming breath being routed specifically and powerfully toward that location.  Of course, if you have never directed your breath so intentionally, this may sound like a really ridiculous request.  I recall the first time, almost 25 years ago, when a yoga teacher in Los Angeles instructed my class to “breathe into the small of your back.”  I remember thinking, “Huh?  I can’t do that!”  As you let your rational thinking fall away, however, and simply open yourself to this task, you will find that it is indeed quite easy to perform.  It simply requires attention, intention and practice, like learning to flex or strengthen a certain muscle in the body or even wiggle your ear. 

6)  While directing your in-breaths to the place of discomfort, continue to remain aware and allowing of the difficult thoughts, sensations and feelings, exercising compassion for them completely, and opening up fully to their painful quality.  The purpose of the in-breath is simply to increase the internal space allocated to the feelings, thoughts and sensations, so that they can exist peacefully;  you are now giving them room, without pushing them away or trying to annihilate them.  Visualize the in-breath as ventilating, aerating, surrounding and bathing the tight location and its accompanying thoughts and feelings.  Visualize each new in-breath flowing into the space around the tightness, providing it with insulation and cushioning.  Notice what begins to happen within the tight place as you repeat this breathing exercise; is it becoming much tighter, remaining unchanged, or loosening up even slightly with each new breath cycle?  Okay, not to worry, I am now going to tell you what to do on the exhale; I won’t leave you hanging!

7)  Next, still abiding with the urge and edginess of the internal experience, allow yourself to breathe out slowly and relax, and just notice how the internal experience may have shifted slightly.  To be very clear, the out-breath is NOT a way of expelling or sending away the uncomfortable physical sensations, thoughts or feelings, but simply of loosening the tension around the tight locations, and of becoming aware of some increased space in those areas in which the discomfort is occurring.  With each slow exhale, notice if perhaps even the tiniest amount of extra space develops around the discomfort; even just a millimeter or two around the perimeter of tension might be quite significant.

While doing this, attempt to maintain a focus on your internal experience, as described above, versus distracting yourself or allowing yourself to become preoccupied by discursive thoughts.  Of course, it is quite common for this “drifting” to occur (after all, we have about 70,000 thoughts per day!), yet the instruction here is for you to notice if and when you begin to digress from your own experience, in the moment, and to simply return to the practice and the breath and the present moment.  The goal is never to “not have thoughts,” as this is unrealistic and impossible to achieve, yet it is to maintain an awareness of our tendency to be hooked or hijacked or preoccupied by our thoughts, and to return attention to the breath.  We return to our physiological sensations, such as breath or touch or temperature, because this is the most rapid and direct route back to the present moment.  It has been said that “sensations are owned in the present and thoughts are simply rented from the past;” thus, you will find that one of the most active therapeutic mechanisms underlying Compassionate Abiding is that which keeps returning us to the now.  And when (not if) you find your attention wandering away from the practice, please refrain from criticizing or punishing yourself for any such digression, as that would obviously run counter to the mission at hand.  Again, this goes back to the Level 1 and Level 2 Thinking concept described earlier.  As is true here and throughout our existence, forgiveness is something we do for ourselves so we can heal and move on.

8)  Continue to repeat this process several times, deepening your contact with the unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations, while fully ventilating and bathing the tightness in a compassionate manner, and using the out-breath to notice any increased space.  As you do this, continue to allow an awareness of the practice’s effect upon your physical sensations, your emotional experience, and the type and quantity of the thoughts you are having.  You may find yourself spending between 5 and 10 minutes performing the initial practice, however, you may stay in it for as long as you like.  If you find that the painful quality of the sensations, emotions or thoughts is simply too uncomfortable to endure, please do allow yourself to pause the practice, be gentle with yourself for having done so, and make note of the aspects of what you experienced that were most uncomfortable.  Additional work may first be necessary for you in these personal “content” areas before you can contact and sit with them so directly.

9)  Finally, after you have completed the initial practice session(s), you will benefit from further allowing yourself to become aware of and assess it’s impact.  You may therefore wish to ask yourself the following questions (and I would sure love to know the answers, so that I may continue to refine the technique for optimal effectiveness; I would therefore ask that you take a few minutes to complete the several survey items at the bottom of this page as you become aware of your experience of this practice):

  • To what degree was I able to localize the area(s) of physiological discomfort that accompanied my distress?
  • To what degree was I able to identify and experience the unpleasant thoughts that troubled me, and which accompanied this physiological discomfort?
  • To what degree was I able to identify and experience the unpleasant emotions that accompanied the physiological discomfort and unpleasant thoughts?
  • To what degree was I able to direct my in-breaths to the location(s) of my discomfort? To what degree was I able to visualize doing so?
  • To what degree was I able to visualize the ventilation and aeration of the uncomfortable bodily location(s) with my in-breaths?
  • To what degree was I able to remain focused on my physiological sensations, uncomfortable thoughts and unwanted feelings during the practice versus distracting myself or drifting away from this awareness?
  • When I did drift, to what degree was I able to forgive myself for doing so and return my attention inward to the breath and the areas of discomfort?
  • To what degree was I able to exercise compassion for the unpleasant sensations, thoughts and feelings I felt during the practice, and for the fact that I ever learned to experience such an unpleasant internal stance toward myself? 
  • To the degree that I struggled to cultivate compassion for myself, how much of this difficulty was caused by a semi-conscious or intentional unwillingness to do so?
  • What impact did the practice have on my felt area(s) of discomfort?  Did it cause a greater tightening in the area(s) of discomfort, did it yield no change at all, or did it result in an increase in the space around my discomfort?
  • What impact did the practice have on the quality of my emotional experience?  Did it cause significantly more emotional discomfort, did it yield no change at all, or did it result in a reduction of emotional discomfort?
  • How did the practice affect the quantity and quality of my thoughts?  Did it result in a slowing of the unpleasant thoughts and a reduction of the discomfort associated with them, did it increase the quantity of thoughts and the intensity of them, or it did yield no change in my thought flow and quality at all?
  • Do I believe that continued practice of Compassionate Abiding could be of use to me during times of physical, emotional or cognitive distress?

I truly hope that you were able to experience some useful results from your initial experimentation with Compassionate Abiding, and that you were able to realize, even a little bit, the merit of adopting an “allowing” versus “disallowing” stance toward your own experience, pain and discomfort.  Even if you obtained only mild benefit, I would encourage you to continue practicing it.  As I have written before, “We get better at whatever we practice and we are always practicing something.”  Sadly, self-aversion is a common and very muscular habit for human beings, yet it shares an inverse relationship with compassion for the self that might be described as one of “reciprocal inhibition.”  Simply put, the better we become at practicing self-compassion, the less adept we become at practicing self-aversion.

Again, I would greatly appreciate your now taking a few moments to run through the following survey questions regarding your experience of the practice of Compassionate Abiding.  I greatly welcome any response you care to offer, and hope you will also feel free to post comments or questions for me about this technique.  In a future post, I will discuss the origin and development of this technique, provide some troubleshooting guidance with regard to the most common stumbling blocks experienced in learning and practicing it, and give you more information on it’s clinical and personal applications.  I will also make available to you an audio or video recording of a guided Compassionate Abiding practice for you to use in developing your facility with it. 

Thank you so very much for reading, and for learning The Mindset Method.  I wish you peace.


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The Crystal Ball Lens: Part 1

Picture of a crystal ballBold a prediction as this may be, I think it’s very likely that you’ll feel better about your life after you read this post than you do right now.  Yes, even after just reading this first installment (the concept is too important and juicy to cover in only one).  But no need to take my word for it, let’s go ahead and find out.

The Future.

The Great Unknown.

That Which Hasn’t Happened (Yet).

Technically, the future is virtually spotless in regard to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors (and yes, you can choose to view it as an “eternal sunshine,” if you like, although recurrent precipitation is a given).  And this fact is extremely liberating and empowering if we learn to truly embrace it.  In other words, it can be a great relief to accept how much we don’t know about what will happen 5 minutes from now, tomorrow, next week, or in 5 years (after all, did you know 5 years ago exactly what you would be experiencing at this moment?).  The fact is, we are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to predicting what we will think, feel or do in the future, and we are even worse at predicting about what others will think, feel or do, or about what will happen in the external world.

The most wonderful upside to this perspective (also known as reality) is that it provides us with a blank canvas on which to create and live our lives, one that allows a practically unlimited range of motion for imagining, thinking, and feeling.  And from this place of possibility, we are not only freed from distressing thoughts and feelings about the future (which, again, doesn’t yet exist), but we are also more able to generate constructive behaviors that will bring us ever closer to our goals and desires.  So, once we adopt this perspective of the future, it’s practically impossible to not think, feel and behave differently in this very moment.  And this moment creates the next moment, which creates the next, and so on.  String together enough of these moments, and you’ll find yourself in the future.  And there really is no way to know what it will actually be like until it develops.

I am guessing that, so far, this perspective is sounding pretty good to you, as well it should.  This is especially true if you, like so many of us, struggle with anxiety, ambivalence or worry about the future, and what you think it will bring.  Unfortunately, we humans tend NOT to actually view the future in such a neutral to positive manner, particularly when we are viewing it through The Crystal Ball Lens (but one of the many Mindset Mood Lenses you are now learning about).  It is far more common for us, when we are looking through this lens, to take that blank canvas, which is by definition loaded with uncertainty and ambiguity (synonyms for possibility), and to quickly fill it up with our unique, widely varying and habitual “predictions.”  These habits of prediction don’t simply come out of nowhere to instantly appear on the blank canvas of the future (although the process may seem to occur automatically).

To that point, although a good 20% to 30% of our key personality traits are genetically determined, nobody pops out of the womb expecting catastrophe, hating themselves, or worrying obsessively; no, our habits of prediction (and the feelings and behaviors which follow) are first learned, primarily as a result of real life experiences.  For example, let’s say that your anxious, angry, addicted, depressed or otherwise preoccupied primary caregiver was inconsistent in their functioning as you were growing up, that they terrified you with their fluctuations in mood or behavior, or that your wish for acceptance and harmony led you to become overly perfectionistic in your approach to life.  These initial learning experiences of ours are then strengthened by the thoughts, feelings and behavior we go on to “practice” each day thereafter.  Although we do certainly arrive in the world hard-wired to respond to perceived environmental threats to our survival and evolution (the “fight or flight response” is standard equipment, for good reason), the kinds of distortions and biases that fuel persistent anxiety, depression and anger (and the ways we learn to respond to these sensations) must come to us via our actual adventures on earth, through our early relationships with primary caregivers and others, and as a result of our subjective ways of thinking, feeling and behaving in response to these experiences.

And how, you might wonder, do we continue to “practice” and “strengthen” the tendencies we learned earlier in life?  I will discuss some of the “what?” right now, and will address the “why?” and the “how?” in a moment.  If we use some of the above examples of negative early learning experiences with the environment, we could make several guesses:

  • First, the children who had to navigate around caregivers’ moodiness and erratic functioning might become adults who do everything possible to try to keep everyone else satisfied and calm, who avoid doing or saying anything to trigger discomfort in others or in themselves, or who try like mad to maintain an absolute “control” over themselves and their environment (and will ultimately get pissed off and exhausted from having to do so);
  • Second, validation-craving children might become adults who obscure from external view any quality they think will lead to rejection or disapproval (and will ultimately get pissed off and exhausted from having to do so); and
  • Third, the children exposed to harsh criticism might grow into adults who hold themselves to unrealistically high standard of performance (interpreting an A minus as failure…yes, “shades” of The Black And White Lens here too!) to avoid the negative evaluation of others or of themselves (and yes, will ultimately get pissed off and exhausted from having to do so).

Of course, these are but a few of the great many ways in which we may carry early experience into later life through repetitive practice.  And this is done with full or partial awareness, or without any at all.

And now I will attempt to explain some of the “why?” and “how?”of the repetitive practice of negative predictions.  In addition to the impact negative learning experiences in early life have on our perspective of the blank canvas of the future, we are further challenged in our attempts to neutralize the harmful effects of The Crystal Ball Lens by our tendency as humans to want certainty, predictability, and stability in our lives.  And yes, this tendency also typically stems from early learning experience, and gets strengthened through practice.  To illustrate how prevalent and varying these “preferences” are, I could now ask everyone reading this how you spontaneously reacted to the words “uncertainty and ambiguity” mentioned above, in terms of the thoughts, feelings or images that they triggered within you.  Essentially, I am asking what you typically experience and project onto your own “blank canvas” when considering the terms “uncertainty and ambiguity.”

So ponder this for a quick moment, go with your “gut” versus your higher intellect, and consider these terms as they relate to your personal life and important relationships versus the weather, the color your neighbor will paint his house, or the next big sale at your local grocery store.  I say this because we tend to be able to tolerate much more unpredictability in such mundane external circumstances than we do in matters of greater emotional and psychological relevance (well, most of us can, that is).  And in response to this question, I believe I would get a variety of responses (okay, a poll is SO warranted here; please take a moment and respond to it now, before continuing on).  I’ll wait for you to do this before proceeding.


Have you done it yet?  Yes?  Great, let’s move on.

So here is my prediction of the results from the poll; some portion of the responses will be neutral, some will be positive, and the majority, unfortunately, will probably be quite negative, laden with discomfort, fear, or tension.  Of course, these negatively biased responses to “uncertainty and ambiguity” will be most common among those of us who have already developed such predispositions (and the truth is that these kinds of “training in fear” are practically synonymous with being human, which is why I am comfortable predicting the poll’s results).  This is because, although there is nothing inherently meaningful about the terms “uncertainty and ambiguity,” most of us have learned to associate them with feelings of uneasiness and discomfort,  and with the negative predictions that accompany them.  And as the old saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

And it is precisely for this reason (a STRONG wish to avoid the discomfort that we associate with uncertainty and ambiguity) that so many of us actually WANT to quickly fill up that blank canvas, even if it is with the prediction of undesirable outcomes!  This is because we commonly prefer “the hell we know” to that which we don’t, and because convincing ourselves that the future will be negative may actually offer at least temporary relief from our discomfort with the idea of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Unpleasant as the certainty of a negative outcome may be, at least it’s something you can rely upon (even if it never comes true).

In addition, when we see ourselves actively “preparing” and “bracing” for the worst, we tend to believe that we will actually be better able to cope with the negative outcomes we are anticipating.  I have worked with hundreds of anxious patients who believe that this state of perpetual, white-knuckled worry is truly preventing them from being blindsided by a horrible and catastrophic surprise (when, in reality, we cannot and should not get good at preventing changes and shifts in life..more on this later).  Further, they usually come into treatment believing that is truly a good trade-off!  So, although we may indeed get some small (and fleeting) degree of comfort from maintaining such a vigilant stance, the sadly natural cost of holding this perspective is an ongoing and pervasive sense of anxiety, demoralization, and frustration.  In short, we choose to maintain CERTAIN present and ongoing unhappiness because we believe it will protect us from the even more devastating degree of misery we fear we MIGHT experience in the future were we to relinquish our vigilance.

To make matters worse, if we practice the vigilant and negatively predictive stance every day (as we tend to do with habits), we will just get better and better at conjuring it up, using it to fill the blank canvas, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts and behaviors that go with it.  In this way, the negatively predictive stance becomes seemingly AUTOMATIC, and can therefore seem to emerge out of nowhere.  As you can understand, however, the stance has been in training for a long time, and has become powerful and dominant as a result.  Remember, we get better at whatever we practice, and we are always practicing something.

In further posts on The Crystal Ball Lens, we will discuss the results of the poll, talk further about how this biased perspective directly impacts and shapes our lives, and help you to better understand your own unique tendency to look through The Crystal Ball Lens and predict negative and distressing outcomes.  Finally, and very importantly, we will review several extremely effective techniques from The Mindset Method that will help you to remove the lens altogether, or see through it in a more balanced, and neutral to positive way.  I am very much looking forward to sharing this material with you!

In closing, my instruction to you is simply to begin developing an increasing awareness of your own tendency to look through The Crystal Ball Lens and make negative or distressing predictions about the future.  See if you can notice yourself doing it, in the moment, whether you’ve been in the painful “spin-cycle” for minutes, hours, months, years, or forever.  Once you do notice yourself engaging in this practice, I invite you to allow yourself to pause and just be aware of how it feels, physically and emotionally.  You may then decide whether you would like to continue on that path or not.  And please notice your inclination when given that option.  Are you willing to let it dissipate or go away altogether?  Or are you feeling determined to hold onto it, perhaps because you are fearful of loosening your habitual “grip” on your negative “certainty?”  Take the time to gather some personal data on this and you will be able to apply it as you learn and grow with The Mindset Method.

As always, I thank you for reading this material, and wish you inner peace and friendliness with yourself.

Ah, I almost forgot!  What shift did you notice in your mood as a result of reading this post?  Do you think it had no effect, a slightly positive effect, or a negative effect?  Okay, another poll coming at you!

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The Black and White Lens: Part 3

The scales of justice used to represent a balanced perspectiveI have already described, in great detail, just how unhelpful and inaccurate it can be for us to view ourselves and our lives (not to mention others and their lives) through the Black and White Lens. As a brief review, here are just some of the specific liabilities inherent in doing so (and I am sure you will be able to think of many others):

  • It leaves no room for the appreciation of nuance, subtlety, possibility, or works in progress, in ourselves, others, or the world around us;
  • It makes it much easier for us to become depressed, anxious or angry;
  • If we are already depressed, anxious or angry, looking through the Black and White Lens only intensifies these painful feelings;
  • Being anxious, angry or depressed easily gives rise to behaviors (avoidance, aggression, self-harm or addiction to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, etc.) that will themselves trigger additional upsetting thoughts, feelings and behaviors;
  • It reinforces the idea of, and drive for, perfection in ourselves and/or others, which is exhausting, unattainable, anxiety-producing, frustrating, depressing, and leads to resentment of others (which harms relationships and often triggers feelings of guilt in us); and
  • It often triggers Level 2 Thoughts; instead of simply dealing with the stress of, say, the need to complete a demanding task, we are much more likely to also end up with the belief that we have failed, or that we somehow shouldn’t be stressed.

So, use of the Black and White Lens really isn’t sounding so terrific, is it? I’m glad you agree. The question then remains, however, of how we can go about cleaning the lens or better yet, removing it altogether from the “camera” that is our perspective? Well, it’s not as difficult as you might think. However, since we have grown so accustomed to looking through this lens, it has become something of a “fixed default” setting on our camera. And, as I will say many times throughout the Mindset program, we get better at whatever we practice and we are always practicing something. That said, here are some of the best methods for practicing something else, regaining balance in our perspective, and “de-black-and-whiting” our Mindset (I hope my liberal manipulation of the English language doesn’t offend you; sometimes new words are needed to describe new ideas or actions!).

Techniques for Removing The Black and White Lens:

  1. Increase our awareness of it’s existence. Yes, very simple, but very powerful. My guess is that, as you have been reading about the Black and White Lens, you have become more aware of instances in which you have been looking through it, at yourself, your life, your future, or at others. And with this additional awareness, perhaps you have begun to question the accuracy of those views. If this has been happening for you, beautiful! Keep it up. A change in awareness (or perception) truly does trigger a change in our experience of “reality.” I put reality in quotes because it has long been believed, by philosophers, Buddhists, and lots of other smart people, that all we know of “reality” is what we see through our own very personalized (and sometimes fuzzy) perspective.
  2. As a means of cultivating and practicing increased awareness, you will want to learn to identify your thinking and feeling reactions to events and experiences in your life. One of the best ways to do this is to begin writing them down. Earlier, I invited you to begin writing down your answers to some questions about the Black and White Lens, and this was my subtle attempt to get you writing (and don’t worry, I’ll keep reminding you!). Indeed, the process of recording our thoughts and feelings in reaction to various challenging situations is literally the cornerstone of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and an important component of The Mindset Method. Writing is different from thinking. We all do a lot of thinking, and it is very easy to get caught in the cognitive spin cycle by keeping it all in our heads. By dumping what is in our heads onto the page, we are accomplishing several things. First, we are unburdening ourselves of these thoughts. Imagine how much less “busy” you are in your head when you go to the grocery store with a list versus when you simply trying to remember “eggs, butter, cat litter, bread, light bulbs, tomatoes.” And think how much more likely you are to get everything you need! Second, by writing our thoughts down, we are engaging many more psychological and neurological processes than we would be if we were simply thinking them. This allows for a deeper and more novel means by which we can process these thoughts. Third, by writing them down, we are now actually able to look at our thoughts on the page, and this automatically cues us to begin to stand back and re-evaluate what we are thinking and saying to ourselves. Needless to say, I am a firm believer in “writing it down” as a way of increasing awareness and beginning to shift perspective. Although I have only mentioned it a few times so far, the art and science of “writing it down” will be a significant focus of further segments in the Mindset program, and I will be guiding you to develop this skill thoroughly and effectively. This technique can help us remove the Black and White Lens, as well as all of the other Mindset Mood Lenses.
  3. Use your newly developing awareness of the Black and White Lens to begin looking for Shades of Gray in your thoughts about yourself, your life, and your future. For example, instead of seeing your world like this:

large black circle with small white dot insideYou would probably be better off seeing it like this:

picture of a gradient that moves subtly from white to black

And how to accomplish this? One effective method is to use a percentile rating or partial credit scoring system versus a pass/fail one. Instead of asking yourself whether or not you achieved a goal or met a criteria, ask yourself about the degree to which either of these concepts is true. For example, I once treated a young mother who was quite depressed and angry with herself. This was because, one morning at home, while she was playing with her baby on the bed, she turned her back for a moment to answer the phone and, you guessed it, the baby fell onto the floor. He was fine, but her immediate thought was “I’m a terrible mother.” You can understand how a self-critical thought such as this would fuel feelings of depression and anger at herself. By discussing the concept of the Black and White Lens with her, and encouraging her to try a percentile or partial credit method of self-evaluation, she was able to come up with several more balanced statements such as:




And, after going through this process, we found that she felt much less depressed and angry with herself, and that she rated the accuracy of the initial “I’m a terrible mother” statement much lower.

And just as a reminder, the goal of this method is not to prove that your thoughts are completely wrong, just as the goal was not to help this young woman go from thinking “I’m a terrible mother” to “I’m the best mother in the world,” or to overlook the fact that an unfortunate accident occurred when she was with her child. The goal was, however, to help her identify the distortion and imbalance in her thought, and to try and make it more balanced, realistic and accurate. By doing so, we were able to help her feel better about herself, her life and her future.

A final thought about the Black and White Lens. There are indeed times in life when we need to utilize an all or nothing judgment in a specific situation, such as whether to purchase a new house, whether to accept a job offer, or whether to get married. And there are also times when the presence of even a small percentage of negative qualities does overwhelm the presence of positive, such as in a relationship where there is physical violence. The habitual use of this lens, however, particularly when we are evaluating ourselves, our lives and our future, will generally hurt more than it helps.

My hope is that learning about the Black and White Lens, and beginning to understand how the Mindset method can help you to neutralize or remove it, when appropriate, has been helpful and enlightening to you. It certainly was for me, when I first learned of it, and I see it be quite useful for the patients with whom I work every day. Of course, there many more additional ways to reduce the negative impact of this lens, along with the other Mindset Mood Lenses, and I will be sharing those with you as you continue to learn the Mindset Method. Thank you for reading. I wish you peace, a pleasant rest of your own day, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon.

Content copyright 2012. The Mindset Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
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The Black and White Lens: Part 2

"the elitist menace among us"As you read through my initial description of The Black and White Lens, and the negative effect it has on our thoughts and feelings, you might have realized that this lens is often at play in the concept most of us know as perfectionism.  If you did, then bravo to you!  If not, don’t worry (or put yourself into the “nothing” category; learning the Mindset Method is a process, just like playing the violin, learning to cook, or working to become better at anything in life).  As in perfectionism, looking through The Black and White Lens strengthens the belief that only the “best” actually counts for anything and that pretty much everything else is a failure (which is certainly a form of “elitism” directed at ourselves).  Now, you might say, “hey, no problem, I’ll just be perfect then; after all, I’ve been working toward this goal my entire life, anyway.”

Well, one problem with this goal, and this may be hard to hear, is that perfection doesn’t actually exist.  If you don’t believe me, you can take a look at what is commonly known as the “Normal Bell Curve” one day (Google it), and you’ll see what I mean.  Every clean floor has dust and every dusty floor has clean parts. And even if perfection were to exist, the category containing it could have only one occupant!  After all, there can only be one richest person in the world, one smartest person, or one most attractive.  And even within our own lives, without any comparison to others, if we use this harsh standard of perfection, that means we can have only one happiest moment, one most successful year financially, one best hair day, etc.  Thus, your odds of reaching this standard are slim and fleeting, and once it’s happened, it’s happened (or so we think, because we can’t actually ever know when or if we will actually surpass that moment of perfection; more on this later, when we discuss The Crystal Ball Lens).  Sadly, however, this truth doesn’t prevent billions of people all over the world from working like mad every day trying to hit the bull’s eye and live up to it.  And what happens when they don’t, which is pretty much always?  Of course, they fall into the “nothing” category.  Get an A minus on a test?  Failure.  Make one speaking error in a 2 hour presentation?  Failure.  Receive one abnormal reading on a 40 item blood test?  Failure.  So not only does a whole lot of energy go into trying to hit the mark of perfection (which is simply exhausting), but it rarely yields a feeling of success.

Okay, so you may ask, “well, what about when you do get a score of 100% on a test, and do have that amazing hair day, wouldn’t that be really satisfying?”  Well, if you are kind enough to allow yourself to actually recognize the achievement, perhaps it would.  But this is not likely to last long, and will probably be a very short-term boost, until the very next challenge presents itself, and you begin to nervously aim for that bull’s eye again.  That’s when the reality of imperfection sets back in and you get kicked out of the country club again!  And how would you feel then, after working so hard on something and not getting the psychological or emotional reward you were after?  Probably pretty frustrated or hopeless.  And after seeing yourself go through this painful cycle several times, you would almost certainly come to believe that your degree of actual success, loveability, self-esteem or happiness was resting on an all but impossible challenge (extremely difficult to achieve and SO easy to lose).  How would that experience shape the way you think and feel about pursuing such goals in the future?  Would it increase your excitement, motivation and joy for the process?  Probably not (and I will say more about why this is likely to occur later, when we discuss a fascinating psychological phenomenon called Cognitive Dissonance).  No, most likely, you would:

  • Become recurrently anxious and fearful about not “making it;”
  • You would become quickly exhausted by your feverish and desperate attempts to do so;
  • You would become recurrently discouraged and disappointed when the standard is not met; and
  • Finally, you would become resentful and bitter about the “spin cycle” in which you have seen yourself be stuck.

And if the goal of your efforts was to try and please someone else and make them happy or at least happy with you (and there will be a lot more on this later; sometimes we call this “interpersonal perfectionism”), you would also repeatedly experience failure, because, ultimately, we don’t actually have much control over what others think, feel or do. And therefore, you could also easily become resentful and angry because you will see that most other people don’t seem to be working nearly as hard to please you, or avoid upsetting you, as you are working to please or avoid upsetting them. We so love to believe in the ideal concepts of fairness and “the golden rule,” however we see these principles violated in our lives and around the world every single day.  So, does this vicious little cycle sound familiar to you?  Based on my work with patients who struggle with depression, anxiety and anger, it is awfully common, and logical, particularly among perfectionists and those who view themselves and their lives through The Black and White Lens.

Finally, another painfully unjust aspect of looking through this lens is that such a great many of the most wondrous, enjoyable, beautiful, creative, complex and mysterious aspects of life simply get lost in the shuffle.  This is because The Black and White Lens demands complete clarity from the get go; thus, works in progress, like shades of gray, don’t count for anything.  The first few notes of a song to be written, the initial brush strokes of a painting, or those first few exciting yards ridden on a bicycle without training wheels, which almost always end in a fall or a skinned knee, all would get lumped into the “nothing” category.  Can you even imagine what it would be like to grow up looking at yourself and your life through a lens like this?  Well, sadly, many of us do.  And you can easily see, based on what I have shared with you, how the use of the Black and White Lens, just by itself, can and does so easily lead to depression, anxiety or anger, or even to all three.

Okay, now it is time for a confession. I had intended, when I began writing this installment, to actually take you through to the “so what can I do about it?” portion, wherein we could actually begin to discuss ways of reversing or neutralizing the toxic effect The Black and White Lens has on our thoughts, feelings and behavior. But you know what?  I just can’t.  My resources for today are not going to allow that (that is, if I want to eat, relax, play with my cats, watch some tv, read or otherwise have a genuinely full life, and I most certainly do).  I will, however, take this opportunity to tell you that I am going to now acknowledge the work I did today in writing this material, even though it is not finished.  I will choose to focus on the value of the “work in progress,” recognize how much ground I gained in fleshing this idea out, and I am going to anticipate, with pleasure and excitement, what is to come.  In this way, I am actually taking that Black and White Lens off of my own camera altogether and replacing it with a nice, generous Wide Angle Lens that sees far beyond the narrow focus on whether or not I actually got as far as I might have liked to today.  After all, progress is a healthier goal than perfection.

Thank you again for reading. I wish you peace, a pleasant rest of your own day, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon.

Content copyright 2012. The Mindset Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
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The Black and White Lens: Part 1

Image of 3 vlack and white cookiesWhen we look through the Black and White Lens, all incoming information is filtered into one of two categories; the black or the white. All traces of variability, partial credit, “kinda sorta” (or “ish”-ness, as a friend of mine used to say) are gone and we are left only with two extremes. The Black and White Lens may also be referred to as the “All or Nothing Lens,” because not only are the two categories in complete contrast to one another, but also because only ONE of them is desirable. The other, unfortunately, is representative of relative worthlessness. Now you might be asking, “well, why would it do any harm to separate our view of ourselves or our lives into just two categories, without any shades of gray?…I mean that sounds neat, organized and simple!” Well, this is a very good question, and the answer reveals a twofold problem.

First, the Black and White Lens sections are not equally divided, as they are in the black and white cookies displayed above (and yes, this is a veiled Seinfeld reference for those of you who care and/or remember); instead, imagine that these cookies have just a tiny sliver of vanilla frosting (say about 1% of the whole cookie) and that the remaining 99% is chocolate (totally bad analogy if you love chocolate; if you do, then just swap the flavors!). So, if we imagine that the desirable portion of the cookie occupies only 1% of it, then the overwhelming majority of it (99%, to be precise) is going to be undesirable. Thus, there is a 99% likelihood that when you look at yourself or your life or your future through the Black and White Lens, you will see something undesirable. So, if we have to view ourselves and our experience as falling into either one miniscule and positive category or one huge and negative category, here are some of the options we will find on our menu:

  • success or FAILURE
  • smart or STUPID
  • loveable or UNLOVEABLE
  • beautiful or HIDEOUS
  • winner or LOSER
  • ecstatic or SUICIDAL

Starting to see some problems associated with viewing life through the Black and White Lens? Good! Along these same lines, imagine the desirable category as an exclusive, country club which is very hard to get into and very easy to get kicked out of, and the undesirable category as complete and utter rejection from the club altogether. Honestly, just writing this is making me feel a bit scared, bummed and exhausted. I mean, I am not a fan of feeling rejected or worthless.

The second biggest problem with looking through the Black and White Lens is that it VERY RARELY PROVIDES US WITH AN ACCURATE OR HELPFUL REFLECTION OF REALITY. Although there certainly are some “pass/fail” circumstances in life (you either get the job you have interviewed for or you don’t, the person you want to date wishes to go out with you or not, you are pregnant or you are not), such absolutes are simply quite rare in nature. For example, take a moment and look at the floor in the room you are in right now. Is it clean or dirty? Clean, you say? Does that mean you could not find a speck of dust on it? Of course not. Dirty, you say? Does that mean the filth is piled five feet high? I should hope not! (If it is, however, it may be a good time to take a break from the computer and get out the vacuum…just bookmark this site before you leave).

And even in the above “pass/fail” examples, sometimes the person who doesn’t hire you really likes you anyway and ends up giving your resume to someone you does hire you, and sometimes the person who says no to your date invitation today changes their mind tomorrow (and perhaps again the next day!), and the home pregnancy test might be incorrect, or might yield a different result in 2 weeks. So, even when there are what appear to be Black and White circumstances in life, it is typically more helpful, and accurate, for us to look for the shades of gray, the wiggle room, the at least partial degree to which we have met a goal, versus simply viewing things in terms of success or failure. This is true because doing the latter is generally a bummer, and because doing so is more likely to give rise to negative thoughts, which gives rise to negative feelings, which gives rise to behaviors that themselves will more strongly determine a negative outcome (giving up, quitting, vowing never to ask anyone else out again, resigning yourself to a bleak future, etc.).

I will explain the way in which our initial reactions and interpretations of ourselves and our lives leads to this chain reaction of feelings and behavior in much greater detail later. I will also proceed, in my next post, to further discuss the difficulties we face when looking through the Black and White Lens, and, better yet, offer several effective techniques for cleaning the lint off this lens (or removing it altogether), and thereby seeing yourself and your life in a more accurate, vibrant, fair and constructive manner. For now, however, I just want you to have a basic understanding of how looking through the Black and White Lens can affect you, and how doing so tends to all but ensure that you are going to end up in a less positive place than if you had not looked through it.

And finally, before you move on to whatever it is you were going to do next in your life (sweep the floor, get some cookies, watch Seinfeld re-runs, etc.), I would like you to simply pause and reflect on a few of the following questions. And I will give you a little tip. If you actually write down your answers to these questions, the insights you get will stay with you even longer. More on that later:

  • Does the concept of the Black and White Lens make sense to me?
  • Can I see how looking through this lens is more likely to make me feel sad, scared or mad about myself or my life or my future?
  • What are some areas in my life in which I might actually be looking though the Black and White Lens right now?
  • How accurate/inaccurate are some of the interpretations I have seen myself make while looking through the Black and White Lens?
  • How might cleaning this lens, or removing it, help me view myself, my life and my future in a more constructive or helpful way?

Thank you for reading, have a great rest of the day, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon.

Content copyright 2012. The Mindset Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
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The Mindset Mood Lenses: Part 2

I am very glad that you are curious about the Mindset Mood Lenses, as these will be a powerful set of tools in your arsenal as you work to manage your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. I have already described the role these lenses can play in shaping your view of yourself, your life and your future, and now I will tell you a little more about them. One helpful way of understanding their impact is to think about the effect that lint may have on the lens of a camera. When a bit of dust or dirt is on the lens of a camera, that obstruction will often have a noticeable effect on the pictures that we take while using that lens.

And if we proceed to view pictures taken with that dirty lens and project it onto a screen, it will appear on the resulting image as a “defect” or “problem” with what we are viewing, when, in fact, the actual distortion is on the lens of the camera with which we took the picture in the first place. As a result, we could mistakenly believe that the imperfection is embedded within the image itself (and think of the image as yourself, your life and your future). Therefore, we must remain aware of theses distortions, biases or incursions, and realize that they are a function of a dirty lens versus a dirty image. We need to do this because, if we try to identify and/or correct these spots on the images themselves, we will not find them, and will therefore fail to notice the actual problem (a dirty lens). Hard as we may try, we cannot fix the inside by retouching the outside. As I like to say, the best healing is an “inside job.”

And indeed, by analogy, if we can adjust and balance the way we look at things, the meaning of the things we are looking at will change. However, if we expend our energy on trying to retouch and fix all of these images, and we focus on changing the “outsides” of ourselves in order to be happy, we are highly likely to experience repeated frustration, failure, and hopelessness. The best antidote to this “spin cycle” is to clean the lint off of our own lenses, and purify our own vision of ourselves, our lives and our future.

Now, let’s proceed to looking at the first Mindset Mood lens, which we’ll call The Black and White Lens.

Content copyright 2012. The Mindset Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
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The Mindset Mood Lenses: Part 1

I am now going to introduce you to some core Mindset concepts that can deeply impact your perspective. In my practice, I have often observed some of the most surprised and positive reactions from my patients by introducing them to these concepts. I call them The Mindset Mood Lenses. And what are they? Well, if you imagine that you are a camera, and that the information you photograph, or take in, are your interpretations of yourself, your life and your future, the Mindset Mood Lenses are ways of interpreting that can distort or bias the way we think and feel, particularly in ways that cause us misery. And by adjusting the focus or clarity of these lenses, or by removing them altogether, we can literally change the way we think and feel. So, I am now going to go through them, one by one, and help you understand how they operate.

Content copyright 2012. The Mindset Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Level 1 and Level 2: A Great Place to Start

Without any further explanation of the Mindset mission, I want you to jump with me right into an extremely useful and effective Mindset intervention. This is the concept of Level 1 and Level 2 thinking, a simple but powerful tool for reducing the level of distress you are experiencing, no matter how bad things actually are. Level 1 thinking refers to the basic acknowledgement of the problems with which you are actually struggling right now. Some examples of Level 1 thoughts might be:

I am depressed, anxious or angry.

I’m miserable at my job, and I don’t feel I’m taken seriously by my boss.

I’m not involved in a romantic relationship, and have no prospects.

I am feeling inadequate or unlovable.

Social situations terrify me, and I sometimes have panic attacks

I am worried almost all of the time about something.

I am an addict.

My marriage is not going well, and I might be headed for divorce.

I’m disorganized and I don’t use my time well.

I’m grieving the loss of someone close to me; they either died or they dumped me.

Continue reading

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