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Working Through Anger One Breath At A Time

Emily Dickinson wrote: “Anger as soon as fed is dead – ‘Tis starving makes it fat.” In these days of political polarization and the dissolution of relationships based on singular points of difference, it seems on the face of it that anger is quite glutted. On the opposite side of the self-reflective spectrum, anger is looked upon as being wrong or an indication of personal failure. Statements like “I lost control of my anger” or “I was overwhelmed,” are common. For both the path of gluttony and the path of scarcity, the unhelpful assumption is a lack of separation between the emotion of anger and the actions it is seen to support.

Take A Breath: Anger is Ok

Last time I looked in the mirror, talked with friends and relatives, and people-watched through office windows and passing vehicles, I noticed we’re still all human. Remembering that means recognizing we’re all in this world attempting to live lives of meaning and purpose, while doing so in as consistent a way as any of us know how. The initial step on this journey is identifying what’s important to us in any given moment. The means of doing so is the automatic system of emotional valuation.

connect-the-dots-flowerWhat our emotional system does is remind us both of our shared humanity and our care for how that humanity shows up in action. Certainly there are variations of depth in our caring, with some situations or moments standing out more than others and at different times changing in intensity and focus. This is due to the way our minds frame our experiences, consider it like the lines on a connect-the-dots puzzle. What we’re concerned with here though are the dots, or immediate emotional judgments.

This immediacy and inherent humanity of our emotional valuing is why, looked at alone, there’s nothing wrong with anger or any other emotion. They just are. You or anyone else is not broken or damaged goods because you get upset about an action or experience. This can be difficult to accept because we’re so quick to connect our feelings with particular behavior, but this fusion does not have to limit our self-reflection, it does not have to lead to condemning our capacity to care about our lives and the world around us.

Take A Breath: Anger Is Not All You Are

The immediate danger of looking at anger as bound to particular behavior is how easily it then becomes to define the whole of who you are by a single internal reaction. I’ve lost count the number of times someone has said “I’m just an angry person.” When caught up in the moment, when not pausing to reflect, when not taking a breath and remembering the width and depth of our humanity, this statement makes a certain intuitive sense. Sadly, it sets the stage for seeing only those times we’ve acted in ways outside of the best versions of ourselves. It removes the branches of our individual life-trees and leaves only a long stump of bitterness and regret.

Pausing to take a breath is the first step towards mindfully reflecting on ourselves as whole people, possessed of many thoughts, emotions and a near-infinite potential for behavior. Doing so can be done by following basic instructions:

  1. Identify the feeling and say it out loud or to yourself, using the affirmation: “I’m feeling angry (or any other emotion) and I’m ok.”
  2. If able and safe to do so, close your eyes and take a breath, holding it for a brief moment and then letting it go
  3. Repeat step 1 and 2 while noting all the other thoughts clambering for attention as they speed by your awareness
  4. When caught up in one or more of those thoughts and emotions, calmly bring yourself back to a focus on the breath and the affirmation
  5. With each breath, be aware of how you are observing these thoughts and emotions but are not bound to them, for they pass you by and you remain

Take A Breath: Release

Pausing before further action does not mean you no longer care about what triggered you. Breathing is not a replacement for engaging in an effort to change what is considered unhealthy or a violation. There is the world and there is the way we hope the world, or even just our little part of it, would be. Being angry is a reminder of that hope. What mindful reflection provides us is the space to release our automatic or habitual behaviors and explore ways to engage that reflect the best versions of ourselves.

If you are wanting help in this journey of releasing yourself into a greater appreciation of who you are and what you are capable of doing, please contact me for therapy or coaching.

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Being You In All Your Spaces

Of particular difficulty in a world of constant social media presence and information overload is how areas of life bleed into one another. We carry with us the news, analysis and opinions of those around us and the globe in the palm of our hand. Each tweet, news headline and status update pulls associations from within us every moment of the day. Separate personal life from work? Not when every drama and emotionally-laden piece of the lives we connect with are popping up on screen after screen. Focus on just one person? Not when we’re over-saturated with the need to form quick opinions on everything from someone’s dinner to geo-politics.

This isn’t a call to limit technology, the reality of our world is a digitally connected one and comes with a great many advantages. Rather, it’s a recognition that in an informational age we rarely stop to consider how our minds are attempting to work within it. Our brains have not evolved in the past 50 years as we’ve gone from newspapers and church gossip to 24-hour news cycles and pop-up filters. The same mechanisms of association and narrative construction continue to operate.

Picture the process of association as the building blocks of narrative construction. Pieces of experience are linked together to form a whole picture, a narrative, that helps us select our behavioral responses. This way of ordering chaos allows for a nearly unlimited number of variations in our personal story-telling. The areas of our lives, work and personal, are short-hand for a collection of those narratives. They are not hard and fast boundaries, however, think of sponges instead of brick walls.

The permeability of the areas of our life means any attempt at completely avoiding spill-over is not only impossible, but fundamentally contrary to our human nature. A study on how the practice of therapy changes the therapist offers a path for consideration:

Instead, the researchers describe how clinicians “acquired a capacity to exist in parallel realities, and that one of the ways in which they accomplished this was to co-construct, with others in their lives, a set of practices that enabled them comfortably to move across contexts, such as the shift between work and home.” (Shannon Peters)

This “set of practices” is behavior set up to remind us of where we are currently at and avoiding behaviors that sends our mind elsewhere. It is based on the notion of our lives as whole creatures who just so happen to have various areas of focus. These areas shift in importance based on social context and since context is set up in part through intentionality, we therefore have the ability to direct attention to what we feel to be important or Value.

Figuring out how to direct one’s attention is about exploring social context:

  1. Structure – what building or space are you currently in? Which Values are most important to you in that space? Is the space set up to do the work that’s supposed to occur there? Do you find yourself getting bored and wanting more/different stimulation? Are there means of alleviating that feeling in line with the Values associated with the space?
  2. Relationships – what form of connection do you typically engage in within that space? Are you keeping in mind those Values the structure supports when you’re in communication? If you find yourself being bored and in need of distraction, what is it about what you’re currently engaged in that is drawing you to disconnect?

If we begin with what is in disarray or start with the area itself, we create artificial boundaries within the central whole of who we are. These questions are based on a grounding within personal Valuation, or what is important to you. From that ground it becomes possible to direct attention and guide the internal mental associations that serve to create a narrative. This then guides the selection of behavior for the purpose of making an area of your life functional and fulfilling, a reflection of the whole of you, not just a part.

 

© David Teachout

 

References:

The Effects of Practicing Psychotherapy on Therapists’ Personal Lives. Mad in America: Science, Psychiatry and Social Justice.

Further Reading:

“Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott

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Being Thankful for the Present

The future contains the present that the past was preparing for. Consider that for a moment. For all the time and resources spent preparing for a potential future, it will never be more than what was possible in the present. For all our lamentations and considerations about the past, it held within it the potential of the present we’re experiencing. The past and future are indelibly connected to what the present holds or becomes, yet we typically spend more time considering either than the moment we currently reside in.

Bring to mind driving and, if that doesn’t have too many anxious associations, remember a time when you suddenly ‘woke up’ and realized several miles had gone by without full conscious awareness. Whether it was a focus on what was coming, that meeting or event, or what had happened previously, a missed opportunity or action unfulfilled, the present in which all that thinking was occurring slipped on by without your noticing. What sights were missed? Who passed us by? What dangers did we ignore? An entire section of life, a whole area of living, passed in a blur of contemplating everything but what was happening right in front of us.

Without a clear sense of where we currently are, what shape our life is in, it is profoundly difficult to engage in that nourishing practice called gratitude. Rather than simply a declaration said over the dinner table or engaged in on Thanksgiving, gratitude can be a lifelong practice reminding us to not lose sight of what’s directly around us.

The past is a recall of events seen through the lens of our current situation, removing us from contemplating what we already have. The future is a projection of our current hopes and concerns, removing us from consideration of our current situation. Both cast our vision away from the grounded reality of our current relational self, the very narrative that holds the potential to travel these roads in different ways. Think of turning a telescope to look upon a night sky, it is precisely where the lens or present is located that will determine what is seen through the other end. If we forget how powerful the present is, we may never shift our imagination to contemplate the rest of the sky above.

To start with gratitude is to begin with Value, the identification of what we hold to be important. It is to recognize our capacity to care, to connect, to hold the strings of our relational lives in our mind’s eye. To pause in that relational present, to refrain for just a moment from losing ourselves in the past or future, is to hold the now and everything it contains. That now provides all manner of lessons to be learned from what has come before and a growing list of potential outcomes out of what has yet to happen. It is precisely within the universal human process of Value-ing that gratitude springs eternal.

 

© David Teachout

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Accepting A Trigger Happy Life

Emotions are the jam in the scones of our life. Slathered in-between the bread of thought and circumstance, our emotions are the sticky deliciousness that holds everything together. Granted, they may not be held together all that well and you may very well get a tad messy during the eating or living, but at no point do emotions disappear or become anything less than the powerful bond that keeps us moving in life.

Unfortunately for emotions, they seem to have a rather poor PR budget. Slandered as being unhelpful in such statements as “I was too emotional” or “my emotions got away from me,” the emotional system of our life is often sought after to be diminished, controlled or done away with completely. The notion of “cold rationality” is unhelpful as it in no way pertains to the reality of how our brains work, but the fact that such a phrase is associated with clearer thinking should point to how emotions are often considered: burning fires waiting to singe the unwary.

Our emotional system is the immediate first light shining upon that which we care about. A common way of considering this is to use the word “triggered.” While the term has taken on a great many meanings in this time of identity politics and a hyper-awareness of social power dynamics, the idea of a switch being flipped by circumstance is fairly accurate. Our emotional system has to be fast, near instantaneous, because it provides the direction for our thoughts. Emotions declare with the subtlety of breaking waves upon a beach and the blaring of trumpets that we care about something, that what we are faced with has important meaning to us.

Notice here, emotions do not have an appraisal structure beyond “hey, look here! This is important!”  Emotions and therefore the response called “trigger” is not something to judge in itself, they exist on a spectrum as wide as people’s capacity to associate meaning to events and things. If you care about something then you will be triggered because that is what emotions do, they react, instantly and constantly.

What provides the meaning, the structure shaping the contours for emotion to flesh out, is the worldview of the person. Unfortunately in the attempt at attacking “triggers,” we are conflating worldviews and their associated thoughts and collected meanings from a lifetime of experience, with the initial emotional reaction. The result is a dismissal not merely of the emotional response, as if emotions are unhelpful pieces of our lives that should find their proper place, but also of the depth and breadth of meaning that indicates why the event or object or person was important.

We will only stop being triggered when we cease to care about anything, a situation I hope never to see happen. We will only stop providing a structure of meaning for emotion when we cease feeling connected to the world around us, a result all too many are feeling pressured to achieve as their meaning is lumped together with their initial response and thrown out together. Reminding ourselves that there are two separate responses going on, an emotional trigger and the cognitive structure providing meaning, can help reclaim emotions as an important part of our lives and point us to a place where dialogue can develop.

 

© David Teachout


For more on Relational-ACT, the therapeutic theory behind the services of Life Weavings, check out it’s own page and you can search under the Growing Connections category.

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Behavior Is the Projection of Our Stories

This is the final part of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, considers behavior to be an indication of the direction or Value that one’s life is heading towards. As such, behavior is a source for constant appraisal of one’s consistency in pursuing a particular Value. Relational-ACT is founded upon a relationship model for the creation of perspective leading to change, where behavior is not an indication of moving towards a Value but exists as a pointer directing attention back to a Value it is supporting. We exist as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.

Trigger and Outcome

Behavior is our humanity interacting within the relational reality in which we all reside. Existing within that established social space, it not so much creates a new experience as discovers the potential residing within each situational context. This is why we cannot simply do anything we want, whenever we want, our behavior must manifest within the layered context of each personal Vision and social possibility.

Vision By Flashlight Not By Lantern

Suspenseful scenes in television shows and movies are often built around the usage of light. A character will enter a dark room and pull out the tiniest flashlight you’ve ever seen, not bothering to flip switches or finding out they don’t work. An inevitable consequence is the villain will pop out of the darkness and surprise both the character and the audience, or a key piece for their journey will be missed. While it’s a useful prop for entertainment value, the image is not altogether different from real life, with our perspective being that of the tiniest of flashlights rather than a lantern or overhead light.

manifesting-value-process

We enter the world, each of us, through the birth canal of our species, limited in the ways that are specific to our existence as human beings. We cannot run as fast as the cheetah, we do not possess the claws and teeth of a lion and we cannot swim underwater like a fish. From this starting point, what is possible for us is not at all infinite, and further constrained by the genetic, familial, and societal conditions that encapsulate our lives.

This Cone of Possibility encompasses all of our behavior, not just our outward physical reactions, but our mental and emotional behavior and the triggers that lie within us waiting to be clicked by circumstance. We do not and cannot see ways of behaving that do not lie within that possibility, though thankfully our Vision can move, as it does each time we react in ways that we wish we hadn’t and later recognize a different way of behaving in the future. The judgment of wanting to have acted differently can only happen because we are now in a different context, with a moved Vision of what is possible. Judgment does not mean accuracy, rather it’s a recognition of our desire to become better versions of ourselves.

Relational-ACT

Behavior exists as insight to our inner lives since we act based on what we believe ourselves capable of. Behavior is also an indicator of what we care about since we are triggered by what we find important and meaningful. Thirdly, behavior is also helpful in determining how our perception or self-narrative has limited us. Relational-ACT seeks to shift the focus on individual acts that leads to debilitating judgment of the whole person, by instead exploring each response within the context of the person’s life and their framing of it. This doesn’t remove responsibility so much as allow the relationships of our lives to show us new ways of reaching for the best of who we know ourselves to be.

 

© David Teachout

Part 1: The Importance of Values

Part 2: The Power of Personal Narrative

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The Power of Personal Narrative

This is the second of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, considers the ‘self in context.’ That context is explored through what is referred to as ‘relational frames,’ the ability of the self to explore experience through the building of perspective. Relational-ACT is founded upon a relationship model for the creation of perspective leading to change. We exist as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.

Trigger and Outcome

Narrative is a broad term that holds the notions of perspective, structure and intentionality. It is the process through which we decide what is important to us among the vast information in our experiences, organize our responses and direct the attention of others to the self-image we’ve constructed.

What We See Is All There Is

There is simply too much information in even the most simple of experiences for us to ever be consciously aware of it all. While the analogy can only be taken so far, consider life experience like a computer, with programs running in the background, but you’re only using one at a time. Perhaps, like me, you’re switching between multiple programs all the time, but the reality is there’s only one at a time you’re consciously using. Also, depending on what is being worked on, not all the programs running in the background will be accessed equally.

That background processing is similar to the experience of our everyday lives. We are inundated by information in the form of social, familial, personal, emotional and ideological programs (or memes). We must be selective in the building of our conscious experience, otherwise known as perspective.

A major consequence of this narrowed vision that we experience as conscious life is a false sense of our comprehension. Simply because we are not currently aware of those programs running, and all the information they contain, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped or that they aren’t making connections with one another. Our mind/brain’s are associational devices, connecting disparate pieces of information with other pieces. It’s why we can remember new things when recalling older experiences. It’s why multiple people can experience the same trauma and have different memories of what happened and different reactions. It’s why our emotions, in their limited number of forms, can connect us with so many experiences.

Our Behavior Always Serves A Purpose

Behavior is any action taken in response to an event or to encourage a particular response in return. Behavior is both learned and evolving in the sense that we can associate or connect multiple items to build new responses. How we select our behavior begins with the window of our perception.  That window is limited by what we have learned and the extent of the information we have available. We don’t do anything without a purpose and that is contingent upon our narrative associating information onto the stage of our present.

manifesting-value-process

This way of looking at behavior means there’s no action that ‘isn’t the real me’ and allows for exploration when it’s stated ‘I don’t know why I did that.’ We’re now back to the consequence of a narrowed vision. Because we can’t keep consciously aware of every connection being made between all the information churned around in our minds, there are times when our actions don’t seem to fit the verbalized story of ourselves we’re telling. This is where calls of hypocrisy come up. Also, because we can only keep track of a small amount of the information we’re processing, the story we tell of ourselves may not always offer enough of an explanation to us. This is particularly true when, upon reflection, we realize that had we acted differently, the consequences would have been far more beneficial. Unfortunately such thinking forgets that the ability to reflect necessitates  having more information.

The idea that ‘hindsight is always perfect’ is true not because we’re foolish, broken or corrupt, but because we can only decide our actions based on what we currently know. Action/behavior by its very nature will add information to our lives, in no small part because it is a way of looking back through the window of our perspective to see what we missed the first time.

Identity is As Much Social as it is Personal

Narrative provides the structure for determining what it is we will pay attention to, in order to direct our actions for a purpose, to result in the establishment of an identity within relationships. We have an innate desire to belong, but equally so we want to maintain a sense of self. Thus our identities serve the two-fold purpose of identifying for others that we are a part of something larger than ourselves even as we do so from a centralized notion of “This is me.”

drawing-compass-identityOne way of looking at this is seeing our relationship with identity as that of an old-style drawing compass. The circle we draw is the social group our identity connects us to, even as the center point determines the size of that circle. Anything within the circle we will feel connected to, whereas everything outside it becomes “other.” This simplification makes it easy to believe we only have the one, but no single identity can ever encompass the whole of any one of us.

Relational-ACT

Our personal stories grow out of what is important to us, guiding our responses to life and providing a grounding for our interactions. We never cease being in relationship, even as the details of those connections ebb and flow in importance based on the context our self-images are constantly shaping.

Relational-ACT recognizes the power of narrative as it leaps forward from our Values to provide the structure for our identities and guides us in developing behavior to interact with ourselves and others. By exploring our stories we can peer back through the windows of our perspective, see what we missed and find the space to grow.

 

© David Teachout

Part 1: The Importance of Values

Part 3: Behavior Is the Projection of Our Stories

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The Importance of Values

This is the first of a 3-part series looking into the essential characteristics of Relational-ACT, the counseling philosophy behind the services provided by Life Weavings. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), created by Steven Hayes, provides a great foundation for counseling/therapy. Through study and application, I began to personalize it, finding the focus centered upon a philosophy that is relational at its core. Relationship is far more than a descriptive of human connection, instead being seen as a fundamental way of looking at our lives and effecting change.

Relational-ACT looks at our lives as an inevitable trajectory of intentional energy starting with Value, moving through Narrative, resulting in Behavior.

Trigger and Outcome

Values are the cognitive manifestation of an emotional state. No feeling exists unattached from a particular situation or object (person, place, or thing). This is because feelings are an initial evaluative tool. They’re an immediate way for us to start the path of our response to a situation or object. The way we describe our relationship between an emotion and what is being evaluated is through the use of a Value.

Two important points here about Values: one, they are not synonymous with behavior and two, they are an intrinsic part of humanity. Let’s unpack both.

Values are Not Behavior

Consider the value of community. How many ways can that Value manifest? School? Family reunion? Work? Church? Online group? Public interest gathering? Now think of a person from one of those types of communities, like a school, coming to your online group and declaring the Value of community can only be found in their school and how dare you believe that you hold that Value as important.

Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. Values do not demand a particular behavior, as if there are ‘true’ and ‘false’ versions. This is because Values exist as a universal evaluative device to direct our attention to what’s important to us. They are the thinking side of our emotional identification, a cognitive short-hand to display our interests to ourselves and others.

Values are Universal

The words people use for their Values are culturally derived, as is also how they manifest them. Culture here includes family, social environment, all relationship forms, local community and country. All these ways of differentiating us from one another do not remove the vast amount of similarities because of our shared humanity.

Remember that Values are not synonymous with behavior, there are multiple ways to show how one considers a Value to be important in their life. Further, if a person doesn’t show a Value in a particular situation, it does not mean they don’t care about it. Do you Value honesty? I’m sure you do. Would you be honest if it led to the harm of another? Likely not. Does that mean you no longer care about telling the truth? Of course not!

This seeming disconnect of one Value in order to express another is because Values are situationally driven. Remember that they’re evaluative tools, not behavioral directives. Values aren’t being removed, they’re just being selected within a context to help us determine how we’re going to relate to a particular situation or object.

Relational-ACT

An appreciation for our shared humanity, meaning a recognition of the universal characteristics allowing us to connect to one another, is the grounding principle of Relational-ACT. No problem is so bizarre that it divorces a person from this shared existence. By identifying what matters to us through our Values, we can begin to understand why we get triggered by some things and not others and start the process of healing.

 

© David Teachout

Part 2: The Power of Personal Narrative

Part 3: Behavior Is the Projection of Our Stories