WBR: Getting Our ACT Together, Part 2

Ready for a mindset shift? Last week, we talked about the fears that keeps us stuck. We talked about the reasons we haven't revamped our report template, even though we know our reports are unreadable and take too long to write.


We grouped those reasons into four categories. We borrowed those categories from one of Russ Harris' book on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, The Confidence Gap. The categories are Fusion, Excessive Expectations, Avoidance of Discomfort, and Remoteness from Values.


These four things keep us stuck in the "Waiting Place." The Waiting Place is that stuck place where dreams go to die. If you haven't revised your report format in the last 2 years -- even though you procrastinate, sacrifice, or perfect your way through every report -- you are in the Waiting Place.


In the Waiting Place, we keep doing the same unhelpful things we've always been doing. We think we're waiting for the time, energy, inspiration, or desperation that will spur action towards our goal. In this case, we're waiting to take action towards our goal of reports that are user-friendly for parents, and life-friendly for us.


This week, we're going to talk about mindset shifts and practical actions to get out of this stuck place. Again, we're going to turn to our acronym-loving friend Dr. Harris. He has an acronym for how we get out of the Waiting Place.


He says the opposite of FEAR is to DARE:

  • Defusion

  • Acceptance of Discomfort

  • Realistic Goals

  • Embracing Values

Defusion

Defusing from a thought doesn't mean we argue with ourselves until we stop believing it. You don't have to start thinking, "I'm perfectly positioned to develop a new way to write reports because of my training and experience!" You don't have to cheerlead yourself into believing you can change your reports if you just read yet another motivational poster.

In ACT, defusion simply means no longer letting that thought dictate our actions. When we defuse, we make room for the possibility that a thought is just a thought, rather than absolute truth. We accept that feelings are just temporary states, rather than mandates that we must obey.

One easy way to defuse comes from Solution-Focused Therapy. I first came across this idea in the works of Bill O'Hanlon including his book Do One Thing Different. Here's the trick: Replace "and" with "but" in any of those stories you tell yourself. This simple one-word change highlights when you've been letting your thoughts boss you around.



For example, perhaps you've been telling yourself "I want to change my reports but I'm afraid of what might happen." Perhaps you've been treating that story as if it contains valid reason not to change your reports. "You see, I want to, but I can't, for reasons X, Y, and Z." I want to, but I don't know how people will react. I don't have time. I don't have the energy. I don't have ideas for how to change. I don't see any of my colleagues changing. I don't feel like I have the authority to change. I don't know if my new format will be any good.


This is fusion. When you say "I want to but..." you're treating your thoughts as if they are absolute truths that can stop you from moving towards your goals and desires. You're letting your thoughts dictate your actions. You're letting them boss you around.


Notice the difference when you try, "I want to change my reports and I'm afraid of what might happen." I want to change my reports, and I don't know how people will react. I want to change my reports, and I don't have the time, energy, or ideas. I want to change, and I don't know how to change.


Do you feel a shift?

More Defusion Techniques

Another way to defuse is to simply notice and name your thoughts and feelings. No doubt you've heard the saying "Name it to tame it." Harris calls this technique: Notice, name, and neutralize. To use this technique, notice what you're thinking or feeling. Then, just tell yourself what you're thinking and feeling.


As in, "I'm having the thought that something bad might happen if I change my report style." Or, "Here comes that old story about how 'I'm not good enough' at regular reports to try something new." You don't need to do anything special to neutralize these thoughts and feelings. Noticing and naming them is often enough to take away their stranglehold on your actions.

Sue Johnson calls these old stories "Demon Dialogues." Her book Hold Me Tight is about couples who rehash the same fight over and over again. These fights are "Demon Dialogues." Each person says a new version of what they've been saying for years. (I spend infinitely more time fighting with my brain than I do my husband, so I read her books to have a better relationship with myself. )

Whenever I find myself fusing, I say -- out loud -- "Ah, there's my old Demon Dialogue. There I go again, telling myself I can't do it. Telling myself I'm the last person who should be telling others how to write reports. Telling myself I should leave it to the well-known psychologists who have written books and published dozens of articles. Telling myself I don't have the time or energy to invent something new. There's my broken record player, playing the same song again."


Just noticing my critical "inner supervisor" is yelling at me is often enough to help me defuse. I can see that those criticisms are thoughts, not inflexible statements of reality.


When I defuse, it's like turning down the volume in a crowded place so I can hear myself think. I can turn down the mind-numbing bleat of all my thoughts about why I can't or shouldn't change my reports. I can hear the quieter drumbeat of my goal (user-friendly and life-friendly reports).


I can make room for other thoughts, feelings, and values. I can find my excitement about what my life will be like if I can tame reports. I can hear my curiosity about what my reports could look like. I can hold on to my value of service leadership, for the families I see and for my colleagues. I can invite bravery, empathy, and creativity to visit.


Questions to ask yourself to get unstuck:

What thoughts and feelings am I letting boss me around? What would happen if I just notice and name those thoughts and feelings? What demon dialogues do I keep having with myself? What 'but' can I change to 'and' in the stories I've been telling myself?


Acceptance of Discomfort

In ACT, there is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is unavoidable. It's all the bad things that happen to us and to those we care about. It's all the hard things we have to go through to pursue our values and honor our commitments.


Suffering, in contrast, is avoidable. Suffering is what we do to ourselves to try to avoid pain.


Another way to say this is "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."

For some reason, I am legally obligated to include a picture of a trail through the woods when discussing how PAIN IS INEVITABLE, SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL.

In ACT, the way to avoid suffering is to be willing to accept pain. Not as in, we want pain, or are willing to put up with some pain to escape other, bigger pains. Instead, we are willing to allow for the presence of some discomfort as we pursue our goals. We let pain into our lives. We explore our discomfort with curiosity. We no longer seek to avoid or control it.


Leo Babauta, author of the blog Zen Habits, calls this the Ridiculously Awesome Practice of Surrendering. He contrasts surrendering to trying to control, or avoid pain.


Babauta describes surrendering as:

  • Relaxing and becoming present, rather than trying to avoid or control

  • Tuning in to how we are feeling

  • Embracing uncertainty with curiosity and an open mind

  • Opening up to all parts of our experience, even the 'bad' moments, without trying to change it

He writes this beautifully, in a way bullet points can't do justice to, so go read his post.

If we can embrace the pain of changing our reports, we can avoid the suffering of staying stuck. Russ Harris says, yes, we will without a doubt feel pain this way.


But:

Surrender Panda wants you to stop trying to control everything so you can live life to the fullest.
We will be feeling pain in the service of a great adventure: making room for it as we maximize our potential. This pain is accompanied by a sense of vitality, meaning, and purpose; a sense of personal growth and living life to the fullest.

Doesn't this sound better than staying in the Waiting Place?


Questions to ask yourself to get unstuck:

What suffering am I enduring to avoid pain? What am I trying to control that I could instead surrender to? How can I become more present? How can I become more curious and open up to all parts of my experience?

Realistic Goals

Unrealistic goals are a set-up for failure. If you find yourself failing, or procrastinating, your goals need a reality check. You need to ask yourself: Do I actually have the resources to meet my goals?

If you find yourself answering that question with if only, your answer is probably no. My inner critic tells me, "Sure, I have the resources to think about changing up my report format, if only I work harder to get caught up so I have the time. I can do it if only I put goals Y and Z on hold. If only I read a few more books about reports for inspiration. If only I get up a little earlier, go to bed a little later, skip out on those events, drink more caffeine, am more organized."


Do any of those thoughts sound familiar?


Those "if only" statements are really about resources I don't have. Those things I'm trying to skip or find more of are resources I need and don't have enough of. For example: Time, energy, ideas, focus, sleep, nutrition. Friends, family, play, passion. If I don't have those, I don't have the resources I need to meet my goals.

Here's Harris again. He says:

If your goal exceeds your resources, then you have two options. One option is to put this goal on hold temporarily and set a new goal to find the necessary resources. Thus, if the resource you need is time, then the new goal is to rearrange your schedule [to find the time].

We could say the same for every if only. Whatever you put after if only, that's what you need more of. If you go with option 1, your first goal is now to get more of whatever you need. Then you can come back and decide how you're going to tackle writing better reports.


For me, a true inventory of what resources I needed to work on my report format turned up the following:

  • Time

  • Ideas

  • Confidence

  • Peers to collaborate with

So, my first goal was to find the time. That meant hiring a virtual assistant to find more time to focus on reports every week. During that free time, I read every book, paper, and sample report I could get my hands on to come up with ideas. My next goal was confidence, which explains why I was reading Harris' The Confidence Gap. I also started receiving professional coaching to focus on confidence. I also began posting more on the PED NPSY listserv and Testing Psychologist Facebook page, as a little exposure therapy. To be honest, that's not something I would recommend now that I've tried it. However, posting led to better opportunities to gain confidence, like speaking engagements and podcast interviews.


This blog was another step towards finding more confidence. This blog is also helping me find peers who are also passionate about revising our reports.

Take a true inventory of what you need to be able to work on revising your report format. What resources are you lacking? What steps can you take to find those resources?


Perhaps a true inventory of what you need revealed resources that are not available to you right now. That's okay. Harris says, if you can't find the resources you need,

The second option is to scale down the goal to fit the resources available: in other words to make it smaller, easier, or simpler.

This is the old "break it down into manageable steps." You know, that advice we surely write in almost every report we produce.


When we're applying this advice to ourselves, this might look like taking a section of our reports to improve at a time. Breaking off small chunks of our report templates to play around with and to try new things with. For example, can you revise one section from your background -- maybe the medical history, or previous evaluations -- to make it easier to write? Do you have an hour to brainstorm some ideas of how your test results section could look different?


Questions from Harris to ask yourself to get unstuck:

What do I need more of in my life? What will help me have the resources I need to reach my goals? Once I set a goal, what's the smallest, easiest little step I could take in the next 24 hours that would take me a tiny bit closer to achieving it?

Embracing Values Our values provide the motivation to embrace pain. When we defuse from our thoughts and feelings, the little demon voices inside our head get a bit quieter. That's when we can let our values get loud.


When our values are clear, the pain of spending a little time on our report format doesn't seem like so much to ask.


You already have values around your reports. As I said last week, "your values might be providing a report with depth, or one that is highly individualized. You might value diagnostic clarity or tailored recommendations. You might value a report that enriches a family's life with your empathy, expertise, or advocacy." It's worth taking the time to clarify your values.


One way to do that is to use Russ Harris' values checklist from The Confidence Gap. He posts these for anyone to use on his website. Here's a link to the PDF. The values exercise starts on page 3.


I keep my values on a post-it note on my office wall. If that sounds like I also have "Hang In There Kitten" posters in my office, don't worry. I've replaced those with pictures of Surrender Panda and Judgmental Harbor Seal. I keep the post-it around because it was the smallest, easiest step I could take. An easy step towards avoiding procrastination and finding the courage to work towards my goals.


On the post-it, I have Commitment, Creativity, Curiosity, Clarity, Challenge, Collaboration. Both because those are the values I self-identified and because I like alliteration.

What values do you identify most with?

Questions from Harris to ask yourself to get unstuck:

What matters to you in the big picture? What sort of life do you want to live? What sort of person do you want to be? What do you want to stand for?


Story Time

These posts about mindset might seem an odd place to start a discussion of how we can change our report formats. A diversion. Or an unnecessary delay.


I'd like to explain why I included these posts on mindset with a story. Various versions of this story are over the internet, so I'm not sure who to credit. I think it was first adapted from that old classic by Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.


The Wood-Cutter

Once upon a time there was a very strong wood-cutter. He asked for a job from a timber merchant and he got it. The pay was very good and so were the work conditions. For those reasons, the wood-cutter determined to do his very best. His boss gave him an axe and showed him the area in the forest where he was to work.


The first day the wood-cutter cut down 18 trees. His boss was extremely impressed and said, “Well done. Keep it up. You are our best wood-cutter yet.” Motivated by his boss’ words, the wood-cutter tried even harder the next day. But that day, he only cut down 15 trees. The third day, he tried even harder. But he only cut down 10 trees.


Day after day, the woodcutter cut down fewer and fewer trees. His boss came to him and told him that if he did not chop down more trees each day, he would lose his job. The wood-cutter needed the job. So he tried harder and harder. He worked during his lunch breaks and tea breaks. But still he could not cut down enough trees. “I must be losing my strength” the wood-cutter thought to himself. He worked over-time, but still it was not enough.


Eventually his boss came to him and told him he was fired. The wood-cutter was really upset, but he knew that he had worked as hard as he could and just did not have enough time to chop more trees. He sadly handed his axe back.


The boss took one look at the axe and asked, “When was the last time you sharpened your axe?


“Sharpened my axe?” the wood-cutter replied. “I have never sharpened my axe. I have been too busy trying to cut down enough trees.”



In case it isn't clear, you are the wood-cutter and your reports are the trees. What I'm going to ask you to do now is to take some time out to sharpen your axe.


The reason we didn't just start with me saying "Hey, Sharpen your Axe" is because people have been telling you to do that for years. And you've been replying back, "Look, I'm too *&$#^&@ing busy (and scared, and stuck, and burned out, and lacking confidence) to sharpen my axe!!"


So before we moved on to where the grindstone is and how to hone a blade, we needed to have a deeper talk. We needed to talk about how to find the time, courage, and confidence to even think about sharpening.




Note: This post is written at the 5th grade level. It has 263 sentences. Average sentence length is 11.7 words. 25 of the sentences are hard to read. 3 sentences are very hard to read. There are 2 uses of the passive voice.




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©2018 by Stephanie Nelson, Ph.D.