“You can’t do it.”
“She doesn’t like you.”
“You’re not good enough.”
“They did that on purpose, just to hurt you.”
Have you ever had any of these thoughts?
Guess what. Me too. A lot.
I’ve always struggled with self-confidence and insecurity issues. There were times in my life where I had some pretty deep lows. Somewhere along the way, I started thinking all those negative thoughts that bumped around in my brain were hard truths. They weren’t there all the time, they came up sometimes when I was feeling stressed, upset, or vulnerable. But I believed them. And because of this, I struggled with my relationship with myself. And often, I damaged my relationships with others. Particularly those who I was closest to and loved the most.
Then something happened.
A woman came into my life. She was only there for a short time, but her impact on me was profound. This woman gave me three things: her attention, her kindness, and a book.
Here’s the story…
I moved to New Zealand from Austin, Texas, just before Christmas of 2016. Suddenly, those negative thoughts that I had believed were finally beginning to mellow with age started taking on a sharper edge once again. That shit-talking voice in my head got louder. And I listened to it more and more.
Maybe it was the struggle to start a new life away from everything familiar to me. Perhaps it was that I missed my family and my friends with an aching intensity that was stronger than I ever imagined it could be. I felt lonely and vulnerable without the support network I had both been born in to and spent years building.
I started falling back into the negative thought patterns and habits that I’d never truly worked at getting rid of.
I had my partner in New Zealand with me. He was the reason why I moved halfway across the world. He’s a good man with nearly infinite patience. Our life together was mostly happy. But then something little would happen…the tiniest thing, like a potential new friend canceling a coffee date and I’d start feeling as if no one in New Zealand liked me. And those negative thoughts would just come crashing in and I’d get lost in their whirlwind. I’d get sad or upset, and I’d start feeling fatalistic about myself and my entire life. It made me angry, and I lashed out at the only support person I had in New Zealand. For so long, he carried so much of my weight and my baggage.
We talked about things, and at his urging, I decided to seek out counseling. I started calling around. But I couldn’t find a therapist that I could afford.
I was beginning to give up hope when I made one last phone call.
Unlike the other therapists I had briefly spoken to, the woman on the phone began to ask me questions about why I was seeking counseling. I told her a little about myself and what I was struggling with. And I told her a little about my partner. “I used to be in the military too, the navy,” she said. She told me that years before, she was the wellness coordinator at the air force base my partner worked at.
“Does he go away for work a lot?” she asked me.
“Yes, he’s gone now,” I told her, “For five months.”
“And you just moved here a few months ago,” she said, “I imagine it’s very hard on you.”
She was silent for a few heartbeats, and then she said, “Listen, Leah, I’m on sabbatical right now, and I’m not practicing. But I want to help you, and I don’t want money to be the reason why I can’t. My husband and I are away on holiday, but when we get back, would you like to come to my home for a coffee?”
I was floored by the kindness of her offer. I told her I would love to have a coffee with her.
“I want you to do one thing for me then,” she said, “Well, two actually. Give me your e-mail address. I’m going to gift you a book. I’d like you to start reading it before we meet for coffee.”
Less than 10 minutes after getting off the phone with her, she had e-mailed me a link to her gift; an e-book. I promptly downloaded it onto my kindle.
I’m a big book worm, but I’ve never been a self-help book kind of gal, and it looked like that’s what this book was. But I figured if I wanted to work on myself, then I need to be open to new possibilities. Could a book actually help me with what I was struggling with?
A week and a half later, and one-fourth of the way through the book (I was also reading a fantasy novel that I had a hard time putting down), she texted me.
I’m back. Let’s do coffee. Friday?
I had three more days to read more of the book. But this was a bit tricky because there were parts of the book where the author wrote, “Stop. Put the book down. Take a break. This book is a journey, not a race to the end. Think about what you’ve learned and try to use it. Don’t come back until tomorrow.”
I had almost half the book finished when I drove over to her house on Friday morning to drink coffee in her large, sunny kitchen.
We talked about all sorts of things over coffee. She had a new RV in her driveway she was renovating and told me of her plans for it. She wanted to know what my parents were like back in Texas. We discovered we both had a love for fantasy books and traded favorite authors and titles. We laughed together when I told her the author of the book she’d given me wouldn’t let me tear through the content at top speed.
We talked about more serious things. And I cried a bit because I’m a crier. She pushed tissues into my hand and listened.
More than two hours later, our conversation just sort of naturally wrapped itself up. On the porch, I self-consciously asked how I could pay for the visit and she waved her hand at me dismissively. “Just keep reading that book,” she said. She asked if it was okay if she gave me a hug.
I sang to myself on the entire drive home.
The next day I sent her a giant pot of yellow daisies.
About the Book
The book she gave me is called The Happiness Trap. And I loved it. It’s not a self-help book exactly, it’s a…..I don’t know what it is. It’s a damn good book that’s well written and relatable. And actionable.
The Happiness Trap is about acceptance commitment therapy or ACT. ACT uses the practices of acceptance and mindfulness to increase mental flexibility. It gives you the tools to learn how to stop struggling against thoughts and emotions and just accept them. Accepting them allows you to just let them be, and when you let them be, you have so much more energy to focus on more positive things.
Rather than talk about ACT in general, I want to tell you about something more specific, something within acceptance commitment therapy, that resonated with me. Something that worked.
It’s called defusion.
Let’s first talk about defusion’s counterpart, fusion.
Fusion means the blending or melding of two things together until they’re stuck and virtually inseparable. Your thoughts can fuse with your self-perception. You react to thoughts like “They don’t like me,” as if that person thinks you’re a jerk. You react to thoughts like “I can’t” as if it’s already predetermined that you’re going to fail.
In fusion, thoughts gain so much power they affect your reality. You believe most, if not all, of the negative thoughts you have. You begin to believe that your thoughts are all-knowing; they can see the future and even see into other people’s minds. These thoughts begin to rule and change who you are. This puts you in an almost constant negative mindset which can affect how you interpret actions and interactions.
I read this, and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m totally fused.” I pictured my thoughts as cut out paper sentences that were slowly melting into my skin all over my body. Eventually, I’d become like a many-legged monster, waving papery tentacles covered in words that weren’t even legible anymore but somehow still ugly and threatening.
The book had told me what was wrong with me. It was actually kind of scary.
And then, the book, to summarize, pretty much said, “Guess what? We can help with that. It’s called defusion.”
All those negative thoughts can be downright threatening, so of course, you want to fight against them to make them go away. But guess what? They don’t go away. You can beat them back sometimes, with a lot of effort, but they almost always return. ACT teaches you to accept negative thoughts rather than fight against them. But, much like a bomb about to explode, you can diffuse those thoughts so they won’t cause any damage.
In the section about defusion, The Happiness Trap offers several different exercises. I tried them all.
One really did.
Here’s the exercise.
Step 1: Bring to mind an upsetting or uncomfortable thought. Try to pick one that happens again and again and that you find especially bothersome or upsetting.
I chose the thought, “People think I’m weird.” because, well, I’m pretty sure most people think I’m weird. And not like quirkily and cutely weird, but like, weird weird.
Close your eyes and think your thought for 10 seconds, over and over. Let it make you feel uncomfortable or even threatened. Notice how it makes you feel.
Step 2: Take that thought and add “I’m having the thought that…” to it. My thought became, “I’m having the thought that people think I’m weird.” Close your eyes and think this thought over and over for 10 seconds. Notice what begins to happen.
Step 3: Now, do this one more time, but this time think “I notice that I’m having the thought that….” With your eyes closed, think this thought for 10 seconds. Notice what continues to happen.
When I did it, my initial thought, “People think I’m weird.” made me really uncomfortable. I had spent so much of my life trying to either fight the thought or just ignore it. Facing it, intentionally thinking it over and over, was extremely unsettling and unpleasant.
I didn’t like it.
But then, when I thought, “I’m having the thought that people think I’m weird.” I began to feel myself distancing from the thought. It wasn’t as unsettling or uncomfortable anymore. I began to feel I was observing it rather than enmeshed with it.
And then, during the final step, suddenly, I was able to recognize “People think I’m weird” for what it was, just a thought, like all the other billion thoughts that go through my head. There was no truth to it, it wasn’t an absolute and it had no power to control me. It was just a thought to come and then go, with no difference than looking up at the sky and briefly thinking “Looks like rain.” There was no need to fight it.
I felt something shift in me. A perspective had changed. I sat there trying the exercise with different ugly thoughts that popped into my head from time to time. I was able to diffuse every one of them.
Such a simple exercise. But damn, I’d never experienced anything even close to that mental epiphany. It was an eye-opener. A brain opener, if you will.
Did you try it? I hope you did.
If you don’t want to now, then maybe tomorrow or the next day. It’ll take less than 5 minutes of your time.
It might not work for you. If it doesn’t, maybe try again another day.
But chances are the exercise will work and you’ll gain a shift in perspective that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
* * * * * * * * * *
Though I didn’t put a note or a name on the yellow daisies I’d sent to the therapist, I still got a text that said, “Thanks for the daisies, they’re lovely.”
I wrote back “You’re welcome.” That was the last time I had contact with her.
I texted her once a few months later to see how she was doing, but I didn’t get a response. Maybe she changed her number. Maybe she was off adventuring with her husband in their new RV.
It didn’t matter. She was there when I needed her. And I’ll never forget the kindness she showed me. She changed my life.
Am I completely changed? Nope. Do I still get negative thoughts? All the time. Do I use that exercise to diffuse them? Sometimes. Does it always have that same, intense effect it did the first time I tried it? No.
Do I feel like defusion has helped me with the negative thoughts I’ve struggled with my entire life? Yes. A thousand times, yes.
Is my life better now? It is.
In a small, yet infinitely profound way, life is better.
And yours can be too.