Update June 2021 - Since I wrote this article I have mostly trained and shifted to using the Internal Family Systems Model. This post is mostly based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and I do believe it is a truly valuable way to gain insights, understanding, and growing awareness.
Who am I?
Who are we, as human beings?
Are we a collection of our actions? Are we our thoughts? Are we who we think we are?
The way we SEE ourselves is deeply rooted in the beliefs through which we judge ourselves, perceive others and the world surrounding us.
Our beliefs are the lenses through which we see the world. And ourselves.
When some of these beliefs are toxic, our lenses are faulty, and they reflect back to us corrosive and destructive thoughts.
They sabotage our chances of living a happy and meaningful life, and to shape a life in which we are deeply connected to ourselves.
The good news is that a few exercises can have a dramatic impact in our level of awareness and the way we see ourselves.
Here you find the cornerstones of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) of which these exercises are integral part, and that I describe more in detail here.
- Become aware of the beliefs that control your thoughts, behaviors, and attitude.
- Learn to evaluate your thoughts before buying into them
- Learn to recognize the nature of your inner voice
- Choose the person you want to be, and live the life you want to live
Your awareness if your best friend. Train it, and you will understand, truly understand, there is nothing you cannot do.
1 - Uncover your toxic Beliefs
This is the backbone of pretty much everything. Your toxic beliefs rule your life, leave you exhausted, and are actively in the way of you being the person you want to be and living a life that tastes just right.
Complete the sentences below with the first word/s that come to your mind, without thinking much about it.
I'm not a good person, I'm __________________
I'm so unhappy that I would like to just ____________________
What I hate the most about myself is that I'm _____________________
Chances are that these are not your most cheerful thoughts and beliefs.
Chances are you think them over and over again.
You probably feel these beliefs have always been with you. Sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker. That it is an intrinsic truth about yourself.
Now let's take a 180 degree turn, and focus on what you want from life. Complete the sentences below:
If _________________ wasn't a problem, I would ________________
If I didn't ________________________, I would ________________
These exercises may seem simplistic, but they can be very powerful in understanding what toxic beliefs are at the core of your unhappiness or anxiety, and what you really care about in life, but are not pursuing because of them.
2 - Awareness training exercise
- Sit down in a calm place, and start with some deep breaths, to then relax into your normal breathing.
- Close your eyes, and listen to your inner dialogue. Try not to reject anything, but to welcome whatever your mind is producing. Observe. Listen. Pay attention. Your task is to just notice. Maybe even for the first time. Without trying to control anything...
- Do this for a few days.
- Repeat the above exercise, but this time try to notice whether there are some thoughts that are more intrusive than others.
- Notice especially the ones to which a strong emotion, or dreadful feeling are attached.
- Write them down.
3 - Get to the roots
The exercises above have the goal to train your awareness.
When you feel anxiety raising, or that well known feeling of dreadfulness, you may start being able to notice what is going on in your mind. Pay attention to any thoughts and strong emotion connected to it.
Keep a journal for a few days (a week is best, or for as long as you need to figure things out). Write down the following:
- what triggered the anxiety episode.
- what thoughts and emotions you had right before, and during.
- what coping mechanism you used (chances are you have one or more… for example binging on junk food, watching TV series, going on the internet, opening FB… and so on, whatever is “your thing” that you use to avoid/distract anxiety).
- how the coping mechanism makes you feel in the moment
- how the coping mechanism makes you feel afterwards
After a week, it's time to look back and analyze your journal: you will find the most precious insights.
Insights that are your way out of the way you feel, and of the things you are keeping yourself from doing.
Chances are that some of the thoughts repeat themselves. They are possibly in the form of statements like “I cannot do this” “I’m so inadequate” “This is too much, I cannot deal with it” “Nobody wants me”… and so on… These are more than thoughts, they are the BELIEFS you have about yourself, others and the world.
You interpret and perceive everything through the lenses of these handful toxic beliefs.
4 - Visualize your fear
Now that your awareness is getting trained, and you have some insights of the roots of your anxiety, let’s get visual. I find this helps IMMENSELY in dealing with what we perceive as invisible and abstract.
- - Sit down in a calm place. Close your eyes. Imagine that, in front of you, in striking details, is your most terrifying fear/belief, or anxiety itself. Or do the exercise for each of them 🙂
- - See it and describe it in all its details: how big is it? Is it smooth? What color? What texture? Look at it very well.
- - Now move it on the side, just a little bit. And visualize you resistance to it. You know… that part of you that is terrified of it, and would do ANYTHING to avoid the emotion it brings with.
- - Repeat the same exercise and describe what you see: how big is it? Is it smooth? What color? What texture? Look at it very well.
Now try to offer compassion to these “beings”, after all, they have nowhere to go. Nurture them if you can. Embrace and accept they exist.
These 4 exercises have the potential to transform the way you see yourself, and lead to a profound inner transformation.