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“You can’t do that!”– My Mind

Ever have a thought like that? Ever go a day WITHOUT having a thought like that? I’m sure that you have had the wonderful experience of thinking, “Hmmm…maybe I will do X” and then the mind quickly answers, “You can’t do x because y and don’t forget about z!”  As I discussed in another blog, the mind didn’t evolve for fun. It’s main directive is to keep us alive in the best way it knows how: discouraging it’s owner from engaging in “risky” behavior (i.e., behavior in which the outcome isn’t predictable and safe). This is generally a good thing, except when we want to try something new or engage in a behavior that might lead to short term discomfort but be necessary for personal growth. In these circumstances, the mind will advise us NOT to try and predict that we cannot do the thing we are thinking about doing. Why? Because it’s designed to minimize risk and pain. It will usually conjure up all sorts of thoughts and images to dissuade us including catastrophic scenarios, strong predictions of failure, exaggerated estimates of the time and effort it will take, strong doubts about our ability to do what needs to be done. The mind packages these thoughts with strong emotions which seem to make the thoughts seem plausible even if there is absolutely no facts to support them.

If we “buy” these thoughts, they can become assumptions that operate just below the level of consciousness. When that happens, these assumptions covertly guide our decisions leading to automatic, habitual patterns or self-defeating behavior. Here is an example of this process from my life. I don’t have the best knees. Many years of playing hockey and seated meditation have taken their toll. As a result, I tend to experience mild to moderate pain when I run. That said, staying active and exercising is an important value of mine. There have been a few times over the past few years that I decided to give running a try. By “give it a try,” I mean that I ran much farther than I should have, faster than I should have, and on much more difficult terrain than was reasonable for me. Guess what? My knees hurt really bad after running, I walked with a limp for a few days, and my mind drew the following conclusion: “I can’t run.” This thought seemed 100% true because I definitely experienced pain that made it hard to walk for a few days. My mind did it’s job by selectively focusing my memory on these negative experiences and then predicted that running again would most likely result in further pain and maybe even horrible injuries.

Also, my mind subtly caused me to selectively pay attention to even the slightest discomfort that showed up when I was moving quickly. For example, if I had to jog at a slow pace to make it across the street and felt a slight twinge of discomfort, my mind quickly gave me the thought, “Be careful! You know that you will hurt yourself if you run!” To reinforce the point, it conjured up fleeting images of torn ligaments and feelings of anxiety. Predictably, I slowed down, thankful for this sage advice.

This pattern of thoughts and feelings around running became a familiar story about my life, almost something that felt like a fundamental truth about “who I am.” I avoided running i I could and felt anxious if I had to run or even jog for more than a few seconds. I used this belief and my memory of pain and limping as “proof” that I shouldn’t run. This belief fed other beliefs like, “You are getting old and falling apart.” Aches and pains were seen from this perspective and reinforced these ideas. I managed to keep exercising and getting around ok, but I still wondered when my body was going to “fall apart.” When I would see people jogging along side the road or running in the park, I almost couldn’t believe that people could sustain that much stress on their knees. As you can see, my thinking had become quite distorted. Part of me recognized this, but my mind is very crafty. It kept reminding me of the “evidence” that I shouldn’t be running and the horrible consequences that would result if I did.

Then one day I was talking to a good friend who does a ton of running. Actually, she is an amazing athlete who has competed in many marathons, triathlons, and is about to do her first Iron Man competition. She is amazing. Anyway, I was talking to her about her training schedule. She runs multiple times a week, often logging 20+ miles. I mentioned that I “couldn’t run” because of my bad knees, and marveled at her resilience. She replied, “You know, lots of people have pain when they run. You don’t have to go out and run 5 miles. Maybe just start slow.”

My mind went into its old story again, but something about what she said clicked for me: “start slow.” That little detail made we remember that the last few times I tried running, I did exactly the opposite. I started to wonder what other details I had been forgetting. It also made me wonder if this story about my knees was really just a story and maybe not some great truth about myself.As I thought more about this in a critical way, I noticed that my mind had been filtering the information it presented to me.

I must admit that these little bits of insight were also accompanied by pangs of shame. I am a COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPIST, and I have extensive training in recognizing and addressing these types of problems. Then I remembered that all the knowledge and experience in the world doesn’t change the basic properties of the human mind. As an owner of a standard issue mind, I can’t simply expect that my mind will stop doing what it is designed to do simply because I understand a little bit about how it works. So, I decided to dismiss this unhelpful line of thinking and focus on something useful: conducting a behavioral experiment.

The behavioral experiment is one of the most powerful tools that a CBT therapist has in their arsenal. It is a very straightforward way to find out if a negative belief is accurate and helpful or if it is inaccurate and unhelpful. The best part about this technique is that the outcome is 100% dependent on the client’s own life experience. That is what makes it so powerful. Here is how it works

  1. Identify a belief to test: This step is crucial. In order for a behavioral experiment to be valid, we need a specific hypothesis to test. My mind was saying to me, “I can’t run.”
  2. Identify the implied consequence: We need to identify the implied consequences of “running” that are not being explicitly stated. Asking a question like, “If I did x, then what do I think would happen?” can help to figure out these implied consequences. In this case, my mind predicted, “If I run, then I will hurt myself.”
  3. Develop a testable hypothesis: In order to do an experiment, you need a hypothesis. The best hypotheses are very specific and are focused on observable bits of data. The hypothesis also need to be something that can be falsifiable. Useful questions at this stage are, “What does x mean?”, “How will I know if x happens?”, “How will I measure x?”, etc. I translated the thought, “If I run, then I will hurt myself” into the hypothesis, “If I run for 1 mile with a knee brace at a pace no greater than 1 mile per 12 minutes and I allow myself to slow down if I notice pain in my knee, then I will not experience severe pain or a significant injury.”
  4. Gather data: Once you have a testable hypothesis, then you need to gather data. Basically, you go out and do the behavior and observe the consequences. I decided that I was going to run for 1 mile, three times in one week, within the parameters of my hypothesis and then compare the results with the prediction my mind was making (“If I run, I will hurt myself”). I actually discovered that running at a reasonable pace did result in a little knee pain initially, but this pain was not really too bad and actually seemed directly proportional to how quickly I was going, especially down hill. Also, after my third day, I didn’t experience any pain at all, and I found myself really enjoying the experience of running. I decided to continue the experiment by increasing my distance a little and maintaining my pace (or slowing down if needed). I discovered that I could run a bit farther than I thought, but that I needed to slow down or even walk for a little bit here and there if my knee started to hurt. Most importantly, I did not experience any severe pain or sustain any major injuries.
  5. Examine the data and revise the original thought: Once the data has been collected, it’s time to see if the original thought/prediction fits with your actual life experience. My mind predicted, “If I run, then I will hurt myself.” I discovered that I could run several times a week for distances over one mile while experiencing occasional and mild knee pain. I did not experience severe knee pain or an injury. Based on my experience, I noticed that my mind’s prediction was not accurate. Rather, I realized that, “I can run without hurting myself as long as I wear a knee brace and take it easy.”

This little behavioral experiment was life changing, as dramatic as that might sound. It made a real difference in my life because now something that seemed impossible was absolutely possible. In fact, I’ve continued to run since that time and found running to be a really enjoyable way to exercise.

Behavioral experiments can be very useful ways of breaking through old patterns of unhelpful thinking. However, sometimes the experiment confirms the original belief. That can be discouraging, but unpleasant experiences also provide information. These experiences help us to understand our real limitations and to explore those limitations further. It’s never rational to believe that anyone can do anything they want simply because they have a desire to do so. Our unique life circumstances set boundaries on what is possible. Some of those boundaries are fairly stable, some are temporarily stable, and some can be changed. We might decide that we can accept out limits or we might decide to do something to expand those limits, if possible. Either way, we are in a better place to make a rational decision based on what matters.

Sometimes, it is not a good idea to do a behavioral experiment. You wouldn’t want to test out the belief, “I can’t fly” unless you plan to get on a plane that a competent pilot is flying. Remember, the mind did evolve to keep us safe, and sometimes it’s a good idea to take its advice. Overall, behavioral experiments are best designed and executed with the help of a good therapist who understands your limitations and goals.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are intended to be educational and entertaining. Reading this blog or attempting to apply any of the information therein does NOT mean that you have entered a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Andy. If you are currently experiencing a psychiatric emergency, please call 1-800-273-TALK, 911, or go to your nearest emergency room.