Some people feel like they are making no progress in their therapy or self-development.
Whatever they do, things seem to stay just as bad as before. It can be both discouraging and frustrating, some people even give up trying.
To understand one of the reasons for making no progress (and some ideas to help get unstuck) we need to take an imaginary trip to the seaside in Victorian England.
In the late 19th century the north of England was strewn with large industrial towns with smoking chimneys, dank factories, stinking rivers, polluted air and blackened buildings.
During the factory holidays the workforce and their families would leave the factory towns and travel to the seaside towns of Blackpool or Scarborough to enjoy the novelty of sun, sea and fresh air.
Let’s imagine two such travellers leaving the grimy city for a well deserved visit to the seaside: Miss Change and Miss Same have known each other for years. They grew up in the city, although they are used to the stink and grime, they both want to get away from it, if only for a little while.
Miss Change and Miss Same although they have lots in common do have a difference in temperament that makes going on the same holiday a very different experience.
At the railway station Miss Same notices, and comments on, just how smokey, dirty and noisy the station is: “It’s like being at work in the factory”. Miss Change notices that, but thinks: “We are just getting started, and we’ll soon be on our way”.
Their train finally pulls out of the station and they start their journey towards fresh air, ice cream and sandcastles.
Miss Same comments: “Look how black the buildings are and so much smoke, it seems to go on for ever”. Miss Change agrees and adds “but, now we are moving, leaving it all behind”.
As the train slowly trundles through the city Miss Same notices how big it is, how the smoke reaches out over everything, the buildings are blackened and grimy, the air is thick and reeks of coal. Miss Change notes that the smoke is thinning, and that she can see prospering gardens and vegetable patches as they head towards the edges of the city..
At the outskirts of the city Miss Same notices, that even here, she can still see the smoke of the factories and wonders if she’ll ever be free of it. Miss Change looks at the patches of blue sky and green fields beyond and feels happy that they are making such good progress.
Travelling faster now, through the open countryside, Miss Same looks back towards the city, “How black and awful it is, you can still see the smoke and dirt even from here”. Meanwhile, Miss Change is busy delighting at the cows in the fields and clean rivers meandering through the lush meadows.
Finally the train arrives at the coast, and they step down from their carriage.
Outside the station Miss Same sniffs at her coat, “I can still smell the stink of the factory in my clothes, it’s as bad as being there”, and her heart sinks. Miss Change takes a deep breath of clean, salty sea air and feels happy to be alive.
What’s going on here? Both women have taken the same journey, for the same very good reason, but they have had completely different experiences.
The difference is where they put their attention.
Miss Same, notices what is constant in her experience. She pays attention to what she doesn’t like and how it doesn’t change. Even small traces of the thing she doesn’t want prove to her that the problem is still present.
Miss Change, on the other hand, notices what is bad (who wouldn’t), but pays attention to what she wants and likes, noticing what is different in her experience. For her, even small improvements and hints of what she likes prove that she is heading in the right direction, so she enjoys the journey.
It’s not just like this for train journeys from times gone by.
Personal development or therapy can seem like a long journey from a dark, stinking mess to a better place. What you attend to in that journey will make a huge difference to how you experience it and even whether you continue to travel.
If you tend to notice the good and the different, each step along the way is progress and becomes its own encouragement.
If you tend to notice the bad and the same, each step along the way seems like just another day in a death march.
Unfortunately, most personal development or therapy goes in fits and starts, advances and setbacks. If your attention is fixed on what isn’t changing it would be easy to get discouraged.
Why would anyone focus on what’s not working?
There are probably many reasons for the tendency to focus on the constant and the bad. I’ll describe two of them.
Our negativity bias is an inbuilt capacity of our nervous systems to be alert for danger. Over millions of years our ancestors who paid attention to danger signals survived, those who did not, did not.
Therefore our ability to notice potential threats (real or imaginary) is very well developed. We pay attention to the dangerous or problematic – which is why no one lies awake at 3 o’clock in the morning thinking about what they are looking forward to.
Since we have strong internal drives to stay safe, we tend to seek familiar, known situations, even if those situations are unpleasant.
As long as the situation is constant and predictable it’s possible to cope with a lot of distress, because at least you know where you stand, what to expect and how to deal with it. The thought of changing might be simultaneously thrilling and terrifying
“For most people, better the security of misery than the misery of insecurity”
- Charles M. Devonshire.
Your situation may not be pleasant but at least it’s constant. If the constancy is your refuge you will naturally look for signs of constancy to reassure yourself that everything is as it should be – even if that isn’t very nice.
How to notice the difference
If it’s so easy for people to focus on what is the same how can we encourage ourselves or others to attend to what is different and better?
Acknowledge the tendency
If you have the tendency to look for what is bad and the same, acknowledge that tendency.
Recognise that it is a pattern of attention. You learned it, and you can learn something else if you want to.
Address that tendency, by noticing that you are doing it and do the opposite by asking yourself.
What is different? What is better?
The particular answers you get are not nearly as important as training yourself to ask the questions.
Think about what you want rather than what you don’t want.
What do you want in a situation?
What is your preferred outcome?
The attention to what you want, also known as the outcome orientation, is a fundamental part of the Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).
By thinking about what you want you give your brain a direction to move in. If you only think about what you don’t want you tend to orbit your distress.
It sounds quite simple, but consider these two examples that might sound very similar.
I want to be happy vs I don’t want to be unhappy.
If “I want to be happy”, then I have to come up with an idea of what “happy” means to me. I have to have an idea of the goal I want. If I want it, then I have to notice what is the difference between what I have now and what I want. Noticing the difference can give us some ideas of what has to change and how to notice that it has changed.
Miss Change wants to be at the seaside and measures everything that happens on the way to, or at, the seaside against that goal. Progress is obvious, encouragement is frequent.
If “I don’t want to be unhappy”, then I am thinking about where I am now, there is no specific direction to go in and no obvious way to measure progress because everything is being evaluated in terms of my unhappiness.
Miss Same doesn’t want to be in the city and measures everything against being in the city, naturally she finds evidence for the city everywhere she looks, even when things have changed.
Some people naturally think in terms of outcomes, they focus on where they want to go and what they need to do to get there.
Some people naturally focus on what is wrong with where they are and a desire to get away from it, but not on where they want to be instead.
Most of us have a mix of these tendencies.
If you want to develop an outcome orientation, think about whatever it is that you don’t want and ask yourself this question:
What do I want instead?
This can be a challenging question.
I don’t want to be unhappy
Q: What do you want instead?
A: I want to be less miserable.(That sounds like an outcome but it isn’t it’s still focused on getting away from being miserable, ask the question again).
Q: If you were less miserable, what would you want instead?
A: I wouldn’t want to be so tense. (Still focused on the problem, ask the question again).
Q: If you weren’t so tense, what would you be?
A: I’d be happier. (Hurrah!)
Now explore the differences, what you would notice to let you know you were making progress.
Q: What you would you see, hear or feel to know that you were happier?
A: I’d smile more, I’d feel lighter, I’d be kinder to myself, etc.
Thinking in this way gives you some insight into where you want to go, how you will know you are getting there and how you will know you have arrived. You will have a sense of the differences, and the good.
Search for differences
If you use EFT or some other change process, when you have completed changing a feeling, releasing a memory or changing a belief, pay close attention to what is different in your experience.
What do you see, hear, feel and think? What is present: relaxation, relief, a lighter feeling? What has changed: lower stress, tension released, thoughts have changed etc.
By paying attention to what changes when you make changes you develop this skill of noticing what is different.
Take in the good.
When you have made a change, especially with something like EFT you can have a sense of relaxation or release. Take some time (30 seconds) to feel and drink in the good feeling.
- You’ll enjoy the good feeling.
- The good feeling will probably do your system good.
- You’ll develop your ability to notice good feelings, which makes new ones more accessible.
Our memories can be very unreliable, coupled with our ability to adapt to the new normal it’s easy to forget how much progress you have made.
If you have a personal development practice, using EFT or some other technique, record what you work on so that you can revisit your notes and see just how far you have come.
Attention Is Important.
What we attend to makes a huge difference to the quality of our lives.
To feel that we are making progress we need to notice what is different in our experience and whether it is helping us or not, so that we can do more of the same or make changes in our approach.
Only seeing what we don’t want, means we will only see what we don’t want.