I was working with a client who recently had some very upsetting experiences. Throughout the call, she went into detail about the interactions she had with three different people, in totally unrelated circumstances. She ended by recapping with a reflection of her own, “I keep getting caught in these webs!”
Oh, how I love a good metaphor! I thought of the symbolism of animal medicine in Native American tradition. In the Medicine Cards, by Jamie Sams & David Carson, Spider represents “weaving”. It says that petroglyphs would no longer be enough for Earth’s children to record their experiences, they are growing more complex, and “so it was that Spider wove the first primordial alphabet.” With that, words are formed. The web is the words and stories we create.
With my client, we figured out what she was thinking during those interactions. In all of them, she had the same underlying thought pattern. Regardless of what was going on, she had a story that she was telling herself…that was the web!
In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris explains how words are just a complex system of symbols that represent something else. Everything in this world, and anything otherworldly, is represented by a symbol. As we all know, written words are “text”, spoken words are “speech”, and the words inside our heads are “thoughts”. Simple enough.
We have compiled sets of symbols, and we’ve become attached to them. Think of a simple word like “rose”. Chances are, when you saw the word “rose”, you most likely pictured the flower in your mind, maybe a red one or a pink one. Perhaps you saw a rose bush or roses in a vase. You may have felt the soft velvety touch of the petals, or even experienced the faint scent of a rose. In ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), Harris calls this “fusion”. The story and the event become stuck together. We react to words as if the objects they symbolize are right here in front of us, right now.
We experience an event, have a reaction, and then translate that into words in our minds, our thoughts. If we think the same thought enough, it becomes a belief. A lot of beliefs about ourselves were formed in childhood. They are so ingrained and subconscious that we don’t even realize they are just words. We don’t know that we’re telling ourselves these stories, and unfortunately, most of them are limiting beliefs: “I’m too fat”, “I’m so stupid”, “I’m so clumsy”, “I’m not lucky”, “I’m not worthy”, the list goes on.
Thoughts are neither true nor false, they are just words strung together based on our past experiences and our reactions to them. Our thoughts are either our perceptions of the world, which include our opinions, judgments and beliefs; or our desires, which would be our goals, dreams and plans. We weave stories. Harris goes on to explain that what really matters is if the story is helpful.
Some stories are good. For instance, if you had a terrible reaction to eating strawberries as a child, “I’m allergic to strawberries” is a beneficial story. You may have an event etched in your memory of breaking out in a rash and feeling your tongue start to swell. You remember how frantically your parents rushed you to the emergency room. That can be a traumatic event that you would prefer not to experience again. In this case, your story can help you. When strawberries are on the menu, you simply say, “No, thank you!”
If you had to give a speech in school, you may remember standing in front of your classmates, your mind a blank, and with your face flushed, you start to sweat and shake. This, too, is a traumatic event. Unfortunately, it is also one that we would not like to repeat. Often times, we tend to avoid public speaking at all costs. “I’m not good at public speaking” is our story. And once we write that story, any time an opportunity to speak comes up, what plays in the background is “I’m not good at public speaking”, and we feel our nerves kicking in. We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to grow, and we just keep reinforcing our unhelpful belief.
When we have these thoughts and we believe them to be true, we are fused to them. Like the rose, we react to them as if they are real, happening in the here and now. But it’s just a thought, perhaps an observation from an event that was formed decades ago, that has no real bearing on our lives today and no longer serves us.
Challenge for the week: Are you caught in a web?
When you find yourself in distress or feeling discomfort, make note of your thoughts. What is the belief you are holding in that moment? Are you telling yourself a story that is neither helpful nor loving? Is this a thought you would like to cherish and reinforce?
Thoughts are just thoughts…they are just strings of words, letters in our heads, only meaningful when we give them meaning.
Acknowledging that our thought is just a thought takes away its power over us. If it’s a painful belief, we can start to separate from it with a process in ACT called “defusion”.
Knowing that our thoughts are just words, one method of defusion is to add the phrase, “I’m having the thought that…” So if you find yourself in a web, a story such as “I’m not good enough”, simply add “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”. Or you can even add, “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough”.
This method, when used frequently, will help you detach from your painful beliefs by putting them in context. It will bring to light that it’s just a thought you are having and you can choose how you wish to react.
Have a great week and feel free to leave any comments or questions below!