Every young person knows that sometimes life can be challenging. Bad feelings happen – loneliness, worry, sadness, anger, shame. Bad things happen – parents fighting or divorcing, friends or family getting ill or dying, bullying, abuse, trauma, break-ups, pandemics, rejections, betrayal. Language can’t always do justice to how bad things can feel.
And to add to all the bad feelings and the bad events, we have our minds telling us all sorts of other bad stuff. I hate myself…I’ll never live that down…No-one else feels like this…I’m fat…No-one cares… Our minds are like massive thought-factories with huge production lines, churning out thought after thought after thought. Some of these thoughts are painful and self-critical, and these tend to be the ones we get hooked on. It can feel like if we could just cut these thoughts out of our brains, we’d be OK.
It’s partly that other people set us up to fail. When we feel sad, they say ‘Cheer up’. When we feel worried, they tell us ‘Don’t worry about it’. When we feel angry, they say ‘Calm down’. It’s like having any emotions other than happiness is seen as a bad thing.
Our brains, which are so good at keeping us alive, haven’t actually moved on much since the Stone Age. At the smallest hint of danger, the guard dog in our brain is snapping away and telling us we need to fight or run!
But really, the main ‘danger’ of the 21st century is being alone. Research shows that the biggest threat to our physical and mental health is isolation – it’s why lockdown was so hard for so many people. We want to be part of the tribe. So when our brains feed us thoughts about not being clever/pretty/thin/fun/hard-working/popular (insert your own adjective) enough, no wonder we panic – we’re terrified of being cast out by the tribe and left to survive alone.
It can feel like a full-time job trying not to think all the thoughts. Distraction can help for a bit, as can other positive coping mechanisms like good sleep, exercise and talking to others. But the thoughts and feelings tend to keep coming back, and have you noticed that the more you try not to have the thoughts and feelings, the more you tend to have them?
Here’s the thing. You can’t control your thoughts and feelings.
You can’t control your thoughts and feelings.
They just happen.
But you can control how you act – you can choose to react or you can choose to respond.
Reacting tends to be quick, it usually happens without us planning it, and it is often only a temporary solution. You might lash out in an argument and you feel better for a bit, you’ve released a bit of rage. Or you might procrastinate in getting on with work and you might enjoy the delay, you can do fun stuff instead.
But in the longer term, reacting is not often helpful. Negative coping mechanisms such as self-harm or restrictive eating might work in the moment (for different reasons), but they cause long-term harm and difficulty. That lashing out in an argument causes hurt and upset. That procrastination gets you in trouble with a teacher.
What about if we could choose to respond differently?
Think about what you really care about. Think about the kind of person you want to be and become. At a calm moment, think about whether you way you are choosing to live your life is consistent with being that person.
If that feels hard, try this:
Imagine your Future Self (you in 10 years’ time) gets in a time machine and pays you a visit. Future You is kind and compassionate, she’s definitely on your side. Future You starts telling Present You about the stuff that really matters; she might give you some (kind) advice; she might remind you about all the things you are and all the things you can be. When Future You leaves, she tells you one final thing before she goes: what is that final thing?
Whatever it was that Future You told you is where your values lie, what is the important stuff. It could be being creative, being a good friend or daughter, being a good member of humankind. Everyone has different values (usually lots of them) but your values are yours, they are freely chosen and they give you a direction to move in.
So start thinking about tiny steps you can take towards the direction you want to go in. These need to be really concrete and specific – not ‘I’m going to start being a better friend’, but ‘I’m going to message my friend later and arrange to meet up at the weekend in the shopping centre’. Not ‘I’m going to be a famous film star’, but ‘I’m going to research that course at the National Film School tonight’.
These are the tiny choice points, the moments where we choose to respond, and move in a valued direction, using committed action. Tiny steps add up to growth and progress in the long run.
And to help you, here are 5 tried and tested ideas to help keep yourself on track:
The ideas in this article are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a model of therapy that supports people in changing their lives and moving towards their values. If you’d like to read more about these ideas, you could try ‘Stuff that sucks’ by Ben Sedley, or ‘Get out of your mind and into your life for teens’ by Dr Louise Hayes.
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