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Take an Automatic Break

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

When we talk about psychology it can often be the case that the practical application of abstract ideas is a challenge and one of my primary goals as a practitioner is to help people to find ways to put ideas that would support their wellbeing and their performances into regular action. One example of this is the life-changing (and I'm not exaggerating) action of acceptance.

I find it quite easy to argue for the benefits of acceptance. Philosophers and psychologists from Buddha to Freud have advocated the power of acceptance so I tend to stand on the shoulders of some mighty giants when I argue that the adoption of a mindset of acceptance is the path to take. There is also growing evidence in the field of neuroscience which recognises that our brains react favourably when we act in ways that align with the concept of acceptance. Neuroscience research is revealing that acceptance is a really important part of meditation, even though being mindful or mindfulness is the more common action associated with it. But when it comes to acceptance, the application is the real challenge. What are the "how-tos" of acceptance? In today's article, I will give my first "how to" to try.

The first psychological skill in "performing acceptance" is in disconnecting our automatic thoughts and feelings from the automatic behavioural response that might follow, particularly when those behavioural responses do not solve a problem. It's like taking a timeout moment in sport, instead of getting in there to rescue the situation, sit back for a moment and notice your thoughts and feelings. Don't allow those thoughts and feelings to control your actions. You may be in a situation where you experience automatic responses but your automatic responses may not be (and often are not) the result of the present reality. This is because they are also connected to a whole host of historic influences which ignite your synapses and rapidly result in you becoming aware of how you feel, what you're thinking and what you think you want to do.

To begin the process of disconnection from the automatic it's important to know when you've been in automatic mode, when you're in automatic mode, and when it is likely that you'll enter an automatic mode in the future. To develop this skill, as with any skill we need to become aware. Look back on the past month and reflect on some times when you resonate with being in an automatic zone. It could be in a conversation, an argument, or trying to perform a task. Can you identify what happened automatically, that didn't help you? I can certainly think of a few.

One example I can give comes from my meeting with my physiotherapist this morning. As part of my medial knee ligament rehabilitation (a story for another time), my physio asked me to stand on a balance board on one leg for thirty seconds. He demonstrated, it looked easy, and I gave it a go. Much to my surprise and frustration I couldn't do it. My mind, in its frustration, was reminding me how much I actually liked the challenge of balancing tasks and I began to ask myself questions about why I couldn't accomplish such a simple task. I stopped momentarily and asked myself "what am I thinking, feeling, and doing that is automatic here?". My answer was that I was automatically assuming that I would be able to do this task easily, I accepted my lack of balance, I accepted that it was more challenging than I initially thought and allowed my body to make all the adjustments it needed to, as opposed to working very hard at controlling the wobble factor. Immediately my ability to perform the balance task shifted. It improved because I recognised the automatic yet unhelpful responses and I was able to intervene to let my body figure it out.

When you identify your automatic reactions think about how you can recognise the real challenge in front of you, not the one your mind has taken a shortcut to. Once you identify this you can begin to creatively work out ways that help you move forward to a better place. In my example above when I reflect back to my moment of frustration, I believed that the balance board should be stable. I could have taken a shortcut to that conclusion based on my automatic experience of standing on flat surfaces and my comparison with the demonstration provided by the physio, who, by the way, empathised with my frustration by telling me that almost everyone steps on to the balance board for the first time thinking that it's easier than it actually is.

To begin to develop the skill of psychological acceptance I encourage you to get good at the first part and take a regular "automatic break" so that you don't respond to the automatic triggers of behaviour. Automaticity is usually a good thing when it comes to expert performance, but automaticity occurs through the continuous learning and rehearsing of behavioural patterns. When you reach automaticity your brain cannot tell the difference between reps or habits that are good for you and reps or habits that aren't, so in the case where you are not getting the results that you want, be they in performing a task or communicating with another person, breaking up the automatic response is important.

The automatic break or timeout creates space for creative problem-solving that can take place to get you to where you what to go. If we reject our automatic response and approach a situation with a willingness to change perspective we are beginning to master the art of acceptance.

Have a try at deliberately timing-out between thoughts and actions.


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