7. Guiding your Thoughts

November 28, 2023

So far, we've identified our thoughts and evaluated whether they are accurate or unhelpful. As expected, let's assume that thought was neither accurate nor helpful, as is often the case with negative thoughts. Now, what should we do? Should we find an accurate thought? That could be helpful. But what is an accurate thought? How can we determine it? Should we wait until an accurate thought comes to mind? Or should we think of a helpful thought? But again, what can help me? While unhelpful thoughts can be relatively clearly judged as unhelpful, how can we know whether a helpful thought really aids us? It doesn't seem like an easy task.

Fortunately, there is one criterion for directing thoughts. It is a topic that often appears in mainstream psychotherapy theories such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Recovery-oriented Cognitive Therapy (CT-R). It's called 'value', which refers to 'the direction of life I chose'.

It is necessary to pay attention to the word 'direction'. Value is a direction. That is, it is about where we are heading every moment, not a goal or indicator that can be achieved. Misunderstanding value as a goal or indicator may result in great frustration when not achieved, or a tremendous sense of emptiness when achieved. It cannot serve as an important standard for leading life. For example, 'pursuing new things and valuing new experiences' can be a value, but 'starting water skiing' cannot be a value. In the same context, because value is not a goal, it exists not in the future but at this very moment.

Figure 1. Value is a direction, not a destination. If we are heading in that direction every moment, we can lead a decent and rewarding life, regardless of circumstances.

The reason why value is important is because it provides a vital benchmark and framework for our lives. There is no reason to pursue certain values. Values are blind. Who can say anything when it's genuinely important in my life? Values remain unshaken, even if negative thoughts arise in my mind. Thus, they can help us respond flexibly to negative thoughts. "I'm scared to present in front of people. And I'm willing to start speaking in front of people. My value is to become an excellent speaker who gives positive energy to people.", "I feel lethargic. And I'm willing to make commitments with people. My value is being closely connected with people and supporting each other." Note that it is expressed as 'and' not 'but'. Values exist irrelevant of fear or lethargy and can serve as a vital standard in life.

However, many people don't know what is important to them. What is the most significant value in your life? Have you ever systematically pondered what is important in your life and prioritized it? While some people can articulate and organize this very easily, others may need the 'value clarification' process of a professional cognitive therapist. Once successful value clarification is conducted, the value becomes a clear criterion that drives our lives, surpassing any thoughts or emotions.

Especially, the value brings the theme of life back to the present. Imagine a life wasted succumbing to, overcompensating for, or avoiding negative thoughts. "If I had done that then...", "What if this happens going forward..." Many anxieties and depressions manifest in such life forms. The value breaks this in a flash and brings the theme of life back to the present moment. Once the value becomes clear, the most important topic in our life is not past depression or future anxiety, but 'the life that I really want'.

Moreover, the value becomes the orientation of specific actions in a more detailed aspect. Previously, we noted that when negative thoughts come in, we recognize them and distance ourselves from the thoughts. What next? Naturally, we should choose value-oriented actions. This becomes a very clear criterion and helps our brain not to be stuck in specific forms of negative thoughts. Accepting the thought like, "Damn, I feel like I'm going to die of anxiety" produces hours filled with anxiety and tension, but accepting the thought, "I'm feeling anxious now. And I'm going to do A. Because that's my value" can create new changes even in anxiety.

Therefore, value gives high recovery resilience and psychological flexibility. The value as a direction, not a goal, enhances recovery resilience as it exists regardless of success and serves as a standard for life. Further, it promotes psychological flexibility as it helps to create new changes without reacting to negative thoughts that arise in the mind.

This is the entirety of distancing. Recognize the thought, distance from it, and then devote yourself in the direction that aligns with your values. This is the only method discovered through numerous trials and errors by countless leaders and philosophers, and it's the ultimate change that has enabled people worldwide suffering from chronic depression and anxiety disorders to escape from their predicaments.

Do you still believe in 'me'?

Do you still accept thoughts as yourself?

Have you ever step back and observed what the thoughts arising in your mind look like?

Have you ever deeply contemplated what your most important 'value' is, even once?

Have you ever made important life decisions based on that value?

If you're going through a time of shaky hearts now, is there any of the above questions to which you answered 'no'?

If so, you need 'distancing'.

And that practice will turn your life in a very different direction.

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