Practicing the Skills You Need to Change Your Life

Everyone is familiar with the struggle to retain skills once learned. It’s a process that is ever present in psychotherapy so unpacking how it works…

Everyone is familiar with the struggle to retain skills once learned. It’s a process that is ever present in psychotherapy so unpacking how it works there can provide useful lessons for us all. 

Although clients may seem motivated in-session, the motivation often dwindles once confronted by the challenges in the real world. Commitments fall apart. Intentions become forgotten. And the next appointment is often far away! This process can be frustrating for client and therapist alike, and both might see it as evidence of their own shortcomings: a failure to follow through, and a failure to properly motivate.

Evidence suggests that the processes of psychological flexibility are effective at helping people pursue their commitments. Not by motivating them to “power through”, but by teaching them how to deal with difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and giving them the tools to orient their lives around their own aspirations and ideals. When I had clients that struggled to put the skills learned in therapy into practice in the real world, sooner or later, I would ask them the same question:

“Are you willing to experience your experiences as they are, not as what they say they are, fully and without needless defense, and direct your attention and effort to creating larger and larger habits of behaviors that reflect your chosen values?”

Admittedly, this formulation is a mouthful, so let me break it down for you.

Part #1 Are you willing to…

Commitment is about choice. It’s about helping our clients make a conscious, deliberate decision. The answer to “are you willing?” is either yes or no. Not maybe. Not “just a little bit.” The content and the extent of the commitment are up for discussion (e.g. facing a fear for two minutes instead of five). Once the intention has been set, however, willingness is more like a switch than a dial.

Part #2 …experience your experiences as they are, not as what they say they are…

We experience reality as filters through our own self-stories and interpretations. For instance, rather than just witnessing a cloudy afternoon, we are quick to label the experience (i.e. “there are lots of clouds”), judge it (i.e. “I don’t like the cold weather”), judge ourselves for having the experience (i.e. “why do I get cold so easily?!”), and forecast the future (i.e. “looks like it will rain soon”). In order to commit effectively, we need to learn how to recognize their mind’s chatter, as it happens in the moment, and distinguish it from their actual experience.

Part #3 …fully and without needless defense…

During practice, clients are likely to experience difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations. When that happens there is a huge temptation to disengage or stop entirely. In order to commit effectively, we need to have the skill of acceptance: how to feel fully and without needless defense. The better we get at feeling uncomfortable, the less experiences will stand in the way, and the better we can focus on what matters.

Part #4 …and direct your attention and effort to creating larger and larger habits…

Commitment is not a one-time deal. It’s a continuous journey with ups and lows. There are victories and successes, but also setbacks and failures. What matters is not the one instance, but the larger picture: Are clients progressing? Are they persisting for longer stretches of time? Are they getting better at stumbling? Better at getting back up? Commitment and practice is about seeing the larger picture of small efforts accumulating over time.

Part #5 …of behaviors that reflect your chosen values.

Everything we do in therapy is centered around the well-being of those we serve. That means that clinicians need to center therapy around the interests, ambitions, and wishes of the client. This includes therapy outcomes, as well as individual exercises for them to practice at home. Rather than imposing our own standards and ideals, we help clients identify what they care about. Doing so will not only make practice more motivating, it will also make it meaningful.

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For our clients to practice skills, they have to make a conscious decision. They have to learn to differentiate their mind’s chatter from their lived experience, and allow themselves to feel fully, without needless defense. Furthermore, they need to understand that commitment is an ongoing journey – something they cannot truly fail, as long as they continue trying. Lastly, their practice should be centered around what matters to them. Teaching our clients these skills – the skills of psychological flexibility – is our responsibility as therapists.

These same lessons apply to each and every one of us. Whether you are in therapy or not, your mental and behavioral health, and your social wellness will require that you learn how to keep your commitments. None of us are perfect at it, but the skills of psychological flexibility are known to help. It’s time to learn them. 

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