Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review of A Liberated Mind (Blog Post #1)

This winter/spring I have organized a local reading group for 20 people interested in collectively working through the book A Liberated Mind by Steven Hayes. Here is his TedX talk.

I will post a number of substantive posts on here as I work my way through the book, to help frame some topics for that group discussion and to enable the other 120+ members of the Philosophy Meetup group interested in virtually following along with the reading group if they can’t attend in person.

So why read A Liberated Mind? I believe everyone could benefit from reading this book. The book will benefit those simply looking to live a more happy and meaningful life, as well as those who struggle with anxiety, rumination, stress, depression, loss, etc. In reality everyone is at risk of the latter, so following the insights and advice in this book could help prevent unnecessary human suffering by helping us better weather the adversity that life (inevitably) brings to each of us.

One distinctive feature of this book is that it is not simply another “self-help” book. Steven Hayes is one of the world’s most cited psychologists with over 40 books published and 500+ journal publications. He is the originator of ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), and the insights brought together in A Liberated Mind draw from over 1000 scientific studies on the effectiveness of ACT. In others words, this book is at the cutting edge of the science of personal growth and wellbeing. It is worthy of our serious attention, which I plan to do by posting a serious of blog posts on it over the coming months.

Let us begin with chapter 1 titled “The Need to Pivot”, which is a critical chapter in that it lays out the topics and terrain to follow.

Hayes starts by noting a paradox of the modern world— with all the advances that have been made to improve the quality of life for humans (e.g. reductions in mortality across the lifespan, improvements in material prosperity, democratization, greater toleration and inclusion, technological advances that make things more convenient, etc., etc. ) life should be getting so much easier for humans. And yet, sadly, this is not the case- “too many of us struggle to live meaningful, peaceful lives full of love and contribution” (3). Living longer lives does not mean we are living happier lives. The latter is the domain of the behavioural sciences.

Why is there this disconnect between the great strides of progress made on so many fronts, and the persistence of so much human suffering and anguish? Hayes’s answer is that the pace of changes in the external world have outpaced the changes to our internal (psychological) world. “We have not risen to the challenges of being human in the modern world” (4).

As technology has forged ahead, our culture and minds have not adjusted. For example, we walk around this world with high tech devices in our pockets that can connect us to countless humans with the touch of a button- connecting to work, to family, to potential new partners, to celebrities, to Presidents, etc. Our attention and energy can be intensely and dispersedly invested, but often at a cost of being present to what is around us in our actual physical environment, or how we are feeling internally.

A Liberated Mind encourages us to be aware of where our attention and energy is focused, and to harness our negative and positive thoughts to develop “more effective patterns of living and behaving, or being and doing”. Hayes notes that it takes time to resolve problems, there is no quick fix. However, he does maintain that we can “pivot” (change direction) quickly, with dramatic changes early on.

Chapter 2 is entitled “The Dictator Within”, Hayes details how our inner voice can try to help us escape, avoid or diminish anxiety. People can pursue chemical, cognitive, situational, emotional or behavioural tactics to do this. Hayes provides the following examples:

Trying to think more rationally
Practising relaxation tips
Have a beer
Distract yourself with music

Not all of these will strike us as obviously misguided, but Hayes argues that the problem with the Dictator from Within is that it sends a toxic message- that anxiety is your enemy and you must defeat it.

In Chapter 3 “Finding a Way Forward” Hayes details the history, and progress, of psychotherapeutic interventions- from Freud and existential therapy, to the "first wave" of behaviour therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. The “third wave” came, contends Hayes, with a central shift from the focus on *what* you think and feel to *how do you relate to* what you think and feel- “learning to step back from what you are thinking, notice it, and open up to what you are experiencing” (57).

Chapter 4 is “ Why Our Thoughts are so Automatic and Convincing”. The storytelling we tell ourselves, and others, is often distorted to protect our self-image. Suppose (these are my own examples, not Hayes's) someone was passed over for a new job they really wanted, or they were recently dumped by their partner, we might hear them invoke the following kinds of distortions when recounting these life developments:

“I didn’t really want that job”
“I didn’t get the job because of my age/gender/ethnicity, etc.”
“My partner left me for another person”
“I was completely blind-sided when my partner suddenly announced our relationship was over!”

Hayes lists the following types of distortions (p. 75-6) we tell when we lie:

-You leave the whole story out.
-You exaggerate, maybe just a little.
-You tweak details to be consistent with the image you want to convey.
- You deny hard truths.
- You ignore what doesn’t fit with your current story

So in my examples of the job and breakup, the person telling the distorted story might leave out details like the fact that, during the job interview, they couldn’t adequately answer questions about their competency or qualifications for the job. The jaded partner might neglect the reality that their partner had unmet needs in their relationship, needs the partner had repeatedly communicated to them until they eventually became so resentful they invested their emotional energies elsewhere and checked out of the relationship, etc.

Why do we lie? We want to be accepted by others, we compare ourselves to others, and the imperative to protect our self-image leads to many distortions in the stories we tell to ourselves and to others. The inner voice of the Dictator can reinforce these harmful stories we tell ourselves, thus stifling the development of the helpful thoughts and insights needed for psychological flexibility.

In Chapter 5, “The Problem with Problem Solving”, Hayes argues that the Dictator from Within can be quite the rule maker. These rules are often unconscious attempts to gain control over life circumstances that cause us anxiety. With a lengthy list of rigid rules to guide us, the adversity and unpredictability of life seems less daunting right?! Well this comes with a price- psychological rigidity. Hayes identifies what he calls the three C’s of inflexibility:

Confirmation effect: we distort our experiences to fit our rules.

Coherence effect: because an accurate assessment of the causes of a situation can be extremely complicated, our minds typically invoke grossly simplified explanations that fit our rules.

Compliance effect: we follow rules to earn social approval.

To help elucidate how these effects can create rigid rules that keep people from achieving what they really want, I will apply them to a hypothetical example of a divorcee (“Greg”) who has remained single for many years, but deep down he desires partnership and a healthy relationship. Despite this desire, Greg seems unable to commit to a new relationship because the Dictator from Within conspires to keep Greg in the safe zone of “you can’t get hurt again if you remain single!”

Greg’s unhealthy marriage ended 8 years ago. The divorce took a big toll on Greg, emotionally, physically and financially. This traumatic experience has lead to his Dictator from Within generating a few rules:

General Rule (the prime directive): Be very guarded about getting romantically involved with a new woman. You don’t want to get hurt again!

This “meta-rule” has lead to Greg internalizing a number of more specific rules in dating:

1. Don’t date anyone that lives in his hometown (Greg’s unconscious brain tells him “You can’t get too close to someone if they don’t live close to you!”)
2. Focus exclusively on physical, rather than emotional, intimacy in dating (Greg’s unconscious brain tells him “You can’t get your heart broken if you don’t have any emotional connections in dating!”)
3. Don’t date anyone for longer than 3 months! (Greg’s unconscious brain tells him “If things get too serious you will end up in another failed marriage. So put a stop to it, NOW!”)

Greg has internalized too many rules to list here …

When Greg repeats his pattern of pulling away from women in early dating he tells himself (as well as friends and family) many distortions and lies. When asked why he is still single, Greg’s answers track a number of “distortion effects”:

“There are no good singles in the dating pool!”
“The single life is too good to give up!”
“I am too busy with work!”

The distortions Greg engages in reflect the coherence effect. It is much simpler for Greg to explain why he has remained single for years by noting the constraints on the number of available single women, or the scarcity of free-time he has. But the reality of Greg’s circumstances are much more complex. He is not emotionally ready for a new relationship because he still has pain/guilt/trauma/etc. from his divorce he must attend to before being ready. And Greg’s insecure “attachment style” can be traced back to childhood experiences and the model of attention and care he internalized from his parents. Rather than face the unresolved emotional issues “from within”, Greg’s brain provides a simple casual explanation for his dating woes- limited dating pool, not enough time, etc. – explanations that requires no introspection and growth on his part.

And finally Greg’s brain is swayed by the compliance effect. He does (unwittingly) seek out the approval of others. When his parents ask why he has remained single for so many years he takes pride in saying “I am so busy focusing on work!” (and yet in reality Greg is unhappy and unfocused at work!). Signally his virtue of “industriousness” wins the approval of his family. But when talking to his single friends, Greg’s explanation for remaining single is “I am having too much fun living the bachelor life!” When among his single guy friends, Greg believes his womanizing ways wins him some respect. The three C’s work in tandem to keep Greg’s defences of self-protection in check, at the cost of his emotional maturity and growth (and, ultimately, finding a great partner and rewarding relationship).

That wraps up a summary of the first 5 chapters of A Liberated Mind. Next month I will post a review of the next 5 chapters of the book.