There is a French bike race for promising young cyclists aged 19 – 22 called Le Tour de l’Avenir (‘The Tour of the Future’) which showcases upcoming riders. It takes place over five or six stages, covering about a thousand kilometres. In 1982 it was won by the first American to win the Tour de France, Greg Lemond. He went on to win the Tour in 1986, 1989, and 1990.
Riding behind someone recently who fits the description of ’a little old lady’ perfectly, my thoughts turned to the future; Would I, too, be riding thirty or forty years hence? This bout of musing about my long distant future lasted only a few moments, as I reminded myself that not to start ruminating on what might happen decades from now.
The ‘Tour of the Future’ is all about potential. One of the most crushing aspects of depression is the belief that one’s potential has been lost, or wasted in some way. Thoughts like these can be utterly ruinous, and stall recovery for months or years. Recently I have been exploring a new way of understanding thought patterns like these, and I would like to share a little of what I have learnt about coping with such thoughts.
Last time I wrote about some aspects of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This time I want to explore the concept of helpful and unhelpful thoughts. One of the biggest obstacles to a person changing challenging thoughts is the retort that some of these thoughts may actually be true.
In his book ‘The Happiness Trap’ Russ Harris makes the point that it is more effective to avoid dwelling on whether the thought happens to be true or not, but whether or not it is helpful. Furthermore, the ACT approach counsels that we should ask ourselves if a thought will guide us to where we want to be or not. For example a negative thought such as ‘I am no good at my job’ will weigh heavily on us and act to disable us in some way if we do not consider it in the framework of whether it is helpful or not. An effective approach to these ‘headline’ thoughts is to take a moment and think a bit further. ‘I am no good at my job’ is a very broad analysis indeed. What lies behind this statement that is passing through the mind? Is it the case, for example that there is maybe just one aspect of the job that you are finding a challenge? Is that colouring the thoughts that visit you? Try to remember that we’re not the owners or authors of these thoughts, they are just passing through our minds, and we have the ability to see them on their way, rather than inviting them in to sit down and have a chat. Engaging with such thoughts can help us to work out if they are helpful. Try and cut them up into bite-size pieces that are easier to digest, to consider, than the lumpy headline.
It is beyond the scope of this blog to delve much more deeply into this approach save to say that it is something that you, the reader, may wish to look into more deeply at some stage. A note of caution, however; exploring, or adopting this approach is not a quick fix, it is not the remedy for fixing a mere puncture, however infuriating those are. It’s more about learning about a different view, looking at the same scene but from a different angle. This happens from time to time with me when I am out in the countryside, I might take a wrong turning, and have to find my way back to my route by an unfamiliar direction, coming back to a often-ridden place from a different angle. Doing this never fails to make me feel like I know that place better, by having seen it from n new, if unexpected, angle – and it takes longer than a route that doesn’t involve a detour. As I have been learning, forgetting, and learning anew over the past few months: things take time.
At the beginning of this edition of my blog I spoke about the gnawing despair that can engulf a person when one thinks about lost opportunities, mistakes made that may be too late to put right, or the inevitability of the gradual creaking of physical fragility that comes with old age. ACT gently suggests that we try to stay in the present as much as possible. Not being knocked off course by thoughts that my buffet us and swirl ahead of us, distorting our view of what may lie ahead, or behind.
Today my mother told me that she was glad to see me back to my old self after an enjoyable fortnight’s holiday. I was able to take her words on face value. Right there and then she was right, I was at my best. I didn’t look right or left, or over my shoulder. I didn’t peer into the distance t the road ahead, I just dwelt on the here and now, and that is what helps.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)