I sometimes like to imagine that characters in movies are my patients. How would I get Will Hunting to work through his stuff without having the “you don’t want to hear that Skyler” conversation (because you know after his little meltdown the moment he showed up in Palo Alto she said “not another stalker!” and called campus security)? Or maybe where would I start with Frank Berkman (Squid and the Whale) to undo the impact of a being raised by a “filet” of a father and a brother who was so narcissistic he would start his own social media empire and then become a super villain?
In that way, how could I help Luke so he leaves Degobah a Jedi rather than needing to sacrifice his arm and letting Han Solo get all Teeglo Carboned.
The missed treatment moment happened on Degobah. It was Yoda’s fault. Hopefully we all remember the greatest scene in Empire Strikes Back. Maybe the only legitimate “I got the tingles” moment in all the movies.
Let’s set the scene. Luke happens upon his X-wing deep in the bog of Degobah. His new boy, Yoda, is like “dude ain’t no thang, I lift X-wings out of bogs in my sleep.” Luke, as he does, is like, “green dude, chill. First you ate my food but I let that go. Then you made me eat that nasty soup and bump my head. Then you creeped me out with that maniacal ‘you will be’ look.” So Luke has a go. He fails.
“You ask the impossible.”
Yoda doesn’t need to hear that noise. He sets out to show this young buck what’s up. Not only does he pull the X-wing out of the water but he also conducts a sweet orchestral overture at the same time.
“I don’t believe it.”
“That is why you fail.”
Luke’s failure was a concert of poorly executed techniques by old Master Passice Voice. What Luke needed was some serious Fear-setting and Fear-rehearsing.
Tim Ferriss introduces Fear-setting and Fear-rehearsing in two separate chapters in Tools of Titans. This week we will tackle fear-setting and next week we will do fear-rehearsal
Fear-setting is the process of really identifying what you are afraid of and breaking it down. In psychotherapy we call this naming or bringing the subconscious into the conscious. Generally if we are anxious (anxiety being the cognition of an overestimation of a threat or underestimation of your resources to handle the threat) there is something we haven’t realized. Something important lies in our unconscious, running the show. Outside of frank psychotic disorders and organic brain impairment, we only do things that work for us and make sense. Even our anxiety is a manifestation of some tried and true method at work. If you can name your fear then you can work with it.
The question is do you want it to work that way? Do you want it to continue?
Tim’s fear-setting is broken into 7 questions. He recommends verbose, cathartic writing on each. The more you spew the more likely you are to find the thing you didn’t realize.
1. Define your nightmare
He has a number of other smaller questions but I think the most valuable is “what is the worst case scenario?” It’s like a Rude Goldberg machine. Work your way backwards and you’ll find the origin of your fear. Look for unproven assumptions because your anxiety is likely hiding behind them. We often call these assumptions “absolutes” or “all-or-nothing statements”. Words like “can’t”, “won’t”, “must/have to”, “need”, “always”. Use your own language as a radar for assumptions.
Another way I like to approach it is to assume that all fear is either a conscious or unconscious fear of death. If you follow any worry you will find a death end point eventually. That step is important because you may need to assess your pattern of death-avoidance. This will be important later for fear-rehearsal. For example, if money is the root of your anxiety, somewhere down the line is likely a fear of starvation which can cause death. If public speaking makes you anxious there is likely a fear of embarrassment which is then a fear that all those laughing mouths of teeth will try to kill you.
Our perceived weakness activates our fear of being terminated. It’s all very Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. When a need is perceived to not be met or forecasts a future of unmet status we react. It’s also evolutionary as other species generally see such “weakness” as a deal-breaker for mating. For non-human organisms, there is no other purpose than to propagate your gene pool. When your mind thinks death is on the horizon it may turn on your fight-or-flight system. At an extreme we call that a Panic Attack.
So sit down and try to be honest with yourself. There’s no point in censoring your fears on the paper. It’s not going to judge you. If you can’t name it, it won’t get better. Keep following the fear-logic until it makes sense. If you haven’t reached a death-nightmare outcome you aren’t on the right track yet.
2. What steps could you take to repair the damage?
Ah ha! Now let’s assess the part of your anxiety that is an “underestimation of resources to handle the threat”. This process may again involve a lot of “I can’t” or feeling that repair isn’t possible. That’s your anxious mind hiding answers from you so that it can maintain control of the situation. Anxiety is also a habit of inserting the worst case scenario into ambiguous situations. Your anxiety likes things remaining ambiguous. That’s it’s wheelhouse. You likely developed your anxiety as a compensatory mechanism for not have a more effective way of tolerating ambiguity. Remember, your mind thinks it is saving your life. It doesn’t want to stop.
One way I like to motivate this creative process is to put some collateral on the hypothetical table. If the worse case scenario happened and you had to repair it in 24 hours what would you do? If you don’t repair it, you will die. Another approach is to consider that $10 million awaits if you can repair it in 24 hours.
This requires you to believe anything is possible. When your mind finds things impossible, behind that you are unlikely to find something you never considered. You need to believe in unicorns. This mindset is present in all of the Titans in Tools of Titans.
3. What are the more probable outcomes?
This is a really cool exercise. We use it a lot in Cogntive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Your mind has latched onto the worst case scenario. It is assuming “as long as that bad thing doesn’t happen we will be okay”. Sure. True. Your anxiety won’t let you forget or ignore the potential of the worst case. If it did, so it thinks, it would welcome ruin through the front door. How can you distract your mind away?
Again, unless you define your answers you risk it only living in your subconscious. Task your brain with generating other hypotheticals. What other outcomes are on the table? What does it take for you to find these other ideas? You may need to get really silly and creative here because to this point the answers are being hidden from you by your subconscious defense mechanisms. Saying “go write them” is almost pointless. Again try externalizing it by pretending it’s someone else, ask other people for ideas, look for analagous examples on your life, or if all else fails just free associate on a page. It’ll come.
This analysis is usually a big moment for self-exploration in therapy. Why the hell does your brain only offer you the worst and totally neglect the likely? Where did you learn to do it that way? Why does it persist and optimism fade away? I want to put about a 100% guarantee that if you look back through your life you will find a person or a time when life gave you a reason to buy into this system.
There is also a very big mindfulness opportunity here. In mindfulness, the worse case is as important as the best case is as important as the mid-level case scenario. So why not get REALLY good at controlling which one your mind focuses on? Why not focus instead on the wind on your face, the sound of your air conditioner or even your breath.
Yep we are talking meditation here. We will talk more about it eventually. For now- DO IT!
4. If you were fired from your job today, what things would you do to get things under financial control?
This isn’t only useful for job related worries. By answering this question you will create a risk-management plan. It’s good to have that in your back pocket. Can I convince you that you can improve anxiety by knowing which state or county in your area has the highest unemployment payment relative to cost of living? When we get to fear-rehearsing, can I convince you that going on vacation to that place and living off that amount of money will help you mitigate the worst-case avoidance?
The gift of being able to say “I will be alright, no matter what” may be the best anti-anxiety treatment there is.
5. What are you putting off out of fear?
This is probably the toughest question so far because it is really asks you to tap into your subconscious. If you are lucky, you have an answer: “I’ve been meaning to ask my boss for a raise but I’m too afraid he’ll say ‘no'”. However you may not have this kind of luxury of realizing you are doing it. Instead it will be marked by thoughts of “I have no idea how to…” or “It’s not even possible”.
In this space I like to externalize the problem solving. Try to find a similar scenario in your life and compare your problem-solving approach. This will flank your subconscious because it won’t realize you are solving your first problem by proxy. A more valuable action step would be to let other people solve it for you. I recommend not telling them it is your problem. People tend to go easy on us when we ask them for direct help. However “I have a friend who is really unhappy with his job and wants to move but doesn’t think it’s possible” should get you some raw answers. The use of advisors is also a near 100% factor for the people Tim has interviewed. It’s also in every classic personal/professional development book. It’s one of the reasons therapy works.
All problems are completely modifiable if you are willing and open to exploring all avenues. Including your own role in enabling the problem to continue.
6. What is it costing you- financially, emotionally, physically- to postpone action?
This is where it gets real. You are going to be exploring how much of your unhappiness is your fault. So to speak. You need to assess how much self-loathing you can tolerate. You may want to keep this to objective measures. Money, time, etc. That’s usually the most emotionally palatable landscape. However it is also a defense mechanism we call Intellectualization.
If you want to see change, you need to get uncomfortable. There’s a reason all athletic performance training requires some process of going past your current barriers to see improvement. It’s also the driving force of evolution- adaptation to stress. So yeah, try to test your emotionally comfortable limits on this one.
A less masochistic approach would be to get in touch with your Future Self. I like to think about this in terms of the Many-Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Somewhere out there, according to the theory, there is a version of you that has solved this problem. What is their life like? Who are they? How are you different? Try to get very specific with this. The more excited and emotional you can get about this future version of you, the more you will engage that childhood-dreaming mechanism that is so powerful. Kelly McGonigal does a great job of exploring this in The Willpower Instinct.
7. What are you waiting for?
I’m so glad Tim closes with this. So far this exercise has created some challenge but in and of itself it has not taken you to your goal. Only one thing will do that- doing SOMETHING.
You may notice that this is not a thought exercise. It is almost a rhetorical question. However there is a process here if you like. It may be somewhat helpful to define the cognitions that you are using to delay action. There is certainly another pattern in there somewhere.
I first latched onto this idea after reading Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. He focuses on an idea of taking action RIGHT NOW and give it everything you’ve got. Tony Robbins has a similar method where he likes to utilize the system shock of getting out of your head and creating physical motion. There’s a reason two of the more prominent self-help guys have a similar approach. It works.
This doesn’t mean you need to fix the problem now. That’s too much pressure on yourself. Remember, one small step is all you need. But a step is needed.
What can you do today? What can you do in the next 30 seconds that will take you one step to your goal? If you just answered “all the steps I need to do take longer than 30 seconds” you are missing the point. Break it down. Make it small. Do something. Now.
Can I convince you that opening and closing up your laptop one time with the verve and optimism of your Future Self achieves more progress than you have seen otherwise?
Let’s go back to our case study: the burgeoning Jedi and his frustrated and bruised teacher.
When Yoda meets Luke he spends some time assessing his fear-setting capability. Luke fails, big time. “If we could get our ship out we would, but we can’t.” “I don’t know what I’m doing here. We’re wasting our time.” It almost cost Luke his training. Good thing Obi-wan was there to normalize the situation.
Yoda is no stranger to fear. We’ve all heard his lecture on Advanced Fear Psychology. “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That’s a pretty awesome breakdown of anxiety and suboptimal coping!
It would have helped for Luke, after being eeriely told he will be afraid, to sit down and talk through what fear was there. We already know Luke has the emotional maturity of a 5 year old (“but I was going to go to the Toshi Station to pick up some power converters”). He needed kid gloves. Or whatever gloves a three finger Jedi Master wears.
Luke is an orphan. He spat on the grave of his dead foster parents by following that crazy old man on some damned adventure. Everyone he gets close to dies (mom, dad, foster mom and dad, Obi, Biggs, evil step-grandpa, Yoda, Han). He kissed his sister (okay he didn’t realize that she was his sister yet, and she kissed him, but you’re telling me two Force-aware beings can liplock and not notice anything? Especially the twin offspring of a being derived by the Force. Ever notice Luke took the news of going to Degobah pretty easily. I guarantee he knew he needed to get out of there quick after that kiss. Plus Han claimed his territory and had a good 25 pounds on Luke. Ask me sometime about my theory that Rey is the accidental love child of Obi-wan and Sabé).
It stands to reason Luke has some cognitive distortions to work through. By naming his fear, his assumptions about his lack of skill with the Force (dude kept dropping things, including his master), and what might happen if the worst case came true he might have been better off. You’re telling me that in 800 years of training Jedi Yoda doesn’t have a few tips on how to return from the Dark Side?
Yoda needed to help Luke do some fear-setting… er, some setting-fear with Luke, Yoda needed.
Yoda did try some fear-rehearsal when he sent him into the Dark Side Cave. A little heads up might have been helpful. We will talk more about setting up a fear-rehearsal next week.
For now, suffice it to say, don’t seek out a Jedi master for therapy.