Have you ever noticed how much better you are at seeing other people’s problems than your own? Why is this? It seems that our brains suffer from an inability to see their own workings from the inside. We can easily see when a friend or colleague is hurting themselves with their thought patterns and behaviour. But when it comes to ourselves, we often repeat the same patterns of living again and again without solving the problem.
There are a few techniques which can help to reduce the effect of this blind spot. Using them, we can tease ourselves into being able to help ourselves, as we would like to help others. Here are three:
PLAY AT BEING YOUR OWN PERSONAL ASSISTANT
One way of changing your perspective in relation to yourself, is to take on, in your mind, a role as your own personal assistant. You can then present your own problems to yourself on a third party basis, which can sometimes create greater clarity and ability to help.
I sometimes recommend this to counselling clients. The client can often be suffering from the tendency to collapse mentally whenever they try to confront their own problems. Their wish to act becomes tangled with their own emotional state, and they literally go to war with themselves every time they try to improve their life. But something magical can happen when they are asked to be their own ‘helpful PA’. Suddenly, they take up individual tasks as though they were helping a friend, without getting steamed up about it.
This technique works because it allows the reactive mind some emotional rest. A person can focus on solving a problem, or doing some work, without having also to play the role of ‘wounded individual’. It’s like a holiday from the self.
OPERATE IN TIME SILOS
Another technique in using your brain to help yourself is to operate in discrete sections of time, with one portion of time allocated to one particular problem or brain activity. If you have a piece of administration to finish, for instance, then allocate a time slot to it, and dedicate your mind, during that time, to the problem in hand.
Anxiety sufferers find this helpful because it stops them from losing the plot, and getting distracted into catastrophising about anything and everything. Depression sufferers find this helpful because it gives them temporary focus and meaning, and therefore a break from the threat and despair of emptiness.
FOCUS ON ONE THING AT A TIME
In addition to working in time silos, it can help to choose a single task, and focus on it… one task at a time. This helps the brain to work in the way it naturally likes to work. Human beings are not really very good multitaskers. We are far better, and our mental health stays far better, if we undertake single-focus activities.
LEARNING TO PROBLEM-SOLVE FOR YOURSELF
It took me quite a long time in my own life to see this issue of self-help more clearly. I tended to think of my own brain as for the service of others. This is partly because that’s what my education trained me to do. I submitted work, and it was marked and given back to me. This created an expectation in me that my brain-work was just for others.
Really, this is a nonsense. If we truly wish to help others, then we need to make sure we also apply brain effort to survival, self-care, and to staying efficient and effective on our own behalf. Time spend getting organised and functional is therefore time well spent.
Many people suffering from mental illnesses have excellent brains in terms of problem-solving for others. But something happens when they apply that to themselves. It is as though wayward emotions get in the way, and to they cease to be able to make helpful decisions for themselves. When they face the need to do something for themselves, especially under pressure, they revert to awkward relationships with food and drugs, project into dysfunctional relational behaviour, wake or sleep at all hours… anything to avoid the potentially straightworward work of quietly thinking something through, and then acting single-mindedly to make their own life easier.
It can be a real move forward, in terms of self-development, when the self-sabotage stops. Self-sabotage is there for a reason – in the past, perhaps, it has helped a person defend themselves against unrealistic expectation, or abusive others. But, eventually, we all realise that self-sabotage is a kind of fear. We can use the above techniques can help to normalise our action on behalf of ourselves, and reduce that inhibiting fear.
We are often good at helping others with our brains, but less good at helping ourselves.
To help us to help ourselves, we can do the following:
- Take on a pretend role as our own ‘helpful PA’
- Set aside specific times to do particular jobs to help ourselves
- During those specific times, do one thing at a time
This sounds too simple to be helpful, but it is based on some solid psychology of perspective and attention. We are training ourselves to see and help ourselves ‘from the outside’, just as if we were someone else. This reduces the sense of pressure and emotional temperature. And we are teaching ourselves to stay mentally healthy by focusing on one task at once.