The Inevitable Tetherball of Insight and Wellbeing

A number of years ago, I met with a potential client who was interested in getting coaching for his nascent business. During our first meeting, I couldn’t help but notice that despite his friendly demeanor, his leg was bouncing up and down so much that it made the sofa shake.

When I asked him if he was always so tightly wound, he looked surprised, then angry.

“What do you mean? I’m not tightly wound!”

“What’s up with your leg?” I asked.

He looked down, noticing its violent pistoning for the first time, his expression going from angry to sheepish.

“Maybe I am a bit tightly wound at the moment,” he admitted. “That would explain why I got into a screaming match with someone on the freeway on my way here.”

We both smiled at that, and he settled down, happy enough to have been caught out but convinced that it was an irrelevance that would resolve itself once his team got their act together and the company secured its first big contract, which he assured me was imminent.

I explained to him that it doesn’t really work that way. We feel the energy of our present moment thinking taking form, projecting those feelings onto the most plausible external causes we can imagine and then looking to changing those externals as the source of relief for the feelings. It’s a bit like putting on weight and blaming our expanding waistline on having the wrong size trousers. While it’s true that buying bigger trousers will relieve the feeling of tightness, it doesn’t actually do anything to address the fundamental cause.

When I asked him if he was experiencing any other possible symptoms of being wound too tight, he struggled to think of any, only mentioning in passing that he woke up on the floor a few mornings a week having apparently flung himself out of bed in his sleep. When I pointed out to him that in my experience that wasn’t exactly normal, he again dismissed it as being a product of the real-life situation and not an overactive imagination.

I could see him growing more and more uncomfortable and suggested that he try a little thought experiment:

Imagine using your thinking to problem solve as working like a game of tether ball. Each time you “hit the ball” by thinking about, worrying about, and even trying to solve your problems, the ball spins round and round and the rope gets tighter and tighter. If your thoughts are positive, it spins to the right; negative thoughts spin to the left. But either way, the more you think about things, the more tightly the rope winds itself around the pole.

When you stop trying to think your way through to a solution and instead let your thoughts settle, two things happen. First, the rope of thought inevitably unwinds and returns to a place of quiet and stillness. Second, fresh new ideas emerge into that quiet that solve, resolve, or even dissolve the original problem.

He argued with me that taking a break from thinking about his problems would only stress him out more, but saw enough in our conversation to ask for us to revisit it in six weeks after the situation at work resolved itself and he was able to relax and think more clearly. Unfortunately, he never made it to that follow up meeting, contacting me after three weeks to let me know that he’d had a “minor” heart attack and had to pull back from work to give his body time to recover.

“I guess you were right about me being a bit tightly wound,” he conceded.

One of the things that has helped me personally more than almost any other aspect of the inside-out understanding has been coming to see that my feelings are telling me nothing about my life and everything about the quality of my thinking.

Here’s how I wrote about it in Supercoach:

There is a famous episode of the television series I Love Lucy where Lucille Ball’s character gets a job working on the production line at a chocolate factory. She’s supposed to wrap each chocolate as it passes by, but once one gets by her and she tries to catch up, all the other chocolates start to pile up until she and the factory are a big gooey mess. That’s what usually happens when we try too hard to monitor the activity inside our head. It all goes swimmingly until one thought gets by and then everything goes to hell.

This is why I’ve always liked the expression ‘train of thought,’ because it so accurately describes the way each thought that passes through our head invites us to travel with it. One thought of a childhood friend can take us on a pleasant journey all the way back down through our youth; one thought about an argument with a loved one can carry us into paroxysms of rage or daydreams of escaping into the arms of another.

Yet our thoughts are simply the principle of Thought taking the form of internal conversations and mental movies that have no power to impact our life until we charge them up by deciding they’re important and real. And if we ‘empower’ the wrong thoughts, making our negative fantasies seem more realistic than our current reality, it’s like boarding a train to a destination we have no desire to actually reach.

That’s why one of the most important things to realize about your thinking is this:

Your thinking is a variable guide to reality, but your feelings are a foolproof guide to the quality of your current thinking.Click To Tweet

Our guidance system lies not in analyzing our thoughts but in feeling our feelings. When we’re feeling expansive (warm, loving, spacious, comfortable, easy, well, etc.), that’s the shadow of healthy thinking and our thoughts can, on the whole, be trusted. When we’re feeling contracted (insecure, apathetic, frustrated, numb, stressed out, uncomfortable, and so on), chances are that our thinking is unproductive and whichever train of thought we might engage with will lead us somewhere we don’t really want to go.

For me, seeing this lets me wake up to the dream of thought before it turns into a nightmare. And while I still find myself wound a bit tighter than I’d like from time to time, it no longer looks to me like the solution could be found anywhere other than in the peace and quiet that inevitably arises when I stop trying so hard to change my life to fix my feelings.

With all my love,