Question Games

The questions we ask, the way we ask them, and how often we ask them make a huge difference in our experience of life. 

As anyone who has been around kids knows – there are ways to ask choice questions that give them a sense of control and you exactly the outcome you want. 

There’s a big difference in the type of response and attitude you’ll receive when you ask “Are you going to brush your teeth now?” or tell “You need to brush your teeth now”, then when you ask “Are you going to brush your teeth or put on your pyjamas now?” 

It’s a forced choice, but it still feels like a choice, and this freedom (where it doesn’t feel like someone is telling us what to do) can make a world of difference on someone’s attitude and their desire to follow through.

But did you know you can apply the same technique with yourself? 

When I started my routine of working out everyday in Costa Rica, I started to begrudge it as soon as I woke up. And when I asked myself “Are you going to work out today?” the answer I always had was “uggh! I don’t want to.” And the only thing that got me to follow through were those evil “should” notions. 

The truth is we don’t like being told what to do at any age, even if its us doing the telling. By using question tricks – forced choice- we get the results we want and the sense of freedom we crave. 

So I started changing my question. Instead of asking “Am I going to workout?”, I started asking “Which exercises am I going to do?”. It gave me a sense of choice and permission to “be a rebel” by avoiding the ones that I didn’t want to do that day. It turned out to make a big difference in my attitude toward my workouts, and it lead to me getting more done. Yes, there were days I “just” did floor work exercises, but even they were done with more effort and intention because I felt like I was “skipping out on the other exercises” so I was giving my all to what I decided to do

It’s another lesson in avoiding the black and white. By not clumping it all together I was able to see all the pieces and have more wiggle room. This kind of forced question is choosing between two (or more) good options. It allows us to be flexible with how we meet our value/goal, but secures that we are meeting it. To relate this back to kids, it is the technique you are using when you ask “Are you going to wear your red pyjamas or your blue pyjamas?”. For someone with a health goal it could be, “Are you going to go for a walk or ride your bike?”. Either choice leads to the end goal – of getting healthy or getting to bed. We get clear on why what we are asking is important (that we do some type of exercise/that we get dressed for bed) and we let the choice lie in how we reach that end.

Another thing I did was play with the question of timing. Much like the pyjamas or brushing teeth question, the order doesn’t really matter to us – as long as they both get done. So every morning I give myself the choice of working out before or after breakfast. 

It’s funny to think that these small changes can make a difference, and funnier yet that we can play these games on ourselves and they still work. But they do, I swear.

Another question game we play involves the subconscious questions we forget to ask when times are good. 

For example; it’s easy to notice when a child’s behaviour is unpleasant or you don’t like how they are acting. And it’s easy to comment on it too. 

What we often forget is to notice when the behaviour is pleasant and we do like how they are acting. And we forget to comment on it too.

We also do this with ourselves. 

I woke up at 2am last week in a full fledged panic attack. I remember sitting up, throwing the blanket off, flipping the light on, and then panicking. My heart was racing and pounding out of my chest, I was sweating profusely, crying, and my whole body was shaking. 

Panic attacks are no fun, and waking up to them is even less fun – and much scarier. Not only because the experience itself is scary, but the possibility of it happening again makes it very hard not to dread going to sleep. 

The next day I found myself judging my behaviour of panicking, self doubt, and obsessive thinking. I was focused on my unpleasant/unhelpful behaviour and feelings that happened the previous night. I found myself getting very anxious throughout the day, anticipating night time and worrying about a repeat attack. Not just worrying – expecting. 

And you know what happens with an expectation like that? It happens again. It’s an expectation-fulfilling prophecy. And I really didn’t want to get into that loop.

So I decided to coach myself and take some action to try to create a better outcome.

I realized that my fixation on both the event and my response (that of panicking) was reinforcing beliefs that 1. I’m a panicker and therefore 2. I will just continue to panic. 

Though my mind was getting really apprehensive of going to sleep, I realized that sitting here in the moment, I was actually calm (the only thing that wasn’t calm was my thoughts of what I expected later). 

So I decided to keep asking myself “Are you calm now?” 

Usually I only ask this when the answer is distressing (not that I consciously ask it, but the feedback I take gives me the answer). Much like with kids, we don’t usually ask ourselves “Are they being good now?”, but it’s noticeable that we are “asking” it when the answer is no. 

When I started asking the question regularly, and noticing all the times I was calm, it changed my perception of how I’m doing and even more so – what I’m capable of.

By addressing when I’m calm as well as panicky, it gives me many more opportunities to have helpful thoughts. When you are paying attention to how often you are calm it’s harder to hold a belief about the fact that you “only panic”. 

When you only ask yourself the question when you’re struggling – you limit your mind’s idea of what you can do, what you can handle, and the ways you can be. 

Bringing my attention to all the times I feel calm not only helped me recognize the moments (and how often) I felt calm – – it also enhanced my view of how capable I am of being calm. 

For more impact I gave myself a lot of credit for being calm that day. In theory I don’t believe we should be judging our emotional states or feelings (or taking credit for them), but for the time being it was helpful to give myself positive reinforcement to counter the negative feedback I was putting out there about my time of panicking. 

When it comes to behaviours and actions (not feelings and thoughts) we certainly can use this positive reinforcement strategy to help us even more. This could like “catching kids being good” and remarking on what you like about how they are acting/behaving. In terms of using it with yourself, this could look like bringing your attention to all the times you DO take care of yourself (if your unhelpful story is that you aren’t able to take care of yourself). You could do this by asking yourself “Am I taking care of myself now?” And if the answer is YES, say “Awesome job me, look at you kicking ass at taking care of you!”

The types and frequency of questions we ask ourselves can make a massive difference in how we view ourselves and how successful we are at attaining our goals. So figure out which questions you need to ask more often, and which you need to alter.

Play question games with yourself – I bet you’ll be surprised at how much you win when you’re rigging the game. 

Cloud Watching (some more thoughts on thoughts)

Our feelings are a direct response to our thoughts. We create our reality with our thoughts.

It’s not like this is a new idea to me, but it does feel more concrete this time around. 

Imagine thoughts as clouds. 

The weather, our moods and feelings, will change depending on what kind of clouds are occupying the sky at that moment. And yet, it’s okay. Even if they are stormy clouds darkening the skies and pouring down on us, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean that we need to run for cover. It doesn’t mean that those clouds are an indication that something is wrong. We are feeling in response to thoughts – not reality – not circumstances – thoughts. 

When I have moments of panic that come from thoughts of imminent sickness, I often feel completely overwhelmed as I give those thoughts a lot more credit than they deserve. I believe the fact that I’m THINKING them, means what they are saying is a TRUTH. It goes a bit like this..

“I think I’m going to be sick. Why would I think that? Oh fuck, I’m going to be sick. It must be true, because if it wasn’t true, why else would I even have had that thought to begin with?! No, no, no, I don’t want to be sick.”….and cue rest of a panic attack.

On the outside I can see – that’s me, responding to my thoughts (i.e. NOT reality). It’s hard for me to tell the difference at times like those because I could swear to you that it IS my reality- that the thoughts are second to what’s actually happening. As if my body told my mind what was going on, and now my mind is communicating that FACT to me. And it doesn’t matter how many times that scenario plays out, I react to my thoughts as truths. 

But the truth remains, thoughts are just thoughts. They aren’t powerful, they aren’t indicators of truth, knowledge, or reality. They are just fucking thoughts. And when we can see them as such, they are harmless. It’s only when we can’t see them, when they are unrecognized thought, that they do damage. (So really, it’s not the thoughts that are ever harmful, it’s the process of not recognizing them

And our feelings stem right from our thoughts. As inevitably as rain is the result of a rain cloud.

The beauty about feelings, when we can let ourselves embrace it, is that we truly don’t have to DO anything with them. If the type of thoughts we are having create a cloudy sky, and our feelings are sad or angry or scared – all we have to do is let ourselves feel it and understand that it’s just a normal response to THINKING those things. We can allow ourselves to just feel whatever is there, acknowledging the types of clouds in our sky, and giving ourselves compassion until the sky is a bit brighter. Always knowing the sky could be brighter, and will get brighter (and darker) continually as time passes. 

Enjoy the sun when it’s there, and hold yourself close when it’s not. You don’t need to run for shelter or even take out an umbrella. The rain isn’t going to hurt you. You thinking it will is the only thing that does.

Our thoughts vary and run rapid through our minds – you’ll be familiar with this if you’ve ever tried meditating. And while a quickly passing unpleasant thought can trigger an emotion in you for a second, it’s only when we truly hold onto the thoughts that come up, or continue a thought-parade of a certain thought, that they play a role with our feelings and mood. If we are present to watching those clouds (thoughts) come and go into and out of our conscious, it will be easier not to get caught up in one particular thought and therefore, feeling. Again, this process helps us recognize the thoughts as thoughts, and it allows us to focus on their transient nature. Not to bother getting too caught up, they come and go, no harm, no foul. 

Imagine you’re laying on your back on the grass, looking up at the clouds above. They sky is full of a bunch of different scattered clouds. You look at one and notice it looks like a rabbit. Then you look on to the next one, it looks like a dog. Then you look again, and again at more clouds – noticing the different shapes that appear. You like some shapes more than others; some shapes make you feel happy and some make you feel sad and some make you feel weird. But regardless of what emotion is triggered, you just keep looking up to the sky with curiosity, noticing the different clouds that drift by, and moving on to the see the next ones. 

Whereas having our head in the clouds makes it hard for us to see beyond the fluffy whiteness surrounding us, the process of cloud watching helps us see fully. 

Everyone has times (or lifetimes) when their thoughts are imperceivable as anything but reality. Those experiencing depression, anxiety, and/or panic attacks live in their clouds a lot more than most. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we simply cannot see it, and we are caught in a world of cloudy horror. I know there will always be times when this happens, but the goal is to spend more and more time gazing up (observer stance). And the only road to get there (and to be more successful in staying there when the storms come in), is to practice cloud watching while there’s some sun in the sky.

And what is the best anchor and reminder of this?

Go outside and look up.