Episode four

Triangles and giraffes

30 mins

Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman

In this episode:

  1. How what we think affects what we do and how we feel
  2. How what we do affects what we think and how we feel
  3. How our feelings affect what we think and what we do
  4. How to command the above for happiness, using only triangles and giraffes 😉

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Full text

It was spring time and I was in Sophie’s kitchen in a suburb of Paris. In the grassless, shadowy garden, crocuses had begun to poke out of the damp soil. In the trees overhead, a battalion of ring-necked parakeets was amassing. Red beaks and green feathers, pointed wings and long tails. They gathered in dark tribes, squawking and chattering, as though willing something to happen. Or waiting.

Sophie — robustly caffeinated from Columbian filter coffee, which she took jet black and boiling hot — was in a state of breathless indignation. Her gestures oscillated between sharp, enervated sighs, arms folded tightly across her chest, and agitated pacing, up and down the long, narrow kitchen. She worried a tightly-rolled unlit cigarette between her fingers, like a toxic rosary.

Sophie had recently broken up with the father of her five year-old child. It was her idea. But feelings were running high on both sides. She took self-interested, unilateral decisions, cut him out of the loop. Emboldened by the moral high ground, he responded with ever more authoritarian and draconian gestures, asserting rights and diminishing her. And yet they had to keep meeting to discuss their child.

After a while, I said: “So what happened?”

She fixed me with a glacial tourmaline eye and said: “I knew even before I went that he was going to act like a jerk. And guess what. He did. Total jerk. If it’s going to be like this forever I just can’t cope.”

Well we all act like jerks at some point. But only jerks act like jerks all the time. I knew this man. And I knew him to not be a jerk. Just a concerned and loving father, ripped away from the love of his life, anxious about what it would mean and desperate to reassert himself. What was a emotional and fractious situation to begin with had descended into an un-winnable power battle. 

Measuring my words, given those tourmaline icebergs in her eyes, I asked: “How angry were you with him already when you set out to meet him?”

Sophie looked at me. Eyes slightly hooded, suddenly.

“Pretty angry,” she said. “Last time he used this pompous, pseudo-legal language and talked down to me like I was a naughty schoolgirl and I knew he was going to do something like that again.”

Being right

Sometimes you’re in an argument and you’re right. You just are. Either empirically right, like when you argue that giraffes have long necks and the other person says “no they don’t”. They’re wrong and and that’s all there is to it. It’s not opinion, it’s not “alternative facts” — giraffes always have long necks and we have evidence for it.

Sometimes you’re legally right. Like he was. She’d walked away, taken his child and now was acting as though that simple act on her part somehow removed all his rights as a parent. It absolutely didn’t.

But sometimes who is in the right is quite muddy. Sometimes we entertain the notion that simply because we feel something strongly enough, that makes it right.

Being right often prompts us to try to win arguments at all costs. And what that often amounts to is trying to make the other person wrong, at all costs.

But even if we win one of these conflict games, we still have to explain to others why things didn’t work out.

The more he boomed down at Sophie from on high, the more she acted unilaterally, believing she had the moral high ground because he was acting like a jerk. But the more Sophie acted unilaterally, the more he boomed down from on high, believing he had the moral high ground. It was a dysfunctional cycle that would only harm their child.

In the last walk we did together we talked a little about what it takes to make new habits, and actions you can take that change the way you think and feel. How behaviours affect thoughts and how those thoughts affect feelings. How acting out certain behaviours habitually will reinforce thinking patterns that go on to influence feelings.

We also talked a little about this in Walk Two, about how thoughts we entertain are a choice.

It’s not magic. The technique is rooted very firmly in empirical, evidenced based science. In this episode we’re going to get to grips with this.

I told Sophie. “I have an idea. Let’s just imagine for a moment that before showing up to see him, you knew he would be charming and helpful. How would you act towards him then.”

“The same,” Sophie said. “I’m not a monster.”

“Right,” I said. “So, thinking in advance that he will be nice, means you would act nicely too.”

I watched the thought sink in as Sophie reversed the equation and the penny dropped.

“So, counter-intuitive though it may sound, I said, what if, next time you go to meet him, instead of telling yourself he will be a jerk, tell yourself he will be charming and helpful. Spend the métro journey imagining how he would act and how useful that would be for what you both need. If you find that thoughts of him acting like a jerk enter your head, just push them away and replace them with thoughts of him acting like the model father and mature parenting partner you both need him to be. Stay focused on that.”

To be honest with you, I really didn’t expect Sophie to take me seriously but I suppose at this stage she was so despairing of the relationship that she was prepared to give anything a try.

When I saw her next I asked her how it had gone. A broad smile came over her face, which I found incredibly rewarding. “It’s incredible,” she said. “It really worked.” As a result of telling herself he would be nicer and kinder, she felt nicer and kinder herself and this led her to behave more kindly and nicely towards him. And that change was enough to get a different result from him. “How did you do that?” She asked.

The answer is simple. I applied a formula. It’s a formula for feeling better. I say it’s scientific because it’s effectiveness is backed up by clinical trials. So we have evidence that it works.

Now I want to give you that formula. I’m going to give you a simplified version of the formula first and work through a scenario.

I want you to imagine a triangle, like a pyramid. Can you see it? Ok. Now please imagine that the point at the top has the word “thoughts” written above it. Now look down at the right-hand corner. This point has the word “behaviours”. Now the bottom-left corner. This point has the word “feelings”.

So as we move clockwise from point to point around the triangle we move through the sequence: thoughts, behaviours, feelings.

OK, now let’s imagine there’s an arrow that points from thoughts to behaviours and from behaviours to feelings and from feelings back up to thoughts.

So now we have a complete cycle. Our thoughts lead us to behave in certain ways and our behaviours lead us to feel certain ways. In turn, those feelings influence our thoughts and the cycle of influence begins again.

Knowing they are interconnected is important and good because it’s quite hard to change an emotion. But it’s much easier to catch a thought and even easier to change a behaviour.

Giraffe Cycle 1

So, let’s run this version of the formula through a scenario.

For example, we might think or believe that giraffes definitely always have short necks.

This might lead to a behaviour such as telling people their drawings of long-necked giraffes are wrong.

This behaviour might then lead to feelings of humiliation and isolation, as we are mocked for our ignorance.

These feelings of humiliation might lead us to think that people are nasty to us. That we are the victims of nastiness.

That belief might lead us to a behaviour such as snapping at people when they say things to us, in order to protect ourselves from the nastiness we imagine they harbour towards us.

That behaviour might reinforce the feeling of isolation as those people avoid us, or exclude us.

The exclusion may lead us to think or believe that everyone is out to get us. And so it goes around.

How do we break a cycle like this?

The beauty of the triangle shape is it’s built from three points. We can act at any point to change something and so influence the cycle of reaction.

If ever you’ve been feeling down and someone told you to “snap out of it” you’ll likely have felt irritation. Because you don’t just “snap out of” feelings. Feelings are hard to change.

But behaviours are easy to change, because we can act in any way we choose, regardless of our feelings.

And because of the cycle we’ve just established, we know that when we change our behaviour, our feelings change in reaction.

So, let’s apply this to our giraffe cycle.

Giraffe Cycle 2

We still think or believe that giraffes have short necks. But this time, when we see someone draw a long-necked giraffe, we are going to change our behaviour. Instead of telling the person they are wrong, we ask them for their input: “Do giraffes always have long necks?”

The person says, yes they do, look here’s a page on the National Geographic website all about giraffes. You see that the giraffes do indeed have long necks and you feel relieved that you didn’t humiliate yourself. And perhaps you now feel kindly disposed towards the person who stopped you making a fool of yourself.

This feeling might lead you to think that people are basically kindly disposed towards you, after all they could have mocked you, but they didn’t.

This belief might in turn lead you to behave in a friendly way towards all the other people that you meet. When you see everyone smile back at you, you might start to feel that people really quite like you.

This may lead you to think that you should maybe invite more people round for parties. This may lead you to a behaviour such as mailing out invitations. And when everyone shows up to have a good time, you may start to feel that you are surrounded by nice, decent, good people who enjoy spending time with you and that the world is basically a good place.

The Cognitive Triangle

But so far I’ve only given you half of the formula. Now let’s make a slight modification to our triangle.

Instead of the arrows pointing only clockwise, let’s modify them so there’s an arrow head at each end. Now each arrow points both ways. Can you visualise this?

The way we have it now, each of our points — thoughts, behaviours and feelings — now connects to each of the others in either direction. This version of our diagram is called the Cognitive Triangle. What we think affects how we act and feel. How we act affects how we feel and what we think. And how we feel affects what we think and do.

Let’s look at some of the ways it can work. First let’s posit a negative scenario.

Amy scenario 1

Amy loves macrame and hates her job. Today is Saturday and Amy has a lunch date with her friend Kate. But on that morning Amy wakes up with a strange, free-floating sense of fear. Who knows where that feeling came from? It’s just a shadow across the amygdala. There must be a reason for it though, right?

Why do I feel this way? What can it be?

It leads Amy to think something bad is about to happen. Oh my god, what if some disaster is about to happen, or a terrorist attack? Amy starts to imagine all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. What if, what if, what if? She plays them out in her head, pictures them. This thinking now runs anti-clockwise back down the triangle, intensifying Amy’s feeling of anxiety, which now becomes a dark sense of foreboding. Like a snowball gathering size and speed as it falls, the train of thought and feeling hits the bottom left-hand corner of the triangle and ricochets round the bend: Amy acts out. She calls Kate and cancels her lunch appointment. There’s no way she’s going out today. Not with the imminent apocalypse.

Unfortunately, Kate is not sympathetic. “Amy, this is like the third time you’ve flaked on a lunch date! I had to pay a babysitter and everything. I’m done with you, don’t call me again!”

“Well,” Amy says. “I was right, then. I knew something bad was going to happen. I could just sense it.”

The self-fulfilling prophesy is complete and Amy confirms and reinforces the unhelpful fantasy thinking that has actual consequences in her real life.

Just like Sophie just knew her kid’s dad would act like a jerk in advance and got angry with him, causing him to act out in response.

Amy scenario 2

Let’s have a look again at the scenario, but run it differently. Amy wakes up with the same free-floating sense of fear.

There are moments in your life, you’ll recall, when you have a choice to follow one train of thought or another. Amy is at such a junction called “feelings”, at the corner of a triangle. There’s a road to the left and one to the right. Before her is a sign post: turn left up the triangle towards “thoughts” or turn right towards behaviours. Which way? Last time, she turned left, and travelled up the road to cognition, asking why she felt afraid and concocting fantasy responses that upset her.

So this time, instead of cogitating on why she feels that way, she makes a right turn. She side-steps the cognition that led to alarming fantasies that intensified her feelings of fear and consciously introduces a behaviour. She bats away the question of why she feels afraid and simply gets up and goes for a 30 minute walk instead.

The fresh air feels nice, clears out some of the cobwebs in her head. She bumps into a neighbour who smiles and waves at her and the walk releases some endorphins that make her feel a mild euphoria. All of which cancels out the feeling of fear, which has now evaporated.

But best of all, the gentle motion causes an idea to bubble up. “I love macrame,” she thinks. “Macrame makes me happy. Why don’t I start a macrame workshop. I’d like that better than my real job.”

So when Amy meets up with Kate at lunchtime, she is animated and enthusiastic about her workshop idea. “What a great idea,” Kate says. “I know a lot of people who would sign up for that.” Now Amy has a vision of a future living that would make her feel happier and a goal to work towards. Where is that free-floating feeling of fear now? It’s nowhere. It’s gone. Turns out it was of no use whatsoever.

Now.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is not without it’s critics. Foremost among these are exponents of psychoanalysis, the theory and process founded by Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that human behaviour and cognition is determined by irrational drives that are rooted in the unconscious. That is to say that hidden and repressed emotion is the unseen root of all thinking and behaviour. Analysis involves probing that unconscious via free association in order to dislodge those drivers, which Freud believed were rooted in forgotten childhood trauma.

Analysis has fallen out of favour in clinical therapy, widely criticised as a pseudoscience, precisely because it doesn’t have the evidence base that CBT does. It can’t acquire an evidence base either, because its basic assumptions are both untested and untestable. Behaviour can be observed. The unconscious cannot.

Analysis wants to “get to the bottom” of feelings. The point I want to make here, as a lay writer, is firstly that feelings don’t always have a bottom to get to. Trying to get to the bottom of a free-floating feeling can lead us to fantasy thinking that does nothing except make us feel worse. And even though analysis wants to help, it offers a fertile canvas for destructive fantasies.

In our scenario, Amy wakes with a sense of fear. Well, anyone who watches the news might do the same. We see the stories about terrorist attacks, we start to cogitate: what if this happens to me? Now we feel unsafe. Cognition precedes the emotion and actually causes it. Not the reverse.

Of course, sometimes feelings do have an obvious reason. We lose our job, we feel awful.

We wake up feeling vaguely anxious and there isn’t an immediately obvious reason? It’s not especially helpful to dwell on why here. Dwelling on why leads us to brood. Brooding leads us to root about and search in the imagination for someone or something to point our finger at. And we know from our last walk that this kind of thinking opens up the path to a victim mentality. Besides which, memory and imagination are highly unreliable witnesses.

The triangle is a tool, rather than a magic wand. Magic wands solve everything straight away but sadly only exist in children’s fiction. Tools enable us to work smarter. But we still have to do the work. The hammer doesn’t build the house.

The Cognitive Triangle is most useful, and most effective, when we use it to change habitual thought patterns, behaviours and feelings.

For example, in the last walk we did together, I used it to change my outlook on each day. I had been feeling heavy. Weighing me down was the fact that my work was taking up so much of my time that lots of little things were slipping by without getting done. This was in turn making me feel that certain parts of my life were slipping out of my control and this in turn caused me to fear that some unpleasant thing would happen down the line as a consequence.

The net result of this type of thinking was a feeling of being trapped in an infernal machine that would cause my tragic downfall. I can’t stop doing the work because I need to pay the bills. But doing to work will lead to neglect and tragedy in other areas of my life. Thus I am doomed. Well, of course, we know from the last walk that we are emphatically not living in a classical tragedy.

By changing my behaviour each evening I completely killed this negative thought cycle. Instead of waking up each morning feeling weighed down and disempowered by the amount of tasks hanging over me, I instigated a quick routine in the evenings that had the effect of wiping the slate clean around the house. In turn this meant that when I awoke, I did so to a blank canvas on which possibilities could be drawn. I then added in my Thursday worry time: two hours when I get to go OH MY GOD, at a time when I can act to do something about it. The result if this was not waking up every day thinking I was trapped in a downward spiral but instead waking up feeling like I could will all kinds of good situations into being.

As for Sophie, she and her ex still maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship. Their daughter is seventeen now and doing great. But as to why Sophie felt she had to be right at all costs and why she had to make him wrong to do that: well, that’s the subject of our next walk.