I recently finished my bachelor’s degree in psychology. While that means I know psychotherapy from an educational perspective, I also know it deeply from my own personal experience.
Psychotherapeutic tools were originally engineered for treating mental illnesses, but they serve equally well as methods to deal with minor mental disturbances (which is something we all experience).
Because of how these tools teaches you to master your mind, they’re ideal for anyone wishing to better themselves; as self-mastery starts within your mind and with yourself.
And the better the self-mastery, the better you’re able to handle the disturbances. When you master yourself, you can direct yourself as you wish through life’s ups and downs.
In this article, I’m going to share 3 of my favorite psychotherapeutic tools for self-mastery. They work best when practiced regularly. And while they might feel unfamiliar at first, I can promise you that once you start to apply them, you can achieve a higher level of self-mastery.
Thoughts are important. But not always; not when they’re messy, unhelpful and stuck in negative patterns. A method that tries to deal with this problem is metacognitive therapy.
Metacognition is thinking about thinking and represents an executive way of monitoring and controlling mental processes. This includes plans and strategies for how to think about thoughts and feelings, rather than what to think about them — the content of your thoughts. In other words, metacognition is how you relate and respond to your thoughts and feelings.
When unhelpful thoughts enter the mind, it’s natural to try to get rid of them. However, not all ways of dealing with problematic thoughts are helpful, such as suppression of them, avoidance, or excessive thought-control. The tool that metacognitive therapy advices instead, is detached mindfulness.
I learned this tool when I was working in a grocery store. I was reading a lot of psychology at the time, and an article explained the concept of mindfulness. I thought it interesting, and I decided to try it as a means to deal with my stress at work.
At my next shift, I was mindful as soon as I felt an increase in my stress-levels. I detached from the situation, and observed what kind of thoughts and feelings that arose in me.
Armed with this new tool, I soon discovered the cause of my stress. I would stress out when there were too many people in the store, and not enough employees to handle it.
Based on this information, I could better deal with the problem: I would notice in advance when a stressful situation arose, and then manage my response to my own thoughts.
To understand how this tool works for yourself, you first need to understand that you’re more than just your thoughts and feelings. While that might sound odd at first, as you begin to practice this method, you might see that it’s the case for yourself.
Specifically, detached mindfulness encourages you to detach from your thoughts. This is how:
- Give yourself permission to sit still. Don’t fight the situation or the problematic thought. Just pause and try to relax.
- Observe your thoughts. Try to blank your mind and take a higher perspective, and then watch as your thoughts enter your consciousness.
- Now realize that you don’t have to interact them. Let them pass by. Simply observe and let them pass out of existence by themselves. It’s as if you hear your phone ring, but decide not to answer it — you’re simply letting the noise go out by itself.
Detaching from your thoughts like this can provide a relaxing relationship to them. This is especially helpful in the case of negative thoughts.
Although this method can seem a bit weird, you might be surprised of how fast you can learn to observe your mind. You don’t have to engage. You can watch from a meta-perspective.
Exposure with Response-Prevention
Behavior is a powerful tool in self-mastery. Combine that with beneficial ways of interpreting the events around you — based on your thoughts, feelings and actions — and you get cognitive behavioral therapy.
This is a method that combines cognitive techniques with behavioral management. However, given that we have already covered a cognitive technique, I now choose to focus on a behavioral one.
If you want sufficient self-mastery, you need to learn how to take action. And that regardless of how you’re feeling in the present moment. You can’t let yourself be paralyzed by fear; you need to learn how to handle it. You need to expose yourself to the things you’re afraid of, because self-mastery depends on doing what you aspire to do.
Cognitive behavioral therapy provides such a tool. Namely, exposure with response-prevention.
I learned this tool the first time I posted something vulnerable on Instagram. I had thought about posting something for a long time, but I couldn’t force myself to do it. I was afraid.
I wanted to share my words, but I was scared to take the first step of actually posting something. One night, however, I had had enough and I started to compose a caption.
Although it took a while before I hit publish, I ended up posting something before I went to bed that night. The next morning, as I secretly had expected, I found out that nothing bad had happened.
Because of this first step, I could continue to post on my Instagram. But more than than, I don’t have a problem sharing personal and vulnerable stories anymore. I conquered the fear.
The first thing to realize with the use of this tool, is that fear and anxiety is a normal reaction to the things you’re afraid of. The problem, however, is that talking your way out of it is an ineffective solution. It’s only through exposure that your brain gets to process that nothing bad will happen, and thus, incorporates that piece of information for future events. This is how:
- In exposing yourself to something, it can be helpful to create a plan. Break the thing you’re afraid of into smaller sub-components, and make it so that you can overcome the first step quite easily. This builds self-efficacy (the belief that you can overcome more), and you can proceed to the overall goal.
- It’s important to increase the difficulty of the sub-components gradually. And you don’t have to move on before you feel like you can handle where you’re at.
- When you do the actual exposing, withstand it for a while. When your brain then registers that nothing bad is happening, the anxiety will drop off by itself.
- This is where the response-prevention comes in: while you’re exposing yourself, you have to minimize or prevent the safety-responses that the situation might arouse (such as pinching yourself or repeating calming words to create a distraction). The goal is to gain a favorable interpretation of the event — that nothing bad will happen — but that won’t occur if you’re constantly distracting yourself; your brain must be able to process it.
Here’s an example of how exposure with response-prevention might work in the case of overcoming a fear of public speaking:
- The first step might be to speak aloud by yourself.
- The second could be speaking in front of a friend or a family member.
- Third, you could visit a stage or a podium, and stand there withoutspeaking.
- Fourth, you could speak aloud, but with no attendances.
- Fifth, you could invite your friends, perhaps even some strangers — as many as you’re comfortable with — and speak in front of them.
- Finally, you might be able to speak in front of a larger audience.
You can’t manage yourself without others. Due to our highly social nature — and because we value interpersonal unity — we have grown dependent on the opinions and reactions of others.
We’re more or less wired to follow the norm of a group, as it supports our in-group cohesion. This is exemplified by how common it is to worry about other people’s opinions.
It’s also the case that we can’t phantom everything by ourselves. We need others to make sense of the world, and we’re constantly looking for clues on how to behave. In other words, we leverage the minds of others to navigate the world.
Because of this, if we want to master ourselves we need to listen to feedback. Group therapy acknowledge this fact, and uses it to enable improvement.
I learned this tool from a speaker when I was studying at the university. He was a clinical psychologist, and he talked about how he himself had benefited from group therapy. It sounded good in theory. However, it wasn’t before I implemented it myself that I learned it’s real value.
When I wrote my first book, I initially worked on it for 9 months. I was personally satisfied at that point, but I knew from what I had learned that I needed to get some feedback on it before its publication.
I asked for it and got it. And while it meant that I had to work on it for another month or so, it made a significant impact on my work. I had developed blind-spots for my own material, but getting the feedback was like getting another set of eyes, which could see the things that I couldn’t see myself. Through feedback, my book got better.
This is how to use the tool:
- Have the people around you give you feedback on your behavior. Tell them to be sincere, and that you don’t mind hearing it as it is. This is especially helpful if you have a goal you’re trying to achieve. Because if the others know of your goal, they can call you out whenever you’re doing something that’s counterproductive. On the same token, they can also encourage and reinforce the desirable behaviors they see in you.
- When you get the feedback, process it and adjust your behavior if needed.
- Realize that not all feedback is equally helpful or accurate. The important thing is that your consider it. Based on your own personal conviction, you can decide what to do with it.
If you learn these tools, you can learn to master yourself. And when you learn to master yourself, you can learn to master the ups and downs of life.
As I’ve tried these tools and experienced their impact, I certainly vouch for their utility. I hope you take the time to practice them yourself, and that you achieve a higher level of self-mastery. Because when you do, you can begin to help others do the same.
- Kennair, L. E. O., & Hagen, R. (2014). Psykoterapi: En innledning. In R. Hagen (Ed.), Psykoterapi (1 ed., pp. 13–22). Oslo: Gyldendal.
- Nordahl, H. M. (2014). Metakognitiv terapi. In R. Hagen (Ed.), Psykoterapi (1 ed., pp. 199–214). Oslo: Gyldendal.
- Hjemdal, O., & Kennair, L. E. O. (2014). Kognitiv atferdsterapi. In R. Hagen (Ed.), Psykoterapi (1 ed., pp. 145–160). Oslo: Gyldendal.
- Sutton, R., & Douglas, K. (2013). Social Psychology. London: Palgrave.
- Hagen, R. (2014). Kognitiv gruppeterapi. In R. Hagen (Ed.), Psykoterapi (1 ed., pp. 357–370). Oslo: Gyldendal