The Big Happiness Interview: How to be your own therapist with Owen O'Kane

The world feels rather disconcerting right now and I am relieved to be talking to Owen O’Kane, psychotherapist and author of Sunday Times best seller How to be Your Own Therapist for World Mental Health Day.

I confess to Owen that I’m avoiding the news because I feel so anxious and overwhelmed by world events.

‘Focus on what you can control,’ says Owen. ‘You may not be able to control the events of the day, but you can control your response to it.

‘I have worked for thirty years with people in distress. And what I’ve learnt is that it’s the response to a negative experience, rather than the experience itself, that has the biggest psychological impact.’

Owen has over three decades of experience in physical and mental health and is a former NHS Mental Health Clinical Lead.

His last two books, Ten Times Happier and Ten to Zen, are both globally acclaimed and Sunday Times bestselling books.

Here Owen talks to about how becoming your own therapist will make you happier.

Does everyone need therapy?

Every single person on the planet would benefit from some therapy.

Even if you’re perfectly content with your life, gaining the self-knowledge to understand why you’re happy means you can re-discover what makes you tick when life is less than rosy.

Why does therapy help us to be happy?

The epicentre of therapy is looking at our ‘foundational core beliefs’ – the foundations upon which your entire world view and psychological make-up are based.

Most of our patterns and beliefs as adults have been learned along the way. The key word here is learned. You’ve learned ways of thinking, you’ve learned ways of behaving, you’ve learned ways of dealing with emotions.

Good therapy is understanding that if you want to be happier and you want to get more from your life, you have a choice to unlearn the patterns that don’t serve you well.

You’re not your emotions, you’re not these thoughts, you can change your behaviour

But how do we cope when life challenges us?

The people I work with will talk about things that are going on in their life – divorce, difficult bosses, breakups, bereavement, external factors, which of course all contribute to why we struggle.

But the real struggle comes with the interpretations, with ways of thinking, how they manage emotions, and conflict and the behaviours that don’t serve them well.

This is what I try to help people understand. You’re not your emotions, you’re not these thoughts, you can change your behaviour.

Where do we start?

You can start by looking at your beliefs and rules that you created in childhood. As a child you learned that if you behaved in a particular way it got you noticed, accepted, loved, respected and so on. You also learned how to stay safe and minimise the risk of harm. These learnings become your rules and beliefs.

The problem is that these rules and beliefs have probably never been reviewed in your adult life and may not serve you anymore. They are usually prefaced with words like ‘must’ and ‘should’.

Start by making a list of all the shoulds and musts you’ve created in your life and ask – how can you be more flexible? For example, instead of ‘I must be the best’, try ‘I can only try my best’.

Instead of ‘I should always please people’, try: ‘It’s not possible to please everyone.’ It’s also useful to pan out and look at your whole life story.

Your whole life story?

Yes, get familiar with your ‘story’. Start by creating a movie trailer version of your life. Chunk your life down into ten-year blocks – list happy, positive events – winning awards, starting relationships, as well as sad or negative events – bereavements, divorce, sad memories.

Notice how exploring your story makes you feel. It’s like being a detective and exploring your story until you might have an ‘aha’ of why exactly why you feel you can’t trust life/take responsibility/ or are sometimes too reckless.

There is a huge liberation when that light bulb moment happens, and you not only recognise your pattern but also understand why you do what you do. It gives you space to look at pattern and think ‘that wasn’t really my fault’. Or ‘this was just something that I experienced, or I learned’.

Once you’ve recognised your pattern, there can be a wrestling match of – do you want to you stay the way you are or change? Change can be scary, and we might want to hold on to our old patterns, because they feel like a comfort blanket because they’re familiar.

Many of us don’t want to look at our story because we’re afraid of the emotions it might stir up.

We all have darker emotions and it’s learning that you can feel these emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

You learn that emotions are there to help you, not destroy you and your emotions are giving you messages – perhaps it’s time to slow down or it’s time to re-evaluate, for example?

Once you start tolerating emotions, you can actually learn to get comfortable with them. Then you get curious about what they are trying to teach you.

It can feel difficult to not run away from our emotions when we’re triggered.
It’s finding a point of stabilisation because when you’ve got all this stuff going on in your head, or when you’re overwhelmed by emotions that you’re trying to numb, it’s very difficult to function in a way which is going to lead to a happy peaceful life.

It’s difficult to find peace when you live in a dysfunctional state. So, it’s important to learn the skill of stabilising yourself whatever is going on in your life.

There is a huge liberation when that light bulb moment happens, and you not only recognise your pattern but also understand why you do what you do.

How do we stabilise ourselves?

There are many tools you can use. But challenging your thoughts in the moment can be a great place to start.

Thoughts can critical, negative, catastrophic, unhelpful and fearful, as well as helpful, rational and a force for good. But the harsh reality is, negative thoughts tend to draw us in more.

There is a simple process for reprogramming our negative thought patterns.

First recognise an unhelpful thinking pattern, then examine the evidence to support the thought you’re having. Is there irrefutable proof that what you’re thinking is true? For example, you might consider applying for a job, then immediately think, ‘I’ll never get it.’ Where is the evidence to support that as true?

Then look to replace the thought with a more helpful alternative and then let go of the unhelpful thought. It’s just one of the tools that you can learn to help you function better, feel better and live better for the rest of your life.

The four commitments of being your own therapist

Talk to yourself as if you’re someone who matters

We all have a running internal dialogue. Take a moment to notice the chatter. Our internal tone can often be destructive, harmful, judgemental, even cruel.

Change your tone, change your language. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone who you respect,

Looking after yourself

Self-care isn’t high enough of the agenda for most people and it’s essential for healthy daily functioning. Self-care is a therapeutic act. You are showing up in your life and deciding you deserve looking after.

Going easy on yourself

Self-compassion is broader than how you talk to yourself. It’s learning how to comfort yourself in darker times and accepting and sitting with your flawed humanity. It’s not conditional on success, achievements or accolades.

We make mistakes, we screw up, we fail and instead of persecuting yourself for that, go easy, be kind.

Showing up in your life authentically

In a society obsessed with creating the illusion of perfect lives, try showing up unapologetically you. When you try to create an illusion that is at odds with who we are, we weaken our position.

Commit to your authentic self. It won’t let you down.

How To Be Your Own Therapist by Owen O’Kane (HarperCollins, £16.99) is out now.

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