“If only all of life was like the gym”, Jay sighed. Between his hours as a personal trainer, and his own busy exercise regime, Jay could spend up to 30 hours a week at the gym. While he was lifting weights or helping someone else reach their physical best, he felt happy. Outside the gym, however, life was a different story. He would experience periods of low mood which he couldn’t attribute a ‘good enough’ reason for and he felt he was lost, unsure of where he should be going in life. This often led to feelings of anxiety and avoidance of social situations or phone calls to his family, in case they asked him about future plans.
I’m not a gym person, so I felt pleased I could draw on his wisdom and experience. I asked him what he would do if someone came to him and said they wanted to be in better health.
“Better Health?” he replied, “before we could help them with that, I’d need to understand what they meant by better health – did they want to have more stamina? Lose weight? Gain muscle? Everyone starts off by saying they want to be fitter, but actually there are a range of different things that people are really asking for and it’s my job to understand that so we can develop an appropriate programme.”
That makes sense, you need to know where they want to go and then you can give them an appropriate plan, right?
“I’d also need to understand where they’re at before we make a plan. If I don’t know what their current fitness level is, how can we make a plan to improve it?”
I nodded. To make a plan you need to know where you are and where you want to get to. Easy.
“There’s more to it than that,” he continued. “We can’t just focus on the end goal, especially when it is one that can’t be crossed off a list. For example, if someone wants to be fitter, it is always possible to be more fit. We need small goals to pass along the way so that the person knows they’re moving in the right direction.”
I smiled, Jay clearly knew his stuff.
“But possibly one of my most important roles as a Personal Trainer is helping each person identify what might get in the way of their plan actually happening. Some of these are external things like how much time do they have each week to spend at the gym and what other commitments they have. But also I like to ask them about some of their thoughts, especially the ones that encourage them to give up training or skip a session. It’s amazing how often people’s own thoughts sabotage them.”
Jay appeared quite animated as he described this whole process, and I was excited to learn from him. I was also excited that the four steps he described were very similar to what we needed to do in therapy. We need to understand where he wants to get to in life, this may include what he wants his relationships to be like, and what else matters to him. We also need to notice where he is right now, not where he once was or where his mind tells him he should be. Just where he actually is at this present moment. He took a breath and looked around to observe this. The third step is to identify steps he can take this week to help him move towards the things that he wants his life to be about. Finally, we agreed that we will need to notice what thoughts and feelings turn up to get him off track with this plan and what things he tends to do (or not do) when these start making lots of noise. And just like at the gym, he doesn’t even need to find a way to get rid of these thoughts, just notice them and turn his focus back to where he wants to get to.
Jay smiled. “Maybe life is more like a gym than I’d realised, let’s do this”.
Ben Sedley is the author of Stuff that Sucks: A Teen’s Guide to Accepting What You Can’t Change and Committing to What You Can. He is a clinical psychologist and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) practitioner with over fifteen years of experience working with adolescents and adults facing mental health difficulties. He is also the father of three wonderful noisy kids and loves The Ramones and The Clash. He’d love to hear from you via www.facebook.com/stuff.ts or www.bensedley.com.