8, Part 7, from You Can Choose To Be Happy, Tom
G. Stevens PhD
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Mental Control Strategy 6:
Keep your "eye on the ball"
to funnel your energy
ON THE BALL CAN HELP US OVERCOME ANXIETY
Focus on what
you really want to say to overcome speech or social anxiety
ON YOUR ULTIMATE CONCERN FOR CLEAR INNER DIRECTION YOU
CAN ACHIEVE MENTAL CONTROL OF YOUR EMOTIONS
Dr. Maslow associated the peak experiences so often felt by his self-actualizing
people with periods of intense concentration and growth.
Apparently the acute mystic or peak experience is
a tremendous intensification of any of the experiences
in which there is a loss of self or transcendence of it;
e.g., problem-centering, intense concentration, . . .
sensuous experience, self-forgetful and
intense enjoyment of music or art.
(Abraham Maslow, 1954, p. 165)
When I was still hoping to become a major-league baseball player (during
high school), I saw a book in which a researcher examined photographs of
some of the best hitters of all time. He compared photos of the best hitters
swinging at the ball to photos of average hitters. The great hitters such
as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Henry Aaron had their eyes glued to
the ball as they were swinging. The eyes of the other major league players
were typically looking toward the pitcher, first base, or anyplace except
the ball. What is true in baseball is true in life. If you want to do well
at something, you've got to "Keep your eye on the ball."
A member of singer/songwriter Garth Brook's inner circle described him
as so focused when he is writing that "an explosion could go off right
next to him and he would never hear it." By keeping his attention focused on his writing, Garth Brooks could concentrate his mental powers on creating
his best music.
This type of concentration usually means a feeling of total immersion
in the focal subject and a loss of time perspective. Dr. Maslow called
this characteristic "problem-centering," and believed it to be one of the
most important characteristics of self-actualizing people. It is also a
direct cause of achieving states of "loss of self," happiness, and "peak
experience."Return to beginning
A major university decided to form study groups to solve a variety of
important problems at the university. Half the groups were told to find
all of the problems they could and make reports about them. The other
half of the groups were not told anything about finding problems. They
were instructed to focus on finding solutions to whatever problems
they thought might exist.
The problem-focus groups explored the problems thoroughly and
became increasing discouraged about what a mess the university was in.
Attendance dropped and one-by-one the groups disintegrated. Few reports
were even filed.
The solution-focus groups had very different results. Groups
quickly found a few problems members thought were important. But they spent
little time dwelling on the problems. Instead they started focusing
on solutions. Members made many positive suggestions and became
enthusiastic about them. People enjoyed going to meetings, and some groups
lasted for several years. The solution-focus groups contributed to many
constructive changes in their university.
Individuals are much the same way. We all know "complainers"--people
who are constantly focusing on their problems and play the role of victim.
They seem to seek sympathy. They may want validation that the situation
is so impossible, they have no responsibility to improve it. They may fear
that--despite their disadvantages--they could have solved their problems
and achieved a happier life. It's easy to slip into that mode of thinking.
Do you ever find yourself complaining repeatedly about the same issue,
end up feeling sorry for yourself, and slip into the victim role? Change
your focus from the problems, disadvantages, and roadblocks to focus
on your resources, constructive ideas, and potential solutions to
improve the situation. You will experience an immediate improvement in
attitude and begin to make genuine progress.
PRACTICE: Make progress on an "impossible" problem.
Think of a problem which you have given up on or a problem you
constantly complain about.
(1) List the external barriers (factors outside
yourself) which are contributing to the problem or are barriers to your
solving the problem.
(2) List the internal barriers (your beliefs, motivation,
lack of training or experience, disabilities, etc) which are barriers to
solving the problem.
(3) List the external resources--external factors
or resources (people, money, job, educational opportunities, etc) which
are available to help you.
(4) List your internal resources that can
help you (your intelligence, motivation, experience, persistence, ability
to learn, time, etc.).
(5) For each external and internal barrier list resources
and ideas that can help you overcome that limitation.
(6) List potential new solutions, and ideas
of how to follow up on them (example, get more information).Return to beginning
"ON THE BALL" CAN HELP US OVERCOME ANXIETY
Giving an important speech, confronting a powerful person, or performing
a difficult task under great pressure can lead to high anxiety. Performance
anxiety means anxiety in a situation where optimal performance seems
important. It usually involves evaluation by others and ourselves. (Expectations
and goals are important and should be dealt with as described in strategy
4 to keep us optimally challenged.)
Performance anxiety produces interfering thoughts. There are
many types of performance anxiety, but they have similar causes. Test anxiety
is a good example and is very common among students. Research (and my clinical
observation) has shown that people who have test anxiety are really spending
much of their test time thinking negative thoughts. These negative thoughts
may involve possible consequences of not doing well on the test, of self
"put-downs," of thinking how they are doomed to fail, or of many other
It is not just the negativism of these thoughts that reduces students
chances of doing well on the test. In addition, they may spend 10 to 30
minutes out of a 50-minute test hour focusing on these negative thoughts.
That leaves them only 20 to 40 minutes to focus on the content of the
test and search their memory for answers. Their classmates have the
whole 50 minutes!
Control focus to "prime" and control your brain's search for memory
associations. If you focus on the word "apple," your memory naturally
begins to search for related associations, such as the visual image of
an apple and taste of an apple. If you focus on negative themes, your memory
will produce associated thoughts such as previous failures or terrible
things that could happen if you don't do well. Even prolonged debating
with yourself to generate positive thoughts can interfere with "keeping
your eye on the ball" in many performance situations.
You control your brain's search and "priming" of content-related memories
by controlling your focus of attention. If you direct your focus to the
actual content of the test, speech, or other performance, then your
memory will naturally search for associations related to the performance.
You will recall the content necessary to answer the questions.Return to beginning
Refocus "on the ball" during a task to overcome anxiety. Use
the following steps to overcome performance anxiety and maximize
concentration during the performance.
(1) Observe your focus. During the performance, let your
Higher Self (or "inner observer") partly be alert to the occurrence of
negative or other interfering thoughts. Examples: "What will everyone think
of me?" "What if I fail?" "This can't be happening to me." "Why can't I
remember this." "I worked so hard." "This is terrible." "I can't cope with
this." "I don't know what to do." "I'm a failure." "That is so stupid."
"What's the matter with me."
(2) Refocus on the content. When you observe interfering
thoughts occurring, remember the following:
(3) Later, examine underlying issues. At times outside the
performance situation (or during breaks), examine the interfering thoughts.
What were the content and themes of the interfering thoughts? Follow
your feelings [self-exploration chapter] to get to the underlying subparts
and issues that are producing the interfering thoughts. Also, see the HARMONY
strategy 2 above. Write a few short statements that cope with underlying
themes. You can use these later in the target performance situation. Return to beginning
These thoughts are interfering with your focus on the content
and preventing success.
You do not have time to deal with the underlying issues now; you can
deal with them later.
You can (optionally) repeat short pre-planned positive statements to
yourself (see 3).
Instead, focus your attention on any part of the actual content of
the current task that will get you re-engaged in the immediate task.
This new focus will even help you remember "forgotten" material
that you couldn't recall when you were focusing on negative thoughts (because
the new focus primes related memories).
Competing parts of ourselves generate conflicting thoughts. Any
thoughts that change our focus from the primary task at hand can interfere
with our current performance--not only negative thoughts, even pleasant
ones. The sources of these thoughts are cognitive systems. Distracting
thoughts can affect performance.
Negotiating with our subparts to reduce interfering thoughts.
If we are in the midst of giving a speech, a serious discussion, taking
an exam, playing ball, or writing a proposal, then we certainly cannot
resolve all of our underlying conflicts then! It might take awhile to resolve
these issues. What can we do right now to improve our focus? One way is
to temporarily focus back on our goals, values, or reasons why we are doing
what we are doing right now. We can ask ourselves, "What do I really
want to be doing right now?" (considering all of my feelings and subparts).
No matter how pressing the immediate situation may be, we can remind
ourselves, "I really am free to do whatever my other subpart (that is
trying to interfere) wants to do instead." After considering the main
factors, we can make a fresh decision now about whether we choose
to continue the match, meeting, exam, or writing. If we decide to continue
and the interfering thoughts continue, we can remind ourselves why we made
this decision to continue.
To negotiate with the subpart that is generating the interfering thoughts,
we can schedule a time to attend to that subpart and the issues it is raising.
We can even write down thoughts we are getting from it so that we can get
back in touch with those thoughts later. Negotiating with the troublesome
subpart can help reassure it, and that can help quiet it for a while. However,
if the executive self later breaks its promises to other subparts, then
they will not trust it and will not be put off so easily in the future.Return to beginning
What is "the ball?" Where do we focus for maximum performance?
This is a very complex issue and will depend upon the specific task we
are engaged in. The rules I follow for directing my attention when I am
playing tennis may bare little resemblance to the rules I follow for directing
my attention when I am writing this book. Directing our focus is part of
the skill we learn as we move from novice to expert in any task. Learning
where to focus attention is a skill that helps make a superstar athlete
better than rivals.
Focus on deep content (and connect to it) to maximize
interest and learning. I once had a student who sat in the middle of
my psychology class and closed his eyes during my lectures and never took
a note. It used to annoy me, because I thought he was sleeping in my class.
Yet, when I graded the first exam, I was amazed: he had the highest grade
in the class!
I couldn't believe it, so I asked him how he did it. He said that during
my lectures he would focus his attention on what I was saying and try to
visualize it and think of ways he could apply it to his life. He said he
didn't need to take notes, because he focused so well it seemed easy to
remember what he needed on the exams.
Contrast his approach with students who spend most of their time focused
on taking notes or on thoughts that are totally unrelated to the lecture.
They may rarely focus on the deeper content of the lecture and rarely attempt
to assimilate it. They never learn the material in the first place.
Later that student may try to memorize it in some unproductive and boring
rote fashion. Understimulation leads to poor learning and memory. On the
other hand, the successful student concentrates on understanding the
lecture's (or book's) deeper meaning and understanding how to apply
it to new situations. This intense focus and struggle to understand
the material creates harmonious functioning and its "big three" interwoven
outcomes--peak learning, peak performance, and peak happiness (interest). Return to beginning
Focus on what
you really want to say to overcome self-expression or speech anxiety.
A client came to me who had an ironic problem. She was a successful teacher
who spoke in front of her students every day with great confidence--even
when being evaluated by her principal.
Yet she was currently taking a graduate class that required her to speak
in front of the class. She was terrified. She had a history of being terrified
of speaking in front of her peers. Why was this so? She could teach children
confidently with her peers present or even with a principal present who
had to make a decision about her job security! Why couldn't she speak to
a group of fellow college students with only a grade at stake?
After much inquiry, we found out that the main difference between her
teaching situation and her speaking to a college class was that in the
first instance she felt like what she had to say was really important.
She really wanted to teach the children the things she believed they
needed to learn. Therefore she would "lose herself" and focus all of
her attention on her goal of helping the students learn the material.
In the college class, she was required to give a speech on a topic she
had little interest in, knew little about, and thought would bore the other
students. Therefore her mind focused on her own fears about evaluations
by her peers and her instructors. She could not get lost in delivering
a message she thought was important. She rewrote her speech into one
she really wanted to tell her classmates. Focusing on what she really
wanted to tell them reduced her anxiety so much that she delivered
the speech confidently.
This method works with most people when they feel anxiety about talking
with others. A salesperson who first "sold himself" on his product and
was honest with customers became more confident and persuasive. People
afraid of talking to strangers have become more outgoing and confident.
They focus on their genuine interests instead of making a good impression.
They ask themselves, "What do I really want to know about this person--or
learn from this person?" and "What would I really like to tell them about
me or talk about?"
The next time you feel anxious about talking with someone (or giving a speech),
focus on what you really want to learn from them
and what you really want to say--
not on any outcome (focus on process goals).
Return to beginning
ON YOUR ULTIMATE CONCERN FOR CLEAR INNER DIRECTION
In the big game which is life, keeping your eye on the ball means focusing
on your ultimate concerns. My ultimate concern is the greatest happiness
for myself and others over time. Happiness is partially a measure of the
harmony in our mind-body subparts. If all of my subparts such as "psychologist,"
"athlete," "husband," "artist," and "child" are in harmony, then I will
People elevate many different means to happiness above the end
goal happiness. These means may include a love relationship, immediate
pleasure, money, job status, family, or security. By not keeping their
eye on the ball, they start making these means to happiness into
ends. Consequently, they make decisions that undermine their happiness.
A major cause of my clients' unhappiness is their making family or relationship
an ultimate concern. They become obsessed with trying to gain acceptance--no
matter how dysfunctional the relationship. They lose sight of their own
I keep reminding myself that overall happiness for self and others is
my ultimate concern. I am also most responsible for my own happiness.
If there is a prolonged conflict between my family, my wife, my job, my
recreation, my security, or anything else and my ultimate concern, then
I will put my ultimate concern first. Sherry does the same, and it helps
create a very happy marriage for both of us.
Focus on your ultimate concern to provide a beacon
to lead you through fog, currents that take you adrift, and
It will provide meaning for your life and help keep you "in
of harmonious functioning.
Return to beginning
ACHIEVE MENTAL CONTROL OF YOUR EMOTIONS
AND INCREASE PERFORMANCE
I use these six mental control strategies almost every day with my clients
and with myself to get control of emotions. If you are not currently using
them, learning them and using them habitually will make a significant difference
in your life. You will be able to adjust your emotions like a thermostat.
You can turn down the challenge when your emotions are too hot, and turn
up the challenge when your emotions are too cold. Spend much more of your
life in the zone of harmonious functioning.
Review the figure of the harmonious functioning model. Then etch the
SIX Harmonious Thinking mental control strategies in your mind. Perhaps
you would like to learn a little memory trick to help you remember the
six strategies. When I was a child, my mother read me a story about the
Little Engine That Could. This little "Choo Choo" had to carry a load
of toys for all the children at Christmas up and down very steep hills.
When it came to a hill that seemed too overwhelming, it repeated the message,
"I think I can, I think I can" over and over again--until it reached the
top of the hill.
Think of this "little engine that could" and watch it "chug off"
saying "I think I can, I think I can." Use the acronym, CHUG-OFF.
C=Choice; H=Harmony; U=Understanding; G=Goals & expectations; O=Optimism;
and F=Focus (drop final "F"). That's how I remember the six mental control
PRACTICE 1: Use this chapter to overcome a difficult
emotional situation. (1) Think of a situation, person, or issue where
you would like to get better emotional control (or performance). Or think
of an emotion you have trouble dealing with. (2) Is the emotion involved
primarily an overarousal emotion, an underarousal emotion, or sometimes
one then the other? (3) Apply the six Harmonious Thinking Strategies. Note
that the problem may be solved by just one of the six--or it could take
PRACTICE 2: Memorize these CHUG-OF parts and practice
using them intensely until they become habitual! Put up a list on the
wall, carry a list in your billfold or purse. Go back and refer to parts
of this chapter like a reference book when you need it. This--more than
almost any other chapter--is useful on a daily basis for coping with unpleasant
�SHAQ Research Results: Emotional Coping Habits
�� The Emotional Coping scale asks, how often do
you respond to being upset with the following response? The users check the
percentage of time they respond with a particular type of response (see
subscales below). The Emotional Coping scale correlated with Happiness, .66;
with Low Depression, .60; with Low Anxiety, .51; with Low Anger-Aggression, .49;
with good Relationships, .42; with Health, .49; with Income, .13; with
Education, .14; and with college GPA, .14.
Emotional Coping consists of the following six
1. Problem-solve, self-explore, talk subscale correlated
with Happiness, .48; with Low Depression, .28; with Low Anxiety, .22; with Low
Anger-Aggr, .29; with good Relationships, .42; with Health, .26; with
Education, .10; and with college GPA, .11.
2. Positive thoughts, philosophical view, pep-talk
subscale correlated with Happiness, .57; with Low Depression, .50; with Low
Anxiety, .36; with Low Anger-Aggr, .31; with good Relationships, .36; with
Health, .28; with Income, .05; with Education, .08; and with college GPA, .05.
3. Positive acts, fun, exercise. subscale
correlated with Happiness, .36; with Low Depression, .24; with Low Anxiety, .14;
with Low Anger-Aggr, .21; with good Relationships, .25; and with Health, .29.
4. Not anger, blame, withdraw subscale
correlated with Happiness, .49; with Low Depression, .53; with Low Anxiety, .48;
with Low Anger-Aggr, .45 with good Relationships, .27; with Health, .26; with
Income, .13; with Education, .08; and with college GPA, .09.
5. Not smoke, drugs subscale correlated with
Happiness, .19; with Low Depression, .29; with Low Anxiety, .33; with Low
Anger-Aggr, .26; with good Relationships, .07; with Health, .64; with Income, .07;
with Education, .18; and with college GPA, .11.
6. Not eat item correlated with Happiness, .20;
with Low Depression, .27; with Low Anxiety, .22; with Low Anger-Aggr, .21; with
good Relationships, .07; with Health, .24; with Income, .10.
�� Positive responses such as problem-solving,
exploring, positive thoughts, reframing with Higher Self or other positive
beliefs, doing positive engaging activities, and avoiding unproductive,
hostile, damaging, or addictive thoughts and actions are some of the best ways
to get control of emotions.
�� As you can see, how we respond to daily negative
emotions may have strong effects on our overall happiness, negative emotions,
relationships, health, and is even related to income and educational
Note: For all correlations, p < .0001 and Ns ranged
from 2704 to 3226.�
Happiness is not caused by external conditions.
Happiness measures the harmonious functioning of our brain--
how optimally it is challenged and how much it is learning.
Overchallenge causes overarousal emotions like anxiety and anger.
Underchallenge causes underarousal emotions like
boredom and depression.
We can adjust our emotions like a thermostat
by adjusting the challenge level.
Belief in mental control seems like magic,
because that belief alone helps get control.
The six mental control strategies give you
basic tools to achieve mental control.
Learn how to CHUG-OFF
when you need to adjust your emotional thermostat.
CHOICE (Replace or convert the situation),
HARMONY (of motives through self-exploration),
UNDERSTANDING (the situation and creating a road map),
GOALS (To lower anxiety, set goals LAPDS--
lower, process, dynamic, alternative, simple),
OPTIMISM (that I can eventually be happy no matter what the
FOCUS (on the ball and ultimate concern).
Through strengthening your Higher Self and increased mental
YOU CAN CHOOSE TO BE HAPPY.
Return to beginning
Go to next Chapter (Chapter 9:
Create A Better World For Yourself