I grew up in a world where all we had was an oversized television (the old box-like version) with two antennae reaching three feet into the air. Sometimes a bit of tin foil would help with reception – that was our “high tech.” We bought cassette tapes of new artists, which used to be sold in any of the plethora of book and music stores accessible to all. Records were on their way out by the time I showed up on the scene, but tapes were in full swing. Now we have cell phones and computers, the Internet, and what seems like an infinite selection of different types and sizes of devices. We have smart phones, and as far as I am concerned, mine is likely much smarter than me because I somehow often find myself calling a customer service line for help with some basic function, only to find another machine directing me from one set of options to another. This process typically ends in frustration because the final (and often best) option is to return to cyberspace for guidance.
Regardless of how much technology takes over our lives, one simple truth remains: We are still human, with a full range of emotions and an unfathomably complex brain (that has not yet been truly replicated by computer intelligence), and it is not likely that a day will come when we do not interact to some extent with one another. True, one day robots may replace us for many daily tasks, however, we are social animals and like many other animal species we thrive when we are a part of a community. This is not unlike other species who survive and thrive in herds, packs, schools, prides, flocks, shivers, murders, and so forth and so on. I personally cannot conceive of anything that could replace the experience of a hug, a magical kiss, making love to someone you feel deeply connected to, or even the chemistry and synergy that exists when you are interacting with someone who intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally stimulates you (or your brain).
What does this mean? Well, it means that nothing will replace or compensate for our ability of lack thereof when it comes to learning how to socialize, interact, or think. At the end of the day, we are each responsible for ourselves, and this truly is all we actually have any control over or power to change. Therefore, I urge us all to not lose focus on this most “human” aspect of our lives in a vast sea of hiding behind monitors and screens. Because there is so much “noise” out there in cyberspace and when overwhelmed we tend to tune it all out, including the important or potentially helpful information, I packaged a set of “Bucket Rules” for my own patients several years ago. After years of observing the most common issues that presented in treatment and therapy groups, I realized that providing a handful of essential concepts to my patients may help them focus their efforts. This has been especially beneficial when working with people who have anxiety or depression, and thus have great difficulty with focus and concentration. They have trouble remembering much at all, so I’ve made it very simple for them.
“I challenge you to explore distress that may result from this tendency to judge.”
NOTE: This is my disclaimer regarding the specific use of profanity or unusual words from this point on. I chose these particular words because using a common language most often used by patients themselves, especially when in distress, makes the rules much more accessible. Also, the use of rhyme and these highly emotionally-charged words ensures that my patients remember the rules. If you find profanity to be offensive, then my guess is that you are actually breaking one of the rules (see below) and not just in this context but across areas of your life. I challenge you to explore distress that may result from this tendency to judge. On a final note, I wish I could actually take credit for absolutely all of these ideas, but all ideas are born from knowledge of what preceded them. One of my rules specifically borrows from teachings of one of the forefathers of psychology (and this will be noted, specifically Rule #4). Like most of our current evidence-based treatment modalities and much good science that reinvents the wheel, I have simply packaged the following ideas and built upon general knowledge in the field. My bucket rules have been informed by and based on my own experience with my patients over the past decade(s). My only hope is that they will improve your well-being. Consider them to be your five commandments for a better life!
Defining the “BUCKET”
I always learned best using visuals and analogies and I have found over the years that so do my patients. I use the analogy of the bucket in my therapy groups (and one especially motivated patient actually made a beautiful wood bucket for me that I utilize). We each have a bucket and it represents (and contains in it) all that we have control over in the world – ourselves. So let’s break down what it means to say, “I only have control over myself.” Each of us can be broken down into our thoughts (beliefs, attitudes, thought processing), our feelings (emotional state), and our behaviors (actions, interactions). If you really think hard about this, everything and anything we actually control falls into one or more of these three categories. The edge of the bucket represents the boundary between us and the rest of the world (i.e., millions and millions of buckets). This does not minimize the value or potential impact of our actions in society, it puts it into perspective. We may have influence over some people in our lives, but that is not the same thing as having control. And influence is only likely to occur when there is an extant relationship of some sort, involving love, care, respect, or admiration. Many of my patients struggle with this concept probably not because they have trouble understanding it, but rather because they have difficulty accepting it. But we must simply radically accept this reality.
This is such an important concept because once we acknowledge that this is all we can truly control and all we have power over, then we truly understand where our responsibilities lie. We cannot be responsible for things that we have no power to change. So, CONTROL/POWER = RESPONSIBILITY. What is the critical point here? Well, let’s think about what we spend so much time worrying about….what other people think about us, how other people feel, or what other people will do. We spend a majority of our time worrying or stressing about other peoples’ buckets, and we already established that we have no control anything outside of our own bucket. We spend so much energy and emotion trying to bucket jump instead of simply staying put, grounded in our own bucket, taking full responsibility over what we can change. As it turns out, bucket jumping can be not only frustrating, but can also leave us feeling completely helpless and then hopeless. This is not a great scenario for people who live with high anxiety (i.e., worry or apprehension about the future, and specifically likelihood of adverse outcomes). Trying to have control over things we actually do not control feeds anxiety and a sense of lacking control (even though we often believe that we are taking or having more power and control over others). Interestingly, letting go of this artificial sense of control (i.e., shifting focus to ourselves) and directing our energy to improving our ability to think critically, we are left feeling less anxious, more in control in general, and overall more balanced. And this is where I will simply say, TRY IT!
Bucket Rule #1
You don’t get to worry about shit that hasn’t happened yet.
Explanation: Maybe this rule isn’t very fair because it’s like I’m saying, “Oh, you’re anxious? Well, just don’t be anxious.” However, the reason for setting this foundation is that often we get into unhealthy habits of thought and lose sight of what we are actually doing in the first place. This rule simply operationalizes and defines what anxiety or worry is, which is important because once we break it down like this, then there’s a chance that your prefrontal cortex (i.e., the home of critical – logical/rational – thought) will trump your limbic system (i.e., specifically the amygdala, the home of emotions – think the “headquarters” in the movie Inside Out). We logically understand that worrying about the future is not productive. And worrying is not the same thing as preparing. In fact, one could argue that the very point of preparation (not overpreparation folks, so I mean one back up plan, not ten!) is that it allows us to NOT worry. After all, we have done all that we can, we have done our part (i.e., our actions and those live in our bucket).
Bucket Rule #2
You don’t get to worry about shit that’s out of your control.
Explanation: This is a little broader and somewhat overlapping with Rule #1 (since the future is not in our control because of how many moving parts are involved in our fate). So, back to the bucket to answer the question of what is in our control and what is not. If only our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are in our control, then everything outside of our bucket’s edge falls into the category of “out of our control.” This rule reminds us that worrying about things we have no ability to change simply makes us sick. Like the expression goes: “Worry is paying a debt you don’t yet owe (and may never owe!).” Perhaps some of you are reminded of the beginning of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. The bottom line is, if we want a sense of control, then focusing on our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors will, believe it or not, grant us enough of a sense of control in our own life to feel highly self-efficacious and confident, and ultimately hopefully content as well.
Bucket Rule #3
Handle your own shit. If it’s not in your bucket, then fuck it!
Explanation: Again, let’s bring the focus back to us. Handling your own “shit” means working on your own thought processing. This is critical, because how we think and what we think determines how we feel. Remember, feelings do not fly out of thin air and land in our laps. Feelings (ALL FEELINGS) are manufactured, created by thoughts. And thoughts that lead to feelings then dictate our behaviors (or lack thereof often). So, if you have an angry thought, then you will feel angry, and this may lead to an angry outburst, angry body language, or violence. This is a lesson I started teaching my two nephews and my niece from a very young age so that I might plant seeds that could grow and hopefully help them navigate their interpersonal lives, and also understand responsibility and locus of control. So they now understand (at under 10 years old) that nobody else has the capacity to make them angry. If they are angry, or sad, or scared, it is because they are having thoughts that are making them feel that way. Let me also clarify the second part of this rule since it is often misunderstood or misinterpreted by my patients.
When I say fuck “it” it does NOT mean fuck them (or him or her). It does NOT mean that we do not care. It simply means that investing your emotional energy or effort in other buckets (that you have no control over) is futile. And I will extend this idea to an equally salient issue. When we are able to stay in our own bucket and not bucket jump by telling people what they should do or how to fix their situation, then we actually allow them to own what’s in their bucket. There is less confusion about boundaries, and we are able to truly not only be mindful for ourselves but also offer support to the other person. If you find in an interaction that the other person is becoming defensive, then that signals to you that you may be bucket jumping. Then next task would be to make sure you don’t let them jump into your bucket either. This rule seems to be one of the most helpful rules for my patients, likely because we (humans in general) seem to have great difficulty with setting healthy boundaries with other people.
Bucket Rule #4
No “shoulding” and No “musterbating.”
Explanation: This is a pretty self-explanatory rule. Using the word “should” creates expectation. By creating expectation, we also engage in judgment, labeling, and highly rigid thinking that not only prevents compassion but excludes mindfulness. Compassion allows us give other people (and ourselves) some wiggle room – to make mistakes, to not be perfect, to not be us. Without compassion, life will be miserable. When we use the word “should” we also manufacture the emotion of anger. Start paying attention to people speaking around you and the language they use. Notice the word “should” pop up a lot more when they (or you) are angry. “Musterbating” means using vocabulary like “must,” “need to,” or “have to.” These words create a sense of urgency, desperation, and judgment, and they tend to increase our level of anxiety and worry. We believe that using these types of words will somehow motivate us, but as it turns out, they don’t; they simply create more stress, make us feel suffocated, and can even cause what one of my patients described as “analysis paralysis.” This means our anxiety can become so elevated that we feel paralyzed and are even less productive than intended. This phenomenon or theory is described by the Yerkes-Dodson Law. As mental or physiological arousal increases, performance or productivity increases but only until a point (i.e., moderate levels of stress), and then counterintuitively it decreases (illustrated by a bell curve). Alternative words that can be used to express similar sentiments, but also allow more compassion and mindfulness, are words such as: I wish, I would like, I want, I hope (and the tense can be changed to reframe past events as well). “They should not have done that to me” can thus be replaced by a healthier, more balanced (and probably more accurate) thought such as “It would have been nice if they hadn’t done that.” The replacement thought also drops the “to me” part because our tendency to over-personalize the thoughts, feelings, and actions of other people or parties is not only inaccurate and irrelevant in most cases, but also unhealthy and distressing.
Bucket Rule #5
Explanation: Again, I need to clarify this rule because it is often misunderstood at first glance. This rule does NOT mean that we don’t care about feelings or your feelings. The fact is, this entire field of mental health was created to address and aid in our feelings. This rule simply means, let’s not take our feelings so seriously, and let’s not allow our emotions to dictate the decisions in our lives. Feelings are fickle, transient, and the come and go unpredictably because they are based on our thoughts. We are thinking all day long and when we are not aware of or paying attention to our thoughts, we call them “automatic” thoughts. This can be problematic when our automatic thoughts are maladaptive or unhealthy negative thoughts. They become our default and we often do not even realize that we are feeding these thoughts because they have morphed into our “truth” and we no longer question them. Danger! Danger! The only truth we have is that thoughts CAN be changed. I would be a wealthy woman if I made a dollar every time a patient said, “No doc, I didn’t do X, Y, or Z, because I didn’t ‘feel’ like it.” In trying to get depressed people moving, the nature of the beast is that we don’t feel like doing anything! So, if we can just commit to leaving feelings out of it, and go to the gym anyway, or go out anyway, then we have a chance at beating the monster that possesses us.
People with anxiety avoid, and avoidance behaviors are the single culprit in perpetuating and sustaining anxiety feelings and disorders. Why do they avoid? Because going out, socializing, being in noisy crowded places makes them feel too anxious and uncomfortable. So, this is when we learn, “Fuck Feelings!” Let’s acknowledge the feelings (i.e., mindfulness – this means learning to 1) pay attention, 2) on purpose, 3) in the moment, 4) without judgment), and have compassion for ourselves. Perhaps reminding yourself that you are having a moment of suffering, but everyone suffers, and you are going to choose to be kind too yourself instead of beating yourself up with nasty thoughts of how useless, stupid, or scared you seem. But let’s not get stuck in how we feel for that fleeting moment. Once we have identified the negative emotion, and once we have acknowledged our resistance, let’s just commit to go do the thing that we know (intellectually at least, if not emotionally) will lead us towards our desired outcome of being healthier, happier, more peaceful people.
This rule has been the single most helpful, life-changing rule for most of my patients who have been able to grab onto it and start changing behavior. Having the permission to feel like shit and being validated for that, but then having guidance to go do the opposite (i.e., the harder thing) is a simple concept. It challenges our tendency to do things we are comfortable with and avoid things we don’t like. Going skydiving may not significantly impact your life in a meaningful way, however, if you have difficulty in social interactions, driving, shopping, and other essential activities of daily living, then mastering this rule may just change your life. And for all of you out there who are feeling anxious just reading this, or are skeptical, let me also warn you that sometimes when you start doing “exposure exercises” (these are therapeutic activities intended to help you face your feared situations, thoughts, places, people, etc.), sometimes things feel worse before they get comfortable. Stay in this because it will pay off. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic behavioral modification, and it works with dogs, children, and us (adults)!
Well, there you have it. My 5 Bucket Rules. Many of my patients learn them, teach them to their wives, husband, children, and coworkers so that they all speak a common language and work together on a healthier approach to thinking and communicating. I hope that this will reach you and your loved ones. Each of us may not have the power to change the whole world, but by having a little positive influence over the people in our immediate lives, perhaps we can make it a better world. At the very least, we alleviate some of our own unnecessary suffering, and perhaps that of a few people we love most.
Good luck and be well by thinking well.