Asking And That Means accesses the limiting beliefs underlying the words you are expressing.
Eileen suffered from frequent panic attacks and constant low-grade anxiety. These feelings were overwhelming and blocked her ability to think straight and live with purpose. We had the following session the day after a particularly intense attack.
Eileen: I’ve been hunting for an apartment, and it’s so stressful.
Chana: Why is it stressful for you?
Eileen: Because sometimes the landlord will sign with someone else before I’ve even gotten to see a place. Or I find a great place with three bedrooms, but I only have one roommate so far.
Chana: And why is that stressful?
Eileen: Because I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Chana: And why is that challenging?
Eileen: Because I’m totally not in control! So far we’re able to glean a few of Eileen’s beliefs:
She needs to know what’s going to happen. She’s not in control. She needs to have her roommate situation totally figured out before she signs anything. Looking at apartments might be a waste of time.
It’s easiest to focus on one thought at a time, so let’s ask Eileen to choose the one with which she most identifies:
Eileen: For sure the fact that I’m not in control.
Chana: You’re not in control. Is it true?
Eileen: Yes! Totally!
Chana: Can you absolutely know that it’s true that you’re not in control?
Chana: How do you react when you believe the thought that you’re not in control?
Eileen: My chest tightens. It’s hard to breathe. My vision starts to fog up.
Chana: What else?
Eileen: I want to put my hands over my head and hide under my bed. It’s like the whole world is coming crashing down.
Chana: Take a deep breath. Good. Now imagine yourself in that same situation, but the thought that you’re not in control isn’t there. Who are you without it?
Eileen: I’m just me, I guess. My body has chilled out. I’m just standing in the apartment I’m checking out and enjoying how much light it has. I’m excited about living there.
Chana: What is the opposite of “you’re not in control?”
Eileen: I am in control.
Chana: Give me three reasons why that’s true.
Eileen: I can decide what I chose to focus on in the situation. I can decide who I talk to and which apartments I visit.
Chana: Great. What else?
Eileen: I decide how I react to the landlords.
Chana: Can you think of another turnaround?
One of the ways we can turn a statement around is by replacing the subject with “my thinking.” Our thinking brings thoughts to our attention without my conscious control. Ideally, we want our beliefs to serve us, not enslave us, so putting the seat of our thoughts in its place can help us take back the reigns.
Eileen: My thinking is not in control.
Chana: Fantastic. Can you think of three reasons why that’s as true o truer than your original thought?
Eileen: Well, my thinking can’t actually do anything. It just comes up with all these potential situations or failures or problems. But I’m the one who shows up or signs the contract or finds the roommates.
Chana: Yes. And can you think of one more turnaround?
Eileen: Um…. I don’t think so…
Chana: How about, I’m not in control and –
Eileen: And that’s okay?
Eileen: No. No way. That is so not okay!
The reality is we’re not in control of most of what happens in life. Eileen has no control over landlords, roommates, apartment availability, or even a roach infestation. It’s true that she can control her reactions to these things, but what’s upsetting Eileen the most is that she can’t control the circumstances themselves. There’s something deeper going on, something lurking under the surface.
To help Eileen get a better grasp of the beliefs she has stored under the surface, we need to pull another tool out of the drawer. Let’s step up to her cerebral Thought Bank and use the ATM, which stands for And That Means:
Chana: Perhaps the idea that you’re not in control is not really what upsets you. Let’s dig a bit deeper. I’d like you to complete the following sentence in as many ways as feels true for you. You don’t have control, And That Means:
Eileen: That means that…
… I’m in danger … things won’t work out how I want. … it’s the worst case scenario.
… my anxiety won’t get better.
… I won’t make it financially. … I won’t find the right guy. … I won’t be able to make it.
I read this list back to Eileen and asked her to identify the statement which caused her the most upset and felt simultaneously the truest.
Eileen: I’m in danger.
Chana: You’re not in control and that means you’re in danger, is it true?
Eileen: (Crying) Yes.
Chana: Why are you crying?
Eileen: Because I’m so scared.
Chana: Why are you scared?
Eileen: I guess because I know that I’m not in control. That everything is totally out of control. And no one can protect me from all of the craziness out there.
Chana: So if you’re not in control, that means that everything is totally out of control?
Chana: Everything is totally out of control, is it true?
Chana: Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
Chana: Why did you say, “Hmm?”
Eileen: There are so many things in the world, like birds and trees and the wind and other people and what they do. They’re not in my control, but there seems to be some sort of order to them. I can’t say for sure that it’s all out of control.
Chana: And how do you react when you believe that it is out of control?
Eileen: My whole body tightens. I want to curl up in a ball and hide under the covers. It’s like the entire world is going to collapse and every bad guy is going to get me.
Chana: What are you unable to do when you believe everything is out of control?
Eileen: I’m too tight and scared to do anything fun. I can’t think straight. It’s so depressing!
Chana: Here’s a more challenging question: how do you benefit from believing that everything is out of control?
Eileen: It’s my job to control everything. I get to be the pilot, the commander in chief. It feels really powerful, like… oh.
Chana: Like what?
Eileen: Like I’m G-d. (Laughs.)
Chana: Why did you laugh?
Eileen: I’m so not G-d. But I think my ego loves the idea of me being in charge.
Chana: Let’s take a step back. Take a deep breath and imagine yourself back in the apartment search, only this time without the thought that everything is out of control. How are you without the thought?
Eileen: I feel more relaxed. There’s a part of me that knows everything’s going to work out somehow – even though I don’t know the details of how.
Chana: Feel that. This is the calm you’ve been looking for.
Chana: And you can have it even without knowing what is coming next.
Chana: So let’s turn it around. What’s the opposite of everything is out of control?
Eileen: Everything is in control.
Chana: How is that true?
Eileen: Well, back to the birds and the trees, they keep doing what they do and flying and growing in a way that seems orderly.
Chana: What else?
Eileen: There’s a system for looking for apartments. People post places with phone numbers, and I can go and see them. It makes sense mostly. It’s not like I get there and the tenants think I’m a door-to-door saleswoman or something. When they post a price, I can trust that it’s really the price. Landlords are honest most of the time, actually.
Chana: Can you give me one more reason why everything is in control?
Eileen: If I walk down the street I see people mostly following rules and being nice to each other.
Chana: How about another turnaround?
Eileen: Everything is not out of control?
Chana: Yes. How is that true?
Eileen: Well… stores open and close at fixed times, machines usually work the way they’re supposed to. And there are those videos of thousands of cars all going where they need to go, and it all seems like a dance.
Chana: You came up with that pretty fast.
Eileen: I did.
Eileen: I don’t know. When you asked the question, I suddenly saw all these images in my head of stuff I usually don’t pay attention to.
Chana: You asked your mind for information, and it gave it to you.
Chana: That sounds like a pretty reliable system.
Chana: Why did you just say that?
Eileen: I tend to focus on scary things like the world being out of control, and when I do that I see images of terrorist attacks and car accidents and mobs. It’s like I press a button and my mind spits out results.
Chana: What do you want to do?
Eileen: Press better buttons. I want to focus on how the world is in control and trust that I’m safe and okay.
Chana: How can you do that?
Eileen: Hmm… I guess when I’m walking down the street, and I see cars stopping at a red light and all the passengers being safe, I can remind myself that it’s an example of the world being in control. I can do that with lots of things.
Chana: How do you feel?
Eileen: Better. I don’t know how, but in my gut, I know the apartment is going to work out. And in the meantime, I’m okay. Even this conversation has been pretty “in control.”
With Eileen’s concerns out in the open, we were able to work on the beliefs at the root of her anxiety. Over time, she was able to shift her subconscious experience of the world being a scary and unreliable place to one that aligned with her intellectual and religious beliefs about living in a loving universe.
As we saw with Eileen, the source of our upset is never facts of life such as:
It’s raining outside. I’m forty years old. My cat died. Sharon says she doesn’t like me. My pants are tight at the waist.
Our distress comes from the meaning we attribute to these facts – that’s what you want to inquire about. The easiest way to access that meaning to walk right up to the ATM and pop in your question. So, for example, Marty came to me for dating advice complaining that his weight would mean he could never get married. In particular, he was embarrassed about his tight pants.
Chana: Your pants are tight at the waist, And That Means…
Marty: … I’m too fat. … women won’t find me attractive. … I should lose weight. … I’m disgusting. … I should give up on dating
When Marty believed the above thoughts, he couldn’t help but suffer. Doing Inquiry on them brought him back to a calm and open place, one from which he could more readily accept himself and have the courage to date.
What drives our emotions and behavior is the meaning that we apply to stimuli. Below is a list of observations that don’t intrinsically have any significance. By asking And That Means, we can tap into the story we’ve built around the stimulus.
Stimulus: Ally got into a car accident.
ATM: Ally is unlucky.
Stimulus: It’s raining on my wedding day.
ATM: My wedding is ruined.
Stimulus: Grandma died.
ATM: I’ll never be loved that way again.
Stimulus: We had pizza for dinner.
ATM: I should go on a diet.
Clients are sometimes confused by the difference between facts and beliefs. Ally, for example, might believe her lack of luck is a “fact of life,” which makes it difficult for her to question its validity. It can be helpful to ask, “Would every human on earth come to the same conclusion about that event?” Ally can realize that others might conclude:
Ally’s very lucky to be alive.
Seat belts are important.
We need to create stronger legislation around road rage.
It’s better to walk than to drive.
Each of these beliefs would lead to an entirely different outlook on life, feelings, and behaviors; in other words, a different life altogether. Ally can then question whether believing she’s unlucky is her only option and whether it’s leading her to the happy, peaceful state she’s hoping to experience.
Often, we might believe our frustration, anger, or sadness exist for no reason, but there’s always a method to our madness. Taking a moment to understand what meaning we’ve assigned to a given stimulus gives us the opportunity to choose kinder ways of thinking and being.
Summary of The ATM
Use The ATM when your agitation seems disproportionate to the situation or when you don’t seem to be shifting after doing Inquiry on the thoughts at hand. And That Means will help you withdraw a whole collection of baggage from your mind’s vault, and unlike a Citizens Bank ATM, you won’t get charged any fees!
Like what you’ve read? You can learn The ATMalong with 21 other tools in my book, Hold That Thought. Download a free copy of the book here.