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Chapter 3

Chapter 3: The Mindful Choices Model: Cultivating Strengths and New Ways of Being

The Mindfulness and Choice Are the Keys to Well-Being and Happiness

  • Become mindfully aware of good choices and bad choices, good habits and bad habits, mindfulness and automaticity
  • Mindfully, systematically and consistently turn good choices into good habits (Habitualizing)
  • Good habits boost your well-being
  • Increased Well-being will boost your happiness

It’s all about choices!

Life is all about choices, and our 10 Mindful Choices, encompass virtually hundreds of choices you could make that are helpful not only in dealing with stress, anxiety and depression, but perhaps more importantly, they dramatically promote personal mastery, well-being, and quality of life. The 10 Mindful Choice areas reflect what we’ve learned from over three decades of providing psychotherapy, teaching future therapists, and life-coaching. Now that experience will work for you.

You can make choices today that will improve your life today. Making these choices a consistent part of your lifestyle and part of your core values will dramatically enrich your life. Guaranteed!

Getting to those choices however requires mindful awareness of the present moment, and acceptance of whatever you find there. It means noticing your thoughts, feelings and images, and the stories you tell yourself, without needing to avoid, distract yourself, judge yourself or others, or struggle against what you’re experiencing. It means having the ability to step back and calmly observe your thoughts, feelings, images and stories, responding to them in terms of usefulness and workability, rather than being all caught up in trying to determine whether or not they are literally true. It means recognizing that your mind is constantly busy generating thoughts, helpful and unhelpful, and saying to yourself: “I’m noticing that my mind is telling me…,” rather than automatically accepting what your mind is telling you as absolutely true. It means having the flexibility to not automatically go with where your mind is leading you, but instead choosing to move actively in the direction of your values, and in the direction of choices that serve you well. It means not being dominated by habitual thoughts and beliefs, but having the power to choose an entirely different direction.

The following chart represents the Mindful Choices Model. We will walk you through the model from left to right.

The circle in the upper left portion of the chart represents situations you find yourself in, events that impact your life, either positively or negatively. Life is about continuously responding, reacting and choosing. Most events are routine and require only a routine response. Some events however, set in motion mental activity leading to stress, anxiety or depression, or habitual negative reactions. Your mind is not always your friend.

Mindful Choices model

Whatever happens in your life is processed through a filter of your past learning and experience, beliefs you hold about yourself and the world, and attitudes you have formed over time. As a result, the thoughts, feelings, and images generated in response to your ongoing experience, are often predetermined.

Also, you may tell yourself “stories” about what’s happening, stories which have more to do with your habitual interpretation of events than present reality. Some of these “stories” represent maladaptive “schema,” complex patterns of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional elements that usually start in childhood and reverberate throughout life. When schema are triggered by present events, you may find yourself responding with old and possibly dysfunctional and destructive patterns of behavior, along with disturbing thoughts and feelings from the past.

Often, automatic negative self-talk occurs at lightning speed, with instantaneous disturbing feelings. You may not be conscious of any thoughts or beliefs, but rest assured, your mind is telling you something, and you are responding.

This is a point where our model draws heavily upon Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), particularly the work of Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap. The basic premise of ACT is you don’t have to do battle with negative thoughts, feelings and images, and you don't have to distract yourself. Instead, you need to accept their existence without allowing them to dominate your behavior. You simply respond to them in terms of workability, rather than having to determine how true they are. The question is not whether or not the thought is true, but rather: “is this thought or belief useful?” You don’t have to struggle with them, and you don’t have to avoid them. You simply notice them, make space for them, and choose to move in the direction of your values. ACT is central to our work and we will be referring to ACT concepts such as “fusion” and “defusion” throughout the book.

It all comes down to noticing, and remembering to slow down and notice.

Do you take time out of all of your doing to just be–and notice? Are you "mindful?"

What do you notice about your life? Are you self-aware? Do you notice your emotions? Do you know how you feel from moment to moment? Can you observe your own thoughts? Are you able to step back and observe your life in a calm and reflective manner? Are you fully present in the here and now? Are you mindful?

"How is life?" Bill begins most sessions with the same question. Many assume it's just small talk, but it's a serious question. Most of the people we see aren't happy with the state of their lives. It seems easier than ever before to feel stressed out and overwhelmed. We live in a high- stress society, and by all measures it seems to be getting worse. Most of us are running hard just to keep up amid ever-increasing challenges and pressures.

We're all familiar with the sayings: "Wake up and smell the coffee," or: "Stop and smell the roses." These are sayings that have been around for at least 100 years and no one knows for sure their origin. It seems some of us have always had a problem with moving too fast to really pay attention to what's happening in our lives, but these sayings seem to have special relevance most people in the 21st century.

Much of our stress is self-generated, and largely unnecessary. Our "Mindful Choices" Model shows a pathway from the initial experiencing of events to either self-imposed "dis-ease," or values-driven choices for overcoming stress, anxiety and depression and achieving well-being. It’s the difference between living your life on autopilot, or living your life on purpose.

Mindfulness of the choice is the key. Cultivating Mindfulness skills opens the door to being conscious and intentional and taking charge of your life.

The simple act of Noticing is the turning point.

So, you constantly respond to events or situations, and you perceive those events through a filter of past learning, beliefs, and attitudes. You add thoughts, feelings, and images associated with the situation and add learned self-talk that is sometimes distorted or even irrational.

Yes, each of us can be irrational. Being human means you have a tendency to deny, distort, or falsify reality on a fairly regular basis, and particularly when you perceive things to be threatening to your well-being or sense of self.

Often, you are on autopilot, responding in a stereotypical way, and not realizing that your stress, anxiety, and depression often results from “cognitive fusion” with automatic negative self talk.

Russ Harris in ACT Made Simple, a Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, states:

Cognitive fusion basically means that our thoughts dominate our behavior. In cognitive fusion there is no separation between thoughts and self, and thoughts are seen as absolute truth or commands that have to be obeyed. Defusion on the other hand means seeing thoughts as only thoughts, something your mind is telling you that may or may not be

true, not a command that has to be obeyed, and not a dire threat.”

At the very center of our chart is "noticing," bringing the present moment clearly and mindfully into view, not judging but simply observing. Noticing isn't ruminating on the past or anticipating the future. It's simply checking in with yourself and being fully present in the "here and now."

Without "noticing" it's all too easy to get caught up in mindless automatic self-talk, much of it self-distressing and distress perpetuating. Noticing is a learned skill, opening the door to mindful awareness. It's the essence of "Mindfulness." No skill matters more.


Noticing with mindful awareness sets the stage for the process of "defusion" of negative self talk. Once you are noticing your mind is telling you certain things, things that may be self-defeating or impractical, you are in a position to calmly realize your mind has given you a thought that is no more than a thought, and it doesn't have to be obeyed. You are free to decide what you really want, and you're free to make values-based choices.

For example, John has difficulty with his boss. When his boss is critical, John automatically says to himself: "I'm incompetent. I can't do anything right. I'm going to be fired for

sure." Consequently, John suffers from extreme stress and high levels of anxiety and depression. Suppose on the other hand, John is well-practiced in noticing his negative self talk. Further suppose John is able to take three deep breaths, take a step back from being "fused" with the negative self-talk, and instead say to himself: "I'm noticing my mind is telling me I'm incompetent, and it's only a thought. It’s not useful to me and I don’t have to do anything with it."

John is defusing automatic negative thoughts. He's able to consider whether the thoughts work for him or whether he would be better served by an alternative way of thinking. He's able to calmly accept the presence of negative thoughts, neither struggling with them or avoiding them. Instead, he's able to simply accept thoughts as only thoughts, making space for them, and moving ahead in a healthier direction based upon calm awareness, accurate information and a clear awareness of values-driven choices.

Without noticing and diffusion, you may find yourself automatically responding to negative self talk and caught up in an endless loop of self-imposed distress, living your life on “autopilot.”

Autopilot model

The following chart illustrates 'fusion," or not separating yourself from your thoughts. Imagine being so caught up in automatic negative thoughts and self-talk that destructive or ineffective choices are made, choices that in turn reinforce old and erroneous perceptions, beliefs, and self- defeating behaviors. Our clients refer to this as “the Racetrack,” with distressing thoughts going round and round, picking up speed, and making disturbing thoughts increasingly likely.

The Racetrack

Noticing your distress within the context of self-calming skill and mindful awareness is the key. Both self-calming skill and mindful awareness are learned and practiced skills you can continue to improve upon.

So, want to get really good at noticing? Frequently take three deep diaphragmatic breaths and check in with yourself. Slow yourself down and take a moment to notice what you're telling yourself, and what you're feeling. Accept your thoughts and feelings without judgement, make room for them, and then consider your choices. Values-driven choices are made possible by being in a calm, accepting place, a place that allows careful reflection and choosing to live your life with full consciousness, clear intention, and what psychologist Rollo May referred to as "real freedom."

Real freedom is the ability to pause between stimulus and response, and in that pause, to choose.”

Rollo May

Choices, Good Ones and Bad Ones

There are always choices. No matter what is going on, no matter what problem or life difficulty you are facing, no matter how much distress you are in, there are one or more of the 10 Mindful Choices that can help. These are values-driven choices and they will make a difference. Guaranteed!

However, not all choices work well for you, and you may find yourself making choices which help you feel better or safer in the moment, but greatly increase your stress, anxiety or depression in the long run. Consider the following chart.

Choices chart

Some people remain on the racetrack, experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety or depression. Many choose unhealthy “off-ramps.” Our program is all about cultivating mindful awareness, noticing, defusing, and then choosing to be actively involved in values-based choices. As indicated by the following chart, our 10 Mindful Choices, actually constitute sets of values. Some you may already embrace. Others, we invite you to consider. True values are always freely chosen from among alternatives. We will do our best to influence you to freely choose and act upon values implicit in our 10 Mindful Choices.

Mindful Choices Chart

As we have stated repeatedly, it’s all about choices. Our program is about helping you become very aware of present choices and consequences, and consistently make values-based choices. Our self-assessment helps you be clear on where you’re at. Self-calming skill and mindfulness training helps you break free from thoughts, feelings, images and stories that don’t serve you very well. Choosing and actively engaging in living your values helps you transform your life to a life truly worth living.

Our program is also about recognizing habits that you would like to change and guiding you through systematically "rewiring" your brain. Later we will take you through a process we call "Habitualizing," a process of mindfully moving from negative autopilot to positive autopilot as illustrated by the following:


Revolutionary in its simplicity

Mindful Choices Therapy is transformational in five ways:

  1. Our Mindful Choices Self-Assessment yields a profile where you can see at a glance your strengths, areas needing attention, and Mindful Choices you might like to focus on.
  2. A daily focus on specific Mindful Choices leads to being more fully aware of “opportunities” to make choices leading to major changes. Using our Action Planning Guides will result in steady improvement in selected choice areas.
  3. The 10 Mindful Choices are interrelated and "Keystone" habits are developed that greatly influence positive habit development in other Mindful Choice areas as well. This means that when working on one Choice, you’ll probably see improvement in others as well. This will be especially apparent each month when you retake the full assessment. You will most probably find your overall score has improved, and you are further along on your Mindful Choices Roadmap.
  4. Noticing the thinking and beliefs associated with stress, anxiety and depression creates an opportunity for growth. Training in mindfulness skills and the ACT skill of defusion paves the way for values-based choices – most probably the very same choices identified as needing attention in your Mindful Choices Assessment.
  5. Over time, developing a solid working knowledge of each of the 10 Mindful Choices results in familiar and well-practiced positive coping skills being readily available. You’ll find you have a clear choice between old choices that don’t work well and values-based choices leading to greater well-being and happiness.

Altogether, you will find yourself moving from a life largely on autopilot, to a life that is being lived on purpose, a life that is rich and satisfying.

You are a work in progress. Don't judge yourself harshly if change takes time. It always does. The hardest thing about mindfulness is simply noticing the need to be mindful. When mindful awareness is followed by choice and practice, great changes happen – and that changes everything!

Further Reading

Harris, R. 2009. ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Harris, R. 2008. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Wollombi, Australia: Exisle Publishing Ltd.

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