Two and a half decades ago, the strategy of “canceling” became an important aspect of my life. It all started when I was a 21-year-old nanny of a 4-year-old girl who loved The Wizard of Oz. We spent countless days playing and stretching our imaginations in the great field and garden above her house. First, we pretended to be in Kansas, which would transform into Munchkin Land, and then the Emerald City. While I still cherish fond memories of that time, it was also a time of insecurity in my life. I didn’t know where I was going next, and thoughts of uncertainty and doubt often popped up. On one of those days, as I was contemplating my future journey and post-nannying prospects, I asked Genevieve’s mother Susan what she did when a thought popped up that didn’t feel good or true. At the time, I assumed everyone must have such thoughts occasionally, and I wanted to learn from her experience and insight.
To this day, I practice Susan’s technique as one of many useful strategies to mitigate pesky thoughts and mild anxiety. Twenty-five years later, as a seasoned counselor, I now understand why it works.
What did Susan suggest and what does this version of “canceling anxiety” look like?
Susan looked up at me on the sunny day through the herb garden and said, “Oh, first I say ‘cancel’ out loud, then I imagine the thought flying down a child’s slide, bursting into flames, and then the rain comes to squelch it, just before the wind blows away the ashes!”
I’m not sure what I expected Susan to say, but it wasn’t that!
“For real?” I responded. “You do that every time?”
“Yup” she said. And so, I decided to try it on.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches us that our thoughts inform our behavior and impact how we feel.
When a client has the thought, for instance, “I’m learning each day how to better care for my baby and understand her queues,’” the client may feel confident in her experience and further attentive and attuned to the baby.
If the same client had the thought “I can’t ever read the baby’s cries – I always get them wrong,” the client may feel hopeless and disconnect from the baby.
If the same client had the thought “This baby changes all of the time, and it’s hard to keep up with how to soothe her,” the client may feel mildly discouraged yet continue to work towards connecting and strategizing.
Our thoughts define our behavior. One of our jobs as humans is to recognize our thoughts before they take us on a journey, often referred to as “going down a rabbit hole.” We get to question: Is my thought true? What is the data to support the belief? How else can I look at the situation? How does this thought, or series of thoughts, make me feel?
For tenacious thoughts, it is useful to write out the process of (1) identifying the thoughts, (2) noticing how they make us feel, and then (3) popping the thoughts – as if they are balloons – with the facts. Finally, (4) implanting the new accurate thoughts.
For milder “pesky thoughts,” sometimes we can use more of the canceling technique. When we recognize a thought as wrong, outrageous, or seductively leading us down a path, we can cancel the thought with an out loud statement such as “cancel” or “stop” or “nope,” and with a visualization. By doing this, we disrupt the thought pattern with the word and imagery, and fill that space with a different more accurate thought.
For example referring back to my 21 yr. old self, I had the thought pop up: “I’m never going to figure out what I want to pursue in life”. This thought (worry) didn’t have the actual evidence to back it up. It also made me feel defeated and inactive. After learning how, I would catch the thought and say “cancel,” send it down the imaginary slide with fire, rain and wind and then almost simultaneously implant the true thought that I have always pursued learning and my interests successfully, and in time I will determine my next steps.
Recognizing the pesky thought, catching it, cancelling it and sending it away provided the space in the moment to think through what was true based on the facts of my life.
Over the years in sharing this technique, other providers and clients have shared their visualizations. One colleague said that she puts her “faulty thoughts” in an imaginary hot air balloon and sends it off flying. Another client shared that she imagines her thought as a black and white sentence in a full color landscape; the sentence fades away into nothing as the colors of the landscape become brighter.
Coupling visualization may reinforce the releasing or rejection of the untrue thought. After years of practicing this technique, I realized that my brain coupled the word and the visualization to the point that when I say “cancel” I no longer need to think through the whole picture – the thought simply dissolves. The art of this technique is to adapt it and make it yours.
As with any new technique, practice makes it stronger and more accessible. So, if you are interested in challenging the pesky unhelpful thoughts that bubble up unexpectedly in your day (or night!), play with this technique:
- Notice the thought that is inaccurate or untrue.
- State your cancel word out loud (to yourself).
- Move through your visualization that dissolves the thought quickly and thoroughly.
- Take a deep breath.
- Notice how you feel.
- Repeat as needed.
Then grab a sticky note and write down this Sound Bite:
“Canceling anxiety and pesky thoughts”
Post the sticky note in a spot that will remind of you to playfully practice this strategy.