Mindfulness: The Missing Defensive Game Plan Needed to Get There


In a recent article on the Emotional Intelligence Network on LinkedIn, mindfulness was defined as:

"the simple act of focusing all attention in the present and a non-judgmental observation of our constant thoughts and feelings"

So what causes people to NOT do that? What gets in the way of them being more mindful? If we understand why they don’t, or can’t, and what gets in the way, we can make becoming mindful more likely and possible for them. 


Like so many other things we try to teach people, too often attempts to teach them to be mindful are like going into a football game with only an offensive game plan. It’s like giving a football team a bunch of plays to run. But you have to get the ball to score, and if you can’t defend against the other team’s offense, you’ll never get the ball. People sometimes say the best defense is a good offense, but they also say good defense always beats good offense, and the name of the game is defense. So no football coach would ever send his team into a game with only an offensive game plan. They scout to opposition ahead of time to see what they’ll be up against, and develop a defensive game plan as well.


You can tell someone how to be mindful, what to do to become mindful, but that too often ends up just being like giving them an offensive game plan. People develop cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” that make what they think, feel and do automatic. This makes them more likely to keep plugging into their old “ruts” instead of thinking, feeling or doing something that’s been suggested. I’ve always believed we also need to give them a defensive game plan against what they normally do, and may have been doing for a lifetime, and will have trouble not doing. People have to be able to counteract the things they normally do that make it hard for them to focus all their attention in the present.


They project into the future, catastrophize and awfulize, and generate anxiety. It's built into human brains to do this to anticipate, avoid or prepare to deal with threats. But it can become too much of a good thing. That's why people have anxiety disorders and complain about being all stressed out. They’re spending too much time and energy focusing on and preparing to deal with things that might happen, but haven’t yet, and often never do. They're even more likely to do this if they have history of past experiences that they perceived as awful.


It's relatively simple if you understand how and why people make themselves anxious in the first place. Note I said "make themselves anxious".


The first step is to realize that you do that to yourself by the way you choose to look at things. It's not what has happened in the past, or might in the future that makes you feel anxious, and to want to focus on potential impending threats. You make cognitive choices that cause you to. You make a choice as to how to look at what has happened or might, even what to remember from the past, what meaning to attach to past or potential future events, what to focus on, even what to imagine might happen, and how much importance to attach to what has, or might. The reason I say that you make a choices is because there is always more than one way to look at anything, more than one thing you could pull up from your memory, more than one meaning you could attach, more than one thing you could focus on, or imagine might happen. You can also attach as much or as little importance to what has, or might as you want to.


But you always want to choose to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance for whatever way you make such choices now. That means that you choose to accept the way you do as understandable and part of being human, and what you’d expect anyone else to do if they had gone through every single life experience you have had. It means you also accept that getting how your feelings come about wrong, and generate more feeling than is helpful or necessary is also understandable and part of being human. You certainly have a lot of company in that regard. Welcome to the human race.


When you realize that you really choose how you’re going to feel by way of a host of cognitive choices you make, constantly remind yourself of it, and start using this new knowledge to your advantage, it’s called developing an internal locus of control. You can read more about what that means and how to get there at:



You want to make a list of the cognitive choices you always have, that we all have. These usually get made so automatically that people lose sight of the fact that they have them. However, you also want at the same time to have unconditional self-acceptance for the fact that you may have, and will continue to have a tendency to make them in less than helpful ways. The reason is that you have cognitive "ruts" in your brain that you can't get rid of, and will always tend to slip into. Sorry, but it’s a fact of life, and a downside of the same brain physiology that helps us in so many other ways.


So the thing that keeps people from “focusing all attention in the present” is that they generate anxiety that encourages them to focus on the future instead. Anxiety is a figment of (read that product of) imagination. It’s really about things that haven’t happened yet. Things that could, and may have in the past, but haven’t yet (and often never do no matter how much worrying we do). The formula for anxiety is:


First you imagine something you consider bad happening, and then you tell yourself it would be awful if it did. If you told yourself, “So what? Who cares? It’s happened before and I survived”, you wouldn’t feel anxiety.

Again, doing this is part of being human, and intended to be protective. It’s certainly helped our species survive and flourish. If we didn’t have the ability to learn from the past and anticipate potential threats in the future, we may never have done as well as we have as a species. We might not even be here. The problem of course is that people do it too much for their own good.


Of course, there is one possible future event that none of us can avoid, at least not yet. That’s our own death. Many of the other things people choose to fret about may or may not happen. But death is one we can rest assured will. So it’s no surprise that death is one of the things lots of people make themselves anxious about, often long before it’s likely to happen. I had a poster that said “There is no cure for birth and death except to enjoy the interval”. I would add to that “do everything you can to prolong the interval”. In that regard, a healthy amount of concern could go a long way. Concern will cause us to take reasonable precautions rather than behaving with reckless abandon, which could shorten the interval. A problem arise when people spend so much time and energy focusing on their future death that they make it hard to enjoy that interval.


A simple strategy is called "staying in the now". You simply say the following to yourself whenever you start imagining something bad happening, or catastrophizing:

"That might happen, but it hasn't happened yet. And if it does, I'll deal with it"

And you could add, “Just like others do. Just like I have in the past. And just like I’ll probably have to again in the future”.

Remember, the problem is that you project into the future too much. This short circuits that, but only if you practice saying it. If you practice enough, it become automatic, like the lines to a play can become, and you’re more likely to respond to even the slightest catastrophizing this way.


Another thing you can do is proactively combat the awfulizing that is the second ingredient in the formula for anxiety. Create a coping card (index card) with coping statements like "It's wouldn't be that big a deal" or "I've survived it before and will again". Whenever you start to catastrophize, pull the card out and repeat the coping statements.


Now let's look at what predisposes people to catastrophize and awfulize in the first place. It helps to have a visual of a THINK-FEEL thermostat. Remember, it’s really your thoughts about past, current or future events that determines how you feel, not the events themselves. Thoughts cause feelings, not events. 

Draw a big square on a piece of paper. Divide it into 2 columns and 3 rows. Write THINK at the top of the first column, FEEL at the top of the other.

In the THINK column, bottom row, write DON'T CARE in big letters. Middle row WANT TO, and top row HAVE TO.

In the FEEL column, write CALM in the bottom row, CONCERN in the middle, and ANXIETY in the top.

Now set a paperclip along the left side to represent the needle you move up or down.

We all have the right to want whatever we want. What makes life events more threatening, and causes up to generate anxiety, and start projecting into the future instead of staying in the now, is that we turn out THINK thermostat up to HAVE TO. We start treating what we want as something we NEED, even going so far as to equate it with air, water and food in our minds. That makes not getting it a bigger threat than it is or needs to be, and triggers our fight or flight, or at least the anxiety half of it. That can easily morph into anger if you see others as the source of the threat, and you can start lashing out at them. For example, a child starts to run for the street when a car is coming. The child’s behavior created a threat to himself and your life, and after you catch him, you might spank him for doing what he did.


So how can you turn your THINK thermostat down, and keep it there, and stay in the now. Practice challenging any HAVE TO exaggerations with some simple questions. Those exaggerations typically pertain to you, i.e. “I HAVE TO do well in this interview”. However, they can also pertain to life, i.e. “Everything HAS TO go as planned”. Two simple questions we can pose regarding demands of ourselves are:

"Why do you HAVE TO? You HAVE TO, or just WANT TO?"

If our demand were of life, we could simply modify the question like this:

“Why does it HAVE TO (turn out they way you want or planned)? It HAS TO, or you just WANT it TO?

When first asked such questions, people will usually respond with “Because….”, followed by all kinds of reasons they think are valid or good ones. But the only correct answers are

"I don't HAVE TO, I just WANT TO. I don't HAVE TO do anything"

“It doesn’t HAVE TO, I just WANT it TO”.

Practice doing this until it becomes automatic, and acts in your mind like grammar check on a computer.

You might reflexively plug into your old ruts for thinking "But I do HAVE TO". Here’s the choice you have. You can set your thermostat wherever you want, but there will be emotional consequences for where you do. The higher you set your THINK thermostat, the more likely you are to feel a threat is eminent, start awfulizing, and fixate on the future instead of staying in the now. Where people want to set their personal THINK thermostats is up to them, and they alone have to live with the emotional consequences of where they do set theirs.


You can also create a second and third THINK-FEEL thermostat.

In the second, write DON'T CARE in the bottom, UNPLEASANT, INCONVENIENT, UNCOMFORTABLE in the middle, and AWFUL in the top.

In the third, write DON'T CARE in the bottom, WOULDN'T LIKE IT in the middle, and COULDN'T STAND IT in the top.

If you set the first one at HAVE TO, you're more likely to set the second one at AWFUL, and the third at COULDN'T STAND IT.

Questions you can practice asking are:

"Would it be AWFUL, or just UNPLEASANT, etc?"



Shame about the past will cause you to make yourself anxious and project into the future. If you believe you haven't lived up to expectations in the past, you'll be more likely to imagine not doing so again in the future. If you started out before past events at HAVE TO, you're more likely to SHOULD on yourself afterward, i.e. "I SHOULD have done better". Of course, that makes you more likely to think you HAVE TO in the future and to become anxious. Anxiety can impair performance, and thereby give you more to SHOULD on yourself about after the next time, and so on, and so on. This is how people wear themselves down and burn out, and just want to run away (quit, give up), which is the flight response.

One simple strategy is to practice saying "Stop SHOULDING on yourself" or "I'm not going to SHOULD on myself" when you hear yourself doing it. And remind yourself that "It just makes me feel SHOULDY".

Another is to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance. Choose to see whatever you think, feel, say or do as understandable and part of being human, given what your life has been like so far. Choose to see yourself as an FHB or Fallible Human Being, who's not perfect, and doesn't have to be, and make mistakes like everyone else.


Finally, the second half of the definition of mindfulness was “a non-judgmental observation of our constant thoughts and feelings”. If you want to assess what you think, feel, say and even do in a non-judgmental way, simply ask the following questions:

1)  What do I really want?

2)  How's it working for me now to think, feel, say and do what I do? Does it help me get what I really want, or make doing so harder?

3)  If I keep thinking, feeling, saying and doing what I do now, will it be easier or harder to get what I want in the future?

It’s really all that matters. What do you want, and how’s it working for you? What you think, feel, say or do either is, or isn’t. Or perhaps is to some degree, and isn’t in other ways.

The answer to the second question will usually be obvious once you answer the first. Then it's just a matter of turning your THINK thermostats down so you can start "focusing all attention in the present" and being "mindful".