Thinking often feels like an uphill battle against my brain. Between fuzzy-headedness, indecisiveness, and over-analysis, I try to avoid the amount of time I spend inside my head. But if I could think more clearly, I know my work and my life would be infinitely better. So, when I learned that “clarity coaching” was a thing, I thought, “Sign me up.”
Vijay Ram, PhD, a visiting research scientist at the University of California who studies the use of objects in cognitive functioning, is also a clarity coach, which means he guides clients through exercises that help them organize their thoughts. "The basic idea of clarity coaching is to develop a clear vision of what you want in some area of your life and identify the steps or strategy to get there," he tells Bustle. "The aim is to use tools and techniques to help people understand themselves, filter out noise, and develop a clear vision of goals and a path to that end."
To my surprise, I spent most of my four sessions at Ram’s office in California’s East Bay playing with toys. The exercise we worked on the most, RAMIC, involved putting down blocks in a specific configuration (which you'll have to talk to him to learn). The idea is to learn to group your thoughts into simple phrases and get them out in front of you so you can examine them and won’t repeat them.
But the most fun exercise took place in a room full of dolls, actions figures, and every kind of toy, with two small sandboxes in the middle. I was asked to pick a topic, put down whatever toys spoke to me, and analyze them as symbols of that issue. I created toy arrangements for my relationship, my future, and my life in general. This lets you figure out what your subconscious is trying to tell you, says Ram. For me, it revealed the bigger picture around everything I was dealing with, and it was usually a positive one. It made my life seem less scary. Here's what my relationship sand tray looked like.
The sand tray exercise has been used by psychologists for a while, but the block technique was invented by Ram. A paper he published in the International Journal on Artificial Intelligence Tools includes three studies showing that people have a 23 percent preference for "dynamic expression" like the block method over "symbolic expression" like the sand tray method. Other studies of his that are currently in press have found that 94 percent of people without ADHD and 79 percent with ADHD reported increased clarity after doing the block exercise. The majority of people in both groups also reported improved memory, ability to generate more ideas, emotional relief, increased focus, and facilitated self-expression.
These exercises not only helped me work through my problems but also taught me a lot about the way I think and the way people in general think. Here are some things I learned that you might be able to apply to your own life.
Thinking In Circles Means You’re Not Admitting Something
Part of the reason I believed thinking was so unproductive was that I always thought in circles. When trying to make a decision, I’d just repeat the same thoughts over and over again and become more indecisive. So, my typical strategy for resolving confusion was to find more information or ask someone else. But according to Ram, the answer is often within us. We’re just not letting ourselves go there.
The mind doesn’t like repetition, he says. So, if your brain seems to be chasing the same thoughts, it’s really chasing something else underneath them. Whatever thoughts you keep repeating to yourself have something behind them that you’re not aware of — often a feeling you’re pushing away because it’s too uncomfortable.
There are two ways to access these thoughts: closely examining the thoughts you’re getting stuck on to see what sub-thoughts lay within them and examining what emotions are associated with these thoughts. Cold, unemotional thinking is the enemy of decision-making.
Feeling Is Thinking
My biggest stumbling block (no pun intended) is that I get caught up in mechanical thinking. I assume emotions will only cloud my judgment, so I leave them out of big decisions. Unfortunately, this means that the emotions driving my decisions (whether I’m aware of them or not) are inaccessible to me. My thoughts repeat, and I can’t figure out what’s behind them that I’m not saying.
The sessions where I was able to feel a lot were the ones I got the most out of. This made me realize that emotions don’t cloud your judgment; they allow it to work. The only thing that clouds your judgment is having access to some emotions but not others. And that happens when you repress your feelings. You make better decisions when you let them all out.
Indecision Should Be A Warning Sign
I used to think that if I couldn’t arrive at a decision, I was just being indecisive and needed to pick something, even if I didn’t feel sure of it. But according to Ram, we get indecisive for a reason. This reason can be that we don’t have enough information, that we’re not considering all the information we have, or that we’re not in touch with our emotions.
Sometimes, you just want your decision-making process to be over, and it doesn’t seem to matter what you pick. But it’s worth holding out as long as you can so you can be really sure of yourself.
You Need To Make Decisions On Your Own
I have several trusted people I rely on for decision-making, including a spiritual teacher and some smart friends. But while these people can provide good input for you to consider while making your decision, Ram advises against doing something just because someone you trust recommends it.
The problem with this strategy, he says, is that you have access to more information than they do. And often, after your conversation, you’ll think of something else you didn’t bring up. If you go with what someone else advises, you’re more likely to question your decision later, so it’s usually worth it to do the annoying work of figuring things out yourself.
Now that my four sessions are done, I really do feel like a better thinker. I’m better at slowing down and noticing what feelings are underneath my thoughts, including those that could sabotage my decisions. And these feelings are fascinating.
In fact, Ram says that the ability to identify the thoughts in your head is what can make you a thought leader. Other people are often thinking similar things, but they’re not always aware of what they’re thinking. That’s why people want to listen to those who can analyze their own minds: They’ve tapped into the hidden forces driving human behavior.