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  • Writer's pictureChris People

May the 4th be with you...

Updated: May 16, 2023

Happy Star Wars Day to all my friends, clients and supporters!

The original trilogy were a huge part of my childhood and still give me a tremendous sense of joy. On that basis I thought it would be fun to pull out, over the next few days a few words of wisdom (as well as some flaws) from our favourite characters, but trying to keep things (more or less) congruent with an evidence-based approach to mental health and resilience building. This is a bit more fun and light-hearted than most of my normal posts, but I'll see if I can still keep it broadly scientific! Is it possible we can actually learn anything useful from the Jedi and perhaps even the Sith?

So here we go...maybe controversially to some, I want to start with The Phantom Menace. (As an aside, if you're not so keen on this movie then maybe try and find the 'anti-cheese edit' that's floating around the internet - it's an absolute gamechanger).

The Tao of Qui-Gon Jinn

Whilst my heart lies with the original trilogy of films and I always wanted to be Luke Skywalker as a kid, I've also got a sneaky suspicion that Qui-Gon Jinn might actually be the best version of a Jedi that we saw in the films. One of the wonderful characteristics of Qui-Gon Jinn is his 'grey Jedi' nature. He really epitomises the middle path, of not getting caught up in 'black or white' thinking errors (more on those later), and his emphasis on the present moment, which he calls the 'living force'. There is a beautiful mentoring relationship with Obi Wan established in this movie and this is particularly something he keeps coaching and encouraging his young student to pay attention towards.

Mindfulness and the present moment

Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs.

Clearly Qui-Gon places an emphasis on 'being present' which is a core aspect of mindfulness. Whilst there are no fixed definitions of this, I often use John Kabat Zinn's definition, which is in pretty common use:

The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.

So what does this actually do? What benefits does this actually have? This probably needs a whole dedicated article on its own, but two of the important areas include learning to savour moments and fully immerse ourself within them, and also to observe and notice what thoughts and feelings we are having - which has components of curiosity, flexible attention and self-kindness. So with these latter 'noticing' this includes observing those sometimes difficult or painful thoughts and feelings which are pulling us into the past (rumination) or future (predictions and catastrophisation), to notice without judgement (i.e. with kindness) or being 'hooked' or pulled around by these thoughts or feelings and to bring our attention back to the here and now. To 'sit gently or kindly' with those thoughts and feelings, to 'surf the urge' of them, or to let them come and go, can on its own be incredibly therapeutic.

Assertiveness, authenticity and doing what matters

Qui-Gon is also gently assertive, doing and saying what he considers is important and right, regardless of what others think or say, although without trying to impose himself on others. When Obi-Wan asks him not to defy the Jedi Council again, he simply replies

"I will do what I must, Obi-Wan..."

'Doing what matters' (living a life in pursuit of your values) is one of the 3 key components of psychological flexibility - which is a key driver of mental health and something that greatly influences my work. This is why I use a triangle in my logo. This is sometimes also referred to as 'committed action' in ACT and as 'meaning making' by Donald Meichenbaum, in essence helping us steer a path to finding richness, meaning and purpose in our lives despite the presence of adversity as a pillar of resilience. I can't also help but think that Andrew Salter, father of behavioural therapy and another influence on mine and my own teachers' approaches, and who advocated assertiveness and authenticity in order to prevent 'emotional constipation', would also be very proud of this Jedi Master. Assertiveness is an extremely important intra-personal communication skill that many cognitive behavioural approaches teach in order to help someone better make their opinions felt and understood, in order, just for example, to prevent anger building up, to have their boundaries respected, or to prevent stress, overwork or overwhelm in the workplace.

In another scene Qui-Gon speaks to Anakin and tells him "Your focus determines your reality", which might actually be a really neat and quick way of summarising what hypnosis and self-hypnosis is and can do for you. In this case Qui-Gon is using the term 'focus' to mean something like 'where your attention lies'. This correlates well then with the definition of hypnosis as given by surgeon and 'gentleman scientist' James Braid (1795-1860) who defined hypnosis as

"fixed attention upon a dominant idea"

- where the 'dominant idea' is the suggestion or suggestions provided by the hypnotist/hypnotherapist. By calmly paying attention through hypnosis to a new or adjusted idea (such as a memory, event, experience or expectation), we are able to change our relationship with it - to enable rehearsal, exposure and create 'future memories' (as researcher Adam Eason has referred to it) of a situation where we are then able to act, react, and respond more usefully or functionally for our needs. This is one of the many ways we are able to address things like anxiety, phobias, stress management, low motivation, or building enhanced performance with athletes. Braid's definition is still one we use to this day in modern cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy.

Additionally, our attention gets pulled around all the time - to the past, the future and to other things going on in our life. Our minds tend to ruminate and dwell on negative interpretations of events. One simple and very useful approach to counter this is to undertake gratitude training on a daily basis. Whilst the research on gratitude is still developing, the evidence is pretty positive (see for example: ). In essence, by focussing on gratitude, this changes alters the way we see both ourselves and the world, to perceive things in a less negative light (without pretending that bad things don't or haven't happened - which is usually not ideal), and enables us to better manage anxiety, depression, stress, pain and sleep alongside other positive benefits.

Emotional regulation Finally when speaking about Qui-Gon Jinn, there is a fantastic moment in the climax which I have to mention, where he is facing off against Darth Maul. A laser gate separates the two mid-battle and there is a very clear distinction made between the approach of the two characters. Whilst Maul stalks the perimeter waiting for the gate to rise, Qui-Gon sits down for a moment of meditation! He focusses his attention then on calming down, and staying present in what is the fight of his life. This is a wonderful example of emotional regulation - where we can actively and purposefully engage in activity, such as relaxation training or attention training in order to act and behave in the situation in a way which is most beneficial for the outcome we require. We know that optimal arousal and optimal attention are necessary to elicit 'flow state' and this is an amazing example of someone managing their own flow. Interestingly, there was a similar scene with Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi which is also fantastic, and these two scenes are probably my favourite across all the movies.

The Power of The Dark Side

So I know we're not supposed to admire the bad guys here, but there's so many great moments from some of the principal villains that I really wanted to explore. In truth, my tongue is pretty firmly in my cheek with this bit, but this is an article about science fantasy and space wizards so let's see what we can tease out here...

Goal setting for galactic tyranny

Emperor Palpatine successfully betrayed his own master, became a Galactic Senator whilst having a side hustle as a Sith Lord, orchestrated a galaxy-wide uprising as a distraction, corrupted various Jedi Knights, planned and oversaw the construction of the Death Star before ultimately overthrowing the Republic and establishing the Galactic Empire. That's some hyper-productivity that David Goggins or Jocko Willink would be proud! And we know, this wasn't an accident - Palpatine tells us in Return of the Jedi that this is all as he planned. What might we possibly learn from this? Effective goal setting!

The use of SMART goals comes up throughout the cognitive behavioural therapies, in particular Problem Solving Therapy - its purpose is to consolidate behavioural outcomes ('what would I like to be doing differently or experiencing in my life?'), structures treatment, interim milestones and the tasks necessary to achieve this. Effective collaborative goal setting between therapists and clients forms part of what's referred to as the 'Therapeutic Alliance' and recent research has suggested that this is the single greatest determinant of treatment outcome. This is pretty important! We therefore like to explore and map out values-based behavioural SMART goals at the start of the treatment and revise them wherever necessary. SMART is an acronym and refers to:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable

  • Relevant (usually we mean relevant to our values)

  • Time limited (because 'some time' means never!)

Where our goals are big and/or long-term we can cut them up into smaller chunks with short and medium term goals too in order to prevent overwhelm and enable a sense of gradual and systematic achievement.

Self-confidence and meta-cognitive awareness

Alright, so I'll admit I'm clutching at straws a bit with this one, but this is a scene that I always thought was really powerful so I had to find a way to shoehorn this in! In the final battle on the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, Luke is brought before the Emperor. He tells him that his overconfidence is his weakness and, without missing a beat, the Emperor retorts

"Your faith in your friends is yours"

Now, aside from the fact that Luke is actually correct in his assessment (at least in the context of the story), there's something else I wanted to tease out here in the Emperor's response. In therapy we often talk about, and work with the various factors and components that make up the idea of self-confidence and the Emperor certainly has plenty of this to spare. Some of these components include 'Ego-strength', which means something like an individual's ability to maintain their sense of self in the face of pain, distress, and conflict, and 'self-efficacy' or the ability to believe in oneself to succeed. We therefore look to bolster these two characteristics in clients throughout the therapeutic process as they are instrumental to clients building their resilience and learning to apply the skills learnt in therapy towards other areas of their lives. With the Emperor, here is a man who knows who he is and the job he has to do, and knows he can do it well. His rapid and confident comeback also indicates to me that he is pretty unfazed by Luke's insult, and I think shows he is probably pretty self-aware about his possible short-comings and it doesn't appear like he gets too hooked or caught up in them. We'd probably call this meta-cognitive awareness, which is the ability to 'think about our thinking' and another skill we'd like to develop in cognitive behavioural therapies. When we're aware of what thoughts arise, we're then able to notice them, monitor them, and avoid getting hooked, bullied or pulled around by them. In essence we understand that

Thoughts are not facts!

We can notice when challenging, painful and self-critical thoughts come in, as they do for all of us, and not get caught up in that story that we frequently tell ourselves. We call this 'cognitive defusion' (to de-fuse from the attachment to the meaning of a thought) or is sometimes also called 'open mindfulness' or 'de-hypnosis'. The downfall of the Sith

So where then did it all go wrong for the Sith Lords? Obviously in-universe there was the greed, anger and lust for power, and of course, the Emperor's overconfidence that Luke identifies, but what about from a cognitive behavioural perspective? I'll focus mainly on Anakin here as he is the focus of the tragedy in the story arc (and he is after all, the one that ultimately 'brings balance to the force'!).

Cognitive distortions or thinking errors

Cognitive distortions or thinking errors are the faulty, illogical or irrational filters through which we all sometimes see the world. These filters can be influenced by our current state of being, past experiences, learning and traumatic events and result in ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ where our thinking can become biased and distort our perception of the world. First defined by one of the fathers of CBT Aaron Beck, the full list of errors can differ slightly depending on the source used, but some common thinking errors include:

  • Black or white / all-or-nothing thinking

  • Negative filters / selective thinking

  • Fortune telling - predicting the future and mind reading

  • Overgeneralisation

  • Over-personalisation / blaming

  • Jumping to conclusions

  • Labelling / globalisation

  • 'Must-abation' / inflexible rules (shoulds and musts)

In The Revenge of the Sith, the turning of Anakin from the light side of the force to the dark is often demonstrated by several incidences of thinking errors. He tends to overgeneralise, jumps to conclusions, predicts the future, has negative filters, inflexible rules and all-or-nothing thinking. For example, in the final act of The Revenge of the Sith, this all-or-nothing thinking is specifically highlighted:

If you are not with me, then you are my enemy

Obi-Wan then actually calls this out and notes that Sith consider the world in absolutes or all-or-nothing / black-and-white thinking (although it is also kind of funny in that Obi-Wan's statement is in itself a form of black-and-white thinking!).

No wonder, Anakin found himself in so much turmoil: there were a lot of thinking traps going on. One of the places we often start when there might be some thinking errors going on is to start to monitor our thoughts, for example in conversation with a therapist or by keeping a thought record/diary and then examining and considering the evidence that may or may not support those conclusions.

Vicious Cycles

In cognitive behavioural therapy, we talk often about 'Vicious Cycles' - in particular when discussing the work and approach of another of the fathers of modern CBT, Donald Meichenbaum. Donald Meichenbaum is one of my greatest influences, and from whom I am extraordinarily lucky enough to be able to say I have received a little training. Vicious Cycles, may be explained as the ways in which we can sometimes unintentionally or unknowingly enable challenging or problematic thoughts, feelings and behaviours to establish and/or continue. A common example could be with low self esteem and perfectionistic tendencies: Where someone experiences feelings of low self esteem, self-worth and perhaps anxiety, self-critical and judgemental thoughts arise, and result in the setting of high standards to prove they are not worthless, which are then difficult (or impossible) to meet. Failure to achieve these impossible standards then further detracts from our feelings of worth, result in further self-critical thoughts and the cycle continues. In CBT then, we often look for ways to help clients identify and then break the cycle.

In CBT then, we often look for ways to help clients identify and then break the cycle.

Anakin indicates he experiences similar Vicious Cycles with his fears, anger and sense of loss and self-worth which frequently leads to unpredictable and violent action and the spiralling of these behaviours as the films progress as he turns from the light side of the force to the dark side. He says for example

"I couldn't stop myself..."

after finishing off Count Dooku in very un-Jedi-like fashion. In-universe, it is inferred that Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine had some role in antagonising Anakin's Vicious Cycles. He does actually sort of act like a 'surrogate frontal lobe' (as Donald Meichenbaum might say) to Anakin in various places of the film, greatly influencing and encouraging him towards the problematic behaviours he shows. The famous and well meme-ed "Do-it" quote from Sidious/Palpatine might be a great example of that. And this actually works quite nicely as a metaphor for Anakin's various internal thoughts, decisions and judgements. Perhaps if Anakin had confided in his friends, loved ones and mentors, about what he was going through, he could have learned to monitor his thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and learned to slow down his 'automatic' thinking and decision making processes, and eventually found more helpful and less homicidal behaviours and ways of dealing with his challenging and painful thoughts and feelings.

What the Rebels got right Other than awesome Qui-Gon Jinn who we discussed at the star of this article, are there other times where we could take some well founded, evidence-based, cognitive behaviourally-congruent advice from the Rebels? I think there are a few possible examples that I'll explore below.

Nurturing a sense of hope

Hope is a critical characteristic of the original trilogy (i.e. Episodes 4-6 with Episode 4 of course actually called 'A New Hope') and its also mentioned frequently in Rogue One where we're told

"Rebellions are built on hope"

Donald Meichenbaum, a founder of CBT who we discussed earlier, actually considers nurturing hope as one of the most important tasks of a good psychotherapist. We therefore need to help the person who is struggling or 'stuck' to understand that their life can actually be different, that we can, in some way help alleviate their suffering, and help direct (or redirect) them back towards a life of meaning, richness and purpose. Often we need to do this 'in spite of' of the challenges they are facing. When faced with challenging or painful events, it can be hard for us to see that there could possibly be a light at the end of the tunnel - it can seem impossible to imagine that life could possibly be any easier than it is right now, and so (also understandably) there can seem little point in even trying. So nurturing hope becomes a key factor from the therapy start of the therapeutic process. Sometimes we can help alleviate, or perhaps even wholly eliminate some of the challenges that a client is facing, and sometimes, if the challenge cannot be changed or removed, we can help them cope with them better. Or to put it another way, we can help them to manage the challenging or painful factors in their lives that are causing them distress so their lives are less dictated or ruled by them. We help address the way we respond, react, relate and pay attention to those challenges and problems, and enable our clients to continue with their life in a way that enables them to pursue meaning and purpose (whatever that personally means for them).

So to bring this back to our Star Wars analogy - we might also consider building hope and resilience as a way of rebelling against the challenges and pain that have previously dictated our lives, thoughts, feelings and actions.

Flexible perspective taking

Several of the prominent Jedi, including Obi-Wan and Yoda mention the importance of understanding our own point of view and how that influences our appraisal of events. Famously Obi-Wan tells Luke in Return of the Jedi...

"So what I told you was true...from a certain point of view"

Which is of course absolutely right, and a lesson in 'flexible perspective taking' that Luke needed to learn at that stage of his training. Flexible perspective taking, or considering other points of view comes up frequently both hypnotherapy and the cognitive behavioural therapies. In many ways hypnosis could actually as an exercise in taking another point of view - it is the art of imagery and rehearsal, where we imagining strongly and with intent 'what if' something was already easier? What if this wasn't as difficult, challenging or painful as it seems right now?' And then practicing that new perspective 'as if' that is how we already how see the challenge. So in hypnosis we can learn to rehearse events and experiences where we can react and respond differently and then, having already practiced them in our minds eye, it is then easier to do the same in real life.

Across the cognitive behavioural therapies, we also come across flexible perspective taking in other ways too. Perspective taking can be undertaken as a form of cognitive restructuring exercise where we examine an event, and our reactions, responses and interpretations of those events. Sometimes when someone is struggling with a particular event or experience, there are always opinions, judgements, predictions or ideas that are coming up in that situation and these may not necessarily be accurate. A simple example might be when people have difficulty in public speaking, there may be a lot of thoughts and predictions coming up about how other people are viewing and judging them - something like "they all think I'm stupid" or "they'll think I can't do this job" or something similar. You might notice there are some thinking errors or cognitive distortions going on here that we discussed earlier. We can help the client restructure those thoughts to take into account alternative view points and perspectives (what might a friend or family members say? Or a future or younger version of yourself?). We can also examining the evidence which is actually available to support or contradict either option being true/false or even just unknown. These approaches can help us to understand that, things may not always be as we first think or fear.

The Choice Point and more on emotional regulation

Reframing, problem solving and the value of support structures

I hope you've have enjoyed this fun exploration so far. More to come...I'll continue building this blog post over the days ahead.

May the 4th be with you!!!

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