It may seem like there is no "magic" to this exercise. That would be one way to look at it.
Another way to look at it would be that there is magic - magic in its own time, and in your own ability to transform yourself through consciously applied effort. Magic is, in some way, a skill. Do you think David Blaine, David Copperfield, Harry Houdini, Harry Blackstone Jr, Cris Angel, or other magicians were blessed at birth with superhuman powers? Or is it more likely that they learned, honed, and demonstrated a skill?
You can use your conscious mind and its logic to transform itself - which is actually awe-inspiring, if you think about it. Your own brain is able to change at any age (see this post for more on that) because of what you do and think. It comes down to whether you are willing to create that change - over time, through applied effort. In the exercise below, which is adapted by me, very CBT-based, but mostly taken from an old exercise by J Roberts, you will learn, hone, and demonstrate the skill of changing your beliefs about yourself.
Step One. Start with a negative belief (you don't want to change a positive one, right?). Some examples: I'm unworthy, invisible, don't matter, not enough, a problem, unloved, weak, etc. If you really don't know what you believe about yourself, pick one of these that rings true or that you could see believing about yourself.
If you discover that you feel unworthy, for example, you may have tried simply to apply a more positive belief over that one - and found that alone didn't always work. In this exercise, you must first discover the reasons for your stubborn beliefs. You can begin by doing the following: a) Write down your feelings about yourself. attempting to be perfectly honest; b) Examine what you have written; and c) Realize that a set of beliefs is involved, not an objective reality.
Step Two. Then you must challenge these beliefs a little. For example, start by acknowledging that there IS a difference between believing that you are unworthy and being, in fact, an unworthy person. No one is an unworthy person, plain and simple. If a friend came to you with the same list of "defects" (beliefs), you would encourage them to challenge these things. It's only fair to do the same for yourself. See this page for a list of more questions, known as Socratic questions.
Step Three. Now, write a list of your abilities and accomplishments. These should include such things as getting along well with others, taking care of yourself or others when sick, being good with plants or animals, being a good carpenter or cook or poet - any talent of achievement should be noted honestly, as if you were a good friend helping you to write your list. Again, you do not need "objective proof." We're not scientists or lawyers here. Science and facts are necessary in the laboratory or court room, but not here.
That's it! These are all the steps. Remembering how I said it takes time and effort, you may ask, What's next? Good question. Well, you know how the shampoo bottle says: Lather - rinse - repeat - ? Now it's your job to: Identify the negative belief - challenge it (this can be with logic, Socratic questions like some of the examples above, or with positive affirmations) - and repeat . . . and repeat . . . and repeat. After all, this is exactly how those negative thoughts got turned into what you believe to be true - you said them over and over again, until you forgot they were just thoughts you kept thinking, and NOT facts.
There is no human being alive who does not have the ability to control and choose their thoughts in his or her own way. There is no human being who does not have achievements and excellent characteristics. You are a human being, so you are no exception. If you follow these instructions you will find out that you are indeed a worthy individual with many fine and wonderful qualities.
If you allow yourself to be more and more aware of your own beliefs, you can work with them. It is
silly to try to fight what you think of as negative beliefs, or to be frightened of them. They are not
mysterious. They may even be there to help you, as you may find that many served good purposes at one time. They simply became overemphasized, unnecessarily repeated. Now they need you in order to have the light shine on them, so they can be restructured or removed, not denied.
Click here to read Part 1.
In my first post, I talked about what to expect from therapy, which included a focus on change. I am devoting extra time to this in Part 2 because change is so important and yet so misunderstood.
Recently a nine-year-old girl, whom I've been seeing twice a month for a while, came into the room and started by saying she was having a really hard day. This was somewhat unlike her because she had been putting on such a brave face for most of our time together. She then described the compulsions she had engaged in, and how it caused a big problem. She didn't think that her OCD was part of why we were there until that day, when she admitted that the behaviors actually can and do get her into trouble.
I thought, Finally, we're having a breakthrough! My mind momentarily raced to all the new work we could start: we can talk about the compulsions and gain understanding, we can talk about all the positives from change and gain motivation. . . But no sooner did I think of these things than she slumped into her chair and, with all the stubborn sullenness a nine-year-old can muster, said, "And the worst thing is it's never going to be better because it's my brain that makes me do it and my brain can't change!"
Even though I could hear her using words that were a bit beyond her, like she was repeating someone else's explanation, I knew this idea was etched deeply in her mind: if the problem is my brain, then I can't change it. There's a big piece missing from this theory, but I get where it came from. There is a biological reflection of each mental health disorder within the body, especially in the brain. So often, mental health disorders have been stigmatized and treated with the flippant disregard of the (possibly) well-meaning friend or relative who says something like, "Get over it." A logical response is to point out that there is a physical component that anyone, were they looking inside your brain, could physically see. While I understand that the "get over it" point of view is to say that some mental toughness is needed, just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is not going to cut it when it comes to mental health disorders. They are called disorders because they cause an impairment in function, i.e. in one's ability to "just get over it."
There's no denying that a mental health disorder can be reflected in the brain. But what I want to add to that is: this does not mean there is nothing you can do to about it. In fact, we do something about it all the time.
It's called neuroplasticity: neuro meaning "of the brain" and plasticity meaning "the quality of being easily shaped or molded." In biology and specifically evolution, plasticity refers to the ability of an organism (plant, animal, bacteria, human) to change and adapt to their environment. Have you ever heard the saying, "Use it or lose it," when it comes to people's ability to use their brains as they age? This is because of neuroplasticity. When you learn something, your brain makes new physical connections, connecting pathways to other pathways. When you practice that thing over and over again, you're making those connections stronger and deeper. If you don't practice, they become like a path through a grassy field that no longer gets used: the once clear path starts to grow over with grass and weeds. It may all but disappear. Neuroplasticity is lifelong. That's why they say: use it, or lose it. It goes for a 90-year-old as much as a 9-year-old. In the case of my 9-year-old, she has repeated certain behaviors over and over, strengthening and clearing the pathways, which makes them more obvious, deep and strong. The result she now feels is a compulsion. It isn't going to be obvious that she can change it, because the pathways that exist now are already so obvious that it will seem like she must follow them. But it only seems that way. She wasn't so keen to believe me that day, but I taught her the word neuroplasticity, and she liked knowing that. Knowledge and observation of this is where we can start. Later, we'll move on to the next stages of change.
Stages of Change is a model that was first introduced and applied within the field of addiction by DiClemente and Prochaska. It is also called the transtheoretical model of change. We know now that these stages can be applied to anyone with a problem that can be changed. Sometimes you'll see the stages listed as such:
Learning about how we change, and then accepting and expecting the phases of change, helps people feel empowered. I've seen it happen. It normalizes change. It illustrates the path. And it can do this for you, too.
Change is a vital part of life. We are doing it whether we know it or not, and we can use the available knowledge and research about change in order to empower the process of change for ourselves. Expect it if you're going (or considering going) to therapy.
Change can be good. You can do it!
And you already are.
There are two kinds of people: people who think there are two kinds of people, and people who don't.
Okay that was a joke to the effect that dividing people into two kinds is oversimplifying. That being said, sometimes people (of any kind) simplify things in order to make a clearer illustration of those things. Let's say your therapist were to ask you to name five words to describe yourself. It's not because you can be reduced to five adjectives and that is all you are. It's because to simplify things is to notice the biggest, most standout qualities in a given time. And what stands out in a particular time has particular meaning.
Now that I've qualified my next statement to death, I should actually make the statement. Ready? Here goes. As a therapist I've noticed there are two kinds of people who come to therapy: those who say, "There's something wrong; fix it," and those who say, "There's something wrong; I need to talk about it." Of those two kinds, the first are usually dissatisfied with therapy pretty quickly. They're the ones who come back maybe once or twice, and who say about counseling, "I tried that; it didn't work." They are the ones who may define themselves as "broken."
And if they don't give change a fair chance, they are also the ones who get to be right, but probably not happy.
The second group - those who need to talk about something - can be broken down further into two groups: those who expect that talking about what's wrong is going to "fix it," and those who don't. Of those, the ones who don't have expectations of fixing the problem by talking about it make up the largest number of people I see on a regular basis.
So, what IS therapy if it's not talking about problems you want to fix? Well, it is that - but it has to be much more than that. Therapy also has to:
Define what "fix" means to you. This includes whether and how it may or may not be done. Let's say you start with something like: I need to fix my spouse/make the chronic pain go away forever/make sure I never have another panic attack again/prevent my teenager from cutting. These kinds of statements are a place to start, but unfortunately these are not goals. Therapy is honing in on what is fixable, feasible, and in your control. A good therapist will help you with this. Then, you can work on the next steps.
Be collaborative. Essentially, you should have your own goals. A good therapist will help you figure out what yours are. I keep saying "a good therapist" because, unfortunately, not all therapists are good. Some of them out there basically just want to play the expert and tell you what to do. Now, I've had a client tell me that is what I should do, but I would neither want to be nor see a therapist like that. There are no two ways about it: therapy is work for you as the client. Unless your safety is in question and you need to seek medical or other crisis help, your therapist should not tell you what to do. They are also not the expert on you. Part of therapy is change and part of change is empowerment. If you start working toward change with someone who's telling you they are in control, or tell you each and every step you need to take, how empowering is that? Which brings me to my next point that therapy should . . .
Be honest. I've done a lot of different types of therapy. I once worked at an inpatient facility for dual diagnosis - the same one that Augustin Burrows of Running with Scissors talks about. I don't know what it was exactly, maybe the fact that some people were not there by choice, but many of those who came to therapy just wanted to tell stories. And when I say stories, I mean lies. I didn't always know it in the moment. But after consultation and some time, I realized that people sometimes come to therapy and just plain don't tell the truth. It's a tough situation, and it can be for a variety of reasons. I mean, I've had clients tell me they thought they were boring, or weren't doing therapy right, or needed to be a "good patient," so they lied. I was so glad they admitted it because then we could really get to some good work! Also, because I use CBT which involves homework, people have either told me they did something they didn't do or called in sick because they didn't "do their homework." This is also not great therapy. But I know people aren't always honest because, honestly, it's hard to be honest! All I can say to that is that you are human and so am I. Change is hard. You won't always do your homework, and it's okay! Just try to be as honest as you can, for your own sake. (And then, also try to do your homework.) Last but definitely not least, therapy must . . .
Focus on change. The scariest thing sometimes is facing change, but if there is a problem you want to be different, therapy must focus on change. And it is a process, not a product. In the next blog, because it is so vital, I will focus exclusively on the need for, theory about, and possible paths toward change.
I am Lisa and I believe we create our reality. I hope to help empower people to create more mindfully, be kind to oneself and others including animals and the environment, and just generally feel better.