"Our core beliefs are at the very center of who we are, what we believe about ourselves, what we think of others and how we feel about life as a whole." - Alethera Luna
Aaron Beck, who is widely considered the Father of Cognitive and Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, believed that identifying, understanding and, eventually, learning to challenge our core beliefs is a key to good mental health. But what are these "Core Beliefs"? Where do they come from? Most importantly, what can we do about them? These are all questions I hope to answer with this entry.
Core Beliefs Explained:
We start out in this world as infants with very little knowledge about ourselves and how the world works. In infancy, the only real concerns we have are feeling safe, secure, and nurtured. As we develop, our little brains are like sponges, taking in information from our surroundings and processing it accordingly. We make inferences about ourselves, the people around us, and our society at large. There are many factors that determine how these schemas take shape. Our culture, family life, socio-economic status, religion, social influences such as school, day-care, church, friends and extended relatives, etc. These all help to shape this idea of the self and the social environment.
Infancy and Attachment:
For infants, the absence of a secure and nurturing attachment (see attachment theory) often results in the development of emotional and behavioral issues such as poor social skills, limited coping ability, compromised problem solving skills, aggressive behavior, temper tantrums, and becoming emotionally and/or socially withdrawn. These become automated behaviors that lead to further emotional distancing, or even abuse/neglect, from the parents which then develops into negative core beliefs for the child such as "I am unlovable, I am worthless, my life is hopeless,", among many others. These beliefs would then obviously have a negative impact of the mental health of the child and this becomes cyclical in nature.
Repetition and Rehearsal:
As this cycle replicates, the core belief(s) is/are being continually rehearsed, reinforced, and automated. If I’m a child who is beginning to see myself as unlovable, for instance, and then I throw a baseball through a window by accident and my father screams and says, “what is wrong with you?” I obviously would feel even more unlovable. The more unlovable I feel, the more likely I am to act out, especially since children aren’t very skilled at discussing how they feel and why. The more likely I am to act out, the more negative messages I receive as a result, and so on and so on.
The process of automation can best be simplified by comparing to something many of us do every day; our drive to work. I personally have driven the same route to work for 17 years and after all those repetitions of doing the same behavior, I can now drive it without having to put too much thought into it. The brain seeks to automate as much as possible in our lives because it takes a great deal more mental effort and energy to maintain our focus all the time on any one particular thing. As it pertains to our thinking, Beck referred to this as automatic negative thoughts. These thoughts play a constant chatter in our head and are always playing in the background, often without our conscious awareness; much like the drive to work. Information we receive from the outside gets processed against this running store of information and then interpretations about how we should proceed are made and behavioral choices result.
One of your negative core beliefs, or automated thoughts, is that you are incompetent. Your boss approaches you and asks if you would like to take the management position that opened up at your place of work and you decline simply based on the belief that you wouldn’t be able to do it. Why? Because the background information subconsciously told you that you’re incompetent. The main issue with these core beliefs is that this chain reaction often happens below the surface of conscious awareness and, because the negative thoughts have been repeated so frequently, they are now your truth.
What All Can This Effect?
This process plays out, literally, hundreds of times per day and, in most cases, without our awareness. These thoughts will impact just about every decision we make in life. If I believe I am unlovable, then the corresponding behavior may be to latch on to anyone who might actually show me love without setting healthy boundaries and the relationship becoming toxic. I may also simply avoid relationships altogether. If my belief is that I am incompetent, I may not pursue that degree, job position, volunteer opportunity, that would make my life more fulfilling. I may also interpret someone’s constructive criticism negatively because I am fiercely protecting against anyone being aware that I am incompetent. If I believe I am less than others, I may allow bullies to control me through their hurtful words because I don’t feel good enough about myself to simply not care. If my core belief is that I am worthless, I may overcompensate by being a workaholic and never allowing myself any down time which is harmful as well. As you read this, try to become aware of some of the negative core beliefs that you may be carrying with you.
So….What Can Be Done About Them?
Bringing Awareness to the Negative Thoughts:
This is the first major step that must be completed before anything can be done about them. How can we hope to overcome something that we don’t even allow ourselves to recognize? This first step is often the hardest because the brain tries to protect us from harmful things, including thoughts. This results in repression of negative thoughts and, at times, they get so deeply buried, it’s challenging to even get them “out in the open.” We also will naturally resist identifying these thoughts because many times they are painful and we seek to avoid such pain. Upon uncovering them, we can then begin the next few steps to find them either untrue or capable of being resolved.
Sit With Your Thoughts:
So, maybe you’ve uncovered these negative thoughts but are struggling with resisting the painful feelings they bring. It is imperative to get more familiar with these thoughts because they are often broad statements about our character and not specific. For instance, I may yell too loudly at my child over his resistance to doing his homework. I recognize that my emotion after is guilt and sadness. The thought triggering these feelings might be “I am a bad Father.” This is a generic statement made about a specific event. If I simply leave my thought process as “I am a bad Father” the feeling doesn’t change either and then I look to find a way to suppress that thought. This might be distraction on my phone, investing in a project, or drinking it away. The thought is painful, but you can see how hiding from it is counterproductive. Instead, “sit with” the thought to understand what it is really trying to tell me. The specifics are that I yelled at my kid and I feel bad about hurting him. By looking at the specific behavior, I’ve allowed myself a plan of action to correct this. I will use softer tones and approach, I will be more mindful of my emotions going into these often-challenging situations, and I will try to create a reward system for him to feel something positive from doing the work. The general statement gives no possible answer and breeds hopelessness, whereas, the specific thought allowed for improvement but to get there I had to get through the awful thought of being a bad Father first. Meditation is a great way of spending time in these thoughts and doing so with a mindset of non-judgment will make this process much easier.
Challenging Through Thought:
Many times, I find that when I can get clients to engage the negative belief by examining evidence to refute the thought, they derive much benefit. For instance, if I believe I am incompetent, I may compose a list of actual accomplishments I have made in my life. These do not have to be major accomplishments to be meaningful. Reflecting on things like maintaining my home, completing a project, growing a plant, etc. are all accomplishments that defy being incompetent. Of course, big accomplishments help as well such as getting or maintaining a job, starting a family, getting a degree, etc. All of these can be helpful reminders that refute the negative belief. In the “bad Father” example, one might recognize very quickly that, if they were a bad Father, they wouldn’t be critiquing their parenting at all.
Challenging Through Behavior:
What actions we take as a result of uncovering these thoughts can often be much harder. If I feel like I should be a better spouse and I’ve identified that, part of this, is owning my role in the issues in a relationship, I may struggle some with that. The simple answer to this is to apologize and to make an effort to be more mindful of needed behavior change as well. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t make it easy. We may get hung up on focusing on what the partner did wrong, we may be too fragile to admit mistakes, we may feel that we cannot change so why bother trying, amongst other psychological barriers.
If I believe I am a bad student I can recognize that the “D” I got on that paper was only a set back and I can study harder. If I feel like I’m not in good enough shape I can learn to appreciate self-love while starting an exercise routine. If I feel uncared for and understand it’s because I am alone, I can make efforts to reach out to friends, attend social events, and even go on dating sites. This behavioral activation is often difficult because of internal resistance that tells us “I’ll still fail” or “I won’t reach my goals” or “no one would want to hear from me anyway.” It takes stepping out of these fears to be able to challenge them.
When we evaluate thoughts as “bad”, the brain’s instinctive drive to protect us from hurt tries to take over and stuff away these thoughts. In the short-term, this may seem like it is helping but, in the long term, we are limiting our ability to truly uncover them as well as do something about them. By exploring our thoughts purely, without judgment, we begin to open ourselves up to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our perceived shortcomings. We invite curiosity, as opposed to simply being harsh to ourselves. This will open up a lot of paths to change vs. stuffing it down and never really dealing with these beliefs.
Just like our negative core beliefs become automated with repetition, so do more positive, factual beliefs. If you make a habit out of routinely exploring these negative beliefs, you’ll soon find that many of them are not grounded in fact or are “umbrella” terms. These are generalizations we make about ourselves in response to a singular event. By learning to look for the facts, not the biased, negative opinion of our inner dialogue routinely, this practice becomes habit. This then lends itself to rehearsal of behavioral changes, which again, can become automated. We live in the “fast-food” culture.; in an age where we have instant access to movies, TV shows, social media, and other forms of entertainment. This has led us to feel that we should just feel better instantly. Unfortunately, good mental health is not so simple and does require a mindful effort every day to improve.
Practice Radical Acceptance:
Acceptance is the opposite of resistance. By accepting things as they are and not labeling things as they “should” be, we open up possibilities for growth and self-discovery. When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross promoted her theory on stages of grief, she broke them down into 5 separate stages: Denial (resistance), Bargaining (resistance), Anger (resistance), depression (beginning of acceptance), and acceptance. The beginning almost always starts with a denial and ends with acceptance. This same model can hold true for almost all of the unpleasant events, and thoughts, that we have throughout our life spans. The sooner we reach acceptance the sooner we can begin recovering. This model also holds true with addictions as the first step in recovery is admitting/accepting that there is a problem. This applies to thoughts by allowing ourselves to accept the factual statements we make about ourselves and the world around us and to discover areas we are unsatisfied and make meaningful change.
Acceptance does NOT mean “liking” and it also does NOT mean “giving up.” It is a self-compassionate means of recognizing things are not the way you want them and you are simply accepting what is, in the moment…again, without judgment. Using the above examples.
In conclusion, it is obvious that this is just a sampling of what is done in therapy to uncover and challenge core beliefs. My hope is that it will at least make people more aware that the negative messages we carry about ourselves are very often not grounded in fact and only serve to limit us. I also hope that it may inspire some to seek help through a professional if they feel that they have their own self-sabotaging negative core beliefs.
Feedback is welcome in the comments section below.
I wrote briefly on mindfulness in a previous blog but really didn't do the topic much justice. Since that blog I have had clients, friends, relatives, and even colleagues express interest in the topic for various reasons. Some wish to incorporate it into their own practice, some seek the calming benefits that come from being mindful, and some are just curious and want a better understanding. Regardless of the reasons, I am always more than happy to share some of my own insight into the topic. I am no expert myself, but as you will discover in this blog, I have removed any judgment of myself for not being as mindful as some may think a therapist should be. In fact, I have done my best to remove the word "should" from my vocabulary. It is a harmful and unnecessary word in the mindful realm.
Mindfulness has become a sort of pop culture craze lately but it has been around for centuries, as many ancient religions have a mindfulness component built right into their faith. The scientific study and clinical implications of mindfulness really took hold in western culture in the 1970's. I recently saw a Time Magazine cover with the word "Mindfulness" written across the top and a woman's closed eyes and forehead covering the rest of the cover. This imagery often results in a gross misunderstanding of what mindfulness is. I have many clients tell me they tried that "mindfulness crap" before and when they meditated they couldn't quiet their mind. In trying to be open to their experience, I asked where this idea of mindfulness came from and often they reply that it was from a magazine, a self-help book, or a Google search. I then will go on to ask if they would be willing to try again, only this time allow the thoughts to come and go without attaching judgement (ideas of good or bad, right or wrong) to them and certainly not judging themselves for having them. I also explain that mindfulness is more than just meditation and that it becomes a way of life that we carry with us and practice as often as we can daily. Just like anything in life, the more we practice, the better we get at it. Below are some very basic ideas and explanations of mindfulness practice that hopefully you can begin incorporating today!
1. Remove Judgement - "When we remove concepts of good and bad we open up our minds to new possibilities." - Unknown
We are conditioned from birth to believe there is a right and a wrong or a good and a bad, and these beliefs about the world directly affect the way we filter information that we take in. This concept often limits our ability to see the whole picture or at the very least to allow ourselves to see alternate possibilities. I heard a story at a training one time that illustrates this point.
A man had a horse ranch and one day he was sitting outside talking with his neighbor when the horses broke the fence and they all got out. The neighbor yelled, "Oh what a tragedy, all of your horses are gone!" The rancher simply stated, "we'll see." The next morning the horses returned with several wild horses and the ranchers herd doubled. The neighbor exclaimed, "what a great thing, you doubled your number of horses!" The rancher said, "we'll see." That evening the rancher's son was trying to train one of the wild horses and he got bucked of and broke his back. he was confined to a wheelchair after that. The neighbor brought over cookies his wife had baked and said sorry for such a tragedy and the rancher said, "we'll see." A few weeks later an army recruiter came to the door and said they've re-instituted the draft and your son has been selected to fight overseas. Upon seeing he was wheelchair bound he was excluded from service. The neighbor said, "well, at least something good came of it and the rancher said, "we'll see."
The story goes on all the while illustrating the point that concepts of good or bad made no difference in the outcome and the opposite ended up occurring. The rancher was using a non-judgmental approach and taking each experience as it came. By not adding judgment and just living experiences we open up to all kinds of possibilities that are not limited by good or bad value judgments.
2. Be Present - "Anxiety come not from thinking about the future, but by trying to control it." - Khalil Ghibran
I will often challenge my clients to answer a very simple yet profound question in session and that is, "what is actually happening to you, in this very moment, to cause you any anxiety or depression?" They will almost invariably start off with predictions of things to come or reflections of things from their past and I will ask again until they hear what the question is actually asking...what is HAPPENING in this moment. They then will usually answer, "nothing" and suddenly an awareness arrives that it is only their thoughts about past or future events that are impacting their emotional state, not the present moment itself. In most cases, when we ask ourselves this question, the answer will be "nothing."
The brain is a magnificent problem solving machine, however, and it is wired to focus on perceived problems or threats in order to solve them. It takes repeated and concerted effort to train our brains to spend less time in problem solving mode and more time in the moment.
3. Be Immersed - "Is doing any activity with your full attention not itself a form of meditation?" - Unknown
This simply means whatever you are doing, do it with your full attention. In our culture, people who can "multi-task" are thought very highly of. Unfortunately, there is no such thing. We cannot attend to and accomplish two separate tasks at the same time. What we are really doing is task hopping which keeps us from ever fully engaging in what we are doing now. I often decide I am going to multi-task when cleaning and I end up with a washer of clothes that needs re-washed due to mildew, a bucket of cold water with a mop in the kitchen, a half-made bed in the bedroom, toys are still scattered everywhere and I am exhausted. This "monkey-brain" as I like to call it (imagine a bunch of loose monkeys wreaking havoc inside your head) often creates a great deal of unnecessary anxiety, limited motivation, decreased accomplishment, and at times may lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression.
Instead, try mopping the floor first, while attending solely to the area that needs mopped, the water as you wring it out each time, the difference between the mopped and not mopped sections, the smell of the cleaner, etc. until the mopping is complete. The move to your next task, trying to anchor yourself in those tasks as deeply as possible.
4. Practice Relaxation/Self-Compassion - "While meditating we are simply seeing what the mind has been doing all along." - Allan Lokos
There are many relaxing ways to be mindful. We can create a daily meditation practice for starters. As alluded to earlier, we do not seek to "empty" our mind in meditation but only to bring to conscious awareness what the mind is doing. The brain is always trying to automate processes so we can shift our focus to things that require our immediate attention. In mindful meditation we allow thoughts to come and go and simply observe them objectively, like examining a butterfly you just caught!
We can also do some deep breathing exercises, progressive body scans, nature walks, Yoga/Thai Chi/Qigong, hot baths, fishing, exercise, etc. are all mindful activities as long as we are fully engaged in them.
We should also strive to use kind verbiage towards ourselves. If you saw someone sitting alone on a park bench and they were sobbing because of a negative event that happened to them would you say, "suck it up" or "you should be feeling better by now?" No, you would say something like "you're doing the best you can" or "it's going to be alright". Why should you deserve any less compassion for yourself than what you would give to others?
Doing things for ourselves is also a form of self-compassion. Unfortunately, our culture has us believe that to do something for oneself is selfish. The reality is that we cannot pour from an empty cup, and that if we truly want to benefit others (without expectation of something in return) we have to first fill our own cups and feel really good about where we are. Try taking some time to make a list of things you've always wanted to do and, without any parameters set for time, (avoiding self-judgment) begin doing them. Examples might be learning to play an instrument, planting a garden, woodworking, crafts, etc. There are literally thousands of activities people can do that are enjoyable and stress free.
5. Be Accepting - "Letting go does not mean that you don't care about someone anymore. It's just realizing that the only person you have control over is yourself." - Deborah Reber
There is a good reason why Elisabeth Kubler-Ross ended her "Stages of Grief" with acceptance. It is truly the only path to peace. The simplest way to illustrate this would be through an analogy. Our day to day experiences are a lot like a perpetually flowing river in which we are standing. We can opt to push back against the river with no real success or we can learn to swim in it understanding that the current may at times get a little faster and that there will also be times when it gets a little slower. The more we try to push back the more frustrated we become and the more we lose ourselves in the process.
Mindfulness' role in all of this is for us to be consciously aware of when the current is changing and learning the best individualized ways, in the moment, to swim with it. This will become easier as we learn to be open to those changes as opposed to resisting them.
6. Be Aware of Ourselves - "The ability to monitor our feelings from moment to moment is crucial to psychological insight and behavioral change." - Daniel Goleman
We often react to external events through previous repeated (and reinforced) impulses. For instance, if, during childhood, you cried and cried until eventually your parents relented and gave you what it was you wanted and this happened over and over again, your brain would eventually automate this process as a problem solving skill. Unfortunately, that skill doesn't translate well into the adult world (though there are undoubtedly those who still test it.) The mindful person would explore the upset emotion, understand it and try to reach some acceptance, or failing that, compromise.
I'll use infidelity in a relationship to further illustrate the point. The brain has already experienced significant hurt because your partner was unfaithful and will scan for old ways that this was dealt with in the past. For many, this now means controlling the partner (and feeling there is a right to do so). Coping behaviors like checking phone logs, hacking into their Facebook accounts, or even restricting them from going out with friends are all common controlling behaviors, The emotionally intelligent person would examine their feelings of hurt and insecurity when their partner is headed out for a night on the town and come to the understanding that the only person we truly have control of is ourselves. The conclusion reached would eventually be the gradual removal of controlling behavior or deciding with confidence that trust cannot be re-established and ending the relationship.
In both cases illustrated above, there is no behavioral change is we don't first make ourselves aware of and examine the unpleasant emotion driving it.
7. Serve Others - "The only happy people I know are the ones who are working well at something they consider important." - Abraham Maslow
Altruistic acts are also mindful in that we are tapping into our natural predisposition to help others This stands in stark contrast to our culturally conditioned mentality of caring only for oneself. The latter is not to be confused with self-compassion where you are doing what is needed to get or maintain your own wellness. These acts can be very small in scale such as helping an elderly neighbor with chores or expressing gratitude to a man or woman in uniform. These acts actually change brain chemistry by releasing the "love" hormone, Oxytocin, which improves positive feelings and increases self-esteem. Kindness is also contagious, and I think we can all agree that our communities need an outbreak of the kindness disease now more than ever.
There are many other ways to be in the service of others including volunteer opportunities, doing work through your church or other faith based organization, offering to teach something you excel at for no cost, organizing communities to do charitable acts. These are all great ways to be mindfully engaged and create some real positive vibes as well. Ultimately, life will only give us back what we are willing to first put into it. The more kind acts we do the more we will eventually get in return (without the return being the motive.)
Mindfulness is not immediately effective. It will not suddenly make you feel better and, if that is the expectation going into it, you will likely not derive any benefit as expectation, by default, cannot exist with openness. In other words, begin your journey by simply stating "I am going to start my journey and see where it will lead!"
Derik. S. Berkebile, LCSW
I find couples therapy to be one of the most rewarding and challenging types of therapy I do. It is hard enough to manage one personality in individual psychotherapy but when you add in the unique and differing views, expectations, and character traits of a second person, the intensity ramps to another level entirely.
There are some common threads among couples I have worked with that have had success. These same themes also ring true with those who I know personally and are happily married or together for a very long time. When working with couples, I try to help them foster the following ten traits during treatment:
1. Trust - This one is a no-brainer. When couples trust one another they share a deeper sense of commitment. When one or both partners are insecure in the relationship they will often make efforts to alleviate their mistrust by controlling or manipulating, which will invariably ruin the relationship. The irony is that, by trying to save the relationship, they are inadvertently ending it. This is where infidelity becomes a problem. When one person does not trust they try to control and when the other partner feels controlled they reach out to others which validates the mistrust that started the cycle. Trust has to be there or the other nine are irrelevant.
2. Individuality - This is when partners are still capable of having their own lives without one another. Enmeshment is a term used in both family and couples therapy that illustrates, in the couples context, when the lives of both become so intertwined that one cannot function without the other and all other relationships get lost. This may seem great at first as we envision two star crossed lovers gazing into each other's eyes without a care in the world.....the problem occurs when that person is suddenly not around and we are left to obsess after alienating the supports we once had. When couples are capable of alone time whether it be through activities, hobbies, spending time with the individual's core friend group, etc. it is healthy and nurturing for the relationship as a whole. For obvious reasons, number one must be met first.
3. Empathy - It is critical that couples be able to understand thoughts and feelings their partner is experiencing from their partner's perspective. This is why people with narcissistic tendencies have such a difficult time in relationships; the only point of view that matters is their own. When couples are able to see things from their partner's perspective and feel for them when they do, it makes change more likely and this tends to reciprocate back and forth in a positive cycle. If we are able to feel what our partners feel, we are more apt to make positive changes to appease those feelings. Lastly, it allows us to focus more on making our partner happy, not our partner making us happy.
4. Communication - When couples communicate well they are also more capable of solving problems in the relationship. This is more than just asking about each other's day or planning the next day's events with the kids. This is real, heartfelt discussions of each partners emotions and how they may relate to the status of the relationship, When a partner feels heard and his/her concerns are not dismissed, it opens up all sorts of channels of communication. But when a partner routinely feels not heard, the effort simply stops and this is a cancer to any relationship. Lastly, simply hearing your partner and validating their concerns is not enough. Follow up action indicating you care must follow or, again, the effort to communicate feelings will stop.
5. Forgiveness - Our culture simply does not value forgiveness. We have tricked ourselves into believing that forgiving someone gives them permission to hurt us again or that we are somehow letting our partner off the hook. Grudges DO NOT change behavior in any positive way. It may, in the short-term, fix the immediate problem but will only create oppositional resentment later on. One of my favorite quotes is "holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." This is true in relationships as well except in this case it hurts both you and your relationship and is a major hindrance to any form of effective communication. Forgiveness cleanses the soul and removes the bitterness that comes with anger.
6. Humility - Approaching the relationship like you really have to keep winning your partner over is a great way to keep things fresh and exciting. Part of being humble in a relationship is also being willing to admit when you are wrong (which our culture as a whole struggles with). It may not seem like it at first, but having this ability de-escalates negative situations very quickly. This also opens the door to a more effective problem solving approach as your partner will immediately feel less on the defensive. Humility also forces us to focus on the self.....the only person in the relationship we truly have control over.
7. Passion - It is important for there to be passion in any relationship. This doesn't just mean the sexual kind of passion where the bed sheets catch fire (though this can certainly throw a spark into things.) This also entails being passionate about each other's lives; the successes, the failures, supporting one another, meeting our goals, raising our children, etc. Being passionate about numerous aspects of your relationship develops a deeper bond that goes beyond the superficial and creates a lasting and more meaningful love. Even better is when you can become passionate about something your partner is already involved in when you wouldn't have otherwise.
8. Accountability - I love teaching clients "I" statements and forcing them to role play these in session. The first few times it feels so awkward that clients struggle with just starting a sentence with the word "I" because they became so ingrained with using "you" as a means of deflecting accountability for their half of the issues in the relationship. Defensive posturing only serves to sabotage communication. If your partner starts off a discussion on a contentious topic with the word "you" the rest of the message is likely lost and the defensive, aggressive posturing begins. By using "I" you are accepting accountability for your feelings, expectations, behaviors, etc. and offers a more open, solution focused approach.
9. Vulnerability - This is very difficult. Being vulnerable is an uncomfortable feeling and requires a great deal of practice to become more comfortable with. This entails accountability but also a willingness to discuss our true emotions underneath our anger and frustration. Discussing feelings like hurt, sadness, disappointment, failure are all uncomfortable and expose our ego's to the possibility of an attack by our partner. What typically will happen, however, is increased vulnerability from our partners as well. This too opens up more effective and positive communication.
10. Appreciation - There are few substitutes for feeling appreciated in a relationship. This doesn't mean appreciating a prepared candle lit dinner, bubble bath or rose pedals all over the bed. Those things are nice but are an unrealistic expectation for day to day living. Acknowledgement and appreciation of the little things, like washing the dishes, doing the laundry, taking the kids for a day, etc. are all things we tend to take for granted. Just like anything else in life, if rewarded, these behaviors are likely to increase even if that reward is a simple "thank you!"
In summary, you've likely noticed I left out things like activities or the generic term "love". I think if the above ten traits are fostered you will certainly want to do things together and they pretty much sum up what love is to me. All relationships have turmoil at times as well, my own included, but knowing better ways to respond will certainly minimize the severity, duration and frequency and may even be seen as an opportunity to grow!
Derik S. Berkebile, LCSW
Comments are welcome below!
Fostering Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Resilience: Combining Concepts of Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness
. "Our emotions have a mind of their own, one which can hold views quite independently of our rational mind." - Daniel Goleman
If we stop and think about it, how often do we stop and think about it? Our cultures puts a premium on staying busy. In fact, it is how most people report dealing with emotional difficulties....by NOT thinking about it. In the moment, this seems like the right thing to do. It allows us to function at work, with family, while driving, etc. This "masking" takes a toll, however, as it requires a great deal of mental energy to keep emotions suppressed. Below are listed some of the common effects:
1. Memory Lapses - Emotions are attached to both long-term and short term memory. A good example of this is to compare an emotionally mundane event like breakfast three weeks ago or the attack on 9/11. One you likely don't remember at all and the other likely carries with it very fine details stored in memory. When denying our emotions we deny the brain the ability to pair the emotions to the memory.
2. Mental Fatigue - The brain is a powerful tool but when stretched can begin to fatigue. By exerting a great deal of mental energy on suppressing the memory attached to the unpleasant emotion we limit the ability for the brain to absorb and attend to new information. This is like a boxer fighting two opponents at the same time.
3. You get less Oxytocin - Oxytocin (not to be confused with Oxycontin) is a hormone released as part of the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system and is connected to cuddling, laughter, hugs, etc. Unfortunately, when suppressing emotions we often push away those closest to us never giving ourselves a chance for them to help release this hormone.
4. Sleep Deficits - We've all been there, the mind just won't shut off and the result is a night of repeated wakings and light sleep. The next day feels like a hangover and our productivity is hampered at best.....resulting in more stress. When emotions are effectively dealt with the brain can get out of "fight or flight" mode and ready to rest.
5. Elevated Blood Pressure - This again ties into fight or flight response. We feel this surge with unpleasant emotions and is a natural response to perceived threats. This includes channeling blood flow to the muscles to prepare to fight or run away. Increased respiration, heart rate, blood pressure are all common. By not effectively dealing with our emotions, these perceived threats leave us stuck in an extended period of fight or flight which effects several systems in the human body including blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular events.
6. Weight Gain - Eating comfort food elicits a response in the reward center of the brain. The issue is when used as a comfort, we gain weight, by gaining weight we need more comfort. The cycle can result in rapid weight gain.
7. Digestive Problems - The aforementioned fight or flight again. When oxygenated blood flow diverts to the muscles it is simultaneously diverted away from the digestive system (not like we need to worry about digesting a chimichanga when running from a bear). This results in issues like acid reflux, ulcers, indigestion and there are some theories that attribute gastrointestinal cancers to this as well.
These are just a few issues related to suppressing emotions. So....what do we do about it? In order to answer that question we need to first understand some terms. The first we'll review is emotional intelligence. This is simply knowing how you are feeling. Seems silly to think we have to develop this, but because of our busy bee existence we don't often know how we feel or identify this and subsequently that emotion is left to control our day. Fostering emotional intelligence requires willfully focusing on what emotions we are feeling throughout the day and getting more comfortable with this. I often assign clients a check in assignment where they set a reminder on their phone or alarm every two hours and they will write in what emotion(s) they are feeling and what thoughts or events are triggering them.
Emotional resilience is the ability to gain a "tolerance" of our emotions. Instead of exerting so much effort on suppressing our emotions, why not try sitting with them, immersing ourselves in them? Allowing ourselves to FEEL them completely and without judgement.....acknowledging our emotions as just that....emotions. They don't define us nor are they the whole picture of who we are. Over time, the mind begins to dull the effects of the emotions we feel. It's like when you are exposed to the same bad smell over an extended period of time, that smell becomes less severe as the brain adapts. If we don't allow ourselves to feel we never are able to develop this resilience.
Mindfulness, in a very oversimplified explanation, is practicing a present oriented awareness. To beat a dead horse, our culture is one of preoccupation. We are constantly thinking of the next thing we have to get done or prepare for and rarely allow ourselves to enjoy this very moment. Obviously, by practicing a present orientation we are inherently more capable of identifying our emotions in the present moment as well.
Lastly, neuroplasticity is the understanding that we are not "fixed" as human beings and that we are capable of fundamentally changing the way we perceive and interact in our world. We can, through practice and repetition, undo old neural pathways that communicate how to respond to perceived threats and also our emotions. Using the information above, if we routinely practice sitting with and exploring our emotions and not suppressing or hiding them we begin to do this automatically, thus fostering an inherent ability to immediately identify and eventual cope well with our emotions.
Some of the more common tools I have clients utilize are things like journaling, "check-in" assignments, meditation, mindfulness exercises, and many other activities designed to improve emotional intelligence and resilience. I also assist clients in challenging the thoughts they have that contribute to these uncomfortable emotions which could be a whole other blog entry.
Feeling emotions is a part of human nature. Everyone has them, Our emotions drive us to action and are meant to be helpful to us. When they are suppressed they can eventually begin to take away from our enjoyment of our lives. When you catch yourself pushing down your emotions, I challenge you to accept those emotions, immerse yourself in them and begin to see the benefits of working through them instead of hiding from them.
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I wish I had a dime for every time I've asked a client, "is that something you have control over?" I could easily be retired and nestled away quietly in a log cabin in the beautiful foothills of Montana. So many mental health issues today are directly a result of things completely outside of our control. Think about this for a minute, how much control do we have over our co-workers behavior? How much do we allow the behavior of our co-workers to effect our day? The answers to both might initially be "a lot" but realistically the only thing we have control over is the way we choose to respond (if we respond at all) to the behaviors of others.
There are all sorts of therapeutic directions to go from that point of the discussion but the focus will now shift to kindness. Let's take a look at a potential scenario and what our options might be in handling that scenario. A mother is standing in line with her children at Wal-Mart and one is screaming she wants a toy, one is tapping her on the shoulder loudly yelling "mom!" over and over again, and another is bouncing up and down on the front of the cart. You come up behind her in line and she sees you looking at one of the kids and she says sharply, "what are you looking at?!" Most, if being honest, would immediately shift to defensive mode or simply ignore the woman, however, the person who truly loves themselves seeks to aide others and also is more capable of seeing things from other's perspectives. One choice that many would not have thought of is to simply be honest, "I was looking at your beautiful children and admiring how you have been able to keep it all together, I know when my kids did this I struggled to be as patient as you."
This choice not only deflects any further negativity but also helps in picking up a Mother who, based on her initial reaction to you, is at wits end and likely needs a daily dose of kindness at that point. It is also an opportunity to teach kindness as well.... sort of like a happy, fast spreading plague.
Kindness is incredibly empowering. It's something we can always choose and by having that ability we gain power over our lives and we feel awfully damn good doing it. Had the response in the above scenario been negative, who actually had the control, me or her? What would I have felt afterward? What might have she felt afterward? Being kind to those who are unkind is like hitting someone with a surprise left hook they didn't see coming because negative responses are often the only thing that people like the above mentioned Mother have ever experienced.
So, why are we so negative and why aren't people more kind? A lot has to do with our culture and media exposure. We don't really value kindness as much as we should. When watching any action movie where there is an antagonist and a protagonist, the plot usually revolves around the bad guy doing something to the good guy and the rest of the film is the good guy getting revenge on the bad guy. You can trace this from Gun Smoke to today's blockbuster superhero movies. Revisiting control for a minute, we have been duped into believing that being mean, aggressive, vindictive somehow promotes change in others....giving us a very false sense of controlling those people. In all truth, those above traits create fear, resentment and a eventually abandonment. Another influence is our constant bombarding of negative posts through social media. I once counted 30 posts and of those only 5 could be considered positive or neutral. Lastly, our mainstream media outlets have a firm understanding that people pay attention to what they are afraid of. By fear mongering they draw ratings and by drawing ratings they make money. Thus perpetuating this culture of negativity. I encourage clients to unplug as often as possible to get away from the daily deluge of awful.
Practicing kindness is at times difficult because we feel that we are somehow letting those who have wronged us get away with something, but if you hold grudges they truly are getting away with stealing your enjoyment for however long you hold the grudge. Practice kindness and take your power back!
Derik S. Berkebile, LCSW, CMH, ACHP-SW
For couples, just the idea of seeing someone to help work through their issues can seem defeating, or at the very least, make you feel like maybe you just weren't meant to be. Couples often come because during the course of their time together they lost touch with what made the relationship desirable in the first place. So, how does therapy help?
I guess I should start off by stating what couples counseling is NOT. This might save me a few sessions of changing expectations in the future. First, it is NOT a sounding board to get the therapist to validate that YOUR issue(s) with your partner are correct. In other words, don't come to counseling expecting the therapist to say to your partner, "oh, John is right, if you just do what he is suggesting, Jane, you'll be fine." If your therapist is blatantly siding with one or the other, it may be time to see another therapist. Couples counseling is NOT a venting arena as well. This may establish a baseline of what the communication patterns are like, but after a few sessions the communication should be improved and the disrespectful yelling, name calling, belittling, etc. should be improved. Finally, it is not a place to get the therapist to FIX your partner or your problems. For all the faults you may perceive your partner to have, successful counseling usually starts by focusing inward and relies on the COUPLE to fix the problems with insight provided by the therapist.
It may seem counterintuitive, but relationships thrive when the individuals involved first feel good about themselves. They are confident and secure in who they are and do not require much in the way of validation (see Maslow's Hierarchy and self-actualization.) Many relationship issues begin with the need for one partner to receive validation from the other. For example, "I did the dishes tonight so my wife should say thank you and express gratitude." When the validation isn't received the negativity cycle begins spinning out of hand and arguments ensue. "She didn't say thank you so I am not doing anything more tonight." Wife sees this behavior and questions it in an all too familiar pattern, "are you just gonna lay around all evening?" Knowing the mindset of the husband, how he is already primed for aggression, this response elicits further negativity.
Now, imagine if John had just done the dishes because he likes the part of himself that is helpful and didn't look for validation. What if Jane had expressed her concerns in a less aggressive way? What if John realized that he felt disrespected and hurt by his wife's reaction instead of going straight to anger and was able to share that and work through it with her? That is the essence of couples counseling. We first learn to undo some of the dysfunctional schema that result in unrealistic expectations for our partners. We then strive to build self-confidence and how each partner can aide in this for each other. Mindfulness strategies are often used to teach clients to "cue" themselves when they are starting into the old patterns of communication and to use a more positive means of communicating with one another. Therapists teach self accountability, taking ownership of your problems in the relationship and working together to fix those instead of pointing out how the partner is at fault. Homework assignments are often included to keep the couple on track between sessions. To summarize, in an overly simplistic way, couples counseling is the undoing of the patterns that lead to the undoing of the relationship. Couples who engage in counseling often go on to lead better relationships together than those who never went at all. It is not a sign of individual weakness, but an important step in having the best relationship possible.
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