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Future-Tripping

I often have to slow down and ask myself: “What’s the rush?” “Why am I so eager to get somewhere else?” “What’s pushing me to want to escape?” An objective outsider might suggest that my life appears to be on the right track; but for me, I’m riddled with thoughts about what I “should” or “could” be doing differently and better. Do you have similar types of thoughts or images?

Slowing down and asking ourselves these types of questions, can help us to respect and to observe more closely our present situations, while gaining a better understanding of why we often think and live in the future. Our efforts to be somewhere else, to be someone different, to have a different experience, can be fantasies or efforts to avoid our authentic experiences—especially in reaction to a difficult or traumatic present-day event. But, more often, escapism, future-tripping or fantasizing about being “anywhere but here” is a habitual form of thinking. After-all, our evolution has been determined by how well we predict future threats, so these habits of thoughts are deeply embedded into our neurocircuitry. Ironically, our habitual need to look to the future no longer helps keep us “safe” in the 21st Century. Instead, (and, as we suggest to ourselves that our present-day experiences are “not good enough”) we are often plagued with guilt, frustration, stress, impatience—more anxiety and depression, less safety.

It can be helpful to remind ourselves that our “old brain” is at work when we are daydreaming of being somewhere or someone else. [Old brain refers to instinctive or conditioned ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.  In other words, “outdated” survival techniques.]  Reminding ourselves that our present-day survival is no longer based on how well that we can predict future threats can help to pull us back to the reality of the day and reduce our overarching stress. We must also suggest to ourselves that opportunities for becoming a happier, healthier, less anxious, more centered and balanced species is determined by how successful we are at staying grounded in this very moment. When we let the past remain in the past, and we let the future remain a mystery, we often become more settled and at ease. I no longer have to feel remorse for “missed opportunities” or frightened by the mountains ahead that I “might” have to climb.

I can relax into the day and be calmed by the idea that all I really can and have to do today is stay focused on the present moment. Only then can I actually see with clarity who I am, where I am, and what I might want to explore in the future anyway. And, I just might get to feel and experience the safely and security that already exists in this very moment.

Be well~

Ryan

Self-criticism (self-evaluation) and anxiety can serve a useful and productive purpose too!

This morning’s session was a great reminder to me about good anxiety versus bad anxiety and productive self-criticism versus destructive self-criticism.  Many of us might automatically suggest that “good” and “productive” have no place next to words like anxiety and self-criticism.  For the most part it doesn’t feel good to be “anxious” and the term “self-criticism” is usually associated with someone having poor self-worth or struggling with self-esteem issues.

Unhealthy or extreme self-criticism—if left unattended—can limit you from interviewing for jobs that you are well-qualified for, can discourage you from going on dates, and can lead to depression and dysfunctional belief systems.  If you’re constantly telling yourself that you aren’t good enough, you’ll eventually believe it and manifest that negative self-image into everything you do.  Dysfunctional belief systems can take hold and statements such as, “plan for the worst in all things and hope for the best—if you’re lucky,” can begin to dictate your life.  This belief system, recognized or not, draws us toward the worst in all things…(but, that’s for another blog posting).  And, we all know that chronic or acute anxiety can be paralyzing and create social isolation, severe emotional distress, and can eventually lead to physical health problems such as high blood-pressure, migraine headaches, chest pain, and much worse.

But, I want to focus on the useful types of anxiety and self-criticism today.  My first meeting—with a very insightful and magnanimous client—focused on differentiating between good and bad anxiety and productive and unproductive self-criticism with the focus being more on the usefulness of both the conventionally termed “negative” traits.

We’ve all been in situations when self-criticism (let’s use self-evaluation instead) can help us to take a closer look at our behaviors and question what was behind our intentions when we’ve reacted unfavorably to someone when we felt stuck in an anxiety-provoking situation.  For example, have you ever been at a dinner party and someone asked you what you did for a living and instinctively you wanted to or you responded with, “Why is that always the first question at a dinner event?”  Or, the person sitting across from you asked about your relationship status and you sarcastically responded with, “I’m single and I’ll always be single, why?”  No matter how frustrated we were by the questions [we may have felt that they were predictable ice-breakers, shallow attempts to connect, or questions that should be off limits—and they just might have been], the reality of the situation is that our reactions and responses most likely came across as harsh and crass.  If you’re part of a reality TV show this makes for good-selling drama; but, in real-life social situations, it makes for awkwardness.  In many cases, our attempts to make a point or divert from the questions themselves make others feel that we are jaded and unavailable for further conversation, and it pushes them away.

I believe these types of responses serve as ways to reduce our own anxiety about our work or relationship challenges.  Most likely we are struggling with a volatile or challenging partnership.  We may be in the process of trying to work through a miscommunication at home, struggling with difficult news from our partner, or we may be in the process of breaking-up.  We might have lost our job and be on our sixth month of collecting unemployment, and we’re frustrated, embarrassed and uncertain about our career and financial futures.  Our automatic responses yield the exact results that we’re looking—although only temporarily.  We get the attention diverted away from us and it assists us from having to deal with the difficult and challenging questions.

In these situations a good dose of self-evaluation (being more critical of self) can be useful.  It can help us to understand that the questions themselves (as superficial as they might have seemed) were mere attempts to relate to us and connect; and, we might instead see that we reacted from a place of defensiveness in order to cover-up for our own insecurity and present doubts—not because of someone’s poor social skills.  Being a bit more critical of our reactions can help us to begin to do the tough internal work needed to make changes to ourselves in order to make us more available, attractive, approachable and relatable to potential friends, lovers, employers, or simply the person sitting across the table from us at a dinner party.  Furthermore, dealing with our anxiety directly can also serve a huge purpose in helping us to connect to others.  After-all, if the person sitting across the table from you has blood running through their veins, chances are that they too have struggled in a relationship, failed at a relationship, had difficulty on the job or lost a job themselves.  Being more truthful in our responses and reactions and less defensive will actually help lessen our anxiety as we provide for opportunities to relate to others through our shared experiences.  We might just actually stumble upon the much needed support and validation that we needed and deserved at a very challenging and difficult time.

Ryan

It’s not all about the “Answers.”

Who am I?  Why do I behave this way, feel this way, and think this way?  How has my past shaped who I am today and how will I ever become insightful enough to make the changes I want in my life?  

Although answers to these questions can indeed bring about a better understanding of who we are and create personal and lasting results, too often we become bogged-down in discovering the “truth,” and we forget that the search and the exploration process is just as important—if not more. 

The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “Truth is an illusion without which a certain species could not survive.”  Today’s renowned existentialist and psychotherapist, Dr. Irvin Yalom followed-up by suggesting, “Anointed, as we are, with an inbuilt solution-seeking need for truth, we cling tenaciously to the belief that explanation is possible. It makes things bearable, it anoints us with a sense of control and mastery. But, it is not the content of the intellectual treasure trove that matters but the hunt.” 

As we seek-out explanations to uncover the answers and truths in our lives—in an attempt to feel more powerful and in control, it is important that we remind ourselves that what matters most is not necessarily the answers themselves, but rather the self-invested energy and time that we put into learning about who we are and how and why we function the ways in which we do. The key to success, even when uncertain, is to keep moving forward and to keep exploring the aspects of our lives that challenge us; more beneficial some can argue, to dwell on the aspects of our lives that enrich and fulfill us. Paying closer attention to the difficult struggles and the challenging areas in our lives helps us to find better and more manageable strategies for living and lessens our freedom-anxiety (the anxiety that comes from knowing that we are now responsible ultimately for the outcome of our lives—both positive or negative).  Focusing on and embracing our positive attributes fuels our gratitude for being alive and offers us renewed hope, security, and a more optimistic perception of our existence. 

So, we must remember that it’s the explorative “process” alone that offers us the opportunity to change and to better understand ourselves and to establish greater insight along the way.  The process is what keeps us energized and engaged in the “self.”  Through the patient, loving, and dedicated exploration of our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and our past and present experiences and future fantasies, we will begin to change and to see ourselves differently and without such limiting assumptions, perceptions, and interpretations of the truth.  In Yalom’s words, “Though we take for granted that insight leads to change, by no means is that sequence established empirically.  In fact there are experienced, thoughtful analysts who have raised the possibility of a reversed sequence—that is, that insight follows change rather than preceded it.”  Rather than attempting to strive for the “truthful” answers to our lives [interpretations or illusions that often don’t have a simple or clear-cut explanation and that can often limit us or create gridlock], let us focus a bit more on exploring alternative ways to coping and thriving in the present moment and on creating roadmaps and milestones for our future. 

Definitive answers need not necessarily always be the goal! Forward movement is…

Becoming aware of our negative thought processes

As a practitioner, I have noticed many commonalities exist with my clients.  Although each individual or couple is unique and brings with them their own set of belief systems or ideals, I often hear: “I should be doing this,” or  “He always,” or “This is going to stick with me forever.” These types of statements not only magnify issues, but they also create a negative narrative that can be very difficult to shake.  Shame and guilt can begin to rule thoughts and eventually dictate identity when this type of repetitive negative dialogue continues. Many others place blame on themselves for certain events that simply have little to do with them.  

Too often when life throws us a curve-ball, we automatically believe that we are primarily responsible for the misfortunate event.  I hear statements similar to this one: “I made her leave me because I had too many work-related problems that she just couldn’t stand hearing about any longer.”  Certainly, consistently bringing home stress from work can wear on a partner’s patience and moral; but, if that partner is committed to the relationship, there are other ways of ensuring boundaries get established to keep work stress from interfering at home—rather than terminating the relationship.  In this situation, many other factors are at play, not just one.  This type of personalization often leads to increased levels of anxiety and depression, as we take on the full responsibility for the changes in our relationships, despite the fact that we are only half of a partnership.   

With this in mind, I wanted to share the top 10 “Cognitive Distortions” as described by David D. Burns, MD.  You may have already come across this information in your own therapeutic setting; if so, my hunch is that you saw some part of yourself and the ways in which you think/process somewhere within these distortions.  

I love this list as it helps my clients [and it helped me] quickly and easily recognize automatic negative thoughts that may be getting in the way of daily life and shaping internal belief systems and external behaviors.  Do you see yourself getting caught-up in these types of “Cognitive Distortions?” 

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories.  If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.  “My boss was unhappy with my presentation this afternoon.  I’m a terrible employee.” 
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. “I just messed-up in my relationship, again. I guess it’s true, I’ll never be married.” 
  3. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened.  Ask yourself, do certain events that do not turn out as planned cause you to question all other aspects of your life? 
  4. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other.  You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.  How many of us know someone or we are that person that never seems to remember the positive affirmations we receive?  Instead, we focus solely on what we deem negative feedback or criticism.  Eventually we begin to identify with that criticism.  
  5. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    • Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out. “She must be upset with me, she hasn’t called me in a few days.” 
    • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.  “I know my son won’t like the gift I made him. He’s 15; teenagers hate everything.”
  6. Magnification / catastrophizing or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your mistakes or other’s achievements), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other person’s imperfections—also called the “binocular trick”). “I wish I could be more like my friend, he’s the most popular guy in the world and everyone wants to be around him.”  Or, “I guess I’m somewhat likable, but I think I talk too much, I get really anxious around others at times, and I hate that I don’t have as much money as my friends.”  Thinking this way leaves little room to remember the fact that you are actually a likable person. 
  7. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are.  Example: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” “I can feel it, we’re never going to recover from this financial disaster.  Life will never be the same again.”  
  8. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, oughts. “I should be engaging in more social networking events.” “I should be more outgoing.” “I shouldn’t have spent time in the garden today when I ought to have been sitting at my computer paying the bills first.”  The emotional consequence here is guilt.  “Should” is fantasy.  Try to stay in reality; it feels better and provides for less remorse, guilt and shame. Likewise, when you direct “should” statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment because they can not live up to your “unrealistic” expectations. 
  9. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization.  Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m such a loser.”  When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a label such as, “He’s totally incompetent.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language and a narrative that is dramatic and emotionally loaded.  Remember this saying, “The problem is simply a problem, you are NOT the problem!” 
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible. Example: Your department is restructuring to adjust to financial cut-backs and you are let go.  Instead of seeing this restructuring as an event most likely completely out of your control, you personalize it and believe you were “fired” because you were not good enough for the job/department.  

[Adapted from Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William and Morrow and Company, Inc.]

Becoming more aware of our cognitive distortions is the first step in changing self-defeating and negative thought processes.  When we recognize that we have automatic thought processes that often times put a negative tone or spin on our situations, we can step back and be free from identifying ourselves in such finite terms. (There is nothing finite about the body, mind, and spirit.) Reframing these types of thoughts with more flexibility and eclectic answers will decrease depression and anxiety symptoms, while increasing self-esteem, self-worth and enhancing our relationships.  

Ryan