So, last time I mentioned that there was a way to bring the characteristics and qualities of your favorite fictional characters into your real life. Today, I'll discuss how you do that. This is the fun part! The first thing we need to do is know who we're working with. A note of caution: Please don't use this exercise to sort through trauma memories, unless you have the support of a therapist or someone you trust completely! This exercise is not meant for processing PTSD or other trauma.
Let's start by picking out the fictional character that you most admire and that you feel like you most relate to. If you can't decide on one, pick a second, but don't pick more than two - it will get difficult to analyze more than two characters at a time. If you want to go back and do this exercise later with another character, you can do that but it's really best to stick to one at a time if you can. Next, spend some time thinking about the character. What do you like best about this character, in terms of their identity or personality? Keep these qualities in mind as you answer the following questions. I've attached a handy worksheet for you if you prefer to work that way.
Ok - in the last post, we ended on kind of a "down" note (reminds me of "The Empire Strikes Back - who wanted it to end with Han Solo getting iced and Luke losing his hand? C'MON!) Anyway - back to CBT...
In this post, we're going to talk about what to DO with these shoulds, absolutes, and other negative thought patterns that get in our way. CBT is, as I've mentioned, a very flexible orientation, and there are many systems of therapy that are based in CBT concepts (like DBT, for example.) So, instead of going into a whole lot of specific techniques based in one system, I'm going to touch on some general techniques that you'll find a lot of CBT therapists using. I've mentioned a few of them in the first post, but I'll review those here again.
One thing I mentioned in the first CBT post bears repeating again: this is NOT a "quick fix" solution to problems. These techniques, and change itself require commitment to practicing the techniques and to changing the way you think and interpret things. This takes time, and does not happen overnight. CBT has been accused also of being a feel-good way of saying that if you think happy you'll be happy. While this criticism has some merit, it's just not that simple. CBT does assert that if you change the way you think, you'll likely feel somewhat better, but does not promise results (like any therapy) and is way more complex than the simple "if you think better you'll feel better" platitude.
Ok - on to the nuts and bolts again. When you're involved in doing CBT or going through one of the many CBT-based workbooks you can find in the self-help section, you will see that there are many commonalities. First, you are likely to be asked to either talk about what the problem is (to help the therapist understand your interpretations and perceptions as well as your thought patterns) and/or fill out some paper-pen type questionnaires (called "inventories" in the clinical field.). These inventories will ask about a variety of symptoms (to help therapist or you get a handle on what's going on.) For example, if you come in thinking or feeling depressed, you might be given something called the "BDI" (Beck Depression Inventory - guess who developed that? ) This questionnaire asks you to rate the severity of common depressive symptoms that you might be experiencing. There are other inventories and symptom checklists that are useful as well. Well and good, so when do we get to the CBT stuff?
A-ha...remember the "B" part of CBT? That stands for "behavior" - in order to work well here, your therapist (or you, if you're working in a workbook) needs to know what you're experiencing and doing, as well as what you're thinking. There really is a reason behind the stuff we do - promise! How we act often reflects the way we're thinking - we interpret things, we feel an emotion related to the interpretation, and we act based on the interpretation and the emotion. Ok...so you've filled out the inventories, done all the paper work, described the situations and what you've been feeling - now what? That's where the "behavior" part - what we do - comes in. A lot of the "homework" and activities in CBT is, quite frankly, behavioral.
Here's where the workbooks and being in therapy differ some. The workbooks will go straight into the things that we typically call "homework," where a therapist will explore the situations more in-depth, provide support, and help you see and work with the stuff that brought you in. This is why I really recommend therapy (ok - I'm biased, too - I admit it). The workbooks can be really valuable resources; I use them myself as part of the work I do with clients sometimes. I've recommended them to clients, and I use them in session, when appropriate - they make my job easier because I don't have to reinvent the wheel here in terms of homework. BUT, they don't provide you with that ongoing sense of support and empathy that you get with a well-trained therapist. It's a choice you make, though.
When you're working with a therapist, the therapist will help you identify the thought patterns that are getting in the way for you - are you thinking in absolutist terms? Are you overwhelmed by "shoulds"? What about feeling like everyone should like you - or that you should do everything to make people like you? You get the idea...the therapist will spend time talking with you and helping you identify where your thinking and/or interpreting get in the way of you feeling better. The workbooks may have you answer a lot of fill-in-the-blank questions or do a lot of sentence completions, but the goals are the same: helping you identify the types of negative thinking or interpreting that are not helping you.
Typical homework assignments include keeping a record of your thoughts and how those thoughts affected your emotions and behavior, or keeping track of how many times you catch yourself sliding into one kind of thought pattern. There are also behavioral challenges or assignments to help you practice a new way of interacting with and intepreting the world around you. I once kept track for a week of all my "shoulds" - I filled an entire 70-page mini-notebook! It's really eye-opening when you realize how often we engage in these ways of thinking, and how much they affect our moods and behavior - which is, of course, the point of the exercise!
Next, what may happen is that you may be asked to work on contradicting or "softening" these patterns. For example, if you're overly harsh with yourself, you might be asked to come up with thoughts or phrases or sentences to tell yourself that are loving, accepting and/or nonjudgmental. If you're stuck in a pattern where you're overgeneralizing things or magnifying/minimizing, you might be asked to come up more realistic interpretations. Many times, some of this work is done in the therapy room with the therapist helping you, because for many people in therapy these thought patterns have become habits. It may have happened out of ongoing abuse or neglect - these patterns are likely part of what helped you survive, or it may be something that's resulted from some situational things going on like, "I've been out of work for a year, and I'm worried I may not have enought money left to meet my or my family's basic needs" or "I can't seem to get myself to feel better even though it's been two years since my great-aunt Clara passed away".
Situations have a LOT of power - we tend to interpret our stuff in terms of the situation ("I was speeding because I needed to get home to a sick child") but we tend not to give others the same benefit of the doubt ("They were speeding...what jerks. I bet they cut everyone off and run red lights too"). As a side note: If you've taken introductory psychology, you'll probably recognize a few concepts here: self-serving bias, fundamental attribution error, actor-observer effect...
So, your therapist may use some gentle challenges, some reflecting, some humor (when appropriate), summations, "check-ins" (making sure they understand what you're telling them), etc. In therapy, you may also use some of the "workbook techniques" - they're very useful as homework.
With both the workbooks and in therapy, you'll also examine what triggers the thoughts, the emotions, and the behaviors - you may find that a certain style of thinking or way of interpreting things is behind the way you feel or behave. Or it may be something in your environment - a certain authority figure that reminds you of someone in your past who'd been critical, or a certain place, smell, sound that triggers memories and experiences from a a traumatic event - it's hard (or even impossible) to think clearly and well when you're re-experiencing something traumatic. (Here's where working with a therapist is really helpful - the therapist can help with the PTSD symptoms as well as the cognitive stuff.) From there, you can work to change, heal and hopefully start to feel better.
One thing I want to say about triggers: If you're dealing with PTSD or things that trigger severe emotional distress, please see a therapist. The therapist can provide a safety net where you can work on and process these triggers, and can again provide support for you while you're working on these. Any time you're dealing with severe or chronic emotional distress, it's best to see a professional who can do more than anything you'd find in a workbook or web site. A therapist can also help you go more in-depth and safely explore the event(s) or trauma behind the triggers. Workbooks and web-sites can provide tremendous support and information, and they don't take the place of a really good therapist. I don't want to diss support groupgs and websites - they are incredible and filled with fantastic people who have been through, treated or supported people through some pretty traumatic stuff. However, if you're in the throes of serious distress, adding a good therapist to that mix will only help you.
Ok - back to nuts and bolts: Another area you'll want to concentrate on, again with both the self-help stuff and in therapy, is what to do to help you maintain any changes you make and/or improve on them. Changing things in your lifestyle may help (for example, if you're dealing with depression, building in some exercise into your routine will likely help you feel better), as would continuing to use some of the tools you've used in therapy (like the mood log, or examining realistic vs unrealistic thinking). These aspects of therapy or self-help can help you manage situations in the moment and help you realistically process and think about them afterward.
The nice thing about CBT is that what you do and how you do it really is individualized. It's not about unconscious motives, Oedipus complexes, penis envy or any of that - it's about what YOU can do to help yourself think in a healthy manner, feel better and change your behaviors so that you're interacting with the world in a way that creates a better life for you. It's not a one-size-fits-all orientation either - CBT, through research, is always working to incorporate things that help and are validated by research. That said, sometimes it can seem "manualized" and "remote" - if this is the case, bring up how you're feeling about it in therapy, and process that with your therapist. If you're using a workbook, ask yourself what you're hoping to see in the workbook, and where you're missing what you wanted - then get recommendations for something new, or scale down your expectations and continue to work the program. (And expectations are a whole AREA of cognitions to work on, by the way!).
So...if you have questions about specific techniques, or want to know more about a specific area of cognitions and/or disorder where CBT may be helpful, feel free to comment or send me an email. I'm always happy to help, and answer all the comments and emails I get.
Take care and think well!
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ok...I'll be the first to admit that I"m not perfect when it comes to having wonderful, positive, affirming thoughts about myself. One of the reasons I went into counseling psychology as a graduate student was because I wanted to learn everything I could about it, so that I could help myself. I have a LONG history of working on self-esteem issues, negative thinking patterns, and dealing with unnecessary guilt. The reasons don't matter at this point (to me anyway) but dealing with these issues does. I'm imagining that a lot of you are dealing with this too, so I'm going to share some tricks from the therapists' bag.
The cool thing is that you can find a lot of these and more help at your local bookstore. So, a lot of these "tricks" (everyday people-ese for techniques) come from a branch of therapy called "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" or CBT. CBT has a long history, most of which I'll avoid here except to throw out a couple of names when appropriate. The bottom line with CBT is that therapists with this orientation (and trust me, there are many) ascribe to the idea that our thoughts affect our behavior, and that if we work to change the way we're thinking, then our behavior will be easier to change and we'll feel better. The nice thing about CBT is that a lot of research has been done on it, and most of the research is very positive - it's something that generally works, if done long enough and well enough.
Here's the problem though - a lot of people think that since it seems to be based in common sense, it should be easy and quick. Creating change using CBT isn't a "quick fix" - in fact it takes a lot of commitment and practice to get to where you want to be. If you're really looking for change, though, it's likely that you're feeling lousy to start with and will do what it takes to feel better. And CBT generally helps.
The basics of CBT are grounded in the idea that what we think and how we think about and interpret the world around us affects how we behave. Cognitions are the things that go through our minds: thoughts, interpretations, judgments, hopes, dreams, expectations, reasonings, rationalizations, plants, motivations, doubts, images - pretty much anything that goes on in your conscious mind is a "cognition." (I use conscious mind deliberately here because CBT therapists generally don't work with the subconscious or unconscious mind - that's a more psychoanalytic approach.)
Here are a couple of examples of how these work:, "Geez, that driver is such an IDIOT! He cut me off! He saw me, and he cut me off anyway!" is a cognition that can be taken apart for analysis: the observation: "he cut me off,:, the interpretation: "he cut me off deliberately," the assumption:"he saw me," and the judgment:"what an idiot!" And another: "I can't do anything right. No one wants to be around me anymore because I'm such a failure. I absolutely nose-dived that interview, and I know I came across as stupid. I should have had a job 6 months ago, and I keep screwing it up. No wonder I can't find something." And here's the analysis: The observation: "I don't have a job," the interpretation: "I'm stupid," "I keep screwing up," the assumptions: ""no one wants to be around me," "I can't do anything right," the judgments: "I'm a failure," "I come across as stupid," and "I should have had a job 6 months ago." And this is just one way to take it apart!
On to the "nuts and bolts" - what do you do in CBT? Well, when you're working with a therapist, generally we're pretty empathetic people. We're not out to tell you, "Geez, get your act together...honestly!" Frankly, if most therapists were judgmental, mean people we wouldn't have much worth, now would we? Generally, therapists will sympathize with you and check in with you to see if they're understanding you - a process we call "reflection." It works like this:
Client: I've been feeling really depressed lately. I just look at where my life is and I think I"m just a huge failure. I feel like the worst person in the world.
Therapist: I'm hearing a couple of things here...first is that you've been pretty down lately, is that right?
Client: Yeah, pretty much. I still don't have a job and I just can't seem to get out of this hole.
Therapist: So it seems like you've been pretty hard on yourself...I heard you say that you felt like the worst person in the world. That's pretty harsh. (therapist's interpretation of client's statements)
So, you can see that a therapist - of any orientation - is likely to be sympathetic. From there, where you go with your therapist depends a lot on their orientation, or what style of therapy they do. A CBT therapist will focus on the way you're thinking and how it affects you. The therapist will gently challenge you on negative thinking (or "stinking thinking" as we sometimes call it), and encourage you to think of other interpretations that aren't so negative in nature. Using our earlier example, this is how a CBT therapist might continue:
Therapist: I wonder where that idea that you're the worst person in the world came from? (exploration)
Client: Well, I can't seem to do anything right. Nothing seems to work out the way I want it to. I can't get a job, I can't do things right with my husband. Even my kids are mad at me.
Therapist: Wow...that's a lot of stress. (empathizing) You know, though...somehow I think there are people who are probably a lot closer to being "the worst person in the world" than you are...you know...maybe guys like Hitler? Somehow, I'm guessing that you're a little higher up than he is on that scale. What do you think? (gentle challenge, with a little humor)
Client: <laughing a little> Yeah, you're probably right on that one. I still feel pretty lousy about myself though.
Therapist: I know you've really had a tough time with the job stuff and what's going on at home. Is it possible that maybe it's not all because of you, though? What else could be going on? (reframing)
Client: Well...I guess the economy is probably making it harder to find jobs now. I still feel like I should have gotten something by now.
Therapist: <making time out signal> whoah...hang on there...time-out. Do you remember how we talked about "shoulds"? How they're like guilt-trips inside your head? I just heard you "shoulding" on yourself... (gentle confrontation)
Client: yeah...I guess I am pretty hard on myself.
Therapist: What would it be like to ease up a little? What would change? (challenge and exploration)
And so you see, that the therapist here is working with the client's pattern of thinking negatively about herself. We use gentle challenges, reframing things ("what else could cause this"), turning negative thoughts into positive thoughts, and give clients "homework" - thing to practice and use between sessions. It's actually a pretty cool system. If you've read my posts on DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), you'll recognize some of this. DBT is a specific form of CBT. Another cool thing is that you can find CBT-based self-help in a LOT of places. New Harbinger, a publisher of self-help materials, has a lot of self-help workbooks that have a CBT orientation for dealing with all kinds of issues: depression, anxiety, stress and relaxation, obsessive-complusive disorder (OCD, and I would recommend working with a therapist if you're dealing with this), PTSD, anger, and grief and sorrow. And I'm sure this is only a partial list!
The point is, CBT techniques are relatively easy to teach and learn - the tough part is putting it together, practicing them in real-life and actually continuing to use and practice them. This kind of therapy can help you learn a lot of things: coping skills, relationship skills, and all the nuts and bolts stuff we talked about: reframing, thought changing, challenging negative or all-or-nothing thinking, and a whole host of other things Next up: "Stinkin' Thinking" - how to work with negative thought patterns and some more tricks from the therapists' bag.
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral. If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to be alone in facing these things – there are people who care and who will help.
Email me at: email@example.com to ask questions or get information.
Due to the length of this post, I am dividing it into two sections for readability. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I've had several people over the past few days contact me and tell me about trauma-related incidents. First of all, for those of you who did contact me, thank you for trusting me. I respect you for your strength, and want you to know that your trust in me and your confidentiality is and will be honored.
That said, it seems that the posts around coping may have opened a door for talking about how to deal with trauma and PTSD. For those of you who don't know much about PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) beyond what you've heard about veterans, let me fill you in. PTSD is a reaction to dealing with extreme or long-standing traumatic stress. The classic example we most hear about is that of soldiers experiencing PTSD as a reaction to the horrific things they witness in combat and/or military activities. I'm NOT going to minimize those experiences at all - from what we've heard in the news, PTSD is - if anything - on the rise especially in current military personnel and veterans of the recent actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, PTSD is also found in many people who experience other traumatic injuries and insults - both physical and psychological. Rape victims and victims of physical abuse may experience PTSD, people who are victims of emotional and psychological abuse also experience PTSD. The abuse or insult does not have to be an ongoing issue, either - people who have experienced a single episode of a traumatic event can also experience PTSD. Those involved in car or other vehicle accidents, victims of crimes, those who have had a family member hurt, those who have been victims of robberies or break-ins..the list of possibilities for who can experience this is nearly endless. Another thing to keep in mind is that what is traumatic and triggers PTSD in one person may or may not trigger it in someone else - we are all unique people with our own strengths and weaknesses and areas of resilience and vulnerability.
So, what is PTSD? Generally speaking, to receive a diagnosis of PTSD, one must have "experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with" something that risked death or severe injury, or a threat to the someone's physical or psychological wholeness. The other major piece of this is that the person's response involved "intense fear, helplessness, or horror" (I'm quoting from our clinician's book of diagnosis information, the DSM-IV-TR). These are the two most basic things that have to be met. Beyond that, the trauma is re-experienced in a multitude of ways such as flashbacks, nightmares, not being able to get it out of your mind, or reacting disproportionately to things that remind the person of the trauma. In PTSD, the victim will also go out of her/his way to avoid things that remind them of the trauma, or may seem numbed or non-responsive to things that would normally cause a reaction. Finally, the person will experience other emotional and/or physical difficulties such as depression, difficulty concentrating or controlling their emotions, not being able to fall asleep, or startling at even little things. For true PTSD, these symptoms last longer than a month (in the cases of symptoms being less than a month, we call it "Acute Stress Disorder," but except for the duration of symptoms, they are generally the same thing.)
So, if you've been dealing with something in your life that has triggered these symptoms, what do you do? The first thing I would recommend, honestly, is working with a good psychologist or therapist. As I've mentioned before (and firmly believe from experience as well as training), seeing a therapist and/or getting help really IS a sign of strength and of hope, NOT a sign of weakness. We have such an unfortunate stigma in our society - you are NOT "crazy" if you seek out help. If anything, you're showing how sane you are. These traumatic things that happen sap our strength, and test our abilities to function and live life - we have a right to be free of and heal from the traumatic things that happened, and a right to recover and live fully.
Seeing your doctor about medications might help as well - I and many other people view using medication for anxiety, depression and other disorders as being the same as using medication to treat diabetes or heart disease. The main difference is that you're working with brain chemicals that you can't see. Otherwise, there is a medical aspect to these conditions and working on that as well as the psychological is important.
Please Note: The content on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. This is not therapy, and if you wish to work in therapy, please contact your local mental health agency or your physician for a referral.
If you are in crisis or danger, please call 911 for immediate help. Please, again, realize that seeking out help really IS a sign of strength and not a sign of weakness. You don't have to be alone in facing these things - there are people who care and who will help.
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