What Does My Psychologist Think About Me?

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Sometimes psychologists and other kinds of therapists are portrayed as neutral and distant figures who see their clients in a detached, mechanical kind of way and whose humanity seems to be a mystery to the people they work with.  There are some reasons for this.

Therapists are trained to draw ‘boundaries’ between themselves and their clients that are different than the relationships they have in their personal lives.  In our personal relationships, there is an expectation of a give-and-take which balances the relationship between the two people.  In therapy, it is different.  I don’t expect you to help me or take my feelings into account.  I work for you, and it’s my job to place the focus on what you want and need without judgment.  It’s a unique situation in which you share your most personal thoughts and feelings, but the thoughts and feelings I share are done so sparingly and in an intentional way only when I think it is beneficial for you and advances us toward the goals you set when you started working with me.  I work for you.  You don’t work for me.  In a sense I am your employee and you are in charge of your own life.  Yet in another sense, I am in charge of the relationship we have and I have to use my judgment to decide what is going to get you closer to where you’d like to be.

Therapists differ in the degree to which they talk about themselves or share their personal thoughts and feelings.  Some believe in being a completely blank slate and do not disclose anything about themselves or what they are really thinking about the person they are working with.  This is not the way I approach therapy.  Because our therapeutic relationship is central to the success of our work, there has to be some disclosure and sharing of feelings for it to be real.  At the same time, I would never share myself in the kind of personal way I would with my spouse or very close friends.  That would not be appropriate or helpful for you.  However, in the course of my work with my clients, I will share some personal information, experiences, thoughts, and feelings if I judge it would be helpful and appropriate.  To not do that would be too rigid and black-and-white, and I think those qualities are contrary to mental health.

Acceptance and what therapists call ‘unconditional positive regard’ are important to successful therapy.  It’s important to me to exhibit those qualities, and I can say that when I am with my clients, that is what I genuinely feel.  That does not mean I would personally make all the choices or hold all of the views that my clients do.  We are different people and to expect that you and I line up exactly on all of our values would be impossible.  But I want my clients to live the kind of life they want to have, and I work hard to help them get it.

What do I think about you?  At the broadest level, I think you are an imperfect and striving human being just like me and because we have agreed to work together, I have a share in moving you toward where you want to go.  Sometimes I may be frustrated by you.  Sometimes I may admire you.  Sometimes I may be anxious or sad for you.  Sometimes I may be proud of you.  Sometimes I may be thrilled and happy for you.  Sometimes I may think that we could have been friends if we met in a different context.  Sometimes I may disagree with decisions you make.  Oftentimes I may think about you between sessions.  The degree to which I share any of this with you is guided by one thing.  Would it be helpful?  If so, I have no problem sharing it and will use it to advance your goals.  If not, I will keep it to myself.  In a therapeutic relationship, I use my feelings as important pieces of information that I use to ask myself about what may be going on with you and to inform myself about how best I can help you.  If you are very concerned about what I think about you, that might be something that is important for us to talk about in terms of how it may inform some of the difficulties you are having in your life.

In practice, I have never found any personal feeling about a client which interferes with our work.  Therapists by nature are caring and non-judgmental people or they won’t survive long in this business.  It’s natural for you to be curious about what I’m thinking or feeling.  It’s okay for you to ask.  I will tell you when it’s helpful and I’ll be honest about when it’s not.  It takes experience for a therapist to be himself or herself but yet maintain a professional relationship that has both distance and deep closeness.

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.

Label Your Feelings

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Having trouble calming your feelings of anger, worry, or sadness?  Learn a simple exercise for getting these feelings under better control more quickly.

When we are experiencing a strong feeling, we essentially become that feeling.  If I am very angry, then at that moment I am the anger and it permeates my entire being.  If I am very worried, then at that moment it is difficult for me to see beyond that worry, and I become one with it.  I may focus in on my anger by thinking about the bad qualities and behavior of the person towards whom my anger is directed.  This can start a vicious cycle of feeling even more angry and having more exaggerated thoughts about the badness or evil of the other person.  The same goes for worry.  I may focus all of my thinking on the reasons for my worry and the terrifying outcomes that at that moment I believe are likely or even certain to happen.

One way of interrupting these cycles of escalating emotions is to engage in labeling of those feelings.  When you realize that you are very angry for example, the idea is to stop, breathe slowly and deeply, and say to yourself, “Breathing in, I recognize there is anger in me.  Breathing out, I see the anger inside of me.”  You see the anger as an object that you have to hold and soothe, much like soothing a crying baby.  You could even more simply say “anger” as you breathe in, and “anger” as you breathe out.  You can do the same for any other strong negative emotion, “fear,” “sadness,” “worry,” etc.

The idea of this exercise is to see the feeling as something that is separate from yourself, although it is currently with you.  This will not solve any problem that may have instigated the process of anger or worry, but it can bring calm and perspective to allow you to deal more constructively with the negative situation.  Once you have breathed and labeled for a while, you may be able to visualize placing the feeling in a gently flowing river and watching it slowly float downstream.

Although those of you with little experience in mindfulness may see this as a somewhat “new age-y” kind of thing to do, there is growing scientific evidence that it helps.  I will reference one study examining this at the end of this post.  In essence, this research found that such an exercise slows the activity in a part of our brain that is involved in emotional reactions and increases activity in a part of our brain that is involved in thinking, planning, and inhibiting impulsive reactions.

Your feelings are important and can be a spur to action that helps you.  However, they often spiral out of control and lead us to experiences that ultimately keep us from getting what we want.  It’s better to think of your feelings as being your employee and not your boss.  Give the breathing and labeling exercise a try and take notice of what benefits you see in your life as a result.

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.

 

Creswell, J. D., Way, B. M., Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(6), 560-565.

Unhealthy Guilt

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I would like to make a distinction between guilt and regret.  The following are my own definitions:

Guilt – The feeling that results when I think I have done something to hurt myself or someone else and that I am a terrible person for having done so who is deserving of damnation.

Regret – The feeling that results when I think I have done something to harm myself or someone else and that I had better learn from the experience and figure out how to avoid that behavior in the future.

When we have the guilty thoughts, we can become depressed or anxious and very likely to be frozen from taking any constructive action to correct it.  When we have the regretful thoughts, we may be disappointed and concerned but are more likely to resolve to take action to improve ourselves.

One key distinction between these two ideas is that in guilt, we are labeling our entire self as horrible, terrible, damnable, and no good.  In regret, we are labeling our behavior as bad, undesirable, and something to be avoided in the future, but we recognize that undesirable behavior does not encapsulate our entire being.

So how can we transform unhealthy guilt into healthy regret?

Many religions tell us to hate the sin but love the sinner.  Another way of putting this is that it is best to have unconditional self-acceptance.  What does that mean?  That whatever we do is okay and we should always feel good about ourselves?  Absolutely not!  We do not always behave well and had better try to avoid hurting ourselves or others.  Unconditional self-acceptance simply takes the more realistic and balanced view that although we want to always behave well, perfection is not possible for human beings and there are desirable traits and behaviors that are also a part of our self-definition.  We accept that we are valuable because we are alive, we exist, and we have the right to be as happy as we can be.

This is an important concept to take in.  We can rate behaviors but we had better not rate people.  I may very well say that I feel bad about something I have done and that is not a pleasant experience.  But if I rate myself as an awful person because of that behavior, it is going to be much more than simply unpleasant.  It will likely lead to a depression that is going to prevent me from improving myself and leave me feeling miserable.  It’s alright to have a negative feeling about your behavior, because that can be a motivating factor to engage in more desirable behavior in the future.  But to have damnation toward your total self is no more constructive than it is accurate.

We know that children need to know we love them even when they behave badly.  Few of us would respond to a bad grade on a report card with, “You stupid lazy idiot.  You can’t do anything right!  I’m ashamed that you are my child.”  But yet, many of us may do exactly that to ourselves.  It may very well be that you received messages like that from your parents when you were a child.  Now you are simply rehearsing those same damning thoughts again and again to yourself.  The good news is that although this self-damning orientation may have been started when we were kids, we now have the power to think in more helpful, realistic, and flexible ways.

So please don’t ask yourself what you are worth, how you can prove your worth to others, and what you have to do to be a worthwhile person in your own eyes.  Instead, acknowledge that you want to have as much pleasure as possible and as little pain as possible, both in the short-term and in the long-term.  And then go about working toward making that happen while accepting that you cannot always succeed.  Have the kind of forgiveness for yourself that you might have for your child or loved one.

We can prefer to do our best.  But we had better not demand that we always do so.

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.

Anxiety about Terrorism

terrorism

Terrorism has once again dominated the news with the attacks in Brussels earlier this week.  Many people are increasingly frightened that they will one day become a victim of such an attack.  A Gallup poll conducted in December, 2015 found that half of all Americans are either ‘very worried’ or ‘somewhat worried’ that they or a family member will become a victim of terrorism.  Perhaps you are among that number.  I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions for you in managing your level of anxiety about terrorism.

The first strategy has to do with accurately assessing your level of risk to be a victim.  In 2014, 17 people were killed by terrorists in America.  If we examine the numbers for other causes of death we can compare those with terrorism:

Cause Deaths Risk Over Terrorism
Flu 3697 217 times
Falls 3208 188 times
Car Accident 35369 2080 times
Talking/texting while driving 3154 185 times
Falling out of bed 450 26 times
Lightning 33 2 times

I trust you take the point.  I feel confident that half of all Americans are not ‘very worried’ or ‘somewhat worried’ about falling to their death out of bed, even though it is 26 times more likely to happen than dying at the hands of a terrorist.  We humans are not so good at intuitively assessing risks in our lives, so being mindful of this data can help us get a better perspective.  When our reaction is not in proportion to the level of danger, anxiety is the result.  So it would do us well to be clear about exactly what the level of danger is.

In addition to the cognitive strategy I just discussed, I would like to suggest a behavioral strategy: get away from your screens!  Immersing ourselves in the news about terrorism also causes us to misperceive the risk.  Although a terrorist attack is a real thing that happened in the world and is a tragedy, the media’s job is to make money and maximize viewers.  Some degree of sensationalism goes on and by repeatedly viewing the images and listening to experts talk about what to do to protect yourself, you overestimate the risk, heighten your anxiety, and prevent yourself from recognizing and enjoying the relative safety we have in this country.  Schedule brief times to check in with the news, but limit this exposure.

It may also help you to get positively engaged to increase your sense of control.  Perhaps you can donate blood or give money to organizations who respond to assist victims of terrorism in the world.

Finally, as with any kind of anxiety, it helps to engage in some deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to lower your level of arousal.  You can find some examples of these in the Resources section of my website at www.trentevans.com.   You can also learn about me and my practice there as well as how to contact me if you would like to find out whether therapy with me is right for you.

“Everything is Amazing, and Nobody Is Happy”

Last time I wrote about the concept of “hedonic adaptation,” which is the idea that we get used to pleasurable things and eventually stop deriving happiness from them because they become a part of the normal way things ‘should’ be.  Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians, and I think the following clip really captures the essence of hedonic adaptation:

I discussed using a Gratitude Journal in my last post to counteract this phenomenon and to increase happiness.  Today I would like to share another technique that has some research support behind it.

This exercise is called Five Acts of Kindness.  You already perform kind acts toward others, many times without them knowing it.  Examples might include donating blood, making a small donation to a disaster relief effort, volunteering, feeding a stranger’s expired parking meter, bringing coffee to work for a coworker, smiling and asking the grocery store checkout clerk how her day is going, etc.  The possibilities are endless and do not necessarily have to cost money.  Here is the exercise:

Over the next week, choose a single day of the week to serve as your ‘kindness day,’ and perform five acts of kindness toward others on that day.  Repeat this practice for at least four weeks.  Be sure to keep a journal of this exercise listing the day and the five acts of kindness you performed.

Notice what effects this has on your sense of happiness and well-being and write about that too.  It could be that you find a greater sense of meaning and purpose, increased happiness and well-being, and improvements in physical health.  It certainly can’t hurt!  I encourage you to give it a try.

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.

 

Buchanan, K. E., & Bardi, A. (2010). Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150(3), 235-237.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: the architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111.

 

 

 

The Science of Gratitude

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“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus

 

There is of course no single shortcut or simple way to decrease the stress and sadness we all experience in our lives.  But incorporating a gratitude exercise into our daily routine is one quick and easy way we can get started.  Science even supports this which I will get to in a moment.

Psychologists have a wonderful skill of taking a common sense concept and putting it into terms that sound fancy.  One of those is “hedonic adaptation.”

Huh?

Think of it this way.  We can all remember getting new toys for Christmas when we were kids.  The excitement!  The elation!  It’s just what I wanted!  Everything is awesome!

Meanwhile that toy was probably in the trashcan or the donation bin a year later.

This is the essence of hedonic adaptation.  When we get something that is good, we are initially very happy about it and fully experience the joy of that thing.  You just got married?  You are ecstatic and full of gratitude for the spouse you dreamed of.  How many people experience that exact feeling 20 years in?  You just traded in your little TV for a big fancy flat screen in the latest HD technology.  For the first little while, you watch that TV and marvel at how great this is and how much better it is than what you had before.

Then you get used to it.  You adapt to it.  You take it for granted.  “Of course I have that.  Big deal.”  It’s the new normal.  You no longer are grateful for it.  It’s what you expect to have.  Then you focus on what the limitations are, how it could be better, what someone else has that is even greater.  And you’re no longer so full of excitement.  Maybe you feel deprived, sad you don’t have more, worried about how you can ever really reach the goal line of having what you want.  The problem is that the bar for what you want keeps getting moved further down the track, like the poor greyhounds who race for the bone but never get to it.  It’s natural for us to focus on what’s wrong or incomplete and try to fix it.  That’s what has kept us improving as humans for the history of our species.  But the potential cost is that we can never be fully happy if there is something else left for us to do.

How do we stop this pattern?  We can try to adapt less to the good things that are a part of our lives.  We can try to not take them for granted, but instead maintain that sense of joy and wonder that they are here with us.  Then when we are aware of the very real difficulties and problems that we face, we can balance that out with a full awareness of what is right and good in our lives.  Otherwise, we have an incomplete picture.

Science tells us that engaging in intentional gratitude can increase happiness and reduce depression.

What better way to prove this than to look at graphs from a scientific journal?  (I’ll give you the reference at the end of this post if you’re a scientific type.)

happinessgraphdepressiongraph

The graph on the top shows scores on a happiness scale from before the gratitude exercise all the way until six months after having done the exercise.  The graph on the bottom shows scores on a scale of depression from before the exercise until six months after having done the exercise.  The black bars are the folks who did the exercise and the white bars are the folks who didn’t.  As you can see, by engaging in the gratitude exercise, happiness goes up and depression goes down.  That’s pretty awesome!  And all of this takes only 5-10 minutes a day.

So what’s the exercise?  It’s simple.

At the end of the day, before you go to bed, write down three things that went well that day or that you were aware of being grateful for.  Then write down what caused them to go well or what caused you to be grateful for them.

That’s it.

These things do not have to be life-changing or unusual.  Perhaps you were grateful that the sun was out and you were able to take a walk and enjoy the beautiful blue sky or the feel of a cool breeze on your face.  Maybe your kids did their homework without being asked.  Maybe you are aware that you did not have a headache today after having been sick for a while.  Maybe somebody thanked you for helping them.  Maybe you realized that you had good food to eat in your refrigerator while many others in the world go without.  Perhaps you realize the job that you didn’t want to get up for this morning is a blessing that many others want to have.  It could be anything from simple things you take for granted to a peak experience that happens very rarely.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you direct your attention to it, write about it, think about what caused it to be a part of your life, and realize that it is as much a part of your experience as the things you are dissatisfied with.

Do this every day for a week and see what happens.  You’ll probably decide to keep doing it because it is very likely to improve your mood and create more happiness.  Don’t argue with science!

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Careful of the Shoulds!

MarcusAureliusQuoteTry to notice today how many times you say or think the word ‘should.’  You can also include other similar words such as ‘must,’ or ‘have to.’  Here are some examples:

  1. “He shouldn’t treat me that way.  What a jerk!”
  2. “Life shouldn’t be so hard.  I can’t take it anymore.”
  3. “I have to ace that presentation at work today.  If I don’t, my boss will think I’m completely incompetent and with the layoffs coming I’ll be the first to go.  How am I going to pay my rent if that happens?”

Most people assume that it is the situations they face in their life that determine how they feel.  Although it is true that difficult situations influence how we feel, it is really the way we think about those situations that has the biggest impact on our feelings.  The style of thinking we engage in determines the kinds of feelings we have and how strong those feelings are.   The big problem with the three statements I listed is that they are absolute demands we are making on other people, the world, and ourselves.  A famous psychologist named Albert Ellis with a slightly off-color style called this form of thinking ‘musturbation’ because of the ‘musts’ contained in it.  Another of his terms was ‘shoulding on yourself.’

Let’s take a look at the possible emotions each of the statements I listed are likely  to produce:

  1. Anger, rage
  2. Depression, anger
  3. Fear, anxiety

Not very fun, and not very likely to lead to any kind of productive response, right?  So what do we do?  We can change these irrational, demanding, and black-and-white beliefs into more rational beliefs.  This doesn’t mean ‘thinking positive’ or denying something unpleasant is going on.  It just means taking the edge off of these ideas and making them less demanding and black-and-white.  Let’s consider some other things we might say to ourselves in these situations:

  1. “I really wish he would stop acting like that.  I don’t like it, but he’s not a 100% horrible human being.  Maybe he’s having a bad day for some reason I’m not aware of.  I’ll make it clear to him that I don’t like it and see if he’ll change.  If he doesn’t then I may have to just avoid him.”
  2. “This really sucks, but I’ve gotten through difficult circumstances before.  I’d prefer for things to always go well, but I realize that’s not the way life works for anyone.  I wish that this wasn’t so hard, but if I put in the work I know eventually things won’t be this bad.”
  3. I hope I do a really good job with this presentation today.  I know I’ll be disappointed in myself if I don’t, but I also know that I can’t expect to be perfect or to always do well.  I’m nervous about it, but that’s pretty normal given the circumstances.  I’ll do my very best and when it’s over I’ll take any problems I had and learn from them.  I am concerned about the layoffs, but worrying myself sick about them isn’t going to change anything.  In fact, it will probably make me perform worse, so I’m going to just focus on this task right now.  I don’t have to be perfect although I really want to give a great presentation.”

The common theme in all of these altered thoughts is that they have changed the absolute demands into preferences.  What emotions flow from these thoughts?

  1. Annoyance, irritation, frustration
  2. Sadness, frustration
  3. Concern, nervousness

All of these emotions are of course negative, but they are much better than rage, depression, or paralyzing anxiety.  These rational beliefs are more flexible, logical, helpful, and consistent with reality.

So pay attention to the way you are talking to yourself and others, and be on the lookout for ‘musturbation’ or ‘shoulding on yourself.’  See if you can find more flexible and realistic ways of thinking about difficult situations that avoid the black-and-white demandingness that is the real source of your upset.  Preferences, not demands!

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.