How Clearly Do You See Yourself?

mirrorDove, in continuance of its “Real Beauty” campaign, recently came up with another great commercial. (The link is below.) They have a sketch artist draw a woman based on her own verbal description of herself, i.e. her own self image.  The sketch artist can’t see her. Then the artist draws the same woman based on a description of her by someone who just met her.  The artist also doesn’t know when he is redrawing the same woman.

The outcome is that the women who were sketched tended to point out their flaws.  While the strangers, who just met them, described them in more glowing terms, such as, “She had nice eyes.  They lit up when she spoke.”

What a clever way to demonstrate that we are too hard on ourselves and have trouble seeing ourselves clearly for who we are.  People often come to me and want me to “fix” them.  But, to me, therapy isn’t about fixing, it’s about uncovering the real you, which you have been disowning for so long.  I see my clients more as diamonds, who have gotten dusty and dirty and who can’t clearly see their own brilliance and their many facets.

This reminds me of a man I worked with who came in because he had not passed the Bar Exam for the second time.  He was planning to take to take it again, but he had lost his self-confidence and his anxiety about not passing again was sky high.  Through the course of therapy not only did he regain his confidence – there was so much evidence in his life that he was clearly intelligent enough to pass – but he realized that he didn’t even want to be a lawyer!  He finally admitted to himself that he really wanted to get an MBA.  And, he even realized that he didn’t even want to live in NYC anymore; he wanted to live in a warm Southern state.

Through his efforts in therapy, he was able to brush off the dust of failed exams and other people’s expectations and see himself clearly for the intelligent, highly competent man he was.  He admitted to himself and others what he really wanted out of life.  By the time therapy ended, he was accepted into an MBA program, was moving down south, and had retaken the Bar Exam.  He wanted to prove to himself that he could pass it – and he did!

One reason why people don’t see themselves clearly is because they give their personal power away to others; they let others define them.  Even in the Dove commercial we hear a woman describe herself by saying, “My mom told me I had a big jaw.”  As the saying goes, “Don’t let others decide who you are; that’s your job.”  Therapy is just one of the ways in which people can begin to see themselves more clearly and own their beauty, strength, and power.  So whatever method you choose to get to know yourself, whether journaling, yoga, art, meditation, therapy, etc., it’s time to start seeing your brilliant, multifaceted self more clearly!

“A human being has so many skins, covering the depths of the heart.  We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves!” ~ Meister Eckhart

 

Here is the video link: http://ti.me/13t1Spe

Insight Alone Isn’t Enough – How the Best Therapy Works

There’s a longstanding debate in psychology between analytic (insight-oriented) therapy and behavioral-based therapy.  Back in the early days of psychoanalysis, it was believed that insight was enough to “cure” a person of their ills.  It was thought that if a person realized what was the fear or traumatic incident that first initiated the problem, then this new knowledge alone would enable the person to feel and behave differently.  Not to knock the brilliance of Freud, but insight alone isn’t enough to effect real change in your life.  Insight, or what Oprah would nowadays call an “aha” moment has to be coupled with behavioral change.  Then the behavioral psychologists, who would focus mainly on changing behavior without gaining understanding about the underlying issues being addressed, left out the important insight component.  Why is insight important?  Because the things that we do make sense to us.  Even if they seem crazy or self destructive or prevent us from reaching our goals, on some level – consciously or unconsciously – they make sense.  And, until you figure out why, you’ll be hard-pressed to give the behavior up.

Here’s a case example to illustrate this point:  Natalie* grew up with an angry, volatile father.  He was not physically abusive toward her, but he was verbally abusive.  She never knew what would set him off and tried very hard to be both perfect and invisible, the former so that she wouldn’t give him any reason to be angry and the latter in the hopes of his just not seeing her at all (if he didn’t see her he couldn’t yell at her).  Smart as her little girl strategy was, Natalie couldn’t totally avoid her father and the fact was that he didn’t need any reason to get angry.  Her father was an angry man and it was never really anything imperfect about Natalie that made him angry; he just came that way and anything and anyone could set him off.  Well when he did catch her and began his tirade Natalie quickly learned that any back talk or expression of anger on her part enraged him all the more.  He wanted her to take it and not say a word back.  In fact, if she cried, he also became angrier.  She learned that it was safest to show no reaction at all and that his tirade would end quicker if she was stoic and had no visible reaction.  On the inside she was scared, hurt, and angry, but she learned not to show it.  Afterwards she would run to her room and cry alone.  This was the pattern the entire time she lived with her father.

Well in her romantic relationships as a adult, Natalie had a hard time ever saying anything that a partner might not like for fear of getting him angry.  She continued to try to be Miss Perfect in her own way.  She avoided obviously angry and volatile men, but certainly more even-tempered men are allowed to get angry from time to time and to voice it.  Even when Natalie was with a calm man, she could never respond to anything that she perceived as anger, criticism, or displeasure with her coming her way.  She had no idea how to respond or even defend herself; suddenly she would be a child again and she would freeze and show no reaction at all.  Clearly it was standing in the way of her having a healthy relationship because disagreements can’t be resolved when one person is too scared and frozen to participate.

So Natalie came to therapy and discovered where her present day reactions originated.  She realized that despite consciously believing that she wanted to make her relationship work, her silence was hurting it.  But on an unconscious level her silence made sense – it was her way of protecting herself by shortening and preventing the escalation of what she expected to be an angry tirade.  So Natalie had this great insight, but she still continued to behave in the same way because knowing what initially caused her reactions wasn’t enough to change them overnight.

So on to the behavioral change efforts.  An important start to help Natalie change her behavior was to share her insights with her partner.  He was happy to be supportive because he didn’t want to hurt or scare her and, being a fairly calm person, he didn’t want to be cast in the role of “angry, volatile man,” which is how Natalie would perceive him when he voiced any displeasure with something she did (and what displeased him most was her way of becoming silent when something important came up.)  His knowing this about her made it easier for him to gently ask what was going on inside her when she became mute.  He knew she was probably feeling scared and would do his best to help her feel safe.

However, his understanding and reassurance also wasn’t enough to effect change.  Natalie had to practice a different behavior, i.e. say something at those moments when she was used to staying silent.  It was very hard for her and very uncomfortable.  She felt all of the same fear, even though this was no longer her father, but a calm person.  What she had to do was actually speak and prove to herself that 1) she could tolerate the discomfort of this new way of behaving, 2) she could survive what would come if she “talked back”, and 3) that this loving man in front of her wasn’t her father and he was not going to react in the same way.

Her initial attempts were incredibly scary and awkward for her, but she practiced and did her best.  She began with just saying things like, “I feel bad,” or at other times, just plain old, “Ouch.”  But she eventually learned how to discuss things with her partner from the position of a grown woman rather than a frightened child.  She discovered, to her surprise, that a man really did want to know what was going on inside of her during these moments, which, sadly, had never occurred to her before.  Not only was Natalie helped by all of her hard work, but her partner was too.  He felt grateful and relieved to be appreciated for the loving partner he was trying his best to be, rather than having some angry father image put onto him.  He also felt heard because all of those times that Natalie would keep silent he would get upset thinking that she wasn’t listening to him.

I hope Natalie’s hard work was helpful in illustrating how the best therapy combines these two very important components of insight and behavioral change.  If you want to really help yourself or a loved one, seek out therapy that fosters both.

* Name and exact circumstances have been changed.

Moving In Together Stirs Up Old Fears

If you’re divorced and have moved on to a new, meaningful relationship, the prospect of moving in together can stir up a lot of fear related to your past marriage and its demise.  Anyone who has gone through a divorce will tell you that it takes some time to get over it and move on (understatement of the year.)  If you didn’t leave in order to be with someone else, then you have to begin dating, and then you hopefully find a new, special person with whom you want to give love another chance.  That sounds pretty healthy and like it’s going in the right direction right?  Then why do you hit a wall of fear when it’s time to take the new relationship to the next, deeper level, such as moving in together?   Suddenly what seemed like a wonderful idea – spending more time with the person you love, sharing your life, and even building a new life together – has become terrifying.  Doubts now creep up everywhere, whereas before you decided to move in there were none.  You start to wonder if you really love this person.  Does he or she really love you?  Are your spending habits compatible?  Are your food habits too different?  What if you run out of things to talk about?   You may begin to act out in small ways that somehow delay moving in or you may get tense about things that should be fun, such as picking out furniture together.  But why?  A week ago, before you decided to move in together, everything was fine and you were thinking that this person was the one you wanted to have in your life for a long time.  “What’s really going on here?” you wonder in confusion and frustration.  Well a lot of fears related to your past marriage and resulting divorce have popped up because moving in together is the first step toward something more serious.  More serious as in may result in marriage again.  And, marriage again could result in divorce again.  Some of your fears may sound like this:  “Will I be able to handle it this time?  What if I screw up again?  Have I actually changed, or am I the same person who couldn’t make marriage work before?  My marriage failed, what makes me think this relationship won’t?”  (BTW, “failure” is not how I see divorce, but I’ve heard enough people use that word to describe their divorce to think that you may see it that way too.)

Well there is no guarantee that this relationship will work out better.  But the best chance you can give yourself and your new partner is to understand what happened in the old relationship.  That past relationship was created by two people and there’s no getting around that reality by thinking that your ex was the only one who made mistakes.  Frankly, most divorced people are able to see the truth in this.  But the effort you’ve made to understand how you contributed to the end of your marriage will only help your new relationship.  How?  Well this new relationship will push your buttons just like the old one did.  Why?  Because they are your buttons and any partner will unknowingly, and hopefully unintentionally, push them from time to time.  But if you know yourself enough and understand where and how you could have handled things differently, then you can feel more confident about not repeating the same mistakes.  That’s where therapy comes in.  Therapy isn’t about beating yourself up for past mistakes, but about understanding why you behaved in the way that you did, gaining some compassion for yourself, and learning how you can handle things differently.  So when it is time to move on to a new meaningful relationship, you may still have fears about your past marriage pop up, but you are able to honestly look at yourself and say that you now know better.  You can comfort and quiet your fears with some compassion and self-forgiveness that say, “I did the best that I knew how at the time, but now I know better.”  As the saying goes, “When you know better you do better.”  Will you go on to make some new mistakes in your new relationship?  Sure.  But they’ll be different because you’re now different.  You’ve learned, and that knowledge alone can calm those “moving in” fears when they come up, allowing you to more confidently enter a new, important stage in your life.

Did you experience this kind of fear when you moved on to a new relationship?

Pick a Feeling, Any Feeling

 We psychologists are infamous for asking, “How did that make you feel?”  But we ask for an important reason: Because people often don’t know what they feel.  Often bright and successful people come in to see me and when I ask how they feel about something they reply not with a feeling but with a thought.  Here’s an example of one of those exchanges:

Patient:  My boss just had to tell me that I forgot to include an important document in the middle of the meeting in front of everyone!

CF:  How did you feel when she did that?

Pt:  That she could have told me in private before the meeting and given me a chance to fix it instead of reaming me out in front of everyone.

CF:  Well that’s what you think she should have done instead, but how did you feel about what she actually did?

PT:  That she’s an idiot.

CF:  Ok, that’s what you think about her, but how did you feel?

(This can go on longer, so before it gets painful for either of us I might supply a few feeling words to choose from if someone clearly has a hard time expressing feelings.)

CF:  Did you feel angry or happy or sad or embarrassed or humiliated or something else?

PT:  Oh.  I felt angry and embarrassed.

(Great start!)

CF:  And what did you do?

PT:  I nodded and pretended it didn’t bother me. 

You see there was a lot going on in the situation that the person described.  There were feelings (anger and embarrassment,) thoughts (She’s an idiot,) and behavior (I nodded and pretended it didn’t bother me.)  They are important to tease apart and see how your thoughts affect your feelings, your feelings affect your thoughts, and how they, in turn, affect your behavior.  They are all linked. 

Everyone has had the experience of doing something that they regretted, whether it’s an unexpected reaction or a repeated behavior.  The best way to stop it from reoccurring is to look at what you did and what led to it and break it up into smaller, easier to see pieces of thoughts and feelings – sort of like instant replay – that help you to make sense of your behavior.  Most people aren’t so good at knowing what they are feeling and then expressing it coherently.  Versions of the above conversation have happened with incredibly bright people, and not being able to label their feelings certainly didn’t make them any less bright.  The fact is our society really values being intellectual and minimizes the value of expressing feelings, and often for good reason.  You don’t want the ER surgeon to be overwhelmed with sadness and grief; she has to put those feelings aside for a while and get to work saving a life.  Lawyers also are not paid to put their feelings into a legal motion.  Just the facts please, no one wants to hear if a lawyer felt frustrated because he thought his client was uncooperative. 

But it is especially important in a romantic relationship to be able to share your feelings with your partner.  Be as intellectual as you like at work, but your partner wants to know more, he/she wants to know some of your internal world, which includes your feelings about things and how things affect you emotionally – and your feelings about them and how they affect you emotionally.  These are the juicy bits that don’t get shared with everyone else, which they feel privileged to hear. 

Now don’t worry that therapy with turn you into a teary mess and you’ll lose your intellectual prowess and start spouting off feelings and poems uncontrollably.  Therapy will help you to acknowledge, understand, and express your feelings more easily – if and when you choose to.  Your first language may be more intellectual and you’ll always be more proficient and comfortable in it, but you’ll learn a second language that you can slip into whenever you need to and whenever you want to communicate more effectively in your relationship. 

How do you feel about expressing your feelings?  Just kidding.  Do you have trouble teasing apart your thoughts and feelings?  Do you have a harder time expressing “negative” feelings, like anger, than “positive” feelings, like happiness?

What if I Want Couples Counseling but My Spouse Doesn’t?

It’s a common occurrence that one person in a couple wants couples counseling but the other doesn’t.   There are several reasons that I’ve seen, which are 1) one person doesn’t want to work on the relationship even though he or she acknowledges there are problems, 2) one person no longer wants to be in the relationship and doesn’t want to pretend to go through therapy, 3) one person doesn’t believe that therapy helps, 4) one person thinks that the other person is responsible for the problems, and 5) one person is uncomfortable with the idea of therapy and discussing intimate problems with a stranger.

So much as you’d like to, you can’t force someone to come in for therapy.  But what you can do is come in for individual therapy yourself.  “What’s the point?” you ask?  Well if there is a shift in one person in a relationship, then it changes the dynamic of the relationship and the other person has to shift and react in some way.  Therefore, even if you’re the only one in therapy, it will still affect your relationship.  When you come in for therapy on your own you can hear a more objective point of view regarding your relationship and maybe gain a different perspective on what’s really going on.  You can see more clearly in what way you are contributing and in what way your partner is contributing to the overall situation.

Let’s say for example that you have a hard time telling your partner, your husband for the sake of this article, that you don’t like something that he does.  We won’t even pick something “bad” that he does, but maybe something that he does with good intentions and doesn’t realize that it bothers you.  Let’s say he brings you a heart-shaped box of chocolates with flowers every Valentine’s Day.  Normally we would think that’s pretty sweet right?  He’s been giving you the same gift since your first Valentine’s Day together and because you were so happy and effusive the first time he just keeps on doing it, thinking that it makes you happy.   Well what if it annoys you that every year it’s the same thing or that there is no creative thought behind it, but you don’t know how to tell him?  Well someone might say that you’re being a little ungrateful, but hey you feel what you feel.  The problem is that every year that you didn’t like the heart-shaped box you lied to him by pretending that you did.  Now you think it’s too late to change it.  But it’s never too late to change things and it’s never too late to tell the truth!  And if you can’t tell him the truth about this fairly benign thing, then how are you going to tell him your truth when it’s something on a grander scale that you know he really doesn’t want to hear, like “I want to go back to school,” or “I don’t like that your father criticizes me and you never say a word to defend me.”   Well this is where your own individual therapy can help you to begin to say your truth.  In therapy, you first figure out what your truth is, what prevents you from saying it, you practice saying it to someone in the therapy room, and then you take it out into the real world, i.e., your relationship.  Therapy helps you as an individual to begin to feel like you have a right to say what you think and feel.  Most couples complain about not being able to communicate in a meaningful way, so if you learn to communicate better on your own, then it can only help you as a couple.

So while it may be disappointing that your partner doesn’t want to come in for therapy, as long as you are still making changes and shifts and growing on your side, then he or she has to adjust and react to it.  Voila, changes for two at the price of one.

If you would like some help with your relationship, feel free to call (646) 596-6169 to schedule an appointment.

How Long Does It Take before Therapy Helps?

 

I don’t want to sound like a non-committal politician, but it’s different for everyone.  That said, some people begin to feel relief at their first visit due to one or a combination of these reasons: finally sharing things they may never have shared with others, venting, having someone empathetic listen to them, and receiving some reassurance that they aren’t as crazy as they thought they were.

While the Woody Allens of this world would like for therapy to go on forever, it’s totally unnecessary.  However, the benefits of long-term therapy, i.e. more than a few months, are unmistakable.  The people who have worked with me for well over a year have made a good deal of progress in their self-esteem, ability to speak their truth, and willingness to make changes in their lives.  However, I would say that all of these people began to feel better about certain issues in their lives within the first few months.  They just chose to move on to deeper issues once the initial concern that brought them in was no longer an urgent problem.

People tend to come in for therapy because of one particular issue, for example, divorce, depression, work stress, or relationship trouble.  What we tend to discover is that the behavioral or mental patterns contributing to that particular problem are present in other areas of their lives causing some problems there too.  One example would be fear of speaking your truth because you think someone will get angry.  Then the worst possible consequence you can imagine is that someone will get angry and leave you.  Can you see how this fear would inhibit you from telling your partner something that he or she doesn’t want to hear?  But can you also see how it could keep you from speaking your mind to your best friend, your boss, even your landlord?  It all boils down to the same issue; it just presents itself in different scenarios – some more intense than others.  Why?  Well because it’s your issue and you bring yourself to every situation.  Believe me, you’ll even bring it into the therapy room because it’s not like you’ll come in and leave your personality outside the door.  And that’s fine, you will act out your issues with me too and the difference will be that I will be able to point them out to you without getting as confused, defensive, or frustrated as other people in your life would.  In other words, I won’t take it personally and will just talk to you openly about what you are doing in a way that most people in your life can’t.

So, of course, some people come to therapy and resolve the specific issue that was causing them trouble and then they leave happy with their results.  Then other people discover that the initial issue, although it has improved, is just the first layer of that onion, and have the desire and courage to stay longer and dig deeper in order to effect deeper change in different areas of their lives.

Maybe after my long response that’s what it really boils down to: Do you want a little change in your life or do you want A LOT OF CHANGE in your life?  It’s not a judgment – neither one is inherently better than the other.  It’s all about what you want and need.  If you look at your life and realize that there are several areas that you’re unhappy about…well then stick around for a bit, do the work, and watch your life change.

Have you been in therapy before?  How long did it take before your felt some relief?   Does the possibility of how long therapy can take prevent you from ever beginning?

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