When Something is REALLY Bothering You

There’s a strong connection between the way you think and the way you feel. And it goes both ways. The way you think affects your emotional state and your emotional state affects the way you think. These are the guiding principles at the heart of CBT and REBT.

There’s a brutal truth in life that some people refuse to accept: You have no control over many of the things that happen in your life.

When something is really bothering you common remedies are to talk about it or to sleep on it. What’s interesting is that when we stop to think about these remedies they don’t really change anything about the situation. All of the external variables remain the same after the fact.

Yet what is in your control is the ability to change your attitude towards these external variables, your beliefs about yourself, others, and the external world at large. Sometimes this change in attitude makes all the difference in the world. It makes a difference in that you feel more prepared to face the unalterable facts of your present.

There are really only two channels for finding relief if you’re unhappy with your current set of circumstances. You can change them or you can change the way you think about them. Not working to change your bad circumstances when you’re capable of doing so is a form of self-sabotage, but we’ve also got to recognize that we all face certain variables in our lives that are immutable, that no matter how much you wish your particular unalterable circumstances were different you’re hitting your head against the wall when you try to change them because they’ll never change.

Being able to distinguish between those unwanted external variables that are changeable from those that are unchangeable is half the battle. Resisting this truism will bring great suffering into your life. The other half the battle is finding a way to live with the things you can’t change, to realize that despite their unchangeability you still retain the power to alter your beliefs around them and thereby find relief. You retain the power to either leave those unwanted unchangeable variables hanging, which is like leaving open wounds unattended, or to accept them, which is like bandaging those wounds in order to let them heal so that you can eventually move forward.

Let’s face it: some things that happen in life are things that you should shrug off and stop letting things bother you, while other situations deserve your attention. Emotionally maturity requires us to be able to differentiate between the two.

The best way to know the difference is to ask yourself what you can do about what’s bothering you. If there’s something that you can do about the situation, do it. You’ll feel a lot better. If there really is nothing that you can do about that given situation, decide to let it go and focus on changing what is within your control: your perspective.

Why Mind Reading is Problematic

SEEING THE WORST IN PEOPLE

Lots of people carry around a lot of resentment and hostility towards others in our lives and it’s not just due to the tangible behaviors they enact that we believe to be wrong. In fact probably more important than the behaviors themselves are the thoughts and motivations we believe are behind these behaviors. We begin to draw up a psychological picture and the picture is grim. We see these people as cold, callous, uncaring, cruel, jealous, spiteful, evil, etc. We see the very worst in them and then take it for granted that their behaviors stem from those bad thoughts and qualities. We use imagined internal motivations as justification for our resentment and hostility towards them. We justify our own bad behavior based on what can be PURE fiction, a story we made up in our head.

Even the most socially adept individuals routinely misread other people’s emotions because of their own biases, insecurities, personal histories, cultural tendencies, attachment style, or situational factors. Often we have a need to see people a certain way to make ourselves feel better; with our view of the other person being a projection.

What we’re falling victim to when we assume we know why people do what they do is the cognitive distortion of mind reading, which is where we ascribe intentions to people’s actions despite little or no evidence to prove it.

A common thing people do is judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Thus they give themselves the benefit of the doubt, but do not bestow this on other people in their lives.

Mind reading is assuming what someone else is thinking without having much to go on. If we rely too much on mind reading, we can make mistakes about what others think of us, which can really wreak havoc with our mood. It can destroy our relationships. Mind reading often leads to depression and anxiety, especially social anxiety. Consequently, it can be helpful to learn to recognize and respond to common faulty thinking patterns such as mind reading.

DISCOVERING THE REAL MOTIVATION FOR DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR

The strategy most of us employ in order to lower that sense of resentment and hostility is to forgive the person we feel has wronged us for the concrete behavior. But a better way, one that leads to mutual understanding, is to actively challenge our own mind reading and at least consider the possibility that the behavior we’re upset about sprung from less destructive thoughts and motivations than we are imagining. That behavior could be the result of deep suffering, mental health issues, wrong perceptions, or the feeling of having been wronged, or any number of other possibilities.

The fact is we don’t know, we just think we know. While the behavior was destructive it may have sprung from a desire to be productive. We won’t know unless we ask the right questions. And at any rate very few people, if any, believe themselves to be the villains in their life dramas. Powerful justifications are put into place to protect the psyche from that responsibility, so that most go about their daily lives feeling more or less justified for the words and actions that have had a negative effect on others. When we can at least make room for other possibilities rather than automatically landing on highly destructive imagined thoughts and behaviors, our resentment and hostility start to make way for empathy and understanding. And that helps us, even if nothing else changes about the situation, because it’s a real burden to carry around resentment and hostility, this burden negatively colors our lives and relationships even when the people we’re directing our resentment and hostility towards are nowhere in sight.

Getting Through The Tough Times in Life

Perhaps you’re not having the best week… or month… or year. I get it. Many feel the same. Covid-19 has not helped!

Over the course of a lifetime, we will each go through many difficult times. We naturally have to transition between different chapters of our lives and none of escape trying moments. It is during these times when it is important to be able to tap into our toolbox of coping skills to make it through.

There are four key ingredients to developing coping skills for resilience: connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and finding meaning.

CHALLENGING THE NON-CHANGE BIAS

Life is full of ups and downs but many of us fall into what we might call the non-change bias. While in the midst of being ‘up’ we think we’ll be up forever and while in the midst of being ‘down’ we think we’ll be down forever. What I gently remind my clients is life is in constant flux. One of my favorite coping mantras is, “this too shall pass.”

So really getting through the rocky periods of life starts with consciously distancing ourselves from the bias of non-change. We can remind ourselves that ‘this too shall pass’. Just like we wanted the good times to stay around forever and they didn’t the bad times will likely once again make way for the good. Both things good and bad, come and go. Something that holds true for us all.

Sometimes the necessary changes to get things back on track are within our locus of control but sometimes they aren’t but either way we put ourselves in a better position to weather the storm when we remember that non-change is an illusion, permanence is an illusion.  As a Greek philosopher famously said, “Change is the only constant.”

IMPERMANENCE IS THE RULE OF LIFE 

Change and impermanence are the rules of existence and the rules of human life. These insights can help us from sinking into hopelessness when things aren’t going our way. The vicious cycle that occurs to many of us when we’re going through a rocky period of life is that we unknowingly contribute to its intensity and duration due to our own cynical attitudes and behaviors. We’re not in a state of readiness where we can notice and embrace various opportunities around us but in a state of passivity or even worse negativity where we’re destructive towards ourselves, others, and the world.

CULTIVATING A STATE OF GOING WITH THE FLOW

So again cultivating a state of going with the flow is beneficial to all aspects of mental health. Life throws curveballs! It is important to see where we can embrace the plethora of opportunities that will get us out of the funk we are in starts with ditching the non-change bias. Even if there’s not a thing we can do to influence the situation external conditions will eventually change on their own anyway, and remembering that will help us better bear up under unwanted conditions.

Take responsibility for how you deal with change. As human beings to be able to adapt is key to survival. Change is something that will test a person’s inner resources and requires adaption if they are to successfully overcome stress and other negative emotions that accompany transition. Very few life transitions, positive or negative, go smoothly or effortlessly. Consequently, any change can take a toll.

If change has caught you off-guard you can get discombobulated. The trick is to remember it is one of many changes that will come your way as you progress through life. Take comfort in knowing we all will have to navigate change in our lives. It is a universal human experience. Counseling can help you dig into your toolbox to see what resources you have to cope.

If you find changes in your life overwhelming, you do not have to deal with them all by yourself. If you hate change, counseling can help you at least tolerate it. There is no law saying you have to like change, but change is going to happen, like it or not.

Stop Complaining and Make a Plan: What Stage of Change Are You In?

Life’s hard.

For many of us, this is just a given. For others, it is something they resist accepting at all costs. And it shows in the outcomes in their lives. They settle, they live in denial, they refuse to accept accountability. All very human reactions. But such reactions will be detrimental to the quality of one’s life.

Let’s be honest. Often, life can feel like we’re scrambling to escape an avalanche of responsibilities and an endless to-do lists of tasks after task. And when we are feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to find fault or point out what’s wrong, but if we get in the habit of complaining, it starts to create a momentum of its own, paralyzing us from moving forward. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t fall into this trap from time to time.

Many people are deeply unhappy in their lives but experience a tremendous amount of inertia. Some of that inertia is justified in that sometimes our environments won’t support an immediate drastic change. For example, maybe you hate your job, but quitting right now without a backup plan might not be financially feasible when you have a mortgage and kids to support.

The problem though is that justified short-term inertia easily turns into unjustified long-term inertia due to the false bias that an important change requires action right away. Part of this is rationalization for many of us. We might not love our current circumstances but conditions are familiar and predictable, which keeps our anxiety at bay. So we tell ourselves that there’s nothing we can do to change our situations for the better right now and that’s that. This might be true when what we’re talking about is action right now.

But actually all meaningful change, where entrenched patterns of behavior must be altered or new patterns of behavior must be implemented, must pass through the various stages of change before reaching that end point called maintenance where new behaviors are enacted more or less effortlessly and where those behaviors and the environment exist in a stable feedback loop. 

The stages of change are: pre-contemplation, contemplation, planning, action, and maintenance

Five stages of change have been conceptualized for a variety of problem behaviors. The five stages of change are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.

Precontemplation is the stage at which there is no real intent to change behavior in the foreseeable future. Many individuals in this stage are unaware or under aware of their problems.

Contemplation is the stage in which people are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about overcoming it but have not yet made a commitment to take action. At this stage in the game, change consist of wishes and fantasies.

Preparation is a stage that combines intention and behavioral criteria. Individuals in this stage are intending to take action in the next month and have unsuccessfully taken action in the past year. This is where we are researching how to achieve our goals, figuring out the steps necessary.

Action is the stage in which individuals modify their behavior, experiences, or environment in order to overcome their problems. Action involves the most overt behavioral changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy. This stage is hard as it requires intentional behavioral change in one’s day to day life. It forces us to kick off auto pilot.

Maintenance is the stage in which people work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action. For addictive behaviors this stage extends from six months to an indeterminate period past the initial action. This stage determines if the change will be lasting or if we will slip back into old behaviors.

So, our point here is that if you’re unhappy with one or several aspects of your life then it means you’re past pre-contemplation and into the contemplation phase. You’re not at the action phase yet, and it actually doesn’t make sense to take action right now. You’re missing a major step in between. But instead you sink into apathetic acceptance where you tell yourself since you can’t take action you can’t change your situation and therefore undesirable circumstances continue on indefinitely, causing more apathy and inertia.

Counseling can help you kick yourself into the action phase of change. It can help peel back the layers of what is keeping you stuck. People come to counseling in different places of readiness, sometimes entering unsure, only contemplating change. Other times, people are already mid-way through the Action stage when they decide they need some extra help. Regardless, your counselor will tailor therapy for you based on your stage of change.

The Common Denominator is YOU

As a counselor, my goal for all my clients is hopefully by the end of our time together, for them to report feeling more at peace with themselves and the world around them. If treatment goals are met, they will know themselves a bit better and have a greater understanding of their inner psychology. An important part of personal development is learning why we do the things we do; this way, we can understand what got us to this point and what we need to do differently going forward to generate better results.

To get to that end goal, we go through a process where we explore a client’s inner and outer world. We discuss their relationships and other external factors that impact their emotional well-being, yet we also explore their inner world i.e. their self-talk.

An important part of the counseling process is taking ownership of your treatment and more so, of your life as a whole. I cannot reach my clients’ goals for them. It is important they recognize the clinician is the facilitator; they are the ones responsible for their progress and growth. One of the most common mechanisms by which we seek to protect our fragile sense of self is the projection of responsibility, where we place most of the blame for unwanted relationship outcomes squarely on the shoulders of those around us. Except for bouts of major depression, where feelings of worthlessness and excessive guilt might cause us to take on more than our fair share of the responsibility for conflict and dysfunction, we tend to see ourselves as the heroes, the saints, the victims, the innocent bystanders in our life stories. It’s those around us who are the villains, the sinners, the perpetrators, the guilty parties. Very rare does someone view themselves as in the wrong. This is just a part of human nature.

While blaming everything and everyone else for the quality of our relationships might insulate us from undue emotional distress we pay a heavy price because we can only ever influence those aspects of our lives over which we take some modicum of responsibility. Responsibility is the ability to respond. When all that responsibility is placed in the external environment we unwittingly turn ourselves into victims in our own lives. We stop self-reflection in its tracks, we see no reason to change our perceptions, to change our behaviors, to change ourselves. We keep on going in the same way, we keep on getting the same results, and we keep on blaming everybody else for it. (Except in this case of abusive relationships, the old adage that it takes two to tango generally holds true in most relationship conflicts).

In the therapeutic alliance one of the most effective ways to gain some ground and start to make some inroads against the seemingly impermeable barrier of refusing to accept personal responsibility for one’s role in the conflict that exists in their lives, is to gently point out that often we tend to characterize the behaviors of other people in our life in basically the same way. There tends to be a recurring theme in how we describe conflicts in our life with ourselves not being at fault. We might find themes of pettiness, betrayal, envy, anger, abandonment, destructiveness, small-mindedness, or anything else. Regardless of the theme, the powerful insight to present is “The common denominator is you.” You are the person who ALL these different people have in common. Over time this idea, that what all of those similar behaviors of others have in common is the client, usually leads to the dawning realization that there must be something emanating not from out there in the external world but from within. Like attracts like. To a certain extent, we may be drawing to us these unwanted outcomes through our own behavior. A tough pill to swallow, indeed.

Blaming other people is an easy out, and an easy way for us to continue our behaviors, which may be the source of the problem we’re hoping to put on someone else. This denial of responsibility also denies us control of a given situation. If you don’t hold yourself accountable for the consequences of your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, you get to continue living life thinking that you don’t have any flaws or areas needing improvement.

Carl Jung put it succinctly when he wrote “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” But this understanding can only begin if we become aware of our proclivity to project that which we can’t or won’t accept inside of us. Then we can summon up the courage to start wondering how it is that we tend to pull out the same constellation of behaviors in different people and what we can start doing differently to get more desirable results. It is not easy to accept that we are to blame, but it is empowering to do so. It takes courage and the ability to be vulnerable. But vulnerability is the gateway, the entry point to change, growth, and greater connection–both with ourselves and others.