When people first come to therapy they are all about feelings. It’s like they feel too much and their stories are filled with emotions, fears, tears, guilt and shame. I do notice a slight difference in my male clients but not as much as you’d expect. Boys cry too. I tell them “The couch does that to people”. Not that I mind emotions, don’t get me wrong. I am perfectly comfortable sitting with your pain, hurt, fear, anxiety, guilt. You can freak out too, I guarantee you I will be able to help you calm down and move through your emotions safely.
It’s our thoughts that we don’t talk enough about. I can’t tell you how many times I get a dumb-founded look to the question “What are you telling yourself?” or “How did you get to that assumption?” It’s as if what one is thinking is supposed to be common knowledge, not to be questioned or asked about. Besides the usual mind-reading distortion of thought (where you assume people should be able to just know what you’re thinking), there is another mechanism at play here: mistaking thoughts/beliefs for facts. We think about 60 thoughts a second without even trying. This happens the same way our heart beats or our breathing, digestion etc. We never question those processes. Why question thought?
Because thoughts become habits. And habits are not facts. I’ll try to explain.
As you were growing up you learned about the world and organized it into categories or beliefs. We develop many categories of ideas and beliefs about others, the world, and ourselves, as well as for objects. One common belief that many people learn while growing up is that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.” This is called the “just world belief.” You may have learned this through your religion, your parents, your teachers, or you may have picked it up as a way to make the world seem safer and more predictable. It makes more sense when you are young. You may have also developed other core beliefs like “All parents should love their children” or “Good kids make no mistakes”. As we grow older we develop beliefs about ourselves. Some of them are positive or so it would seem. For example “I have to always be right“, “I’m good at everything I do“, “I am always honest“, “I am a caretaker“, etc. Some of them are negative. For example “I am selfish or a fraud“, “I am unlovable or ugly“, “I have no strengths“, “I can’t do this/don’t know how“, ‘I’m stupid“, etc. In the same way we may develop beliefs about others and the world. Some good, some bad depending on our experiences. For example “Everyone should like me“, “The world is a safe place“, “The world is unsafe“, ‘People can’t be trusted“, “I am always taken advantage of” etc. Crisis (and so therapy) comes from something that happens that contradicts one or more core beliefs.
I’ll use myself as an example. I have been pretty open in here about the fact that I am not exempt from human suffering and ways of thinking and that I have needed help from time to time. When I was learning how to drive I failed miserably many times. It seemed impossible to get over the fear. I was extremely frustrated with myself. “Why can’t I get this?” I would say. This added to a general feeling of anxiety and hopelessness. After some exploration it became clear that the frustration was being fed by a deep, strong-held belief that “I can learn anything/there is nothing I can’t do”, among other beliefs. The thought that I can learn or do anything seems pretty irrational. No one can learn or do anything. This is clear to me now. Duh. But interestingly this thought had become a habit and I never questioned it.
This brings to my point. If you believe that “good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people” AND you believe you are good AND something bad happens to you, then what are you left thinking? How do you make sense of this event that contradicts everything you believe in? Same if you believed you are bad AND something good happens to you. What does that mean to you?
There is three major ways in which we try to make sense of information/events that contradict core beliefs.
1. Assimilation: we refuse to change the core belief, instead we change the belief about ourselves to makes sense of the new event. For example,
I’m good and my mom doesn’t love me = I must be bad.
I’m good and my boyfriend cheats on me = it’s my fault.
I’m bad and this person loves me = I don’t deserve it.
I’m good and I lost a loved one = I’m being punished for something I’ve done. And so on.
2. Over-accommodation: we change the belief but we overdo it, we take it to the extreme. For example,
I’m good and my mom doesn’t love me = people are hateful.
I’m good and my boyfriend cheats on me = all men are pigs.
I’m bad and this person loves me = love doesn’t exist.
I’m good and I lost a loved one = the world (god) is unfair.
3. Accommodation: ideally this is what we want to do. Here we change a bit of the view of ourselves and a bit of our belief to make sense of the new event. For example,
I’m good and my mom doesn’t love me = sometimes I can be difficult but my mom is dealing with her own issues too.
I’m good and my boyfriend cheats = I may have missed some warning signs but I have no control over my boyfriends actions. Also, this does not mean every boyfriend will cheat on me.
I’m bad and this person loves me = there must be something good about me and maybe love does exist after all.
I’m good and I lost a loved one = things happen sometimes for no reason.
Does this make any sense to you? Can you name some of your own core beliefs? What have you been assimilating or over-accommodating?
Further more, can your core belief, which feeds your daily thoughts and emotions, stand up in court?