I routinely initiate a conversation with my psychotherapy clients that goes like this - "We often have wrong ideas about our emotional reactions. They seem automatic and we tend to think they are automatic. They are not; they depend upon how we think about a given situation. For example, if I came at you right now with my hands overhead threatening to attack you with a sledgehammer, how would you respond?" Presume for a moment that the client reacts with fear, saying something along the lines of, "I would run out the door." We then discuss how the client immediately evaluated the situation as unsafe and responded accordingly.
Then we discuss other possibilities such as getting angry and choosing to fight, or crying in the corner thinking about all of life's unfairness. The client might just laugh at me because the client knows that even if I did have a sledgehammer, the situation was set up by me only for demonstration purposes. Each of these possibilities depends upon the thinking of the person. The angry response derives from thinking that I should not be doing that, as well as a likely evaluation that I can be handled physically. The crying response typically is evoked when old feelings of hopelessness are triggered. Finally, the laughter derives from thinking about a larger concept than just "a sledgehammer is close."
With the sledgehammer fantasy I am trying to help the client understand that our emotional responses depend upon our thinking processes much more than we think they do. Even in an immediate situation like that of a poised sledgehammer, there is no such thing as an emotional response common to everyone.
This reasoning leads to, "If I can change how I think, I can change my emotions." Does this mean I can get rid of my discomforts, my anger, my angst, my depression and my sadness just by thinking differently? The therapists who concentrate on changing your thinking processes would say, "Yes!" (Talk therapy treatments of choice these days for depression are "thinking-type" therapies, not the emotionally-based therapies that one might initially think would be most effective with depression. Changing the thinking processes which cause the depression usually is much quicker than attempting to change the emotional processes themselves.)
© 2008 by Thayer White
Finding Your Soul in the Spirituality Maze
|Excerpt from Be Your Own Therapist: "What is locked up in the shock of trauma? Words, emotions, sensations and thoughts are four important prisoners incarcerated by partial or complete loss of memory. Freeing any one of these prisoners will help to heal the trauma."|