Thursday, May 26, 2011

Distorted Thinking

Styles of thinking or as they are called in psychology cognitive distortions, come from the work of Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and others. They are thought patterns that lead us down twisted paths in our thinking processes.

Take for example filtering. We take a negative detail and magnify while we filter out all the positive aspects of a conversation or situation. The negative becomes larger. What may have started out as having a keen sense of where you could have done better or a knack for seeing what is missing in situations, could develop into having a biased view of things in which you never can see or feel the positive. Fox News is expert at teaching people how to filter. This habit becomes a dull, narrow and depressing way to see yourself and the world.

Another one that is popular in our media and culture is polarized thinking. We see things in extremes as good or bad, black or white. We have to be perfect or we fail. When there is little room for middle ground in our minds or in our culture, life becomes bizarrely extreme. The media can start and run with rumors that we know are outrageous, but because we get accustomed to thinking this way personally, it doesn’t feel or look like a stretch when we read it in the news.

Another favorite of Fox News is catastrophizing. This is always thinking the worst will happen and expecting disasters. When we internalize this thinking style, we worry about everything and are filled with ‘what ifs.’ When we see it happening in the media, then we start to believe that not trusting in being in a constant state of hyper arousal is normal and desirable.

Another popular one is personalization. This is the tendency to relate everything around us to ourselves. We start to believe that everything that people do and say is some kind of reaction to us. We are also comparing ourselves to others to see who is smarter, prettier, etc. Social media has really helped to promote this one.

We can work to change distorted thinking in ourselves when we recognize it, but how do we change distorted thinking in the media and culture? What do we do to protect children from thinking that distorted thinking is normal?

We all can strive to think with clarity, focus and depth. Making good decisions, balancing choices, thinking in creative and diverse ways is challenging.  We have to start with having a good solid practice for our minds to develop healthful thinking patterns that support us in expanding, not becoming more neurotic and confused. It is difficult when society supports and promotes distorted thinking. We can start by accepting that life is complex, full of anguish and joy and knowing that it cannot be reduced to a simplistic formula. We need to stay present and awake to observe our own minds and be consciously aware of when and how we fall into distorted thinking.

For more on Distorted Thinking go to Mark Brady’s great blog The Committed Parent:

Identify which ones you are drawn to so you can recognize them. Be gentle with yourself and notice when you are thinking in that particular style. Gently challenge the thoughts and ask yourself if this way of thinking is really realistic? Byron Katie’s four questions is a brilliant method for helping us transform distorted thinking. Look here for her website:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Feedback vs. Criticism

As artists, therapists and people in the world we all have to give and take feedback. When I work as an artist, my feedback is often framed as reviews and critiques. As a therapist, my feedback happens in a more personal way with clients assessing and evaluating my work weekly, then deciding to return for more sessions or not.  I am also reviewed by: the agencies that contract me, students who take my workshops and courses, and my children who show up for Sunday night dinner. It is part of my life. Am I comfortable with feedback and that the world is always assessing and evaluating me? Yes, when it is positive, confirming and or gently and kindly done. No, when it is confusing, judgmental and destructive. We grow from doing more of what is working and less of what isn’t working. Good feedback helps me understand what is working and what is not. Criticism reduces the chance that I will hear what others are saying and often throws me into a defensive mode that may cause me to retreat, and or become angry. It is easy to criticize the one who is doing, teaching, demonstrating and or reaching out. When the criticism happens in a way that there is no opportunity for a discussion about potential, change or growth, then it is not helpful. How do I know if the comment or criticism is more about the person giving it and their issues or if it is a fair assessment of my work? Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.

When I was younger and had to give out evaluation forms at the end of each art workshop or class I taught, I would shudder. What if they didn’t like the way I teach? What if they thought the workshop was lacking? What I found over the years is that the feedback was mostly very positive and helpful, but the one or two negative comments would stick with me and I would chew them over when I was tired, stressed or bored. It would have been helpful if I could have asked the unsatisfied students more about why they were feeling that way. Has reviewing feedback helped? Yes when it was thoughtful and directed at something that I could improve upon; i.e., more of this and less of that. It is not helpful when the comments are attacks on personality, or so general that it is difficult to reference them back to the class. If 29 people liked the art workshop and found it helpful how could 2 find it meaningless, useless, and or lacking?
Evaluation forms have added another layer of anonymity by being done online. I would rather be evaluated by someone in person with a chance for a discussion so I could really understand their point of view.  It is easy to give harmful, thoughtless, or generalized feedback anonymously.
We’re all imperfect beings struggling to live our lives with grace. What we say affects others whether it is to their face or on an evaluation form done online. Be thoughtful, kind and honest. Reread what you wrote if it is negative and really ask yourself why you are saying what you are saying. Ask yourself if you were receiving this feedback would it be helpful? Is it psychologically violent?
If you are receiving harmful or hurtful feedback that causes you to feel defensive do you agree with it at some level? I think that I am a good teacher, but I also feel inadequate, and unprepared sometimes. We all feel some truth in most remarks, as there is a part of us that believes that we could always do better, or more. Try to feel the truth of the remark without blame, shame or guilt. But also feel the other part or parts of you that know that you are doing an excellent job, working with integrity and talent, and trying hard to reach your students, audience or your own potential. Try to stay curious about what you may be missing. If you find a truth in there somewhere, act on it. It may be a different truth than the student or workshop attendee intended, but it may be true for you.
Criticism can be invalidating, condescending, judgmental, negatively evaluative, and accusatory. Feedback focuses on giving information that can help the person change or reconsider. It is descriptive, not judgmental and provides concrete information that can be motivating or informative. Feedback does not focus on personal attacks and destructive remarks. Feedback is designed to inform not attack. Our instinct is to defend when attacked. I want to be able to re-valuate and self-reflect when I read evaluation forms and feedback can help me do that. Criticism is harder to read objectively as it is often aggressive not assertive communication.
How do you work with feedback and how do you deal with criticism?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Is Your Therapy Useful?

When I first started working as a therapist, at the end of a session I would ask clients, “What will you be taking with you from this session?” or “What changes will you be making in the next week based on the work that we have done here today?”

Now I say, “What was useful about today’s session?” I would have never used that word in my youth, it is not a word that I liked or would have related to. However, as I am aging and understanding more and more about what real change is, I feel warmth with the utility and plainness of that word. Useful. Is this conversation, art or focusing session of use and if so what use? There is something real and close to the bone about the word useful. I want my therapy work to help inspire, enlighten and enrich my clients, but most of all I want it to be useful and in a very practical everyday workable way.

Let me explain. When I was a little girl my sister and I were alone on our family farm and in charge of cooking, cleaning and other chores. Dad and Mom were away for a week and we felt burdened with the big farm meals that we had to prepare. Grandma Bell showed up one night with a kettle of peeled potatoes ready to cook.  It was the kindest, most thoughtful and useful gift anyone had given me. Peeling potatoes every night was a daunting task and Grandma understood this. This is the gift that affected me the most in my life. I want my clients to feel that they are getting something out of their sessions that is as useful and tangible as that pot of potatoes.  It was a gift that neither my sister nor I would have ever thought to ask for or even be aware of how much it would lighten our daily work load. Grandma didn’t need to ask or talk about what we needed, she just knew.

The definition of useful is to be of practical use, supply common needs and to be helpful or of good effect. I strive to provide my clients with that kind of knowing and giving. It may be in the form of a right word at the right time, an exercise that really fits or the right book to read. I want to provide my clients with something as useful, heartfelt, and ‘right’ as those potatoes were.

What is useful in your life right now?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Five Reasons That You Know That You Are With The Right Therapist

  1. You feel it is a good fit. You respect and feel inspired by your therapist. Even though the work may be hard, you look forward to going. You trust him/her.
  2. You feel that your objectives and goals are being met.
  3. Your life is changing. Inwardly and outwardly things are different. You may be feeling lighter, more empowered, or more confident, but there has been a shift.
  4. Your relationship with yourself and others has improved. You are listening to your own inner voice more often, feeling more assertive and you enjoy your own company more. You feel better.
  5. You feel hopeful.

Collaboratively, decide on a reasonable goal or goals to achieve. You cannot expect complicated problems to disappear in only a few weeks, but you should be feeling some shifts right away. Consider how long the problem has existed, and how deeply ingrained it is in your life then be realistic about the time and effort to transform it. Attend your sessions regularly and do what you agreed to in order to create change in your life. Look to your therapist as someone who’s helping you cope more effectively with a part of life that you’re struggling with, but don’t expect the therapy that you are doing to solve every problem in your life. Set goals for yourself with your therapist and when you reach those goals, reevaluate whether you want to commit to further work. If you are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder following a trauma, maybe you’ll want to work on several goals, such as stopping your nightmares, self-regulation, lowering your anxiety, reconnecting with people, feeling safe, and so forth. Small steps help us move into big change.
Therapy can be hard work but it can also include humor, fun, creative enjoyment and delightful new insights. My clients laugh, cry, can feel discouraged, inspired and creative sometimes all in the same session.  Be compassionate with yourself as you begin the process of making changes in your life. Sometimes it can be a slow process that takes work and persistence on your part. Investing in your own growth and awareness is a wonderful gift for yourself, your family and others. 


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Five Reasons Why You Should look For A New Therapist

Five top reasons:
1. A trusting, compassionate, safe relationship with a therapist cannot include sexual relations of any kind. Sexual actions are inappropriate and unethical. This is the ultimate boundary violation.
2. Being used as your therapist’s therapist is inappropriate. You are paying for your own therapy, not to hear your therapist’s problems.
 3. If your therapist falls asleep, consider your work with them over. I hope that there is nothing more that needs to be explained here.
4. If you feel that your therapist is belittling you, treating you with contempt, or disgust you should leave. You desire respect, and understanding from your therapist.
5.  Beware of a therapist who needs to sell or justify their work. If they are promising more than they can deliver, saying that it is your fault that the therapy is not working or promising a magic cure, they are not being honest. Therapy is hard work, which for most people requires time and energy. 


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