March 14, 2024

Getting “Unstuck” in Therapy

By Katy Liefeld
Anxiety & Depression
Mental Health & Wellbeing

Have you ever felt so stuck in a thought that you don’t even see a way out? Or can’t even imagine a world in which you think differently? It might be that you have wrong beliefs about what change can look like.

Case Study

Take for example, Beth. Beth has struggled with negative self-talk for as long as she can remember. It started with a negative comment from her elementary school teacher about her body. “You’re too big to do that…” “You can’t fit in there…” “You’re different from the other kids…” Beth moved through the rest of elementary school noticing how different she was than others, and limiting herself because of it. Soon, she didn’t need anyone to tell her she was different, she noticed it right away, disqualified herself from activities, including ones she would enjoy, just to make sure she wouldn’t stick out or embarrass herself.

As high school approached, the negative talk expanded from her size to her desirability, “Because of who I am, no one will ever want to date me…” as well as her performance in school “I have to be the smartest in the class, it’s the only way I’ll stand out in a positive way,” and her ability to make friends, “If I can’t be the pretty one, maybe I’ll be the funny one.”

By this time in her life, the thoughts don’t even feel like thoughts–they’re just true. They aren’t up for debate. It’s impossible to see a world in which these things could be different. She’s just living trying to accommodate her beliefs about herself. At a certain point, Beth is tired of this way of living and wants to make a change. She’s tired of limiting herself, having anxiety and being fearful of vulnerable relationships, so she begins therapy to try to work on this. Some of her friends tried counseling and really liked it, so maybe it could help her too.

Beth thinks that her therapist will mostly focus on her behavior. She thinks her therapist will encourage to put herself out there more. Or on the other hand, maybe she’ll lay back on a couch and open up about her childhood and that teacher that talked about her body.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As a therapist, there are of course many ways that negative self-talk could be handled during a counseling session. For me, the first thing I would want to understand as Beth’s therapist is: what are those “truths” that she believes unequivocally about herself? Where did they come from? How flexible are they? Do they hold up when they are said out loud to another person? Do we have evidence of these being true from the last 5 years? This year?

Once we understand that these thoughts may not be factually true, it doesn’t change the fact that they feel true. And we are used to them being true. It’s also a habit that has formed in our brains. So how do we get rid of thoughts that are unhelpful when they feel so real?

It’s a Process

First, we recognize that the brain likely won’t make these changes overnight. It took years for them to be ingrained in this way–it may take some time to train our brains to think differently. Secondly, we can’t just delete memories, patterns, and neural networks in our brains–they need to be re-written. So while we can’t just erase the thoughts, or replace the thoughts, we can add to them.

Let’s take the thought “I’m ugly” for example. A therapist and client might work to slow down the thought and understand the following: What usually happens before that thought occurs? What’s happening in your body during that thought? What feelings are occurring related to this thought? Where do your thoughts go next? What behavior or action do you take after this thought?

Once this pattern or cycle is identified, we would then try to identify “offramps” or ways out of this cycle or pattern. So for example, if the thought, “I’m ugly,” is always followed by, “and I always will be,” we might try to slow that down and adjust this to, “and I always thought I was.” While this adjustment may seem small, it not only changes the pattern, but puts distance between the client and their thought. It’s no longer acknowledged as unequivocally true, but just a passing thought. This might eventually evolve to, “I’m having the thought that I feel like I’m ugly, and that is just a thought. Thoughts aren’t always facts, what evidence do I have?”

While this process can be slow, you’ll be amazed at how quickly our brains can form new patterns that allow for new behaviors, and most importantly, hope.

If you’re struggling with negative self-talk, know you’re not alone! Therapy offers a path to healing and self-discovery, providing you with the tools and support you need to challenge and overcome those destructive patterns of thinking. Reach out to get started with a therapist today!

Written By

Katy Liefeld

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