One of the primary issues faced by people on the Autism spectrum and those with Asperger syndrome, is coping with feelings of being overwhelmed. These issues often start in childhood, as early as a year old, when children who become easily overwhelmed instinctively react by trying to shield themselves from exposure to excess stimuli. Parents of children on the spectrum can easily relate to stories of children who cover their ears with their hands in response to everyday sounds they perceive as loud and stressful. As the child ages, the coping skills for shielding oneself from excess exposure to environmental stimuli becomes even more subtle but the consequences are the same.
By environmental stimuli, I mean people, places and things which produce overwhelming feelings for the person, causing the person’s desire to retreat to safety until it’s safe again. The consequences are often themed with unfinished work, projects and poorly developed relationships with others. This often leads to unwanted isolation and a lifestyle marked by underachievement.
The solution is easy to understand, challenging to implement and well worth the effort. The solution is to do nothing in response to feelings of being overwhelmed. By doing nothing, you are choosing not to be reactive to your feelings of being overwhelmed, which is to engage in a series of behaviors to prevent yourself from experiencing the emotions you need to experience. Regardless of the specifics of what you do, your being reactive will be an attempt to control, manipulate and/or change your reality to manage your feelings.
Instead, by choosing to do nothing, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to experience the range of emotions you need to feel. Your challenge is to simply accept these emotions for what they are without being reactive. By choosing not to be reactive, you are beginning the process of deactivating your fight or flight response pattern, thereby opening access to your solution focused mind. When people choose to stop responding to their feelings of overwhelm fueled by their fears and worries, they become more insight driven and solution focused.
To the outside observer, who isn’t aware of the changes taken place inside the person, they will often observe someone who is behaving more courageous in their daily affairs. In fact, the person is behaving more courageous, as they are now in the practice of looking past their fears and worries and seeing their issues for the mere inconveniences they really are instead of catastrophes.
In my practice, it is a natural reaction for a client to listen to my take on doing nothing in response to feelings of overwhelm, and then responding with an example of a catastrophe they recently experienced in their life. Often, in processing these incidents with them, it is revealed that said catastrophe began as an inconvenience, which they poorly reacted to, thereby worsening the situation.
Catastrophes do happen in life, whether as an initial incident, or as an incident made worse from an overreaction. Regardless, the most effective response to feelings of being overwhelmed, is to accept the situation for what it is, and accept your feelings for what they are. Once this is achieved, only then can you begin to take a solution focused response.
The process of doing nothing to feelings of overwhelming stress and anxiety, is something that takes quite a bit of effort for a first timer. Specifically, there are evidenced based cognitive behavioral strategies, like the ones found in this CBT workbook, “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety,” by Seth J Gillihan PhD.
A person can study and practice these strategies on their own, or with an experienced therapist.
The narratives we come to believe in our early childhood have a powerful influence over us. This is because during our early days, the part of our brains that are the most active is the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is associated with viewing the world from an emotional perspective, as opposed to the left hemisphere which is strongly associated with logic and reasoning. This is why scientists and mathematicians are generally referred to as left brained while those who specialize in the creative arts are referred to as right brained.
So if neuroscience is mostly accurate on brain functions then all children, if not most children must be right brained, emotional, creative, primal and spontaneous. This would mean that during this period of development when the right brain is most active, children interpret most of their daily experiences, especially the acquisition of beliefs and values through an emotional and primal perspective.
This means that whatever beliefs and values you inherited during your early life experiences, is something that is mostly likely non conscious, and primarily associated with your sense of identity, even if it is false.
This is where self-deceit comes in. Self-deceit happens when we run into life challenges that require us to revise our core beliefs in order to overcome said challenges. For example, take a young person who comes from a small town and all throughout his life he was heralded as a really good football player. To the extent in which members of his town began to express great expectations for him to become a professional player. The person eventually graduates high school and gains admission into a major university, where he barely makes the school team and he is eventually cut from roster. If this person already has a self-identity forged in being a star athlete, he is going to have a difficult time accepting the reality of his situation. Furthermore, the longer he holds unto this self-identity the more self-defeating decisions he is going to make in order to maintain a sense of self consistency with his false identity and delusions. This will go on until he reaches rock bottom in his life, or he is fortunate to receive an intervention from a support group.
In the above example, you can substitute star football player with a number of different identities a person may have come to embrace during his or her early life experiences. Regardless this is the root cause of all self-deceits, when challenges a person is currently experiencing, require a major revision of strongly held beliefs which is easier said than done.
While a revision and replacement of major beliefs inherited during childhood years is easier said than done, it is possible. Through cognitive behavioral therapy someone who struggles with self-deceit can relearn to accept themselves unconditionally with positive regard. This will then make it possible for them to abandon any old and unhealthy beliefs associated with their sense of identity and adopt new and healthy beliefs which reinforce unconditional self-acceptance. All of these can be accomplished through the comprehension and consistent practice of cognitive behavioral strategies which leads a rewiring in the brain.
Ugochukwu is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC
“A friend of mine was learning how to swim, when he suddenly felt he was starting to drown. He began splashing wildly about when his instructor told him to stand up. Much to my friend’s relief and embarrassment, he discovered he was okay.”
Anxiety is based on primal fear, and primal fear is based on the idea of not having enough. Not having enough of your basic needs met and perishing before you reach a ripe age, not having not enough social support and being vulnerable, and the list could go on. The point is that when we are struggling with anxiety our mindset operates on the idea of scarcity. When we think from a place of scarcity, we are fearful, we are timid, we are excessively selfish, we are desperate and hurried in our decision making. The mind of the anxious person is irrational, like the story of my friend learning how to swim and pessimistic, picture yourself at noon in the middle of any desert during the summer months with less than a quarter of warm water left in your canteen.
The anxious person does not take any risk, because he operates from a place of what he might lose as opposed to what he might gain. This leads to a self fulfilling prophesy, where like the unfortunate hiker in the middle of the desert, the anxious person is careful about not exerting too much energy, least they might end up losing the little they have left.
By now the answer may have become obvious to you, to rid anxiety visualize yourself having enough of what you need. So once my friend learned that he was in the shallow end, he exercised more courage in his swimming lessons. So in essence, his level of safety was enough. Or you can also practice imaging yourself as a hiker with enough water to last you to the next well or tap.
How the mental practice of visualizing yourself easily getting your needs met, is not enough. This is because people who struggle with anxiety, have experienced anxiety for most of their lives. This means that for most of their lives, their brains have become wired to think in regards to scarcity. So they have become habituated to thinking in regards to timidity, desperation and primitive survival instincts. The good news is that our brains are malleable, meaning that it is never too late to learn new ways of thinking and doing.
There are cognitive behavioral strategies you can learn and implement which would make your practice of visual exercises fruitful. Here’s one, start small. Visualize yourself engaging in a small challenge, which you have passively dreaded due, to your perception of the risk to reward ratio, or your lack of confidence in yourself. Create a plan to follow through with this small challenge in which you create a narrative which consists of the best possible scenario and outcome for this challenge. Then when you are done engage in the challenge.
The mere process of your creating a plan for the challenge, rewires your brain to how you see the situation and increases your motivation to make you overcoming this challenge a reality. It is not uncommon for people to experience some emotional difficulty when practicing this exercise. These are usually due to past traumas. If you are experience difficulty completing this exercise due to difficult feelings you can’t get past, a therapist can help you process these difficult feelings and get you back on track.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a professional life coach.
Happiness does not exist, this is because happiness is illusive. What we describe as a happiness is really joy on a daily basis. Such a feat is not possible, specifically we can experience joy but not on a consistent basis. Further evidence of this is documented in neuroscience where the fleeting neurotransmitter associated with happiness is dopamine. Dopamine is naturally released in our system when we accomplish a goal or are rewarded. This is why some people will abuse and get addicted to drugs like cocaine, because cocaine artificially stimulates the release of dopamine and subsequently blocks the re uptake of dopamine, leaving dopamine in the synaptic gap longer. The closest we can come to experiencing the myth of happiness is being at a state of peace and content.
The key to this lies in restriction. It lies in wanting less. The more we seek, the more chaos we bring into our lives. This is because change is a constant due to variables constantly being in flux. The more of anything we seek the more variables we have to keep up with and the more chaotic our lives become.
So if you are going through a period of chaos in your life, practice seeking less of what it is that you want. So if you are dealing with constant conflict with a particular person and all you want is peace with that person, you should accept where you’re in your relationship with that person and engage accordingly. If you are seeking more money in your life, you should do less and increase the quality of the less you do. If you are looking for love, look less and simply focus of being the best person you can be.
This is a counter intuitive approach, that contradicts the idea of doing more which most of us where raised to believe. The reason doing less is more effective than doing more is because peace and content comes from within ourselves. When we engage with people and other things we initially project the peace inside of ourselves unto the people and things we engage with, which is then returned to us. However, when we do more, the quality of our engagement decreases due to our inability to keep up with the changing variables from doing plenty and what gets returned to us is a constant state of chaos, which then becomes the state of our reality.
So how does one transition from hyper engagement with the world around them to reduced but quality engagement? Focus on what you are best at doing, or focus on what you do better than others. For example, in your relationship with others, focus on fostering a relationship with those you have a better relationship with. (An exception would be if you have children.) If you are looking to bring in more income into your life, focus on what you already do, specifically on increasing the value of your work. By focusing on areas you already excel at, you eliminate engagement with people and things that introduce needless chaos in your life. Further, with the people and things you are more adept at dealing with, the chaos presented becomes more manageable, due to your expertise in keeping up with the changing variables presented by those people and things.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach
Driving to my office this morning, I listened to some broadcast information, I found disturbing. A happiness guru was giving giving advice on how to be happy.
He started out with an example of a retail worker, who was not happy with her job, and went to detail how she could immediately begin experiencing happiness, simply by changing her perceptions. Listening further, he appeared to state that she would be able to experience happiness by practicing a number of cognitive exercises simply geared towards looking at her situation in a different light. The problem I had with his message was that the change in perceptions where not tied to any follow through actions.
That line of thinking is based on the old glass half full or half empty analogy. That is to say, that you can either see a half glass of water as either half full or half empty. The issue I have with messages like these is that they are based on half truths. It is true that your thoughts influence your level of happiness, however if you find yourself experiencing unhappiness, who is to say that your thoughts are wrong? Take again the glass half empty or half full analogy, in reality a glass of water at any level is either on it’s way to being emptied or filled. It all depends on what decisions you intend on following through on. Are you going to empty the glass or refill it? Perhaps both.
Let’s explore a concrete example using the story of the retail worker who is unhappy with her job. What if she does not earn enough wages to get her basic needs met? Yet she believes that there are no immediate opportunities she can pursue where she is generating sufficient income. Telling someone in this situation to think happy thoughts is deceitful and insulting. It reminds me of a high school English teacher I was working with, who stated, “thank God I don’t live in India”. As she said this, I couldn’t help but notice the gaping hole in her right worn tennis shoe. I am not one to be materialistic, but I decided that based on her statement, her daily appearance was not one of self imposed frugality but one of impoverishment. Further, her comparison of her current situation at the time, to her perception of life in India, was meant to generate feelings of happiness about her situation. Which amounted to nothing but a false positive.
Back to our fictional retailer, if I knew someone in that situation, I would immediately share with that person that her unhappiness made sense. Further I would share with her that her feelings of unhappiness was her brains’ way of informing her that her current line of employment isn’t working out. If so, what is a retailer to do? I would introduce the retailer to cognitive exercises meant for her to brainstorm realistic alternatives for generating income. From my experience, such a process usually leads the person to come face to face with her fears generated by unhealthy beliefs she developed during her early life experiences.
At this point the goal would be in assisting the retailer to discard her old unhealthy beliefs and adopt new beliefs that steer her in the direction of practicing the courage to pursue her passions. So it is just not enough to think happy thoughts, instead happy thoughts are generated by decisions we make and intend to follow through on in either pursuing meaningful change in our lives or continue practicing habits to maintain a meaningful and fulfilling life style we are already living.
In my opinion, the key to happiness is the practice of courage. I will write more on this on the next post.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.
“Deception may give us what we want for the present, but it will always take it away in the end.” -Rachel Hawthone
A morbidly obese client who was working on getting back to a healthier weight, informed me that she only just noticed her obesity a month prior to booking an appointment with me. According to her, while she readily admits that she has always had a weight issue, she informed me that she had no idea that her weight had gotten this out of control.
A teacher who recently received feedback from two of his students. In the feedback, they informed him that his lessons where disorganized, and that he was inconsistent in his punctuality in getting their assignments back to them. This teacher would share with me, how this feedback caught him off guard, especially when other students shared with him that this feedback was accurate. The teacher was caught off guard because he had also prided himself with having very organized lesson plans.
To varying degrees people suffer from the illusion of living their lives as who they believe themselves to be, as opposed who they really are. The primary culprit for this cognitive distortion is our strong desire to feel good about ourselves. Desires to see ourselves in a positive light can subconsciously pull us away from any process of taking accountability. Systems we are aware off which we can use to maintain accountability, such as a weight scales, feedback sheets, daily documentation, etc. can create feelings of negativity in us, which can easily be internalized. People who were raised with the belief system where their self worth was directly correlated with their behavior, are most likely to avoid systems of accountability. If you believe negative or critical feedback means that you are a bad person and you don’t want to feel like a bad person, then why bother? Especially when you could always construct a narrative which you feel good about.
When left unchecked the results of self delusion can be disappointing to devastating, as evidenced from the first two examples above. From the morbidly obese woman, who found herself literally fighting for her life, when she came to a place of acceptance regarding what her health was really like, to the teacher who spent years in a profession stuck on being mediocre. So how does a person protect themselves from becoming self deluded?
The first step is to practice accepting yourself unconditionally. Acceptance of self, is to accept unconditionally, the part of you that is aware or conscious, that is to accept your humanity. You accept your humanity simply because you exist. Your acceptance of your humanity has to be unattached to actions, subsequent accomplishments or failures you experience, you simply accept yourself because you exist.
Acceptance of yourself allows to you to experience negative feelings and not personalize these feelings, instead you come to see feelings are messages. For example, in general positive feelings indicate that there is congruency between what you believe and what you are experiencing and negative feelings indicate that there is a lack of congruency between what you believe and what you are experiencing. Furthermore in other to protect yourself from coming to believing in feelings that communicate false positives and false negatives, you employ systems of accountability, so that you get into the habit of collecting evidence to verify or refute your feelings.
Our ability to deal with negative feelings comes from accepting ourselves unconditionally.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.
“Feelings make great servants but terrible masters.”
Imagine you have in your head a map of your local town or city, now imagine if you were to quickly sketch this map unto paper, how accurate would that map be?
Most people I have posed this question to, have responded that the map would be mostly inaccurate. This is because they indistinctly know that it is human nature to make errors, based on ideas and beliefs that have not been fact checked.
Human beings live in two differently worlds, simultaneously. The first world would be the world in our heads, or to put more specifically, the idea of the world as it is, in our heads. This world consist of fact checked information and made up information we have put in place, to make sense of missing information between pieces of information that have been fact checked. The second world consists of the world as it really is – the world outside of our heads.
The bridge between the world in our heads and the world outside of our heads, are our feelings. Our feelings are triggered to varying degrees, from the things we touch, see, hear, smell and interpret through our thoughts. Our feelings serve to inform us whether the world in our heads is congruent with the world outside of our heads. When our feelings are positive, they serve to indicate congruency between both worlds. When our feelings are uncomfortable or negative, they serve to inform us that the world inside our heads is not congruent with the world outside of our heads.
So in the event you experience a negative feeling, it is an opportunity for you to explore your thought processes, with the goal of understanding your core beliefs and making changes in your beliefs to match new information you have learned about the world as it really is.
For example, let’s say you consider yourself to be a very good chess player. You consider yourself so good, that you believe that you are capable of competing in tournaments and winning. You firmly believe this to be true about yourself until your first experience at a tournament, which does not go your way. Upon facing this contradiction, you will most likely experience feelings of being upset and disappointed. In response to these negative emotions, you will be tempted to dwell on them and perhaps become reactive. However the appropriate response will be to explore your thoughts and ask yourself why you have become so upset in response to your poor performance at the tournament. You will then conclude that you have overestimated your skill level in the game, at which time you will begin to feel accepting and peaceful regarding the new adjustments you have made to your beliefs regarding your skill level as a chess player. Further, with these new adjustments made to your beliefs, you will probably become more focused on what improvements you need to make regarding your chess skills.
Our feelings are not to be served or catered to. This statement is not to be confused as a blatant disregard for the humanity of others, but a statement that addresses the irrationality on placing emphasis on our feelings of hurt and pain, without further exploration into what triggered these feelings and what messages these feelings are delivering to us.
Consider this, you experience a conflict with another person and then you inform that person that he or she does not care about your feelings. In reality what your really trying to say is that he or she does not care about you, this is because they can’t care about your feelings, your feelings emit from your head and they can’t be seen. Sure they can be expressed through body language and facial expressions, but ultimately those feelings were created by your thoughts and your core beliefs in response your experience.
This may seem semantic, or like splitting hairs, but this is an issue we respond to on a subconscious level. This means that we are unaware when we carter to our feelings instead of accepting our feelings as they are. When we carter to our feelings, we lose track of the message being conveyed, which leads to a further detachment from the reality outside our heads. Which ultimately leads to a chaotic lifestyle, after all, you can’t solve problems with lies.
There are no happy ever afters, they simply don’t exist. This of course is an analogy for when we embark on the completion of a goal, of sorts we decide that we are going to put up with a variety of obstacles so that at the end of the day we will find ourselves in this obstacle/problem free reality, where we shall reside with our loved ones in forever bliss.
Versions of this logical fallacy can be found in religious doctrines, children’s story books and Hollywood block buster movies. A person goes through a struggle, accomplishes a certain goal and seemingly never suffers or struggles again. Except of course if it’s the sequel to block buster movie. In real life people make decisions with this paradigm of thinking and experience disappointing results.
For example, an overweight person gets on a diet, loses the necessary weight, then ends the diet. He or she is then sorely disappointed when in a year later or sometimes less, the weight returns. In truth the diet should have been forever, a lifestyle change for the good, at least until you make an even better lifestyle change.
So in relation to the analogy, the diet is the journey and upon accomplishment of the goal (losing x amount of weight) a new journey begins which will be to maintain the new weight. To end the diet program, means a likely regression into the old diet that never worked out for the person in the first place.
Another example would be some of the clients I work with, be it for anger management, or treatment for anxiety or depression, often the first phase of treatment involves a client holding his breath as he practices the cognitive behavioral strategies towards improvement on his issues. This usually doesn’t work, as he never learns to feel comfortable tackling his issues and any improvements made is quickly negated by disappointment because improvements usually lead to more challenges that need to be tackled. The second phase of treatment involves getting the client to recognize that challenges are a normal part of life, and getting into the habit of finding happiness even during the process of change.
If you a are looking to change your life, you should do so with the belief that whatever journey you embark upon is going to transition into a new journey upon accomplishment of your stated goal. There will always be problems to solve, So this means that it is unwise to put all of your happiness into the accomplishment of any goal. The challenge is to find your place of content in the process of anything you are going to accomplish any goal, with the goal itself being the equivalent to icing on the cake.
Why are disappointments so difficult to bear for some people? One reason could be because some people place all their stock for being happy in one basket. Specifically in regards to setting goals and expectations for the future. I often see this with people who struggle with mild depression, and procrastination. If you ask them what they want to accomplish, they are quick to inform you about their dreams, but some where along the way they lost motivation once the going got tough. When this phenomenon occurs it is because there seems to be an expectation that happiness can only be achieved once certain desires, goals and expectations are met. For clarification, my definition of happiness in this post refers to feelings of prolonged content and acceptance , versus joy which is shorter lived.
Where does happiness begin and where does it end? If you read or listen between the lines, sometimes when people are discussing something they want to accomplish, it appears that their beliefs about happiness stem from hidden statements such as, “I can only be happy if..” or “I can only be happy when..”
Ambitions, desires, goals and accomplishments are all part of the wonderful attributes of the human experience, specifically they bring a sense of meaning and purposefulness to the experience of life. However, what happens when your narrative changes? What happens when a goal you set out to achieve with all your heart is not realized due to circumstances beyond your control?
Postponing your happiness today based your hopes and dreams for tomorrow is a recipe for a case for acute and prolonged depression. I have worked with people who were so caught off guard by a sudden and unexpected change in their fortunate situation that they spent more years depressed compared to the years when they were thriving. What If you could begin experiencing happiness today, inspite of what your current circumstances are? What would that look like?
From my perspective what happiness today would look like would be living your life from a place of gratitude. Recognizing what you have going on for you and seeing any challenge in your life as an adventure and an exciting part of your journey. So even if you are confronted with disappointment from not having realized a goal, it would be easier for you to grieve and transition with your experiences into your pursuit of another goal.
So instead of the hidden statements such as, “I can only be happy if…” or “I can only be happy when…” replace them with “I can experience happiness regardless of my circumstances.” This type of thinking leads you towards regarding your goals and ambitions with a different attitude. An attitude that leads you towards focusing on the process, rather than the outcome.
So when the going gets tough, you can always draw energy from your feelings of consent and happiness, because you understand that challenges are a natural and occurring phenomenon in our lives.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.