“I fear everything!” my client expressed with exasperation. I knew this wasn’t true—she was a hard-working, willing-to-do-whatever-it-takes client. She had just wrapped up an excited description of how she had given up wine. No more. Done. Finito.
If she were writing this, she’d have scripted those words in all caps with fifteen exclamation points. Deciding to stop drinking wine was a big step for her—undoubtedly one that she never would have predicted she’d take. Recognizing its negative pull in her life, however, she realized it was time to move away from wishing and hoping she’d have more control while drinking, and exerted it while she wasn’t. She went on to describe how it wasn’t exactly easy. I pointed out how she had adeptly and consciously assessed her situation and acknowledged perhaps what she hadn’t wanted to admit for a while. She agreed, but then she followed it up with a big, “Yeah, but...”
She let me know that leaving alcohol behind caused her to fear that she couldn’t be fun without it.
“Are you fun without it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’m worried especially that my husband will think I’m not.”
I inquired as to whether she had asked him what he thought she was like without it. Her answer came a few seconds later (a long time to listen to dead air over the phone lines), and she said, “Um, no. I’m scared of what he’ll say.”
“Yeah,” I said. “What if you’re really just a complete dud who can’t interact when you don’t have alcohol in your system!” At least I got a chuckle out of her. She followed up with, “But what if you’re right?”
With her success in business alone, I had ample evidence of her skill in interpersonal communication. No alcohol necessary. Her fears ran deep, though, and they consistently came back to how she thought other people might perceive her. She was perpetually pessimistic, found herself getting angry easily, and would always have a snarky comment to make, no matter the situation. Fortunately, she recognized it and her pattern of thinking in black and white. She described herself to me as an always or never thinker. She was either super “on” or really “off.” How were we going to get her to migrate into the gray?
Throughout our interactions, her answers were lithe and squirrely at the same time. I pointed out how they seemed to spew forth with such precise automaticity that it was like she barely thought before she formed her words. She took this personally, but then caught herself. After all, she had contacted me for help and knew this was exactly what she needed—to be called forward and into a safe position in which she could begin exploring what she’d been avoiding for so long. She acted impulsively, got caught up in her emotions, had few self-regulation skills, could not focus well, was fearful and anxious often, and was easily distracted.
My goal initially was to support her with the practice of observing her thoughts. I have a question on my client intake form requiring a yes or no answer. It reads: I think about my thoughts. The majority of individuals either answer “no” immediately or send me a quizzical message expressing their confusion.
This isn’t necessarily surprising. Most of us act on intuition or emotion. We feel a certain way or interpret a meaning about a situation or circumstance, and we behave accordingly. Often this means we’re making assumptions, looking too far ahead of ourselves, or making associations from past experiences that are often negative and impacted us significantly. Makes sense.
The alternative to this type of behavior would be more present-focused, centered thinking in which we can meet the situation with calm strength, acknowledge how our personal biases may be playing a role in our responses, and identify how specific thought errors may be guiding our decisions. Put simply, we learn to talk to ourselves calmly, curiously, and compassionately, and engage in an inner dialogue so we can better understand our needs and motives and respond in a more skillful, value-oriented way. With practice, my client would become more positive, confident, self-assured, focused, and courageous.
Learning to respond from your highest Self is a critical skill. Imagine having the capacity to access the part of you that is unwounded, open, and not acting from a protective, fear-based place. Whether you’re an athlete, a performer, an entrepreneur, a parent, or asking for a raise, developing the ability to manage anxiety and emotions, foster a different relationship with your thoughts, and act despite the fear you may experience, allows you to gain a sense of control and mastery in any situation. Research shows that generally “optimistic belief systems and constructive practices results in improvements in physical and mental health by creating beneficial imagery, thought, and behavior” (Freeman, 2009).
Optimists are also healthier, happier, and more successful and productive as compared to pessimists. The glass-half-full types see more easily the strengths in each situation, recover more quickly from setbacks, and can detach emotionally when adverse situations occur. So how do you get there?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that skill development takes deliberate attention. If you’re reading this you’re likely involved in some sort of self-development endeavor, focused either physically, mentally, spiritually, relationally, or the like! You are aware of the rigors of moving beyond particular limits to pursue an intention, and you’ve discovered that managing the physical, emotional, or mental fatigue of commitment to that intention requires consistency and consciousness. You’ve heard of athletes “falling apart under pressure.” Rather than believing that you must become invincible (this would be right in line with my client’s extreme thinking) or invulnerable to threats, whether environmental or perceived, your objective needs to be on awareness of your circumstances.
Unless I focused with my client on first recognizing her thoughts that would often lead to her fear, we’d be treading water. She was conditioned to feed the negative thoughts and did this automatically now. Step one was to have her identify her beliefs in relation to certain events. Her signal to do so would be her feeling of discomfort. Often for her it was the fear she described.
In the 1950’s, psychotherapist Albert Ellis introduced a new approach to treating individuals who presented with self-defeating behaviors that would often lead to emotional pain. I’m thinking of another client who just contacted me today with the words, “I feel like throwing in the towel. I know exactly how this feels and have been in this place many times.
The key to Ellis’ approach was to begin uncovering and illuminating the irrational and rigid beliefs that preceded it. His approach, what he later called Rational-Emotive Therapy, was the first in a string of cognitive-behavioral therapies designed to address psychological control and coping.
In my experience as a competitor and having worked with competitive athletes, I would classify thoughts of giving up as “normal.” Training is arduous, the bar is set high, performance standards are rigorous, and the mental and physical effort exerted often border on what some might categorize as obsessive. What comes after the thought, however, is the defining factor in the longevity of an athlete’s career, from moment to moment, training session to training session, and event to event.
Sports psychologists talk about how at every level of sport a feeling of anxiety or “nerves” is experienced, whether in anticipation of the opposition, fear of handling uncertainty effectively, or being distracted when concentration really counts. We can expect such conditions. “I feel like throwing in the towel” could lead to a slow decline into boredom, moroseness, and discouragement, or it could be used as a signal to re-engage, refine the focus, and pay attention to what matters most in the athlete’s performance. In other words, it can be the indicator light, like that on our vehicle’s dashboard, to review, reflect, and act in a different way, be it with a different energy, intention, or value. What often becomes a barrier in this scenario, however, is the assumption of permanency.
Ellis’ Rational Emotive technique was later adapted by Dr. Martin Seligman, best known for his work in the Positive Psychology movement. Dr. Seligman described permanency as an explanatory style embodying the assumption of stability. In other words, imagine that my client injures her shoulder while training. She might think, “The season is ruined.” Her pessimistic explanatory style—the way she explains adversity to herself—comes out in full force, influencing her mindset, focus, and disposition. She has already predetermined that she no longer has a chance at recovering quickly and re-engaging her sport. The optimist, on the other hand, would approach the situation with a unique tone. After the initial shock, the optimistic athlete might think, “This isn’t how I wanted the workout to go. I better get it checked out.” Notice the difference in approach? It’s never that with an optimistic approach you won’t experience disappointment, discouragement, or discomfort! It’s that you can acknowledge it but not get caught up in it.
Not only does my client forecast the future, she makes a universal statement. It’s not just the workout itself that was cut short from the injury; her belief is that the entire season has been compromised. The optimist on the other hand has stayed in the present moment and is focused on the now. This concentration on the present demonstrates what Seligman coined the pervasiveness dimension of one’s explanatory style, also known as catastrophizing or magnification. You can liken it to the old saying, “making a mountain out of a molehill.” The situation is imagined in its worst possible light and distorted outside of objective reality. Notice how the optimist can acknowledge how the event was not ideal but doesn’t allow the setback to bleed past what it is.
The optimistic and mentally tough individual will bounce forward and recover from adversity quicker as well. Skill in releasing the tension and harsh critique that often accompanies mistakes and using them to identify where improvements might be made is referred to in sport psychology as reboundability and is important for minimizing continued performance decrements following a less than ideal event. The interviewee who thinks “I can’t believe how horrible that went. I made a fool of myself. I’m such an idiot. Why would anyone want to hire me?” is exhibiting quite the opposite. Not only are they demonstrating the permanency effect and the pervasiveness effect, but they have also revealed the third dimension of explanatory styles, personalization. Scientists calls this the “what the hell” effect, and it applies to anyone who internalizes blame for adversity. One athlete may think “I don’t know why I ever thought I could be a runner” and another may think, “Man, I still have a lot to learn about proper running form!”
You can see how one individual accepts fault where fault may not be due. The interviewee may have shared something in a less than articulate way when the intention was to express themselves with poise and concise language. However, the belief that they are an idiot discounts the positive actions they’ve taken that landed them the interview in the first place. This is also known as emotional reasoning—feeling of disappointment and shame form the foundation of decision-making rather than the facts and available evidence.
As you can see, this pattern of thinking and behavior can lead to less-than-optimal consequences. For the athlete, it can mean choking when high-level performance is imperative. For the interviewee, it can mean one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake during interviews—I need a job, but I’m not fit for you to hire! The good news is that no matter the situation, it’s modifiable with practice.
Seligman created a technique called the ABC approach to aid individuals in overcoming the constructs of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization and avoid the negative consequences which often follow. Borrowed from Ellis’ original approach, ABC stands for Adversity, Beliefs, and Consequences. Adversity is the activating event, beliefs are the thoughts we have about the event, and consequences are our actions and outcomes because of the beliefs. Remember that it is between A and B where the ‘choice point’ resides—the space in which the individual has an opportunity to respond in a way that shapes the consequences positively. One of my favorite quotes illustrates this concept brilliantly. Victor Frankl shared, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
My client began using this technique by tracking her inner dialogue. Especially after situations that led to discomfort and fear, she would intentionally stop to assess what the activating event was, identify the beliefs she formed after the event, and then pinpoint the consequences of her belief. At the start, monitoring her beliefs was the most difficult piece of the exercise. She would imagine her brain as a movie marquee and ask herself what she saw scrolling across. Though she knew she was negative, her negativity was automatic, so having her pay attention to it brought it front and center—she was disgusted with what she had become and determined to catch her thoughts faster and faster so she could change them.
She began noticing patterns in her thinking. Though many different situations came up, the beliefs she identified were fairly broad. For example, at dinner one night with friends, she watched her girlfriend casually sip on a glass of wine. Her eyes meandered to the form-fitting, fashionable shirt and tight but tasteful jeans ending in cute, tiny heels you would see on a runway model. She said to me, “I was thinking, ‘She has it so together. Not a care in the world. She doesn’t have a single worry, all beautiful and perfect.’” At that point, she described how she felt despondent, rejected, and disconnected from the group. Have you ever experienced something similar?
Overriding the pessimism and negative thinking became her next mission. With the understanding that her thoughts were often not based in reality, she took her exercise a step further and for each ABC sequence, she added a D. Disputing the thought became progressively simpler as she generated alternatives and “got real” with herself. Her mistakes, judgments, and biases became increasingly more obvious, and she would often catch herself mid-sentence when she’d start to impulsively comment negatively. The dinner party incident, when reviewed, made her smile. “I know that her life isn’t perfect,” she explained. “And I understand that each of us has our own challenges. When I’m in situations like that and start to feel less than confident, I remind myself that I’m not the only one who struggles.”
Giving up wine was only the tip of the iceberg for my client. She steadily gave up her negativity, replacing it with optimism, gratefulness, and a growth-minded approach. She continued to experience adversity, but she was able to perceive it differently, with a fresher, less tangly manner. Her extremes in thinking, like a dimmer switch, moved more to the middle. She started taking more risks and jumping at opportunities to try new things, and when she experienced a setback, she’d play her response forward, asking “What will the consequences be if I act on that thought?” Each mistake became a way of learning about herself. She discovered that through her optimism, she changed what she believed about herself, leading to more positive events and interactions. Before she finally did take the leap to ask her husband if he thought she was a bump on a log without wine she said to me, “I’ll ask, but I’m optimistic that he’ll say I’m the funnest woman on the planet.” 😉
If you feel yanked around by your thoughts and emotions and long to feel more stable, grounded, and rooted, reach out. We all develop certain ways of coping in an effort to get our needs met and we're trying our best with the skills we have! The greatest changes I have made in my own life, and the changes that my clients have made have started with developing new perspectives, acquiring education, and practicing awareness with a trusted support person. The greatest thing about the ABC Method, is you come to understand that you don't need to change your situation to become healthier and happier. You also learn the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors!
Sometimes we can't learn to be different because we don't have a safe, nonjudgmental space to do so. If you'd like to discuss your desires to live more authentically and what's holding you back, let's chat! Email me at email@example.com.