Now that is quite a strong statement, isn’t it!? Especially coming from someone who actively avoids broad brush strokes when giving opinions, and who is generally more comfortable with grey than with black and white! I am however very happy to throw my weight behind the following statement, or my “golden goal” for therapy:
Therapy – i.e. the process of facilitating mental and emotional growth – always equals the shift from rigid thinking to more flexible thinking.
What we’re after in psychotherapy is not so much fully changed beliefs (the oft-oversimplified “exchanging bad thoughts for good thoughts” paradigm) but fostering an ability in clients to have a psychological agility and suppleness that help them navigate life’s inevitable ups and downs better.
Let’s take the “common colds of psychiatry” as brief examples: both anxiety and depression keep a person “stuck” because of the rigidity of certainly beliefs. For many anxious children, teens and adults these set ways of thinking hinge on statements like the following:
It is too hard.
I cannot do it.
I have never been able to do it, and will never be.
Something awful will happen.
Everyone is looking at me.
Everyone is judging me.
For people who struggle with depression, the rigidity of thoughts is often underpinned by statements like these:
I can’t be bothered.
It’s not worth the effort.
Nothing ever works out for me.
Everyone hates me.
I don’t want to be here.
The world is a terrible place.
There is no hope that things will get better.
Can you see how these statements are certainly not helpful for people already struggling with mood and anxiety disorders? They are strong sentences, leaving very little wriggle room for growth to happen, or confidence and happiness to increase. And, of course, the stronger the belief in something, the higher the chance that whatever happens in our days will confirm exactly what we believe! (Maybe a case of “Believing is seeing”, rather than the contrary.)
I often explain this phenomenon of attentional bias (i.e. having our selective radar up and out and ready for reception) and how what we “see” confirms what we believe with the following tool:
Yes! If you grew up in the 70s or 80s, or had anything to do with children in that era, you will certainly recognise this superb toy: the Fisher Price Fit-the-Shapes ball. (One gets this in heaps of modern variations nowadays, but this is the image that always pops into my head when I talk about this!) Now imagine that the holes in the ball represent certain strong beliefs about yourself, other people and the world. These “schemas” or “road maps” develop throughout the journey of our lives – of course childhood and the teenage years are remarkably instrumental times in shaping these beliefs, but the formation of our schemas can certainly continue into adulthood. I would often do this “map work” with my clients, writing down what their significant strong beliefs are (under the headings of what they strongly believe about themselves, other people and the world). Sometimes these can be quite positive (e.g. Life is worth living / I am a valuable person / I deserve to be treated respectfully / I am a capable human being). Often, however – especially for clients struggling with mental health issues – these road maps paint a bleaker picture (e.g. I am not good enough / I don’t deserve happiness / I am unable to have good relationships / I am and will always be extremely anxious / I will always be depressed / People are not to be trusted / I am a bad person / The world is a scary place).
Now imagine each of these strong statements being represented by a “hole shape” in the Fisher Price ball. If we see anything in our daily lives that fit in with these strong beliefs – in goes the block! Triangle blocks slip into triangle holes effortlessly, circle blocks simply glide into the circle holes, square blocks seem to simply be magnetically attracted to the square holes! Every time a block goes in, it “cements” the belief even stronger. But what happens if something occurs that is not in one of the shapes in the ball? What happens if a rectangle block tries to go in if there is no rectangle shape for it? Well, no amount of squeezing will work, so we’ll probably toss the block aside and just say it doesn’t fit, so maybe it wasn’t supposed to be in this set! We dismiss “news of difference” – we simply don’t notice very real examples of our own competence, our own lovability, our intrinsic value, kindness in other people and goodness in the world if our mental road maps tell us otherwise. I have often heard clients dismiss such contrary examples by statements like “She was only kind to me because she is kind to everyone / That was purely a stroke of luck / Someone did a good deed but only because it serves a selfish purpose”). The news of difference is simply chucked aside, or sometimes changed so that it would fit into the shape in the ball. The rectangle gets sawed and cut until it is in the shape of a square, which fits in just nicely and snugly!
My job as a therapist is not to tell my clients that their Fisher Price shape holes are wrong. My job is to help them understand the back story of these beliefs (in other words, to foster an awareness and create some sort of “handle” on their maps), and to help them to add more types of “shape holes”. Add those diamonds! Add the rectangles! Add the octagons, hexagons and all the fabulous multi-sided “-gons”! This would mean being open to other possible interpretations of what happens to us. Rather than plodding along with the normal kneejerk reaction of “They don’t like me” when someone does not wave at me in a friendly way when I drive past her, press pause and generate a plethora of explanations. (Maybe my friend did not see me / Maybe she was distracted / Maybe she was annoyed at something else / I am sure I have done the same thing at some point). Similarly, if my tummy is on a knot before a public speech, rather than tumbling down the rabbit hole of “I am so nervous therefore I cannot do it”, we create multiple angles (This is a good anxiety that will help me do my best / I only have to give it a go, it doesn’t have to be perfect / Most people feel like this before they give a talk). In short: we move from rigid thinking to flexible thinking. We grow by creating nuanced interpretations of what happens around us, rather than being stuck in repetitive, superficial, simple understandings of our world. This would hopefully lead to symptom reduction when we deal with anxiety and depression – but we aim even higher than just feeling less anxious or less depressed. We push further to open new doors to deeper, broader, and more meaningful living, growing and flourishing.
A final story to illustrate the power of schemas is the ancient fable of the wise old man sitting at the gates of a city.
A traveller from a country far away approaches the city gate and asks the old man, “Tell me, what are the inhabitants of this city like?” The old man answers with another question, “What are the inhabitants of the city you come from like?” The traveller responds with a scowl. “Oh, they are awful people! Deceitful, unkind, selfish! That is the reason I want to move to another, better city!” The old man answers, “I am so sorry, it is not worth your while to enter then, as you will find that very same type of person here”. The traveller turned away, and continued his search elsewhere.
That same day, another traveller comes to the city gate and asks the old man the same question: “Can you tell me what the people of this city are like?” Again the old man responds by asking what the inhabitants of the traveller’s previous city were like. With a smile the traveller answers, “They were good people! I was so sad to leave my city, as I had many loyal, kind and supportive friends.” The wise old man welcomed the traveller in with a smile: “Enter this city, as you will find that very same kind of person here that you found in your old home town”.
What we believe is what we will see.
Our road maps predict our paths.
Flexibility, suppleness and openness in our thinking will inevitably lead us somewhere very different from the path of rigid schemas.
This is the golden goal.
Felix & Sage Psychology