Friday, September 24, 2010

What are you seeking?

Whenever I'm having a slow day at work I try to spend the time reading about things I can use to enhance my skills as a therapist.  Last week I attended a training on the spiritual and existential impact of trauma.  The speaker mentioned Victor Frankl (among other people) and his contributions to existential psychology.  I'd previously read some of Frankl's work and was interested in his ideas.  I found myself with a bit of free time the other day when a patient cancelled at the last minute and decided to do a little delving into Frankl's teachings.

I stumbled upon an e-book published by the Maritime Institute of Logotherapy ( in Nova Scotia entitled "Life with Meaning."  I thought I'd share one of the ideas that really stood out for me.  Here goes...

How many people do you suppose spend their lives in the pursuit of happiness?  As an American, I need only to look at my country's Declaration of Independence to be assured of my inaleinable right to seek or create happiness for myself.  The human desire to be happy is certainly understandable but, according to Frankl, it is misguided.  Happiness, Frankl asserts, is not a goal that can be achieved; those who perceive it as such are likely to be disappointed, again and again.

I think many of us can relate to this.  We believe that graduating from college, getting a good job, making a lot of money, getting married, travelling the world, etc. will make us happy.  At the moment we attain what we have desired we do, in fact, feel "happy."  But the feeling is short-lived; once the novelty wears off we realize that nothing has changed.  Perhaps we identify something else that we believe will make us happy and go after it.  This will ultimately lead to more disappointment.  Still, many of us will perpetuate this cycle -- pursuing goal after goal in the hopes that, once attained, they will bring us happiness -- indefinitely.  It is, after all, our inaleinable right to do so.

Frankl, however, asserts a truth that is profound in its simplicity:

"...Happiness can not be directly attained, it can not be pursued.  Rather, it must ensue as the consequence of having experienced, or accomplished something meaningful, or having met one's fate with a courageous attitude" ("Life with Meaning," pg. 23). 

In other words, happiness is a natural byproduct of living a meaningful life.  Instead of searching for happiness, our time would be better spent doing things that we find meaningful, for this is what brings true, lasting happiness in life. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

How do you help someone who doesn't believe he/she deserves self-compassion?

I wrote recently about self-compassion, which is also sometimes referred to as self empathy.  Someone asked me what techniques a person might use to help someone develop self compassion when that person is particularly sutck in his negative way of thinking or when she truly believes that she does not deserve to be treated kindly.  I've given some thought to this and wanted to share my ideas.

Most depressed people enter therapy because they want to feel better.  Thus, they would likely agree that "treating myself kindly" and "believing that I am worthwhile" are valid treatment goals.  Trying to convince the person that she deserves to be treated kindly is probably futile.  If he were that easily convinced he wouldn't need therapy.  So how do you convince this person to start being kind to herself when she doesn't believe that she deserves it?

One way is a cognitive behavioral technique called "acting as-if."  You explain to the person that it's not particularly important whether or not he believes he deserves to be treated kindly.  (To really drive this point home ask if he's ever been polite to someone he really didn't like.  Most people have.  Point out that he didn't believe that the person in question deserved kind treatment and yet he managed to be polite to him anyway.  The way you treat someone - including yourself - does not necessarily depend upon how you feel about that person).  You explain to the person that in order to reach the goal of "believing I am worthwhile" she has to start by pretending she already believes it.  You work with her to identify specific ways a person with a strong sense of self-worth might behave (to include self talk).  You ask the person to practice doing these things.  You can frame it as an experiment -- try it and see what happens.  It certaintly can't hurt anything.  What the person will likely discover is that simply by being kind to herself she feels better and starts to believe in herself more.

The other possibility depends upon use of the therapeutic relationship.  If a therapist has a strong rapport with a client the therapist can use this to help the client make progress.  Because the client trusts the therapist he might be willing to try a particular therapeutic technique simply because the therapist expresses a strong belief that it will be helpful.  Essentially, you ask the client to borrow your hope or your belief, to take a "leap of faith" and try something you believe will be helpful, even if he doesn't believe it himself.

No one technique works for everyone but it never hurts to try.  It is also important as a therapist to keep in mind that, despite your best efforts, no one can help everyone.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Personal Congruence

Congruence refers to "a state of agreeing."  It denotes harmony and alludes to balance and equilibrium.  A lack of congruence creates discord, tension, and oppostion.

Personal congruence refers to a state in which a person's values and beliefs are consistent with the way he or she lives his or her life.  A person achieves personal congruence when what goes on in his internal world is consistent with what he says and does in his external one.  Dieter Pauwels (  explains that, "On a deeper level, personal congruency exists when your true desires (intention), your thoughts (attention), feelings, and actions are aligned with your core values."

Why does this matter?  The reason is inherent in the definition of the term congruence.  Personal congruence leads to internal harmony.  It enables a person to be at peace with himself and therefore to experience true joy in life.  Without it, a person is left feeling conflicted, confused, and unfulfilled.

How do you cultivate personal congruence?  There are a number of ways to do so and I won't attempt to create an exhaustive list.  It seems to me, though, that if you want the way you live to be congruent with your values and beliefs then the logical first step would be to identify what you value most in life.  After all, you cannot live in accordance with your values if you are not sure what those values are.

So go ahead -- make a list of your top ten values.  Then narrow it down to your top five.  For those who need it, here is a list of common values to get you thinking:

Family relationships; friendships; career; money; education; fun/leisure time; spirituality/religion; community interaction; politics; physical health; change/variety/excitement; creativity; helping others; intellectual stimulation/knowledge; independence; belonging; public recognition; etc.

Once you've identified your top five values think about what you do on a regular basis that exemplifies each one.  For example, if you value physical health you might write, "I exercise four days per week."  If you value family you might put, "I call Mom three times a week" or "I visit my sister weekly."

When and/or if you come to a value for which you are unable to identify an accompanying action that exemplifies it you have identified an area in your life that needs work.  Identify one thing you can do (preferably on a regular basis) to exemplify this value and develop a plan for doing it.  Start small if you need to -- maybe exercise once or twice a week to start, for example -- and then work your way to where you want to be.

I hope this is helpful...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Self Compassion

In working with unhappy people I've noticed something that many of them have in common - they almost universally treat themselves unkindly.  When they make a mistake they berate themselves severely and attribute their error to the fact that, as people, they are utter failures.  They "encourage" themselves to work harder by constantly reminding themselves that they are not good enough.  They blame themselves when something goes wrong, even when there is no possible way they could have caused it.  Given their incessant self abuse the fact that they are unhappy is really no surprise.

What does surprise me -- again and again, no matter how many times I see it -- is how attached to this way of thinking some people are.  With most people, I need only to point out that the way they treat themselves is a significant part of the problem and that it has to change if they ever want to be happy.  The desire to move beyond the cloud of depression and self doubt is usually enough to motivate people to begin to make changes.

Then there are those I encounter less frequently, who cling rigidly to their ways of thinking even after it becomes clear that they are hurting themselves.  This stubborn attachment speaks to how deeply entrenched their depression has become.  It is not enough to teach them how to treat themselves better because they do not believe they deserve better treatment.  I have to be more creative, to work harder, to think differently if I have any hope of helping them learn to be happy...

My intention when I began writing was to stress the importance of self-compassion.  For those who easily make the shift from treating themselves unkindly to practicing self compassion as well as for those who need to be convinced that they are worthy of such treatment -- learning to be compassionate towards oneself facilitates self love.  When we love ourselves we are able to love others more fully and without expectations that they will fulfill for us our unmet emotional needs.  When we love ourselves we are able to love others as they are and for who they are.  We don't need them to change to accommodate us.  When we love ourselves we can love others unconditionally, without needing anything from them in return.

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