Therapeutic Change: It’s not in the doing. It’s in the being.

Therapeutic Change: It’s not in the doing. It’s in the being.

I am constantly asked by patients, and now by readers, “Ok. But now what?” The insinuation being, “yes I’ve enjoyed the insight, but what can I do?” As a species we do not embrace idle time, maybe because it really is the devil’s play thing. Most of us are uncomfortable with just being in the process; we like to make sure we have a modicum of influence on how the process unfolds, how fast it goes, and what destination we end up at.

This kind of goal directed focus is not a bad thing per se’. In fact, it is part of why we rose above instinct and utilized the substantial brain functioning we have available to us as humans. One of the underlying principles of the work I do is to create a space where an emphasis on the process can unfold in ways that “ordinary” life does not always allow for. Usually when a patient asks me some version of the aforementioned question, I reply, “It’s not in the doing. It’s in the being.” Most of what occurs in the therapeutic relationship is a result of the being, not the doing. That being said, this blog is my best attempt to outline some of the strategies I encourage my patients to “do” to help increase their tolerance for the process of “being.” 

Observe Your Mind.

The development of the capacity to observe how our mind and brain works from a space of true observation is a skill that lends tremendous insight in the process of change and growth. Psychologists call the ability to achieve this state of mind the “observing ego.” In this state we have no horse in the race, so to speak. We just observe our thoughts, feelings and experiences from a place that is conflict-free.

In the beginning, I suggest my patients say things to themselves like “oh there I am doing “that” thing that I do” and then shepherd the mind away from fixating on even that process. Just simply move on. This helps people to begin the process of interrupting the never-ending internal dialogue that most of us have, as we critique our thoughts and feelings on a spectrum of good or bad, right or wrong, comfortable or uncomfortable. But mostly the emphasis is on observation. Just being present in watching how your mind and brain operate.

The great part about starting with this observational mind technique is that you can “do it” anywhere because it is only happening in the quiet (or not so quiet) of your mind. This is different than mindfulness or meditation, which requires a different type of commitment. We will discuss later about the formal practice of mindfulness. This observational practice involves observing your thoughts, feelings and sensations as they are happening while you go about your daily life. Observational practice is what I ask my patients to start from the very first session. We just carve out space to observe how your mind works and experience your feelings and thoughts without any conflict, judgment(s) or any other critique that serves merely as a hindrance at this point in your journey.

Our mind, the way it metabolizes information, fuels our feelings, and organizes our thoughts is the ground upon which progress, change, and evolution occur. The power to develop a strong capacity to observe your mind, without enabling it (I feel anxious, therefore I will avoid that feeling or stimuli), or masochistically abusing yourself (I am such an idiot. What is wrong with me!), or any version of self-dialogue that centers on harsh critiquing is the central groundwork to quieting our central nervous system. For many of us, prior to the development of this ability our reactions to our experiences are hardwired and lack any true sense of free will, as we simply play out patterns of the past in an unconscious and unobserved manner. (Please refer to my last blog post about how the unconscious rules the roost 

Neutralize Intensity.

Remind yourself frequently that all you are experiencing are feelings. Some of them will be intense. Some will be mild. Feelings have a beginning, middle, and an end. Nothing lasts forever and nor will your internal state of discomfort. Likewise, the good feelings will fluctuate and crest and then recede and crest again. Our interior architecture requires dexterity and sway in order to thrive, just as trees and buildings do. The structures that really stand the test of time are able to bend and sway with the ever-changing demands of its environment. So too is our interior world. The more flexible and tolerant of changes and shifts in our thoughts and feelings we are, the better able we are to withstand all the inevitable undulations inherent in being human.

When patients are deeply overwhelmed by anxiety (usually close to panic) I often reflect to them something along these lines:

You are really uncomfortable and you wish you didn’t feel this way. But it is just a feeling. It will pass. Try to find space and fluidity in the pain to simply tolerate it. Tolerance is all we are aiming for here. No one expects you to be graceful under these conditions. Eventually, usually in a few minutes, it will crest and then recede.

In time, this process of neutralizing the intensity of our feelings allows for a deepening of the ability to simply observe your experiences. And with enough practice, eventually you can begin to actually “listen” to the feeling(s) in a way that was previously inaccessible because of the noise of critique and anxiety around the intensity of the experience. Something along the lines of, “I can’t stand feeling this way. What the hell is wrong with me that I feel this way? I don’t want to feel this way. What if this never stops!” All the while your heart rate is increasing and your thoughts start to try and keep pace with the 160 beats per minute and you are, from a central nervous system standpoint, well on your way to a panic attack.

Does any of this ring true?

Fret not, the battle with anxiety is won and lost with the regulation of the central nervous system. It’s biologically impossible to experience profound anxiety if you learn how to regulate the central nervous system through observation, breath, and mindfulness. You will feel anxiety in life. There is no way to completely avoid or eliminate that emotional experience. That is not the goal of therapy. But by observing your mind and neutralizing your reaction you will reduce your propensity towards the more severe expressions of anxiety (panic attacks, chronic worry and anxiety, hypochondriasis, etc).  

Neutralizing our feelings also allows us to gain access to the deeper and more unconsciously held belief patterns that are operating outside of our awareness, but with considerable influence. When we begin the process of observing the first layer of our feelings (in this case anxiety) we will find emotional layers of much more complexity, texture and history that have been protected and hidden by the low hanging fruit of our emotional world. Our goal is to help you rework your internal response to your thoughts and feelings. Neutralizing the intensity of your feelings is one step in that goal towards quieting the central nervous system. Like all the strategies put forth here, consistent practice is the only ingredient necessary for success.

Mindfulness.

When it comes to mindfulness I endorse the style endorsed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). This is the process where we learn to just sit and be present with our thoughts and feelings, observing the content, sensations, etc but without any effort to clear your mind or even influence the content of your thoughts (you are not making any effort to “think positively” or clear your thoughts).

MBSR is a specific practice of mindfulness that asks patients to carve out 45 minutes per day of seated mindful observation. I start out by asking my patient’s to commit twenty minutes per day, broken up into two ten-minute intervals. I suggest doing it first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. Sit in a comfortable position or lie down flat (before you get out of bed in the morning) and just observe your mind, body and brain. Observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That is all. It is that straight forward. This is a process of addressing long-held central nervous system patterns that lie deep in the parasympathetic nervous system. Maintain the practice daily, even when you feel “better.”   Again, this style of practice yields the best results when it is implemented daily.

The 300 Rule.

I remember when I started to really pay attention to baseball and started to notice what a civilized game it is. Like golf, there are a lot of good life metaphors in the game of baseball. The 300 rule is one of those metaphors. As any good baseball fan already knows, a top hitter in baseball makes contact with the ball .300 times up at bat or 30% of the time. And, by the way, those are the top hitters. The same can be said of parenting and attachment. If you can meet your child(ren)’s needs 30% of the time you are well within the “good enough” parenting bell curve. The other 70% of the time we are merely repairing the inevitable parental strikes or misses.

I encourage my patient’s to view life this way and more specifically therapeutic change. When you first start out with these types of techniques, which are by design subtle, you cannot expect yourself to be a top hitter. These are not grand gestures of change or upheaval; they are subtle shifts in your interior state of being with yourself. In other words, go easy on yourself. Just start swinging the bat, observe your mind, suspend critique, and hope you get a base hit every once in a while. If you expect more from yourself in such a short amount of time, observe that. And just remember, we have the rest of the 70% of the time to make up for all our strikes.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis
Dr Sarah SarkisSarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at DrSarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

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3 Comments

Peter

Hi I’m confused with the observe your thoughts situation .my mind just chatters away about things, and I don’t really know it’s happing. Then when you realise , and think stop this , it’s to late it’s happened . So how can you observe your thoughts, it has already happened . I don’t think you can observe and think at the same time. Or do you just observe what you have already just thought. After you realise
Thank you for any comments.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

When you realise your thoughts are taking you away, come back to your present experience – what can you feel, see, hear, taste, smell? Then, try stepping back and imagining your thoughts as clouds. This is a form of mindfulness and is a way to still your mind and pull back from the mental chatter. Here is an article that will help with other strategies https://www.heysigmund.com/different-ways-to-practice-mindfulness/. Hope that helps to make sense of things.

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Margaret O'Quigley Psychotherapist

I totally agree with your suggestion of just being with your feelings as they arise not trying to fight back at them. In the case of anxiety I have found it helpful to write down reassuring words as when one is in such a heightened state it can be hard to remember what to say. Words like this to will pass can be helpful. Many thanks

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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