Many if not most therapists, coaches, spiritual directors would disagree on the value of the narrative in helping our clients.
Cognitive distortions may be the clearest view we can get on just how tangled up in a narrative we can all get. For those who journey with some variant of a mood disorder, these distortions can be debilitating.
When we lived in Salt Lake, we had a giant pyrakantha bush / tree in our front yard. It had beautiful red berries and brutal thorns. Its roots were tangled and twice as deep as it was tall. I found this out when I wanted to remove it after one too many times of getting stabbed by it.
The thorns of cognitive distortions can also be sharp and brutal, burrowing deep into the psyche, influencing decisions, goals and relationships.
Learning to recognize cognitive distortions is one of the first steps in getting untangled from them. Getting acquainted with the idea of cognitive distortions can begin to loose their grip — just a tiny bit. It wakes us up to just how normal and insidious these thoughts are constantly being damaging.
Nonetheless, familiarity does not readily convince our clients that the content of the distributed thought is false. It feels as real as the stab of a pyrakantha bush.
Sometimes, adopting a simple reminder as a kind of mantra is enough to challenge and untangle from the distortion — a thought is not a story OR this thought does not have to be a story. Christiane Northrup, MD, would encourage humor and exaggeration with a countering sarcastically humorous thought such as , "I'm the VERY BEST at thinking the WORST of myself!"
But what if your client does not recognize the thought as distorted. They are so convinced of its truth that you can not help them escape the brutality of its thorns … because IT SEEMS REAL?
We can begin with helping them learn to recognize the difference between a distorted thought and a thought that does not get them all tangled up in feeling worse when they already feel bad.
Yesterday, I opened the back door to the porch and a snake was RIGHT THERE! With his head in the air. Yikes. I closed the door. QUICKLY.
As I taught my breath, I realized how quickly the thought, "there's a snake on the porch," became a story. For those few moments, that story felt REAL!
Instead, I restored myself to calm and walked on to the porch to have a conversation with that snake … with rake in hand. I know, I know, it's just a regular old snake. I told him how much I appreciated him taking care of the mice — but I do not want to share my porch with him. Could be a her.
Anyways, that thought, "there's a snake on my porch" felt like a full story. Although I was stating a fact, it became distorted as I imagined all manner of nasty encounters with that snake – worst case scenario style. I knew it was distortion.
Helping our clients (and ourselves) recognize distortions and accept them as distortions using body awareness, exploring how thoughts feel in the body, is one way to get a little space from them.
For example, a client recently told me about feeling overwhelmed by guilt, the guilt of being a terrible father. Most days he was wandering through life carrying the thought, "I'm a terrible father." He ruminated that thought into a full blown story. I know this man, this thought is NOT his story.
My knowing this, of course, does nothing to convince him. Nor does stockpiling evidence to the contrary change the story he had gone. One big obstacle, is that he BELIEVED the thought, he thought it was real and that thought WAS his story.
I asked him to look over at Huxley, the wonderdog, napping on the floor while thinking the thought, "Huxley is napping on the floor," and noticing how the thought felt in his body.
Does the thought feel like light air or heavy like matter?
Thoughts that are distributed FEEL like matter. While neutral thoughts feel like air.
Recognizing that he could feel the difference between the thoughts opened the door to work with the thought. He could feel the difference between thoughts in his body.
I walked him through Ivana End of Words and he neutralized the thought. "I'm a terrible father," no longer felt heavy to him. It felt neutral, like air and just untrue. This took all of ten minutes.
This experience fueled his inspiration for home practice. He uses a variety of tools he has learned to neutralize the charged energy of distorted thinking. He is gradually establishing himself in a better state of being while untangling from cognitive distortions.
Cool, right? What's your favorite trick for untangling from cognitive distortions?