The third broad principle of successful therapy is teaching. Teaching involves actively imparting knowledge or skills from one person to another. For example, therapy involves teaching when the therapist offers specific tools to manage difficult emotions, such as anxiety or depression. Therapy also involves teaching when we go over new ways to talk to yourself – for example to challenge limiting assumptions. Finally, we are engaged in teaching when we review and rehearse better ways to set boundaries, to ask for what you need from other people, or to take emotional risks in getting closer to other people.
I taught her a powerful method for challenging repeated upsetting, intrusive thoughts, that I first learned from Byron Katie’s work (see her book “Loving What Is”). As each worrying thought arises, take note of it (write it down in a notebook as that sometimes helps in not getting sucked into the worrying). Then simply ask yourself, “Is that true?”, and quietly wait for your own answer to that question. Often the answer is “I don’t know,” or “Probably not,” and the anxiety immediately begins to settle down. The issue here is not that fearful thoughts are popping into your head repeatedly. The issue is about automatically believing them each time. Asking “Is that true?” to each thought breaks the link and allows you to consider that the thoughts are, well, just thoughts. Not reality.
Teaching new ways to talk to yourself. Each of us has an ongoing inner conversation – a monologue, since there’s technically only one of you there. The quality or tone of that inner conversation varies dramatically from one person to another. It affects how you feel about yourself, and how you handle both setbacks and successes. It sets the stage for how you treat others and for how you allow them to treat you.
If the monologue you have is generally upbeat, encouraging and accepting, then you are going to be able to maneuver through life problems much more easily. If however, your inner conversation involves putting yourself down, predicting failure (as in “I’m not going to be able to deal with this!”), or expecting judgment (“I’m sure he’s mad at me now...”) – then strong emotions get stirred up, and handling life problems becomes much more challenging.
Having a gentle inner conversation is a skill that can be learned! A therapist can use several tools to help guide this process. Worksheets and affirmations can be useful tools. One I like, however, is much simpler. It involves comparing how you talk to yourself about a life situation, with how you would ideally want to talk to a best friend about the same thing.
Let’s say you are enrolled in a college class and get a low grade on the mid-term exam. The critical inner monologue kicks in and says, “You’re stupid... you’ll never graduate this program... what’s wrong with you anyway... the professor must think I’m an idiot...” and on and on. Well, ask yourself: would you talk this way with a friend who just told you he or she got a low exam grade? Hopefully, the answer is no! What sorts of messages would you want your friend to hear? Perhaps things like:
- It’s ok, you can do better on the other requirements.
- You knew this was a hard class, I bet there are other students who had low scores as well.
- You were sick with a fever the week before the exam. So this wasn’t your best performance. You still did your best given how much you were able to prepare for it.
Teaching new ways to relate to others. Life-changing therapy reaches out beyond how you think and feel, to how you engage with the world. Life is lived—and gains meaning and purpose—in the context of other people. Consider the following questions:
- How do you want others to see you?
- What do you want to accomplish in your life?
- Do you hold back from getting close to others because of fears of how you might be treated?
Clyde was afraid of calling his father and explaining why he would leave a well-paying job to go back to school for something “soft and mushy”. We talked at length about the distinction between his goals for his life, and his father’s wishes. A person wishes for what they cannot control; but they make goals for what they can. Life energy focused on wishes goes nowhere; but when focused on goals, can move mountains. Clyde had a clear wish – but no direct control – over his father’s reactions.
Through therapy, he learned to let go of what he could not ultimately control. He began to look into graduate programs, applied – and got accepted for the following Fall semester. The therapist role-played different responses from the father, and gave Clyde a chance to figure out his clearest, calmest response. Eventually, Clyde did divulge his career change to his father, who was, as predicted, angry with Clyde. But Clyde held his ground, and said, “I’m sorry you’re disappointed in this, and I hope you will consider how important this feels to me. This feels so much more meaningful to me than working in finance, and I’m really excited about it.”
While Clyde was unable to control the outcome of his father’s response to him, he gained a sense of power and focus about the direction of his own life. Therapy taught him how to be clear about the difference between his goals and wishes, and how to communicate this with his father. That’s life-changing.