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The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

Having goals, dreams and desires implies looking forward and planning ahead. However, focus on the future is often accompanied by worries about hypothetical situations. Indeed, the things we care about the most are often ambiguous and unknowable. Because humans are hard-wired to prefer certainty to uncertainty, we experience this ambiguity as highly uncomfortable, even distressing. Considering that the future is uncertain and that being faced with the unknown is uncomfortable, we tend to develop strategies to avoid or reduce uncertainty. These may work in the short term. When intolerance to uncertainty becomes the rule, however, striving to eliminate it altogether paradoxically contributes to increased anxiety and suffering, and ultimately impedes our ability to reach our goals (Dugas, Gosselin & Ladouceur, 2001).

According to Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of Things May Go Horribly Terribly Wrong (a perfect title for a book on uncertainty), the first step to changing the way we relate to the unknown is to become aware of the myriad strategies we engage in to neutralize ambiguity (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

The list below may be helpful to begin thinking about which intolerance to uncertainty tactics we engage in the most and to prompt reflection on what uncertainty means to us.

1. Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?

Approach Strategies:

  • Worrying to “solve” uncertainty. Worries are often plans, predictions and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel “productive” to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an “intolerance to uncertainty strategy” and only leads to more worry.

  • Reassurance seeking. Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to “feel certain”. Ex: Asking a loved one if they love you multiple times a day, asking multiple sources about an upcoming decision, getting second and third opinions…

  • Searching online. Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and, ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that intolerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones. Ex: Googling health questions as they occur, searching through someone’s or one’s own social media, excessive online-researching before making a decision (Carleton et. al, 2019).

  • Double checking. Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more. Ex: Repetitive checking of one’s bank account and email, repetitive-checking that the door is locked, double-checking the route to get to a destination.

  • Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting. To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.

Avoidance Strategies

  • Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Will I be able to succeed? Am I good enough? Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing (Rassin & Murris, 2005).

  • Avoiding new opportunities. Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether. Ex: turning down a promotion for fear of not being good enough, not going to a party with new friends, not travelling to unknown places.

  • Cognitive avoidance. Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.

Beliefs about uncertainty

  • It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.

  • Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.

  • Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go (“I will not be able to manage”).

  • Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.

As mentioned, everyone uses some of these strategies some of the time. Intolerance to uncertainty becomes most problematic when reliance on these types of strategies interferes with what’s most important to us.

2. Observe and notice: What are the costs?

The second step is to become aware of how regular use of these strategies interferes with one’s goals, relationships and general wellbeing. We may ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Are worries about the future getting in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment?

  • How much time am I spending trying to “solve” uncertainty? What else could I be doing?

  • What meaningful experiences am I avoiding or putting off due to intolerance to uncertainty?

  • Does my intolerance to uncertainty affect my relationships with loved ones?

3. Observe, notice and feel: Sitting with it. The final step implies doing the opposite of efforts to move away from uncertainty. In fact, it involves leaning into it and requires the willingness to experience its discomfort. If the only thing that is certain in life is that life is fundamentally uncertain, then acceptance of uncertainty, in all its discomfort, is necessary. Allowing oneself to simply experience ambiguity is not to love it, but to learn that it is both uncomfortable and tolerable.

  • How to sit with uncertainty? When resisting the urge to engage in strategies to reduce uncertainty, take a moment to explore your internal experience. Identify what you are feeling. Observe the sensations in your body, notice the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts. Remember, no matter how intense your thoughts and emotions become, they are temporary and they will pass. It may be helpful to remind yourself of the following coping statements: “This too shall pass”, “I do not know and it is okay”, “It is uncomfortable and I can feel it”, “It is uncertain, I do not need to solve it”.

  • For more information on sitting with difficult emotions, see this blog post.

4. Be flexible. The objective of these steps is not to eliminate our response of discomfort towards uncertainty. It is alright and normal to worry and feel anxiety at times. Rather, the objective is to become aware of how consistent efforts to not feel discomfort get in the way of engaging in experiences that are unknowable and likely to also be highly meaningful such as connecting with others and moving towards goals (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

Building tolerance to uncertainty is like strengthening a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes!


Rhea Marshall-Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 48(2), 121-136.

Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.

Rassin, E., & Muris, P. (2005). Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1285-1291.

Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). Things might go terribly, horribly wrong: A guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Intuitive Eating – another fad? Or something more…

Intuitive Eating – another fad? Or something more…

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You may have recently heard the words “Intuitive Eating” or “Mindful Eating” in the news, on social media, or in a post on your favourite blog. The Globe and Mail even wrote a lengthy article in early January stating that intuitive eating is the new “non-diet” of the year. But what exactly is intuitive eating, and can it really help you improve your relationship with food and your body?

Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that shifts away from rules, rigidity around eating, and dieting. It encourages listening to your internal cues for hunger and responding by eating food that you enjoy and that makes you feel good both physically and emotionally. We have now seen that intuitive eating has been shown to improve both our physical and psychological health over the long-term (Bacon, 2010; Van Dyke & Drinkwater, 2014). If intuitive eating doesn’t sound all that fancy, it’s because it isn’t. Intuitive eating is essentially a much-needed back to basics approach, where we are encouraged to focus on our individual needs and preferences as a guide to developing a balanced relationship with food. You won’t find any “good” or “bad” foods in this approach, nor will you be encouraged to cut certain items out of your routine. The idea here is to stop looking outwards for a diet guide on how to take care of your body, and to begin looking inwards to better figure out what YOU need to feel good.

A good parallel here is when you think of an infant’s relationship with food. Infants cry when they’re hungry, and typically slow down their feeding when they’re full. Then they cry again when they’re hungry, and the cycle continues. Infants don’t ask themselves “how many calories are in my milk?” or “I can’t be hungry yet, I just ate!” or even “the other babies aren’t eating this much, why am I?!” – they simply listen to their bodies, feed when they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full. Pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, between infancy and adulthood, we’re inundated with messages about what we should or should not eat, how we should or should not look, and how anything less than the “thin ideal” or a “clean diet” is ground for shaming ourselves and others. As a result, we’ve naturally lost our inner compass, our inner guide that helps tell us what we need and want to feel satisfied.

Essentially, you and only you can tell yourself what your body needs, and it’s time to start listening.

So, how do we go about transitioning from focusing on external cues for eating to focusing on our internal needs? The following is a brief guide that will help you begin your intuitive eating journey, alongside some helpful reading recommendations to dig deeper into this subject.

Step 1: Learn to accept our bodies as they are, let go of diet culture

  • This is a really difficult step, and yet it’s essential. Letting go of thin ideals and shaming our bodies allows us to not only feel more connected and comfortable in our skin, it also lets us stop trying to control our eating behaviours with the goal of shrinking our bodies. If we can accept our bodies as they are, food can become about meeting our needs and experiencing pleasure, as opposed to an attempt to control and punish our bodies under the guise of ‘health’. When we try to use food to control our body size, i.e. when we try to diet, we have to retain that level of restriction in order to keep pushing down our weight. There is no freedom to ask ourselves what do we like, what are we in the mood for, how much would we like to enjoy? Instead, we are focused on “what am I allowed to eat?” in order to maintain this control. This approach ultimately backfires for most people as well, resulting in binge eating in an attempt for our bodies to finally feel that their needs are met. For these reasons and more, letting go of diet culture and accepting our bodies is crucial.

Step 2: Start getting curious about your personal hunger cues

  • We spend so much of our time assuming we should or should not eat because of the time of the day, because of what others are doing, or because of what we have eaten previously. None of this is focusing on what our body is asking for, so start by simply being mindful of your bodily cues for hunger. Do you feel a growl in your stomach? Do you suddenly have fantasies about different meal options? Does your concentration decrease slightly?

Step 3: Ask yourself what it is you’d like to eat.

  • What are you in the mood for? What do you have available? There is no right or wrong answer here, only you know what you’d like to eat!

Step 4: Eating mindfully.

  • Try to slow down, taste the flavour, the texture, and the temperature of your food. Notice how your pleasure for certain flavours changes throughout the course of your meal. Check in with your fullness cues. Are you feeling full half way through your meal? Are you still hungry at the end of your meal? Use these cues to guide yourself in either slowing down and finishing your meal or adding an extra snack to ensure that you’re satisfied.

Step 5: Be compassionate, non-judgemental, and flexible with yourself

  • Each meal is a learning opportunity. Sometimes we don’t feel full during a meal but then feel stuffed 30 minutes later. This helps us learn for the next time that we might need a little bit less of this specific recipe, or that we want to eat more slowly in the future. There is no “bad” or “good” way of doing this, it is simply a curious and open learning experience each time.

  • There are often reasons that we eat that are independent of our fullness cues, such as when a meal is really delicious and we’re willing to feel extra full in order to keep enjoying it, or when we know we’re only going to have a small window to have a meal during our workday. All of these situations are part of the fabric of intuitive eating. The idea is not to do this “perfectly” – in fact, that’s the exact opposite of the idea. The goal is simply to start becoming more curious about what your body needs and why it’s asking for what it needs in any given moment.

  • Become curious about other reasons that we might be eating, such as to hold onto pleasure, push back boredom, or cope with difficult emotions. These different motivations for eating are not problematic, they’re simply worth noticing. If we’re eating for reasons that are unrelated to our hunger and energy needs, then we might wish to expand on other ways to have those needs equally met, so that we have options in the future.

Ultimately, intuitive eating is about finally allowing yourself to accept and celebrate your body, and beginning to re-acquaint yourself with your inner guide for how to strengthen your relationship with food.


Tobey Mandel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 17, 1757-1766.

Gagnon-Girouard, M. P., Bégin, C., Provencher, V., Tremblay, A., Mongeau, L., Boivin, S. Lemieux, S. (2010). Psychological Impact of a "Health-at-Every-Size" Intervention on Weight-Preoccupied Overweight/Obese Women. Journal of Obesity, pii: 928097. doi: 10.1155/2010/928097

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. Third Edition. St. Martin’s Press.

Bacon, L. (2010). Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight. Dallax, Texas: BenBella Books, Inc.

Less What, More Why

Less What, More Why

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In sessions, clients often contemplate important decisions, such as whether to quit a job or whether to end a friendship. We sometimes go into problem-solving mode and consider practical factors, like the pros and cons of their different options. But over time, I have found myself focusing less on the ‘what’ and more on the ‘why’. That is, why they would be making that decision. So often, I don’t think that either of the options they are contemplating is inherently right or wrong, good or bad; but the reasoning behind it can vary in how healthy or constructive it is for them.

Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean:

1. Imagine that you want to stay home and cancel plans to go out with friends over the week end. Again, there is nothing inherently right or wrong about this decision. But the reasoning is important.

a. You might be doing this because you have had a busy week and you find alone-time nourishing, especially when you spend it resting and engaging in hobbies that you enjoy.

b. However, you might also be making this decision because social situations make you nervous and you’d rather not put yourself through that. Indeed, anxiety often elicits the urge to avoid. People struggling with social anxiety often find themselves avoiding social situations which make them anxious (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Importantly, avoiding something that makes us nervous can lead us to feel relieved in the short-term, but may actually serve to reinforce our fear over time (see Barlow & Craske, 2007).

In this example, the same behavior can be performed in the service of self-care in the former instance, and as an act of avoidance in the latter.

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2. Imagine that you often find yourself doing more than your fair share in a relationship. Over time, you might find yourself feeling hurt or resentful. You may be tempted to dial back how much effort you’re putting in for a while. There is no clear good or bad choice here, and this is where I would suggest that you pause and ask yourself why; what would be your goal in reducing your efforts?

a. You might be driven by a desire to make things more equitable in order to avoid feeling resentful toward your partner in the future. Indeed, some research suggests that relationship partners are more satisfied when they view the relationship as equitable (Stafford & Canary, 2006).

b. However, you might also be doing this to test your partner, that is, hoping that they’ll notice the change in your behavior, detect your underlying dissatisfaction, and adjust their behavior accordingly (e.g. by expressing more appreciation or doing their fair share). This can be risky for multiple reasons, including that your partner may not recognize the message you are trying to send and/or that they might not appreciate being tested in this way.

As you can see, the same behavior can aim to prevent resentment in one case, or to test the relationship in another case.

The practice of pausing and asking ourselves why may help us to get in touch with our underlying motivations, so that we can make more informed decisions. In so doing, it brings us one step closer to purposeful and thoughtful responding - rather than simply reacting.


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References and Resources

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Barlow, D.H. & Craske, M.G. (2007). Treatments that work: Mastery of your anxiety and panic (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Stafford, L. & Canary, D.J. (2006). Equity and interdependence as predictors of relational maintenance strategies. The Journal of Family Communication, 6, 227-254.

Purposeful Parenting: Rethinking Discipline

Purposeful Parenting: Rethinking Discipline

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Parenting behaviors are strong predictors of socioemotional, behavioural, and cognitive child outcomes (Altschul, Lee & Gertshoff, 2016; Scaramella & Leve, 2004; Shaw et al., 2003; Treyvaud et al., 2015). This means that, from the moment of conception, as parents we hold a significant influence over our children’s development; not only are we among the most important individuals in our child’s life, but what we do within this role is crucial for our child’s development. How’s that for sitting in the hot seat?

This idea can become quite overwhelming, as there are definitely moments in the day when we find ourselves reacting in ways we do not deem best (e.g. yelling over spilled milk), and we then spend time backtracking, feeling guilty, wondering if we were too lenient or too harsh, and ultimately feeling like we’ve failed. Parenting can feel like this sometimes… like rocket science… like an ever-changing abstract problem that continues to transform the moment we feel we are starting to figure it all out.

https://ubisafe.org/explore/disciplining-clipart-teaching/

https://ubisafe.org/explore/disciplining-clipart-teaching/

Can you think of a time when you know you could have better handled a situation?

Well, here is the news: there is no such thing as the Perfect Parent. All parents make mistakes… parents are human, after all (despite superhuman talents in multitasking). The significant point here is, however, how we respond to our mistakes. If we model how to take responsibility for our shortcomings and take the time to repair relationships afterward, even our little slip-ups can become valuable lessons, and provide children with the opportunity to deal with difficult situations and develop new skills.

In this way, the impact and significance of parenting on children’s development becomes the gateway through which we can provide our children with continuous opportunities to learn to make good choices, instill positive self-regulation strategies, and teach them skills that they will carry forward throughout their life in order to become kind and successful individuals.Thus, it is clear that when navigating through our daily routines, our parenting must be both purposeful and intentional.

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One important way to engage in a more informed and intentional parenting style, as opposed to reactive behaviours, is by beginning to reflect on the purpose of our parenting practices. A particular aspect of parenting that holds a great impact on development and achievement is discipline.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the concept of discipline. What does discipline in your home look like? Oftentimes, when our children are misbehaving and doing things they know they should not be doing, we sometimes result to the following: we raise our voices, we yell, we wave our finger back and forth, we take an item or activity away, we send our children to their rooms or to time-out… we provide consequences.

This is completely understandable. At times, we cannot help but feel frustrated, angry, and exhausted when we walk in on our child jumping up and down on the new couch in our living room while holding his crumb-filled (or no longer filled) plate. And after all, these immediate actions or consequences do tend to put an end to the misbehavior in that moment. And then that’s it… we’ve laid down the law, the behaviour stops and we have a moment of (what we can attempt to call) peace.

In the short term, we have succeeded. However, what was our long-term goal in this strategy? What has our child taken away from this experience? Is the goal of our discipline practice to meet each misbehaviour with a consequence?

As explained by Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson in “No-Drama Discipline” (2016), the goal of discipline is to teach. Thus, when disciplining, it becomes important to think about what lesson it is we want to teach in that particular moment.We use these discipline moments to build skills so that our children can handle themselves better both in the moment and in the future. When disciplining, there are often better ways to teach than providing consequences.We want our short-term goal to include cooperation and doing the right thing. We want our long-term goal to involve the development of new skills in order to make better decisions and develop self-control.

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As we hold such an important role in the life of our children, and as our actions have a longstanding impact, it is imperative that we take the time to start reflecting about the purpose of our parenting approach and about the lessons we want to teach through discipline.

Below are a number of questions outlined by Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson (2016) that can help guide your discipline approach and help you reflect on engaging in more purposeful parenting:

  • Do I have a consistent discipline philosophy that I implement when my child misbehaves?

  • Is what I’m doing working? Am I able to teach the lessons I want to teach?

  • Do I feel good about what I’m doing? Am I enjoying the way I am engaging with my children?

  • Do my kids feel good about it? Do my children feel love through my approach?

  • Do I feel good about the messages I’m communicating to my children?

  • How much does my approach resemble that of my parents? Am I repeating old patterns?

  • Does my approach ever lead to my children apologizing in a sincere manner?

  • Does it allow me to take responsibility and apologize for my own actions? Am I a model for my children?


Margarita Miseros is a PhD Student in the School/Applied Child Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Altschul, I., Lee, S. J., & Gershoff, E. T. (2016). Hugs, Not Hits: Warmth and Spanking as Predictors of Child Social Competence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78(3), 695-714. doi:10.1111/jomf.12306

Scaramella, L. V., & Leve, L. D. (2004). Clarifying parent-child reciprocities during early childhood: the early childhood coercion model. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 7, 89–107.

Shaw, D. S., Gilliom, M., Ingoldsby, E. M., & Nagin, D. S. (2003). Trajectories leading to school-age conduct problems. Developmental Psychology, 39, 189–200.

Siegel, D., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-Drama Discipline Exercises, Activities, and Practical Strategies to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Developing Minds. Ashland: PESI Publishing & Media.

Treyvaud, K., Doyle, L. W., Lee, K. J., Ure, A., Inder, T. E., Hunt, R. W., & Anderson, P. J. (2015). Parenting behavior at 2 years predicts school-age performance at 7 years in very preterm children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(7), 814-821. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12489

CORE BELIEFS - A WAY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND AND EMPOWER OURSELVES

CORE BELIEFS - A WAY TO BETTER UNDERSTAND AND EMPOWER OURSELVES

Meet April. She is a young woman who is content at her job but struggles in relationships. She feels quite down and disconnected from others at times. She has good friends that she has fun with, but she doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to them when she is having a hard time. She finds romantic relationships to be very challenging, and notices that she can get quite anxious when she starts to feel vulnerable with someone. Sometimes she wonders whether she is better off alone, but at other times she feels lonely and wishes she could feel closer to people. She has been to therapy on and off over the years to work on improving her relationships.

Therapy is an opportunity to take the time to get to know ourselves better, and to work on goals that are meaningful to us. An important part of this process can be to acknowledge the parts of us that drive our feelings and actions, that can operate beneath the surface. For April, these are the parts that she struggles with- sometimes she feels that she doesn’t quite understand herself, or know what she wants.

Let me introduce you to core beliefs. For those who are familiar with cognitive behavioural therapy, this may be a concept you have heard of (see here for a description of CBT).

 

So first of all, what are core beliefs?

These are the beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Core beliefs are deep-seated, and act as a lens through which we see ourselves and the world. These beliefs often go unrecognised, and yet they constantly affect our lives. They are fashioned by our experiences, our upbringing, and significant figures in our lives.

 

How to identify our core beliefs

A helpful exercise is to practice completing thought records to better understand the automatic thoughts that influence your emotions and reactions. Over time, you can start to identify themes from your thought records. You may notice that certain situations seem to be particularly sensitive for you, or that particular thoughts may re-occur. You can ask yourself questions like “What does this thought mean about me as a person?” “What is it about this thought that bothers me so much?” “If this thought is true, what does it imply? About me? My future? Other people? The world?” You may have particular memories associated with these thoughts or experiences, and have a sense of what makes them poignant to you (think back to significant people and experiences in your life).  

Through using thought records, April realises that one of her core beliefs is that others cannot be trusted. April has had several life experiences that she realises may have fed into this core belief (e.g., having witnessed her parents’ separation and her father’s feeling of betrayal, and having felt judged by her peers growing up when she spoke to them about feeling down). April has developed the belief that others will reject her if she is too open or vulnerable, and has got into the habit of being selective with the personal information that she shares. She keeps people at arms’ length, especially in romantic relationships.

 

How to challenge core beliefs that are unhelpful: a three-step process

1) Gather evidence against your unhelpful core belief (to identify a more balanced core belief. Questions to consider are “What are the experiences that show me that this belief is not true all the time?” “When have I observed something that goes against my core belief?”

In April’s case, this involves asking herself questions like: “When are the times people have been there for me?” “Is it possible that some people might be understanding if I allow myself to share some more vulnerable parts of myself?” She could talk to other people about their experiences in relationships, and how much of themselves they allow themselves to share.

The key thing to remember here is that core beliefs are rigid, and typically provide a “one-size-fits-all” answer. The goal of asking questions and gathering evidence is to allow yourself to be more flexible in your thinking style.

 

2) Behavioural experiments. This is your opportunity to test your core beliefs, by allowing yourself to take risks that your core beliefs would usually prohibit. An important thing to remember is that core beliefs are self-fulfilling, and that we can often avoid putting ourselves in situations that trigger them. This reinforces our belief that they are true, and can feel like a vicious cycle.

For example, in April’s case, she does not allow herself to express her more personal feelings to other people. This means that she never gets to experience what happens when she does. She continues to feel distanced from others and have the impression that they are not dependable. Behavioural experiments for April would involve gradually testing out some of her fears. She could choose someone with whom she feels comfortable, and test out what happens when she allows herself to divulge something personal. This can allow her to compare what happens in real life compared to her fears.

The key thing here is: taking action is important. Allowing yourself to test out some of your fears gradually and to experience the outcome is a great learning experience, and can help you make a more realistic appraisal of your core beliefs.

 

3) Give yourself time!!!  Remember that your core beliefs have been entrenched for a long time, and that they may even have been helpful for you at some point (even if they are not any more). Over time, you can make note of the results of your behavioural experiments, and see how much evidence you can accumulate that allows you to nuance (or even contradict!) your core beliefs. You may also find it helpful to discuss your core beliefs with people you trust, in order to have some more input into the process- and even see how their beliefs differ from yours!

Happy experimenting!


Maeve O'Leary-Barrett is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: A cognitive therapy treatment manual for clients. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Riso, L. P., du Toit, P. L., Stein, D. J., & Young, J. E. (Eds.). (2007). Cognitive schemas and core beliefs in psychological problems: A scientist-practitioner guide. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Wearden, A., Peters, I., Berry, K., Barrowclough, C., Liversidge, T. (2008). Adult attachment, parenting experiences, and core beliefs about self and others. Personality and Individual Differences, 44 (5), 1246-1257.