You walk into the office. The room is hushed, and everyone’s head is down. This is unusual as it is generally a lively place. You notice Jimmy. At first, he appears to be working quietly in his cubicle. As you walk by, he looks up toward you, sighs deeply, rolls his eyes, shakes his head and looks back down. You glance furtively at the clock behind you. Immediately, you are filled with fear and shame. The boss gave you permission to come in late, but your colleagues are not aware of this.
Jimmy must think I’m such a slouch! I have to work with him on the current project. What will I do?
As it turns out, Jimmy did not even notice you walk in. What he saw was the clock, which made him realize he was woefully behind on his morning project.
Ever experience something like this?
As we grow and experience life, we develop particular ways of seeing the world. These viewpoints are known as paradigms or schemas. They are like the “glasses” through which we see life and they are what “feed” us with thoughts about ourselves, our situations, and others.
Suppose you grow up in a highly critical and demanding environment. This could leave you with the feeling that you are never “good enough”, which becomes your overall schema. When faced with adversity, hardship, or a task that taxes your resources, you could feel overwhelmed. This may cause you to withdraw, further adding to the message of a faulty schema. After a while, you may succumb to
self-defeating thoughts. Another person, who has a healthy self-image, may face the same circumstances without shame or fear and may even feel invigorated by the challenge.
Our brains are search-and-solve engines, always on the lookout for problems that could decrease our efficiency or threaten our well-being. Schemas are constructed to make finding these problems easier. Taking over as critical parent or bullying classmate, these paradigms are meant to “keep us in line” so as to avoid punishment or other problems. However, as our environments and situations change, the way we think doesn’t always evolve. This means the story we told ourselves that worked so well before may
no longer fit. A few things could help us to “untwist” our unhelpful schemas.
Mindfulness. Statistics show that the average person spends a great deal of their time either focusing on future worries or past mistakes. Therefore, reactions in the present moment tend to come from these rather than a fully present look at the current circumstances. Being mindful will help you “be here, now” so that you can make choices that more accurately reflect what is actually happening rather than what your brain predicts, fears, or regrets.
Know Your Distortion. There are many patterned ways we can think that are not accurate to the present moment. Are you an all-or-nothing thinker? Do you try to read minds, jump to conclusions, or overgeneralize? Maybe you personalize, intellectualize, or use mental filters to understand the world. Learn the common distortions and notice which ones you lean toward. Creating a plan to notice and address these distortions can help you overcome them.
Values Exercises. What is most important to you in life? I mean you – not your parents, not society, not your best friend…you. Most people have a sense of their values but have never really sat down and done anything to identify them. It is not uncommon for people to suffer from values dissonance. This occurs when the actual values that we live differ greatly from the aspirational values that we hold. For example, a person who says family and friends are their highest values but spends so much time at work that they never see the ones they love. This often occurs because life is moving so fast and no one has ever taught us to take note of our beliefs. Identifying our value system can be the first step toward creating a plan to embrace our truest selves.
Many clients who come to The Center • A Place of Hope, have discovered their true values and gained a stronger sense of self. They have learned to be present and, over time, to change their outlook and interpretations of life. With support, they realize their worth, value, and capability. They understand the need for healthy, supportive connections and become more willing to invest in a life they love rather than the life prescribed to them by broken schemas. If this sounds intriguing to you, then you may also benefit from time to focus on yourself, your core values, and your life. Reach out to The Center, a counselor, a trusted pastor or mentor – someone who can help you map out a journey of self-discovery and restoration. It’s a difficult trek, but one well worth taking.
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Program Coordinator, she is a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist. Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center; A Place of Hope, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.