Feelings are important in growing consciousness – Existential and Mindfulness Based Emotional Reflection Therapy

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Accepting your emotional reality and holding an awareness of those feelings helps us to be conscious of how we are currently being influenced … understanding this influence opens up the possibility to use reflection to guide your actions towards your best interests and towards the most ideal interaction patterns.

There is a huge amount of research coming out about the benefits in fostering relationships with emotional availability, vulnerability and authenticity. Such relationships promote healthy attachments which assist such things as: felt security/self-confidence, hope, stress reduction, physical health, a sense of meaning or purpose, and relational satisfaction. EFT (Emotionally focused Family therapy) is a couple’s intervention based on creating more secure attachments and AFFT (Attachment Focused Family Therapy) is the intervention to do the same within the whole family system.

I am suggesting an additional theory – emotion focused therapies are also increasing the ability for people to reflect = the ability to hold a stimulus (observation, sensation, thought or emotion) in your consciousness without automatically engaging in a reaction (behavior, thought, or emotion).

I therefore commonly use emotions for attachment objectives, and I also love using emotions as a means of increasing consciousness and one’s reflective ability (and therefor reducing automaticity).

Ask yourself this question – “Do you believe that your mood affects the way that you interact with people?”

And, “do you believe that your different moods influence the different ways in which you interact with people?”

Are there moods which are more associated with defensiveness and moods which are more accommodating for openness?

Most people will surely say of course… If I am pissed I am more likely to be defensive…

Though people generally understand this concept intellectually is relatively rare for a person to reflect on their mood and how their mood might affect their interaction with another person.

It is even more difficult for a person to be able to hold an open-minded consciousness about the thoughts or beliefs that were projected onto a stimulus which influenced the person’s current emotional state.

When I help to bring people into an awareness of their emotional state while in therapy I am often helping the person to have a deeper awareness of a specific or deconstructed emotion… While holding a safe and therapeutic space I will collaborate with the client in creating room for the client to reflect with curious acceptance about the various ways in which a specific emotion influences them… and perhaps where that emotion is coming from (what beliefs do you have about the stimulus and how are those beliefs encouraging you to feel?)…

Enactment set up to reproduce a baseline interaction pattern:

I often start with an Enactment in which I will instruct the clients to have a conversation in front of me that has historically not been very effective (misunderstandings, lack of empathy and support, and inability to reach a solution or to move forward).

Sex, Money, Parenting, rules, chores, alcohol etc. are common topics

I tell the clients that I will be stopping them … and for me to best help them they really need to stop when I assess that the emotional spiral has started.

I generally stop people very soon into the process – I have no interest in having people fall into a stress cycle where they are operating from their amygdala.

Humor, paradoxes, or/and gratitude are used to comfortably pull the clients into a place of reflection.

With a smile I enthusiastically say something like, “Great this is exactly what I wanted … is this how it is when you all at home?”

The paradox is that people expect a person to match their mood or to show nervous concern in the face of an argument. Compassionate humor with hope and encouragement often confuses the client and naturally brings them into a place of reflection.

The therapist’s emotional state encourages the client to question if they need to be reacting to the situation the way that they are… this curios questioning necessitates reflection.

It is always important for the therapist to walk the talk… During therapy I always engage in meditative breath and reflection (mindfulness) = breathing deeply into my abdomen while allowing my consciousness to reflect on my current present state at various moments throughout the session (I then offer compassionate acceptance to whatever emotion I may be holding)… please note that the academic side of our field often talks about ‘neutrality’… the method to achieve this state often sounds like emotional avoidance or resistance – this actually reduces a therapists presence or consciousness = I would be very careful with the topic of neutrality, especially when compassionate acceptance is not part of the conversation. (Neutrality requires that one has no ego… how many of us fit into that category? – I don’t.)

Within my own reflective state I attune more deeply to a client and will ask in different ways the following type of questions. (note: I am often intentionally ambiguous or different in asking questions – I have noticed that because therapists are displayed a certain way by Hollywood, clients will often disengage or become defensive if you ask ‘cliché’’ Hollywood-therapist’ type questions such as “how are you feeling.”

I start with – “please face your partner and tell them the answer to these questions.” I use non-verbal directions such as awkwardly looking away if the partners begin to focus on me instead of each other. At times I will gently smile and point to the partner.

Then I turn to the listener and state, “your job is to be as present as possible… I want you to put most of your attention on what your partner is experiencing in the moment… pay attention to your partners non-verbals and emotional language – the plot is not particularly important right now. If defensiveness arises – notice it and know that right now we are just trying to understand your partner’s subjective experience.” (Of course I use the right language for the given client and sometimes I am more specific with what not to do – such as” don’t correct the plot line or interrupt.”

What is going on for you right now?

What are you experiencing in your body?

What is the emotional impact that this interaction is having on you in this therapy office?… exactly now in this moment?

What beliefs do you notice coming up as you engage with this topic?

Do you know what kind of emotions you feel related to those beliefs?

I then turn to the listener and ask

“What did you come to understand … what do you notice your partner experiencing in this therapy office as he/she spoke to you?”

Again, I ask the person to speak to their partner and not to me. (If they ask why, either verbally or non-verbally, I will let them know that we are creating a new habit and you have do something (even if it feels contrived) to begin a new habit… then time and practice will be necessary.

I will gently redirect if the response is defensive or not related to their partners experience.

I then will have the listener switch roles with the speaker and go through the process again.

This concludes this intervention – I will often go into a solution oriented intervention surrounding articulating the partners’ needs and getting those needs met after the above intervention.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Existentialism – meaning, meaninglessness and your life

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Quick summary:  “It is not about finding the correct answer to questions pertaining to life, death, suffering, bliss, meaning, and meaninglessness… it is about creating a meaning which is most helpful, comforting, and peace provoking to you as an individual.” In this blog I will talk about some of the affects that existentialism (or the innate drive to make meaning) has on peoples lives, and how existential themes contribute to therapy.

Existentialism is a school of thought which is concerned with meaning and meaninglessness; the philosophy attributes more significance to the meaning we individually place on occurrences and existences than on an objective truth concerning an occurrence or an existence.

Some existentialist believe that we make decision based on the meaning that we assign to different actions and our decisions are not always based on the facts pertaining to an action (facts dictating an action is rationalism).

Existentialism is another one of those philosophically complex terms that ironically “means” something different to different people.  

 

Have you ever asked yourself any of the following questions? –

– What is the purpose of my life?

– Why did this happen to me?

– What is the meaning of life?

– Why do I do the things that I do?

– How could such a terrible thing happen?

– Why do people die?

If the answer is yes (you have asked yourself one of these questions), then you have asked yourself an existential question.

 

What impact does your answer to any of the above questions have on you? Existentialism appears in the field of therapy under the belief that the answers that you give to yourself (the meaning that you assign) will have a significant impact on how you perceive your existence – or how you perceive the quality of your life.

 

–Note – I would propose that any ‘why’ question is an existential question – to any answer that you give to a ‘why’ question, the question ‘why’ can be asked again – until there in no answer = meaninglessness.

  • Example – why is the sky blue? – The refraction and reflection of light. – Why? The process enables the longer wavelength to be perceived. – Why? Longer wavelengths are blue and shorter wavelengths are red. – Why are longer wavelengths blue? Color pertains to light wavelengths and colors are on a spectrum. – Why aren’t short wavelengths blue instead or why does the color spectrum exist? – Meaninglessness…

 

As humans many of us our conscious of the fact that there is no one correct answer to the above questions… Our inability to know the answer to those questions is believed to be a major source of anxiety, despair, and dread etc.

 

The existential solution to the anxiety caused by the meaninglessness of life and death is an individual’s freedom to create your own meaning and your own purpose to life.

 

One of my top ten books of all time is Victor E. Frankl’s – “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor was a Jewish psychiatrist (among other things) that was sent to various concentration camps during the Nazi occupation. He attributes a large degree of his ability to survive the concentration camps to his ability to maintain a sense of meaning throughout the chaotic and meaningless suffering that he and others were forced to endure. I highly recommend reading this book – it offers perspective on the resilient potential of the human spirit that can arise from within one’s self without altering the suffering which inevitably surrounds us.

You might have heard that there are ‘existential therapists’… what does this mean and what do they do? In my opinion, existential therapy simply implies that the therapist believes that he/she can help a client by assisting that client in creating meaning pertaining to an event which is causing the client distress (and in some cases that distress might be producing very observable mental health concerns).

  • There are no set techniques in existential therapy and the therapy process can differ dramatically from one therapist to the next.
  • The goal can be to assign meaning or to change the meaning that a person attributes to a certain occurrence (person, place, thing, action etc) – the client changes the meaning and not the therapist. This is done under the belief that a person relieves distress by embracing their freedom to assign their own meaning to the meaningless.
  • Meaninglessness is thought to be fundamentally universal – Individuals have the freedom to subjectively assign meaning to an existence that has no universal meaning.
  • This can be both theologically based and not – for some philosophers it was god who gave humans the freewill to find meaning, and for others, they believe that there is no god and our drive for meaning comes from nowhere.
  • Sometimes the drive to create meaning out of a traumatic situation leads us to continually engage in selfdestructive or socially destructive behaviors. Some in the therapy field believe that this is part of the reason why people who are perpetrated on sometimes end up perpetrating on others or why people who grew up in abusive households end up in a relationship with an abusive partner – In both examples the individual is unconsciously re-engaging in the meaningless suffering to try and ‘find’ meaning.

 

In short – my existential quotes to provoke discussion and thought –

 “It is not about finding the correct answer to questions pertaining to life, death, suffering, bliss, meaning, and meaninglessness… it is about creating a meaning which is most helpful, comforting, and peace provoking to you as an individual.” -Will

“It is responsibility that offers a meaning to liberty is an attempt to address the chaos inherent in freedom.” – Will

“You can look endlessly for purpose and meaning only to ultimately find that you held the freedom to create your own meaning and purpose the entire time.” -Will

“Suffering is both inevitable and infinite… peace then is not found in the annihilation of suffering and chaos (as this is not possible), but in the meaning that a person assigns to that suffering and chaos.” – Will

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.