The therapy I love to hate.
PLEASE NOTE: This is an essay about my own personal experiences and the tools and strategies I used to heal my unresolved trauma and maintain my mental health. It is not meant to take the place of the advice and guidance of a licensed mental health practitioner.
Between November 2018 and September 2019, at the age of 48, I had ten one-hour sessions with my therapist, Val, to try and unravel over thirty years of traumatic symptoms brought on by being repeatedly groped by a boy during metal shop in front of my classmates and teacher in ninth grade. Included in those symptoms were anxiety, depression, mood swings, and suicidal thoughts. During that time, Val taught and helped me incorporate many useful mental health tactics to mitigate and/or heal those symptoms. But just because her tactics were helpful doesn’t mean I liked them.
If I had to choose my least favorite therapeutic activity, the hands down winner would be thought examining. It is, without a doubt, a component of therapy I love to hate. I dislike it so much that when Val would ask me what my thoughts were when I told her how my heart rate spiked and I broke into a cold sweat prior to making a phone call for a hair appointment, I rolled my eyes and said, “I didn’t have any thoughts. I knew I had to make a phone call, my body responded and that’s all there was to it.”
I said that for two reasons. One: I believed I didn’t have any thoughts. Two: I found the question insulting. To me, asking what I was thinking implied that I am the cause of my problems. That I thought my way into my mental health issues. That I’m responsible for my anxiety, depression and associated symptoms. Being asked what thoughts I had prior to being overcome by a wave of anxiety, to me, was akin to asking the length of the cheerleading skirt I wore when I was groped. I mean, Val literally asked, “What were you thinking?” A question that sounded like victim blaming. A question that automatically put me in defense mode.
As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts.
First of all, when I actually stopped and seriously considered if I had any thoughts prior to a wave of anxiety, the answer was always yes. The thoughts weren’t clearly articulated in my mind. I didn’t seem to consciously think A then react B. They were more like out of focus phrases stamped on to my psyche, ever present but easily overlooked. Like the decades old crack in our ceiling I know is there but stopped seeing a long time ago. But the thoughts were there and when I finally paid attention to them, I understood why my first instinct was to ignore them and tell Val I wasn’t having them.
Because they are stupid.
Now, Val would probably prefer I use the term unhelpful instead of stupid. While I argue that unhelpful and stupid are not mutually exclusive, I will bow to her professionalism and use the term, unhelpful. So, how unhelpful were my thoughts? In the example of breaking out into a sweat before calling the salon to make an appointment, I discovered my thoughts are along the lines of thus:
I’m not going to know what to say. I’m going to say something wrong. I’m going to mess it up. I’m going to be a bother to the receptionist. They have better things to do than take a phone call from me. The receptionist is going to be irritated with me. They’re not going to like me. They are going to judge me. Something bad is going to happen.
Now, if you think these thoughts are ridiculous and a complete overreaction when making an appointment over the phone, I assure you, I agree with you one hundred thousand percent. It’s most likely the reason I resisted admitting I had the thoughts let alone telling Val about them. But the fact is, those were the thoughts I had. Pretending I didn’t have them, telling myself I shouldn’t have them, didn’t change the fact they were there.
As for reason number two, feeling insulted and blamed, I learned there is a big difference between asking a question and questioning someone. Asking questions during the thought examining process isn’t the same as being asked a question within the framework of an interpersonal relationship in which there is history, subtext and past precedent of setting someone up just to knock down their stupid or wrong thoughts. Something I am most definitely not above doing to others or myself. In thought examining, thoughts aren’t wrong or stupid or bad. They are simply information I can use to explore what is really going on.
And what was going on with me?
Practically any social interaction whether in person or not.
My best guess is that because I was repeatedly sexually assaulted and had my threat system (fight/flight/freeze) activated by a boy who was otherwise nice to me, in a classroom of otherwise friendly peers who didn’t intervene and in full view of a teacher who was supposed to protect me but instead ignored my pleas for help, I came to unconsciously believe that I was unable to discern safe situations from unsafe situations. Safe people from unsafe people. Helpful people from unhelpful people. Hence, parts of my brain began to respond to every social situation as being just as unsafe as ninth grade metal shop was.
I can’t say with any scientific certainty that this theory is accurate but, for me, it makes sense and because they are my thoughts, my experiences and my own personal journey, that’s good enough. Taking the time to unravel and examine my thoughts helped explain how an insignificant phone call can loom so large and threatening and lead to me avoiding making appointments for weeks and months. Having this information was also crucial to another part of thought examining: thought challenging.
When I challenged thoughts about my ability to effectively make a hair appointment, I asked myself what is the evidence I won’t be able to do it correctly? Is there evidence I will be able to do it correctly? What is at stake if I don’t make the appointment. If I do it wrong, misspeak, forget what to say? What if the whole phone call goes off the rails and the receptionist has a conniption at my complete and utter incompetence as a human being, yells at me and bans me from the salon for all eternity?
The answers to those questions?
I’ve successfully made appointments before; chances are I’ll hit this one out of the ballpark too. If I don’t, most people are patient or at least pretend to be patient and will probably accommodate any scheduling ineptitude on my part. And what happens if my worst-case scenario plays out? Well, one more out of the seven billion people on this planet won’t like me and I’ll have to go somewhere else to get my hair cut.
That’s it. That’s the worst I could imagine. And while I preferred that I do everything perfectly all the time and all seven billion people on the planet think I’m the greatest most special person ever, I realized misspeaking, having someone be irritated at me, or not like me won’t be the end of the world and won’t put me in any real danger. It seemed so obvious, so simple and yet it was a truth that completely eluded me for decades because it had been drowned out by an automatic thought process I’d never acknowledged let alone questioned.
While sitting down and writing out my thoughts about such an inconsequential task as making a phone call seems way over the top, it helped. It put things into perspective. Provided a correction to thoughts that have been allowed to run rampant and trigger my anxiety for far too long. Taking the time to examine and challenge thoughts about the small annoying issues like anxiety provoking phone calls was a stepping stone to tackling bigger social interactions: going grocery shopping, going for drinks after work, meeting new people, attending a retreat, and eventually giving presentations at work. All things I can now do with markedly less and sometimes even zero symptoms of anxiety. I credit much of this progress to thought examining.
Like the other mental health skills in my toolkit, thought examining didn’t come naturally or easily. At the beginning it took a dedicated amount of time and a concerted effort to sit down and hammer out my thoughts many times a day. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t like it. I often put it off and distracted myself with unhelpful ways to cope. But when I did it, it helped. Every single time. And I believe that every thought examining session built on the one before. Strengthening and sharpening the skill so that now, when I’m stuck at my front door and stalling before leaving the house, staring at the phone, procrastinating making a call, staying safe in my bedroom or office cave instead of making plans with friends and co-workers, I can sometimes recognize and challenge the thoughts driving my behavior without even having to sit down and write it out.
As well as being a powerful tool in combatting my anxiety, thought examining has proven useful for helping me navigate relationships, manage work stress and be more responsive and less reactive in the face of conflict. After lots of practice examining and challenging thoughts, I’m not so quick to think the thoughts I’m having paint an accurate picture, are worth defending or adhering to. Thought examining has also been useful in helping me discern what kind of life I really want to live, what I truly value, what goals are worth pursuing, and how I want to spend my time here on the planet. Now, instead of automatically reacting to every lifestyle trend that promises to make me 10% better, make sure I’m living my best life possible and then jumping on some ever-moving bandwagon for fear of missing out and falling behind, I check in with my thoughts. I challenge them. I slow things down, consider my motivations and take time to think about what I really want.
More ease, more contentment, less hamster wheel of trying to measure up, fit in and prove myself. And I owe it all to Val and her ever-pestering question, “What were you thinking?”
Thought examining may not be as effective for others as it is for me. It also isn’t the only therapeutic tool I use. I often use it in conjunction with a compassion practice, a worthiness exercise, meditations with intention, mantras, a walk or a cardio session just to name a few. Thought examining also isn’t a magic elixir to eradicate my anxiety about upcoming events like travelling, certain gatherings, public speaking or posting a blog with my thoughts about thought examining. I can’t wipe out all of my anxiety because anxiety is a part of life. For these types of situations thought examining can help take the edge off, help me stop avoiding, help me move forward to do the things I want to do and then help me process my experience later so the next time I face a similar situation, I’m a little more confident that things will turn out okay. Even if a session of thought examining doesn’t seem to help, the worst outcome is I’ve wasted a piece of paper and five minutes of my life. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.
If you are interested in learning more about and possibly incorporating thought examining in your life, you can thank your lucky stars you don’t need to rely on guidance from me and you don’t have to figure it out on your own. There are many incredibly insightful and dedicated professionals who have charted the territory to guide you. If you are currently seeing a professional, consider speaking with them about resources they suggest. If you aren’t seeing someone at the moment, there are lots of books and online resources to choose from. Thought examining is a part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) so some of the books or online resources may be easier to find with that search term. The few resources I am familiar with are below:
Edmund J. Bourne PhD. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. New Harbinger Publications; Seventh Edition, Revised (May 1 2020)
The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook is filled with information and tools for recognizing, assessing and treating anxiety and phobias. Many of the tools I use are included in the workbook including relaxation training, cognitive therapy, and affirmations. Chapter 8, Self Talk, covers thought examining.
This is the online program I participated in through Saskatchewan Health. It is only offered to Public Safety Personal and their significant others in certain provinces in Canada. However, the website has self-assessment tools and a resources page that are open to the public and worth checking out. If you are a first responder or a partner of one and live in a province where it is available, I highly recommend taking this course. I believe the mental health skills taught in this course are invaluable to maintaining mental health fitness and recovering from occupational stress injuries. Thought examining is a main component of this course.
This page has a good explanation about thought examining along with a step-by-step process to follow.