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Society tries to convince us that we can control our internal experiences. We constantly hear messages like “Don’t worry about it. Relax. Calm down.”
That’s dead wrong. Just hearing the words “Don’t worry” can make us anxious.
Telling yourself “Don’t worry” isn’t much different. The more often we think, “Don’t feel anxious you can’t feel anxious don’t be depressed don’t be sad you shouldn’t be upset” the more anxious, depressed, sad and upset we’ll become.
Let’s take a metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, developed by Hayes and Masuda, as an example of how this process works. Imagine that you’re hooked up to a very sensitive polygraph machine. This polygraph machine can pick up the slightest physiological changes that occur in your body, including any changes in heartbeat, pulse, muscle tension, sweat, or any type of minor arousal.
Now suppose I say, “Whatever you do, don’t get anxious while you’re hooked up to this highly sensitive device!”
What do you imagine might happen?
You guessed it. You’d start getting anxious.
Now suppose I pull out a gun and say, “No, seriously, whatever you do as long as you are hooked up to this polygraph machine you cannot get anxious! Otherwise, I shoot!”
You’d get extremely anxious.
Now imagine I say, “Give me your phone or I’ll shoot.”
You’d give me your phone.
Or if I say “Give me a dollar or I’ll shoot.”
You’d give me a dollar.
Although society tries to sell us the idea that we can control our internal experiences the same way we do objects in the external world, the truth is that we actually can’t. We can’t control our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, the way we can control objects in the world. In fact, the more we try to control or change our internal experiences the more out of control we feel. The more we try to get rid of distressing thoughts and feelings the stronger they become.
This is what many of us do to ourselves when we experience uncomfortable feelings. Our minds, like the polygraph machine, pick up sensations in our bodies. Then we pull out the gun against ourselves and tell ourselves not to have certain emotions. We start struggling with trying to control and eliminate certain thoughts and feelings. The more we try get rid of our experience the more they intensify.
What if we dropped the gun and were kind to ourselves instead? Thoughts and feelings shift and change like the weather. They are temporary. They intensify when we bully ourselves, and fade away with acceptance and self-compassion.
Painful feelings such as loneliness, fear, sadness, deprivation, rejection, and disappointment are an unavoidable part of life. They are just a part of being a human being. Although we don’t have control over having painful emotions that are a part of being alive, we always have control over our actions. We can always choose to respond in ways that are consistent with our values, regardless of how we feel.
We may sometimes think that our emotions force us to act a certain way. We think our emotions are in charge. They’re not. We are. We are never ever truly trapped into actions we don’t want. We can always choose to respond to our emotions in ways that leave us free.
So, how can we drop the gun and embrace all our internal experiences?
- Notice when you’re pulling out a gun on yourself — judging or struggling with your internal experience.
- Drop the struggle. Instead, give the emotion a neutral label. Say to yourself “I feel scared” or “I feel hurt.”
- Notice the sensations in your body that comes with that emotion. Stay present with the sensations. Notice the size, shape, color, and texture of the sensation.
- Drop the story in your head about “why” you’re feeling this way. Focus on sensations and feelings rather than ideas.
- Open up to the emotional experience. Practicing self-compassion and loving kindness helps us soften up to our emotional experience without pushing it away. Put your hand on your heart and speak to yourself as you would to someone you love. You might say, “This is really difficult” or “It makes sense that I feel sad now.”
- Remember we are all in this together. Think of all the people right now in this world who are feeling helpless, lonely, deprived, or rejected. You are not alone. Being human comes with pain.
Those steps are the essence of self-compassionate care. Self-compassion is embracing your humanness.
Choose self-compassion and you will be free to act in line with your values.
For now, please take this message to heart. Much of the time, you’re the one with the gun. Don’t pull out the gun and you will be free.
50 Feelings Quotes on the Importance of Understanding Your Emotions
Embracing your feelings is important for your mental and emotional health. These feelings quotes will encourage you to do just that.
If you’ve always shied away from sharing your emotions or even allowing yourself to “feel your feelings”, it’s time to make a change. Learning how to recognize and understand your emotions can play a big role in the way you feel about yourself and affect the relationships you’re in.
Learning how to recognize your feelings, even the difficult ones, is part of life. When you understand what your emotions are, it can help you learn how to process them.
If feelings and emotions aren’t your strong point, these feelings quotes might help.
The Science of Feeling ‘Big’ Emotions
A study carried out by researchers from Stony Brook University in the United States has confirmed that HSPs have increased physical reactions to the emotions of those around them. The research team had an equal number of HSPs and non-HSPs look at photographs of sad and happy strangers. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers monitored the areas of the brain involved with awareness and emotion, with an emphasis on the area connected to empathy.
When the HSP subjects viewed the photographs, the mirror neuron system — strongly tied to empathy — and brain activity in these areas lit up, while the non-HSPs did not show any extra brain activity. Lead researcher Dr. Arthur Aron explained, “This is physical evidence within the brain that highly sensitive individuals respond especially strongly to social situations that trigger emotions, in this case of faces being happy or sad.”
Of course, HSPs know that it’s not just smiles and frowns that can “transmit” emotions — we often pick up on extremely tiny emotional cues that others miss, like a half-second wince or the way someone is slumping.
Another study examined the different reactions of college students in response to feedback about their academic performance, revealing that those scoring high on the HSP scale had far stronger emotional reactions to their grades than those low on the scale. They concluded that HSPs feel emotions deeply, including high levels of empathy, intuition, and creativity, compared to non-HSPs.
In other words, it’s not just absorbing the emotions of others: We highly sensitive people feel our own emotions more strongly, too.
For me, this wasn’t just academic. Realizing that my brain actually has a different physical response to external emotions has allowed me to drop the guilt around being an HSP. It’s also helped me prepare myself to deal with those emotions in a healthy way — by creating a personal toolkit to prepare for highly stimulating situations.
Helping students respond to perceived failure
When children worry that they are making too many mistakes or possibly failing at something, the emotional fallout can be difficult to manage. According to UC Berkeley professor Martin Covington, the fear of failure is directly linked to self-worth, or the belief that you are valuable as a person. Covington found that students will put themselves through unbelievable psychological machinations in order to avoid failure and maintain the sense that they are worthy.
In a study of fourth to sixth graders, researchers analyzed students’ emotional responses when they made mistakes and identified three distinct styles. The “distance and displace” style (withdrawing and blaming someone else) and the “minimize and move” style (moving on and looking beyond the mistake) reflected patterns of avoidance. However, students who had the “regret and repair” style (featuring some guilt, normalizing of the situation, and self-care) engaged in less self-blame, participated more actively in problem solving with their peers, and earned greater respect from teachers.
Here lies the larger challenge: How can we help kids to accept their errors and failures, particularly in school, so that they might translate this skill to the real world?
Adjust the learning context: “Let’s try this another way.” In the same study of fourth to sixth graders’ mistakes, emotions, and coping strategies, researchers suggested that the context for learning may be important. Students may find it more emotionally challenging to work in a small group when they’re having difficulty, and may be better served by working privately. So consider providing options to kids who may need a little space to flounder.
Encourage persistence: “Keep trying. Don’t give up!” A 2017 study demonstrates that when adults model persistence in working toward a goal, infants as young as 15 months tend to mimic that behavior. Persistence can be learned. As teachers, we have a lot of power to influence our students’ efforts by sharing our own vulnerability and identifying our own self-conscious emotions, our stops and starts during problem solving, and our commitment to keep going. Students who engaged in the “regret and repair” style of coping still felt guilt when they made mistakes, but they continued to engage and keep trying—while also being gentle with themselves.
Model self-compassion: “Be kind to yourself when you’re confused it’s okay.” If we model and normalize the ups and downs of learning with our students, we can also share the power of self-compassion. They can learn to think: “This is tough, and I don’t get it. I’m not alone here other people get confused just like me, and I’m going to cut myself some slack it’s okay to not know the answer right now. I can be kind to myself and know that I will find my way through this challenge.”
A healthier way to deal with stressful situations
Build positive relationships with students: “I see your strengths, and I believe in you.” This is particularly important for students who are failure-avoidant. Students are motivated to try their best when teachers they feel attached to value academic tasks. Studies have also shown the inverse to be true—that students are less motivated when faced with teachers who they feel don’t care about them.
Focus on resilience: “Even though this is tough, you will find your way.” When researchers reviewed over 38 studies of resilience in response to failure, errors, or mistakes, they found that more resilient individuals had higher self-esteem, lower levels of perfectionism, and a more positive way of explaining past events (e.g., I failed the test, but I can study harder next time). However, having high academic self-worth and practicing emotional suppression in the face of mistakes were not linked to resilience.
If teachers can help their students focus on skills and strategies that enhance resilience, students will learn to cope better, recover more quickly, or at least start heading in that direction.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that American teachers and students tend to avoid talking about mistakes at school. However, there are good reasons to rethink our approach to mistakes so that we can help our students to ultimately benefit—both academically and emotionally.
It’s okay to “mess up” and spill the milk. There is even beauty in vulnerability. It gives us space to find our strength.
So what do you do?
If you’re experiencing a number of these symptoms, then there is a good chance you’re going through emotional stress. The more symptoms there are and the longer they persist, the more important it is you take action.
If you can identify the reason why you’re feeling emotionally stressed, then you should consider doing something about changing that. Note, there can be several reasons and sometimes what you think is the cause is only a symptom. So consider carefully what you’re going to do.
Speaking to a professional is a good idea as well. These people can often give you insights that you otherwise might not have. For that reason, why not seek one out near you?
You don’t have to immediately commit to seeing them for months on end. Sometimes one visit can be enough for you to gain some insights.
Also, don’t be afraid to simply take some distance for a while. Try to take a holiday. And don’t make it one where you run around like crazy and do lots of things. Instead, find a quiet place, away from it all, and spend a bit of time reflecting on your demons.
Sometimes this can already be enough to get things back under control. Even if it’s not, you might just get the insight you need to take further steps that will help you.
Whatever you do, don’t let it just fester. Yes, it might just go away. It also might get worse. And the deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the worse things can get.
Beware Toxic Positivity: It’s Okay Not To Feel Okay
Negative emotions are just as essential to thriving as positive ones.
It’s a catchy tune but it can be lousy advice.
In the midst of a tough time, being told to ‘focus on the bright side’ can just make you feel worse.
Sometimes life is difficult. Disappointing. Hard. Frightening. Sad. Heartbreaking even.
Can good flow from situations that make us feel bad? Of course.
But to downplay, deny or dismiss those not-so-good feeling emotions denies the full human experience. As Dr Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Travelled, “Life is difficult. Once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”
In mid-March, I felt disappointed when, after a year of planning, the tour for my new book was cancelled. In later March, I felt anxious when my husband was hospitalized with Covid-19 (he is now fully recovered.) In April, life felt surreal as we stayed at home to flatten the curve. May did too. Late May and early June brought a swirling mix of anger, disbelief and sadness as violence swept across American cities protesting the death of George Floyd. Then confusion, guilt and a dollop of shame. how best to respond to my own white privilege? All the while the death count kept mounting and any hopes this virus would ‘just go away’ fanned out.
Then more unrest. More uncertainty. More plans disrupted and life upended.
A protester walk past burning cars and buildings in Minneapolis, United States, on May 29, 2020. . [+] Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (Photo by Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Let’s face it, sometimes, many times , being told to “focus on the bright side” just doesn’t cut it. And this comes from a die hard optimist.
I’m sure you’ve had your own times when the last thing you wanted hear was to “look for the silver lining” or some other saccharine platitude that sought to ‘positive-wash’ the unwanted reality you were wrestling with.
Perhaps you’re in the midst of such a time right now. Many are.
In a culture that celebrates positivity, the overgeneralization of ‘think positive’ to all situations can be harmful as it denies the full human experience.
So if you’ve been feeling bad about feeling bad, I encourage you to reframe how you view positivity. Not because having a positive mental outlook isn’t beneficial. It is. (And if you read my columns, you’ll know I’m all for looking for the opportunity in adversity ).
Rather, when we try to hand pick which emotions we will feel and cut out those ‘feel-bad’ ones, we also cut ourselves off from the feel-great ones. In the process we confine ourselves to living only in the middle octave of life. Which, if we’re truly honest, is not really living at all.
So if you’ve had a tough week (or month, or year. many have!) and feel pressure to ‘put a smile on your dial’ when you feel anything but, I hope the advice to follow will help you avoid the scourge of toxic positivity and work through those not-so-fun feelings in ways that serve your highest good.
Feel all your feelings, all the way through
We humans aren’t wired to feel pain we’re wired to avoid it. Yet the avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. As I wrote in You’ve Got This! , it is only by fully embracing our painful emotions - however vulnerable that makes us feel - that we can access our deepest source of strength.
You do that by leaning into, versus running from (minimizing, invalidating, drinking/eating down or distracting yourself from) your uncomfortable emotions.
Every emotion is inviting us to attend to something. So when uncomfortable emotions rise up, sit quietly and get really present to where those emotions are sitting in your body. Your chest? Your back or belly? Notice them. Label them. Is it disappointment hurt, anxiety, overwhelm, resentment, envy? As you do, ask yourself, what here needs my attention?
Research by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor found that fully feeling our feelings helps to loosen their grip. So too does labelling them and claiming them as emotions we are feeling but not who we are. For instance. I’m feeling really sad right now versus I am sad right now. See the difference? An emotion is something you feel. It’s not who you are.
On the flip side, when we deny or try to avoid uncomfortable emotions, they bury deeper where, left without any channel for expression, they fester until they eventually they express themselves in destructive ways. By lashing out, inflicting pain on others, and ourselves. or growing an ulcer. Or worse.
So if you’re wrestling with a really hard emotion right now, keep in mind that our problems do not arise because we have anger, fear or sadness. They arise because our anger or fear and sadness has us.
Avoiding difficult emotions makes us hostage to them. As such, allowing yourself to feel all your feelings, all the way through, is a profound act of self-liberation.
Embrace your humanity with self-compassion
Hand in hand with ‘feeling your feelings’ is not beating up on yourself for having them.
I’m guessing that you like to see yourself as an upbeat positive person. That’s great. Me too. So I know from personal experience that it can be quite confronting to your sense of identity when you feel anything but upbeat. But beating up on yourself not feeling upbeat only pulls you further down.
“Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish,” wrote Barbara Fredrickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology, in her book Positivity.
Rather than trying to eliminate negativity we must work to cultivate the positive emotions. But you can’t do that if you’re beating up on yourself whenever you don’t feel on top of the world. So be kind to yourself and follow the advice that self-compassion expert Kristen Neff and “give yourself permission to be fully human.” (You can listen to my conversation with Kristen on my podcast ep. 12)
If you’re unsure how to do that, then just imagine what the most loving person you know would say to you right now, and say that to yourself. Out loud. I promise you, it helps.
Validate the struggle and emotions of others
Just as you need to practice self-compassion and feel your own feelings, so too you must rise above the impulse to alleviate - or “think-positive-wash” - the hard emotions others may be feelings. Rather, meet them where they are, however they are feeling - even if you think they are over-reacting. Three ways to do this are:
- Validate what they’re feeling by practicing ‘limbic resonance’, mirroring their feelings. E.g. I’m so sorry, this is hard stuff. I see how stressful this is for you. It’s totally understandable that you’re feeling this way.
- Let them know you’re there for them, and with them. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you and I’ve got your back. You’ll get through this we’ll get through this.
- Affirm your belief in them and their future. You’ve got this. I know you’ll get through this. How can I help you?
Share your own truth, selectively
While not everyone deserves the unfiltered truth of our lives, curating a fake emotional world cuts us off from the very people who could help us carry our burdens better. Wearing a smiley-face mask may provide the illusion of invulnerability, yet it ultimately puts us at greater risk of superficial friendships with counterfeit intimacy.
We build resilience through connection. Authentic connection. The maxim that “A burden shared is a burden halved” holds timeless truth.
Reaching out, asking for help, sharing your truth –we may fear this makes us look weak. In truth, it’s one of the bravest things we can ever do and that ultimately makes us all the stronger.
It’s okay to not to be okay.
Confront painful realities, but retain hope. Always.
Being fully present to life’s harsh realities while having hope for a positive future are not mutually exclusive. We can honor our negative emotions without abandoning optimism. Indeed, research shows that however bad things feel now, they won’t feel this way forever.
“The cure for the pain is the pain,” wrote Rumi. So embrace those painful emotions as part and parcel of what’s required to fully savor your most joyful ones. Give them the space the deserve so they can do their work, and then, like dark clouds in a stormy sky, pass on over.
Those darker, harder, more painful emotions are just as essential to the full tapestry of our lives as the lighter ones. At the end of a difficult week like this one, the wisdom of Maya Angelous could not be more fitting:
“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”
Living a full life requires living a brave life confronting our deepest fears, not denying them. There is no place for toxic positivity in that space.
How does psychology work with Christian counseling?
Psychology and Christianity often find themselves at odds. Some have promoted psychology as a complete answer to the human condition and the key to living a better life. Some psychologies consider faith in God as an illusion created as a sort of coping mechanism. In reaction to these unbiblical ideas, some Christians discount all psychology. Some fear using a soft science to help people with emotional or psychological disturbances, believing psychology to be too subjective and that man’s problems are better addressed spiritually. Some Christians, especially those involved in biblical counseling, believe the Bible contains all that is necessary to overcome any issue, psychological or otherwise psychology is unnecessary because the Bible alone is our life manual. On the one hand, we have Christians believing that a person’s struggles are primarily spiritual and that God alone can heal, and on the other hand, secular psychologists claiming all struggles are biological or developmental disruptions that man can fix himself. Despite this polarization, psychology and biblical counseling need not be at war.
It is important to recognize that psychology is not monolithic there are many different theories of psychology, some of them even contradicting the others. The concepts of human nature, life struggles, health, and treatment modality in psychology span a broad spectrum. The majority of counselors and psychologists today practice somewhat eclectically they are not strictly Freudian or Jungian but are versed in several theories and employ different parts of the theories for different presenting issues. For instance, a counselor may gravitate toward existential theory when counseling for grief, but bring in cognitive behavioral theory when counseling for behavioral issues. In other words, a counselor may cherry-pick what he thinks will help the most. A psychologist is free to use certain person-centered techniques without accepting theories concerning self-actualization. It is common to work out of one or two primary theories and use a variety of techniques from myriad theories.
Christian counselors often adopt certain psychological theories in part, but they do not embrace any underlying philosophies that deny God or biblical truths. In essence, Christian counselors use psychology as a tool, but they do not view it as absolute truth. Psychology is not a competing religion, but a field of study that could actually lead to a deeper understanding of humanity and, therefore, of God as Creator, Savior, and Healer.
Nouthetic counseling, or biblical counseling, is a form of counseling that relies solely on Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit to achieve results. Rather than promote any psychological theory, nouthetic counselors state that Scripture is sufficient for all human difficulties. Certainly, the Bible speaks of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives. The Word is powerful (2 Timothy 3:16-17 Hebrews 4:12 Isaiah 55:11) and allows the godly person to be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Plus, God is our ultimate healer (Exodus 15:26 Matthew 8:17). However, it is interesting to note that those who ascribe to Bible-only counseling do not necessarily ascribe to Bible-only medical treatment or Bible-only education. The question becomes what parts of life are to be led only by Scripture and what aspects can be informed by secular learning.
Paul spoke of becoming all things to all men for the sake of evangelism (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). When people are seeking psychological treatment, it may be helpful for a Christian to use psychological theories as corrected by biblical truth. A Christian counselor can use the tools of psychology to reveal to people their need for a deeper healing than what psychology can provide. Spiritual discussions are not rare in counseling rooms. A counselor is expected not to impose his or her values or beliefs upon a client, but often just opening the topic leads a client to search. And we know that when people search for God, they find Him (Jeremiah 29:13 Proverbs 8:17 Matthew 7:7).
More practically speaking, many instructions or concepts in the Bible do not seem easily applicable. For instance, we know that we should abstain from immorality, but other than through prayer and “fleeing” it (1 Corinthians 6:18), we do not know how. Psychology might provide practical techniques to overcome the struggle with lust. Knowledge gleaned from psychology may provide insight into what is encouraging a person to remain in sin, and if we can identify internal proclivities to sin, we can strip those things of their power.
Psychology may also help people become aware of the importance of expressing their emotions and bringing them to God, much like we see happening in the Psalms. Ultimately, psychology may help open the door to an understanding of our deepest needs. We will not experience full satisfaction or fullness of life through therapy, but we will increase our hunger for fullness of life. In turn, we can take our hunger to God, for life comes from Him alone (John 14:6).
Nouthetic counseling is opposed to psychology. However, there can be genuine Christian counseling that is biblical and also uses psychological theories. If well-trained Christian counselors are able to integrate their faith with their education, they can remain faithful to biblical standards but also avail themselves of the science of psychology.
Solid counseling should recognize that neither the counselor nor the client is the healer. Only God can truly heal. Counseling is one tool that can help us come to an understanding of who we are in Christ and find meaning in our lives. However, it is not a quest to find worth in and of ourselves or to find healing apart from God. Nouthetic counseling is correct in stating that the deepest problem is in the soul, and only the Holy Spirit can truly transform that.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.
Procrastination: An emotional struggle
Procrastination is a common issue — one that people often equate with simply being “lazy” or having poor time-management skills. But there is often more to the story.
William McCown, associate dean of the College of Business and Social Sciences and professor of psychology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, cites a case example of a man in his mid-30s with a degree in chemical engineering who was procrastinating about applying to graduate school. The client reported just not being able to “get it together.” Through therapy, however, the man discovered that he had an emotional block. His parents supported his choice to get another degree, but their own lack of formal schooling often led them to make detractive comments, such as the father stating that when his children thought they were as smart as him, he would just die. The client came to realize that comments such as these sometimes incited him to self-sabotage his career.
According to Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” His research indicates that as many as 20% of adults worldwide are true procrastinators, meaning that they procrastinate chronically in ways that negatively affect their daily lives and produce shame or guilt.
According to McCown, a pioneer in the study of procrastination and co-author (along with Ferrari and Judith Johnson) of Procrastination and Task Avoidance: Theory, Research, and Treatment, procrastination becomes problematic when it runs counter to one’s own desires. “We all put things off,” he notes. “But when we put off things that are really in our best interest to complete and we do it habitually, then that’s more than just a bad habit or a lifestyle issue.”
McCown finds that clients with chronic procrastination often come to counseling for other presenting concerns such as marital problems, depression, work performance issues, substance use, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety. He has noticed, however, that younger generations are starting to seek counseling explicitly to work on procrastination.
McCown says that among Gen Xers and particularly among baby boomers, tremendous stigma existed around procrastination. But that largely changed with the Great Recession, he contends, because people realized that having a procrastination problem hurt them at work — a luxury they could no longer afford.
Managing emotions, not time
A growing body of research suggests that procrastination is a problem of emotion regulation, not time management. Julia Baum, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in private practice in Brooklyn, New York, agrees. “Poor time management is a symptom of the emotional problem. It’s not the problem itself,” she says.
Nathaniel Cilley, an LMHC in private practice in New York City, also finds that chronic procrastination is often a sign of an underlying, unresolved emotional problem. People’s emotional triggers influence how they feel, which in turn influences how they behave, he explains. However, clients may incorrectly assume that procrastination is their only problem and not connect it to an underlying emotional issue, he says.
People procrastinate for various reasons, including an aversion to a task, a fear of failure, frustration, self-doubt and anxiety. That is why assessment is so important, says Rachel Eddins, a licensed professional counselor and American Counseling Association member who runs a group counseling practice in Houston. “There’s not one answer to what procrastination is because [there are] so many things that lead to it,” she says.
Procrastination can also show up in conjunction with various mental health issues — ADHD, eating disorders, perfectionism, anxiety, depression — because it is an avoidance strategy, Eddins says. “Avoidance strategies create psychological pain, so then that leads to anxiety, to depression, and to all these other things that people are calling and seeking counseling for,” she explains.
Sometimes, procrastination may even mask itself initially as another mental health issue. For example, overeating in itself is a procrastination strategy, Eddins says. She points out that if certain people have a hard task they are avoiding, they may head to the refrigerator for a snack as a way of regulating the discomfort.
If a client comes to counseling because he or she is binge eating and procrastinating on tasks, then the counselor first has to determine the root cause of these actions, Eddins says. For example, perhaps the client isn’t scheduling enough breaks, and the stress and anxiety are leading to binge eating. Perhaps food acts as stimulation and provides the client with a way to focus, so counselors might need to explore possible connections to ADHD. Maybe the client is rebelling against harsh judgment, or perhaps the root cause is related to the client experiencing depression and feeling unworthy.
One approach Eddins recommends for finding the root cause is the downward arrow technique, which involves taking the questioning deeper and deeper until the counselor uncovers the client’s underlying emotion. For example, if a client is avoiding cleaning his or her house, the counselor could ask, “What does it mean to have a messy house?” The client might respond, “It means I can’t invite people over.” The counselor would follow up by asking, “What does that mean?” These questions continue until the client and counselor get to the issue’s root cause — such as the client not feeling worthy.
Eddins and Cilley both find imaginal exposure helpful for accessing clients’ actual memories and experiences and discovering the underlying cause of procrastination. For instance, if a client is procrastinating over writing an article, Cilley may have the client imagine sitting at his or her desk and staring at the blank computer screen. Cilley would ask, “What’s going on in this moment? Where are we? What is around you? How are you feeling emotionally at the thought of writing this article?” The client might respond that he or she feels anxious about it, which means the underlying cause is emotional.
“Imagination is really great with drumming up emotions,” Cilley notes. “The emotion starts to come into the session when [clients visualize what they are avoiding].”
Addressing irrational thoughts
“You can do all the time-management skills in the world with someone, but if you haven’t addressed the underlying irrational beliefs fueling the anxiety, which is why they’re procrastinating, they’re not going to do [the task they are avoiding],” notes Cilley, an ACA member who specializes in anxiety disorders.
As described by Cilley, the four core irrational beliefs of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) are:
- Demands (“should” and “must” statements such as “I should go to the gym four times a week”)
- Awfulizing (imagining a situation as bad as it can be)
- Low frustration tolerance, which is sometimes referred to as “I-can’t-stand-it-itis” (belief that the struggle is unbearable)
- Self-downing (defining oneself on the basis of a single aspect or outcome, such as thinking, “If I mess up one work project, then I am a failure”)
“When we’re having procrastination problems, a lot of times we awfulize about the task and have abysmally low frustration tolerance about the energy required to do it,” observes Cilley, a certified REBT therapist and supervisor and an associate fellow at the Albert Ellis Institute. “And we disproportionately access how bad it would be to do it or to be put through it and minimize our ability to withstand or cope with it.” Put simply, sometimes when people think something will be too difficult, they don’t do it.
Another common reason people procrastinate is a fear that they could fail, and they interpret failure to mean that something is inherently wrong with them, Cilley says.
For example, imagine a client who comes to counseling because he procrastinates responding to work emails out of fear that he will answer it incorrectly and his co-workers will realize he is a failure. To first identify the root cause, Cilley would ask a series of open-ended questions to the client’s statements regarding procrastination: I am avoiding responding to emails at work. What would it mean if you responded to the emails? I’m afraid I would do it incorrectly. What if you did respond incorrectly? My boss would think I’m an idiot. What would that mean to you? That I’m no good at my job. I’m a bad employee.
A self-label of “bad employee” causes the client to filter everything through that lens, including minimizing the good that he does, Cilley points out. In addition, the man will act as if he is a “bad employee,” which reinforces this label and makes him more prone to procrastination, Cilley says.
One technique that Cilley uses with clients to challenge unhealthy thinking and break the vicious cycle is the circle exercise. He draws a big circle, and at the top he writes the client’s name. At the bottom, he writes the negative thought in quotes — “I’m a bad employee.” Then, he places six plus signs and six minus signs inside the circle and asks the client to think of six things that he or she does poorly at work. The client might respond, “I procrastinate on tasks, I show up late, I make mistakes when I respond to emails” and so on. Next, Cilley has the client name six things that he or she does well. For example, the client could say, “I care about the work I do, I stay late if needed, and my co-workers can depend on me.”
If clients respond by saying that they don’t have any positive qualities at work, then Cilley will ask them to think about what positive things another co-worker would say about them (even if the clients don’t believe the statements themselves).
Next, Cilley circles one of the statements in the minus category and asks the client if this one negative statement erases the other six positive statements. To emphasize the flawed logic, he may also ask if one positive trait causes all of the negative ones to go away and makes someone a “perfect” employee.
This exercise challenges black-and-white thinking and helps clients separate their identities from their actions or the task they messed up on, such as sending an incorrect email, Cilley explains.
Even after clients identify their irrational beliefs and create rational coping statements (positive beliefs used to replace the negative and irrational ones), they still may not believe the rational ones. When this happens, Cilley uses an emotiveness exercise he refers to as “fake it till you make it.” He asks clients to read the rational beliefs out loud 10 times with conviction — as if they were Academy Award-winning actors and actresses who wholeheartedly endorse and embrace the beliefs.
If clients are going to rebut thoughts such as “I am a failure” and “I can’t do anything right,” then a monotone voice won’t help them change their thoughts or calm down, Cilley notes. “Anyone can go up on stage and read a speech,” he says. “The emotion and conviction behind your voice is what moves the audience, and that’s what we have to do to ourselves when we’re trying to convince ourselves of the rational beliefs.”
Even though clients may not initially believe what they are saying, by the eighth or ninth time they repeat it, they are finally internalizing the beliefs, Cilley says. On the 10th time — when clients are starting to actually believe what they are saying — he records them repeating the rational beliefs. Clients are then instructed to listen to this recording three times per day throughout the week as a way of talking themselves into doing whatever they have been procrastinating over, he says.
Cilley has also used role-play to help clients put stock in more rational thoughts. He does this by adopting the client’s irrational belief (e.g., “I am a failure” or “I am unworthy”) and then asks the client to try to convince him of more rational thoughts. By doing this, the clients start to convince themselves. Even though clients often laugh at this exercise, Cilley has found it to be one of the quickest ways to change clients’ irrational thoughts.
REBT and other short-term therapy techniques are not just effective but also efficient for clients who procrastinate, notes Baum, a rational emotive and cognitive behavior therapist and supervisor, as well as an associate fellow at the Albert Ellis Institute. With procrastination, clients often want to see results quickly, she says. They want to finish the work project, clean their house or get to the gym next week, not next year. REBT helps clients quickly “take responsibility for their behavior and recognize that they have agency to change it,” Baum emphasizes.
Learning to tolerate discomfort
Often, people procrastinate to avoid discomfort, Eddins notes. This discomfort comes in many forms. Maybe it’s procrastinating on beginning a complex task at work out of fear of failure, or avoiding having a difficult conversation with a friend.
The first step is helping clients become aware of the discomfort they are avoiding, Eddins says. “When we suppress our feelings, that’s when the procrastination and avoidance habits emerge,” she adds.
Eddins often uses the “name it to tame it” technique. She will first ask clients what they are feeling when thinking about the task they are avoiding. Clients may not have a word for this discomfort, so she will ask them to identify what they are feeling physically, such as a tightness in their chests.
Baum, a member of the New York Mental Health Counselors Association who specializes in helping creative professionals and entrepreneurs overcome procrastination, helps clients learn to cope with feelings of discomfort through imaginal exposure. First, Baum teaches clients coping skills such as breathing exercises to use when they experience discomfort. She also helps them identify, challenge and replace irrational thoughts that contribute to emotional distress and self-defeating behaviors. Then, she asks them to imagine walking through the scenario they have been avoiding.
For example, a man procrastinates about going to the gym because he feels ashamed of being out of shape. The client thinks to himself, “I’m out of shape. I won’t fit in at the gym. I’m no good because I let myself go.” These thoughts and his fear of others judging him prevent him from going to the gym despite the health benefits.
To address this emotional problem, Baum would have the client imagine walking into the gym and getting on the treadmill as others stare at him. During this exercise, she would guide the client to breathe slowly to keep his body calm and have him practice rational thinking, such as accepting himself unconditionally regardless of the shape he is in or what others may think. This will help him overcome his shame and productively work toward a healthy fitness routine.
Eddins also uses a mindfulness-based technique called “surfing the urge” to help clients. She instructs clients to stop when they feel the urge to procrastinate and ask themselves what the urge feels like in their bodies and what thoughts are going through their heads. For instance, clients may notice having an urge to get up and grab a snack rather than work on their task. This technique helps them learn to sit with their discomfort and face the urge rather than distracting themselves from it or trying to change it, she explains.
The power of rewards and consequences
Cilley finds rewards and consequences a useful motivational tool for those clients who are good at identifying irrational beliefs and who already possess coping and emotion-regulation skills yet are still procrastinating when faced with certain tasks (or even their therapy homework). For example, clients could reward themselves by watching their favorite show on Netflix after they complete the task. The ability to watch the show could also become a consequence — they would withhold watching the show until they complete the task.
Counselors may need to help clients determine appropriate rewards. McCown, a clinical psychologist at the Family Solutions Counseling Center in Monroe, Louisiana, finds that clients sometimes want to use grandiose rewards that really aren’t helpful motivators. For example, a client may decide that he or she will take a trip to Europe after finishing writing a novel. McCown notes that the likelihood of this motivating the client to make progress on the novel isn’t as strong as if the client used smaller rewards, such as going out with a friend or taking a walk to celebrate completing 300 words of their novel.
If clients are having trouble enforcing rewards or consequences themselves, counselors can become the enforcers — but only as a last resort, Cilley says. For example, Cilley had a client who was procrastinating when it came to taking steps toward starting a side business because he feared he would do it imperfectly, and that would make him a “failure.” After learning how to identify his irrational thoughts and how to regulate his emotions, the client still needed one final push to start his business. The client was a gamer, so both he and Cilley agreed that if he didn’t start his business that week, Cilley would change the client’s PlayStation 4 password so that he couldn’t play video games until after the business was launched.
“You want to make sure you have a good working alliance with the client and that they feel safe to be vulnerable and that [you] can laugh about this [with them] because it’s kind of unorthodox. But sometimes that’s what works for some people. They need that accountability,” Cilley says. “Just laughing about how silly the consequence is in therapy can make it more of a fun challenge.”
Giving yourself permission
Eddins finds that shame is a big factor with people who procrastinate. “Somehow we learned that shame [is] a way of motivating — ‘If I’m just hard on myself, then maybe I’ll get it done’ — and that for sure backfires and leads to procrastination,” she says.
For some people, their inner critic is shaming them constantly with “should” statements (e.g., “I should work out four times a week”). Procrastination is their way of rebelling against this harsh judgment, Eddins explains.
Self-compassion is one way to address critical thoughts and shaming, Eddins says. For example, the critical inner voice that declares a client lazy if he or she doesn’t go to the gym could be changed to use more motivating statements such as “It feels good when I go outside and move my body.”
In addition, if critical thoughts start to surface when clients are trying to complete a task, they can use a self-compassionate voice to remind themselves that they will feel better after they take a break, Eddins advises. In fact, the act of giving oneself permission to take a break, practice some self-care, and rest and relax can sometimes break the cycle of procrastination, Eddins says.
A 2010 study found that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam were less likely to procrastinate when studying for the next one. The researchers concluded that self-forgiveness allows people to move past the maladaptive behavior and not be burdened by the guilt of their past actions.
At the same time, Eddins advises counselors to be careful with the technique of giving permission. Clients with black-and-white thinking may interpret that as the counselor telling them it is OK to be “lazy.” Instead, she recommends that counselors use this strategy within a context that the client will accept.
Eddins had a client who put off meal planning each week because it was stressful. When Eddins asked why it was stressful, she discovered the client was preparing up to three different meals each night to accommodate each family member’s personal preferences. Eddins knew that if she told this client to give herself permission to cook only one meal each night, the client would engage in black-and-white thinking: “Well, that would make me a bad mom.”
So, instead, Eddins said, “No wonder you are exhausted. You are trying to do everything for everyone else but not for yourself. This doesn’t work for you. You have permission to take care of yourself and do what works for you. And that does not make you a bad mother.”
Strategies for success
Procrastination does offer momentary relief and reward, which only reinforces the behavior and continues the cycle of avoidance, Eddins notes. So, the more times that an individual avoids a task, the more difficult it becomes to stop the cycle of procrastination.
In counseling, clients can learn strategies that are more effective than avoidance. One therapeutic technique that Eddins likes involves breaking tasks into smaller ones that are realistic and obtainable. For instance, an individual who hasn’t formally engaged in exercise in the past year might be tempted to set a goal of working out four times a week. This person has created an ideal “should,” but because the goal is overwhelming, he or she is likely to continue avoiding exercising, Eddins points out.
Should this happen, Eddins might explore why the client is procrastinating on the goal: “Tell me about the last time you worked out. When was that?”
When the client responds that it was a year ago, Eddins would suggest establishing a smaller goal to ensure success and build motivation. For example, the client could start by exercising one day a week for 10 minutes and build from there.
“I want [clients] to take the smallest possible step because I want to [help them] build success,” Eddins says. “That is actually reinforcing in the brain because … it gives you that sort of reward and that success, and then that allows people to achieve the goal.”
McCown points out that “the rehabilitation of a severe procrastinator is almost like working with a severely depressed person: Once they are able to … do anything, they will feel better about themselves, and they’ll have more self-efficacy.” That’s why it is important to get these clients to succeed at some task, even if it is a small and relatively meaningless one such as going to the grocery store or getting the car washed, he says.
Counselors can also help clients who procrastinate to create specific — rather than generic — goals, Eddins says. For example, a goal of “meal planning” would become “planning four meals for dinner on Sunday afternoon.” The counselor can then collaborate with these clients to identify the specific actions they will need to take to meet that goal: What typically happens on Sunday afternoons? What could get in the way of this task? How can you make time on Sunday afternoons? What do you need to prepare in advance? What steps will you take to complete this task?
Some clients, especially those with perfectionist tendencies, may resist setting a small goal or task because they don’t see it as “good enough” or as an effective way of achieving their larger goal, Eddins says. In these cases, counselors may need to address the client’s black-and-white thinking and the role it can play in procrastination, she adds.
Counselors can also help clients identify optimal times to complete tasks that they have been procrastinating on, Eddins says. For instance, clients might tell themselves they will complete an unpleasant task right after getting home from work. But if the counselor knows the client doesn’t like his or her job and will likely need some time to decompress after getting home, the counselor can point that fact out and note that it increases the likelihood of the client avoiding the task, she says.
Shifting clients’ focus to what they will do — rather than what they won’t do — is another way to motivate clients, Eddins says. For example, counselors can encourage clients to think along the lines of “I’m going to come home, get a glass of water, put on my tennis shoes, go out for a 10-minute walk, and then come home and fix dinner” rather than “I’m not going to sit on the couch this evening and watch television.” Trying to avoid procrastination or its underlying emotional root makes procrastination more active and powerful in one’s mind, Eddins points out.
All of these strategies can aid clients in addressing the deeper emotional problems connected to their procrastination. McCown stresses that procrastination won’t go away by itself. “Joe Ferrari phrases it quite beautifully: ‘It’s not about time.’ It’s often something deeper,” McCown says, “and I think counselors are in a great role to figure out whether it’s just simply a bad habit or whether it’s something a little more serious.”
‘A struggle for hope‘
Armed with funding and cultural insights, psychologist-designed programs seek to reduce the alarmingly high suicide rate among American Indians.
February 2007, Vol 38, No. 2
Different tribes, different languages, but a common thread: despair.
After generations of displacement, forced assimilation, poverty and neglect, many American Indians are trapped in a cycle of hopelessness that often leads to substance abuse, violence and in many cases suicide, say experts. In fact, according to the Indian Health Service, the suicide rate for American Indians is two and a half times higher than the national average. The rate for Indian youth and young adults 15 to 24 years old is over three times higher than the national average for this age group.
But there appears to be a glimmer of optimism for this long-ignored population. Community leaders, Indian psychologists and government agencies such as the Indian Health Service and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are working to identify the factors that contribute to suicide and to design interventions to help prevent it in those most at risk.
"The suicide rate did increase markedly in the 1970s and 1980s and then leveled off at very high rates," says psychologist Jon Perez, PhD, former director of the Behavioral Health Unit of the Indian Health Service (IHS). "However, now it's looking like there might be some hope that we can attenuate the rate."
New federally funded programs and tribal initiatives are working to do just that. In 2003, the IHS established its Suicide Prevention Committee, which established a national network with 50 to 60 people who train communities in how to prevent and react to clusters of suicides, which have become a frequent problem on reservations.
Also, last year the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced that it was providing $9.6 million in grant money over three years for eight youth suicide prevention programs, many of which target American Indian and Alaska Native communities. SAMHSA also recently awarded $49.3 million in grant funding for 14 new and one supplemental grant to tribal organizations for mental illness and substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery support programs. The tribes will use the grants to fund culturally appropriate programs addressing issues such as suicide in schools, programs for children with severe emotional disturbances and alcohol- and methamphetamine-abuse prevention programs.
These programs will embrace methods specific to each culture, drawing on native traditions to promote understanding and healing.
A history of trauma
Many Indian psychologists believe that the root of the population's suicide problem is the combination of generational trauma and loss of ethnic identity.
As psychologist Tawa M. Witko, PhD, notes in her book, "Mental Health Care for Urban Indians: Clinical Insights From Native Practitioners" (APA, 2006), Europeans' effort to "civilize" Indians changed their culture in ways that are still being felt. In fact, until a generation ago, Indian children were still taken from their families and tribes and sent to boarding schools to assimilate into white culture. In the process, many customs that should have been handed down from generation to generation have been lost, notes Witko.
The intergenerational trauma, compounded by extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunity and widespread substance abuse, has shattered these communities, Perez says. "Suicide is a single response to a multiplicity of problems," he emphasizes. "If you have these things going on, and you don't see any hope for the future, suicide seems like an option."
Hope can often be hard to come by when there are not enough jobs on the reservation and you don't have a car or enough money for gas or even food, says Diane Willis, PhD, a Kiowa tribe member and professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Willis, who has worked with tribes across the country teaching locals about infant mental health, says the economic situation is so dire that some Indians are starving. At one reservation-where the average resident income is $2,900 a year-she saw an 18-month-old little girl who was so hungry, that she grabbed for a freshly poured bowl of soup and burned herself. At another reservation, 40 people had attempted suicide within the last six months and approximately half succeeded.
Substance abuse-particularly alcohol-has fueled and compounded the misery, says psychologist Marlene EchoHawk, PhD, a member of the Otoe Missouria tribe and director of the Indian Health Service's Suicide Prevention Committee. In her community, alcohol became more prevalent when young Indian men returned from World War II with a newfound taste for alcohol and suffering from what is now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. They used the alcohol to stop the pain, but it only increased the depression, notes EchoHawk, who has seen this pattern repeat itself with tribe members returning from Vietnam and now from Iraq.
Young people in Indian communities are turning to alcohol at a very young age, setting them up for a lifetime of alcohol abuse and an increased risk of suicide, says Willis. Indeed, in one community, almost 20 percent of middle school students admitted to having attempted suicide in the last six months, psychologist Teresa LaFromboise, PhD, an associate counseling psychology professor and chair of Native American Studies at Stanford University, found in a recent survey.
"Our children and grandchildren are carrying all the pain of the generations that came before," says Ethleen Iron-Cloud Two Dogs, a member of the Ogalala Lakota tribe and director of Wakanyeja Pawicayapi (The Children First), Inc., a non-profit community mental health organization on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota.
Hope in a return to tradition
Historically, suicide was rare in American Indian culture, and the stigma attached to it is still very strong, notes LaFromboise. Many communities are just now coming out of denial and starting to address the problem, she adds.
Because the community emphasis on suicide is relatively new, there isn't a lot of research on what works. Many of the SAMHSA-funded programs will use evidence-based practices and tailor them to community culture and needs.
Indian psychologists believe that letting the community determine what it needs and allowing residents to incorporate traditions will produce the best results.
Indeed, community-oriented suicide prevention can significantly decrease suicidal gestures and acts, sociologist Philip A. May, PhD, found in a 15-year study published in the American Journal of Public Health (Vol. 95, No. 7, pages 1238-1244).
"We do have strength and we do have resources," maintains Shannon Crossbear, a member of the Ojibwe tribe and of the board-which Iron-Cloud Two Dogs is also vice president of-at First Nation Behavioral Health, a mental health advocacy group for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Her community has revived coming-of-age ceremonies for young girls, and in the short time they have been doing it, they have seen changes like fewer girls getting pregnant at a young age and greater engagement in community rituals.
EchoHawk's tribe has started performing a ceremony that emphasizes spirituality and reintegrating into the community for those returning from Iraq. In the IHS youth centers, they are also using traditional practices where possible, and the young people are using them, she adds.
LaFromboise developed the American Indian Life Skills Development Curriculum, designed to reduce suicidal and other destructive behavior by giving students coping and problem-solving skills. The curriculum addresses specific problems in Indian students' lives such as substance abuse, dysfunctional family environments and violence, and builds self-esteem by encouraging students to learn about and take pride in their cultural heritage. In the process, students also learn how to help a suicidal friend get help within the community. The program, initially developed for the Zuni tribe in collaboration with the Cherokee Nation, has been adapted in several other communities.
In communities where there have been clusters of suicides, the solution appears to lie not within clinical methods, but in the response of the community itself, says Perez. How quickly and effectively they respond has been a much better predictor of reducing suicide rates than any clinical methods outside agencies have provided. Economic empowerment is also critical, adds Willis.
Traditionally American Indians are taught to view neighbors as family, notes Crossbear, and this can be an essential strength.