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Finding the Exceptions

When I work with a client, I offer a two-pronged approach to change: while getting curious about what type of repair that needs to happen to heal old emotional wounds we are simultaneously looking for changes that can be made immediately to help solve the client’s issues. Somatic psychotherapy, EMDR Therapy, and Brainspotting are all excellent approaches for the former, but what about the latter? Developing mindfulness is an effective way to catch behaviors that no longer work, creating the possibility for new options and renewed choice.

However, it is not always easy to identify new options for ways of responding to a situation or emotion. Sometimes, if we feel like we’ve never been able to react in a different way than the way we are familiar with, then it’s impossible to even imagine doing so. At these times, we can feel stuck or trapped.

Stuck in the trap

It’s easy to get stuck in the trap. Our brains are designed to look for shortcuts, and one of those shortcuts is to generalize using associated experiences and memories. When we focus on what we expect to find, that’s what we find. If I expect failure, I can clearly remember times that I’ve failed. If I expect to find disappointment, I can remember times I’ve experienced disappointment. This leads to absolute thinking, also referred to as black-and-white thinking, or all-or-nothing thinking. I may conclude, “I always fail” or “I’ll never get what I want.” Or, more generally, I may believe that if things aren’t perfect, then they must be terrible (and perfect is a high bar!).

It’s this type of thinking that gets us stuck in the trap. Things have “always” been this way, and, so, this is how they will always be. This type of thinking can be accompanied with feelings of hopelessness and despair. If nothing can change, why try?

Shades of gray…and all kinds of colors, too! Exceptional!

It’s easy enough to say: stop your absolute thinking! Yes, real life is not just black and white. Yet, it’s another thing to access other ways of thinking, to see not only the shades of gray in between black and white but also the whole spectrum of colors and hues.

One way to become unstuck is to ask yourself a simple question: When has that not been true?

For example, let’s say Marlene is stuck in thinking, “I’ll never succeed.” Although my question is verbal and logical, I may ask her not to think too much and just allow herself to hear the question and allow her brain to follow a path of associations. Then, “Marlene, when have you felt successful?” Even if the memory or memories that come to the surface in response to the question seem insignificant at first, they aren’t. By finding the ‘exceptions’ to her absolute belief, she can begin to challenge the belief. These exceptions can serve as a template for Marlene to remember what it feels like to be successful.

While this alone is a good start to becoming unstuck, here are a few tips to make the most of these exceptions:

  • What made it possible for this memory to be different? For example, Marlene might say, “I feel that part of the reason I was able to make it to the regional round of the spelling bee was because my grandma kept telling me she believed in me. It really helped me see me being successful even before the competition began.”

  • How can you recreate similar circumstances now? I might ask Marlene, “Who could believe in you now?” The answer may be someone else whom she trusts, herself, or, if Marlene’s grandma is no longer alive, Marlene may choose to imagine her grandma providing support and encouragement.

  • How does it feel in your body when you experience the memory of an exception? The body can be a powerful tool in accessing states of being that may be most beneficial in a given situation. Much has been made of the relationship of mood, self-beliefs, and posture, and much of this has to do with the way your body feels when it’s in a certain posture (and vice versa). By recalling the internal sensations of your body and your body posture that you experienced during an exception, you can bring those feelings into a current situation.

What if I can’t find an exception?

Sometimes it’s really difficult to get our brains to remember exceptions to our current beliefs. For example, I’ve worked with clients who say, “I’ll always be depressed because I’ve always been depressed.” They are unable to think of times when they’ve been happy. In this moment, it may not be possible to access an exception, so we begin by working in smaller shifts. I might ask, “What is a time when you felt less depressed?” Or, I might switch the emotion in another direction, “When do you remember ever feeling angry?” These questions, which don’t require a switch to an opposite state, can also help people begin to become unstuck.

If you are having trouble coming unstuck from black-and-white thinking, contact me to see how we might work together to help you get back to living a life in full color.

Stuck image courtesy of Nina Jean.

Exception image courtesy of Thomas Leth-Olsen.

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