The Process of Therapy

Three Little Things: Journaling to build Self-Worth

One key way we build self-esteem is by accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves. Every accomplished goal trickles into our sense self: it feeds our personal integrity, that sense of trust we have in ourselves that we will do what we set out to do. Our proven ability, even though only proven to ourselves, contributes to feeling good about ourselves. But what happens when a negative core belief such as “I’m not good enough” has a stronghold over our thoughts?

Negative core beliefs are false self-referencing beliefs, and they pack a pretty heavy punch. When a negative belief screams out in our brain, a powerful emotional response reverberates throughout our memory network and our body responds with much the same level of activation as when the negative belief was created – even though in the present moment we are safe. Experiences from childhood may have planted the seeds of the negative belief, and then additional life experiences may have strengthened them. Because these negative beliefs have been reinforced over and over again, they feel very true. “Negative beliefs come to create a perpetual filter through which we view ourselves and our world” (Parnell, 2007).

Negative core beliefs feel true but they are not true. Because these beliefs are capable of infiltrating all of our daily activities, social interactions, and inner dialogue, we need an equally powerful method for countering them. Counselling is an excellent way to heal early wounds and develop coping strategies for the present. There are also techniques we can focus on between sessions to practice being present with new, positive belief systems.

journal for self-worthThree Little Things: 

For this journaling activity, you are going to want to use a beautiful book: one that makes you smile when you look at. You won’t be journaling in the traditional style: this will be more of a ‘healing journal’, one that you are going to want to flip through often, to remind yourself of what you have written.

Each evening before you get ready for bed, take 10 minutes to sit down and reflect on 3 things you did well that day. These are the little things that we often over-look, that there are no accolades for. When we take the time to notice, we develop compassion for our selves. We start to see the evidence that yes, we are human and we make mistakes, but also that we are also inherently good and worthwhile beings. If you find that you are having trouble getting started, try reflecting on the list of prompts below.

Writing Prompts for Reflection:

  • What did I do well today?
  • How did I cope successfully with a triggering moment today?
  • How did I care for myself with loving kindness after a triggering moment?
  • What am I grateful for today
  • How did I demonstrate gratitude today?
  • How did I implement something I’ve been learning today?
  • How did I show kindness today?
  • How did I show up with courage in my life today?
  • How did I practice self-acceptance, or self-forgiveness today?
  • What daily goal did I follow through on today?
  • How did I live with intention today?

For more strategies on journaling to build self-compassion (and a really good read…) check out Dr. Kristin Neff’s website: self-compassion.org.

Resources:
Parnell, L. (2007). A Therapist’s Guide to EMDR: Tools and Techniques for Successful Treatment. New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

The Process of Therapy

The Voice of Shame & The Experience of Abuse

Shame is a concept that comes up a lot in the course of working with people in counselling. Shame is that little nagging voice in the back of one’s mind, constantly repeating variations of “I’m not good enough” and “I’m such a failure”. Shame itself is a fear-based emotion bringing with it a fundamental sense of inadequacy and lack of belonging. It is a sense that everyone can see our internal brokenness, our inherent flaws. Shame often carries with it a sense of being worthless, unredeemable, unlovable, humiliated, less than, smallness, and weakness. It creates a distress within us that can be so activating, making us feel a dissonance from our authentic self; making us question our very sense of self.

When working with individuals who have experienced abuse, there is a significant level of shame that often blocks healing and moving forward. While the feeling of shame can be debilitating and confusing, thanks to people like Brene Brown, there are now You Tube videos and books and workshops that can help us through the experience of shame. To take it one step further though, I’d like to write about how shame comes to bubbles up in the first place, specifically in the context of abuse. My intention is that with a little theory, we can normalize the experience of this insidious feeling, develop action steps to process it, and thus help to dilute shames’ otherwise pervasive effects.

To explain this pervasive sense of shame that can result from abuse experiences, we have to draw on learning theory. Specifically, classical conditioning (think Pavlov and his dogs!). In this case, we want to understand evaluative conditioning. Evaluative conditioning refers to “an attitude development or change toward an object as a result of that object’s co-occurrence with another object”. Complicated description, yes – but here is how it breaks down: when being abused, the abuse experience (which is recognized as “a very bad experience”) gets paired with the self, and the person thus (unconsciously) negatively evaluates themselves as “I am bad”. In other words, evaluative conditioning is an unconscious, automatic, and persistent transfer of one’s dislike for one stimulus to be transferred onto another.

In the case of sexual abuse, the disgust, shame, and fear associated with the abuse gets associated with physical touch, body odors, sex-related sounds, and even one’s own body; which in the language of shame says: “I am bad”. The disgust, shame, and fear associated with the sexual abuse can also come to be paired with physical touch and sex in general, which has the self-language of: “I am dirty and disgusting”. If the perpetrator was shaming during the abuse, one might come to pair the abuse with emotional experiences. This means feeling ashamed of your emotional experiences.

In summary, it is in this way that shame becomes a result of evaluative conditioning of the self. It is a voice within that quietly taints all daily experiences. The feeling of shame can be overwhelmingly debilitating at times, causing people to freeze or flee or become defensive in life and in relationships. Shame can create confusion, and fear, and anger. It it can inhibit joy, sexuality, sadness, and hurt. It can stop us from fully living life.

If you have experienced abuse and recognize these patterns as playing out in your life, please know that you are not alone and that there is help. Through counselling, which starts first with building trust and connecting with safety in the counselling relationship, you can develop new strategies for noticing and releasing shame. You can work on counter-conditioning the conditioned pairing (for example, unpairing self from disgust), and cultivating empathy and appreciation for all parts of self. That equals self-compassion.

Every single one of us is worth taking up a bit of space in this world – to live our life and fulfill our dreams. If shame is stopping you, please consider working with a Counsellor to heal.

References:

  • The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization, by Otto van der Hart, Ellert Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steel
  • I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power, by Brene Brown

Disclaimer:  This is a very simplified overview of evaluative conditioning / learning theory and the shame that stems from abuse experiences.