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Exercise, meditation, prayer, and eating good food all sound like wonderful, emotional-baseline-raising activities. But depending on how you're doing them, they could also be a way to eliminate unwanted thoughts and feelings. Tony looks at "creative helplessness" and "emotional control strategies" and how they play into our search for happiness. Tony references Russ Harris' book ACT Made Simple https://amzn.to/3l3NeDJ

And follow Tony on the Virtual Couch YouTube channel to see a sneak preview of his upcoming podcast "Murder on the Couch," where True Crime meets therapy, co-hosted with his daughter Sydney. You can watch a pre-release clip here https://youtu.be/-RkRq8SrQy0

Subscribe to Tony's latest podcast, "Waking Up to Narcissism Q&A - Premium Podcast," on the Apple Podcast App. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/waking-up-to-narcissism-q-a/id1667287384

Go to http://tonyoverbay.com/workshop to sign up for Tony's "Magnetize Your Marriage" virtual workshop. The cost is only $19, and you'll learn the top 3 things you can do NOW to create a Magnetic Marriage. 

You can learn more about Tony's pornography recovery program, The Path Back, by visiting http://pathbackrecovery.com And visit http://tonyoverbay.com and sign up to receive updates on upcoming programs and podcasts.

Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the "uh's" and "um's" that, in his words, "must be created by wizards and magic!" because it's that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ

Transcript

Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 359 of the Virtual Couch. I am your host, Tony Overbay. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four, and creator of The Path Back, which is an online pornography recovery program that is helping people turn away from turning to pornography as an unhealthy coping mechanism. 

And a funny thing on the topic of pornography, which seems like a bit of an oxymoron, I received some texts a couple from people that are very close to me, who asked me about a post on my social media this week, that there was a mention of cornography that is as in corn, C O R N, or people talking about their corn addiction. Now, this is not a situation where people are literally addicted to the delicious yellow, I don't even know if it's a vegetable or a fruit, but it turns into popcorn, which is one of my favorite things in the entire world. I guess technically I could fall into a bit of a corn addiction if that is the case, but we're not talking about that type of corn. 

Apparently, if you use the word porn or pornography on certain social media platforms, then that will be the end of you. Your account will be banned and you will be sent to outer darkness for time and all eternity. So in order to get around that and to try to help people, because I really feel like we need to be having better discussions around the challenges of people that are turning to pornography as an unhealthy coping mechanism, you have to refer to it as corn, corn addiction, and the coauthor of my book, He's a Porn Addict, Now what? An Expert and a Former Addict to Answer Your Questions, Joshua Shea, has a pretty big following, especially on Tik Tok. And he is known as that corn coach or the corn recovery coach. So I am meeting the social media platforms where they are at. And we're just going to embrace it. And I am going to help people turn away from unhealthy coping mechanisms, especially turning to corn or cornography to try to get that dopamine bump and have them tune out from feeling less connected in their relationships with their spouses or in their parenting, their faith, their health or their career. There's your gee whiz file tip for the day that you are going to hear me talk more about people and their addictions to corn. And, again, it is not the fruit and or vegetable. 

But let's get to today's topic. I want to talk about happiness. And before I do that, let me just encourage you to go sign up for my newsletter. Go to tonyoverbay.com. And we will not inundate you with spam. As a matter of fact we will most likely, still continue to not send out the newsletter on a regular basis, but I'm working with my friends at the Yeah Yeah agency to get a template together and to just get that word out more on a regular basis, because there are so many exciting things that are coming. The Murder On The Couch podcast with my daughter, Sydney. I don't think I've ever put so much into the backend of putting something out in a better way. And I can't wait to release that. And there's a clip that's on my YouTube channel and I'll put the link in the show notes that is just a couple of minutes and it gives you a little bit of a preview of Sydney and my back and forth in this podcast. And I'm excited about this. We have a lot of episodes that have been recorded. And it's probably not exactly what you are anticipating. There's some true crime meets therapy. There's a, I feel like there's all these other things as well. A father, daughter relationship. And we'll get to more of that down the road, but I would encourage you to be on the lookout for Murder On The Couch and then sign up and subscribe and follow, however you follow all of your podcasts. 

So back to this concept of happiness today, I want to look more into the book ACT Made Simple by my favorite acceptance and commitment therapy author, Russ Harris. We're going to dig into ACT Made Simple. And before I even get to ACT Made Simple, we're going to talk about a concept today in ACT that sounds negative, but it's called creative hopelessness. And I really feel like by the end of today's episode, you're going to have a better idea of why it can be difficult to feel happy. And what real happiness consists of. And then a way to start to achieve more of a legitimate, real internal feeling of happiness. And based on a, probably a different definition of happiness then you may be used to, but first let's go to story time. And this is from the book, The Confidence Gap. And this is from Russ Harris. “Why is it so difficult to be happy?” And actually this might be from his book, The Happiness Trap, one of one or two, one of those books that I recommend them both. Russ said, “The modern human mind's ability to analyze and plan, create and communicate was not initially a feel-good device so that we could tell jokes, write poems or say, I love you.” 

And this is where I often like to think of the concept of a court jester that you had to bring someone in and basically tell them, hey, be funny, make us laugh. And if they were not funny, the court jester could be killed. But that was not the design of the human brain, that it wasn't this feel good device. It was more of a don't get killed device. So Russ said our minds grew up in a way to help us survive in a world that was fraught with danger. So early on your goal was to eat and drink and find shelter and have more kids and protect your family so that you could survive. So truly it was more of this don't get killed device, but he said that the better we became at anticipating and avoiding danger, the longer we lived and the more kids we had. So each generation of the human mind became increasingly skilled at predicting and avoiding danger. 

So now our minds are constantly on the lookout. They are assessing and judging everything that we encounter. Is it good or bad? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it harmful or helpful? But now it's not as much about animals or packs of thieves, but it's about losing a job or being rejected or getting a speeding ticket or embarrassing ourselves in public. Or getting a terminal disease and a million other common worries. So as a result, he says that we spend a lot of our time worrying about things that more often than not, will not ever happen. And on that note before I get back to Russ's “Why it can be so difficult to be happy”, that worry, I think also is tied into just this desire we have for certainty. 

I was talking with my wife about this last night and it can just be really a cause of such stress and anxiety for, I think a lot of us when we just want to know. I mean, it can be everything from, we want to know what our kids are going to do when they grow up. And we want to know what retirement is going to look like. We want to know who's going to win the super bowl in a couple of weeks. And we just have this desire to know, and we crave certainty. And if you really break it down, that desire to know is there to try and calm our anxiety that our brain feels like if I can just know, then I will be able to feel better. And I'll just be that, I'll be able to be more in the moment, be more present, but in reality, we have to be more present to be okay with the idea that we don't know, because we don't know who's going to win the super bowl. We don't know what retirement is going to look like. We can have a good idea. But one of the most certain things in life is that uncertainty. And in the book On Being Certain, which I just, I feel like is one of those books that I think really helped me reframe a lot of the things that I think, and the way that I act. It. Basically posits this idea that certainty is, in my words, “adorable” that our brain craves this certainty and that our brain is even trying to trick us into thinking, no, you can find it if you ruminate and you worry and you think, and you overthink. You'll find that certainty that you're looking for. So just, just keep at it. But then that is exactly what can keep us stuck. And I often say that it's that concept of, we want certainty and our brain will even say, okay, what's two plus two? Well, it's four. And that I'm pretty certain of. That is very certain. 

And so that feeling of certainty is there in our brain somewhere. So I feel like the more that we are seeking certainty, then the more maddening it can become because our brain says no, you know what? It feels like, old man, keep ruminating, keep worrying. And you'll find that two plus two aha moment. Trust me. So we keep worrying and wondering and ruminating. But again, we spend a lot of this time worrying about things that more often than not, will not happen. So then Russ says that we also have this inherent need to belong to a group. And early on, if your clan booted you out, how long would it be before you were devoured by wolves? And he says sometimes, literally. So, how does the mind protect you from getting booted out? Well, by comparing you to other members of the clan. Am I fitting in? Or am I doing the right thing? Am I contributing enough? Am I as good as others? Am I doing anything that might get me rejected? So he says, does that sound familiar? Because our modern day minds are continually warning us of rejection and comparing ourselves to the rest of society. So no wonder we spend so much energy worrying about whether or not people will like us. 

And even as little as a couple of decades ago, we only had to worry about the people in our church or in our neighborhood or in our school or in our work. But now all we have to do is pick up our phone or glance at a computer screen. And we can find a whole host of people who appear to be smarter, richer, slimmer, more famous, more powerful than we are. I can't even tell you, I feel like even more so over the last two or three years I've always had people come into the office and say that they see people on social media and everybody seems so happy and successful. And that's where as a therapist and when I get to work with so many of these people, and I will say, we all have our problems, without going into detail or breaking confidentiality. And it's interesting because I feel like that has amped up a little bit more in the last year or two of people putting on some very, very big “look at us”. We are doing everything and it's amazing and wonderful. We have no problems or no fears or no worries or no doubts. To the problem where then others are seeing those people put themselves out there as perfect. And then starting to feel again, like what is wrong with me? So I think that's exactly what Russ Harris is talking about. Because if I go back to this, he says that “When we compare ourselves to others, then we can feel inferior or disappointed or sad and depressed.” And then he said, “And to make it even worse,” and this is the part that I felt like it resonated with me in particular, “our minds are so sophisticated that we can even conjure up a fantasy image of the person that we believe we would like to be. So we can even compare ourselves to a version of ourselves that we assume would be much happier. And that just sounds exhausting. So, what he's saying in that scenario is I can even create this version of me that has these rock hard, six pack abs probably full hair transplants, no wrinkles, and then just able to quote the works of Shakespeare, as well as the works of ACT founder, Stephen Hayes, and then make sense of all of it. So why am I not that guy? What is wrong with me? I must, I must strive for that. Perfection. And so that is part of why it can be so difficult to be happy. So again, the brain is a don't get killed device. 

And I will take every chance I can to then go from there and to the book Buddha Brain, where the author Rick Hanson says, “but here's the problem there too, that your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences more than anything else,” he says, “the brain is like Velcro for the negative experiences and Teflon for the positive ones.” So consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber the negative ones, the pile of these negative implicit memories grows faster. So then this background feeling of what it feels like to be you can start to become undeservedly glum and pessimistic. So we seek this certainty. Our brain is this don't get killed device. Not a, I am falling in love and everything in the world is wonderful and amazing device. And so the acceptance of that is where we can start to grow. And now let's jump into this. What Russ Harris calls in the book ACT Made Simple, “the emotional control agenda”. So if we just, again, start out with, I just want to be happy. In the book ACT Made Simple, and I'm on chapter eight, he says, “Have you ever had a client who just wanted to be happy? And that is all that he or she wanted from therapy?” And he says, “Of course you have. And I'm sure you remember well, how challenging that is, or that was luckily from now on,” he says, “you will have something to help you with these clients. Creative hopelessness.” 

And he says, “Please don't let the name put you off.” So creative hopelessness in a nutshell, in plain language, he says that creative hopelessness is a process where one becomes aware that trying hard to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings tends to make life worse than better. So this is that concept where, when we are burning all these emotional calories seeking certainty, or trying to make sense of things that don't make sense or trying to prepare for a future version of events that more than likely will not happen, that is what can just start to feel like what is wrong with me, or I just don't feel happy. So that leads to this sense of hopelessness and the agenda of avoiding one's difficult thoughts and feelings. And out of that feeling of hopelessness can emerge a creative attitude toward finding new and different ways to deal with them. So if we look at hopelessness as where we find ourselves, when we're trying to control or avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings that can feel hopeless. We need to start to add a dose of creativity in there because now that I accept the fact that it feels that things can feel pretty hopeless. Well now, what am I going to do about that? So hopelessness, here we emerge a creative attitude toward finding a new and different way of dealing with this situation that we find ourselves in. 

So Russ says, “The aim then is to increase the client's awareness of the emotional control agenda and the costs of the successive experiential avoidance,” which again, is doing anything other than the things that you feel would be good for you to do. And then to consciously start to recognize and acknowledge that clinging tightly to this agenda of control. This emotional control agenda is unworkable. So what do we have to do? We have to confront this agenda that you have, that you can control all of your thoughts and feelings and emotions. So while we look at what the client has done to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings as a therapist, we start to help somebody examine how they work in the short-term and the long-term. So sometimes avoiding something works in the short term because it alleviates the feelings of uncomfortableness or anxiety, but then how's that working in the long haul? If you can avoid something in the very moment, then what do we typically do? Well, we'll do it later. We'll put it off until tomorrow. And if we hit the mid part of a day, then we'll do it tomorrow. And if we hit Wednesday or Thursday, we'll do it on Monday. And if we hit the 16th of the month, we'll do it next month. And when July hits, we'll do it next year. So when we know or suspect that a client, you know, as a therapist is excessively experientially avoidant and doing everything other than the things that they are claiming that they want to do, you recognize that they are so attached to this agenda of emotional control. They're saying, well, I need to feel good. I need to feel good before I can do these things that are important. Or I need to get rid of these unwanted thoughts and feelings, and then I can do it. But in reality, we have to do to actually start to feel good. Or we have to do, to bring along these unwanted thoughts and feelings. And show them actually, who is boss. 

So this creative hopelessness, it's part of the ACT model that we bring. If we know for a fact, or we feel pretty sure that a client is really cleaning tightly to an agenda of emotional control, that I have to control how I feel I have to get rid of these unwanted, unpleasant and difficult thoughts or feelings or emotions or memories. And I have to replace these things with good, pleasant, desirable ones. Here is one of those problems that I really do have with the mental health field in general. And I was one of these therapists for years, that just said, okay, but what is going right for you? Or, you know, that thought leads to an emotion and that emotion leads to a behavior. So just change the thought, like you just need to be happy or if somebody doesn't call you back, instead of being frustrated or angry, just think, oh, maybe they dropped their phone in the lake. Maybe that's it. And so that would lead to an emotion of, oh, okay maybe I'm not so bad in the behavior. I can go about my day. 

But then the person might leave the office and think, wait. I just paid for that guy to tell me that maybe my friend dropped their phone in a lake when in reality, I think that my friend just doesn't really care for me. So in other words, we can try to just say, okay, don't think that, or we can try to say, well, maybe it's not as bad as I think it is. And at that point, maybe I'm wrong and maybe everybody does love me and they just all forgot about me and that's completely okay. But in reality, we're still trying to control. We have this agenda of emotional control that I have to control how I feel. I have to get rid of the unwanted or unpleasant or difficult thoughts or feelings or emotions. And I just have to replace them with good and pleasant and desirable ones. So Russ says we've all got this agenda to some extent. It's normal. And we even talk about when you really dig deep and to act as much as I like to talk about this concept of experiential avoidance, and that's doing anything other than the things that I feel like I want to do or must do. That in reality, a little bit of experiential avoidance and moderation doesn't ruin our entire lives or our days. 

But when a client is clinging desperately to this agenda of trying to have this emotional control, well, then at that point, then the experiential avoidance is high. And at that point it really does become very problematic. And again just by way of making sure that I realize I assumed that everybody has listened to everything and they know exactly what experiential avoidance is in the world of acceptance and commitment therapy this is a really powerful concept. So experiential avoidance and I'll stay in this text of ACT Made Simple. So Russ Harris says, “Let's look at another core process that gets people hooked on their thoughts and their feelings, it's experiential avoidance, and this term refers to our desire to avoid or get rid of any of these unwanted experiences and then anything that we do to try to make that happen.” Now these experiences in ACT, we call them private experiences and a private experience means any experience that you have that nobody else knows about unless you tell them. So that's your thoughts, your feelings, your memories, your images, your emotions, your urges, your impulses, your desires, your sensations. 

So all humans are experientially avoidant to some degree. And why shouldn't they be? And there's an ACT metaphor that explains this I think in a little bit more detail, it's called the problem solving machine. So as a therapist, I would say if we had to pick one ability of the human mind that has enabled us to be so successful as a species, it would probably have to be problem solving, which basically boils down to this. A problem is something unwanted. And a solution means we avoid it or get rid of it. Now in the physical world, problem solving works really well. If you have a wolf outside of your door, you get rid of it, either with rocks or you throw spears at it. Or you shoot it, or if there's snow or rain or hail, when you can't get rid of those things, but you can avoid them, hiding in a cave or building a shelter or wearing protective clothing. So a dry arid ground, you can get rid of it by irrigation and fertilization, or you can avoid it by moving to a better location. 

So the human mind is a problem solving machine and it's really good at its job. And given that problem solving works so well in the material world, then it's only natural that our mind tries to do the same with our inner world. So this world of thoughts and feelings, memories, and sensations and urges. But unfortunately when we try to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts or feelings, it doesn't work. And if it does, we end up creating a lot of new problems that can make life even harder. So experiential avoidance then actually increases our suffering. So he says we'll return to this problem solving machine metaphor later, but for now, consider how experiential avoidance increases suffering. Addiction provides one of the most obvious examples. So many addictions begin as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Such as boredom or loneliness or anxiety, guilt, anger, sadness. So in the short run, gambling, drugs, alcohol, sex, cigarettes, will often help people to avoid or get rid of these feelings temporarily. 

But over time, a huge amount of pain and suffering results. So the more time and energy that we spend trying to avoid or get rid of unwanted private experiences, the things that are happening internally to you, your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions, your beliefs, all of these things. The more we're likely to suffer psychologically in the long run and, and things like anxiety disorders. He says provide another good example. It's not the presence of anxiety that creates an anxiety disorder. Because after all anxiety is a normal human emotion that we all experienced. Anxiety can be there as a warning. It truly can. But at the core of any anxiety disorder lies this excessive experiential avoidance. Of trying to avoid or run away from these feelings, thoughts, uncomfortable feelings that are happening inside of us. So Russ Harris says a life dominated by trying hard to avoid or get rid of anxiety, that actually then increases your anxiety. So he says, for example, suppose I feel anxious in social situations. So in order to avoid those feelings of anxiety, I stopped socializing. But my anxiety gets deeper and more acute. And now I have a social phobia. There's an obvious short-term benefit of avoiding social situations. They get to avoid anxious thoughts and feelings, but the long-term cost is huge. You become isolated. Your life quote gets smaller. And then people find themselves stuck in this vicious cycle. And he says, alternatively, I might try to reduce my anxiety in social situations by playing the role of a good listener. 

So I become very empathetic and caring toward others. And I discover a lot of information about the thoughts and feelings and desires of other people. The other people I'm talking to, but I reveal very little or nothing of myself. Again, this helps in the short term to reduce my fear of being judged or rejected. But in the long term, it means that my relationships lack intimacy or openness or authenticity. Now Russ goes on to say, he says, suppose I take Valium or some other mood altering substance to reduce my anxiety. Again. The short term benefit is obvious, less anxiety. But the long term costs of relying on he quotes “benzodiazepines or antidepressants or marijuana or alcohol” to reduce our anxiety, could include A, a psychological dependence on the substance, or B, even a physical addiction, C, physical and emotional side effects, and D, financial costs. And failure to learn more effective responses to anxiety and which therefore maintains or can even exacerbate the issue. So he says that another way that I might respond to social anxiety would be to grit my teeth and socialize, despite my anxiety, that is to tolerate the feelings, even though I'm distressed by them. 

So from an ACT perspective, and this is what I love. I love this about ACT. That sounds like that exposure. I just need to get in there and do it. But from an ACT perspective, this too would be experiential avoidance. Why? Because although I am not avoiding the situation, I am definitely struggling with my feelings and desperately hoping that they'll go away. So this is tolerance, not acceptance. And there's a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. He says, “Would you want people you love to tolerate you while you're present, hoping you'll soon go away and frequently checking to see if you've left yet? Or would you prefer them to completely and totally accept you as you are with all of your flaws and foibles and be willing to have you around for as long as you choose to stay?”

So, Russ Harris says the cost of tolerating social anxiety, that is gritting my teeth and putting up with it, is that it takes a huge amount of effort and energy, which makes it hard to fully engage in any social interaction. So as a consequence, you start to miss out on much of the pleasure and fulfillment that accompany socializing of just being in the moment, being present, observing, noticing, being open, vulnerable, funny, charismatic, connecting. This in turn then will increase your anxiety about future social events. Because you're already predicting that I won't enjoy this or it'll feel awful or it's too much effort. He says, “Sadly, the more importance that we place on avoiding anxiety, the more we deeply have anxiety and we develop anxiety about our anxiety.” And it becomes this vicious cycle and it's at the center of any anxiety disorder. Because he says after all, what is it? The core of a panic attack, if not anxiety, about anxiety. So again, attempts to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings. I can actually increase them. There's the paradox. 

For example, research shows that suppression of unwanted thoughts leads to the rebound effect, meaning that it will increase the unwanted thoughts, both in intensity and frequency of the unwanted thoughts. Other studies show that training to suppress a mood will actually intensify it in a self amplifying loop. So there's a large and growing body of research that shows a higher experiential avoidance is associated with anxiety disorders. But again, that doesn't mean you can just jump in there and just exposure therapy yourself into happiness. Because is that tolerance or are you truly learning to accept and be in the moment? So talking about this growing body of research, showing that higher experiential avoidance is associated with anxiety disorders, excessive worrying, depression, poor work performance, higher levels of substance abuse, lower quality of life, high risk of acting out sexually can lead to concepts like borderline personality disorder, or a greater severity of post-traumatic stress disorder. Long-term disability, higher degrees of overall psychopathology. So it's hardly surprising that he says that then a core component of most ACT protocols involves getting a client in touch with the costs and futility of experiential avoidance. I mean, this is often an essential first step to pave the way. For a radically different agenda, experiential acceptance. 

But, of course, you know, that is going to take work. And I'm not trying to say that just because you're aware, hear what I'm saying, that is going to be easy because it's going to be a little bit of a long road ahead. But then what's the key? It is learning how to figure out what matters to us. Here comes those values. And then throw in a nice dose of mindfulness and learning how to pause and slow down your heart rate and get out of your fight or flight of your brain, your amygdala. And learning how to be in the moment and live by things that are of value and importance. But that doesn't mean that your anxiety goes away. As a matter of fact, it'll probably still be there. But you'll learn more of a concept around acceptance. And not that you have to then have this avoidance. 

So back to this concept of creative hopelessness. So now we can maybe understand a little bit more where creative hopelessness gets its name. Because what we aim to do is to create a sense of hopelessness in the agenda of controlling your feelings. So it's not about hopelessness in your future or yourself or in your life. It's hopelessness and the agenda of controlling your feelings. Therefore let's get creative. So we aim to undermine this agenda so we can open our clients as therapists up to a whole new one and agenda of acceptance. And a lot of the ACT textbooks often refer to this new agenda as willingness. So once we identify the hopelessness of trying to control, let's get creative and let's start to lean into willingness. That is the willingness to have your difficult thoughts and feelings. As opposed to fighting with them or avoiding them. So creative hopelessness is rarely a one-off intervention. Russ Harris says, “It's usually something you need to revisit session after session as a therapist. But usually each time you revisit it, it gets a little quicker and a little easier to do.” And so, it's interesting and I love before he goes deeper into the concepts around creative hopelessness. He says, okay, we need to get clear on a couple of concepts. So one is the emotional control strategies. 

So emotional control strategies or anything that we do primarily to try and get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings or overt or covert behavior that's predominantly motivated by experiential avoidance. So these emotional control strategies can include everything from exercise, guilty, prayer, meditation, alcohol, heroin, suicide attempts. And he makes a note that if exercise or prayer or meditation are predominantly motivated by values, then we would not call those emotional control strategies. So, I have a value of fitness. That's a core value of mine. So exercise is a vehicle. So I moved that into, okay. That is living my value based life. If I am turning more to exercise instead of ruminating, worrying, beating myself up about things. So you really call things emotional control strategies, only if the main intention of those activities is to avoid or get rid of unwanted feelings. And creative hopelessness work will ask a client to look openly and non-judgmentally at all the emotional control strategies that they're using, but we don't judge those as good or bad or right. Or wrong or positive or negative. 

Because we really want to just see if those strategies are working or not in terms of creating a better life. And this is where I love the fact that at the core of ACT is you. You are you, you are the only version of you and we can take in data from the peanut gallery or those that we really do appreciate and care about, and we do want to know what other people think it's just kind of in our nature. But ultimately you're the only one who knows how you feel. So I may ask others for their opinion or what do you think I should do or do you think this is good? But at the end of the day, this is where ultimately you and I love that you can look at a concept like exercise. And is that an emotional control strategy or is that a value? And that is completely up to you. And when I talk about value based living, I give this pretty dramatic example of a value of honesty, that if you grew up in a home. And that home, there was no honesty. Then you may have a value of almost, I want to say brutal honesty. But then your brain is going to say, okay, well, yeah, but you might hurt somebody's feelings. And in the world of ACT, well, I'm not even arguing that, that's not, we're not arguing the truthfulness of that statement. It may very well be true and probably is true, but is that a workable thought toward my value based goal of honesty? 

But if you grew up in a home where there was an insane amount of brutal honesty, then maybe you have more of a value of compassion. So then your brain is going to “yeah, but” you and say, well, yeah, but you may not be honest. And at that point, then if you are the only version of you and you know what that means for you, then I'm not even arguing if that's a true or false statement. It's true. I'm not going to be completely honest at times because I have this value of compassion. So I love that we can even carry that over into these emotional control strategies that something like exercise. Is it a value or is it an attempt to control or move away from our run from your emotions? He talks about targeting all emotional control strategies. So, in a word, you know, Russ says, do we target all emotional control strategies? And he says in a word, no, with a whole bunch of O's. Because he says, “Recall that the whole ACT model rests on the concept of things being workable, workability.” 

So is this behavior working to help you build a rich and meaningful life? So if your emotional control strategies are working to enrich and enhance your life, then keep doing them by all means. Keep doing the exercise away. If you have a value of knowledge, then Google everything. But if you do not have a value of knowledge, then Googling things can be a form of experiential avoidance. He said, “However, the reality is that most human beings overly rely on emotional control strategies. And when we use them excessively rigidly or inappropriately, our quality of life will suffer.” And he says, take eating chocolate for an example. He said, when we mindfully eat a piece of good quality chocolate appreciating and savoring it, we feel good. Assuming that we like chocolate. So if we use this as an emotional control strategy, flexibly and moderately, it enriches our life. It is workable, but if we do it excessively, then it might start to have a cost of health, such as weight gain. Plus if we are in intense, emotional pain and we eat chocolate to try and distract ourselves from it, then it's unlikely to work. And I love that he then goes back to this example of exercise, and for example he says, when we exercise, we often feel better. At least afterward. He says, if not at the time.

And exercise also improves our quality of life. Therefore, if we exercise as an emotional control strategy and we do so flexibly and moderately, then that's generally workable and good. But if it becomes excessive, like the client with anorexia spends three hours a day in the gym to keep their body in a state of wasted thinness, then even something as positive as exercise will have its costs. And in addition, he says, ACT postulates that even life enhancing activities such as exercise or meditation or healthy eating will be more satisfying and rewarding when they're motivated by values such as self care. Rather than being motivated by experiential avoidance or trying to escape these unwanted feelings. And I will say openly and honestly that the reason, I so appreciate talking about ACT and exercise in this framework, as a former ultra marathon runner and running a dozen races of a hundred miles or more and six times around a track for 24 hours and doing up to 125 miles. And I don't know, a hundred, 150 marathons and ultra marathons, that I know that there was a period of my life and it was when I was doing a career that I really didn't care for in the computer industry that I didn't even know how much that I didn't enjoy that. Because I didn't even know how much I would enjoy doing something that I find value in of therapy, writing, podcasting, or helping people. I now understand that that was why I turned to ultra marathon running. In that scenario, then my exercise was a form of experiential avoidance, trying to escape feelings. And then there is nothing quite like the pain of mile 80 at two in the morning of a race when you even question your own sanity of why on earth am I doing this? 

And heading down a little hill, the feeling in your quads or a calf. So just the, I can't even describe what that feels like, but boy, I'll tell you what I'm not thinking about in that moment, going back to work on Monday. So I know that that exercise in those moments truly was a form of experiential avoidance. He also gives the example. He said, for example, have you ever eaten yummy food primarily to push away feelings such as boredom or stress or anxiety? And a few weeks ago, I did an episode, I think I called it “The Psychology of the Churro”, and I really had that feeling in Disneyland recently. It was fascinating that if I was bored, I could go get a churro and it would be amazing and it would push away those unwanted feelings of boredom and it was a satisfying experience when I can slow myself down. But then at that point, when that was my third or fourth chiro after eating also the beignets and also eating whatever huge lunch that I had, not so satisfying. So he says, contrast that with occasions when your eating was motivated by value is around savoring and appreciating your food or connecting and sharing with loved ones. And which one was more rewarding, you know, was it inhaling a churro? Or was it sitting and enjoying an experience and savoring a meal with loved ones? 

Similarly, he said, if you do charity work motivated by values, around sharing and caring and giving and helping you'll likely find that far more rewarding than if you're mainly motivated by trying to avoid feelings of guilt or worthlessness. So if you are giving to the homeless man on the corner, because you feel guilty, that's going to be a completely different experience than if you are giving to that person, because you have a value of charity. So then as therapists, we try to help clients take action guided by your values, rather than by experiential avoidance. Rather than trying to just avoid these feelings or thoughts. So we want to get clients consciously moving toward what is meaningful rather than simply running from what is unwanted. So he said to really hammer this point home, suppose you exercise primarily motivated by values, such as self care. Or you pray motivated by values around connecting with God. He said we wouldn't class those as emotional control strategies because your primary aim isn't to control how you feel. But we would classify them as emotional control strategies. If your main purpose in doing them is to get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. You know, I work a lot in religious contexts with the concepts around scrupulosity which is this OCD of religious thought. So if you go back to the way that Russ just pointed that out, if we pray and we do spiritual things, because we have a value around our spirituality or connection with God, then that's a completely different experience of prayer or confession. As a purpose of doing that to get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings of guilt or shame. 

So then back to this creative hopelessness as an intervention based on workability. We're going to ask a client to take a good, long, honest, and mindful look at all of your emotional control strategies and see what they cost you. I would love for you to connect with the reality that our emotional control strategies often work in the short run to make somebody feel better, but they don't work in the long run to make your life rich, full and meaningful. So I said at the beginning that I wanted to challenge the definition of happiness and this by no shock comes from another Russ Harris book called The Happiness Trap. And there are two definitions that he mentions. And the happiness trap of happiness. And I feel like these are again some of those times where I don't want to just say that the light bulb came on the concept around why I just love acceptance and commitment therapy so much, but there are two very, very different ideas of happiness in the world. So Russ says, “What exactly is happiness? We all want it. We all crave it. We all strive for it. Even the Dalai Lama has said the very purpose of life is to seek happiness. But what exactly is it?” He said the word happiness has two very different meanings. The common meaning of the word is feeling good. In other words, feeling a sense of pleasure or gladness or gratification. We all enjoy these feelings. So it is no surprise that we chase these feelings. However, like all human emotions, feelings of happiness don't last. No matter how hard we try to hold onto them. They slip away every time as we'll see a life spent in pursuit of those good feelings is in the long-term, deeply unsatisfying. 

In fact, the harder we chase after pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. This is that concept of where “I'll be happy when”. I'll be happy when I get a hundred grand, I'll be happy when I get a nice car, I'll be happy when I graduate college, I'll be happy when I have a family. And while those things may bring this pleasurable feeling, but then like all good feelings in the long term, they go away. And so then we're chasing the next good feeling. The next good feeling. So he says the other far less common meaning of happiness is living a rich, full and meaningful life. So when we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, we move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy. And we clarify what we stand for in life and we act accordingly. Then our lives will become rich and powerful and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality. 

And he says this isn't some fleeting feeling. It's a profound sense of a life well lived and all those such a life will undoubtedly still give us many pleasurable feelings. It'll also give us uncomfortable ones, such as sadness and fear and anger. Because again, like we've talked about today, the goal is not to avoid those and not to try to run away from those. Because he says, this is only to be expected. If we live a full life, we will feel the full range of human emotion. So this is that part where I just feel like I want to shout from the rooftops. I want to testify. I want to sing the praises of just finding the real version of you, what it means to be you, your values. What you are all about, what you like, what you don't like. And the more you can learn to find that what really makes you tick and understand that is still going to come with all the highs and lows and ups and downs in life. But as you start to take action on the things that matter and really lean into your values and then acknowledge the fact that if I am experientially avoiding things just to avoid pain or discomfort, then I'm going to continually live in this world of fear and avoidance. But when I learn what really matters to me and I start to lean into what it feels like to be me, is to take action on the things that matter, the anxiety or the fear isn't going to completely disappear. But you're going to start to create a whole new relationship with it. And it is just going to become another thought or another feeling. And there it is. And I have lots of thoughts and I have lots of feelings. But I'm starting to do, I'm starting to do things that really make a difference for me, or matter for me. 

And that will allow me to be more present in my life. And that is back to this definition that is feeling this full range of human emotion. But it's also going to just give us this profound sense of a life well lived, and I cannot say enough that that is something that we don't know what that is like until we do. And so it is worth it to take the effort and work to get to that point and really find this just true happiness in life, because I know that life can be challenging and difficult to say the least, so that's why I desperately want to talk about ACT every chance I get, because I want each and every one of you to have this profound sense of a life well lived because it does make everything just more worth living. 

Taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented Aurora Florence, and it's more than ever, I feel like the song “It's Wonderful” is needed when we talk about things, the way that we talked about them today, because when you start to figure out what it feels like to be you, then in fact life really can be wonderful. All right, we'll see you next week on the Virtual Couch.

Tony shares and responds to the article “The 10 Best Predictors of a Bad Romantic Relationship” by Seth Gillihan, PhD https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/202301/the-10-best-predictors-of-a-bad-romantic-relationship Tony also references the article “Attachment Woes Between Anxious and Avoidant Partners,” by Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/202008/attachment-woes-between-anxious-and-avoidant-partners And follow Tony on the Virtual Couch YouTube channel to see a sneak preview of his upcoming podcast “Murder on the Couch,” where True Crime meets therapy, co-hosted with his daughter Sydney. You can watch a pre-release clip here https://youtu.be/-RkRq8SrQy0

Go to http://tonyoverbay.com/workshop to sign up for Tony's "Magnetize Your Marriage" virtual workshop. The cost is only $19, and you'll learn the top 3 things you can do NOW to create a Magnetic Marriage. 

You can learn more about Tony's pornography recovery program, The Path Back, by visiting http://pathbackrecovery.com And visit http://tonyoverbay.com and sign up to receive updates on upcoming programs and podcasts.

Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the "uh's" and "um's" that, in his words, "must be created by wizards and magic!" because it's that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ

Transcript 

Tony: Hey everybody. Welcome to episode 357 of the Virtual Couch. I'm your host, Tony Overbay. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified Mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four, and creator of the Path Back, an online pornography recovery program that is helping people become the very best versions of themselves. And please reach out to me through my website if you are interested in a coupon code, which is going on through the month of January to get a discount on the Path Back course. And the Path Back course is amazing and the Path Back group call that happens weekly is even better. Maybe not even better, but it goes along perfectly with the Path Back. 

Just do me a favor, go sign up for my newsletter at tonyoverbay.com. Just plain and simple. You're gonna hear more about The Magnetic Marriage Course. The Magnetic Marriage Podcast. Two, actually three new podcasts getting ready to drop. A Waking Up to Narcissism q and a. And actually my goodness, if you don't listen to the Waking Up to Narcissism podcast in general, again, do me a favor and listen to last week's episode with Ashley Boyson. It was the most downloaded episode that I've done on Waking Up to Narcissism within a 48 hour period because Ashley is incredible and inspiring, her story is unbelievable. There are literally several true crime podcasts and TV shows about her case. The title of the Waking Up to Narcissism episode is “Ashley Boyson on Surviving Betrayal, Narcissism, and Murder.” And she also has courses, online courses, for infidelity survivors, for parents navigating parenting a hurting child through trauma and grief. And she is about to release an eating disorder course for parents and kids that are struggling with eating disorders along with her daughter. And if you use the coupon code, “virtualcouch”, all one word, you get 40% off of her courses. But the other podcasts, here we go, Murder on the Couch, a true crime meets therapy and psychology. I'm doing that one with one of my daughters, Sydney, and if you go to the Virtual Couch YouTube channel right now, and while you're there, if you can hit subscribe, that would be awesome. There's a 90 second clip from the recording of that podcast I think will give you the vibe, the energy of that podcast. I mean, we talk about really difficult subjects, so I'm already giving a heads up to Virtual Couch listeners that it is a True Crime podcast. I still try to be myself and Sydney is amazing and funny and just that's something that she's very interested in and fascinated by. And I just love the banter. I love the relationship that she and I have. We've recorded a half a dozen episodes already and we're recording more, but if you go to the YouTube channel, find that 90 second clip on the Virtual Couch YouTube channel, and please subscribe and get ready. It's coming out very, very soon. We've got all the artwork and the music and those sort of things that are being put together right now. 

But let's get to today's episode. So I love when listeners send me articles and ask for my opinion, and I won't, I won't use what I like to refer to as narcissistic math and say, this happens hundreds of times a day. No, it doesn't happen all the time, but it happens more and more, and I really do enjoy when I can almost give a cold read or look at an article that somebody sends me more like a reaction podcast. So that is the goal today. I was sent an article by somebody that I really appreciate, and I don't know why I assumed it was an older one, but I'm looking at the date now. It's only a week old. So this first came out on January 10th, 2023, so it's perfect. But it is titled “The 10 Best Predictors of a Bad Romantic Relationship”. And this is by Seth Godden. Seth is a licensed psychologist. He has his PhD. So Dr. Seth or Dr. Godden wrote this for psychologytoday.com. So I am gonna read these 10 predictors and I want to give my honest opinion. And I'm gonna put my marriage therapist hat on, step into my healthy ego, all those wonderful things. Admit that I am confident in many things when it comes to couple's therapy and couple's relationships. And with that admission also comes the understanding that of course, that means that I don't know what I don't know, and this will be my opinion. So if you hear these things and think, okay, this must be the way of relationships, then again, this is just my opinion. This will be as if I was, I guess, asked about these 10 things, let's say in a live interview. So I think you get the point. So let's go. Here we go. The 10 best predictors of a bad romantic relationship.

So Dr. Seth said, “Few things affect your long-term happiness like the quality of your romantic relationship. It can affect your mental health, your physical health, and even how long you live. It's fair to say that your relationship's quality can be a matter of life or death.” And then he has a link, he says, “A review of 43 studies found that 10 variables consistently predict relationship quality. The first set of predictors were about the relationship itself.” And what I thought was really interesting is I did follow the link to the review of 43 studies and it is a really cool article, that is, I think it says, “Machine Learning” is what it says. Here we go. “Machine learning uncovers the most robust self-report predictors of relationship quality across 43 longitudinal couple studies.”

So these studies, there are 43 of them, and I couldn't even begin to tell you all the names of the people that put these studies together because it literally is 43 relationship studies. And then machine learning then uncovered the main points or concepts of what the predictors of the relationship quality was. And so it's really neat to see. I'll include the link to that article that does the machine learning of the 43 longitudinal couple studies in there as well. But number one, the first set of predictors, again about the relationship itself. Number one, a partner who seems uncommitted. So this is a predictor about a bad romantic relationship. So a partner who seems uncommitted. “Knowing your partner is in it for the long haul provides a sense of safety and stability. Your relationship suffers when you worry that they have one foot out the door.” So, man, let me jump right in here. So here's why I'm excited to talk about these concepts today because that sounds amazing, that if we could turn to our partner, especially if we're having trouble and just say, hey, I just need to know that you are all in. Then that would calm our anxiety and then we feel like, hey, I'm willing to do the work. So again, so while I agree with this wholeheartedly remembering that these are the 10 variables that consistently show up in this review of 43 different studies, but I believe that what this speaks to is our brain's desire for certainty and I think that so often if we do not have certainty, then we feel like whatever that task is, well, it might not be worth undertaking.

So we may feel anxious, we may feel like, I don't know if I want to commit to this relationship, if my spouse is not willing to commit as well, which sounds fair. But people are in different places in the relationship. When people even come into therapy, I remember early in my therapy career, I would think, okay, I got two people, two willing people here, and they're ready to go. But often when things get to the point where people want to go into therapy, unfortunately I wish people would go in much sooner. One person is very frustrated. The other person may not even feel like there's anything wrong, or the other person may feel like this thing is already past this expiration date and I don't even know what to do. So when we are wanting this certainty, that would be perfect. But in reality, we don't always have that certainty and we have to have the courage to move forward regardless. What I see in my office, I think often, is that a spouse, again, wants to know that their partner's all in and willing to work on their relationship before they commit to that relationship. And I almost find this to be somewhat of a game of, I'll call it relationship chicken. Where the couple can then start to even argue, well, what does it mean to be committed? Does that mean that we will live under the same roof? Does that mean that we'll go to counseling? Does that mean that we will go on date nights? Does that mean that we will be honest or that we'll hold back on some of the things that may be difficult to talk about? Does that just simply mean, hey, I'm not leaving. So even the concepts around certainty or to know that our partner is all, can then start to be a discussion in itself that will cause the relationship to feel unsafe.

So this is where I feel like unfortunately life is full of uncertainty and not to go dark or grim, but how often do we learn about somebody who maybe passed away suddenly? As a matter of fact, I was thinking about this. My wife and I were driving somewhere this weekend and we saw, oh, we were driving home from a basketball game and we saw a billboard that was paying tribute to Lisa Marie Presley. So then immediately we started Googling and found that she had passed away. And if I'm correct, I believe she passed away from a cardiac event. And so then we even looked at what the difference was between that and a heart attack, but she was my wife and I's age. And so that stuff starts to feel just real. And so life is uncertain. And unfortunately we can't always get the certainty that we so desire. So I think what is difficult is in reality, you only have control over the things that you have control over. As a matter of fact, let's add that to the mix. So we've got uncertainty and we've got a lack of control. And so often when we feel anxious, this is the way we want somebody else to manage our anxiety. We want them to tell us, no, I'm in it and I'm willing to work on it. And that will make us feel, whew, okay, I'm feeling better, so now I can work on it, but in reality, I would love for you to work on it because you deserve a healthy relationship.

Now in reality, if you work on the relationship, it is gonna change the dynamic of the relationship and that's the part where it will even feel scarier to look over across the room and see if your partner is not working equally as hard. Because all of a sudden we might have some really difficult conversations or things that we're gonna be confronted with of am I willing to go back into this unhealthy relationship or this pattern of just living? Or are we both going to try to dig deep and then create an even better relationship? And unfortunately, there isn't any certainty that comes along with that, and that does feel scary, and that's part of being a human. And so do you have the ability to do the work that you know is necessary in your relationship or on yourself, even if your partner equally isn’t yoked or in the same place because I would highly encourage you to do that. And so what that can look like in my office is let's say that somebody looks over and says, hey, I need to know that you're in before I commit to this. Then I might try to help the other person frame that I understand and I can understand that would be hard if you feel like I'm not. And right now, I really want to look at what it looks like to just be here, and be in this room and what are the tools that we don't know, that we don't even know that we have?

And so let's just start to slow things down and then just see where do we even go from here? What does the rest of the day look like? I can't give you the certainty that I'm in it for the next five years, and that does feel scary. So that one's hard. So again, that number one factor of a set of predictors about a bad romantic relationship is a partner who seems uncommitted. So if you can provide your partner with a little bit of certainty, that certainly would not be a bad thing. But maybe that certainty is gonna be, hey, I'm willing to continue to come to counseling, or I'm willing to look at some articles and we can talk about these things. But right now, that might be all that somebody can offer in the relationship and yeah, that's scary. And you as the person who maybe wants more certainty, you absolutely have the right to say, well, I need more than that. And so then I'm not sure if I'm willing to put myself out there right now with a lack of certainty. So, that's where I would really recommend that you go see a couple's therapist, a couple's coach, somebody that can really help you work through that.

So number two is a lack of appreciation for one's partner. Dr. Seth says, “In healthy relationships, the partners feel lucky to be with each other. So when appreciation is low, the relationship suffers.” Man, okay, so let me go on a train of thought. I feel like this is something I've just been thinking about a lot lately, and that is this concept of what are you looking for in your relationship because it's the expectation effect. What seek ye, you will find what you're looking for. Now, I'm gonna throw an asterisk here because it's difficult for me not to go off on tangents about emotional immaturity, narcissistic relationships, emotional abuse, these sort of things. So, that is probably over on the Waking Up to Narcissism podcast, or I can even touch on it a little bit on a podcast like this one today. But we're kind of gonna put a little rule out and say that we're not talking about an extreme personality disorder or incredible emotional immaturity. We're not talking about that right now. So we're talking about when somebody starts to just feel a disconnect in the relationship, what are they looking for?

I'll have clients often have a list put together where they'll say, okay, but let me just pull out this list, and let me help you understand Mr. Therapist some of the ways that she is not showing up in the relationship. And so then they have these things and it might be, once a day, it might be every few days. And so then the expectation effect or what seek ye, or what are you looking for? The person is finding those areas where somebody is coming up short because we're human beings and we are gonna come up short because we're imperfect. And do we have those tools to be able to communicate, not to communicate, to say, hey, I want you to change this. But the tools to be able to communicate and say, hey, when you do that, it's hard for me because here's how I feel. So again, it's not about trying to tell the other person, here's what I don't like about you, here's what I don't like about your behavior. To me as a marriage therapist, nails on a chalkboard, because people are allowed to have their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But then what we wanna do is be able to have mature adult conversations around, tell me more about, or, take me on your train of thought or help me understand when you do a certain thing. Because when you do that, here's what that maybe triggers in me. And so this is where we're designed to deal with a motion in concert with another human being.

So if somebody continually just gets angry and frustrated and then they come in and they are yelling about work. Then if you just become in sheer terror when your spouse starts yelling about work, then that's something that is absolutely okay for you to not be okay with. But if you're just saying, hey, I need you to not do that anymore because that makes me really, really frustrated, then that is a form of control. Which sounds crazy, right? Because it feels like one should be able to say, hey, don't yell about your work. You know, it makes me not feel safe. I still want us to be able to have that conversation. But it would start with, hey, sounds like you're frustrated with work. Help me understand. Take me on your train of thought. 

Here's where I'm gonna drop into my four pillars. Here we go. So pillar one, let's say that this scenario is the husband comes home and he is just angry and frustrated from work. And every day that he comes home, he slams that door. And so all of a sudden the wife is starting to feel like I don't even like him to come home because I don't know if he's gonna come in and be happy. I don't know if he's gonna come in, but primarily he's gonna come in and be really angry about his day at work, and he's gonna be frustrated and he's gonna feel like he wants to quit, which is gonna make me feel unsafe because I don't feel like he's taking into consideration our finances. So you can see how there can be so many of these variables, these unknowns, this lack of certainty. But if he comes home and he's angry and frustrated about work, and if she drops into the four pillar framework, pillar one. I'm gonna assume good intentions, or there's a reason why he's doing what he's doing. That he, again, doesn't wake up in the morning, thinks I'm gonna spend the whole day at work. I'm probably not gonna reach out to my wife much. And then when I come home, oh, I'm gonna slam that door and I'm gonna tell her I can't do this anymore and I don't care about her feelings. No, that's not what's happening. So that assuming of good intentions, and again, we're not talking about that if there's legitimate abuse here, emotional abuse, physical abuse, spiritual abuse, or financial abuse.

But if he comes in and she's saying, okay, man, that would be hard if he feels like he does not want to continue in his job, pillar one. And then if he's saying I can't do it anymore and then pillar two, my pillar two is I would love to help her not put out the fixing your judgment vibe. I would love for her not to say, I don't believe you. That's ridiculous. Or you can't do that. So pillar two, and why I like this example I'm giving is pillar two, she could even say, hey, look, you can do really hard things. You're an ultramarathon runner. You know, or you deal with a lot of pain, or, I see you lift weights and you can, you're so strong and you can pull through very difficult things. What she is telling him is, you're wrong. So let me kind of step back there. If he says, I can't do this anymore, her saying, yeah, you can, you do hard things. Sounds motivational, sounds amazing. But in reality it's saying, no, you're wrong. I don't believe you. And that doesn't make us feel heard or understood.

So that's where I drop into my pillar three, questions. Questions before comments. So the questions would be, man, tell me what that feels like. Why do you feel like you can't do this anymore? Take me on your train of thought. Help me understand, because we wanna be heard. We wanna be understood. And then that pillar four is her then leaning in, being present, not going into a victim mentality. And after she has assumed good intentions or understands there's a reason why he's expressing himself the way he is, pillar two, she's not gonna say, are you kidding me? Do you know what that's gonna do for me? How are we supposed to live? How are we supposed to pay our mortgage? But instead, just that pillar two is more of a mindset where she's just gonna note that maybe she doesn't agree, and then pillar three, she's gonna drop in and ask questions before making comments. Help me understand. I really want to know because that would be really difficult if this person I care about goes to work every day, can't stand it, comes home, feels so frustrated, feels like the day was a waste, feels like they just want to go to bed and just get the day done with, man, that would be hard. And here comes empathy. But then pillar four is that then I don't want her also to go into a victim mindset and say, okay, well I guess I can't say. You know, I guess, I'm just supposed to smile and give him a hug and, you know, probably he wants to be intimate. Is that what I'm supposed to do?

No, we're gonna get to her being heard and understood as well. So that pillar four is almost just maintaining presence. Just being, just being there. And then at that point, this is where I would love for everybody to be on the same page with the four pillars, honestly, is at that point, he feels heard and understood, and now she knows that she is gonna now be able to express herself. And he's gonna drop into that same framework, assuming good intentions, can't tell her she's wrong, and he's gonna ask her questions and he's gonna stay present. So in that scenario, she might say, that is hard, and I appreciate you sharing that. And, I can't imagine how hard that is and I see you, I'm here for you, but man, that's hard for me because I worry, you know, I worry about our finances. I worry about that feeling of financial safety. I worry about you. I worry about if you, you know, maybe he turns to unhealthy coping mechanisms. She worries about his eating. She worries about his drinking. She worries about him just tuning out in front of the tv or on his phone. So she worries. I worry, I feel, I hope. And those are, those are absolutely okay statements. I was going on this tangent of lack of appreciation for one's partner. You know, what are you looking for in the relationship because you'll find it. So if you are finding a disgruntled partner over and over, then you can easily say, yeah, and then again, here's where he did the thing where he was really upset. So are we looking for the positive aspects in our relationship or are we looking for those negative aspects in the relationship?

I'll blast through this so fast. I actually brought this up in a Sunday school class of all places over the weekend, but that is the expectation effect and the concept around maze bright and maze dull rats. If you have heard me say this, then hang in, I'll make it quick. But the study in essence was, let's just say there were a group of rats. Let's just for the simplicity's sake of numbers, let's say they were 20 and one group of people were given 10 rats and they were told these are these maze bright rats. They've been genetically engineered from before they were even born to go through mazes just incredibly fast. And then the other group were given these 10 other rats and they were told they're just rats. That's all that they are. And then they were given, I don't know, a few days to train these rats to go through mazes. And now cue the music montage, the Rocky scene, and you've got the group that has the maze bright rats. These genetically engineered amazing rats and they are sitting there at the end of the maze and they're cheering the rats on and they're petting the rats and they're giving the rats little rat massages. And they probably got them little tracksuits. And these rats, they are just, they are eating it up and the people are just saying, we feel so lucky. We got these maze bright rats. Over on the other side of the room, you've got the people with the maze dull rats thinking, why'd I get these dud rats? Look at them just sitting there. Just fighting and not moving along the maze and, when's the big race and we can just get this over with. I feel so humiliated. 

And then the day of the big race comes and the maze bright rats, sure enough, go through the maze, I think it was 2.1 times faster than the maze dull rats. And that's when the researcher said, surprise, that was just 20 random, they're just rats. There is no such thing as a genetically engineered maze bright rat. So what is the moral of that story? The expectation effect. What was the expectation that the groups put into their test subjects? Their rats. So I often like to then say, do you view your spouse as a maze bright? Or do you view them as maze dull or do you view your kid as a maze bright kid or a maze dull kid? Or better yet, how do you view yourself? Do you view yourself as maze bright or maze dull because you're going to find those things that you look for.

Number three, again, the number three indicator of a predictor of a bad romantic relationship. Low sexual satisfaction. So what Dr. Seth says, “When your sex life suffers, your relationship quality is likely to suffer as well. Apparently, the quality of sex may be more important than the quantity as the frequency of sex was less consistently linked to relationship quality.” And boy, I could do a whole podcast on this, but let me just refer quickly to the information I've shared a couple of times on podcast and it was from a training that I had gone to with a Dr. Kevin Skinner, who I know he's one of the founders, or fathers of the betrayal trauma and has written books, has done a tremendous amount of research. And I did about 18 months of betrayal trauma training with Dr. Skinner. And during that time, he gave this almost throwaway data that then I'd followed up with him about later. And I just thought it was phenomenal. And in essence, he talks about these levels of intimacy. And so when we meet, and this is my interpretation of that data, that information. That when we meet, in essence, we just get together because we find each other physically attractive and sure that is a wonderful thing and that helps. But then underneath that physical intimacy or physical attraction, there are these levels of intimacy. And down on the bottom we've got psychological intimacy. We've got honesty, loyalty, and trust. We've got commitment, up from that, we've got verbal intimacy. Can we just talk? We talk for days. We just feel so connected. And then when we have that psychological intimacy, that verbal intimacy, up from that is emotional intimacy. So when we have a connection to these two base layers or levels, then we can step into this emotional intimacy and we feel safe enough to start to really open up about our emotions and we really start to feel more connected with each other. And above that, I believe it was cognitive and intellectual intimacy where we can be in two different ballparks with regard to one, I sometimes say one person can have their PhD, the other, their GED, but because we're connected psychologically and verbally and emotionally, then it doesn't matter, cognitive or intellectually because we are connected and of that is spiritual intimacy.

We can have two completely different belief systems, but at the top of that intimacy ladder, so to speak, is physical intimacy. And when that is the byproduct of all those other layers of intimacy, then you really feel connected. And I feel like going back to this low sexual satisfaction, that is what I believe leads to more of that quality of sex. And it's not about the frequency. Now when you feel connected in all those levels, then they're sure there'll be time for the quickies, those sort of things. But you'll also have this opportunity to connect and have the quality of sex that it will be something that people just haven't really known. And if you've had one of those days where you really do feel connected with your spouse, you've spent a lot of time together, you've talked about a lot of things that aren't just about scheduling or the kids or finance. And you just start to really appreciate your spouse and you spend time with your spouse and you feel like we're connected verbally. We've opened up emotionally. That is where sometimes you just feel like you just want to just wanna hold their hand. You just wanna hug them. You just wanna touch them and cuddle with them. And that is where somebody starts to just feel this absolute deep connection. Now, there are some gender stereotypes here that come out and they are pretty common. And I will say that in my office, typically I do find the male is the higher desire partner. The female is the lower desire partner and that can result in an unhealthy relationship pattern. Where oftentimes in those scenarios, I find that the guy will say, well, if we had more sex, I'd be happy, then I'd be willing to talk. And the wife, in essence is saying, if we talk more, then I'd feel more connected and I'd be willing to have sex. 

And so again, I could do another podcast on that, might be one for another day, but I feel like that's one that might need help. Sorting those things out with a licensed professional because I can't say enough about as a marriage therapist and now worked with, I don't know, 12, 1300 couples that you've worked with these situations and had these conversations enough that you really can help people talk about things that are uncomfortable to talk about. So that low sexual satisfaction really is something that is so common in relationships because I feel like there will be times where people are more sexually equally yoked than others. And when there is an imbalance, the ability to talk about that is gonna be just very, very important. I turn to a book called Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships by David Schnarch. And boy, he has a lot of really difficult but great, kind of self confronting quotes and comments in this book, Passionate Marriage. And I went on Good Reads, to find a few of them, and I can't really even find one to do justice the way that if you can take care of things, if you can learn to self confront and so many of the podcasts I've talked about over the years, if you can learn that, we go into relationships as codependent and enmeshed, but we're trying to become more interdependent and it's okay to have our own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and that we don't need our partner to continually validate us. So we need to learn how to self validate, self-sooth, to be able to stand in this healthy ego and to know that there are various things that are important to me, that matter to me because they do and at some point, as I become more emotionally mature, I don't need my partner. To validate every experience I have, because if I'm doing that, I like to say that my partner, there's probably an overwhelming chance that they're not gonna say the things exactly that I want them to, to make me feel better about myself. And now I get to say they must not care about me and what's wrong with me. When in reality, as you start to learn the things that really matter to you, step in alignment with your core values and your sense of purpose, and not continually look for others to tell you that they agree or that's the right way to go, then that is a whole new level of feeling confident.

And that confidence is what can lead to this concept around differentiation or again, differentiation is where one partner ends and the other begins. And in between there's this gap of just invalidation. And so learning to be differentiated is an incredibly emotionally mature process where you can still maintain a relationship with somebody that you care about even while having different opinions and not feeling like they are there to only validate you or to knock you down. And when we start looking in the world of emotional immaturity, there's those concepts around whole object relations. And where, you know, we need to be able to see both good and bad in someone. We need to be able to hold that whole frame together so somebody can absolutely say something that can cause us to feel frustrated, but we still love. It's not an all or nothing, it's not a black or white thing. So that comes into play here as well because when we feel anxious or we feel like the relationship is not in a good place, and it can be because we're unwilling to take a look at how we are showing up in the relationship, how we self confront, then oftentimes that's where we want our partner to just have sex with us, calm my anxiety, help me understand.

And then once my anxiety's calm, now I'm willing to talk. But we just put our anxiety over onto our partner and said, hey, can you manage my anxiety. And then I'm willing to show up. But what that often looks like for the other partner is, hey, when I'm feeling happy, I would really like to celebrate with sex. And if I'm sad or down, then if we could have sex, that would help me feel better and nothing helps get me out of a funk or even if I'm feeling physically under the weather, a cold, like sex. And so then in these situations, I will look over at the spouse hearing this and I'll say, what are you hearing? And they'll say, well, that ultimately I'm in charge of his happiness. And that if I am not there whenever he needs me to be there in this way with intimacy then now it's my fault. And that's a lot of pressure to put on your spouse. So that needs to be something that you need to learn to confront in yourself.

Here is a quote that I wasn't gonna read from Passionate Marriage but he says, “When we stand up and confront ourselves in ways our parents have not, a desire for justice makes it harder to forgive them in some ways. However, the increased differentiation this endeavor provides allows one to better self-soothe to validate one's own experience, thereby unhooking the need for confession from one's parent. And at this point, forgiveness becomes an act of self-caring and a deliberate decision to get on with one's life.” So why do I mention that in this scenario we weren't talking about parents, but too often the reason I feel unsafe or the reason I feel unseen or unloved or unheard is because I didn't necessarily feel that connection from a parent. And so now all of a sudden I need somebody to validate me and to tell me it's okay, and I'm looking right across the room and that's my spouse. And if I'm really just going into a place where I just need to feel better in that moment, oftentimes, and I will assume that then well, sex, that'll do it. And then that will calm my anxiety and then I'm willing to show up and be better. But that's still putting that on your partner. It's okay if you've done your own work and self confronted and recognize that it's okay to ask for things in a relationship in a marriage when it's done in a healthy way, not when it’s done in a manipulative way or in a way that’s asking somebody else to manage your emotions or manage your anxiety. But the quote that I was gonna read in this scenario was, Shnarch has a great quote where he said, “When we think of people giving up on their marriage, divorce usually comes to mind. But many people who give up on their marriage or themselves or their partner, don't leave. They stay in the comfort cycle until their marriage presents the inevitable dilemma, venture into the growth cycle, or face divorce, loss of integrity or living death. Validating and soothing each other has its place in a marriage, but not when you're dependent upon it, you get stuck in the comfort cycle because neither of you has the strength or motivation to break out. That's when the other side of the process comes in holding onto. Self confrontation and self soothing.”

So in this scenario, again, where we're talking about lower sexual satisfaction and when your sex life suffers and your relationship quality is likely to suffer, at that point, that is where I think people often start to feel like, okay, my relationship is completely out of whack and I don't know if it will get back into alignment or it won't be healthy again. And so it's easier to start with the intimacy or the sexual component, and I'm saying easier for people to start to blame. But I feel like often that's the byproduct of people that don't feel connected and they aren't able to communicate effectively, and talk about their hopes and dreams and feel safe. And so then they will often just go to, well, here's a physical act that signifies that we're okay. We need to be okay to have a better relationship with that physical act. 

Number four, he says, “A partner who seems dissatisfied. It's a great feeling to know that your partner is happy in the relationship. When they seem unhappy, it can introduce all kinds of questions,” And here we go again, “uncertainty about the health and future of your connection.” So remembering this is one of the best predictors of a bad romantic relationship. So that one is, if one of the partners seems dissatisfied. So it goes back to that concept around certainty. So I feel like this is where we just need the tools to communicate and we all do want to feel heard and understood and seen in a relationship. And I know that that's not the end all be all. As a matter of fact, I monitor a couple of different groups where people are talking about the concepts around differentiation and self confrontation, interdependence, cleaning up their lives, and the way that they are showing up in a relationship. And I am all for that. But oftentimes, even people when they are talking about what solution works best to save a relationship, they may say, look, you can only take care of what you can take care of, which is absolutely true. But I feel like we also need a vehicle to communicate more effectively. And that is my four pillars of a connected conversation based off of the work of Sue Johnson, and emotionally focused therapy. So when people just say, okay, you know what? I just need to show up and be the best version of me. Absolutely. That is a wonderful, amazing thing. And that is the goal. And I feel like having a way to communicate with your partner is essential. It is something that we do not learn from the factory. And so if you are over there being the best version of yourself and then just saying, okay, I'm showing up as my best self. If they are not, then I don't know what to do with this relationship. Then I feel like we're missing a huge component of communication. So if your partner, you know, a partner who seems dissatisfied, then I feel like that is an opportunity to start to understand why.

And that's hard because we gotta step out of our own ego and it's gonna make us feel uncomfortable. We may feel attacked and judged. The number five predictor that is of a bad relationship, a bad romantic relationship is high conflict. Dr. Seth says, “I don't know anybody who enjoys getting into fights with their partner and a lot of conflict can quickly sap the joy from a relationship.” So if you are in a relationship where there is often high conflict, I do believe, and this was last week's episode, “The Body Keeps the Score”. That over time your body just falls into a pattern and it says, this is what we do. So even if somebody says, how was your day? You may say, well, where are you going with that? What do you mean? When in reality the person is maybe trying to show up differently and saying, I really want to know about your day. And if the spouse says, why, so you can tell me that I'm lazy or that I don't do enough, or that you do more than me. And you can see where we fall into these relationship patterns over time. And then when we don't have the tools to be able to break the cycle of that relationship pattern, well we start to feel hopeless or we start to feel stuck. And that can be really, really difficult. So in that scenario, if there is a problem where we continually go to high conflict, go seek help because what can be really difficult is if one in the relationship is starting to change the dynamic and saying, I don't want this high conflict anymore. What they're also doing is stepping out of the role that they have found themselves in, in the relationship. And so oftentimes, even when one person is trying to work on the relationship by making themselves show up differently, the other partner will feel in an odd way, almost unsafe because they don't know what the angle is of their partner. So they may push even more buttons and try to pull that partner back down into the muck because that's all they know at this point. So that can absolutely take the help of a third party. Number six, an unresponsive partner. “A responsive partner seems to get you and respect your thoughts and feelings even when they don't agree with you. It feels bad when your partner doesn't seem to understand or respect you.” An unresponsive partner, and it is hard. I really love being able to go through this article because every one of these, I wanna say there's a reason why, you know, there's a reason why there's high conflict because we didn't have the tools to communicate well. There's a reason why a partner seems dissatisfied because they didn't feel safe or have the tools to communicate their needs. There's a reason why there's low sexual satisfaction in a relationship, and it goes back to not being able to communicate effectively what your relationship with sex was like growing up, what your expectations were in the relationship, where things possibly went off track.

There's a reason why this one, an unresponsive partner. There's a reason why no one wakes up and just decides to be unresponsive. It's something that happens gradually over time, and if a partner feels very unresponsive in the relationship, it's because eventually their body keeps the score, their body is telling them, what's the point? If I express myself, then I'm probably just gonna be told I'm wrong, or I'm gonna be talked out of what my opinion or my feeling is. So I'm gonna slowly but surely grow to be somewhat unresponsive. So when I read this, and Dr. Seth pulls this data from these 43 different studies, a responsive partner seems to get you and respect your thoughts and feelings even when they don't agree with you. Boy, that is the goal because it is absolutely okay to have your own thoughts and your own feelings, and we do not have to agree on everything. And if you are sitting in your relationship thinking, well, no she agrees with me all the time, and we're on the same page with everything. Then I would love for you to do a little self confrontation and step back and say, okay, but are you, are you hearing her? And are you willing to tolerate that discomfort that may come with disagreement? And this would be an amazing way to check in, although unfortunately when I work out, I go back to the world of emotional immaturity and I have had people in my office where if I'm starting to have this conversation, if somebody mentions something that they're unhappy with and the other spouse says, no, we've talked about that. You and I are in agreement that we're gonna do this for the rest of our lives, then I just want that person to hear themselves say that. If this person is in my office now saying, but I don't agree with that. That's where I'll have the partner say, well, why haven't you ever said that? Well, it's because they don't feel like they can say that.

So if you're hearing this and you feel like your partner's somewhat unresponsive, now's the wonderful opportunity to do some self confrontation and say, do I create a safe enough environment for my spouse to be able to express their opinion? And it doesn't matter if you're at year 50 or year two, now is an opportunity to unhook from those unhealthy patterns and learn that it is absolutely okay to have two different opinions.

As a matter of fact, that's even better because if the two of you are in alignment all the time, you're basically just asking for this person to go along with you and just validate everything that you're feeling, you're thinking, and there's no polarity there, there's no excitement or joy, but we're so afraid that if our partner has another opinion, that for some reason that's gonna equate them leaving the relationship. No, we are two different people that came together with completely different experiences and yeah, we were emotionally immature at the beginning, so we probably did say, I agree with everything. Because that feels good. We feel wanted, we feel loved, but then life happens and we graduate school and we have kids, and we move and we get jobs and we go through financial difficulties and we have to make decisions and people in our lives, they leave and they die, and then the springs up more things. And so we are of course gonna have completely different experiences than our spouse. And so in a healthy relationship, we're able to talk about our experiences. And our partner is gonna stay present with us and say, tell me more about that. What's that like? And then we may say, well, what are you feeling right now? And that's where the real growth occurs. That we happen to be two people that are going through this life. And what a joy, what an amazing opportunity to be going through life together. Because now we can have two different perspectives. And that's the real goal of differentiation is where I can have this relationship with somebody that is completely different than me and they can have their opinion and I can even listen to it because I like this person and I care about this person.

And what can I gain from this person? I might be able to take in some of that data that is part of their life experience and that might help me through difficult times and we're there and we're in it together. Okay, there are three more. Dr. Seth said the remaining predictors of relationship quality were what each partner brought to the relationship. So those first seven were ones that were predictors were about the relationship itself, so I'll buzz through these three quickly. Number seven, individual factors. Dissatisfaction with life. If you are somebody who is unhappy, feeling unhappy, down, depressed in life right now, then it makes sense that you're gonna see your romantic relationship in more of a negative light as well. So do individual work. If you are overwhelmed with anxiety or depression, or uncertainty or fear the future. Then that might be something that you can work on to get your emotional baseline high so that you can bring that into the relationship. Because if your emotional baseline is low and you are unhappy in general, then it is hard to show up and be in a relationship. And we may want our partner to carry the load more, which, you know, there are gonna be times where, again, we aren't equally yoked, but we have to be able to communicate that. And if that isn't something that you've been able to communicate throughout your relationship and now you find yourself just so flat and down and apathetic that you don't even want to participate, then go get help. Please, because you deserve to be happy, period. And then a happy you is able to show up more in a relationship. And then get even more. It's that one plus one equals three concept. So again, that was number seven, dissatisfaction with life. Number eight, Dr. Seth says, depression, so, and he says on a related note, people who are depressed tend to report a lower quality relationship, and part of this association can be that bad relationships contribute to depression. So it is a little bit a chicken and the egg. So if you feel, again, dissatisfaction with life, if you feel depressed, and actually let me jump down to number nine. He talks about negative affect, other negative emotions like a lot of anger or irritability are linked to worse relationship quality. So as with depression, as with dissatisfaction,  a bad relationship in turn can contribute to negative emotions so they can feed upon each other. So if you feel like you can't even show up for your relationship, then get help. Get individual help. I know I'm pro therapy, but it's because I'm a therapist and because at this point, I still remember being a new therapist in my early thirties after doing a decade in the computer software industry. And I was one of those people that wondered, ehh therapy, you know, isn't necessary. And I remember being about five years into the profession and going to a Christmas party and somebody saying, yeah, I don't know about therapy, and I remember the years before I would've defended it. Well, studies say, and I've found, and at that point it's like, oh, bless your heart. Therapy is amazing and it changes lives and amazing people go to therapy and the stigma behind therapy has changed. Thank goodness. I love when people talk about when they see their therapist or they talk about their therapist. And as a therapist, that relationship, that dynamic, I mean, what an honor to be able to share these intimate details with people and to go in the minds of people where they've never let somebody in before. And to watch how validating that can be when somebody that is a captain of industry or a well-respected member of a community and they come into your office and they open up about things and you're able to say, man, tell me more. What's that like? And to watch almost the relief just wash over somebody's face as they realize that it's okay to just have thoughts and feelings and emotions because we all do and they are all over the map and they're because of the way that we were brought up or the things that we've been exposed to or see.

And so when we just let those things rattle around in our head, they don't work out to the, and we live happily ever after story. Oh no. They end up with the what's wrong with me story. And sometimes when we're able to just communicate that to somebody else, it's liberating. It just is absolutely liberating to get these things off of your chest and to have somebody who knows what to do with that. And instead of saying, well, you should do this, or, why didn't you do this? Or do you realize how that would affect somebody else? No. Thank you for sharing. You're a human being, man, I can't imagine how hard that must be. And so now tell me more. Tell me what your, what's the next step? Where do you want to go? I'm right here with you. And how powerful that is. Number 10 is, and I love it and I'm getting close to doing a little bit of a deep dive on the different attachment styles, but he said that attachment styles both anxious and avoidant attachment styles are highly predictive of poor relationship quality.

A person with an anxious attachment often worries that their partner will leave them and those with avoidant attachment are careful not to let their partners get too close. And just one quick note too is he says, “It's interesting to note that demographic variables like race and gender and religious affiliation tended not to matter for relationship quality, and the same was true for objective characteristics of the relationship, such as having children versus being child free. Interestingly, living together or apart and dating or being married. So those are different things that turn out to not be as big of a factor as one thought. I will end and wrap up just a little bit on attachment. I dug up an article that I referred to, I think I did an episode a while back called something like “The Dance of the Anxious and Attached”, anxious and avoidant attachment, and this is from Darlene Lancer and it's from Psychology Today as well. And I just think this is fascinating. I'm gonna read for a little bit and then we'll wrap this thing up, but she says, “The relationship duet is the dance of intimacy that all couples do. One partner moves and the other backs up. Partners may reverse roles, but always maintain a certain space between them. So the unspoken agreement is that the pursuer chases the distancer forever, but they never catch up. And that the distancer keeps running but never really gets away and they're negotiating the emotional space between them.” And so she talks about how we all have needs for both autonomy and intimacy, independence and dependence, but we also simultaneously fear both being abandoned, which is acted out by the pursuer and being too close, which is acted out by the distancer. So we have this dilemma when it comes to intimacy. So how can we be close enough to feel secure and safe? Like the person's not gonna leave without feeling threatened by too much closeness where we're gonna feel overwhelmed.”

She said, “The less room there is to navigate this distance, the more difficult the relationship.” There may be less anxiety and therefore less demand on the relationship to accommodate  this narrow comfort zone. But here's the part I really wanted to read. I got two paragraphs, origins. I love a good origin story. So Darlene says, “Attachment theory has determined that the pursuer has an anxious attachment style and that the emotionally unavailable partner has an avoidance style. Research suggests that these styles and intimacy problems originate in the relationship between the mother and the infant. Babies and toddlers are dependent on their mother's empathy in regard for their needs and emotions in order to sense their selves or to feel whole. So to an infant or a toddler, physical or emotional abandonment, whether through neglect or illness or divorce or death,” and I would add in there, or just life. We don't know what we don't know, “threatens its existence because of its dependency on the mother for validation and development of wholeness. So later as an adult, feeling this separation and intimate relationships, its experience as a painful reminder of this earlier loss. But we don't even know that that's where it's coming from.” And then Darlene says, “If the mother is ill or depressed, or lacks wholeness and self esteem, then there are no boundaries between her and her child. Rather than responding to her child, she projects and she sees her child as only an extension of herself as an object to meet her own needs and feelings. She can't value her child as a separate self. The child's boundaries are violated and its autonomy, feelings, thoughts, and her body are disrespected. So consequently, the child does not develop a healthy sense of self, and instead he or she discovers that love and approval come with meeting the mother's needs and tunes into the mother's responses and expectations. So this also leads to shame and codependency. So the child will learn to please and perform or rebel, but in any case, gradually tunes out its own thoughts and needs and feelings.” And I should have jumped in earlier and we're talking about attachment theory and we're talking about the relationship with mother and infant, but absolutely, dad plays a huge role as well. Daddy issues, anybody? So, I don't want a mother to be hearing this and think this is all on me. Because, no, it's both. It's the relationship with the parent, the parent child relationship. But in this scenario, so again, where she's saying, when somebody then feels a shame and codependency that they learn to please, perform, or rebel, but basically gradually tune out their own thoughts and needs and feelings. So then later intimacy may threaten the adult sense of autonomy or identity, or he or she may feel invaded or engulfed or controlled or shamed or rejected. And here's what's fascinating is a person may feel both abandoned if his or her feelings and needs are not being responded to, but at the same time now all of a sudden engulfed by the needs of his or her partner. So in codependent relationships where there aren't two separate whole people coming, true intimacy is impossible because the fear of non-existence and dissolution are so strong. So we learn these defenses as kids in order to feel safe. So she goes on to say that as adults, these behaviors create problems and result in miscommunication.

For instance, if you repress your anger to ensure that there's closeness there because you worry that if I get angry, then I'm gonna push my partner away. Then you stand a good chance of alienating your partner because you're unaware that you may be expressing your anger indirectly. By withdrawal, by silent treatment. You know, if you ignore your partner in order to create distance, then you inadvertently devalue him. And that creates a whole other problem. So, I'm gonna wrap it up, but that is my reaction to this article of “The 10 best Predictors of a Bad Romantic Relationship”. Seth does go on in the article, and again,  I'll link to it. He does say how to improve your relationship. And I'm not just saying, you know, the same old things, but he does say, cultivating and appreciation for your partner, paying more attention, look at them as if you were looking at them for the first time. Look at opportunities to express gratitude. He says, work on bedroom techniques. Do research on how you both wanna show up sexually, be willing to tell your partner your needs. But I would add, not from a manipulative standpoint, but from a, hey, check this out. You know, make the relationship better for your partner. Look for small ways to make their life easier. Do a chore for them. Offer a listening ear. Set your phone down. Knowing that they're happy will increase your own satisfaction with the relationship , and for yourself. Find joy in life. Look for ways to find more rewards everyday. People that keep gratitude journals, there's some good data studies that say that that is a really helpful process and try to look for unique things each and every day. Because what will end up happening is you're looking throughout the day for the things that you can be grateful for. And I love that he says, treat your depression. Follow a self-guided book. Use an evidence-based app. Go to therapy, talk with your doctor about medication. Your relationship will likely improve when you find ways to boost your mood. And go to therapy. Invest time and money in working with a professional, either alone or as a couple. Both approaches are eventually gonna lead to, they can lead to a happier relationship. 

So thank you so much for spending the time here today. If you have questions, comments, anything that you feel would be helpful to add, comment on the post will go up on Facebook or Instagram and you can also contact me through my website. If you have questions or anything else that I can address, I love a good question and answer episode, and I'm gonna do more of those over on my Instagram account. I'm gonna do some live question and answers, so please get those questions in. You can submit those through the website. And I just, I appreciate all the support and I look forward to seeing you next time on the Virtual Couch.

"If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; if you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment," says Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score (https://amzn.to/3QtMBPG). In today's episode, Tony explores what unresolved trauma can look like in adult relationships and what steps can be taken to overcome trauma and rewire the brain for connection. Tony completes the long-awaited part 2 of his review of "The Body Keeps the Score." You can find part 1 at https://www.tonyoverbay.com/how-trauma-impacts-us-all-the-body-keeps-the-score-review-pt1/ 

Go to http://tonyoverbay.com/workshop to sign up for Tony's "Magnetize Your Marriage" virtual workshop. The cost is only $19, and you'll learn the top 3 things you can do NOW to create a Magnetic Marriage. 

You can learn more about Tony's pornography recovery program, The Path Back, by visiting http://pathbackrecovery.com And visit http://tonyoverbay.com and sign up to receive updates on upcoming programs and podcasts.

Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the "uh's" and "um's" that, in his words, "must be created by wizards and magic!" because it's that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ

Transcript

Tony: So let me take you back to the summer of 1988. Yes. The year that I graduated high school. The top movies, and I had to look these up, “Who framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Coming to America”, “Crocodile Dundee”. Not part one, no, we're talking part two. “Big”, “Willow”, “Diehard”. And music, George Michael topped the charts with “Faith”, INXS with “Need You Tonight” and Rick Astley was never gonna give you up.

So I was a high school senior. I was growing up in Sandy, Utah, and we had a very late winter and the high school baseball season was gonna consist of probably about a dozen games. So much different than where I live now in California where the baseball season can last all year long. So I was actually looking forward to summer leagues and I had been talking to a couple of college scouts and I was really hoping to be able to play somewhere in college.

And then we head out on a senior trip to St. George where I ended up getting run over by a 20 foot dual prop ski boat and cut up both of my legs and that in essence put a little bit of an end to my baseball hopes and dreams. And then on July 31st, 1988, one of my very best friends, Trent Curl, along with his brother Toby, and Trent's girlfriend, Lisa Warren, who actually had been my eighth grade crush and Toby's best friend Jeremy were killed tragically when their car drifted into oncoming traffic on the way back home from a trip to Jackson Hole. Then a couple of years later, I remember vividly receiving a call from my dad that my brother had passed away. I had just turned 21, so that would've made him 24. And now fast forward to just two or three years ago, my daughter, McKinley, my wife, Wendy, and I were preparing to run a half marathon and we were listening to music and I was playing some Jackson Five. Now don't judge, but this is when little Michael is going all in on who's loving you, which reminded me of another version of that song by Terrence Trent D'arby. Now, Trent, my aforementioned best friend who unfortunately had passed away and my best friend Grant and I wore out this CD of Terrence Trent D'arby, I think it was called, “Introducing the Hard Line” and Terrence's version of “Who's Loving You” came on, and I just started bawling. I couldn't stop and it was out of nowhere. And here we are preparing to run this race and I feel like I'm gonna get dehydrated from the amount of tears that are flowing from my eyes. And it was visceral. It was this gut reaction, and again, it just hit me so hard and out of nowhere. And I pictured my friend Trent, the only one of us with rhythm, singing and dancing to that song.

And then just a few weeks ago, my son, his girlfriend, my wife and I were driving back from Vallejo, California. Where my son's college basketball team had played a game and we passed a sign for Mayor Island. Now it's a naval base and it's where my brother died over 30 years ago. And at the time of his passing, I didn't even know where Mayor Island was. But in 1993 when we moved to California, I didn't even realize that I would be an hour and change from where he died. And so each and every time that we drive to the Bay Area, to San Francisco, to the beach, every time we drive through that area and I pass that sign that says Mayor Island, I'm just hit with these memories of my brother. Or even more recently, just a week ago with my family in town for Christmas, we drove up to the scene of an accident. And I immediately just panic and terror just overcame me. And I had my daughter McKinley with me, and I immediately just asked her if she could pull up find my phone and make sure where all the kids were, because that just brought such a horrific feeling and thought of my daughter Alex, and the ordeal that she went through almost a year ago, and the accident that she is going to be recovering from for the rest of her life.

So today we're gonna talk about trauma. And we're gonna be using Bessel van der Kolk's book, The Body Keeps the Score as our guide because as you can see in each one of these situations, the body really does keep the score and it holds on to certain feelings, thoughts, memories, and emotions, and they can come up out of nowhere. So today in keeping The Body Keeps the Score as our guide, I wanna share some information that I think will help you start to recognize how trauma shows up in your life, and maybe more importantly, as well as what to do. So we're gonna talk about that and so much more coming up on today's episode of the Virtual Couch.

Hey everybody. Welcome to episode 356 of the Virtual Couch. I'm your host, Tony Overbay. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of the Waking Up to Narcissism podcast as well, which I would encourage you to go listen to this week. You're probably gonna get this Virtual Couch episode on a Wednesday, and my plan on Friday is to release an episode with an amazing woman named Ashley Boyson and she has a very popular Instagram account called The Moments We Stand and I feel like for some reason, I want to say spoiler alert, but I feel like in this day and age, a quick search, a Google search on anybody can find out what the story would be, but she tells a pretty harrowing story of feeling like everything in her life was going perfectly. Five kids, a dream home, her husband's an attorney, and just things had seemed off, but she had been overlooking a lot of red flags. And in the episode we talk about turning red flags yellow. But eventually she learns to find out that he was murdered. And I will leave it there, but it's just not even what you would probably think there and it's one of the first guests, I think when I was doing a little bit of digging before the episode where I could have watched the Dateline NBC of her, or I think maybe the true crime report or the forensic files. But she's an amazing woman with an amazing story and is really doing some great work and helping others go through tragedy and go through trauma.

And that leads a little bit into what we're talking about today. We are talking about trauma and before we jump to the episode, then please just sign up for my newsletter. I think I'm just going down that path. Just go to tonyoverbay.com and sign up for the newsletter and you will not get inundated with information. As a matter of fact, I just haven't put one out for a little while. There's a goal to be more consistent with that, but there's just a lot coming here in 2023. There are a few new podcasts. There's still the magnetic marriage subscription based podcast where you're gonna hear real coaching. There's a revamp, an upgrade to the magnetic marriage course that is coming. And now the course is different from the workshop. If you go to tonyoverbay.com/workshop, there's a $19, everything you didn't know, you didn't know about your marriage and how we show up in marriages and relationships. And that is still available. Again, that's $19 money back guarantee. And that's at tonyoverbay.com/workshop. And I still have the Path Back Pornography Recovery Program and there's actually a discount going for the month of January on that, but act fast. And my social media team, the Amazing Yeah Yeah agency has put some things together there and you can find that on my Instagram account, which is Tonyoverbay, underscore LMFT. And you can also go to Tony Overbay Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist on Facebook. And I'm there on LinkedIn and other places like that as well. So just go find those things and you'll see a lot more content and information about the things that are coming. The most exciting thing though, is a True Crime podcast that I've done with one of my daughters, and it's one of my daughters that has not been on the show. And she's amazing. She's hilarious, and she is a true crime fan. And so she has brought in a very big case from the past. There's a Netflix documentary made of it, and we're gonna talk about that for a few episodes. We've already got those filmed where she's gonna bring the facts of the crime, and I'm gonna talk as much therapy and psychology as I can, and we plan on doing this on a regular basis. So if you go to tonyoverbay.com and sign up for the newsletter, you're gonna find out a lot more about that when those things come out.

So today I want to get to trauma and I'm going to refer to a document and now I look back on this and I did an episode a part one episode on The Body Keeps the Score and it was back in episode, oh, I had the notes, but it was in the 200 and twenties I think. So we're at 356 now. So we're talking a couple of years ago is when I did this and I did something that I do on occasion where I finished that episode, I got through a little bit of the notes that I had on The Body Keeps the Score, and then I looked back at the transcript and I said, okay, we're gonna do a part two, probably a part three, maybe even a part four. Stay tuned. So here we are two years later. Let's get to part two.

But, I also want to share that the notes that I'm referring to, and I believe I shared this back two years ago. I found an amazing, just an amazing book review of The Body Keeps the Score. So I listened to the audio book and it really is, it's a game changer. I know that gets used an awful lot, but the book, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is, I feel like a little bit of the bible of trauma in a sense. And this is someone's notes, 10 pages worth of single space notes. And they have just made this available on the internet, but I could not find who created this 10 page document of notes and so I'm gonna refer to that and all credit goes to this unnamed person, but I wanna read the summary that they did and then we're gonna jump down into more of where we left off in that part one.

So I'm gonna jump down into just really getting into more of the, what do we do about trauma? But here's what the person said about their book club notes on The Body Keeps the Score. They said, “My top takeaways from The Body Keeps the Score is that there are many different types of trauma that a person can and most likely will experience during their life, from childhood abuse and or emotional neglect, to an auto accident, war, a terrorist attack, or sudden death of a loved one. Much of trauma is a normal, albeit, uncomfortable neurological response to a dangerous situation, and so once a person experiences a trauma on a subconscious level, their brain, again, on a subconscious level, begins to not only organize their worldview, but also create actions around their response to those traumas in an attempt to keep them safe. So this can lead to a lot of problematic behaviors if the person is trying to numb out or escape from remembering what happened. Or it can lead them to feeling crazy because we are unable to numb out and feel stuck in a state of being hyper aroused, such as feeling chronically anxious or on edge or chronically hyper-vigilant about people and places and things.”

And that might not even seem like it's related to our trauma. So if you are someone that just runs more anxious in general, or somebody that is more depressed than normal or usual. These are things that I feel like, especially as a therapist, that it can be really good to go in and talk through, because a lot of times these things can just be responses to trauma. And trauma, and I love how this person lays that out, that it can be everything from the things that we often think of, childhood abuse, but it can also be emotional neglect. It can also be accidents, car accidents. But that part about emotional neglect, and this is something that I talk so much about on this podcast, is I really feel like we can bless all of our parents' hearts, but I just feel like it's almost impossible to get that right, meaning parenting, because, and I overuse this very simplistic example, but if a seven year old kid asked for a pony for their birthday and they don't get the pony, they don't say, yeah, that was a pretty big stretch because we live in an apartment and there's no room for a pony. The seven year old said, I would like a pony, please. And so in their mind, they have concocted some version of a reality where who knows, maybe they're gonna keep the pony in the bathroom, or maybe they'll just take it out for walks. I mean, people have dogs. Why not a pony? But they've created some sort of narrative that is gonna make sense. So then when they're not given that pony, then they don't just say, yeah, I understand that didn't make a lot of sense. Maybe we don't have the financial means for a pony. And where will we put a pony? In their mind they think, oh, my parents don't like me because I asked for a pony and I didn't get it. Now that's again, oversimplified, but when we really look at the concepts around what abandonment feels like as a kid, it's that we come out of the womb and we utter a small whimper and everyone jumps to attention and takes care of us. And so that's our factory setting. And that's the way that we survive, is that we express our needs and then when we're young, people meet our needs. And as we get older and we start to just go through life, everybody isn't jumping up and down to meet our needs. So then we make these pretty big demands or requests and people don't respond.

Then we can start to feel like what's wrong with me? And we have this default programming of shame because it must be because people don't love me, that I didn't get the pony for my seventh birthday, or that I don't get to eat candy corn for every meal. I mean, it is corn. The word corn is there, so what's the big deal? And so trying to make sense of things when we're a kid, when we don't even know what is going on, in essence, can lead to those deeper feelings of abandonment, which then leads on into that world of attachment. And attachment is what do I have to do to get my needs met? Do I have to be incredibly hilarious and funny? Do I have to be the athlete that gets everyone to notice me? Do I need to be the one who just keeps the peace in the home, or do I need to be the one that always gets bad grades and so everybody puts their attention on me? So there's so many different roles that we almost slide into in order to get our needs met, and we wanna get those needs met because we feel like if we don't get those needs met, we're gonna die.

And so emotional neglect can also feel like trauma. So now all of a sudden we come into our adult years, and if we were that person that was in charge of managing everybody else's emotions, and that was the way that we got our needs met, or that's the way we were noticed or seen, or the way that we felt validated, then we can bring that into our adult relationships. And all of a sudden when everybody is just doing their own thing comes the feeling of trauma or what it can feel like to be, you can be, nobody cares about me, or I'm unlovable. And I feel like if you go back through these Virtual Couch archives in a sense, there's so much that I feel like we've discussed over the last year or two about different things from everything from attachment styles, I mean, look at that concept around an anxious attachment. Here's somebody that, as a kid said, oh, I want love. I really desperately want love. But if their parent, and again, this is a, bless their parent's heart. If their parent is saying, hey, not right now, champ, I got a lot going on. Or, you know, this TV show's about to start, or, I'll get to you later tomorrow. Or, hey, actually you're fine. Don't worry about it. If things aren't really as big of a deal as you think they are, then when the kid is saying, hey, I need connection. I need to know that I matter. And then, again, even when they're doing their best is saying, hey, not right now. But then if the parent all of a sudden is feeling down, sad, and says, man, I really want to feel like I'm a good parent, and they go to their kid and say, hey, come give mom or dad a hug, or, you know, I love you. Right? Or do you see all these things that we're doing for you? So then when the kid maybe isn't necessarily looking for somebody to be there for them, but the parents saying, I'm ready. Come over here, gimme a hug. So we almost have this mixed view of attachment. So now all of a sudden we get into our adult relationships and we say, the only thing I want in life is to be loved. And then someone focuses that bright spotlight of love or attention onto us, and all of a sudden, we feel like, I don't really know how to do this. I mean, this is what I want. And so now we're looking for that external validation and we're telling the person that we've desperately wanted to love us. Well, not that way, maybe do it a different way. 

So we bring all of these traumas, and that may sound like a big word, but for today we're gonna use trauma a lot. But we bring those traumas into our adult relationship. And that's why I feel like this book, The Body Keeps the Score, just hits on so many different levels because then, again, we're talking about everything from childhood abuse, and we can have sexual abuse, physical abuse, but we're also getting into that emotional neglect. And I feel like that is more probably common of a form of trauma that I see in my office than the physical or the sexual abuse. So the author of this paper again says, “We begin to organize on a subconscious level, things into our worldview, and we create actions around our responses to these traumas and in an attempt to keep us safe, but it can lead to a lot of problematic behaviors if we're trying to numb out or not remember what happened. We can feel crazy because we're unable to numb out and we feel stuck in the state of being hyper aroused, feeling chronically anxious, on edge, hyper-vigilant. And we may not even recognize that these are things that are related to trauma,” and they say, “while there is a lot of emotional and physical pain associated with trauma, we can overcome it.”

There's the big takeaway that we're gonna get to today, and this is why this book is so incredible because it gives solutions on how to overcome it. And I feel like as so many things with mental health, the exact opposite of what we're probably doing the most of right now, such as running away from our feelings, thoughts, and, emotions and dealing with them later are feeling like they aren't as big of a deal as we think they are, not the greatest idea for dealing with or processing trauma. So I'm gonna give you some tips on how to deal with that today. So they go on to say that, yeah, “So while there's a lot of emotional and physical pain associated with trauma, we can overcome it. This is done by understanding that what we are experiencing is largely neurological and that we aren't crazy or somehow beyond help. That once we bring awareness to our feelings and our actions and we see them as more of a defense mechanism than something that makes logical sense, then we can start to regain control of our brain, our body, and our life.” So when you start to just look at this, and I love it, it's an acceptance and commitment therapy model of check this out, look at how I'm behaving, that's interesting. So based on these situations, these circumstances that I'm going through at this very moment in time, here's how I react. Because when you can take yourself out of that moment, see yourself in the context of that moment, then we can start to look at, what is the trauma maybe that has led to that response in that moment?

So, the person said, “The big gift in trauma is self-awareness, but it's a gift that we have to work hard at unwrapping,” but then they say, “but boy, is it worth it.” So they go on to say that they hope you enjoy this book as much as I did, and my notes are below. So thank you person who created all of these notes, and if you want a quick recap on the first part of the book, then I do, I highly recommend that you go check out episode 220 something or 200 and something. I'll put a note, I'll put a link to the episode in the show notes. But that's the first part of this episode on trauma. 

So where I'm gonna jump in is we left off on the other episode talking about trauma being misdiagnosed and mistreated and talking about the diagnostic criteria for trauma, so I'm gonna jump into this person's notes right after that trauma is largely neurological, so that's what we talked about a little bit in the opening. So when people are really upset, they often feel like they are losing their mind. Now in technical terms, they're experiencing the loss of their executive functioning. You might hear this from time to time, this loss of executive functioning, because that's a big part of other things such as Asperger's or some of these disorders. And the loss of executive functioning is, in essence the loss of being able to, that executive functioning area is the area where we make sense of things. It's often called our rational brain, our logical brain. So, the brain on trauma. The limbic brain and the visual cortex show increased activation and the speech center shows markedly decreased activation. So the more intense that our emotions are, it activates that amygdala, our fight or flight part of our brain. And so then our rational, our cognitive brain, and I love how Bessel van der Kolk says that our rational cognitive part of the brain is the youngest part of our brain, and it only occupies about 30% of your skull. And its primary concerns with the world outside of us are understanding how things and people work and figuring out how to accomplish goals, manage our time, and then sequence our actions. And I love how he says that's the youngest part of our brain, so intense emotion and this, hyperactivated amygdala, the fight or flight response, now that's the old guard, the OG, that's been there forever, that's there to protect us. So it's this newer part of the brain is the one that says, okay, I think we're safe now, what do you wanna do? And so Bessel van der Kolk says, “The brain is built from the bottom up. So the most primitive part, also known as the reptilian brain, is located in the brainstem just above the place where our spinal cord enters the skull.” And that reptilian part of the brain is responsible for hunger and thirst, pain, breathing, pretty important, ridding the body of toxins, meaning urinating, defecating, poo poo, pee pee jokes. Uh, anybody as a dad that's getting older. The brainstem, the hypothalamus, which sits directly above it, controls the energy levels of the body. 

So again, we've got this very base version of the brain that is eat, drink, pain, react, emote, breathe, poop, pee. And from there we get right above that, the hypothalamus that controls the energy level of the body and it coordinates the endocrine and immune systems and keeps the internal balance that we know as homeostasis. So we go right up from the reptilian brain and we've got the limbic system, or they call it the mammal brain. This is the seed of emotions. This is the monitor of danger, the judge of what is pleasurable or scary, the arbiter of what is or is not important for survival purposes. So the limbic system is shaped in response to experience. So the more that you do, the more that you think and feel, that shapes the limbic system. Again, this mammal brain, so that in partnership with the, you know, as an infant, your own genetic makeup and your inborn temperament, those are what starts to shape what it feels like to be you. So, this limbic system, so that's when I talk about nature and nurture, birth order, DNA abandonment, rejection. Now we're talking limbic system. And so whatever happens to a baby contributes to the emotional and perceptual map of the world that it's developing and that its brain creates. This is where he says, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Also known as neuroplasticity. And that's not something that's just set in concrete at birth or at age three, or five, or 12, or 19 or 25.

We've got more and more data that say that the neurons that fire together, wire together, throughout your life. So now if you feel safe, you feel loved, then your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, cooperation. But if you're frightened, if you feel unwanted, then it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment. So in the book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk says, “The emotional brain equals the reptilian brain and limbic system.” So the emotional brain is at the heart of the central nervous system, and its key task is the lookout for your welfare. If it detects danger or there's any special opportunity that you need to be aware of, it alerts you by releasing a little dose of hormones, and the result is a visceral gut sensation, ranging from feeling a little bit queasy to the grip of panic in your chest, and it will interfere with whatever your mind is currently focused on, and it'll get you moving physically and mentally in a different direction. So now, well-functioning frontal lobes are crucial for a harmonious relationship with our fellow human beings. So without flexible, active frontal lobes, people become creatures of habit and their relationships start to become superficial and routine. And then he talks about invention, innovation, discovery, and wonder. They're all lacking when you are just trying to survive. And I see this so often. If I go into the people that are in emotionally abusive relationships and I talk about it, I like to call it, it's a waste of emotional calories and emotional energy when somebody is continually just trying to manage their feelings and emotions and regulate their safety when they're in a relationship with a significant other. Where when people feel safe, then they are free to explore, to play, to be cooperative, and when that is the what it feels like to be you on the inside, then you're more open to invention, innovation, discovery, and wonder. But when you are in this, I have to protect myself, then we never get to those things and it never becomes a, you are the best version of you. So, those frontal lobes, let me go over that quickly. Bessel van der Kolk says, “Our frontal lobes can also, but not always, stop us from doing things that will embarrass us or hurt others. We don't have to eat every time we're hungry or blow up every time we're angry or kiss anybody who arouses our desires,” but he says that, “it is exactly on that edge between impulse and acceptable behavior where most of our troubles begin.” So the more intense that visceral or sensory input from the emotional brain, the less capacity that the rational brain has to put a damper on it. So if you think about that, if you are one who falls prey to impulse on a regular basis, if you can start to see where I'm going here, you can start to relate that to trauma.

And I'm not saying, okay, now, you know, oh my gosh, we gotta dig in there and rewire your entire brain. But sometimes just being aware that, oh, I am a bit impulsive and I get right between that edge of impulse and acceptable behavior. And that is where my trouble begins. And so that visceral or emotional brain, if it is very impulsive, that most likely that's there to protect me for some reason. All of a sudden I feel like I have to impulsively act on something, or maybe I'll never get another chance to do that again, or that's the only time that I feel this sense of adrenaline or rush. So just being aware of that often is part of this road to recovery. So he says, “Past trauma and the ongoing threat perception system of the brain, it affects people's current reactions.”

So this amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain makes no distinction between past and present, once it's triggered, even if the trigger isn't the same as the original trauma, then your brain is still gonna say, oh, I'm triggered. And it's not trying to say, yeah, but this one doesn't seem as real. So in the book he talks about the challenges, not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened, but learning how to gain mastery over one's internal sensations and emotions. Sensing the feelings and the emotions, naming the feelings and the emotions, and identifying what's going on inside of you is really the first step to recovery. And let me talk a little bit about the amygdala and then I'll get away from the brain here and we'll talk more about, I wanna hit a little bit on this concept of mirror neurons, but the amygdala's really important. It's important that our amygdala is working correctly. Bessel van der Kolk says “It's like a smoke detector for danger, we don't want to get caught unaware by a raging fire, but we also don't want to get into a frenzy every time we smell smoke.” So we need to be able to detect whether somebody is getting upset with us. But if the amygdala goes into overdrive, then we may become chronically scared that people hate us or that we feel like they are out to get us.

So our amygdala means well, but if that panic button is stuck on, then that can be something that we're gonna need to work through. And so therapy, and I love that Bessel van der Kolk talks about this, “Therapy only works if a person is grounded in the present moment,” you know he says, can feel their butt on the chair, see the light coming through the window and feel calm and safe. So, “being anchored in the present while revisiting the trauma, that's what opens up the possibility of deeply knowing that the terrible events belong to the past.” And this is one of the most powerful things about talk therapy. And I know that this is so powerful. I see it on a daily basis that when somebody can sit there and they are grounded and they are able to talk and express these feelings and emotions and tell these stories from the past or even things that are going on in the present, or their fears of the future and they can talk about those and express those in a way that is safe and have somebody there that is not trying to tell them, well, why didn't you do this? Or you should do this instead. But when somebody is really there and saying, and then what happened? And tell me what that was like, and how did you feel? That all of a sudden we're grounded, we're anchored in that moment, and we're able to express something scary and we feel safe. And that's starting to rewire or change the neuropathways of the brain. So again, therapy works when somebody's grounded, they're in that present moment. So being anchored while revisiting trauma opens that possibility of deeply knowing that the terrible events belong to the past. If a person's in a flashback or they don't feel calm or safe, if they start to feel defensive or aggressive, and feel unsafe or not believed, then therapy doesn't work and at best it can make a person almost re-traumatized. And that's the part where if, and I'm not trying to say that as a knock on therapist, but I'm trying to say that as a bless the heart of your friends, that if we start to open up about trauma to those and you do not feel believed and you do not feel safe, then again, not only does it not work as a way to help heal, but it can make you almost feel re-traumatized because there's somebody that doesn't believe you.

So I said I would move away from the brain after the amygdala, but Bessel van der Kolk has a great way to talk about the thalamus. “So our thalamus is like a cook. It takes information from all the senses, and then it blends it with our autobiographical memory. So breakdown of the thalamus explains why traumas are primarily remembered not as a story with a beginning, middle, or end, but as isolated sensory imprints, images, sounds, physical sensations that are accompanied by intense emotion, usually terror and helplessness.” And so in the book, the Buddha Brain, the author talks about the mechanisms of memory. And the way that memory works is such an interesting thing where we conjure up an image and then we fill in all the gaps. And it's a more productive use of neural real estate, I believe, the author Rick Hansen said. But that's where we start getting into this concept of confabulated memory, where every time that we recall a memory, then we're gonna fill in the gaps with different details. And then when we put that memory away, now that's the new confabulated memory. So in normal circumstances, Bessel van der Kolk says the thalamus also acts as a filter or a gatekeeper. So he says, “This makes it the central component of attention, concentration, and new learning, all of which are compromised by trauma.” So people that have PTSD have their floodgates wide open, they lack a filter, and they're on constant sensory overload. So in order to cope, they try to shut themselves down and they develop tunnel vision and hyperfocus. And if they can't shut down naturally, they may enlist drugs or alcohol to block out the world. And the tragedy is that the price of closing down includes filtering out sources of pleasure and joy as well. It's as if the brain has to do all or nothing thing, because it's so fearful or afraid of trauma. And Bessel van der Kolk talks about mirror neurons. This is a really interesting concept that there's a belief that these mirror neurons could be the key to all kinds of things in the future. Mirror neurons explain empathy, imitation synchrony in the development of language. “Mirror neurons,” he says, “are like neural wifi. We pick up not only another person's movement, but their emotional state and intentions as well.” So when people are in sync with each other, they tend to stand or sit in similar ways. Their voices take on the same rhythms, but mirror neurons also make us more vulnerable to others' negativity, so that we respond to their anger with fury or we're dragged down by their depression. And because trauma almost invariably involves not being seen or not being mirrored and not being taken into account, then treatment for trauma needs to reactivate the capacity to safely mirror and be mirrored by others, but also to resist being hijacked by others' negative emotions. And he talks about two ways to implement change.

So now we're talking top down or bottom up. “So structures in the emotional brain decide what we perceive as dangerous or safe. There are two ways of changing the threat detection system from the top down,” which he says, “is through modulating messages from the medial prefrontal cortex.” What does that mean? Mindfulness, meditation, yoga. So from the top down, being able to just have that pause and bring in information in a much more calm way. Or he says, “From the bottom up through the reptilian brain, through breathing, through movement, and through touch, which helps recalibrate your autonomic nervous system.” And he goes into a lot of detail about the autonomic nervous system as well as the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic, I'll talk about those two because people have really clever things that they remember with the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

So the sympathetic nervous system acts as the body's accelerator. It includes the fight or flight or what Darwin referred to as the escape or avoidant behavior. Functions with the use of emotions. The parasympathetic or PNS works against emotions and it promotes self-preservation. So functions like digestion, wound healing, exhaling, that helps to calm us down. So, you know, inhaling helps to activate adrenaline. Exhaling helps us to calm down. So you can access your whole, you know, the sympathetic and parasympathetic are part of this autonomic nervous system, and you can access those through breathing, movement, touch. I mean, breathing is one of the few body functions under, it's underneath both conscious and autonomic control. There's a neuroscientist named Paul McClain. He compares the relationship between the rational brain and the emotional brain to that between more or less of a competent rider and his unruly horse. “So as long as the weather is calm and the path is smooth, the rider can feel like they are in excellent control. But then unexpected sounds or threats from other animals can make the horse bolt. So then forcing the writer to hold on for dear life.” So likewise, when people feel like their survival is at stake, or they're seized by rages, longings, fear, sexual desires, they stop listening to the voice of reason. And it makes little sense to argue with them.

 Sometimes this is that, I think I did an episode long ago on the passenger and the rider, and so it's that same thing. So the rider can be in excellent control. You know, the rider is that rational brain. And then the emotional brain is the animal that is being ridden. And then if that animal is spooked, so to speak, that emotional brain, then it can just take off. And that rational brain is literally hanging on there for dear life. So a person who has been in anger management classes, for example, maybe seven or eight times, might extol the virtue of the technique by saying they are great, they work terrific, but then they find out, as long as you're not really angry.

When our emotional and rational brains are in conflict, for example, when we're enraged with somebody that we love or frightened by somebody that we depend on, or we lust after somebody who is off limits, then a tug of war ensues and it gives us a visceral experience. Our gut, our heart, our lungs, they will lead to both physical discomfort and psychological misery. And then the next component that he talks about is adrenaline. So insults and injuries are remembered, the best because the adrenaline that we secrete to defend against potential threats helps us to engrave those incidents into our minds. So how crazy is that? So even if the content of the remark fades, our dislike for the person who made it usually persists. So that adrenaline is a pretty neat thing except for when it's not. So when, when that adrenaline is flowing, you know, and it's there to defend us against potential threats, it's saying, hey, don't forget this guy. And so now you all of a sudden almost have this anchored memory that I don't know if I'd like that person very much. So then when something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain isn't really working well at that moment, they may not be aware that they are re-experiencing and reenacting the past.

Because to them, they're furious, they're terrified, they're enraged, they're ashamed, they're frozen. And after that emotional storm passes, then they might look for something or somebody to blame it on. Well, look at what you made me do, and if we're honest, I think most of us have blamed others for our behavior from time to time. But hopefully once we cool down, hopefully we can admit mistakes. But trauma absolutely interferes with this kind of awareness, and that's what I talk often about over in the world of emotional immaturity or narcissism, that it really is, it's a response to childhood trauma where somebody is left without a real sense of self needing external validation and lowered empathy because that trauma interferes with our awareness, people don't experience trauma in the same way. So not everybody experiences trauma in the same way. Some are on hyper alert, some go numb and have decreased activation, blank stares, absent minds. Those are the outward manifestation of the freeze function and so much of how we react to trauma, which survival mode we go into as adults, is how we learn to react to trauma as children. If we numb out as kids, we might numb out as adults, and if we went into fix it mode as kids, or if we had to get our needs met, we had to go juggle or clean the house, we might do that stuff when we're older as well. But after trauma, then many people are either hypervigilant or they're numb. So if they're hypervigilant, then they can't enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer. And if they're numb, then they have trouble absorbing new experiences, or they may not be alert to signs of real danger. And what Bessel van der Kolk talks about is when that amygdala, what he calls malfunctions, “People no longer run when they should be trying to escape, or they no longer fight back when they should be defending themselves.”

So it can be really challenging to help people deactivate these defense mechanisms that once ensured their survival. So the key about working with trauma is it's not about stopping a behavior like yelling, it's about deactivating a defense mechanism that leads to that yelling. So, to sum this up really quick, it says four main points to know about trauma. “People are patients, but their participants and their healing, and they need to restore their autonomy. Victims of trauma continue to be there instead of here.” So when somebody is in their trauma response, they're there, not here and we need to get them back to here. And you can only be fully in charge of your life if you acknowledge the reality of your body and you're aware of all of its visceral dimensions. And then he also says that “People who suffer from flashbacks,” and I think the vast majority of us do in some form or fashion, maybe that sounds like a dramatic concept, but it's not, “often consciously or unconsciously organize their lives around trying to protect against them.” And this is where I feel like the concepts around we're trying to manage our own anxiety and we do that often through the control of others or trying to control our own environment where in reality when all we're trying to do is control ourselves or others, the truth is there's a lot of disorder or there's a lack of control in the world, and that's where acceptance can come in.

And acceptance can be scary, especially when our body is trying to protect itself by gaining control. So again, they organize their lives, trying to protect themselves. They might work out trying to be strong enough to fend off an attacker or numb themselves with drugs to try to cultivate an illusionary sense of control in highly dangerous situations like bungee jumping and skydiving. Fighting unseen dangers is exhausting and it leaves people fatigued and depressed and weary. And so if the elements of trauma are replayed over and over, then the accompanying stress hormones engrave those memories even more deeply. Again, the neurons that fire together wire together, and all of a sudden then ordinary day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what's going on around you, it can make it impossible to feel alive. And it becomes really difficult to feel the joy as well as the aggravation of ordinary life. It can be harder to concentrate on the tasks that are in front of you if you're not feeling fully alive in the present. You know? And when you're not, Vessel van der Kolk says, “Not being fully alive in the present, it keeps you more firmly imprisoned in your past.” So there's a lot of different responses to trauma. It can be everything from frantic to collapse. It can be focused, it can depend on your level of danger, but he says that angry people live in angry bodies. That the body of trauma victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. And one of the best ways to do that really is to begin by describing physical sensations that are beneath those emotions. The pressure, the heat, the muscular tension, the tingling, the caving in, the feeling hollow. And then work on identifying sensations that are associated with relaxing or pleasure. You know, part of the job as a therapist is to help people become more aware of literally their breathing, their gestures, their movements, paying attention to subtle shifts in your body, such as tightness in your chest or gnawing in your belly, or especially when you talk about negative events that sometimes people claim, well, no, that those things aren't a big deal. The most natural way for human beings to calm themselves when they're upset is by clinging to another person. But this is hard if the person was physically or sexually violated, because they often then are terrified of bodily conduct.

He talks about the power of hitting rock bottom. I think about this often that rock bottom truly is this principle of hindsight. But he says, “Therapy often starts due to some inexplicable or problematic behavior. Not sleeping or eating, fear of others, partner cheating, jumping into the fix of the problem is not the solution. It takes time and patience to allow the reality behind these symptoms to reveal themselves.” So you can't just jump in there and fix something in a session or two, but starting to be aware and knowing that I think I want to get some help is a huge step. And he says, “Many traumatized people find themselves chronically out of sync with the people around them and many find comfort in groups where they can talk about what happened to them with others who have gone through things that are similar.” This often helps alleviate this sense of isolation, but usually at the price of having to deny their individual difference or isolating oneself into a narrowly defined victim group can promote a view of others as irrelevant or at best dangerous.

Which eventually only leads to further alienation. So a lot of times people then stay away from these groups or people that have had similar experiences because their brain tells them stories like, well, I just don't wanna get in there and just complain all the time. And I feel like that's an adorable story that your brain is telling you to keep you away from the unknown, when in reality that unknown is what can heal you. If relationships with people don't help, relationships with other mammals can, animal therapy, it's very real. But talking through things is really important. Sigmund Freud saw or thought that the lack of verbal memory is central and trauma, and that if a person does not remember that he is likely to act it out. I thought that was such a deep thought. Freud said he reproduces it, not as a memory, but as an action. He repeats it without knowing, of course, that he's repeating it. And in the end we understand that this is his way of remembering. As early as 1893, there was a study called The Talking Cure, Freud's and Brewer, the individual hysterical symptoms immediately and permanently disappeared when we had succeeded in bringing clearly to light the memory of the event by which it was provoked. So when the patient had described what that event was in the greatest possible detail and had put that affect into words. So there needs to be, this was a quote from that study. “There needs to be an energetic reaction to traumatic events. And if there isn't, the affect remains attached to the memory and cannot be discharged.” Tears and acts of revenge are how most people discharge their trauma. So if people don't consciously remember, they react. So if you've been hurt, you need to acknowledge and learn how to name what happened to you. 

I'm gonna wrap this up with a couple more things real quick here. In 2002, Dr. Spencer Eth interviewed 225 people who had escaped the Twin Towers. And when asked what had helped them recover the most, the survivors credited acupuncture, massage, yoga, and EMDR, in that order. And massage was particularly helpful among rescue workers. So the survey suggested that most helpful interventions focused on relieving the physical burdens generated by trauma. So trauma makes people feel like either somebody else or like nobody. And people often lose their ability to speak. And in order to overcome trauma, you need to help get back in touch with your body and with yourself because our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves until we can feel and interpret our physical sensations. And we need to be able to register and act on these sensations to navigate safely throughout life. So if you are unaware of what your body needs, you can't take care of it. If you don't feel hunger, you can't nourish yourself. If you mistake anxiety for hunger, you may eat too much. And if you can't feel when you are full, you'll keep eating. So this is why cultivating this sensory awareness is such a critical aspect of trauma recovery. Traumatized people need to learn that they can tolerate their sensations, that they can befriend these inner experiences and they can cultivate new action patterns. And that's done through everything from talk therapy to yoga, to, as you mentioned, everything from massage and emdr.

But moving forward into healing, no one can treat away abuse or rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event and what has happened can't be undone, and that's not said in a negative way, but what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on the body, the mind, and the soul, so that crushing sensation in your chest that you may label as anxiety or depression, the fear of losing control, always being on alert for danger or rejection, the self-loathing, the nightmares, the flashbacks, maybe the fog that keeps you from staying on task or fully engaging in what you’re doing. Or being unable to fully open your heart to another human being. Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself. So the challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind, and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed or enraged or ashamed or collapsed. So for most people, there's four things. Finding a way to become calm and focused. Learning to maintain that calm in response to images or thoughts, sounds or physical sensations that remind you of your past, or finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engage with the people around you and not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you've managed to survive.

And one of the key things of doing this is finding yourself around safe people and also finding out things that matter to you. It goes back to are you acting in accordance, in alignment with your values or are you living a life full of socially compliant goals or doing things that you feel like you're supposed to do or you'll let other people down? Because that feeling that I may let someone else down can absolutely be tied back to some childhood trauma because you're responsible for you and the best way to find out who you are is to start to take action on things that matter to you and see where that takes you. So, welcome to the world of trauma recovery.

If you have questions, thoughts, or any other things that maybe we can address in future episodes, then send me a note contact@tonyoverbay.com or through my website or comment on the post that will go up about this on my social media feeds on Instagram. I would love to get your opinions because trauma can absolutely be overcome, but the exact thing that we often are afraid of, of talking about it and I hope you heard that part where needing to be able to talk about it with people that do feel safe, can absolutely help you move through and pass trauma, and be able to invite it to come along with you while you start to take action on things that matter. And then you really start to find yourself and live this more purposeful, intentional, value-based life. And that's an amazing place to be, rather than wasting all of your time in emotional calories and energy trying to manage your emotions, manage your anxiety, or control your environment. All right, send me your questions and we'll see you next time and taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented Aurora Florence with her song, “It's Wonderful”. We'll see you next week and have an amazing time. See you next week on the virtual Couch.

Tony tackles an essential skill needed for lasting change, "cognitive flexibility," from the book ACT Made Simple - Second Edition by Russ Harris https://amzn.to/3FsneJ0

If you are interested in being coached in Tony's upcoming "Magnetic Marriage Podcast," please email him for more information. You will receive free marriage coaching and remain anonymous when the episode airs. 

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Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the "uh's" and "um's" that, in his words, "must be created by wizards and magic!" because it's that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ

Transcript:

Hey everybody. Happy holidays. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Festivus, I can't remember if you say Merry Festivus. Happy Festivus, but it is that time of year. And what time of year? Well, I feel like people coming into my office are either experiencing a lot that is going on that can feel very overwhelming or possibly the opposite of that, not enough going on, which can feel a bit underwhelming, but either way, that familiar pang of the holidays can bring around the old familiar, and you may have guessed it, what's wrong with me? What's wrong with me that I simply can't feel grateful or appreciate what I have? Or why doesn't anybody reach out to me? Or if I didn't put myself out there to my fill in the blank? Family, friends, neighbors. Nobody would even notice me or what's wrong with me that another year has passed and I don't feel like my marriage has improved or my parenting is any better, or my financial situation is any different or I'm in the same place financially or worse than last year.

And so I think a lot of us right now feel like we are moving past this almost the great pause of the pandemic is over, so either we should already be in a much better place or again, fill in the blank, our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our health, our faith, any of those things should be better. But the truth is, most likely we will be finding ways to continually beat ourselves up. And we are constantly playing out the “what's wrong with me?” dialogue. And to make matters worse. Well, let’s not say worse. Let's reframe it and say what makes things more challenging is that, as I've shared before, our brain is a don't get killed device and its default programming is to keep us in a constant state of fear and anxiety because it really does think that it's clever the brain that is, that it thinks that's what's best for us. And it doesn't give much of a rip about whether or not you have a happy holiday because to your brain it's check, another year down. Let's just keep kicking that can of change down the road because as your brain is thinking, I can't trust this guy all talking about change. What if that change comes with somebody abandoning him, or what if that change comes at the cost of his physical health? I mean, if I let my own brain, literally my brain do its thing, it's probably telling me, okay, okay. Yeah, you ran a little further than you have in the past few years, a few weeks ago. But, really? You're thinking about ultramarathons again. Can't we be happy with just a nice 5k, maybe a 10k? Seriously, you're 53 years old, in the Middle Ages you'd be sending a carrier pigeon to the Guinness Book of Worlds Records at the time to come etch your story on some stone tablets of how is this guy still walking around past the age of 50? I mean, what are the secrets to this insane longevity? So how about we dial back that enthusiasm and look, there are so many great shows on the streaming services and food is really tasty these days, so let's just relax a bit. We'll tackle those new things later, but for now, let's just get back to the worrying and comparing all that new stuff, because I promise you we'll do everything that you want to do, all this change, we'll do it later. As a matter of fact, how about next Monday, right? There you go. Next Monday we will do all the new things that you want to do, all this change that you talk about, but for now, well, since we're starting on Monday, I will bet that you cannot eat that entire pint of ice cream. And actually, what a better story if you start your transformation after an ice cream induced coma. So again, happy December of 2022 and honestly, many of you may legitimately be looking at starting some seriously big changes in a couple of weeks, the start of the new year. So let me help give you the tools to be as successful as possible. Coming up on today's episode of the Virtual Couch, we are going to take a look at a thing called cognitive flexibility or more simply put the very most bestest way to help you do some changing, and we're talking about the good kind of change. And we're going to talk about that and so much more coming up next on today's episode.

Hey everybody. Welcome to episode 351 of the Virtual Couch. I am your host, Tony Overbay.. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four, and creator of the Path Back, as well as Waking Up to Narcissism and several other podcasts that are so close to being released. And I'll tell you about that more in a second. Now, a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that if you were interested in taking my Path Back Pornography Recovery course and being part of a pretty amazing group hosted on Zoom once a week with people from around the world, quite literally, shoot me a message at contact@tonyoverbay.com and I will throw a discount your way and maybe give yourself a little gift to improve your marriage. It's $19. It's my 90 minute workshop on basically what we don't know that we don't know about marriage, and that's at tonyoverbay.com/workshop. And go follow me on Instagram or on Facebook at Tony Overbay Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist because I'm going to start sharing so much more about a lot of things; the Magnetic Marriage Podcast, a revamp version of the Magnetic Marriage Course, different from the workshop, but the course. And this is the first time that I'm able to talk a little bit more about a premium podcast through Apple for the Waking Up to Narcissism podcast. So this is going to be a second completely different podcast, a second episode a week that is called Waking Up to Narcissism Questions and Answers. It will be a premium subscription, but I now have dozens and dozens, maybe even hundreds or over a hundred questions that I get on almost a daily basis around emotional immaturity, narcissism, addiction, marriage, you name it, and those will be answered on that new podcast. So you'll see a free zero episode on your feed soon. If you do already subscribe to Waking Up to Narcissism, and in addition, there's going to start being an option to get the next episode of the Virtual Couch a week ahead of the standard release as well. So follow me on Instagram or Facebook or sign up for my newsletter tonyoverbay.com to get the latest on all these things.

So let's get to today's topic. A couple of weeks ago, I had Dr. Michael Twohig on the Virtual Couch, and he is one of the world's most leading acceptance and commitment therapy researchers. And that episode was a blast. It was so much fun, and there were so many great quotes from there. So not only am I going to get him back in the not too distant future, but it looks like I'm going to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as Russ Harris, author of most of my favorite acceptance and commitment therapy books, The Happiness Trap, Act and Trauma, The Confidence Gap, and one that we're going to take a few pages from today is called ACT Made Simple, the second edition. So I want to lay some groundwork with some ACT principles that I believe will help you with the holidays and beyond, as well as lay the foundation for some of the things that I hope to talk about with Dr. Hayes and Harris about soon. So let's get to this concept that I mentioned earlier about cognitive flexibility, which is a large portion of ACT..

So, Dr. Twohig shared a couple of quotes a few weeks ago that I've gone back to that led to this episode. Here's one of the quotes. He said, “An interesting thing about humans is we decide the way the world works and then we follow that. And the truth is, it's never fully accurate. It could be close to the way the world works or it could be totally far off.” He said, “That's an interesting thing about human beings is that we all make this rule about what we're supposed to do and then we just keep following it.” And he said, “A lot of research has said it's really difficult to help people do things differently. It's hard to create variability in behavior.” So if somebody has a problem or they have a way of living that's not really functional, some of that is that they've determined, well, this is how it all works. And then they've been doing the exact same thing for 20 or 30 years, and part of the therapist's job is to create flexibility in different behavior patterns.

So flexibility is incredibly essential when it comes to creating a better version of you. To which you will, in addition, create a better life. So today I'm going to reference chapter 27 in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Act Made Simple, the second edition by Russ Harris. And it is entitled, “Simply Cognitive Flexibility”. And I'm going to add plenty of personal examples and thoughts of the principles. I almost feel like saying, so class open your textbooks to chapter 27, Cognitive Flexibility and let's begin. So right out of the gate, Russ does say, “Yes, ACT does change your thinking.” He said, “One of the biggest misconceptions about ACT is that it doesn't change your thinking.” And he said, “I hope and trust that you can see that isn't the case. When clients and therapists encounter ACT, it usually dramatically changes the way they think about a vast range of topics and issues, including the nature and purpose of their own thoughts and emotions, the way that they want to behave, the way they want to treat themselves and others, what they want their lives to be about, effective ways to live and act and deal with their problems. It changes what motivates them and why they do things they do and so on. But act does not achieve this by challenging or disputing or disproving or invalidating thoughts, and nor does it help people avoid or suppress or distract from, or dismiss. Or rewrite their thoughts to try to convert their negative thoughts into positive ones.”

And I know that's something that I talk often about was my own shift from the cognitive behavioral therapy model of just change your thought, change your life, into the ACT model where I feel like it's more of a, I'm noticing these thoughts. Matter of fact, I have a lot of thoughts and so I am not going to give them as much energy or juice, and I'm going to start to then move toward things that matter and value, and I might even have to bring these thoughts along with me, which I cannot stress enough, has been such a change, I want to say game changer. I feel like I overuse that phrase, but a game changer in my life and then eventually in the lives of the people that I work with. Now, I say eventually because, we go into a little bit more about what Russ Harris talks about, which is a big reason I wanted to bring this up today because, we still have these just deeply rooted, neuro pathways of the ways that we currently think and as Dr. Twohig talked about, it's because we've believed that this is what we need to do. This is the story that we've told ourselves for sometimes 20, 30, 40 years, that I just need to be happy, that I just need to change my thought that for some reason, beating myself up and throwing some guilt and some shame to myself is somehow going to be this motivator to change. So we keep doing that pattern over and over again, and then what happens is we feel like I really must not be a good person, or I cannot figure life out because I'm doing this. I'm doing it over and over, and it's not working. When in reality, the fact that you're doing it over and over is the reason why it's not working. 

So again, Russ Harris says, “ACT doesn't achieve this by challenging, disputing, disproving or invalidating thoughts. Nor does it help people to avoid, suppress, distract from, dismiss, or rewrite their thoughts to try to convert their negative thoughts into positive ones.” ACT helps people to change their thinking through A, diffusing from unhelpful cognitions and cognitive processes. We'll talk about that in more detail. And B, developing new, more flexible and effective ways of thinking in addition to their other cognitive patterns. Now, why did I stress and why did, in the book, he italicize the words “in addition”? Because we don't get to eliminate unhelpful cognitive repertoires as the ACT saying goes, “there's no delete button in the brain”. And that is a powerful concept to remember. So there's nothing wrong with you when a thought or a feeling or an emotion comes up, because there's no delete button in the brain. Now we can develop new ways of thinking, but that does not eliminate the old ones.

And Russ Harris says that he often says to his clients, if you learn to speak Hungarian, that will not eliminate English from your vocabulary. So again, and again, we emphasize this important point to clients in so many different ways. For example, we may say, okay, logically and rationally, you know that these thoughts aren't true, some of the negative self-talk that you have, but that doesn't stop those thoughts from reappearing. Or, yeah, you can clearly see this pattern of thinking and you can understand that it isn't very helpful, but that won't stop your mind from doing it. As a matter of fact, I would add that the more that you think about the fact that you're doing it because you think what's wrong with you, or I need to just tell myself to stop thinking this, the more you'll continue to think that.

So he said, can also say, so you know when this story hooks you, it pulls you into these away moves, moving you away from the things that really matter to you, and even knowing that won't get rid of the story that your brain is continually telling you, whether it's the “what's wrong with me story”, the, “I'm not enough story”, the “unlovable story”, but, so even knowing that, it won't keep those thoughts from coming back. So here are some of the main ways that ACT actively fosters flexible thinking, and we're going to talk about each one of these, just so you know, reframing, flexible perspective taking, that one's really powerful. Compassion and self-compassion. Flexible goal setting, which is going to be, again, one of these game changing kind of philosophies. Problem solving, planning and strategizing, and then conceiving your mind as a guide, a coach, or a friend. And I would add in there, sometimes you have to acknowledge that your mind might be kind of a jerk as well, so, we'll talk about that.

So reframing, this one's probably one that we'll spend the least amount of time with, but there's a lot of reframing in the ACT model and most obviously, it's normalizing and validating. And oftentimes I almost neglect or forget the fact that when people come into my office, that they are sometimes coming in and I'm the first person they've ever dumped some of their, what they've deemed to be their most crazy or horrendous or unbelievable thoughts, inappropriate, you name it. So when they share those, and this is where I used to call it, my “holy crapometer” that I would set on my shoulder and I would say, you're not really going to see this thing move. And it's not just because I've heard everything, because I still get to hear new things from time to time, but when you start to just recognize that, okay, that's your experience, but there's nothing wrong with you and you're having these thoughts and feelings and emotions because you are, because it's the very first time that you've ever been in that situation, then you can start to give yourself more compassion and more grace. So normalizing and validating, normalizing is, I will guarantee you I really mean this, and please, you can email me through my website or contact@tonyoverbay.com and say, okay all right, Mr. I've heard everything. How about this one? And I really do feel like I really am going to normalize that.

And this is one of those kind of interesting things where sometimes we almost feel offended when if I tell a client, oh, I'm sorry, was that the big, the bombshell that you were going to drop on me? Sorry. Yeah, no, I've heard that one before and sometimes I feel almost dismissive with that. And clients I feel like can take it one of two ways. One, they feel a sense of relief,  like really you've had other people that are going through something similar? Or sometimes it's so wild, but we almost feel like, well that feels invalidating, and it's almost coming from this place of wait, but my situation that I'm so caught up in or afraid of has to be special and unique or else that will mean that I could have been dealing with this a long time ago.

But regardless, I want to normalize that your feelings, your emotions, your thoughts, are yours, it's kind of normal, and most likely, there are people that are going through that right now. Might even be a lot of people. But, there's also some power in normalizing and validating, and that's why it's so important, I think, to talk to somebody who knows what they're doing in the world of whether it's therapy, coaching, that sort of thing. Because there's some pretty interesting data that shows that if we try to get things out of our head and we do so to someone that is saying, well, why'd you do that? Oh, well, you know what I would've done? Or if they say, oh, you think that's a big deal? Let me tell you how much worse my story was or how much bigger my story was, that, then that doesn't feel like we've done anything helpful. So then we just keep things back up in our head. But if you can go to somebody that is really trained in how to really help you feel heard and understood, and then help you take action or do something about the things that you are now sharing, then that can be incredibly validating. And it can be just this life changing experience to be able to express some really heavy emotion or experiences or trauma or even, hey, here's these crazy thoughts or dreams, or you name it. And to be able to unload that to somebody that knows what to do with that can just be so powerful. So normalizing and validating. And Russ says again and again, we help clients to reframe their difficult, unwanted thoughts and feelings as normal rather than abnormal, valid rather than invalid. And he says that many models of therapy do this of course, but ACT does go the extra mile, he said these caveman mind metaphors or lizard brain metaphors, or Neanderthal brain metaphors, any of those help reframe these unhelpful cognitive processes as normal, they're valid and they're purposeful. So when we can look at thoughts, it's just like, check this out, this is what I'm thinking. It's pretty normal and it's maybe my caveman brain just going into this reaction mode.

And then we can even say, well, why? Well because it's trying to protect me because I never felt safe in these certain areas of my life. So there are these things called diffusion techniques, and they reframe thoughts and images as nothing more than just words and pictures because that's really what they are. Our thoughts are just these words and pictures that we give a whole lot of meaning to. So, there's some concepts in the book Act Made Simple and in a lot of ACT data that really help reframe emotions allies. And they can be these valuable resources rather than enemies to avoid at all costs when we can step back in context and say, check this out, you know, I reached out and really started to communicate with somebody outside of my relationship. Well, you tell that to anyone and they're most likely going to say, well you shouldn't do that. Well, that's where somebody that comes into my office is gonna say, right, I know, that wasn't what I started my relationship about so that I could reach out to somebody else.

But sometimes when we can step back and reframe emotions as allies, then they can provide these resources, resources to say, well, what was I missing in my relationship that caused me to seek a connection outside of my relationship? Even just a verbal connection at work. Or do I not feel like I can be heard or understood? So reframing these emotions as allies and resources rather than enemies can be a really helpful part of this reframing concept. And then add some values-based living, and then that helps you really powerfully reframe a lot of the notions that are out there of success and happiness instead of, well just choose to be happy and then do something that everybody else tells you you should do.

Well, you've just got two problems right there. Just choose to be happy. Okay? I choose it and now something comes up and my brain says, well, that didn't work. Or, and I was listening to yet another example of this one. I have people that come into my office and they have an older home, and they start to be overwhelmed with the amount of maintenance or cost, but everybody's telling them, hey, it's a good investment though, you need to own a home, says people, that really does matter to them, but to somebody else, that might not be a big, safe, sound investment. It may cause them more anxiety, and depression than it does causing this any kind of inner wealth, so to speak. So we honestly have to look at what matters to you and then we can work with that. We can reframe, we can normalize, we can validate. So let me move on to the second way that Russ Harris says that ACT actively fosters flexible thinking, flexible perspective taking. So in this one, in ACT, there's a couple of different examples or a couple of different meanings to this term self as context. And this is a really important concept in ACT. So most commonly self as context refers to the experiences of the noticing self. So I am stepping back and I am noticing that this is what I am doing. I'm noticing that this is how I react and more of a check that out because when I can step away from just me being in a moment and say, and then look what I do in that scenario. When I am hungry and angry. When I am lonely and tired. And then I get met with somebody that I don't feel very safe around. Then I react and I get a little bit explosive. So check that out. So I'm viewing myself in the context of that moment of the noticing self, but less commonly in ACT, the term refers to this wide range of behaviors collectively known as flexible perspective taking. So Russ Harris says we can divide flexible perspective taking interventions into two broad but interconnected in overlapping classes. One class includes all of the mindfulness skills that you learn in ACT. We learn how to do diffusion skills and we learn how to accept, we learn about this noticing. And then there's a metaphor called dropping the anchor and so on. And all these skills involve flexibly changing your perspective or changing what you notice and how you notice it. And I want to spend a minute, and I think I'll need to cut this out and make this a separate track of some sort, but I want to talk about what that concept of even dropping the anchor means because this is one of the most powerful skills, tools, and metaphors of ACT that I believe that I have used in sessions.

So dropping the anchor is a grounding skill from acceptance and commitment therapy, and it was developed by ACT trainer and author of The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris. So this mindfulness exercise will support you kind of making contact with the present and really opening up to the thoughts and feelings that you're experiencing even when you're experiencing some really heavy emotional thoughts while choosing to consciously engage in an activity or a situation that's right in front of you or at hand, and dropping the anchor takes you out of this autopilot and helps bring you back from this, I love one author said, “future time travel” or worrying about the future. And I'll give you an example that I think will make a lot of sense or ruminating about the past. So dropping the anchor provides a steady ground and it offers a way to circuit break problematic mental activity so anybody can benefit from dropping the anchor. It's a skill and it's a way to develop an awareness of the way that your mind works, the way that your brain works, but also it makes room for what you can control.

For example, I'll show you how you can control your movement or your posture or your breath, and then you consciously engage in the present moment. So, drop an anchor, let me walk you through a script. But dropping the anchor is based off of this acronym “ACE”. And there's an analogy that helps make more sense of this. So the analogy of dropping anchor. So imagine you are a boat and you're being tossed around at sea. So the weather's rough, and that weather represents all the external storms or crises around you that you have no control over, along with the inner emotional storm that you might be experiencing. So it might be the holidays, it might be a feeling of feeling overwhelmed financially.

You might not be in a healthy relationship. You might be in a position where you are again, your job might be in jeopardy. Your kids may be frustrated. You might have some loss in close personal friends around you or family, but there can be a lot of things going on that you feel like you have no control over. So rather than being tossed around in every direction by these rough seas of all of the motions that you're experiencing, you drop anchor to steady your boat and to steady yourself. So this dropping anchor exercise will help you hold steady until the storm passes. Now it won't stop the storm. The weather is still happening, all the things are happening around you. However, you are less affected by it, and that's why we drop the anchor to be steady while the storm passes. So the way to drop the anchor is the first, A, again, we've got this acronym, ACE, A, acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, your bodily sensations. So one way to do this is to pause and notice what is coming up for you.

In ACT they call it your inner world, the things that you can sense, but nobody else can see. Again, what's happening inside of you. So another way to do this is a lot of times, even in the world of therapy, psychology, we say the “I feel” statement, I'm feeling, or I'm thinking, but what I love about ACT is it takes it another step further and it says to say to yourself, okay, “I'm noticing”, I'm noticing that I'm having the thought of being overwhelmed. Or I'm noticing that I'm having a feeling of sadness because I am a completely individual person who these things happen to on occasion or regularly, these feelings, these thoughts, these emotions. So check that out. I'm noticing that I'm feeling really sad right now, or I'm noticing a sensation of feeling overwhelmed. So while acknowledging your thoughts and your feelings, this is not distraction, and I think that's what can be misinterpreted, but it's a practice of making room for what's here. So I'm noticing that I'm feeling frustrated, I noticed I'm feeling angry. I can notice I'm feeling hungry. So from that, from the acknowledging, you move to the C and the acronym ACE .

So you come back, you come back into your eyes, you acknowledge now you come back into your body. You can do this in a lot of different ways. And it's funny, I'm doing it right now as I'm talking. I just sat up and squared up my shoulders and I sat up straighter and my, actually, my hand is on my chest. But you might focus on feeling your feet on the floor. And you can wiggle your toes or you can, what I'm doing right now, lengthening my spine. You can stretch your arms, you can drop your shoulders with a shrug, you can put your head down, your chin down to your chest. Here's where you can start to do a little bit of breathing and it really can be so helpful. Deep breath in through the nose and you can even hold it two or three seconds and then breathe out through your mouth. And you do a few conscious breaths in the way that you might have found helpful before, because we're starting to create a pattern that you can start to rely on when you need to drop the anchor.

I was doing a mindfulness meditation a few days ago that was doing this, you breathe in for a count of four, you hold it for a count of four, then you breathe out for a count of four, and that was helpful to me. I did another one where it was, breathe in seven, hold eight, and breathe out. I can't even remember because I couldn't do it because it got me feeling a little bit hyperventilated. So you really can just find a technique that works for you or just breathe in through the nose and say, in, in your brain and then out through your mouth and say out. And so these techniques are a grounding technique and this step is about just bringing yourself into this awareness to be more than just the thoughts and feelings that you're having because you can also be aware that I can, I can wiggle my toes, I can breathe, I can feel my body, I can feel my feet against the floor, my butt on my seat. And this acts as a reminder. And it might sound a little bit cheesy, it might sound woowoo, but trust me, this is one of these game-changing principles that I didn't even realize how powerful it was until it became part of my own routine.

So it can act as a reminder of what you have control over. It's this very moment that you are creating with your body. I promise you it's not a distraction technique, it is empowering. So that's the C. And then E, engage in what you're doing or with where you are. And this is where I start to, I can't help myself but to go into jokes because one of the times I remember somebody saying, okay, now I want you to look around and notice five things that you can see. And then what are five things that you can touch? And then I start making jokes in my head, what are five of my favorite foods? What are five songs that I can remember from the eighties? I don't think that was what was in my initial training, but it doesn't matter because I'm engaged in what I'm doing.

And then the concept with this drop the anchor is how long do I need to do it? Well, there's no real answer, it’s as long as you want to do it. You can do it for 10 or 15 or 30 seconds, or you can do it for as long as a minute or two or anywhere in between. And one of the best times to practice this dropping the anchor is when you are not feeling overwhelmed so that your body will kind of know, this is what this guy's doing when we go into this concept of wanting to drop the anchor. Now let me give you a script, and this is from actmindfully.com.au, which is a site by Russ Harris. And I want to give you a specific problem because I'm dealing with a lot of people as a couple's therapist that are feeling overwhelmed in their relationships and they feel, they just feel like this is not what they want. They feel like they have no control. They worry about the future of their kids. They worry about whether they will ever be able to be in a loving relationship. They worry, why didn't I know this earlier? Why couldn't I have done something sooner? And they just worry. They worry. And that starts to feel overwhelming and they can start to feel down and they can feel stuck and they can just spend entire days or even a week or more just worrying and not feeling like they're doing anything that really is of value or matters to them, which can actually add more to that anxiety and that feeling of depression.

So in an ideal scenario before starting this exercise, you will want to identify what you're experiencing. You know, what are these thoughts, what are these feelings? What are these emotions? What memories are coming up? Because then you'll be able to refer to them specifically so as a therapist, let me walk you through this dropping anchor, this script of dropping anchor.

So there is something that's painful. It might be very painful or it might be difficult that's showing up for you right now. And so I have to tell you, I'm sure if you are in here in front of me, I know I could see how much you're struggling with it. And if we were talking on the phone, I could probably tell from your voice how difficult, whatever this is that you're going through, and I really do want to help you handle it. So I would love for you to follow these instructions first. Just see if you can push your feet hard into the floor. Push them down and then do it, feel that ground beneath you. And now sit forward in your chair and straighten your back. And I want you to feel that chair beneath you. And I want you to notice your back supporting you.

And now slowly press your fingertips together. And as you do that, gently move your elbows, move your shoulders, and feel your arms moving all the way from your fingers all the way into your shoulder blades. And so I want you to take a moment, and I want you to acknowledge that there's a lot of pain here, that there's probably a lot of things that you're struggling with and you didn't ask for it, and it's not fair. But here it is and it's challenging and it's difficult, and you want it to go away, but it's not going away. So I want you to silently acknowledge yourself. What type of pain it is. For example, say to yourself, here's sadness, or here's anxiety, or here's a painful memory. And again, if we're talking about relationships, this is where you'll say, I didn't want this to happen. I just wanted a happy relationship. I wanted to feel connected to my spouse. I wanted the very best for my kids. And so taking that moment to acknowledge that there is a lot of pain. Now notice that as well as this pain, there's also a body that's around that pain, and it's a body that you can move and you can control.

So straighten your back again and notice your whole body now, your hands, your feet, your arms, your legs, and gently move them and feel them moving. Have a stretch. Notice your muscle stretching. Again, press your feet down and feel the floor. Now look around the room. Look up and look down, side to side. And try to notice five things that you can see.

What can you see right now? And then also if you can notice three or four things that you can hear, sounds that are coming from me or from you or from the room that's around you. And also notice that right now, in this moment, you and I, even though you're listening through your EarPods or your speaker, that we're working together as a team. So notice there's something very painful here that you're struggling with, at the same time see if you can also notice your body in the chair and gently move that body again. Stretch it. That's it. Take control of your arms and legs. Notice the room around you. And also notice that you and I, we're communicating in a sense right now, we're working together.

So we will do this for as long as needed until you feel grounded , and then that's where I can bring this exercise to an end, this dropping the anchor exercise by asking, do you notice any difference now? Are you less caught up in the emotional storm? Are you less hooked by these difficult thoughts and feelings? Are you less swept away by the storm? Do you feel less pushed around or jerked around by these feelings? Is it easier for you to engage with me right now to be present, to focus? And do you have more control over your actions now over your arms and your legs, your mouth? So check it out. Move your arms and legs. Have a stretch. Do you notice that right this second, you have more control? Now, those thoughts, those feelings, those things are still there, but you just did a grounding exercise, and for some of you, that might be the first time that you've done that. And it may not feel like it really addresses the big elephants in the room. There might be a bunch of elephants. But if you continue to do that exercise, that practice that over time, what it feels like to be you is somebody that can notice these big thoughts and emotions and then come back to a place of grounding, so that over time, you can then even invite some of these feelings and emotions to come along with you while you engage in things that really matter to you. And over time, then you're gonna create this pretty amazing neural network that when I start to feel overwhelmed, now my body, because my emotions are traveling faster than my thoughts and logic, that my body's already gonna have me stretching my spine and taking a breath in through my nose and out through my mouth because my body already knows that we do best when we get grounded and when we drop that anchor in this storm of all the things that are going on around us. So when you can do that, you can bring yourself back to the present moment, and that is the time where you can really start to make change.

So I would highly recommend learning how to drop that anchor, use that exercise, and try it over and over again, because the more that you can become grounded again, the more that you're training your brain that this is what we can do to be able to absolutely feel and recognize those emotions. But we're going to work through those difficult moments so we can come back to the present and then take action on things that matter.

So Russ Harris also talks about the other class of these flexible perspective taking interventions that include thinking skills that develop our ability to perceive events and understand concepts from different points of view. So he says, “In everyday language, that's to see things differently.” So for example, some exercises might invite you to imagine yourself in the future and looking back on your life today. And from that perspective then reflect on your current behavior. And I think that this one's important because often, it's so hard to see what's going on in the moment, but if you fast forward a few years, then look back at this time of your life, I think you would give yourself more grace. If you realize, man, I have four or five little kids, I'm in the midst of trying to figure out a job and a career. Our finances are a challenge. There's been a pandemic around the world, so you can give yourself a lot more grace. And again, we're still so prone to just going to this place of thinking we have to beat ourselves up or shame ourselves, to be able to move forward, but that is absolutely the exact opposite.

The shame that we feel that wells up in us, that we think we're a bad person or we have to beat ourselves up or we won't make a change, comes from our inner, inner, inner childhood. Because when you are a tiny little, and you think the world revolves around you and you want a pony for your birthday and you live in an apartment where your parents can't afford a pony anyway, it's not a good idea to get a pony. But then when they don't give you that pony and you are a little kid, you don't say, oh my gosh, there is not really a place to place a pony. Or, I don't even know how much a pony costs. Or ponies are a bunch of upkeep. As a kid you think, they don't love me. Something must be wrong with me. So we default to shame because that's what we did in our childhood because we didn't have an understanding of what was going on around us. So we still will find ourselves beating ourselves up in the moment and thinking for some reason that's going to help us. If that helped us, all of the problems in the entire world would be solved. If beating yourself up in shame was the way to go, then there would be world peace and harmony because we all continually keep beating ourselves up. So it is absolutely the wrong approach to do in order to move forward in your life. So seeing things differently again, look at yourself in the future. Look back on your life today, reflect on your current behavior, and others involve, and this can sound a bit cliched, but it's true, involving inner child work where the client imagines their current day adult self going back in time to comfort and care for and instruct or support a child or an adolescent version of yourself.

And this is the part where I want to say, man, I really do. I'm back on this side of our parents, bless their hearts, tried their best based on all of the information that they had at that time. So that doesn't mean though, that I can't have feelings and emotions or wish that they would've done things differently because that's okay. The more that we wake up to our own experiences and our adult life, it's absolutely okay. This is part of emotional maturity. If you are harboring some emotional immaturity or narcissistic traits and tendencies, we lack this thing called whole object relations, where we can't have both good and bad feelings about somebody, in the same frame. We feel like we have to go either all or nothing, black or white. So it is absolutely okay to love your parents and appreciate all that they've done for you, but also to be frustrated that, man, why didn't you let me go out for little league and tell me that I wouldn't like it? How about we would've tried?

And that's okay. It's okay to feel that. And I've had a couple of my kids do some lovable confrontations about some of the things that I felt really good about doing when, I'll tell you one for an example. One of my daughters recently said that we had created an interesting relationship with celebrations and food. And it was funny because my first reaction was, oh, no. But then it was, she was so spot on. Because I recognized when I was growing up, we never, we never went out to eat. So going out to eat for me was the biggest celebratory I have made it thing in the entire world. And it was also, it grew to be this thing of, that's when everybody would come together. If the kids were teenagers and they were all going in different directions, it seemed like we could get everybody together when we would go out to eat. So going out to eat, to me is this amazing event that I absolutely love, but I didn't even think about the fact that it would cause an interesting relationship with food and going out to eat with my kids as they become adults that maybe their first go-to is we have to celebrate, we have to get together, we have to do things, so we must go out to eat. Where if their spouse grew up and that wasn't the case, then, you know, I don't want my kids to think, oh my gosh, what's wrong with me? If that's where I go because, that's what my experience was. So I love this stuff. I love this stuff where you can go back and then talk to your inner child and if you have a good relationship, an emotionally mature, healthy relationship with your spouse and even with your parents, then it's nice to be able to process these things and then feel heard and understood. So other things, other interventions that can help you take a different viewpoint is, and these almost feel cheesy and cliche in therapy, but I really think they can be helpful. You know, the old, if your roles were reversed, how would you feel? If roles were reversed, how would you want this person to treat you? If you were in someone else's shoes, what would you be thinking and feeling? And if the same thing happened to somebody that you love, what would you say to them?

And I love that one where there are times where I will have somebody lay out a whole lot of stuff that they're going through. And I would, I would say, hey, if somebody came to you with all this information, what would you tell them? And typically, the answer is gonna be, man, that sounds hard, and I'm here for you, and forgive yourself and give yourself grace.

But we have such a hard time doing that to ourselves. So at times, Russ Harris said, we might ask a client to take the perspective of their values, guided self, and this is where things get really good. So, for example, right now, you might be making a lot of very judgmental comments about your spouse, and that is completely understandable, given all the difficulties that you've been having and what you bring to the table and all your experiences that you've had. But the problem is when you get hooked by these thoughts, then you tend to do things that make the relationship even worse, such as shouting or yelling, blaming, name calling. So Russ Harris framed it in this way, he said, so I'm just wondering, you know, you said earlier that you wanted to be more loving and patient and kind. So again, I'm just wondering if you were really able to be that sort of loving patient, kind partner that you want to be, how might you think about this differently? And that will typically lead you to have a little bit more empathy. And so is there another way of looking at a situation that might help you handle it better in a way that's healthier for you based on your values or a way that might be better for the relationship?

And he said, “We might even ask a client to take the perspective or parts of himself.” If this emotion could speak, what would it tell you to do? Because sometimes if you were going to listen to what your anger wants you to do, your anger might say, well, I want you to go punch that guy in the neck. And so that might be an opportunity for you to then confront that anger, and say, okay, I hear you, and we could always do that, but what do you think would come from that? And a lot of times I think when we really can get out of our own head and say, well, I might feel good for a minute, but I guess it's really not going to do anything about the problem, so that's where we can start to learn to accept these emotions, talk to these emotions, advise these emotions, listen to the emotions.

But that doesn't mean that we have to take action on them. Another concept that he talked about was compassion and self-compassion. So ACT places a great emphasis on both self-compassion and compassion for others, and for so many people, these are radically new ways of thinking because the consciously acknowledge suffering, our own or that of others, and then remain open to it and be curious about suffering instead of ignoring it or dismissing it or turning away from it, or trying to just avoid it at all cost by turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms. I mean, we don't like to sit with discomfort. If you really stop and think about it throughout the day, how often do we sit with discomfort? We may feel discomfort, but then we do not want to sit with it. We want to do anything that we can to avoid it. And that experiential avoidance or doing something just to get through the moment or even the day, we may turn to those things that are not very helpful, not very productive, like our phones or streaming movies or games or that sort of thing. And while I will often tell my clients I would rather have them do that than really go down this deep, dark path of suicidal thoughts or ideations. And at some point we need to recognize that, okay, I need to start doing things that matter to me, but let's get back to that suffering. It is difficult to consciously acknowledge suffering and then respond with kindness as opposed to judgment or hostility or any other non-compassionate reaction.

And Russ Harris says that does not come naturally or easily to most of us. He says, “Suppose that we're in pain. And we say to ourselves, this is a moment of suffering and life is hard right now. So let's see what I can do to take care of myself.” He said, “This is obviously an extremely difficult way of thinking from ruminating.” When ruminating, which I feel like so many people do, probably the majority of people do, is why am I feeling so bad? What's wrong with me? Or self-criticism. I should be tougher than this. I am such a pathetic loser. I should not be doing this. I shouldn't be thinking these things. And he said, “Usually we need to deliberately, actively, and regularly practice new patterns of thinking in order to develop our capacity for compassion.”

And that is absolutely difficult. It's a difficult endeavor that people will resist. And I love how he says we have to practice because our deeply rooted neuro pathways are going to keep going back to these, what's wrong with me? I'm a piece of garbage. I need to beat myself up in order to make progress. So we have to recognize, notice those thoughts and those feelings and those emotions and acknowledge them. And if we have to do that, drop the anchor exercise to then get through that moment of wanting to beat ourselves up, then that might be a time to use that tool so that we can then take action again on things that matter. So which leads perfectly to, he talks about flexible goal setting, problem solving, planning, and strategizing. And I just have to say that Russ Harris has one of the funniest things about goal setting at this point. If you go back a few chapters in the book Act Made Simple where he says, when we're assessing goals, whether it's a formal or an informal goal, we need to consider the following question to make sure it's an effective goal. Is it a live person's goal or is it a dead person's goal? So what does that mean? It's actually pretty simple. He says, “A dead person's goal means any goal that a corpse can achieve better than you can. If a dead body can achieve your goal better than you can, then it's really not much of a goal.”

Here's the classic example. I am not going to yell at the kids this week. Now, a corpse will never yell at the kids under any circumstances. You can guarantee that is gonna be the case. He said, a living person's goal is something that you can do better than a corpse. For example, when the kids are pushing my buttons this week, I am going to drop the anchor, breathe into my anger, connect with my values of being calm and patient, and speak to them in a calm, assertive manner.

So any goal that describes what you won't do is a dead person's goal. Behavioral goals, describe what you will do, not what you won't do. So if you find yourself saying, I am not going to do X, and I'm gonna stop doing Y, or I won't do Z, then we can ask, what will you do instead? So if a client says, I am going to quit smoking. Honestly, that's more of a dead person's goal because a corpse is never going to smoke. And Russ Harris has so many funny things in his book I have to tell you because then he just says in there, “unless you cremate it.” But we could then ask, so when the craving to smoke shows up, what will you do? From this, we can generate a live person's goal, such as when I crave a cigarette, I will drop, anchor, acknowledge, make room for the urge, and do some mindful stretching or mindfully drink some cold water instead of smoking. So I think that alone is something that can really lead to this cognitive flexibility. And just as a reminder from the beginning of this episode, what we're looking for here is the very most best way to do some change, aka cognitive flexibility. 

So talking about the flexible goal setting, then again, problem solving, planning, Russ Harris says, “Committed action requires a lot of flexible thinking around goal setting, problem solving, action planning, and strategizing.” Because so often if we set these very rigid standards for ourselves, which sounds like a great thing to do, to hold myself to the utmost standard, but then if I'm a human being and as my friend Preston Pugmire says, all of a sudden life just life's all over you, then are you able to be flexible? Can you give yourself some grace? Can you drop the anchor? Can you breathe into the pain? And then can you take action on things that matter? So Russ Harris says, “When it comes to preparing for action, we may ask clients to consider what's the worst thing that might happen, and if it does, how will you deal with it? What can you do to reduce the likelihood of that?” Which can sound counterintuitive at times because I know that sometimes I'm sitting in a session and somebody feels on fire with positive vibes and possibilities of all kinds of change in their life and you almost hesitate at times to want to bring up, okay, so let's just, this sounds great, let's just say that you don't get the job, or let's just say that things don't play out the way that you think that they will. What's a plan B? And what I think is so fascinating is you hear these cliches often of, we need to, I think there's a burn the ships down when we get onto land. An old Viking thing that they used to do.

Because if we burn our ships down, then we can't leave and we have to fight. We will be fighting like crazy to gain this new land because we have no plan B. Or I've heard people say before that I just have to go out and just have no plan B and put myself out there. And that might work for a small percentage of the people, but for normal human beings who still do have commitments, financial commitments, responsibility, those sort of things that it can sound intoxicating to say, I'm just going to go for it, whatever that looks like. Plan A or bust. But we have to be able to be flexible. And we have to be able to make room for a plan B and even a plan C, because that's more of how life happens. And I love talking about this concept of we might be at point A in our journey and we might say, you know what? It's point Z or bust and A to Z. But the reality of life is when we start taking action and move from point A to B. Then when we get to B, we might think, oh man, I didn't even expect that point B would look like this. And I might even go in a different direction. But the point is we're continually moving forward, this constant forward motion. And as I've noticed that in my own life when I left technology, I looked at going into a couple of different fields and then started going back to grad school. And I wasn't going to do therapy in the chair. I was going to write books and I wanted to continue to write this newspaper column I was doing. And then I started seeing clients so that I could get the master's degree, and I started enjoying seeing clients. Then I was only going to be a part-time therapist while I still dabbled in technology, and then I realized that I love what I'm doing and I wasn't going to start a podcast or I wasn't going to write a book, but then those things happen as well.

So it's just been a journey of this flexible goal setting or this cognitive flexibility. And so he talks about, yeah, so what's your plan B if plan A falls through? It's not acting as if you have no hope in yourself. It's saying, I'm going to be realistic because that might even help me be more engaged in plan A because I can go for it knowing that, okay, but I do have a plan B. Or he said, what's the best thing that might happen and what can you do to increase the chances of that and what's most likely to happen? And if it does, what's next? There we go. And if it doesn't happen, what's next after that? And what strategy are you going to use there? What will that require? And is there another way to think about this that might help you handle whatever you're trying to do better? So he says, conceiving your mind as a guide or a coach, or Russ Harris says, last but not least, ACT often uses metaphors that can compare our mind to a guide or a coach or a friend. We can play with these metaphors in a lot of different ways to foster flexible thinking. So here are a few examples. The Wise Guide or the Reckless Guide. So as the therapist I would say sometimes our mind is a wise guide. It gives us great advice to help us get on in life, but other times it's a reckless guide and it encourages us to take reckless risks or put ourselves in danger. So right now, which guide is doing the talking? So the client can identify, it's the reckless one. Okay. So what advice might the wise guide give you? So now we're viewing ourself in the context of the moment and we are allowing this opportunity for our own brain to do some coaching our wise part of our brain to coach our reckless part of our brain.

Or there's a metaphor of the overly helpful friend or the genuinely helpful friend, the therapist. Okay. Here's what I would say. Remember when we talked about how our mind can sometimes be an overly helpful friend? Do you think that maybe that's what it's doing right now? So suppose your mind wanted to be genuinely helpful rather than overly helpful what might it say about this particular situation? Or sometimes you might have that harsh coach or kind coach. So I might say, you know, there are two types of coaches in school sports. There are harsh coaches who yell at the kids, call them names, come down hard on every mistake, constantly judge, compare, and criticize. And there are the kind coaches who encourage the kids, build on their strengths, and give genuine feedback about the mistakes in a kind and caring way. So the good news is, the harsh coaches tend to be a rapidly dying breed. And you know why? And if the client asks why, then I get to say, because kind coaches get much better results.

And so right now, the way your mind is talking to you is that a harsh coach or a kind coach? And often we'll find that our mind is a harsh coach. So then you can ask, well, what would the kind coach say in this situation? So the takeaway to this very most bestest way to do some change or cognitive flexibility, Russ Harris says, “I hope you can see that ACT usually changes your thinking significantly. However, it does not do this through challenging, disputing, ignoring, dismissing, or distracting from difficult or unhelpful thoughts.” It does this through diffusing from thoughts. They're just thoughts. Accepting that they make and will keep reoccurring. And finally, at the same time, actively cultivating new, more flexible and effective ways of thinking.

So you put this combo pack together of recognizing that the things that we do so often that we think are the right things to do, like challenging our thoughts, disputing our thoughts, ignoring them, dismissing them, is actually making things more difficult. And diffusing is the way. It's a thought. A thought is a thought. You're going to have a whole bunch of them. Notice that thought. I'm noticing that thought. I can notice the thought right now that I am thinking I want to, or even need to, or have to raise my right arm, but I'm not doing it. It's just a thought. I don't have to take action on the thoughts, but I can take action on a value if I have a value of health and being hydrated. I am literally right now reaching over and picking up my water bottle. So I'll follow that thought. That's a good one because it's something that's more in align with what my goals are, my value-based goals, and then cultivating new, more flexible ways of thinking, knowing that we're going to have thoughts that are gonna keep coming and coming.

And I really believe that we're handling the way that we treat our thoughts in an unhelpful way. So first of all, when we say what's wrong with me for having the thoughts I'm having or feeling the feelings I'm feeling, we need to start with nothing. Because you are a human being. You are you. So check that out. You're having that thought or feeling. And next I think it's so unhelpful to say, I know I need to stop thinking that because right now stop thinking about a pineapple. Stop thinking about a pineapple sitting next to a watermelon. So we can't tell ourselves to stop thinking about something because it's built in that we will do even more of that thinking. It's that cognitive or it's that psychological reactance and then even saying, okay, instead of thinking of a pineapple, I'm going to think of a watermelon. Then I still have to think about the pineapple to get to the watermelon. So what we really need to do is, I'm noticing that I'm thinking about a pineapple, that's the thought. That's fascinating. But if my goal is to go take action and do something different, then the fact that I'm thinking about a pineapple is somewhat irrelevant. You bet. I'm thinking of it. So replace pineapple with, I'm thinking of the thought that I can't do what I'm trying to do, or I'm a horrible person, or this person doesn't like me, or any of those things like it's a thought.

So there it is. And now I can start doing or taking action on the things that matter. So I think this is going to prime the pump a little bit as we head into the new year to set yourself up so that you can make some change, whether it's gonna be through New Year's resolutions or just a little bit of a new year, new you, but this truly, this concept of cognitive flexibility is the very most bestest way to do some change. So I would love your feedback. Feel free to send me any questions, send this along to somebody that you think it might help. And then taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented, Aurora Florence with her song “It's wonderful”. So have a great week and we'll see you next time on the Virtual Couch.

You can't run marathons after 50! You can't change your career after you've invested so much time and energy into it! Dads don't get all up in their feelings! Says who? Our pasts, our brains, our lack of understanding, that's who! Tony explores the psychology of limiting beliefs and how the stories we learn in our youth can heavily influence how we live life...until we realize we have an unlimited amount of possibility in front of us once we lose the limiting beliefs. 

Tony references the article How to Change Self-Limiting Beliefs According to Psychology by Nicole Celestine, Ph.D. https://positivepsychology.com/false-beliefs/

If you are interested in being coached in Tony's upcoming "Magnetic Marriage Podcast," please email him for more information. You will receive free marriage coaching and remain anonymous when the episode airs. 

Go to http://tonyoverbay.com/workshop to sign up for Tony's "Magnetize Your Marriage" virtual workshop. The cost is only $19, and you'll learn the top 3 things you can do NOW to create a Magnetic Marriage. 

You can learn more about Tony's pornography recovery program, The Path Back, by visiting http://pathbackrecovery.com And visit http://tonyoverbay.com and sign up to receive updates on upcoming programs and podcasts.

Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the "uh's" and "um's" that, in his words, "must be created by wizards and magic!" because it's that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ

Transcript:

So I recently turned 53, and I have never really been one who cares much about age as a number. No offense to my dad, but when he turned 50, to me at that time, I think I was in my late twenties. Well, 50 was really old, but here I sit at 53 and I feel good. I feel pretty amazing. And a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I completed a half marathon, as I shared a couple episodes ago. It was a really good experience. But one of the most fascinating parts of that half-marathon experience happened actually about eight weeks before the race. So let me take you back a few years. There's a website called ultrasignup.com where you can view the results of your ultra-marathons or races over the marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

So the last few race results for me, read, the Havalina hundred miler, which was in Arizona. Then the Western States hundred miler, which happened to be the third time that I had run that race from Lake Tahoe down to Auburn, California. Then a random 50k in Sacramento. Then the Tahoe Rim Trail hundred Miler, which was the second time I had run that race, followed by the Quad Dipsea race in the Bay Area in California. And if you're not familiar with the Dipsea trail, it is a 7.1 mile, incredibly hilly, stair filled race from Mill Valley, California down to Stinson Beach. It's beautiful and it's hard. And every year I used to do the Quad Dipsea, or 28.4 miles, so down and back and down and back and again, incredibly hard and wonderful and beautiful.

And then I broke a rib or two and I separated the ribs from the cartilage. And if you've ever done that, that hurt so bad. I did that playing basketball. So I was out for several months and I was on my way to returning to a hundred miles, and I did a hundred K in Julian, California. That was absolutely difficult and wonderful and beautiful.

And shortly after that, again, playing basketball, I tore my meniscus and I tried to run through it, the old just ignore it and hopefully it'll go away. And I got to the point that I couldn't even bend my knee or move, and I did that for almost a year where I just would, it would get a little bit better. I would try again, and it didn't go away. And I literally put on over 20 pounds. And so then I eventually received an MRI where I was told that my meniscus was shredded and that I could remove it and I would be able to run, but maybe not as much of the distance. But the surgeon recommended that I start by losing weight and I was so offended.

I said, how dare you? I'm an ultra marathon runner, and then I proceeded to do elliptical machines and not much else. And then I actually put on about another five pounds over the next several months. So another year passed and I thought, it's time, I am losing my mind. I am a runner and I need to go ahead and accept that I need to remove the meniscus and I needed to accept that I need to remove the meniscus. So I consulted the doctor who said, well, does it hurt as bad now that you've lost the weight? How dare he? Number two. But it was self confrontation time, and I had in fact not lost any of the weight. So, accountability. What was I pretending not to know, that I did not really want to put forth the effort to lose weight. I preferred simply waiting until my knee felt better and then running all the weight off, and that was not happening. So I did this thing called “eating right” and “portion control''. And yes, I'm making air quotes and I eventually lost weight and lo and behold, my knee started feeling better. Turns out that those people who know what they're doing actually know what they're doing.

So I then spent the last two years just running and working out, but I was capped at about four or five miles, and so I felt like I couldn't really muster up much more than that. And it really wasn't a knee issue. It was more of a, I guess, a me issue. But I really felt like four or five mile long runs were going to be the limit. And honestly, I was really grateful for that because I remember being at a time where I thought if I could just run again even two or three miles, I was gonna be okay. But internally, I really did just miss that. Being able to run and run and run distances and listen to audio, audiobooks and podcasts, and that was just something that I had done.

That was what it felt like to be me for well over 20 years of my adult life. Now in come's my wife who has completed many triathlons herself, a few marathons, even an Iron Man, and she was starting to run more and more and she suggested that we sign up for a half marathon, and just in a couple of months. So I thought that absolutely sounded crazy.

I was no longer a distance runner. I was coming to a place of acceptance. My longest run over the past two years had been six miles, and honestly, it had wiped me out, but I wanted to run the half marathon or 13.1 miles, especially with her. So we looked up a training program. We laid everything out on the calendar and we did long Saturday runs that went six miles, then eight, then 10, then 12. And then on race day we took care of 13 miles in what was my wife's personal record or pr. And in the weeks that have followed, I've maintained longer Saturday runs of eight to 10 miles, and we have a 10 mile trail run scheduled on New Year's Day. And now, if I'm being honest, I start looking ahead to the goals that I've always had of being the grandpa who still runs ultra-marathons. So why tell this story? Not for validation, I promise, but because today we're going to talk about something that I really have had a low key fascination with, and that's the concept of limiting beliefs. Now you hear a lot about them in the world of motivational speaking and maybe life coaching, but I had not worked with them much in the field of psychology.

So I had been poking around the internet until I found a resource that I thought truly summed up the concept of limiting beliefs, where they come from, and of course, more importantly, what do you do with them? Because I clearly had bought into the limiting belief that five or six miles was my max, and had I stuck with that limiting belief, then eventually over time, my implicit memories or what it feels like to be me, would become somebody who, because of this knee trouble, was limited to five or six miles, but simply because my wife happened to want to run a half marathon, within a couple of weeks I unlocked something from the way back machine and managed to find as I have returned to running shape, that the only limit I personally had was one that was self-imposed, one that was between my ears. Now, this isn't to say that somebody with true physical limitations is simply not thinking about things the right way, because I know that that's not the point.

But are there areas where perhaps your own limited beliefs are in fact holding you back from achieving the things in life that you would like to pursue? So I would imagine to some extent with some real self-reflection, that that answer is probably yes.

So today we're really going to dig in and explore the ins and outs of limiting beliefs so that, and so much more coming up on today's episode of the Virtual Couch.

Hey everybody, welcome to episode 350 of the Virtual Couch. I am your host, Tony Overbay. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four, hopefully soon to be ultra-marathon runner once again, and a creator of the “Path Back”, an online pornography recovery program that is helping people reclaim their lives from turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like pornography.

And I'm going to get through the business side of this so fast because we've got a lot to talk about today when it comes to limiting beliefs. So I mentioned in a previous episode that I am offering a discount through the month of December to the Path Back program. So just reach out to me contact@tonyoverbay.com or go through my website and I will respond and we'll hand you that discount and then get ready, the Magnetic Marriage Podcast is coming soon and you can still reach out if you want to be coached info@tonyoverbay.com or go to sign up for my newsletter at tonyoverbay.com and you will be one of the first to know. And I just can't say enough about the episodes that have been recorded already and just coaching and working with these couples. And so if you've never been to couples counseling, if you've never seen couples coaching or heard couples coaching in action, then I think that this could really be eye opening and help you understand the things that you don't know, that you don't know about what your relationship could look like. On that note, you can still go to tonyoverbay.com/workshop, and there's a $19 hour and a half workshop that gives you some ideas of some of the things that I really feel like can help somebody in their marriage right away, and then follow me on social media.

The Yeah Yeah agency, my social media team, they are doing incredible things with reels and with just the content in general. So I'm trying to share as much in essence, free content to just advice, marriage advice, and we're gonna be doing a lot more with some live, some q and a. So please follow me on social media, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Facebook. And I mentioned earlier in the intro, my birthday, and I was going to, and I did not end up doing this, but I was going to just ask, all right birthday present, provide this free content for the last six, seven years. And so if you happen to be somebody that hasn't rated or reviewed the podcast, wherever you are listening I would love that if you don't mind because that does help feed the algorithms and wherever you are listening, or even go to the Virtual Couch YouTube channel and maybe subscribe there. And that does get the podcast in front of more people. So let's get to today's topic. How to change self-limiting beliefs according to psychology. So this is by an article on positivepsychology.com and it is by PhD, Dr. Nicole Celestine. And many of the things that we will work from are her words from this article. 

She says, “How many times have you written yourself off or passed up opportunities due to beliefs like these, I'm too old to do that. There's no way I'm qualified to apply for this job or I can't talk to him, he's out of my league.” So whether you're questioning your credentials when applying for a job or balking at the chance to strike up a conversation with somebody who may be, I don’t know, attractive, your apprehension might be highlighting something about your self beliefs.

So she says, “False and self-limiting beliefs can stifle progress toward achieving goals or prevent us from living out our ideal lives,” and the core, she says, thankfully, a core component of many psychological treatments, including one of my favorites, acceptance and commitment therapy does involve helping us to recognize and undo these unhelpful beliefs so that we can start living life more to its fullest.

So in this article, we're going to talk about the different origins of false or self-limiting belief. And then she mentions a couple of different therapeutic treatment options. I'm going to talk about some of what she shares and then I'm going to throw my own spin or take on a lot of what I feel like is even going deeper into how to work with these self-limiting beliefs.

So, Nicole says there's no universally agreed upon definition of false or self-limiting beliefs, but there are a lot of examples in the press and then she references a study in 2018 that self limiting beliefs are assumptions or perceptions that you've got about yourself and about the way the world works. And these assumptions are self-limiting because in some way they are holding you back from achieving what you are capable of. 

So in 2012, Boden and Colleagues noted that these beliefs have the potential to be central to one's identity, negatively biased, inaccurate, and rigid. So when you take them together, we consider these false or limiting beliefs to be negative, potentially difficult to change, and then somehow preventing us from achieving our goals or being as happy as we could be.

If we just start from that place that we have these thoughts, do we have these stories that we've made up about how the world works or we have these stories made up about what a 50 year old person can do or what somebody in my position can expect from reaching out to others for connection or what kind of job somebody that is in my shoes can get.

So when we start right there, then that becomes part of our identity, central to our identity. And so if we are trying to move away from this story or these limiting, self-limiting beliefs then we're going to be fighting the path of least resistance because it's going to seem like we're doing something that doesn't seem natural because it's not the story that we have told ourselves for our entire lives. So she said, “A good first step to understanding where and how false beliefs develop is by taking a look at them through a systematic framework.” And one such framework that is commonly employed throughout psychology and sociology is Rokeach, which was from 1968, but their hierarchical system of beliefs, according to this framework, an individual's inventory of beliefs can be structured according to five levels, depending on their importance and the most central forms of belief referred to as type A beliefs are those that we consider unchallengeable. These are just absolute common sense. For instance, it's the average person knows and will not question who their family members are or where they live. So I know who my kids are, I know who my wife is. So that is a type A belief. It might seem silly, but we're trying to set up a framework and I think it'll make sense when we get down to the next one, the type B beliefs. But if we start with type A beliefs that are, again, unchallengeable, common sense, in contrast, type E beliefs, which then are furthest down the pecking order or the most peripheral belief. Then those are largely matters of taste or opinion that are not strongly tied to the rest of your belief system. So they're also more likely to be subject to change. So she says, “Examples of such type E beliefs include your preferred brand of toilet paper or whether or not you enjoy broccoli.”

And what I think is really interesting is, even right there, I talk so much about the world of emotional immaturity or narcissistic traits and tendencies, or do you want control or love in an adult relationship? And so what I do think, we'll just get a note for later, maybe we'll throw this over on the Waking Up to Narcissism podcast at some point, but it's fascinating because even those type E beliefs, if you are incredibly emotionally immature or if you need control to feel like you have a sense of purpose, then you probably are saying, but I do know what the correct brand of toilet paper is because obviously it's 2-ply and it's Charmin. That's a fact.

But in reality, if you can't even agree that there are possibilities of these peripheral beliefs that are different from yours, and we're talking about the world of emotional immaturity. So let's talk about then what are type B and type C beliefs. So type B, Rokeach said primitive type B beliefs, “Type B beliefs, sometimes known as primitive beliefs or core beliefs, are typically core beliefs about ourselves that others' opinions can neither confirm, nor deny, so these beliefs often characterize our self-image and our self-esteem. They may also lie below the level of our awareness, and unconsciously they dictate our decision making.”

So the examples of such beliefs are, I am a funny person, nobody likes me, I am capable of overcoming challenges or I deserve the bad things that happen to me. And beliefs like these primitive, these type B beliefs, these are particularly vulnerable to being shaped during our early development and primarily by messages that we receive from our parents and our caregivers about our self worth, our potential, and our deservingness of unconditional love. And importantly, researchers believe that because type B beliefs tend to constitute these global judgments about who we are and what we're capable of achieving, then they can start to trickle down to affect our beliefs relevant to different situations that we might be facing. For example, they give the example of, imagine a single woman they named her Haley, who is considering approaching an attractive man in a bar. So Haley often expresses how badly she wishes to meet a romantic partner, so her friends are by her side, they're eagerly encouraging her to walk over and introduce herself. Haley, however, is hesitant. And she expresses concern that her appearance doesn't compare to the other women in the bar. Her friends are incredulous. They assure her that she looks beautiful and amazing, but still Haley cannot shake the feeling that she will be rejected based on her looks. So unbeknownst to Haley, there is a primitive, or type B belief, underlying her present belief that her looks are not up to par, because growing up her parents would often make comparisons between her and her sister.

So in their comparisons, often made in the presence of friends and family, Haley was always told she's the brains and her sister was the beauty. So while these comparisons were never intended to even be malicious, they shaped Haley's beliefs about her self image leading to her current predicament and the self-limiting belief that she is not attractive enough to approach the person in the bar.

That's an example of how the messages that are reinforced to us as children may shape our beliefs. But it's not hard to imagine how insecure attachments, or the experience of neglect or abuse during childhood, that may have these long lasting, or Nicole says “devastating effects” on our primitive beliefs.

So these effects, they may subsequently drive a host of false and self-limiting beliefs in various situations. Additionally, because these primitive type B beliefs are so central to our belief, second only to beliefs about our name and where we live. Again, those are those type A beliefs. Then they can be incredibly challenging to surface and shake without professional or psychological support. So let me stick around here in these type B beliefs because I think that it's really funny if we go back to the examples they give of, I am a funny person. So if I was continually validated as a kid for cracking jokes and making fun of things, then I may grow up feeling like I am a pretty funny person. And so then what do I want? I want people to validate this version of me that I feel is part of my core sense of self. My core self image is I'm hilarious. So if people then are not seeing me as funny or not seeing me as hilarious, then what am I going to do? I'm going to beat myself up. I'm going to feel like what's wrong with me?

So here's what one of the challenges is, let's say that I really do feel like part of my self image or my self-esteem is that I am funny because I was told that I was funny. Maybe I was the funny one when a sibling of mine was the smart one and another one was the handsome one, but I was the funny one. Now, let's say that I show up in the world, and quite frankly, I'm not very funny. So then if people are not laughing and they don't think that I'm hilarious and that is part of my self image and that's how I derive my self-esteem, then you can see how I have no psychological flexibility. I am funny, and if you don't think I'm funny, then again, something's wrong with me because that's the message I've been told my entire life.

I'm hilarious. I'm funny. So that would be part of this type B belief or self-limiting belief. I may say, okay, I would really like to be smart. I would really like to study. I would like to go to med school, but I'm the funny one. And I guess I can go in there and crack a few jokes, see how I do. But that's where we operate from our core sense of self. And man, she gives the example that breaks my heart of the, if we start with the, nobody likes me, or the I deserve the bad things that happen to me, that's where we start from. That's where we are operating from. I remember on a podcast that I had with Sam Tillmans quite a while ago, Sam said, “The strongest force in the human personality is to act in alignment with how you see yourself.”

So however you identify yourself, you're going to find a way back to your home base. If you believe, if you have this core self-image or self-belief that you are not enough or that nobody likes you, you may get to a point where you're on a roll and all of a sudden you find that you are finding a connection with others, but you will eventually find your way back in alignment with how you see yourself. If that type B, if that core belief, that self-limiting belief is that nobody likes me or I deserve the bad things that happen to me or I'm not enough, then even when you're starting to gain some traction, when you let your foot off the gas, that path of least resistance goes back to that view of self, which is those negative, those self-limiting beliefs. I feel like it's so important to even recognize that those are just stories that my brain is telling me, and those stories happened and they developed in childhood. Let's talk now about what Rokeach says are authority or type C beliefs.

So according to this framework, type C beliefs, which are somewhat more peripheral than type B beliefs, can also trickle down to produce false and self-limiting beliefs. So type C beliefs are referred to as authority beliefs. So these are the beliefs that we accept based on their having come from a trusted authority. So examples of such authorities include scholars, business leaders, religious leaders, religious figures, people in the community, or even publications such as newspapers. So this is where we deal with the constant they, they said, who said they did? It's in print, I read it, the internet, or my religious leader told me. And they're in a position of authority or my parent, and so one would hope that the authority figures we choose can be trusted to provide us with accurate information that will serve us well in life. However, we need only turn to those around us to know that that's not the case. Nicole gives the example of, “Can you think of a friend or family member who was invested in a get rich quick scheme more because it was touted by a charismatic guru, or perhaps they cling to what you believe to be an outdated belief that they learned at school or at church.”

So these are examples of authority beliefs, and again, while more malleable than these primitive beliefs, they may trickle down to affect our beliefs in more day to day situations. So we rejoin Haley at the bar and she may now see this attractive person and she may think, I cannot go approach that person because I learned in maybe my church class or maybe I've seen on TV some show that talks about how a woman does not approach a man at a bar. That's just not the way it works. So that could be one of these type C beliefs or a type B beliefs, one of these more primitive beliefs might just be the fact that if her parents have drilled into her, hey, you're the smart one. You're the smart one. So the smart person is not necessarily gonna want to go put themselves out there. They need to sit back and wait for a man to approach them because you're not as attractive as your sister. So we start to get these limiting beliefs and unfortunately what could happen is that in that scenario, she may miss out on the love of her life because she's hesitant, because she may express concerns about her appearance, that it doesn't compare to other women in the bar. Her friends, again, they're telling her, you look amazing. But she is so afraid based on these self-limiting beliefs to put herself out there. And to her it just makes perfect sense. So she's not even open to somebody suggesting a different opinion because she's working with her core self-limiting beliefs. And again, I know this is a little bit of a silly example, but as pointed out in this article to understand the extent to which authority figures can negatively influence. Take a look at the harrowing experiences of cult survivors and their journeys of struggling to detach from harmful belief systems that have dictated to them for many, many years of their lives.

So now with a better understanding of these false or these self limiting beliefs, then there are some different therapeutic options. And so there's a couple of them that I'm not very familiar with. I'll quickly go through one called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, or R E B T. And that's been around since the fifties. And it's been targeted specifically helping people identify these negative or rational thought patterns that affect their behaviors. And I think it's worth noting because the R E B T, at the foundation of it, is what's known as this ABC model.

So using the ABC model you can track where these limiting beliefs come from. So they give another example. So they say, “Tom recently submitted a report for his boss to review. Then the following day he receives a report back via email and he notices his boss has written a lot of comments and made a lot of changes. So before looking at the feedback closely, Tom feels sad and worthless and experiences negative thoughts about his capabilities relative to his colleagues.” And in reality the feedback the adjustments made to Tom's report may honestly have a, they might be a combination of some useful, some constructive suggestions for improving his work as well as compliments. But he has no idea because these self-limiting beliefs are just so ingrained that he sees any feedback on a report and he starts to shut down. So he has prematurely succumbed to these false beliefs about his abilities without even taking a look at what has been written on the paper.

And I know, I run into that one a lot, honestly, with something as simple as the mail, man, when I get mail and if it says something, state of California franchise Tax Board or whatever, oh my goodness. I go right to that place of, sometimes when I open them up they say hey here's your annual privacy notice.

But I get that thing and I think, oh my gosh, something. It's horrible. I'm a horrible person. So let me just go through this ABC model from this REBT, abc, R E B T R E S P E C T. You had to have been thinking that, right? But rational emotive behavior therapy, R E B T. So this ABC model, so using this example from Tom's experience of receiving his report, A in the abc, A is the activating event that triggers the negative thoughts.

So in this example, the activating event was Tom receiving feedback from his boss, period. Not reading it, but just receiving the feedback. B, then becomes this false or irrational belief. There's the B that is formed following the activating events. So in this example, Tom's potentially false belief is that he is ineffective at his job.

And then C is the consequence that flows from the irrational thoughts. So in this example, the consequence is Tom's experience of sadness, worthlessness, and effectiveness. And the reason I think that they go with this abc, it's just this just immediately abc this linear situation where there's an activating event, then there is a false or rational belief that occurs. And then the consequence is Tom shuts down. So it's not very hard to see how we can become the authors. And I love this quote that she uses, “The authors of our own misery. When activating events trigger false or self-limiting beliefs unnecessarily.”

And I know it can be scary to then step outside of this because this is the story that we've told ourselves that when I get some paper that has feedback on it, that it's going to be negative and that is just at my core. So it takes a lot of work to be even aware of that, to then be able to move past these self-limiting beliefs. I'll tell you as a therapist this is where I started looking at the concepts of acceptance and commitment therapy. So I feel like we can say, hey, that's just an automatic negative thought. That's just your stinking thinking. And instead of thinking, okay, that might have some negative feedback, you need to look at it like, or it might say, hey, that's a job well done. And that might feel good in the moment, but then the next time that you're handed a paper that has marking all over it, it's going to be hard for you not to just have this visceral or gut reaction. So I like starting with a place of acceptance. So when you have that immediate belief, I like understanding that it's this self-limiting belief that it comes, this primitive, this core belief is coming from our childhood. It's coming from experiences that we had, our childhood programming. So we're going to accept. So when I get a paper, let's say that I grew up in every single paper that I ever got, said, great job. A hundred percent, 105%. You're so smart. Top of the class. Then if I get something back, I'm going to say, oh yeah, there's marking on this paper.

And I could be sitting right beside somebody that every time that they got papers back, it was marked up so much with the corrections that they, the teacher would run out of ink and would have to jump onto a second pen just to mark that thing up. So when they would get the paper back, their immediate thought is, oh gosh, I'm gonna get fired. You know what's wrong with me? So two people can have these completely different experiences based on these internal beliefs or the stories that their brain is telling them to try to make sense of a situation. So what I think is next is let's talk about neuroplasticity and the fact that we often feel like, well, those are my self-limiting beliefs, and I am over the age of, fill in the blank, 5, 12, 25, whatever the latest version of your brain is all set and cement. Because that's actually not true data. We're now learning more and more about the neuroplasticity of the brain. I had Mike Twohig on last week who is, what an interview, that episode is done just phenomenally well. So if you have not listened to last week's episode with Dr. Mike Twohig, it is honestly incredible, and I took some quotes out of the transcript.

So we were talking about neuroplasticity, and so Mike's talking about the concepts around acceptance and commitment therapy. So he says, I will say it for both people, or both styles of people that we can work on altering how we feel or we can work on altering how we live. And we're whole human beings. And whether you alter either one, it's going to affect all sorts of things. So if you change the way you live, you will start to change the way you feel. And if you could change the way you feel, you'll probably change the way you live. So in ACT, he says that with the clients he works with, this question would be, well, which one are we going to focus on? Are we going to focus on what you feel internally or how you're living? And he said, I say this to clients a lot, that there are a lot of things that I really care about and a lot of things that I work hard on that don't feel good. He said, for example, “Parenting a teen doesn't feel fun, but it's meaningful. It's important, but it's not like, oh my gosh, that's great all the time.”

Or he said even the same thing like writing a paper, it's not the same as snowboarding. So he said, but I like the feeling and the importance of it. So he said rules, and this is what I think is so important and what I think makes so much sense here when we're talking about these limiting beliefs. He said rules, like when you, we were talking about socially compliant goals. And again, in acceptance and commitment therapy, a socially compliant goal is something that you feel like you have to do or you'll let somebody else down. So a socially compliant goal. And he said, socially compliant goals and rules are really interesting things. And he said, this is a good point for a professional or a non-professional. And he said an interesting thing about humans is that we decide the way the world works. And I think this is what we're talking about these self-limiting beliefs. He said, “We decide the way the world works and then we follow that. And the truth is,” he said, “It's never fully accurate.” He said, “It's close to the way that the world works or it could be totally far off.” But he said the interesting thing about human beings is that they will make this rule about what we are supposed to do. And now we're identifying that those rules could have been formed in childhood, they could have been informed by authority figures, and then we just keep following it. And he said, and a lot of research has said it can be really hard to help people do things differently. He said it's hard to create variability and it's hard to change behavior. So if somebody has a problem, for example, that they have a way of living that isn't very functional, he said some of that is that they've determined that this is how it works and this is the way that they have been acting. And they've been doing the same thing for maybe 20 or 30 years. So part of the job as a therapist, Mike talked about, is to create flexibility in these different behavior patterns.

And that can be tricky because then we get into this experience of avoidance and he said, humans work so much, they spend a lot of time working to feel a certain way. And he said, and that's what I think is in contrast with doing things that are important. And I love this, Mike said that one of the lines that he likes to say is, he said, “I think healthy, happy people are probably spending 80% of their day doing things that are important to them.” He said, “I didn't say fun. I said important.” And then people who are maybe less healthy are probably spending 80% of their day working hard to feel good. And so he said, he often says to his clients what was meaningful for you? And a lot of times they don't have a lot. They said their day was all about dodging anxiety and getting away from things that they're afraid of. So I want to turn to the book. It's “ADHD 2.0” . It's by Dr. Hollowell and Ratey. And this one has been an incredible book, whether you have ADHD or not, if you do, or somebody in your life has it, please read this. And I'm going to pull from a concept, a couple of pages where he is talking about, the authors are talking about the brain.

So he says, “For example, it is because of epigenetics that you may have been born with genes that predispose you to depression, but because of loving parents and a nurturing school system, those genes never get expressed.” I love this idea of getting expressed. He said, “You may go through life never suffering from depression, even though you carry the genes that might have led you there. Now, on the other hand, if you had unloving parents and if you never received nurturing and positive connections, or worse, if you suffered trauma and abuse, then you also inherited the genes that predispose you to depression or other pathology. And now those genes are far more likely to get expressed. So regardless of the trait or the condition, the disorder, the disease, nature versus nurture always comes down to.” What a concept. So we're already looking at these self-limiting beliefs. We're already looking at the way that they've developed from our childhood, and these become stories that we tell ourselves, this is the way we make sense of the world, and we just do it over and over again.

And so we have these different traits, but based on these belief systems that we have, some of these things are going to be expressed and some might not. But again, regardless of the trait, the condition, the disorder, the disease, nature versus nurture always comes down to both. Good nurture can dramatically reduce the influence of bad nature or bad genes.

But he said, “Unfortunately, the result is also true. Bad nurture, like cold or distant parents, ongoing conflict, or outright trauma while growing up can suppress good nature or good genes. So the science of epigenetics has helped prove that the brain's wondrous ability to change over the course of your lifetime.” not up until you're 12 or 18 or 25, but up until your lifetime, so called neuroplasticity, this is one of the major discoveries in neuroscience in the past generation. So people used to believe that the brain was more or less set by a certain age, and he even said, “Let's say 30.” And after that your dye was cast, the brain was set. But it this, he says, “This fixed brain notion begat a host of home spun cliches and conventional wisdom to the effect that you simply cannot teach an old dog or even a middle aged dog, new tricks. That from the age 30,” he says, “the leopard does not change at spots that you are who you are and you better get used to it because no amount of therapy or life experience or other magic can make a significant dent in the architecture of your brain or your personality, except by changing it for the worst through disease or stroke, cancer, poisons, alcohol, drugs, or dementia. But that is wrong.” It's absolutely wrong. It. Dr. Hallowell and Ratey say very confidently, “As with much homespun wisdom regarding the mind,” so I'm going to say pop psychology cliches, you name it, “we now know different.” So thanks to the work of many neuroscientists, we know that what you do, who you love, where you live, what you eat, how much you move, what kind of stress you experience, if you have a pet, whether you laugh a lot, and all those and a zillion more bits of experience, constantly change who you are in subtle ways.

Your brain responds to all of these cues in turn, so most people don't realize what fantastically great news this is, he says, “We can change who we are and where we're headed. It's not easy, but it can be done and it can be done at any age. You are never too old to find a new life, a new love, or a better day. Our brains present us with the opportunity day in and day out. We just have to unwrap this gift.” And again, talking about ADHD in particular, he says, the science of the last 30 years also explains in the least part, the tension and the contradictions that lie at the core of things like adhd, I mean, explains what's going on in the brain that leads to creativity, entrepreneurialism and dynamism, but also at the same time, irrational, brooding, worrying, ruminating or falling prey to self-destructive addictions and compulsions.

So our brain is just this incredible, magical, wonderful, neuroplastic thing that we can continue to develop, we can continue to change, but it does take time. And I think that's the part where people don't want that to happen. So I think it's so important to recognize these self-limiting beliefs and know that these are just stories that our brain is telling us and it's ways that our brain is trying to make sense of things, make sense of, I wanted to say, make sense of things that don't make sense, but the sense is what you make of it.

And I'll finish this up with one more quote that I think is really powerful, and I've read this one on a couple of different things. Rick Hansen, in the book “Buddha Brain” says, again, “Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences that you have. So the flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain thus shaping your mind, and some of the results can be explicitly recalled like this is what I did last summer, or this is how I felt when I was in love. And then most of the shaping of your mind remains forever unconscious. And this is called implicit memory, and it includes your expectations, your models of relationships, your emotional tendencies, your general outlook. Implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind or what it feels like to be you based on the slow accumulating residue of lived experience.” That's the part that doesn't sound so exciting, that it is the slow accumulating residue of lived experience that changes the interior landscape of your mind or what you feel like, what it feels like to be you.

But he goes on to say, “Here's the problem, your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences.” He likes to say that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. So consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber the negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories grows faster. And then the background feeling of what it feels like to be you starts to be undeservedly glum and pessimistic. The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences when they happen because they happen, but it's to foster positive experiences, in particular take them in so they start to become a permanent part of what it feels like to be you.

So put all these pieces together. You have these self-limiting beliefs. Often they are negative beliefs. I had this limited belief, and it may seem insignificant or inconsequential, but it was important to me that I had spent 20, 25 years with what it felt like to be me with somebody that just ran and ran and ran and solved problems, and figured things out, and listened to audiobooks and just felt, and was, a runner.

And then I get hurt and I spend this time and I'm working hard to shift the interior landscape of what it feels like to be me. And even coming to the point of acceptance that I may never quite be the runner that I was and was starting to just settle in with that, but oh my goodness, just even doing this simple half marathon just uncorked something back to what it feels like to be me. And I recognize now that is just an amazing way that the brain works. That just having somebody else challenge one of these limiting self-beliefs, allowed me to just challenge it myself and say man, what if I just pushed through and then it wasn't as scary as I thought it was.

So I think the challenge might be, I would love for you to take a look at what those limiting beliefs are. If you had a parent that worked the same job forever, then maybe you feel like if I wanted to change careers, that wouldn't work. Or if you grew up in a home where the dad didn't, wasn't vulnerable, didn't show emotion, didn't get up and play with the kids, then that might be a belief that you have or a story that your brain is just hooked to that that's not what you do. Or if you grew up in a home, again, I'm going all in on the men as a guy myself, where you didn't express emotion, you didn't tell your wife you love her, you didn't try to be spontaneous or plan date nights, or if you didn't see taken ownership or accountability of things modeled, if you didn't see empathy modeled, well, then that can make sense is why you feel like that isn't the way the world works. But it's just a limiting belief. Do you want growth? Do you want change? It can be scary, but just like this experience with this half marathon, it didn't take a whole lot to break through that ceiling of limiting self belief.

And at this point now, I literally feel like that whole sky's the limit. So I hope that you can maybe just challenge your own limited beliefs. What are those stories that you feel are the stories that this is just the way the world works and even just the beginning, the starting down this process of neuroplasticity or changing that interior landscape of your mind or what it feels like to be you?

It really does just start simply by just being aware, starting to think, starting to dream, starting to just envision what change could look like. And then slowly but surely you'll start to look for more and more areas where you can change and then what that can feel like to be you can be a completely different version of even the person that you were earlier today.

I'd love to hear your feedback, questions, and comments. Head over onto social media and you can comment on whatever the post is that goes up with this. And thank you so much for spending time here on the Virtual Couch. Don't forget to check out Waking Up to Narcissism. That one again, not just all about, this is a narcissist, but we talk a lot about emotional immaturity, how to become more emotionally mature, how to unhook from unproductive conversations and relationships. And there's just a whole lot more that is coming out and I'm grateful for the support of all those who continue to tune in. Taking us out per usual, the wonderful, the talented, the also now on TikTok, Aurora Florence with her song, “It's wonderful”.

Have an amazing week and we will see you next time on the Virtual Couch

Dr. Michael Twohig joins Tony to talk about his early involvement in the then “new kid on the psychology block,” acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Dr. Twohig shares his initial hesitation in embracing ACT and what eventually led him to pursue his Ph.D. in clinical psychology by working with Dr. Stephen Hayes, the founder of ACT. He discusses the differences in using ACT to treat OCD vs. the traditional CBT-based model, and they talk about using metaphor in ACT. Tony shares his experience of how learning ACT changed his therapy practice and his general outlook on life. They discuss the differences between using diffusion in ACT to make room for thoughts and feelings vs. responding to the body’s cues concerning treating trauma. 

They talk about Dr. Twohig’s new online course on ACT and OCD https://praxiscet.com/virtualcouch and the challenges of marketing an online course. Finally, Tony challenges Dr. Twohig to a “try not to laugh” challenge.

Dr. Michael Twohig is a licensed psychologist, a professor at Utah State University, and one of the world’s most published scholars of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Dr. Twohig’s research focuses on using ACT across various clinical presentations emphasizing OCD and related disorders. He has published five books and more than 200 scholarly works and is the former President of the Association of Contextual Behavioral Science, the organization most associated with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy https://contextualscience.org/

You can find out more about Dr. Twohig via his Utah State University page https://cehs.usu.edu/scce/clinicians/twohig-michael or his private practice website https://junipermh.com/team/michael-twohig/

If you are interested in being coached in Tony's upcoming "Magnetic Marriage Podcast," please email him for more information. You will receive free marriage coaching and remain anonymous when the episode airs. 

Go to http://tonyoverbay.com/workshop to sign up for Tony's "Magnetize Your Marriage" virtual workshop. The cost is only $19, and you'll learn the top 3 things you can do NOW to create a Magnetic Marriage. 

You can learn more about Tony's pornography recovery program, The Path Back, by visiting http://pathbackrecovery.com And visit http://tonyoverbay.com and sign up to receive updates on upcoming programs and podcasts.

Tony mentioned a product that he used to take out all of the "uh's" and "um's" that, in his words, "must be created by wizards and magic!" because it's that good! To learn more about Descript, click here https://descript.com?lmref=bSWcEQ

Transcript

Mike Twohig pt 1

Tony: Okay, I will start with the former, I mean, you were so kind to say, call me Mike, but, Dr. Michael Twohig, welcome to the Virtual Couch. 

Mike: Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me. 

Tony: Yeah. I have you on this pantheon of my big gets, so I don't know if you ever get that vibe or, I mean, I don't know.

How do you feel about that knowing that you are one of these world renowned active researchers?

Mike: I don't feel that way in the slightest. So it's, yeah, let me think. Do I ever bump into that? I don't know. I feel like sometimes grad students applying here give me that feeling because they're all excited.

But no, really in my real life I don't really bump into that. And then one of the things about being a faculty member is your life really is kind of between your office and your lab. So that's all you really bump into. So whenever someone's like, oh, I like your work. That is kind of cool because you know, you don't really get to bump into that very often.

Tony: Okay, well, I sing your praises often, and so I'm going to try to be very calm and very collected throughout this interview. So what I'm really curious about, and this one is going to be personal, I just want to know, and then hopefully listeners will enjoy it as well.

I learned CBT out of grad school and I did CBT for a few years and then when I learned act, it really was like the sky's parted and the heavens shown down. And then it's changed my life, my practice, and then most of my podcast is all talking about act.

And then I'm curious, what has your experience been with it? I mean, you studied under Steven Hayes and so I would love to just hear your story about that.

Mike: Yeah, thanks for asking that question because it’s, you know, I feel like I was really lucky, because I didn't plan this, it just, right. Like sometimes things just happen.

So I'll tell you the story. I hope the listeners aren't bored because it's kind of fun. I'm working at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee with a guy named Doug Woods, who's the best. And we're treating people with Trichotillomania and I remember saying to Doug, you know, I was getting a master's in behavior analysis and I said, Doug, we're doing a good job teaching people how to stop pulling their hair, but they have all this emotion and urges and like there's all this internal stuff and behavior therapy's not like we don't really have a strategy for it.

And he said, you should learn act. And it was interesting because this is like 1999. And I really liked Steve Hayes at the time because he wrote a lot of good behavior analysis theory on language and cognition and how private events work. So I knew of him as kind of like a researcher of behavior analysis. So the two of us in 1999 flew out to Reno and did an ACT workshop and back then they were like 24 hour workshops. Right. It was just ridiculously long and not many people. So we went and I remember being at it and not really enjoying it per se, because it was a little too much.

Because I was a behavior analyst and this [ACT] is like watching your emotions and sitting there and seeing your thoughts floating by. It was out of the world that I lived in. But when I was finished with the workshop, an interesting thing I took away is you can have whatever thoughts or feelings you have, and that's just fine.

And that was what 24 hours taught me. We came back and we integrated act and behavior therapy for the treatment of Trichotillomania. And it clicked really well. And I remember at one point, it clicked well for the clients, I remember at one point Doug Wood says, Mike, you don't know what a good idea this is.

And he's right because I was like 23 at the time. Right? Like, I didn't know that this was a pretty wise career move. So the next step would be, I applied to grad schools and I'm not that great a student. But when I applied to work with Steve, I had done an ACT project in 2001, not many people had done an ACT project. So that's how I got into grad school. And those years from 2002 to 2006 at UNR were super fun years because Steve had just stopped being department head so he had more time. And that's when ACT was in Time Magazine. 

Yeah. And also if you look at like, when the study started coming out, that's when everything was happening. And it was super fun. I just felt like the whole time in the lab was really inspired. You know, we thought we were changing the world.

I never felt like I was at work ever. And then that was my world, behavior therapy and act and I guess it's always stayed that way. Yeah, it's kind of a weird thing because the only therapy I knew how to do was act. So most people I bump into learn traditional CBT then act.

So I had to learn how to do traditional cbt. 

Tony: Okay. Which is funny because, I don't want to talk much at all in this episode, but I really would love, can I lay out what I say about my aha moment of CBT versus act? And I honestly, Mike, I want, I kind of want you to poke holes in it because now I realize I have confabulated this narrative where now I think I've got everything figured out, which obviously means I don't.

So I was a CBT therapist. I was an intern working for my church non-profit. And I had a guy that came in and he was, he had lost like half of his weight and he had social anxiety and I was trying to do the CBT skills of, okay, he walks into a room and everybody turns and looks at him and, and then he feels shame and he leaves and so in the old CBT world those are, that's automatic negative thoughts. That's stinking thinking. And so what are other reasons why they might be looking at you? They might think you look great. They might just turn when a door opens and you know, he would leave and say, yeah, right.

And then he would come back and then he would say, it did not work. You know, and again, start doing the, all right, what's wrong with me? This sounds like a good tool. And then we would come up with other things or other reasons. And I literally then went to an ACT workshop and for me, oh, and I say this often, he's the only version of him that's ever walked the face of the earth with his nature, nurture, birth order, dna, abandonment, rejection, all that.

And so that's how he feels. So I love what you're saying. Right. So then, of course he's going to think everybody's looking at him because he walked around as a 400 pound 12 year old where everybody did look at him. So if he didn't think that it would kind of be crazy, you know? So I started off by, okay, acceptance, that's how you feel.

And then we got into the values, and he had a value of connection and social connection. And so then whether they're looking at him or not, doesn't matter. It's not a productive thought, and he can bring that along with him. And so it was like a game changer. But then I realize now all of a sudden I go black and white, and now I think CBT is horrible and it's almost doing damage.

And because, you know, it says you're starting with your negative thoughts now just change them, you know, just to be happy. And then when I feel like, here's the part I make up, so this is where I want you to poke holes, please. So then the third part is and then if I say to somebody, Hey, how's that working for you, champ?

Then they say, okay, well I already started with broken thoughts and automatic negative thoughts. I can't just change them magically, but that must be my problem. So then I feel like they say, no, it's doing pretty good. And then they leave and just feel like I need to figure this out. And then they leave therapy and then I feel like then they look for the next self-help book or whatever.

And so I felt like ACT was so, I think I've almost demonized CBT, but then I know what act is, what do we call it the next, CBT? So please tell me I'm wrong. So can you explain that and then, and either validate the heck out of me or tell me I'm wrong.

Mike: I think you're on a great track because, you said, here's the part that I'd like you to, double check. The, how is that working for you. And that question, like when you said it, the light bulb, you know, that went off for me is what does that mean to him? When you say, how is that working for you and what do you mean?

When you say, how is that working for you. Because yeah, clients will usually go, how is that working? Am I feeling better? I'm doing air quotes. And an act therapist would say, how is that working for you? Meaning like, how is this working in your life? Are you going in the directions you want to go?

Tony: Yeah. And that's what I feel like was so good. I like your question because if I was saying, how was that working for you? And meanwhile I'm handed a population, and this is funny because I didn't even remember that it was you that I read an article about that helped me here too.

But I was working with people that were struggling with turning to pornography as an unhealthy coping mechanism. And the training I was getting at that time was a lot of, you know, seeing him, do some pushups, behavioral, and then I felt like, ooh, that one's not quite working. And then I think I read something that you did there about, was it mindfulness?

Yeah. And that was, that was also a game changer. And so then it was getting people to start to just take action on things that matter. And right now we're going to not worry about the unhealthy coping mechanism. You know, nothing's wrong with you, you're human. And the more they started doing things of value, then the more they started to feel better and the less they turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

And so then, yeah. So I think my, well, how's that working for you? I think, right. I then had, I think the part with trying to identify people's values was a real challenge, you know? 

Mike: Yeah. I think the shift right there, you can say to a client or the two of you, you know, I don't know if this is a listener.

Actually, I told you, two of my friends said something about being mentioned on your podcast, and one is not a therapist and one is a therapist. So, okay. I'll say it for both people or both styles of people that we can work on altering how we feel, or we can work on altering how we live and we're whole human beings and whether you alter either one, it's going to affect all sorts of stuff. So if you change the way you live, you'll change the way you feel. If you could change the way you feel, you'll probably change the way you live. But from the kind of an act or behavior therapy model, we're going to lean on changing the way you live to affect, you know, without the goal of affecting how you feel but it will. So like this client, when he said it's not working. My question would be, well which one are we going to focus on? Are we going to focus on what you feel internally or how you're living? And I say this to clients a lot, that a lot of the things I really care about and a lot of things I work hard on don't feel good. You know, like parenting a team doesn't feel fun. But it's meaningful, it's important, but it's not like, ooh, you know, that was great. Or even the same thing like writing a paper, it's not the same as snowboarding, so like the feeling and the importance of it.

So yeah, it's orienting the client and you to what's meaningful. 

Tony: Well, and what I like about that so much, Mike, is sometimes I think in my head that if a client almost “breaks act” where I think, oh, that was well played. Where if maybe they don't hold a value of, I don’t know, if they almost hold a value of, I know there isn't necessarily in the values list codependency, but I'll get people to say no, my core value is helping everybody else and putting myself second and, and I want to say, but no, that, that one's not cool. But then you know it’s what it feels like to be them. And so I like what you're saying to yeah, that change in behavior, or living by one's, yeah, because I feel like, I don't want to sound arrogant, but I feel like, okay, that is where that person's at right now.

But if I go back to that, how's it working for you? Then sometimes I feel like, oh, okay, they're trying to just adapt or cope with this thing that they don't enjoy. 

Mike: Yeah, and I'll often, like that question, I'll be more precise. I'll say, how's that working to change these thoughts about your self image?

Or I'll say, how's that working to be part of the group?

Tony: Hey. Okay. So speaking of that too, and I know that this is going to feel like five minutes to me of talking with you. I really like the work you've done with ACT and ocd.

I had read Brain Lock I think when I was doing OCD work initially, and I feel now like maybe because I love act so much that I've almost had my own emotion and maturity, black and white, that oh that was bad, and this is good. But how does ACT and OCD stand out from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy?

Mike: So, and this fits with the conversation we were just having. Kind of the easiest way I've found to describe this is like, no matter your theoretical orientation for treating an anxiety disorder or OCD, I like to break it down to what is the outcome you're looking for. Like, how do you and your client agree things are better? What's the process of change? What is it you're trying to instill in the person that would help them be able to do these things? And then what are the techniques you use to instill that process of change? So in ACT, I think the main outcome that we're shooting for is that a person can live sort of a successful and meaningful life.

And I think for those who know ocd, what's missing from that, is any statement about what's happening internally. So I don't need the power or the frequency or the words in the obsession to be different. I just need the person to be able to effectively live when they show up. And then the process of change is psychological flexibility, which is being able to see thoughts as thoughts, emotions as emotions, sensations as sensations.

Allow them to be there and still move in the directions you want in life. Right. So again, nothing needs to change. We just need to not be overpowered by it. And then the techniques we use, what I tell my practicum students is, you know, we teach people how to be psychologically flexible until they kind of get it. And then we start practicing. And those can look like exposure exercises, but as you can imagine, the style is different. We're not watching intensity of internal experience. We're not watching habituation. It's more like, let's practice having what you have, and then we have our own style for doing exposure exercises.

Tony: And can you talk a little bit more about that too? Because I feel like the exposure for the sake of exposure to reduce anxiety and I, boy, I'm wanting to be so emotionally vulnerable here today as I realize, and maybe it's just I have created a narrative in my head of I've had clients that haven't had good experiences with just, okay, let's sit on a dirty floor because you don't like germs, you know?

Right. So can you explain the difference there in act? 

Mike: Okay, there's a couple things. Why don't we start with, when I think about doing an exposure, I would like the exposure to have some tied values. And either that's, that's obvious. For someone with social phobia, we might go talk to people or send a message to someone we haven't, or practice giving a phone call to someone they like, like you can make it values based.

Sometimes it's harder, but then even in that moment, we're going to help the client see how it could be value based. So if we're dealing with a germ phobia or ocd, we might go manipulate a garbage can or go to a bathroom, and then, let's practice having this stuff so that when the real game shows up, you're good at it.

And I'll use a sports analogy of we're just practicing being good at having what you have. And I'll remind the person a lot like when's the situation when this might happen, when you're going to go on a date or go out to dinner or something, and these things are going to show up. I think what stands out to those who maybe do exposure work is I have never had a moment where I would go above and beyond or do those sort of extreme exposures, because I kind of struggle to figure out where those tie to values.

Our outcomes are just fine, but I don't have to lick a gas pump or, you know, like rub my food on the toilet. And I did that work, you know, because I worked in an OCD clinic at the University of British Columbia.

And it can work if the person can engage, it works very well, but they have to be able to engage. Right. So, yeah, I always said, and I'm not knocking that work's great work, right? If you have 10 people, two will do nothing, five will get better. And the other three, kind of putter along, it's like those five who can't do this, they can't get behind the exposure work.

Tony: Okay. You know, I give a story that I think, again, maybe I swing to the extremes, but I've often said, okay, if somebody just lets a spider crawl over you to reduce anxiety, that's ridiculous, it might cause you to disassociate. But if your grandpa leaves you a $2 million spider farm then maybe that might be, you know, a value of financial security for your children, then maybe I'm willing to sit with the spiders. I mean, so is it kind of, we need to find some value if we can?

Mike: I think a value gives meaning to the work. Going back to raising kids, I remember sitting and doing homework with my daughter just many years ago, and she's essentially crying and trying to get away from the table and like everything about it's terrible.

And then I'm being sweet and nice and as helpful as I can be because I can find a value in this that is meaningful to me to help this kid be a decent student so she can do the steps she needs to do and go on and do whatever she wants to do with her career. Like I could find a reason, but if I didn't like this kid or didn't care, some kid screaming at me, it would be hard to find motivation to stay there and be nice.

Tony: Yeah. That makes so much sense. And man, I just, I want to go on a tangent, but I'll get back to the ACT piece, but when you mention one of the things that also I feel like dramatically game changer for me were the concepts of, socially compliant goal and then experiential avoidance. And maybe can you, as an expert in this field kind of speak to how those show up? 

Mike: Yeah. Rules, like when you said a socially compliant goal, rules are really interesting things. And this is a good point for a professional and non-professional that an interesting thing about humans is we decide the way the world works and then we follow that. And the truth is it's never fully accurate. Like it's always, it could be close to the way the world works or it could be totally far. But yeah, that's an interesting thing about human beings is that we'll make this rule about what we're supposed to do and then we'll just keep following it.

And lots of research has said it's really hard to help people do things differently. Like it's hard to create variability and behavior. If someone has a problem or like they have a way of living that's not really functional. Some of that is they've determined how it all works and they've been doing the exact same thing for 20, 30 years.

And part of the therapist's job is to create flexibility in different behavior patterns. And that is tricky. Now the experience of avoidance stuff is just that humans spend a lot of their time working to feel a certain way and I think that's in contrast with doing the things that are important to us.

So one of the lines I say is I think healthy, happy people are probably spending 80% of their day doing things that are important to them. I didn't say fun, I said important. And then people who are maybe less healthy are probably spending 80% of their day working hard to feel good.

And those are like the clients I see. If I say like, what was meaningful to you today? They don't have much. Their whole day was about dodging the anxiety and getting away from stuff that they're afraid of. 

Tony: Yeah. I can launch into a whole thing there where I feel like with the amount of things that we can use for experiential avoidance. Phones, games, unlimited access to downloads of things. I do feel like that's so difficult for people that aren't aware of what is important to them and why I feel like that values work can even be more difficult and yet even more important. And I even, you know, I do a lot of couples therapy, Mike, and I find that I will not do the individual, I won't do the values exercise with the couple in there because boy, you watch even the way that, let's say a guy wants to express that he doesn't necessarily have a core value of honesty. Maybe more of compassion because he grew up in a home where there was brutal honesty and that was harmful. But then if his wife hears that that's not a value. So I feel like just that example, I feel like the dynamic of even trying to get to one's core values or what matters to them can be tricky because I think people are still worried that, I don’t know if you hear this often, but I know I shouldn't care. You know, or I know I'm supposed to care about, I don't know. Do you hear that in the work you do? 

Mike: When I heard you talking about this, one of the things I was thinking about is with my clients, I worry less about having the right values just more like is your behavior about values? And then people get into like, well, I have so many things and I can't balance them all.

And to me that's more of that fusion and rule following that I'm supposed to do this right. And no, we're always wrong. You're always not living your values perfectly, but if you're at least living your values, that's pretty solid. And if you're too heavy in one area and too weak in another area, then you can work at it.

But I'll never,  I'll never balance this out totally. It'll always be a little heavy on work. Yeah. It's just how it’s going to be.

Tony: Yeah. And I like what you're saying because I do find that if I'm kind of bringing somebody from a, they don't know what they don't know to now, they know but don't know how to, in essence. And I love that you bring that, cause I feel like, okay, we have to figure out your values. But then I find that then often, oh, I still need to work on my values, becomes a story their brain is fusing to. I went to a training with a lady about act and she said that at that point she tells a client, just walk outside and begin. I see an animal, I don't like animals. Okay. Well note that. I tried to talk to a stranger, which was fun. Maybe there's, you know, there's something there and I just love that concept. 

Mike: Yeah. I think that's the rule stuff. If I'm going to do this, I need to do this right. Well, you'll never, you can't live right. It is going to be full of errors and mistakes and it's just like how it is being a person on the planet. I was giving a workshop and it's one of the moments it kind of stuck with me. This was a workshop just like a couple months ago, and I'm up there doing a role play and all my students are there and all these professionals are there and the role play is just like going really poorly and not really poorly, but you know, in the poorly category.

And it was in a weird way it was kind of nice. Because it was, that's how workshops will be, you'll be saying really fun, smart things at one point, and then you'll just be stinking and that's life. And I think in a way, it was like a good model for the group. Like yeah, well therapy will sometimes you'll like totally go into a dead end and you just have to walk back and go the other way. 

Tony: Oh I love that. Okay. Over back to the OCD treatment plan, which I love, you've got a course and I want to promote that, in the notes as well. But, you do a lot of metaphors and I have to, again, it's so nice. I feel like you're now my therapist for this. I don't know why I felt this insecurity around dealing with all the metaphors in ACT at first because there's a part of me that felt like this person's paying me large amounts of money for me to tell stories. And now all of a sudden, once I embrace act metaphors, oh my gosh, they're so powerful. And so what has that been like for you? Do you like metaphors? How do you feel they fit in? 

Mike: So what I think is okay, the idea of metaphors goes right back to our rule stuff. Like in act we like to teach experientially versus rules, because then people will originally follow what we said.

So we like to tell a story about it or use a personal example or use a client's life example and sometimes a metaphorical thing describes it better. Like just before I said, you know, I went the wrong way down the alley, and I had to realize, okay, wrong spot. And I had to back out that, that metaphors rich, because we've all felt that, you go down a trail and you're like, uh, this isn't right.

And then you have to like, literally, so there's knowledge that comes with our real life experience. So, I could say, your mind is picking on you like someone picked on you in grade school. It just has more meaning because people got picked on in grade school and they know what that was like and they can link the two.

And I think it's richer than me sort of lecturing on, you know, on what cognition is like. So I think that's the two parts. It's kind of rich and it's not so rule based, but you ask what it's like for me, I think at the beginning I had to use some from the book.

But then now it's just sort of my style and I've sort of also learned, I learned how to make metaphors that match the client's interests, but I've also learned how to use self-disclosure at that safe level. I've already talked about using my kids as examples and no one hears, oh my gosh, what a bad parent. You know? It's a metaphor that I think most people with kids can appreciate. And if you don't have kids, I think you can imagine.

Tony: Yeah, no, and it's funny, I don't think I've been doing this as long as you have, I'm at 17, 18 years. But I feel like even that concept of self-disclosure has been more embraced over the years that when I first started, that seemed like that was taboo, but I feel like it's more of that human experience. And I feel like act makes more room for that, I feel like, than my CBT days. 

Mike: Well, yeah, it'd be weird to be like, oh my gosh, you have these negative thoughts about yourself. So strange. 

Tony: Right, right. Hey, do you have a particular favorite of the metaphors though? I am curious, of course that's me wanting to say, because I do Mike.

Mike: What's funny, my students forever make fun of me that I lean towards sports ones. But that doesn't mean it's right. It's just like I can, I can find so many rich examples and actually we wrote a book and one of the editors was like, how about we take out just a handful of sports ones and we like mix in some other ideas. But with a client, I try to gauge what they're into. And then go that way. 

Tony: I'm laughing because have you ever had those fail? I mean, because I don't know, in the past I felt like I would talk and maybe give one about gardening and halfway through I realize I have no idea what garden, you know, but maybe you plant something and I don't know. You know what I'm saying? 

Mike: I do. I think there's a little skill in just assuming that things work under a natural order and this'll work. I like to have the client help me along. Your favorite, you said you had a favorite though. 

Tony: You're very good, Mike. Because I was going to say, I love the one about you've fallen in a hole and you have a shovel. I love that one so much because I feel like I work with people that are determined to then, no, right. The shovel is an amazing tool by itself, and I am a hard worker. And so I love being able to say, and have clients say to me, and then I went and grabbed my shovel and I dug a little bit more. And then my favorite ever is the, and then somebody hands you the ladder and you try to deal with it. And so that one alone to me was the metaphor that then allowed me to embrace metaphors.

Tony: So do you maybe want to talk about your course a little bit. I mean, have you done courses? Have you done a lot of courses? Is that something you enjoy doing? Or what was that like? 

Mike: Well, yeah, kind of a broader answer. . It's an interesting thing being a professor, because I really enjoy training my students how to do therapy and that includes act, but you know, professors, we're almost taught to not market.

So that's been like a weird thing because I feel like after all these years, I actually do know act pretty well and I kind of know how to teach people how to do it, but I have this like weird emotional reaction that happens when it's like, well, you know, come to my workshop or buy my book. And I've been able to let that go more and more in the sense that this work does good and people, like even if they're very good at therapy, we can get stagnant or stale and coming at things from another perspective can be really useful. ACT is getting big and people want to know, act is big, and people want to know how to do it. I'm really privileged to work at a university where they give me the time to sit and develop things. Like write a paper or writing a book. You know, like if you're a clinician, how do you find the time to write a book? And it's, it's really great that a university's like, that's why, that's what we want you to do. So something like this course, it took me a little bit to, it's an act for anxiety disorders and OCD.

It took me a little bit to sort of wrap my head around like, no, it's okay to create something that is going to get sold. And I think I had to find the value there, which is, I do think this works important and I've spent a lot of time understanding how to do this. And then I start feeling good about getting it out there. And it's a really high, high quality course. And that's another just, it's another great thing. I think it's worth what people have to put into it. 

Tony: And why I'm so grateful for the way you just shared that, Mike, I have a lot of therapists that do listen and I feel like I have a fair amount of life coaches, and I feel like there's a battle between the therapist and life coach, and I talk about this from time to time.

The guy that helped me create my magnetic marriage course, which man, I'm right there with you. I feel like I have this stuff I want to share and I know it can help, right? But then I feel anxiety around promoting it. I feel like I'm being prideful and boastful. And so I will often set the frame up by saying I'm standing in my healthy ego, which nobody else knows what I mean by that, but it makes me feel better because you know, a healthy ego based on real experience and work and that sort of thing, but here's what I think is interesting and I want, I would love your opinion, so I bought courses by other research, Sue Johnson, and I bought Steven Hayes's course, and I've got your course. And then as I was creating a course, I was struggling with the guy that's helped me. He's a very successful life coach named Preston Pugmire, and he kept talking about selling the destination. And do you know this concept? Okay. It's this, I fought him for about a year on this and so, you know, he would say that, okay, if you look at a Delta Airlines commercial, they show the family in Hawaii, so they're selling the destination. This is what you want. But they offer a plane. And basically what he said is what I was saying, well, I've got these, what I call my four pillars of a connected conversation based off of emotionally focused therapy, and here's the nuts and bolts, and here's the emotional bid. And so I'm saying, hey, forget the destination. Let me show you how cool my plane is because I've got these really cool nuts and bolts. Right. And that's what I felt like and then I realized, and I love this, like the courses I've taken from somebody like Sue Johnson and I feel like, oh, as a clinician I'm buying the nuts and bolts.

I want to see how the rivets go into the seats and that sort of thing. And so I found that if I'm trying to get a client to get excited about a course like that, they sit through maybe one section of it and it's like, eh. Yeah. Right? And so it's like, I found, it's a weird balance to try to sell the destination and have this person that I trust help me create it say, nobody cares about your plane. And that's where I'm saying, okay, I need to stand out in my healthy ego as a clinician and say, I think it does matter, but I will try to work some of the destination in the coolest plane that you can get there, you know. So I love your honesty around that because I feel like a lot of the therapists I work with, the first course I ever put out was probably just showing how to make up a bolt, you know, that sort of thing.

Mike: Well that's a really nice point because it's real values consistent because it's like, I don't love writing every paper but while I'm writing them, I usually connect to like, well, this is really cool. I want people to read this. I want this to be out there. And  same, I'm not trying to sell the course here, per se, but it's a neat sort of values analogy, that there's a lot, like, take trichotillomania and ocd, that the course is a non trick, but let's say you know, OCD and panic, if you knew how to treat those well, you will always be busy, you will always have a flow of people, which means there's that many people out there who are looking for therapists and my life, and I'm not knocking any therapists around me, my life is seeing people after they've seen other people. Because, and nothing against the person who worked with them before, sometimes clients need to be in a new spot, but hard panic cases, hard OCD cases, you probably do have to do the best of breed intervention, otherwise you're not going to get the movement. So yeah, that's a nice way of thinking about it. I'm not promising if you learn how to do act for anxiety disorders, you're going to win every time. But I do think this is where the data is today. Like this is well thought out, well researched, it's as good a bed as you can think of right now.

Tony: See, and I love that because I feel like that is healthy ego and healthy ego comes from our actual lived experience. And I had a whole career in the computer industry where I didn't realize, and I didn't enjoy it. It was not value based. I lived for the weekend, but then by the weekend I was so bummed from the week that I kind of didn't care. And I would say, well, next weekend or next, you know, that whole thing. And so I do, I appreciate what you're saying because I feel like from a healthy ego, it's more of like what we feel like inside and I am offering this, so I love that you just shared that because I think that'll resonate with so many people that are listening. And maybe, because I have to bring my insecurities and anxiety and fear of invalidation along with me, maybe, you know, while I put those things out there. So, no, I love that. So would you rather work with OCD than any, any other thing, or is it just something that you have found yourself really good at?

Mike: Okay. Interesting question. I started out working with Trichotillomania. 

Tony: Which by the way, you've mentioned that I know some of my clients aren't going to know, but, so talk about that. 

Mike: Yeah. So, it's a disorder where people pull their hair out and, if you're like, why? I'd say it's really self soothing. We call it egosyntonic. That's a very enjoyable behavior for people. And almost all my clients would say, you know, I would happily pull my hair and then if the next day I came back and all the hair had grown back, I would never be coming in because I enjoy doing it. Okay, but obviously they end up with bald patches and or huge hair loss, it can get pretty extreme and then one of the things that happens is as you pull a lot, the area you pull from starts kind of getting infected and stuff. So then it's almost like you need to pull, because it's like a little infected. So you pull out the hairs that are infected and it feels better.

So you get yourself caught in this trap. Wow. So where this ties into OCD is that was like one of the areas I started and then when I got to UNR to work with Steve, it was like, well, what's, what's the next step? It would be OCD. Like trick and OCD are what we call OCD and related disorders. So then I did my first studies on ACT for OCD, and what's slightly different is clients with OCD come in and they say, I hate this. My life is terrible. Please, please help me stop. And people with trick are like, uh, I know I should stop, but I don't really want to. So there's something about OCD clients that they really want it gone. And that's kind of enjoyable to have clients who are just on the same page as you from day one. I will, and I don't mean this to like pick on the clients, it is a little funny story, but I did an OCD trial followed by a marijuana dependence trial. And I have to, I have to tell you the difference in sort of clients like being on time and not canceling appointments. You know, it's another thing. My clients with ocd, it's kind of easy work. They're on time, they are ready to work and certainly there's hard times, so it's just, the other thing, if I can just kinda keep blabbing, the idea of sticky thoughts is really fun to me. 

So when someone has a really horrible thought and they just feel trapped, I find it really fun disentangling it and helping them find a way to not get pushed around by that thought. And I have a sort of a unique style to myself where that stuff doesn't bother me. So, you know, clients can describe all sorts of stuff, and I like am a hundred percent, that's just a thought. You know what? Whatever this thing is. And, that's been really fun. And learning that skill has generalized to other areas because like really sticky thoughts show up in other disorders. 

Tony: So what's an example, by the way, of a sticky thought? Tell the listeners. 

Mike: Oh. You know, I'll admit I even got caught in it, like, oh, do I wanna share one. So you're from Utah, so do you have some knowledge of the local religion?

Tony: Oh, absolutely, yes. 

Mike: Okay. So, one of the most predominant things in the local religion to Utah is like the importance of family and taking care of your family. So OCD is always going to attack what you care about most. So parents having thoughts about harming their kids is, I don't know, half of what I see. And, they come in and they're like, this is the worst. Like you can't get any worse than picturing seriously harming your own children. I can just hear that and be like, that's an obsession. Let me work with you on what we should do with that. And they're like, but I'm a horrible person. Deep down, I'm a horrible human being who needs to get off this planet? And I'm like, no, you have an obsession. We got it. We'll figure this out. Like, it's okay. And, when I hear someone say their obsession, like just nothing. Like I don't have an emotional reaction because I know it's an obsession.

Tony: Don't you feel like one of the, I love that, because I do talk about, one of my first episodes five, six years ago was on intrusive thought syndrome and at that time, right, I said, we all have them, just because you have them doesn't mean anything, doesn’t mean you're going to do them. And then, thought suppression doesn't work.

And at that time, I actually was speaking to a lot of relief society organizations and I don't know why I found it hilarious, but when I would open it up, I would say, I would kind of share that just for fun and say, how many of you thought about your driving? And man, I could just mm, right over into a tree and you would see the people like yeah, but I've never told anybody. And, I would tell a story about sharing this with my family, and we had a little yorkie at the time, and I was sharing this with one of my daughters. She's like, you ever think about just that you could snap her leg? And I'm like, I have thought that.

And then all of a sudden she's like, okay. And then we go all in on it. And my wife wasn't aware. And so then one night at the dinner table, we're talking about using a watermelon, melon baller. And one of my kids saying, you ever thought about like, that could just be an eyeball, you know, and I could see that, you know?

And my wife, I think she was not up to speed on the conversations, but, so I really like what you're sharing because I feel like being able to express it and having somebody just say, oh yeah. Or I have, or tell me more. There's some pretty cool research, right, that shows that, oh, the scary thing in my head and that person didn't react. Maybe it isn't scary, do you find that's the case? 

Mike: Well, I'll just give, this is a really interesting one. When I worked at the University of British Columbia, they were finishing an intrusive thoughts trial. So they were just treating it like sometimes what people call where you have the obsession and then the compulsion is something you do in your head. You say a prayer, you try to squish the thought, you picture something else. And, it was interesting because the control condition actually got a lot better. I don't know what they did with a controlled condition, but it wasn't supposed to be that useful.

And how we hypothesized it at the end was no one had ever said to these people like, this is just an obsession. This isn’t you. And like half of them walked in and they were just assuming this was a police sting. Like people who wanted to murder or kill or you know, whatever the horrible obsession was and they just assumed they'd walk in and the cops would be there and we were like, no, this is an OCD clinic. You have OCD, welcome to our world. And for a ton of people just hearing like there's a category of people who have really rough thoughts and the truth is the reason they have such rough thoughts is when they first had the initial ones, they tried so hard not to have them that it went out of control. Whereas if you would've been like, that's weird, then it probably wouldn't have grown into anything. But if you tried really hard to get rid of it, yeah, then it just kept growing.

Tony: Well, what I like about that too is one of the things that I, in your treatment program or for OCD, is you and I wrote down a note on this that I like. Can you maybe talk about 95% of life when you don't want it, you can get rid of it. And then that other five, that's, that's good stuff. So I don’t know, can you kinda explain that? 

Mike: Yes. Like in our life, this is you know, second session of therapy. In our life, if we don't like something, we can change it. If you need a haircut, you can get a haircut. If your room's dirty, you can clean it, your clothes look grubby, you can purchase new ones. So then, you know, as you grow up in life, you have thoughts or feelings you don't like, why wouldn't you try to get rid of them? Like everything else in life, if you don't like it, you could get rid of it.

And a lot of times our families are going to say, yeah, that's how it works. But, like right now, if I said, you know, don't think of a pineapple or a pineapple painted blue that someone wrote “you stink” on it. 

Tony: Done, done and done. 

Mike: Right. It doesn't work that way. But if I said, you know, don't touch your keyboard, everyone can do that. That's the difference between behaviors we do with our hands and our feet and attempting to control internal stuff, internal stuff doesn't work that way. And frankly, it might work the opposite way. And then one of the jokes I say in therapy a lot is, this is the reason I have a job. Like, if it worked, you wouldn't need me. But it actually goes backwards, so that's probably why you need me. 

Tony: Well and I find that a lot of things that I feel like in the world of mental health are counterintuitive, which is, I guess I would say that often too, that thank goodness, or I would be out of work but then I know that's humor and sometimes we have to use humor and people, if it's heavy for them, that might sound right. And then, and I feel like that's maybe part of their avoidance is, well I can't, this guy's being silly, or I can't, I can't look at it a different way or somebody, he doesn't understand what it's like. And I don't know, I feel like what do you do with those kinds of situations. 

Mike: Yeah, you don't understand what it's like. I mean, I don't get that as much. I know people get it with other disorders, and I will say from an ACT perspective, if I keep talking about that I have disturbing thoughts, I have frustrated thoughts, I feel overwhelmed. I don't feel good enough like that’s just part of being a human being.

I feel like it's probably nice for a client to see that, you know, my therapist who seems to have it together also doesn't feel smart enough and feels overwhelmed and feels annoyed. And like if he has it, then it may not be so weird that I have it. And I'll definitely stress in my work, it's way more what you do with it than what you have.

Tony: I like that. Yeah. Well, it's funny, the insecurities even, we had a technical glitch there, and we went silent for a while and oh, I was all in my head about, man, this is my one chance and I thought we were vibing and now Mike's never going to come back in and you know, and that whole thing.

And it's funny the way we do that and then I just had to notice that was the thought. You know, that was something. So really quick as well I like that part about trying to control, so we don't do that. I do have one, I have a hypothetical, not even a hypothetical, so I would love your take just as I view you like this world renowned act researcher and knows act so well. And I tell you one thing that my latest kind of aha is I've got somebody, so if I have somebody that is, let's say they're in a job and they don't like their job and I've done, I've had enough of the experiences where I can then maybe have somebody that they feel like they really can't do anything about it, we can work their values into their current job, and then, you know, they might insert a value of humor or a value of connection, or they might go learn other values of curiosity. And I've had some success with that. But then I've also had, you know, I do a lot of work with trauma and I don't if you're familiar with the book The Body Keeps the Score and it's amazing. And so over time, because our emotions are traveling faster than our logical brain.

And you know, that visceral reaction as our brain says, is it safe? And if it's safe, then what do I do with it? And so when people have felt unsafe, that emotional reaction can intensify and they're all up in their amygdala and that sort of thing. So then I'll have people that will be in situations where, in a work situation where, okay, but my blood pressure is rising and I'm starting to have different ailments and then, and in the trauma world we say, okay, that's your body trying to tell you something and we need to listen to it, and maybe that's not the right opportunity for you. And I've been doing so much of the act work where, oh, that's just, you know, these are stories your body, your brain's telling you. And so invite them to come along with you and insert your values.

And so I don't know if you have any thoughts, and I know I'm just springing this on you right now, but it's interesting because act works so well, and now I've had a couple of people that are like, man, I'm still trying to be present. I'm noticing, I'm meditating, I'm working, you know, but I am still, I am still having this visceral gut reaction. And, and so I feel like there's an interesting, I'm not sure which one to rely on, you know? 

Mike: Mm. Well, you tell me if I heard your question right. That if it's like the person's trying to be there for something but it's hard because their internal stuff is so loud. 

Tony: Yeah, well said. 

Mike: And what I'd probably say to that client is, you know, we may have spent 20, 30 years conditioning this to be at this volume. And now that we are not giving it the attention it needs, it's going to scream pretty loud. And I'd say, what do we want? Do we want it quiet or do we want to be in life? Because I'm going to be honest, it's not going to get quiet until you stop caring it's there. 

So if you're always trying to check how loud it is, it's like it knows to put out some noise. So it's like you really just have to shift the game and then, and then we'll see what will happen. Yeah. And it's interesting, the description you gave, maybe we're about the same age. I'm starting to get more and more clients who are like, where do I want my life to go? My career isn't quite what I'm hoping it would be.

Tony: And then I love that because and then when I'm putting out there on my podcast that yeah, I switched after 10 years and now I love everything I do and it's value based and passionate.

And then I'll feel like people will then say, well, yeah, but that was easy. You know? No, it was incredibly uncomfortable. But, I find that then those yeah buts, that's why I call them, the yeah buts from act where, okay, I'm going to take action on this value and then sit back and I'll listen to all the yeah buts. Because it's scary and I think that just people hearing that that's part of the human experience is pretty cool. Hey Mike, I am just grateful for your time. I really am. Thank you. I am going to be very honest and say that I have done something exactly one other time with an interview a few days ago. And I love humor and I feel like that is something that maybe you can identify with as well. Okay. So this is either going to be something I will delete and never use again. I would love to see if you cannot laugh and I'm going to read a couple of my funniest two line jokes ever.

Mike: Okay. Oh, I'm gonna be terrible at it. We'll try. 

Tony: Okay. Let me find one, let me get one here. I've got a couple of them that I think are just hilarious to me and let's alright, so, Dr. Michael Twohig, world renowned ACT researcher, try not to laugh. Just say no to drugs. Well, if I'm talking to my drugs, I probably already said yes.

Oh, that's good. Okay, next. I thought I could get you on that one. Don't laugh yet because this one, I’m Scrolling through them, here it comes. I feel bad for the homeless guy, but I really feel bad for the homeless guy's dog because he must be thinking, man, this is the longest walk ever.

Mike: Okay, you try. I have like two banked jokes.

Tony: Okay. Well this is my second experience and the first person texted me yesterday and said, oh, I want to do it to you now. So, alright, now, this is the first ever experience.

Mike: So there's two fish in a tank. One says, I'll drive you man the guns.

Tony: I don’t even know what that means.

Mike: In a tank.

Tony: Oh, that's even better. I just thought it was complete nonsense. Okay. All right. Okay. 

Mike: How does it go? What did the fish say that swam into the concrete wall? 

Tony: What? 

Mike: Damn. 

Tony: Okay. Okay. Maybe I need to rethink this. I thought I'd be able to do that. Okay. Well done. Those are good enough. So, alright, Mike, thank you so much for coming on and I hope that I can have you on again in the not too distant future. Sneak preview. I meant to even bring this up earlier, I work on some with scrupulosity, which I think is kind of a whole other realm and I would love your thoughts on that. Maybe as just a sneak preview.

Mike: Well yeah and being two Utah based guys, we just skipped right over the pornography stuff.

Tony: Yes.

Mike: Such an interesting,, yeah, I was like, oh, I want to tell you stories about that. Okay. 

Tony: So maybe next time? Okay. Yeah, yeah, we'll do that. So, alright. What a pleasure. I really appreciate the time. This is everything I had hoped it would be and more, so I can't wait to talk to you again. Okay. Right. Thanks Mike. 

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