Challenging Negative Patterns of Thought & Behavior - Chat Transcript
The Pandora's Aquarium chat room welcomed Rachel Grant April 18 2012. Rachel holds a master's degree in counseling and works with survivors of trauma, and she spoke to members on the topic of "Believing that healing is possible". You can visit Rachel's website at: http://rachelgrantcoaching.com/
CoachRachelG: Hi everyone, it's great to be here again with you all tonight.
Chat mod: You are all very welcome to tonight's chat. The topic is Strategies for Challenging Negative Patterns of Thought & Behavior. We are very please to have Rachel Grant with us again as our Guest speaker. As many of you know Rachel has a masters in counselling and has done a lot of work with survivors of trauma.
Chat mod: In your description of this topic you say our brain is wired because of the abuse, is this the same as a self fulfilling prophecy?
CoachRachelG: Well, let's first explore what I mean by "wired" and then we'll touch on this idea of "self-fulfilling prophecy."
There is a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. When we have an experience, neuronal pathways are created in the brain by neurons firing and connecting to create a neural net. Think of it like a highway or web.
The first time we have an experience, a particular neuronal pathway – or road – is created. Take for example, eating pumpkin pie at your first Thanksgiving. The next time you experience pumpkin pie – say when walking by a pie shop and smelling the aroma, this pathway is "lit up" again.
Moreover, this neural net has now been modified. It holds the initial memory of your first Thanksgiving and now the current experience of the same aroma when walking by the store. Thus, the neuronal pathway is expanded and reinforced by the reactivation.
The same thing occurs because of abuse. Particular thoughts and emotions are "wired" and we will re-experience these thoughts or emotions whenever that neuronal pathway is lit up by a present day experience (even if the present experience only remotely resembles the past experience).
The trouble is that many of our
present day responses, thoughts, and emotions are nothing but an old
neuronal pathways lighting up. Yet, without intervention, these pathways
become deeper and deeper, so breaking the resulting patterns of thought
and behavior becomes more difficult.
However, we can learn to inhibit
these patterns and respond to a situation, trigger, or stressor in a new
way. When we do, the neuronal pathway will be adapted. The more
frequently this occurs, the more modified the neuronal pathway becomes,
and the behavior, thought, or emotion that is produced is also modified.
If we don't, and we continue to
let our thoughts go down the same roads, then, yes, it is a bit like a
self-fulfilling prophecy. If we continue to think we are worthless, then
we will experience life through this lens. If we continue to think that
all relationships are dangerous, then we will continue to struggle to
find someone to connect with.
Chat mod: How can we know which thought patterns have been created by our abuse?
CoachRachelG: We are wired to automatically assign a meaning or interpretation to each experience we have. We have a craving to explain why things have gone the way they have. This happens without a conscious effort on our part, but takes root as a neuronal pathway and influences the way we feel and react to any given situation.
To begin identifying patterns of
thought, we first have to develop the ability to separate what is
actually happening from the interpretations or emotions that follow.
There are other steps to complete the work of re-wiring (breaking these
patterns of thought), but this initial step is critical.
The "what happened" of any situation is just the bare bone facts – strip away emotions and interpretation.
Our interpretations are the "stories" we come up with to explain why what happened occurred.
For example, I was a very cuddly
little girl. One day, I was snuggled up next to my grandfather and this
is when he began molesting me.
What happened was he touched me.
My explanation for why that happened was, "If I am close and cuddly with someone, bad things happen."
This belief, of course, led me to
being suspicious of affection and I avoided being genuinely
affectionate with others.
So, to begin identifying your false beliefs, patterns of thought, "stories" – you first will want to pay close attention to the way you are interpreting your present day experiences and/or past experiences.
You don't have to go to the past to discover the false beliefs that are "running the show." Ever since the abuse has occurred, we have been reinforcing these patterns, so even if the first moment when you believe you weren't valuable, for example, occurred during the abuse, you will have present day experiences where that false belief shows up.
Let's say a boyfriend cancels dinner, what's your first thought or interpretation? Let's say a friend tells you she doesn't think that dress is flattering, what's your first thought?
These initial responses to situations often reveal the false beliefs that we are "wired" for
Whether thinking of the abuse or just a day to day experience, ask yourself, "When that happened, I decided …" or "When that happened, I made it mean that I was …"
Let's practice this a bit. Think of an experience – either from the past abuse or just from day to day life. First identify what happened and then your interpretation. Try to stay away from broad statements like, "When I was abused, I made it mean that I'm worthless." Instead, try to think of a specific moment during the abuse or in the present day.
So, for example, "When my grandfather asked if he could play with me, I interpreted it mean that I was an object to be used."
Or, "When my boss criticized my work, I made it mean that I'm no good at anything."
Let's see what y'all come up with.
Member 1: When I was abused it made me feel like I had no voice and no rights
Member 2: When the kids at school shunned me, I made it mean I was unlikeable
Member 3: When my stepdad asked me to give him a cuddle i interpreted that to mean that i had to be submissive
Member 4: when my mom blamed me i felt like everything that was or went wrong was my fault.
Member 5: When my mom tells my daughter she can do something after I have told my daughter no, I made it mean that I'm too strict with her(and it has thus led to me spoiling her, unfortunately....)
Member 6: when a guy is nice to me, it means he has an ulterior motive
CoachRachelG: Very good work everyone. Thank you for sharing.
Simply beginning the practice of being able to separate what is happening from our interpretations is a critical first step towards challenging our patterns of thought.
To actually begin the work of re-wiring, we must go a step further – we must challenge these initial interpretations by looking for other possible explanations. For example, my grandfather asked to play with me because he wanted to gain permission in order to alleviate his guilt, or he was a sick man, or he was actually asking to play dominos. You see, there are a ton of different interpretations – all of which are possible.
We aren't trying to find the actual truth – which is why the alternatives can be absurd (e.g. wanted to play dominos). What is important to notice at this step is that the initial interpretation is not the end all, be all interpretation, which creates room for the false belief to be challenged.
By challenging the initial false belief, we are actually weakening the neuronal connection rather than reinforcing it! This opens the door to new behavioral and emotional responses.
Every time we interrupt the firing of the neuronal pathway, we are weakening that particular "road." Eventually, when we try to go down that path, our brain will instead shout, "Detour ahead" and we will be able to go in a new direction with our thoughts and behaviors.
Let's practice this step of looking for alternative explanations, interpretations. Think of the example you just shared or another one and see if you can come up with a few alternative explanations. If you get stuck, let me know, and I will help you explore alternatives.
Member 7: My abusers believed abusing was for the greater good
Member 8: When my step dad asked for a cuddle maybe he wanted to hide his own ulterior motive
Member 9: When my mom told me i was adopted and thrown away it made me feel worth less......alternative explanation was that my birth mother just couldn't cope with being a mother
Member 10: The popular girl decided to pick on me, so everyone else followed
Member 11: When my mom blamed me, she didn't know how to handle what happened or maybe she felt bad for sending me to live with them
Member 1: With my mom telling my daughter yes, it could mean she hadn't heard me tell her no; or maybe she wanted to spoil her a bit; or maybe I can be a tad strict and just need to pick my battles, I mean, what's 6 m&ms? sure it's a bit of sugar but it's not really that big of a deal
CoachRachelG: Nice Snickerdoodle .. and everyone else.
Member 2: When W said he wanted to talk to me he really wanted to hurt me (he was a kid himself)
CoachRachelG: What we want to notice at this step is that something very critical happens. The shift focuses away from us and onto the other person's behavior and/or choices.
This isn't so that we excuse their choices (particularly if they are hurtful), but it so that we don't internalize a negative belief or reinforce old patterns of thought.
Looking for alternative interpretations helps us gain perspective, weaken the neuronal pathways, and shift the focus to others.
Chat mod:. At what point in my healing will I be able to like myself, even love myself? What tools do you know that can help me in this? I'm confused between what I understand as an adult (it wasn't my fault - I was a child) and the child inside of me who believes I am the bad person. My impression is these feelings of unworthiness existed before my rape and those that followed merely compounded the feelings. Do you have any advice on how I can reconcile the two?
CoachRachelG: This particular false belief – it's my fault (and the resulting emotions: shame, unworthiness, etc.) is one of the most common among those who have been abused.
We blame ourselves in order to achieve a couple of things. First, if we blame the abuser, then we have to acknowledge that someone we love, someone who is close to us, is capable of doing things that are very bad, cruel, and mean. The image we hold of our parent, caregiver, relative, or neighbor is threatened. It is much easier to stomach being at fault than having to face the reality that those who we trusted could cause us such great harm.
Especially if the abuse occurred
while we were young, it is extremely hard for the mind of a child to
reconcile that the same person who tucks us in at night is also abusing
us. In an effort to protect our relationship with the abuser and the
world, we blame ourselves.
Secondly, if we blame ourselves, then we can hold onto the idea that there must have been something we did to cause the abuse. Therefore, there must be a way that we can protect ourselves in the future. We believe, "If it's my fault, then I can stop the actions that caused the abuse, and I won't get hurt again."
Part of the challenge of giving up the story of, "It's my fault," is it requires we acknowledge that even the people who we are closest to can harm us and that we cannot always control what happens to us.
Now, I personally don't subscribe to the "inner child" psychology. This part of you that pushes back against believing that it's not your fault and that you are worthy is an entrenched neuronal pathway. The brain likes to stay the way it is, which is why it can make us feel off-balance or uneasy when we do try to challenge our wiring.
But "each day is literally the
opportunity to create a new episode of learning, in which recent
experience will become integrated with the past and woven into the
anticipated future" (Siegel). Neurons can be re-wired!
I want to encourage you to start challenging your false belief that you are not worthy by using the steps we've talked about so far.
Chat mod: At what point in my healing will I be able to like myself, even love myself? What tools do you know that can help me in this?
CoachRachelG: By stripping away the layers of
false beliefs that have been laid on top of who you are, your authentic
and amazing, lovable self will be revealed. The skills I've been sharing
today will get you started.
I also encourage you to visit my blog - http://rachelgrantco...ng.blogspot.com or website – www.rachelgrantcoaching.com. I offer lots of free resources there, because this question is a biggie!
Mostly, I want you to know that whatever you've been told, whatever you've come to falsely believe – you are lovable. And I encourage you to start on the most basic level just saying to yourself out loud everyday, "I am lovable." Doing this is another way of challenging neuronal wiring that keeps us stuck in these patterns of belief that prevent us from loving and embracing ourselves.
Everytime you say outloud a new belief that you are trying to wire, the brain is adapted and the old neuronal pathway that holds the old false belief is weakened
CoachRachelG -> Rachel Grant Chat: **
Chat mod:. If things go wrong or people look at me in a particular way I assume it's my fault even though it's clearly warped thinking. What can I do to help myself?
Stop feeding the neuronal pathway! Our brain is like a hungry beast begging to be fed. We usually quickly oblige and find ourselves mired in negative self-talk and self-thought.
I want to encourage you to think about challenging false beliefs by interrupting the initial interpretation and looking for alternatives as exercise for the brain. Just as we do push-ups to build up our biceps, this practice builds up the strength of your brain to resist old wiring.
The next time someone looks at you a particular way and you notice yourself assuming it's your fault – stop – hit the pause button – and start a list of all of the alternative interpretations. Maybe they have something in their eye, maybe they have gas, maybe they're thinking the same thing about how you're looking at them!
The more we practice noticing our own stories and how easily we fall into interpretation, we'll also begin to notice when other people are doing this. Which is great, because we can then notice that their responses and behaviors often have a lot more to do with their own neuronal wiring than us!
CoachRachelG -> Rachel Grant Chat: **
Chat mod: I was wondering how do I get my mind to understand that just because a guy is being nice to me, it's not because he wants to "take advantage of me" ?
CoachRachelG: Just as we are programmed to interpret any given situation, experience, we can also "pre-interpret." This happens when our wiring is so set, that, regardless of what happens, we simply fall back on a tried and true interpretation and call it a day.
So, if you have the belief that
men will take advantage of you, when you sit down on that first date,
that is what you're going to be looking for. And, guess what? You'll
So, not only do we need to challenge the false belief, we also need to set out to prove something new and different.
The fact of the matter is, some guys will be out to take advantage of you. Some guys won't be. But in order to be able to be open to the one's who won't be, using the steps we've been talking about today to challenge this false belief is the first step.
Spend some time considering the times when you've believed that a guy took advantage of you. Did he really or was there something else possibly going on? If he did, try not to globalize the belief to include all men. And, when you have the opportunity to interact with a new guy, prepare yourself ahead of time buy actively saying, "some men can be trusted and relied upon" - or whatever statement helps you get outside of the false belief that all men want to do is take advantage of you.
I also encourage you to read this post - http://rachelgrantco...t-to-prove.html - to learn more about changing your focus in order to change your perception.
Chat mod: I really struggle with my reactions to people who share similarities with my abuser (e.g. the same gender, religion, race, profession, age, etc). I know I am being unfair to the vast majority of people in that group who wouldn't dream of hurting me, but I can't seem to stop this automatic reaction of assuming they are all the same. Do you have any suggestions on how I can work on not generalising like this?
CoachRachelG: One of the biggest and most critical steps in recovery is being able to make what happened during the abuse stay in it's own compartment so that the false beliefs and memories don't infect your present day experience.
So, for example, my grandfather was religious. For quite some time, I believed that all people of faith were dangerous. I globalized the belief.
In order to free myself from this, I first had to realize that these "characteristics" weren't what made my grandfather abuse me. It was not his gender, religion, race, or profession that made him an abuser. It was his decision to abuse me.
Next, I adapted my belief with an alternative interpretation.
Whenever I came into contact with
a religious person, when I first started, my gut response was to be
suspcious and stand-offish. But! I said to myself, "This is not my
abuser. This is John."
And then I paid attention to the person's words and behaviors and based my decision about whether to trust them or not on these things.
How are people feeling about these steps?
Would it help to demonstrate the technique using a volunteer?
Member 1: i think im stuck on even realizing i have false beliefs
Member 2: all make sense, but so hard to remember to put them into practice!
CoachRachelG: Fair enough, member 1
And true, member 2. It takes time and pratice. Just like learning any other skill.
Member 1: i get stuck on the interpretaions,i think
Member 2: I feel like there's an assumption that we can control how we react to triggers... makes me conflicted
CoachRachelG: Being able to tune into your false beliefs - to remove the veil so to speak - is the initial hurdle to leap.
We can control how we react to triggers. Some will be more jarring than others. We'll be successful sometimes and other times not.
At times, we will be able to easily hit that pause button and not get stuck in a spiral of interpretations. Other times, we'll only be able to come back after the fact and do the work.
But that step is critical! Circle back around. Do the work afterwards and you are weakening that neuronal pathway (trigger), so that the next time someone or something tries to flip that switch, you will have a greater chance of choosing a different response.
What I want to emphasize is that there is no eliminating our stories or intepretations. What we can achieve though is a reduction in how often they show up and decrease the duration for how long they stick around - or as I say, how long we stay stuck in the story.
Member 1: Ok I understand that what my abuser did was wrong but I am certain that if I hadnt been the kind of child I was it would have never happened that he just took an opportunity where it was available
CoachRachelG -> Rachel Grant Chat: amanda, this is one of the three major false beliefs that people who have been abused often have.
CoachRachelG: Perhaps our next chat can be about the false beliefs: it's my fault, there must be something about me that caused the abuse, and I wanted it to happen
In the meantime, just know that there is absolutely nothing about your character, personality, looks, behavior that caused the abuse.
Member 1: Thanks Rachel that is something that logically its easy to believe but emotionally it's more difficult
CoachRachelG: very true.
Member 2: I often think my learning disability played a part in me getting hurt in childhood
CoachRachelG: member 2 this is a tricky one. There are all sorts of factors that may be at play, but there is only one thing that is the cause of abuse - the abusers choice.
There are many layers to explore when it comes to understanding abuse. We want so very desperately to answer the big question, "Why me?"
Unfortunately, almost all of our answers only serve to reinforce fears and false beliefs.
Member 2: I agree Rachel that's something I struggled with and am still struggling with I guess...why he picked me
Chat mod 1: Rachel I'm aware that it's getting late. Do you have time to answer two quick questions from our members ?
CoachRachelG: Yes, I can only speak to what has worked for me and my clients - and that is I had to let go of finding an answer to that question that went any further than, "my grandfather chose me, because that's what he chose."
Member 10: How do you know you even have a false belief unless someone else tells you that its not healthy thinking?
CoachRachelG: One of the key ways to identify a false belief is to notice your emotional response when the thought occurs - do you feel anxious, depressed, run down, burdened?
Does it cause you to feel agitated, lash out, behave in a way you'd rather not?
Not all of our interpretations are
bad or wrong. The key is that step of being curious, hitting the pause
button, investigating - rather than just letting the mind run wild on
its own course.
Most importantly, false beliefs
are very ego-centric and hardly ever take into account the other people
involved in a situation.
Member 6: what if that false belief is because you have been told something over and over again that you start to believe it's true
CoachRachelG: Ah, yes. This is the variation on "something happened, and I made it mean." - This is, "somebody said, and I made it mean."
We can apply the same skills when responding to what people say. How many times have we been going along, somebody says something, and then we are off and running in our own mind?
Member 11: Do you have suggestions on how to deal with flashbacks and the negative thought patterns or triggers that come with it? the behavioural patterns that i take to avoid these situations/triggers and limit my life?
CoachRachelG: This depends on the types of flashbacks you are having. Are we talking memories that come on suddenly and cause upset? Or are we talking flashbacks that feel realistic - like you are back in time?
Member 4: that feels realistic. But i also started having memories that upset me... so i'm not sure.
CoachRachelG: For either, once the flashback has passed, grab a notebook and start jotting down the memory (what happened) and the feeling, negative thought that is associated with it
Then think about the alternative
interpretations. The next time the flashback occurs, say outloud your
alternative interpretation. This interrupts the neuronal pathway that is
If you are aware of specific
triggers, then the work to be done is to disassociate the trigger from
As a very elementary example, say
the wall in your room was purple. Now, whenever you see purple, you
have a flashback to the abuse. Purple = abuse.
Our work is to change that equation to purple does not equal abuse.
Chat mod 1: So how do you do that ?
CoachRachelG: So, we start by saying, "when i was abused, the room was purple, so I made it mean that purple things are dangerous."
We look for alternative meaning, "The room being purple did not cause the abuse," "Sometimes purple is dangerous, but most of the time I like it." - and, behavioral, we slowly approach purple
Approach the trigger from time to
time after having done the work to challenge the false belief associated
with that trigger.
I just would like to check in with Member 4, do you feel like you have a place to start?
If not, you (or any one for that matter), is welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or schedule a free session (link is on the homepage of my website).
Member 4: Not really... i haven't identified the triggers yet, i guess that's what i have to do first.
CoachRachelG: Yes, that's right.
Okay, Chat mod 1, time to wrap up?
Chat mod 1: Rachel thank you for talking with us tonight it was very informative and interesting.
CoachRachelG: I've really enjoyed you all tonight. Thank you for sharing yourselves and participating.
Chat mod 1: Thank you all very much for attending tonight's chat we hope that you benefited from it. There will be a transcript of this chat posted in the next few days. The other chat rooms will be open again in a few minutes. Once again thank you for coming
CoachRachelG: Good night all.
If you would like to suggest a topic or speaker for future guest speaker chats, please contact us!