Over the weekend I attended a wonderfully stimulating and informative workshop by the American expert in the field of interpersonal neurobiologyy, Dr Daniel Siegel. I had read a number of his books which I have found extremely relevant to my clinical work as a psychologist in the field of health and positive psychology. I was, however, quite bowled over by his one day presentation of his concept of "Mindsight".
Mindsight refers to our ability to become aware of our awareness and our ability to be present with ourselves and with one another in our relationships. Dr Siegel has developed a mindfulness technique called "The Wheel of Awareness" to help anyone who wishes to deepen and stengthen their ability to relate and connect with themselves and with others. This is a hugely worthwhile practice as it underpins both social and emotional intelligence and hence our success in relating to our nearest and dearest but also with people in a variety of social situations, including the workplace.
Dr Siegel defines the human mnd as "the emergent self-organising embodied and relational process that regulates the energy flow within and between us". This may seem to be pretty complex, and it is of course, however, what is interesting from a relationship point of view is that our brains are wired for relationships with other people, for being able to empathise and resonate with the emotions of others. We are therefore "built" for being in relationship with others and from an early age our attachment with significant others in our lives builds up neural circuits for interpersonal relationships.
How I see the implications of Dr Siegel's cocept of Mindsight for relationships and for couple counselling:
* We each have the potential to relate meaningfully with others as our minds are designed for relationships. However, if we as individuals are not self-aware and in a state of inner harmony, we will probably find it difficult to access the parts of our mind which allow us to empathise with our partner. This begs the question: Can we maintain good relationships if we as individuals are in a bad space and/or we are functioning largely on auto-pilot?
* Sometimes our early experiences as a child with our primary attachment figures are less than optimal and may negatively affect our ability to develop deep and meaningful relationships. If you think that this may be the case and you are finding that your relationships are suffering as a result, the optimistic message is that it is possible to make positive changes to your brain through mindfulness training, meditation and psychotherapy and by doing so, you could in all likelihood improve your ability to relate meaningfully in all areas of your life.
Reference: Mindsight; Transform your brain with the new science of kindness. Daniel Siegel.
It appears that we can blame it on evolution!Why is it so difficult to stop our minds drifting to unpleasant and anxiety-provoking topics? Often this happens in the middle of the night, especially to insomniacs who often find that their thoughts prevent them from getting back to sleep. Well, evolutionary psychologists put it down to the way in which our brains are wired, says Ronald Siegel in his article entitled “West meets East” in the September/October edition of Psychotherapy Networker (in which he discussed the link between psychotherapy and Eastern spiritual practices, such as mindfulness). The arguement goes that the human beings of today have survived through natural selection only because, through thousands of years, they are the ones who were constantly on the lookout for danger and needed to be extremely adept at anticipating possible risks and life-threatening situations. So anxiety and fear kept you alive whilst happiness and complacency got you killed. So, although the world has changed a great deal since the days of our cavemen ancestors, our physiology and the wiring of our brains have remained more or less the same, causing us to react to (usually) benign life events, such as traffic snarl-ups and work pressure, asif they were of the magnitude of a tiger hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce. So if we are wired for anxiety and stress, what can be done about it? First it is necessary to develop an awareness of the problem. Then with the help of cognitive-behavioural techniques (CBT), relaxation training and mindfulness techniques it is possible to gain control of one’s thoughts and to calm down the mind. It is important to take on board that one’s thoughts are merely a product of one’s mind and are not necessarily accurate. It is quite possible to substitute more balanced thoughts for thoughts that lead to anxiety, stress and depression. This will help to calm the mind, paving the way for a more measured, focused and appreciative approach to life, including one’s relationships. And this can only lead to an inhanced feeling of happiness and contentment!
If you are a student are you starting to feel stressed about the upcoming exams? Stress management is actually pretty straightforward!
Mindfulness, psychology, psychotherapy and neuroscience is proving that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks!
It goes without saying that, in the 21st Century, the majority of psychologists and psychotherapists believe that individuals are all capable of making positive changes to their lives, no matter how old they (or we) may be, that change is possible right up to the moment that we take our last breath.
(This was not always the case. Freud, for example, believed that human development was complete after adolescence).
The great news is that increasingly detailed knowledge of the structure and workings of the brain from the exciting and rapidly developing field of neuroscience seem to back up this view. Neuroscientists speak
about “neuroplasticity” of the brain, meaning that our brains are
“a work in progress”, no matter what how old we are and that we are capable of by doing and thinking in different ways, people are able to change old, counterproductive patterns of behaviour and ways of relating to partners, children and the world in general.
How can this be achieved?
First, old, dysfunctional patterns need to be interrupted and changed. This invariably happens in all forms of successful psychotherapy.
Second, the person needs to be trained to focus their attention in a conscious, purposeful way
Third, a psychotherapist will help the client identify and then start to practise, new , more positive and healthy habits and patterns of behaviour, forming new neural networks in the brain. (see Pat Ogden, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Susan Aposhyan:Body-Mind Psychotherapy).
I see it as most encouraging that the new findings coming fromthe field of neuroscience provide scientific support to our work as psychologists and psychotherapists, and that psychologists utilising many different approaches, from Positive Psychology to Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), all have the above, central elements in common!
Reference: Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2011
What do I mean by strategic assertiveness?
I will explain it with an example.
An eighteen year old client arrived at my practice in an extremely distressed state. She told me that she had spoken up in class against unfair treatment on the part of the teacher.She said that she had worked till late the night before completing a homework assignment only to find that some of her class-mates had failed to complete their assignment but had not been punished in any way.
When she spoke up, her classmates who had not completed their work turned on her and said some hurtful things, whilst those who had done their work failed to support her. My client lamented that this was one of the few times she had managed to be assertive and it had turned into a disaster. She vowed to never speak up again!
I commiserated with her experience but suggested that it she might have predicted this outcome as it was to be expected that her outburst would not have been popular with the girls who were at fault. (Of course she was angry and frustrated at the time and was therefore not not thinking rationally). If she had managed to be more in control she would have probably realised that her outburst would have negative consequences in terms of her popularity with her peers!
The take home message from this example is:
Being assertive, and yet not antagonising or alienating others in the process, is a complex skill and is not easy to achieve. It requires a clear, rational mind, good anger-management and high frustration tolerance – all these are aspects of emotional intellengence (EQ).
In my psychology practice I often have clients who tell me that they are in relationships with “difficult” people and they tell me that they want to develop the skills to cope with their highly problematic other half! (This request usually only happens once they accept that it is unlikely that their partner will change to any significant degree!).
One client I have paints a picture of her partner as irrational, jealous and passive aggressive. When he succeeds in pushing her buttons (which he manages to do pretty often), she in turns becomes frustrated and angry, leading to a major blow-up which throws the family into turmoil for days.
She asks me what can she do to contain these types of situations.
My approach is to suggest that she look at her expectations of her partner. Her high frustration levels are a sign that she is comparing his behaviour with some idealised image of how she considers he should be and she is angry and disappointed when he falls short. I often say to clients that we should base our expectations on how the person has behaved in the past en though we may hope that they might surprise us in a positive way!
I also believe that it is important for each of us to gain control of our emotions, in particular our anger. Mindfulness is an extremely effective means of gaining the necessary self-awareness and focus to track one’s thoughts and emotions in the present (as they are occuring), in order to stay calm and in an adult mode. If one partner succeeds in doing this, the “relationship dance” is altered and negative patterns such as repetitive arguements can be eliminated.
I tell my individual clients and the couples who come to see me that, even when you strongly disagree with our partner, it is important to try to maintain empathy for their point of view (this is often a very difficult thing to do, especially when emotions are running high). You can then acknowledge how they feel and then give your point of view, using the word “and” rather than “but” to contrast your own point of view. In this way your partner will feel heard and acknowledged.
So when you are about to have a disagreement with someone, always ask yourself what is your goal is in every case and also how realistic your goal is. (Often people merely want to let off steam and although this may relieve frustration in the short term it may seriously damage your relationship!).
Research has consistently indicated that people, on average, feel happier and more emotionally stable as they move into middle and old age. This seems surprising as this period of one’s life is when we become acutely aware that our bodies and minds are not as efficient as they were in our youth, and when we experience health-related problems and physical and psychological losses and crises.
However, it appears that in the midst of all our ageing-related challenges and problems we are nontheless more happy and emotionally stable according to an article in the journal Psychology and Aging (October 2010), as cited in New Therapist Magazine (January/February 2011)
Why is this?
As we get older we become more aware of our mortality and that time is running out. We therefore live in a more mindful and balanced way, enjoying the joys and pleasures of the everyday life, taking nothing for granted.
We become more and more aware that our time on this earth is limited and this leads to our becoming a lot more selective in what we choose to do with our time.
In my view, the take-home message from this research is : we could all live happier lives, irrespective of our age, if we make a point of living every day in a mindful, balanced way!
And that Positive Psychology and Mindfulness training should be considered integral to psychotherapy!