One of the best tools we have for living a healthy life is our ability to think. Our world is composed of a large number of events that happen constantly. Some are positive and some are negative, and most are neutral. We interpret these events as they happen with a series of thoughts that flow continually through our minds. This process is called our internal dialogue. We constantly think about present and past events, and sometimes about things that will happen in the future. As it happens, the narrative we develop around these events, people, and experiences is what determines the feelings we have about these same events, people and experiences. This is how people who have experienced trauma, develop ‘TRIGGERS’. Unresolved and misunderstood triggers can effect relationships for the rest of our lives, if we don’t get help rewriting the narratives and stories we have developed about these events.
Our moods or feelings create and lead to the reflexive behaviors that happened when we are “triggered”. When I say they are reflexive, I mean that they feel like they happen before we know it and it feels like we can’t control those responses. While the response might seem automatic, once a person seeks therapy, they can begin to unravel, understand and rewrite the dysfunctional narrative and thus gain the ability to choose a constructive emotional response.
This can mean the difference between resolving conflict or not.; the difference between fight, flight, or freeze.; the difference between self control and out of control.
People have different ways of interpreting the same event. Let’s say that our friend, Rhonda, has decided to move to a different part of the country. Some people will congratulate her for making a move that could bring her the happiness she has sought for a long time. Other people might condemn her for running away from the life she has here. Some will call her healthy. Some will call her greedy. Some will call her heartless. How we think about Rhonda will reflect our core beliefs about the world.
We define Rhonda’s actions in terms of how we personally interpret the world – and these interpretations reflect the basic assumptions we have about how the world works. Her move in itself signifies nothing until we think about it and place an interpretation or meaning on it. If we see it as a healthy move on her part, we can have a happy response. If we see her as being selfish, we might have an angry or depressed response to her move. Once we give meaning to an event, we experience an emotional response to it. In other words, our thoughts influence how we feel.
If the meaning we give to events is usually negative, we might constantly find ourselves feeling depressed. If the meaning is usually positive, we may find ourselves feeling good much of the time. If we give threatening meanings to events in the world, we might find ourselves living with a lot of fear. If we see the world as a stressful place, we might experience anxiety as a result. Sometimes we give meaning to our own actions that are negative (that is, we judge ourselves in a negative light). This might arise from a negative self-image and our mood will reflect this core belief in a variety of negative ways.
It’s often said that our emotional health depends on our ability to make good, reality-oriented judgments about what is going on in the world around us. But who is going to be determining the reality? Is it the newspaper, a pastor, a friend, or a professor? When we are children, it is usually a parent. The problem is that all humans have a biased filtering system and most of us distort our thoughts to some degree. We all have unique lives, with different experiences, different parents, different friends, different problems to work through – so that throughout the course of our lives we have learned our own ways of interpreting the world. Our interpretations are often colored by our unique needs. We develop our own core beliefs about how the world operates, and, when various situations present themselves, these beliefs lead us to automatic thoughts (these are well-learned ways of thinking about situations that are instantaneous and reflect our underlying beliefs about the world.
Working with a trained therapist to examine these distortions is one way to bring about desired change. The therapist (as opposed to family) is neutral and has no agenda to control your thoughts and beliefs. The therapist helps you tune in to yourself, examine your feelings and beliefs, and choose a new way to think and feel about the events in your life.
Once this is accomplished by an individual, I predict that they are more likely to have successful relationships where they can control anger (for example) and respond with patience, calm and even love, where they otherwise might have “blown up the bridge” between two people. It’s lonely to be out of control and to have people move away from you because of fear or distaste. It feels wonderful to be free of those tortured thoughts and feelings and to be able to choose peace and serenity ….. and to be able to offer loved ones safety, peace and serenity.