Challenges in Implementing Change
I’ve worked with some really challenging psyches, especially my own. I’ve seen mind boggling transformations. I’ve also seen people languish for years in the doldrums or agony while wondering why transformation seems out of reach for this person and not for another.
The interventions we offer are hugely important in creating the change, but if the seed of change is planted on unprepared soil, very little or nothing is likely to grow. The person receiving the intervention must know already or learn how to accept change once it has been made.
This is a necessary condition that is often overlooked by professionals when prescribing special diets, meditation plans, and even surgeries and medicine. If a client does not know how to change and be different, I believe the likelihood of an intervention working is impacted.
Upper Limits Problem
This is something akin to the upper limits problem. The "upper limits problem" refers to a psychological phenomenon where individuals set self-imposed ceilings on their achievements or capabilities, often without realizing it. People may unknowingly sabotage their own potential by subconsciously adhering to these limits, which can hinder their progress and prevent them from reaching their full potential.
Overcoming the upper limits problem requires self-awareness, introspection, and a willingness to challenge ingrained beliefs and behaviors in order to break through these artificial barriers and unleash one's true capabilities. The willingness necessary to change may be hard won, however, depending on how dysregulated a person’s nervous system is.
The Resourcing Phase
This is why the “resourcing” phase is so crucial. The resourcing phase in trauma therapy means training the nervous system to be regulated enough for trauma processing. That does not mean “applying” regulation techniques like breathing, positive thinking, stretching and so on. Rather that means validating pain in the client in a specific way that enables the resources to emerge on their own.
Due to the non-linear nature of this process and the varieties of nervous system presentations, this phase can take a long time or be the only phase that a client ever works on. I really want to believe that nervous system healing is possible for everyone, barring extreme damage to the system. I hope that as we continue to learn more about the nervous system that we get increasingly better and efficient at helping people make lasting changes despite innate challenges.
Cognitive Dissonance and Belief Systems
This week in my practice I became more aware of how cognitive dissonance presents in clients who seem to experience better psychological states and then fall back into old patterns and systems of belief over and over again. It is so important to note that “just changing your belief system” is not a thing. Occasionally we see a radical change in belief system but instances such as these are outliers and not the norm. Beliefs are embodied and the embodied experience of a belief must change along with the “words in the head” (thoughts).
Typically I see progress being made in clients like an inchworm, to put it in an overly simplistic way. Half of them get to a new state then the other half catches up and on and on.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory developed by Leon Festinger in 1957. It refers to the discomfort or mental tension that a person experiences when they hold two or more conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values simultaneously, or when their behavior conflicts with their beliefs or values.
The key idea behind cognitive dissonance is that individuals strive for internal consistency in their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes. When inconsistencies arise, they are motivated to reduce the discomfort by changing one of the conflicting elements. This can happen through various means, such as changing one's beliefs, acquiring new information to support existing beliefs, or minimizing the importance of the conflict.
For example, if someone is aware that smoking is harmful to health but continues to smoke, they may experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce this discomfort, they might downplay the risks of smoking, convince themselves that they have other healthy habits, or find other ways to justify their behavior.
Cognitive dissonance theory has been widely used to explain various psychological phenomena, including attitude change, decision-making, and rationalization of behavior.
Addressing Cognitive Dissonance
Addressing cognitive dissonance involves acknowledging and resolving the conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors causing discomfort. Here are some strategies to directly address cognitive dissonance:
Awareness: to become aware of the cognitive dissonance is half the battle. Furthermore, acknowledging and admitting that one is in a cognitive dissonance dynamic invites intentionality rather than reactivity when it comes to addressing the dissonance.
Somatic Exploration of Beliefs: this goes along with awareness. Beliefs are not just in the thoughts. Beliefs express through the body. If I believe that I am bad, I may have a collapsed posture. If I believe that I am worthy of love, my body may take a relaxed attitude.
Seek Information: I may need to learn more about each conflicting side of the dissonance. In this context, I may need to learn more about the origin of the limiting belief in my life. In turn, I may also need to learn more about the more helpful mindset before my intellect feels comfortable with going through the change process.
Explore the Golden Shadow: unhelpful beliefs are often in “parts” or subpersonalities that we have disowned. The best course of action in dealing with parts is to acknowledge that the now unhelpful belief was actually beneficial at one time and brought many gifts with it. You can then invite the part to transform and take on a new “job,” thereby more fully expressing its innate gifts.
Case Example: Sonia's Struggle with Self-Worth and Self-Care
Sonia, a 40-year-old executive, sought therapy to address persistent feelings of low self-worth. Despite her professional success, she struggled with a deep-seated belief that she was not worthy of care and attention, leading to challenges in implementing a self-care routine. Making time for herself brought up an unbearable feeling of friction and a panic like feeling in her body.
Sonia's childhood was marked by high expectations from her parents, conditioning her to believe that her value was contingent on achievement. This belief persisted into her adult life, impacting her relationships and, most notably, her ability to prioritize self-care.
In therapy, Sonia expressed feeling overwhelmed by work demands and the constant need to prove herself. Despite recognizing the importance of self-care, she found it challenging to implement and sustain a routine due to an underlying belief that taking time for herself was undeserved. Pressure was mounting for her to resolve this conflict because she was beginning to develop significant digestive issues that were interfering with her ability to function.
Sonia, with the support of her therapist, became aware of the cognitive dissonance between her acknowledgment of the importance of self-care and her ingrained, felt-sense belief that she didn't deserve it. This dissonance triggered anxiety and guilt whenever she attempted self-care activities.
Somatic Exploration of Beliefs:
Through therapeutic conversations, Sonia explored the origins of her belief system and how that was showing-up in her body. She discovered that her worth had become tied to external validation, and any focus on self-care stirred feelings of guilt and impending inadequacy. When engaging in self-care shoe could not relax her body and take in the nourishing effects of self-care.
Sonia engaged in educational sessions with her therapist to understand the psychological and physiological benefits of self-care. Sonia values scientific data, so her therapist provided articles that satisfied Sonia’s intellect. This information highlighted how her negative beliefs about self-worth came from her attempts to survive her past relationship with her parents and did not make sense as a useful mode of function in her life now.
Cognitive Dissonance Challenge and The Golden Shadow:
Sonia faced the challenge of actively challenging her belief system. As she started incorporating small self-care practices, such as walks in nature and setting time boundaries at work, she experienced internal resistance in the form of feelings of guilt and anxiety. Sonia practiced staying with the physical sensations of her resistance as she took steps to care for herself anyway. Sonia was able to validate how useful the adaptation of self-denial was early on in her life and discovered that this “part” that self denies holds her intuitive awareness of her want and needs and how to flow through her life addressing those wants and needs while also staying on top of responsibilities and goals.
Resolution and Integration:
Over time, Sonia worked on reframing and reembodying her beliefs about self-worth. She discovered that her down time and boundaries not only did not detract from her value, rather, they enhanced her ability to be efficient and creative at work. Furthermore, the backlash she expected from colleagues never came and Sonia realized that people around her approved of her prioritizing herself. The therapist guided her in developing a self-compassionate narrative and understanding that self-care was not only deserved but crucial for her overall well-being and, secondarily, her performance as a worker.
As Sonia persistently confronted her cognitive dissonance, she began to see positive changes. The implementation of a self-care routine, initially met with inner conflict, became more natural. Sonia reported feeling more in flow, resilient to work stress, and, most importantly, a growing sense of embodied self-worth detached from external achievements.
This case highlights the intricate relationship between self-worth and the ability to prioritize self-care. Through somatic exploration, embodied parts work, gentle exposure therapy, Sonia experienced organic cognitive restructuring and successfully navigated the cognitive dissonance, fostering positive changes in her beliefs and daily practices.
You can see why it is hard for individuals to make big changes at times. An important stage of change I am noticing in my own processing is the need to intentionally create integration time after a big session. It goes like this: I work on a big wound, the session ends on a note of care, love, and self-compassion, and then I am facing the unknown. My personality now has the opportunity to update, but I must make space for the unknown.
There is a tendency for humans to fill in the unknown with old stories, interpretations, and explanations. For my personality to really update, I have to know what the unknown feels like and intentionally stay there for awhile with curiosity about what will come through next. I allow my personality to update spontaneously rather than imposing an ideal created by my thoughts. In this way, I consciously confront the upper limits problem and cognitive dissonance to that the new can emerge.