March 26, 2016

How To Develop a Mindset For Change

How To Develop a Mindset For Change

"Locating" Your Feelings

To state an obvious but possibly unrecognized truth: all human emotion involves “physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience.” [1]

In other words, when we feel something, we may be aware that we feel it, we might do something (smile with happiness, for example, or frown with displeasure) and we will experience bodily sensations that typically go along with that feeling. Whether we actually notice those sensations is a separate issue; if we do not, then we will remain unaware of our feelings: we may frown without realizing it.

In my practice, working with clients who have little contact with their emotions, I often help them to become aware of what they feel by teaching them how to “read” the places in their body where they may register emotion, to recognize the sensations that typically signal a particular feeling.

Mindfulness helps facilitate this process.

By redirecting attention away from our heads and into our bodies, we’re in a better position to recognize the ways that we feel.

When I feel sad, for example, I usually notice the following sensations.

  • Eyes: even if they don’t well up with tears, they’ll feel more sensitive.
  • Mouth/Throat: an achy sensation at the back of my throat; my mouth waters
  • Chest: tightness or even pain, maybe a shortness of breath that becomes quivery
  • Belly: an unsettled or even queasy feeling.

You may not experience it the same exact way, but your sad-sensations will likely show up in the same places. Anger shows up in my jaws and temples; my back and shoulders will tense up; I may experience heat throughout my face and upper body. You will likely “find” your anger in the same places.

We begin by cultivating mental quiet, directing our attention away from the distractions of daily life, out of our heads and into our bodies, where we might then notice what we actually feel. Don’t decide in advance what you will or will not find once you start tuning in. Be prepared for anything.

Don't Believe Everything You Feel

On the other hand, just because you feel a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the emotion is a reliable guide to objective truth. Whether you’re idealizing a new flame and the infatuation feels compelling or you’re full of contempt for the idiocy of an acquaintance or you’re outraged by the insensitivity of a family member, you don’t necessarily have to put your faith in that feeling.

This may seem like odd advice from a psychotherapist who just finished offering guidelines for how to locate your emotions; but while one of the goals of therapy and self-exploration must be to get in touch with our feelings, we sometimes need to maintain a degree of skepticism about them. In the heat of the moment, the intensity of our emotions makes them seem so undeniably true that we rely upon them to determine our actions, often to our detriment.

The mindset for change means both getting in touch with difficult and painful feelings and also remembering that sometimes those feelings might be defensive in nature. I’ll have more to say about this subject in the next chapter.

Open-Eyed Honesty

Throughout our lives, we receive many messages about the kind of feelings we ought to have toward other people. From the first books that our parents read to us, through grade school and continuing into our adult lives, we’re taught to be generous, to feel loving, grateful, tolerant of difference, forgiving and non-judgmental, etc. – all the feelings and attitudes that make it possible for a liberal society to thrive. In short, we receive continual instruction in the correct way to feel.

It might possibly make society an easier (though less interesting) place if we always felt loving and tolerant toward other people, but in truth, human beings aren’t that consistently nice. As I have insisted throughout this book, less socially acceptable emotions such as anger, hatred, jealousy and envy are an indelible part of our emotional makeup.

The mindset for change means accepting that you can’t avoid those feelings; the best you can do is learn better ways to cope with them as they arise.

Don’t expect yourself to transcend or get rid of those painful feelings once you notice them, either. You are not in the process of becoming a more enlightened, nicer person who no longer struggles with these issues; you’re trying to develop healthier ways to cope with difficult feelings when they inevitably come up. If you believe that you don’t ever feel angry, envious or jealous, then you are lying to yourself in one way or another.

In other words, try to focus on and accept “what is” rather than striving toward what you feel “should be.”

Courage and Compassion

If defense mechanisms are lies we tell ourselves to avoid pain, it’s because we’re afraid of feeling that pain. Of course we are! Especially when we don’t know how intense it will be and how long it will last, to face rather than evade pain can be terrifying. If we’re to understand and develop more effective ways to cope with it, however, we will eventually need to face our pain. Doing so takes courage.

The mindset for change means mustering your courage but also respecting your limits and not pushing yourself beyond what you can bear.

Just as good parents do for their children, you’ll need to balance compassion with expectation: on the one hand, don’t let yourself back away from an emotional challenge too easily; on the other, don’t drive yourself too hard. Be brave when pain begins to emerge but don’t force yourself to take on more than you can endure. Like all other skills, developing this kind of endurance takes time. You don’t have to face your pain all at once.

Preparing to Choose

To sum up, putting ourselves in a state of mind where change becomes possible involves accepting a number of difficult truths and developing certain mental habits. First of all, we have to accept that our defense mechanisms don’t go away simply because we recognize them; struggling with them will be an ongoing challenge. In order to meet that challenge, we need to minimize distractions as much as possible while honing the ability to pay closer attention to ourselves and our bodies.

For change to be possible, we need to be vigilant and brave, balancing firm expectation with compassion for our limits.

We need to accept the inevitability of ugly or painful emotions and remain skeptical about the validity of some other feelings that might be defensive in nature. Like good scientists in search of the truth, we must be prepared to accept whatever we may find.

And once we uncover new truths – that is, when we identify a defense mechanism at work and feel the pain behind it – we then must decide what to do about it. Insight and self-awareness don’t take away our difficult emotions. Instead, they replace reflexive, unconscious attempts to escape from pain with the possibility of choosing a different, more effective response.


[1] David G. Meyers. Theories of emotion. In Psychology, 7th Ed. ( New York: Worth Publishers, 2004) , p. 500

This article is an excerpt from Dr. Joseph Burgo’s book: Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives and has been published with the author’s permission.

About the author

Dr. Joseph Burgo Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., has practiced psychotherapy for more than 30 years, holding licenses as a marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist. He earned his undergraduate degree at UCLA and his masters and doctorate at California Graduate Institute in Los Angeles. He is also a graduate psychoanalyst and has served as a board member, officer and instructor at a component society of the International Psychoanalytic Association. He is the author, most recently, of Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives (New Rise Press, October 2012). He currently writes the popular blog “After Psychotherapy,” where he discusses personal growth issues from a psychodynamic perspective.

To know more about Joseph, visit his website www.afterpsychotherapy.com.

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