Learning that things can change… Continued from Part 1
Last time I wrote about the compassionate mind approach and how important it is to me in my approach to my mental health. But before I embarked on my compassion focused therapy, one of the key things I needed to learn was how important experiential learning was. The act of actually feeling something different, rather than learning things through theory or understanding. I wanted to explain in this post how I learned that experientially.
Just before I had started compassion focused therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy in 2014, I had some CBT. I have had 6 different CBT therapists throughout my life since being a teen and have really struggled to make much headway with any of them. The last time was a bit different though as it taught me something really useful about myself and how I could make real changes to how I felt and behaved (in small stages).
I’m no therapist but from my experience of it, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is all about the links between our thought processes, behaviours and the feelings. The basic idea is that we can change how we feel by changing how we think or how we behave. In the past most of my CBT had been based on the thinking side of things. I have spent a lot of time challenging my negative thoughts with evidence, writing thought diaries, focusing on positive thoughts and other exercises. They are designed to help you see that your thoughts are not always rational and that you do not have to believe or act on them, or to help you see the positive as well as the negative aspects of your life.
I naturally gravitated to this approach because it felt so rational and didn’t seem to require much “touchy-feely nonsense”. I realise now this was because I was already doing them, in an incredibly critical way, to invalidate my own feelings everyday. No wonder I took to the exercises. This is not how they are meant to be used, but there’s not enough focus on validating feelings or experiences of injustice, or questioning the tone with which you apply these “corrections” to your thoughts so they never made me feel any better and nothing had ever really changed.
Although the approach felt right to my rational and critical brain, I can now see that another part of me struggled a great deal with this. It smelled the faint hope of validation, soothing, emotional connection and understanding that could not be properly fulfilled in the prescribed CBT service I was in. I became incredibly preoccupied by and anxious about what the therapist thought of me and how I was expected to behave in sessions. I also started feeling uncontrollable urges to just spill my guts about every thing that had ever happened to me. Then followed extreme shame and feeling stupid at all the stuff I had shared and an overwhelming desire to take it all back. But I couldn’t. So I’d spiral into depression and find it all too much. This was the part of me I suppressed and invalidated to cope. But this was not a sustainable strategy, as there was always a breaking point, when it could not be suppressed any longer.
But I did carry on – and in a way I am glad I did because I did learn a really valuable lesson from using CBT from the more behavioural side of things – through graded exposure therapy.
Though my ability to cope with my phobia may have been influenced by trauma, I feel that my response to spiders, could be changed and I did (and still could) benefit from more of this behaviour change to increase my quality of life.
My spider phobia was literally taking over my life. I could become overwhelmed and suicidal if I noticed spider webs in my bedroom, often more so than if I found an actual spider. I spent hours awake at night swearing I could hear them scuttling around in my room and squeaking to each other (yes, I know they don’t squeak!). I simply could not cope with the knowledge that spiders existed in the world and thought about it all the time. I had always had some level of fear of them, but it hadn’t taken over my life to this extent, for this long before. What I am amazed by is that I would spend my nights petrified, disturbed and desperate to end my life, then spend my days at work feeling relatively okay, happy even, only for it to all come back again at night. Eventually, this way of “coping” took its toll on me and it became impossible for me to function. So when people told me I was brave for facing up to my phobia, I don’t think they realised quite how little choice I had in doing so!
Although I was struggling with the therapy relationship and past traumas resurfacing, I did go through the graded exposure to spiders before my urgent referral to CMHT in 2014. I struggled with identifying how scared I felt in the session and I struggled to explain what it was that scared me. I also wish the therapist could have provided spiders himself. I feel I could have progressed quicker, or had more time to become accustomed to touching them if I had “spiders on tap” (a phrase will never repeat again!) in the sessions that I didn’t need to bring in myself.
But I did move from exposure to pictures of spiders, to being able to sometimes capture a small one in a jar and eventually to holding a dead spider in my hand in sessions. I am by no means cured and I have to remember to keep up some of this work (which I struggle to do without support) to keep it all at bay, as otherwise it returns with vengeance. And although I haven’t had the courage to touch a spider again since the sessions ended, I have got used to the delicate spiders that hang upside down, even if not the scuttly, running around variety (those are not their proper scientific names).
They still rule my life more than I can deal with sometimes and still trigger crises, but not as much as before. I will probably try to find some top-up help to improve this situation if I can but it is hard to find support for this as I also know the difficulties I had in the therapy relationship when I was doing this work. I am considering the day course at Bristol Zoo with relaxation, and gradual exposure and handling of spiders to avoid the potential ongoing therapy-relationship issues.
The point is though, something that I thought I could never change – changed.
I can now, 3 years later, still let at least a few of those delicate dangly spiders share a space with me without becoming overwhelmed. It might seem like I still have a lot of struggles with spiders but that has been a pretty big shift for me, that has stuck around for a while. And more than that, I also started to feel some hope that other things I felt and thought could be changed, that my mind was not completely fixed in these thoughts feelings and behaviours I’d always had.
What had I learned?
I had learned that when you actually experience something and it feels tolerable or relatively safe at the time, your brain learns to change and widen what you can tolerate.
This was actually a really crucial lesson for me. I usually try to think, analyse, fix etc. I learned that unless I experienced different ways of being, behaving or feeling, no amount of analysing, thinking about, writing about or challenging my negative thoughts would make much difference to my feelings or my life. I also learned that I needed to do it gently – to stretch that window of tolerance a little at a time. I couldn’t have walked into session 1 and been given a dead spider to put in my hand – that would not have helped – it would have freaked me out and made things worse.
Indeed I think this is what had happened in the therapeutic relationship itself – whilst doing this work on my phobia. All my interpersonal trauma stuff was way out of control and triggered and overwhelming. This was exactly the wrong way for me to approach my difficulties with trust, people, past traumas and hurt – I was plunged into too much exposure to “care” and “support” too quickly with too little time, validation and connection. What was working for my spider phobia was re-traumatising for my other difficulties.
And yet, I am glad I did learn this lesson. At the time, when I would never have contemplated any other therapy than the rational, relatively non-touchy-feely CBT, to gain tangible change in my phobia through this process was invaluable to me in learning that things could change. That I could change. That things could feel different.
Two lessons then:
To stretch yourself gently without overwhelming
To learn by doing, feeling and being makes real change happen