Our brain begins as our inner cheerleader. Snug in our cranium, it energetically embraces this job; it is going to help us achieve our goals and keep us alive while doing it! There is some inherent negativity bias meant to keep us from running into the street or eating pennies we find on the ground. But observe a young child in your life. You’ll find them taking in everything like a sponge and placing no limits on their possibilities.
Over the course of our lives, a number of influences can turn that perspective upside down. External voices from our family and culture can turn our inner cheerleader into an inner critic. Our protective negative bias can cause cognitive distortions as our overeager brain fills in the blanks when we do not have crucial information. Socioeconomic factors like poverty and isolation create a scarcity mindset and keep our “fight, flight, freeze, or faint” response in high gear.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one evidence-based intervention that has proven effective in addressing the anxiety, depression, and related conditions we can develop when our supercomputer begins a faulty program. CBT posits that our thoughts influence our feelings. When cognitive distortions and outsized warnings steer our thoughts, our feelings respond in the same direction.
And our feelings are meant to be communicative. There is a reason you can feel tightness or heaviness during uncomfortable emotions, just as happiness can induce a headier feeling. Your feelings are attempting to lead you into a series of behaviors. Feelings of worry or anxiety may motivate you to action, while happiness and joy focus you on what is important. Feelings can help you anticipate change, open you to new people and experiences, and protect you from harm. But authentic feelings are difficult to distinguish from feelings weighted by distorted thoughts.
That our feelings influence our behavior is a core principle of CBT. When off-target feelings lead to uncharacteristic behaviors, it can be confusing and disturbing both for the individual and their family, colleagues, and friends. The consequences of those actions then influence new thoughts, and the cycle begins again.
In the Eight Domains framework, living your values in the mental/emotional domain means deciding how you want to experience your feelings. What messages do you want your brain to send in quiet moments? What importance should your mental health have in your life, and what are you willing to do to maintain or improve it? Your mental and emotional being are yours alone, which can push it down the to-do list when more urgent matters arise. However, your mental well-being affects not only your day’s plans but the implementation of those plans.
What can we do to get your brain cheering for you again? The first step is determining where the current voices and their unhelpful messages came from. A therapist can be invaluable at this stage by holding space for the feelings and potential trauma, asking probing questions, and giving you strategies to navigate change.
One tool, mindfulness, can reorient you to your authentic self still beneath the accumulated noise. Techniques like meditation, mindful walking, journaling, and mindful eating can help you connect to the aspects of yourself and your life that you enjoy. Your mindfulness practice is unique to you – do not give up if the first few techniques feel awkward.
Mindfulness leads to grounding and becoming secure in who you are. Your values – the heart of The Eight Domains – reveal themselves through the patterns of your life and the things you find important. Here again, a therapist can be helpful by pointing out places in which your actions are in opposition to your values.
Holding boundaries becomes easier when our values are clear. Gratitude is more meaningful when we live authentically. Although our culture prizes “going with your gut,” examining your mental/emotional domain will result in a journey uniquely tailored to your success.
It can be uncomfortable to consider where your negative messages came from when you love the people who gave them to you. Your family of origin may have sent the message that your feelings do not matter. Harnessing the communicative aspects of authentic feelings is powerful. Reach out if you are ready to clear out negative messaging and find your inner self again.
Stephanie Barca helps clients take stock of their values at Benjamin Holmes Counseling.