Bert’s therapy: Garbage

 

I remember my panic attack on the first day of kindergarten.

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I remember the bully who made me eat ants on the playground.

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I remember dad getting drunk and fighting my uncle on our front lawn.

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I remember running away from summer camp because I was so homesick.

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I remember telling a girl I loved her, and her answering “Thanks.”

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What the hell are you doing?

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Remembering.

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Why?

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I don’t know.  Bad memories just come up when I feel stressed.

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Well, stop chewing on them.

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Why? 

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It’s bad mental hygiene.  You’re like a cat poking through a garbage can.

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So?

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There’s nothing nourishing there.  And you’ll just stink up your present.

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But I’m only…thinking.

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Not really.  Most of what we call thinking isn’t thinking at all.

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What is it, then?

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Random mental activity.  Automatic, aimless, illogical.  Remembering, projecting, ruminating…

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…obsessing, fantasizing, worrying — waste of time, mostly.  Some of it does more harm than good.

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How?

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By triggering bad feelings that have absolutely nothing to do with your current reality.

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Oh.  That.

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It’s the main reason we’re such neurotic monkeys.

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Can I do anything about it?

You can train your mind.  Meditation’s the best long-term solution.  And there are short-term tricks you can learn, like Thought Stopping.  But remember two things.

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What two things?

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Your mind has a mind of its own.  And even the sanest mind is a little nuts.

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So…

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So chew gum, not garbage.

 

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Brain: An apparatus with which we think we think.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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Most of us believe that we are always thinking; it’s not true. The bulk of what we consider thought is just the mind going through its normal process, drifting past our consciousness like a river, full of debris that has been dumped there in the past.

From “Thinking that gets in the way of recovery” at the Anxiety Care UK website.

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So when you’re in monkey mind you’re having all these feelings — often painful ones, anxiety and anger and such – that have nothing to do with what’s really happening in your life at the moment. It’s like being trapped in a nightmare, unable to wake up. 

From “Bert is nuts” by Bert.

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From Joko Beck I learned to label thoughts when they come up (eg, thinking how much I hate meditating), which lets me to detach from my own thinking and go back to breath-following.  Another writer (can’t remember who) taught me to half-close my eyes and defocus my vision so I retain some connection to the outside world. And I think it was Philip Kapleau who taught me to keep a half-smile on my face, as a sort of secret reminder that the scary noise in my head is not to be taken too seriously.

From “Why I hate meditating, why I do it anyway,” also by Bert.

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One effective and quick technique to help you with the intrusive negative thoughts and worry that often accompany panic disorder, anxiety and agoraphobia is called “thought stopping.” The basis of this technique is that you consciously issue the command, “Stop!” when you experience repeated negative, unnecessary or distorted thoughts. You then replace the negative thought with something more positive and realistic. 

From “What is thought stopping and how does it work?” by Sheryl Ankrom.

 

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25 responses to “Bert’s therapy: Garbage

  • releasing lunacy

    “So when you’re in monkey mind you’re having all these feelings — often painful ones, anxiety and anger and such – that have nothing to do with what’s really happening in your life at the moment. It’s like being trapped in a nightmare, unable to wake up.” <—— That's true.

    What's the difference in stopping remembering things that have nothing to do with present reality and denial of past events? Is it okay to ignore the past since there is no changing it? Is it okay to just not think of bad things or past traumas to avoid negative feelings?

    I'm wondering what I'm reading into this post that isn't really there. Because, honestly, I'm loving this post. I hate feelings -despise them! Thoughts about the past, as explained here, often bring about unpleasant feelings. Do away with these thoughts and rid myself of the pesky feelings that accompany them… sounds good! Sounds too good to be true. Sounds kinda hard, but definitely worth the effort if I can avoid feelings!

    Psst…Bert, are you sure this isn't some kind of trick? It's been my experience most T's don't like when we flee from feelings!

    ~ rl

    • Steve Hauptman

      hi RL,

      Well, I think there’s denial and there’s denial.

      When I first became a counselor we called them Big D and Little D. Little D was functional denial, the sort that actually meets needs or solves a problem. (We’re all going to die, but could we function on a daily basis if we didn’t deny that fact?) Big D was dysfunctional denial, the sort that blocks need-fulfillment or causes problems. (“I’m not an alcoholic, I just like to drink until I pass out each night.”)

      Denying feelings because you “hate” them sounds to me like denial of the second sort, if only because feelings are inevitable, the cost of being a living and conscious human being. Hating them is sort of like hating bad weather.

      But we all deny what we feel sometimes. (See my answer to Linda, where I say I think we’re all addicted to control because we’re all addicted to trying to control feelings.) In the end how much of a problem this is depends on how often we rely on denial, and whether we’ve learned other ways of handling feelings, like expressing them.

      best,
      ~ Steve

      • releasing lunacy

        Hi. I understand that denying something that presently affects my life negatively is not helpful. My mom is a recovering alcoholic who is only alive because of a liver transplant two years ago. Both my parents were in denial about the seriousness of her problem. I have issues overeating and with self injury. I’m not suggesting I deny this because it’s unpleasant to deal with.

        I want to know if it’s harmful or helpful to decide not to acknowledge that I may have been emotionally abused as a kid. I feel like I’m suppose to “come to terms” with what may have happened to move forward. But, I don’t want to understand what happened any more clearly than I do now. I don’t want to understand better the effects of emotional abuse in general and learn how I may have been affected by it. I have -and always have had- a good relationship with my parents (the teen years were a bit bumpy). I love my parents!

        I know I’m not a well adjusted person. My T diagnosed me with DID two years ago. I’ve been hospitalized for self injury several times. I was first diagnosed with depression when I was barely a teenager. I’m not working now. I know I’ve got issues… my issues have issues!

        My question is it feasible to set aside the question of potential abuse and even set aside other traumas experienced in adulthood and just start fresh from today? Learn to stop thinking when bad memories surface!

        My T doesn’t push me at all. He isn’t suggesting I “come to terms” with anything. It’s just how I feel from others and blogs and books, etc. Except for diagnosing me with DID, he’s never said/identified anything he seems to think I need to come to terms with (at least not that he’s shared with me). I rarely talk about my past w/ my T. It would be easy enough with him to just focus on the present only, I think. Maybe it would make dealing with present-day issues I have easier if I wasn’t always looking back in a state of confusion. Why are people, in general, so obsessed with the past anyway? It’s over.

        Sorry for getting so personal, but this happens to be something that’s been on my mind lately.

        Aside note: I really do like your blog. Nearly always makes me laugh… “What the hell are you doing?” lol

        Take care,
        rl

        • Steve Hauptman

          hi RL,

          “Is it feasible to set aside the question of potential abuse and even set aside other traumas experienced in adulthood and just start fresh from today?” you ask.

          I guess that depends on how you define “set aside.” In the short term, sure. (And the short term may last a long time, while adequate trust and safety are being established in the therapeutic relationship.)
          Ultimately, though, it’s hard for me to see how anyone can heal emotional wounds while pretending the wounds never occurred in the first place.

          But if I were your therapist, I’d be waiting for you to tell me when you were ready to look at them.
          My experience with trauma victims is that digging is usually unnecessary. When the relationship with the therapist feels safe enough to the client, the part of him/her that has burried stuff somehow knows it’s okay to start letting that stuff out. It’s not a conscious choice, usually, so I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. You’ll get there when you get there.

          best,
          ~ Steve

          • releasing lunacy

            Hi Steve,

            I thought this blog post was too good to be true. Thank you for explaining things further in all your replies to people’s comments.

            I’ve done a lot of thinking. I actually wrote two replies to post here. It’s this concept of emotional healing that I just don’t get and what it has to do with thinking/talking about the past.

            But, while I was frustrating myself trying to reply, I came to a realization. I’ll keep that to myself because I’m not sure what I think about it. I’ll try to share it with my therapist tomorrow.

            I just wanted you to know that your blog post & comment replies have me thinking.

            Thanks,
            rl

  • Clare Flourish

    So. Suppressing feelings is my thing, I just do not know what I am feeling in the moment. I am getting better at feeling even strong feeling rather than retreating into my head, and (as you can see by the way I describe it) I think this is a good thing, and am practising.

    It seems to me that I can go back to that old feeling, the toxic memory, and rather than just brood on it, cleanse it. That feeling the old anger which I suppressed releases it.

    What do you think?

    • Steve Hauptman

      hi Clare,

      I think if you can cleanse a toxic memory by revisiting it, that’s terrific.

      I can do that with some memories, and not with others. Most of my clients are the same. So we’ll take different approaches with different memories. Sometimes uncovering them and expressing buried feelings seems most helpful — a kind of flushing-out of the emotional pipes. Sometimes giving old crap as little energy as possible seems best. It’s a judgment call.

      The goal is always the same, though: to reduce whatever hold the past has on their present, and to shorten the length of time it takes for them to respond emotionally to what’s happening now.

      best,
      ~ Steve

  • mgrayta

    Steve, I’ve been thinking MORE in the last few weeks about bad stuff that happened to me in the distant past.

    And the reason is, I was told that when I get bad feelings in situations in the present, bad feelings that seem out of proportion, it’s because they are not about the present but really about the past, and I should disconnect them from the person in the present who triggered them, and remember what happened in the past that I am “transferring” onto them.

    For example my boss says something that really upsets me, and what I am supposed to do is realise it’s really about things that happened when I was seven and not about my boss.

    So I am getting the wrong end of the stick here? I seem for these last few weeks to be doing exactly what bert was doing, dragging stuff up out of the garbage bin of history and thinking about them.

    Mike

    • Steve Hauptman

      hi Mike,

      You’re talking about transference, which is what we feel when a relationship in the present reminds us of another one (often painful) in the past. For example, my male bosses always ended up reminding me of my father, which is why I changed jobs so often and ended up in private practice.

      Personally I was never able to simply “disconnect” my feelings from someone that triggered them, neither by an act of will or one of cognitive reframing. My dad scared me too deeply for that.

      What did help me was to focus, in therapy, on the feelings about dad I had buried, and bring them up and out in a safe environment. It didn’t erase them completely, but it helped me realize that I’m not a helpless kid anymore, and left me feeling less anxious and constipated.

      Different therapists work with this stuff in different ways, though. Cognitive-behaviorist therapy sees distorted thinking as causing blocked feelings; Gestalt therapy (I’m a Gestaltist) sees blocked feelings as distorting our thoughts. Both are corrrect, of course. It’s a matter of emphasis, and of which approach feels most helpful to you.

      best,
      ~ Steve

      • mgrayta

        “to focus, in therapy, on the feelings about dad I had buried, and bring them up and out in a safe environment”

        so that’s different from what Bert was doing in the original piece?

        • Steve Hauptman

          Yes, that’s different from what Bert was doing. He wasn’t really focusing on feelings so much as persevorating over old events — picking at scabs, so to speak — in a way that elicited feelings without discharging them. His therapist could have chosen to ask him to go deeper into any one of those memories, encourging him to express more fully how it made him feel and how he carries those feelings into the present. But (for reasons I explained in my answer to Linda) he chose to go a different way.

  • Linda

    So you are saying we should distract ourselves from our feelings or get them to stop, rather than work through them? For me, I am always stuffing my feelings and then they come out at the least opportune time. Wouldn’t it be better for me to deal with them so they don’t cause me problems when I least expect it?

    Sounds like Bert has some self esteem issues as a result of negative experiences he had as a child. Are you working on those issues with him, trying to get him to see that he has value and worth as a person? Or just trying to get him to stop his thoughts? Stopping thoughts sounds great, but what about when they wake you up in the middle of the night with a panic attack?

    I think Bert could use some psychodynamic therapy as well as the CBT. Just my opinion.

    • Steve Hauptman

      hi Linda,

      “Bert’s Therapy” tries to show how four basic ideas behind Monkeytraps might be applied in a therapeutic setting. Those basic ideas are

      (1) Human beings are addicted to control,
      (2) This addiction causes most (maybe all) our emotional problems,
      (3) Behind all controlling stands the wish to control feelings,
      (4) There are better ways of handling feelings than control.

      In this session Bert’s therapist points to how normal mental functioning — what Buddhists call “monkey mind” — both expresses our addiction to control (why else replay old painful memories, if not in hopes of somehow controlling the pain they evoke?) and exacerbates it — by, as you suggest, damaging Bert’s self-esteem, which would then cause all sorts of other problems, especially codependent behavior (and including panic attacks).

      As for technique, Bert’s therapist is neither fish nor fowl. His approach combines both psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral elements, depending on which alternative to control he’s to be trying to teach.

      There will be times when he’ll urge Bert to detach from his feelings (as here) in an attempt to teach him to surrender. There will be other times when he’ll urge Bert to uncover buried feelings in an attempt to practice responsibility. And there will be times when he urges Bert to express himself more fully to other people in attempt to develop his capacity for intimacy.

      The techniques may vary, but the goal will be the same: to teach this particular monkey how to heal himself by reducing his need to control what either can’t or shouldn’t be controlled.

      best,
      ~ Steve

      • Linda

        Thank you for that explanation Steve. I understand now that I see the big picture. You sound like a very good therapist, as well as a good writer. And artist of course.

        I could learn a lot from you and Bert, I want to control everything too. Although I guess sometimes that desire to control can be a good thing – when I can control one little thing while everything else is going awry I feel better. Control can be overdone though I suppose, and that is when it becomes a problem.

  • linneann

    Why do I remember the painful times so much more vividly than the happy ones? It’s tragic, really.

    • Steve Hauptman

      It is, isn’t it? We seem to be wired so that we hold onto pain almost endlessly. I suppose it began as a survival mechanism (internalizing how badly that wooly mammoth scared him may have helped our caveperson ancestor successfuly avoid wooly mammoths), but nowadays it seems useful mainly for perpetuating neuroses and providing a living for therapists.

  • releasing lunacy

    Steve, Has Bert uncovered buried feelings and figured out what to do with them like you described in your response to Mike? If not, I think maybe he needs to… um, because I don’t know what that looks like. (Sorry Bert)

    Always,
    rl

  • Barbara

    Brilliant. True. Great humour !
    Read you posting on Alternatives : Surrender, responsibility and intimacy and it WORKS !!! :-))
    You are a star !

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