So much of life consists of relationships. It may even be argued that all of life is made up of relationships. One important (and often overlooked) way that this is true is the fact that, in addition to relating to others, we also form relationships with ourselves and with the struggles we encounter within our own minds. In fact, it is through this triangulation that we come to understand ourselves: we are who we are as a result of how we relate to other people, ourselves, and our experience.
Because none of us can avoid mental distress, the sensible skill that can be practiced and utilized to make small but impactful changes in the quality of mental life is altering how we respond to the things we think, feel, and imagine (we can call these things “mental objects”). The effect that distressing mental objects typically have on us is more of a reaction than a response. The difference can essentially be boiled down to choice. The reaction is automatic; the response can be more calculated and purposeful. Two examples of how we can turn automatic reactions into chosen responses are: altering what mental objects mean to us and altering how we pay attention to them.
MEANING-MAKING ALTERATION: RE-APPRAISAL
Humans are meaning-making machines. We make meaning out of our internal and external environments often even before we are consciously aware of it. In the face of negative stresses in life (e.g. constantly returning feelings of depression or anxiety), our minds are experts at taking what is experienced and “plugging it in” to the film reel that is our life narrative. Information about inner and outer reality collects as little mind-moments of thought, feeling, imagination, and sensation. These then bundle into snapshots of experience that are sifted through our awareness at lightning speed. This stream of thought then forms into a narrative account of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. This is important to remember, because, if we are vigilant, we can actually have some input in the direction our narrative takes. We can become the actor, director and writer of our own story. One way to begin to achieve this is to take opportunities to sculpt the meaning we make about moment-to-moment events.
Take the example of returning anxiety. One possible meaning of anxiety is “I am so neurotic. I hate that about myself. This always gets in the way of life. I will always be this way.” Another way to handle this, however, might be something like “Anxiety is a protection that gets out of hand sometimes. It’s ok. I am still in control. This anxious moment will pass and I will be fine. I might even learn something about myself if I pay attention.” Shaping the meaning that is gleaned from the suffering that is inevitable in life is a powerful ability that can be practiced. As we become more automatic in this self-compassionate style of meaning-making, we find freedom. After all, what is freedom if not the capacity to respond to life however we choose?
ATTENTION ALTERATION: "SELF-EXPOSURE"
We can also find this responsive freedom through another means. Directly altering how we pay attention to mental objects can greatly impact their affect on us. Paying attention is important. How we pay attention to what we are doing at any given moment determines and shapes the results of our activity. As distressing thoughts, feelings, or mental images enter our stream of thought, we have an immediate choice: cower and tremble or stand tall and gaze into the eyes of that which we fear. The former is obviously easier. Your strength and resilience if you choose the latter, however, may surprise you.
Gaining a foothold that may lead out of a problem necessarily begins with summing up what is being dealt with. In terms of distressing mental objects, this may take the form of reflecting on a fleeting feeling of anger instead of pretending it didn’t happen or dissecting a subtle gut-sense of rejection you feel when your partner mentions a sensitive topic. One main purpose for a psychotherapist is to provide a safe and secure relationship within which one can explore mental objects in this way – out loud. You may or may not be able to provide yourself “self-psychotherapy”, but heightening your sensitivity to your own mechanisms of meaning-making and increasing your control over the proximity between yourself and distressing mental objects may allow you to experience a greater sense of freedom and self-understanding.