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Young Adults

I don’t want to hurt their feelings!

One of the more common reasons clients’ give for not behaving assertively, for not saying something or confronting someone, is that “I don’t want to hurt their feelings”. I think this is very much a cultural thing in New Zealand. Children are often reminded by parents not to do something because it will upset someone else. “So-in-so will be sad (upset, worried, angry)”etc. This trains us to modify our behaviour on the basis of how other people might feel. This has two main drawbacks.

Firstly, and primarily, we should not be responsible for others’ emotional states – just as others should not be responsible for ours. We cannot “make” someone feel bad, others cannot “make” us feel bad. Our emotional reactions, how we feel inside, are the result of how we interpret what happens to us – how we make sense of things, explain or understand them. Our feelings are the result of our “cognitive processing” of the things that happen in our life. That is really important, because it means that we are able to be in control of our emotional states. That is the second drawback – if we believe that our behaviour causes others’ emotional states, we give up control of our own emotional lives.

All of this presumes that our behaviour is appropriate – assertive, reasonable – not aggressive, abusive or unreasonable. So be assured that if you behave appropriately, other people can be responsible for how they feel in response – not you!

Thinking accurately and believably

An often heard piece of advice given to people who are feeling depressed or anxious or struggling in some way is to “think positively”. It is not necessarily bad advice and if it’s easy to do then it will probably help. However it is not easy to do. The main reason for this is that our thinking really defines who we are – our opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and our conscious stream of thought are what make us unique. To change them is no easy matter. A more appropriate goal is to “think accurately”. The main problem with “negative thinking” is that it is inaccurate. One of the main tasks in therapy with clients who are depressed or anxious is to help them identify the inaccuracy in their thinking (for example the over-prediction of threat or danger, or the negative evaluation of their own worth). The next step is to change their thinking so that it is accurate, not necessarily positive. In fact it is more important that their thinking is accurate and realistic because their thinking also needs to be believable. There’s no point in helping someone to think in a different manner if they can’t believe it, because they won’t be able to maintain it.

So the goal should be accurate and believable thinking, and if possible, positive thinking, but it shouldn’t be positive at the expense of being accurate and believable.

A Model of Emotional Functioning

Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT) has become one of the predominant schools of thought in Clinical Psychology in recent years. One of the major reasons for this is that it is easy to understand – it makes sense quickly. This contrasts it with some schools of thought that are complex, difficult to understand, and sometimes greeted with disbelief by non-believers. The simplicity of CBT leads nicely into a “psycho-educational” approach to therapy. This is an approach that focuses on teaching clients to understand their psychological functioning and to learn skills to manage that functioning more effectively.

 A simple CBT model that I use with clients is the following:

 Situation          ?        Thoughts       +          Physical Feelings       ?        Behaviour

This is a model that can be used to explain how people experience any emotional state. Most commonly, clients will present for counselling with concerns such as depression, anxiety, anger, or grief, but positive emotions such as joy, pride, sexual arousal, or negative ones such as frustration, disappointment, guilt, can also be understood using this model.

The essential elements of the model are:

  •  Emotions can be thought of as a process, not a state. They are made up of different components and they fluctuate in terms of their presence, and the intensity with which they are experienced
  • The process is triggered by “situations” or “stimuli”. These can be external to the person (events that occur, things they see or hear) or internal (memories, thoughts)
  • These “stimuli” trigger thoughts that appraise, evaluate, or attempt in some way to “make sense of” the information coming in through our senses
  • Associated with these thoughts are physical feelings or sensations. These sensations are neither negative nor positive, they are neutral. They are sensations that are associated with physical changes such as muscle tension, breathing rate, blood flow, secretion of bodily fluids. They are perceived by people as positive or negative on the basis of the other information available to the person. For example, anticipatory excitement (positive) and anticipatory anxiety (negative) are associated with the same physical changes in the body but are experienced differently because of the different stimuli and thoughts involved in each
  • When people describe the unpleasantness associated with an emotion, they usually describe a combination of thoughts and physical sensations. The word “anger” for example, can be considered as a label for a particular combination of thoughts and physical feelings.
  • The behaviours that are typically part of an emotional experience can be regarded as the means of coping with, or reacting to, the thoughts and physical feelings. In this way, for example, the avoidance that is typically associated with anxiety is the means of coping with (reducing) the distress associated with the unpleasant physical sensations.

One of the benefits of this model is that it provides four possible avenues to make change – triggering stimuli, thoughts, physical sensations, behaviour. Some of the other entries in my Blog will explore these areas.