Friday evening I had an amazing opportunity that became a game changer for me. I was attending a trauma workshop conducted by Dr. David Burns, a psychologist who has written many books on depression and anxiety. In the workshop, Dr. Burns was teaching us how to use his methods to treat trauma. He stated there would be a live demonstration of these techniques at the end of the first day, if anyone would be willing to volunteer. I thought about volunteering, but that’s as far as it went. A couple of my co-workers attending the conference with me suggested I volunteer. Well in reality, they were a bit pushy. 😉 On our first break, with the support of a friend, I went and talked with Dr. Burns. I gave him a brief description of my trauma, of losing the boys, along with the depression and anxiety I’ve dealt with since. (You can read about some of it here). He thought I’d be a great subject and asked me to fill out a mood log.
I did not hear much of the next segment of the workshop because my nerves went crazy. My stomach was fluttering and my hands were shaking. I managed to fill out the mood log (I hate filling out those things). On our lunch break I showed Dr. Burns my log and he asked me to sign a release because they were going to videotape the session.
10 minutes before we were to begin the live demonstration, I started getting nervous again. I said a quick prayer, for courage.
The demonstration got off to a rocky start. Since I’ve shared my story publicly a few times, I had a bit of trouble shifting out of presentation mode. I had to remind myself this is supposed to be a counseling session, not a presentation. Dr. Burns and I had trouble connecting in a way that would make any therapy possible. He brought up the disconnection and we managed to work through it enough that I was able to let my guard down. Once that happened, all the pain I keep at bay to survive, bubbled to the surface.
What followed was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had since the accident. It was so that intense at one point I doubled over because I was crying so hard.
Together we walked through my mood log. I had listed several of my negative thoughts I have when my depression and anxiety are at their worst.
“I’ll be alone forever”
“My life will always be like this”
“I’ll never be successful or financially stable”
“I’m a fraud at work”
“Life sucks, life is hard”
We added to the list too. When the subject of my faith came up, I was a bit reluctant to talk about it because I didn’t know what everyone in the room believed. As we processed my reluctance to be bold about my faith, I realized I sometimes edit my story because of my fear of being ridiculed or disregarded. The thoughts we added to my list were “David may be judging me” and “They’ll think I believe in fairytales”.
We moved on to identifying the distortions of these thoughts. Black and white thinking, Overgeneralizing, Discounting the positives, Emotional reasoning . . . the list goes on. As a trained counselor, I know the next step is to look for the evidence that these are true or false, and find the positive thoughts to combat the negative thoughts.
It was then that Dr. Burns did something completely unexpected. He basically said, “What do these negative thoughts and feelings reveal about you that is beautiful”
Ummmm . . . . . what??
We then made a new list. This list looked at all my negative thoughts and emotions and discovered the positive attributes of myself. It was hard to do at first, but once we got the ball rolling, I couldn’t write them down fast enough.
“These feelings show how much I love my boys”
“Shows I’ve been through something significant and awful”
“Shows my high standards, my concern for my clients, and wanting to help”
“Protecting my beautiful faith”
“Protect myself from being hurt and un-respected”
“I want to have people in my life to love”
“I want meaningful relationships”
“Protecting myself from future heartbreak”
“Being realistic and not denying reality”
“My anger is justified”
“My worry protects me by keeping me vigilant and alert.”
For me, this list changed everything. Once we were done with the list I felt lighter, like a 50-pound bag of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt Happy.
There are good reasons I think these negative thoughts and I’m not just beating up on myself. Because these messages are given in a negative way, I sink deeper into depression or anxiety. And the cycle perpetuates itself.
Now when I have a negative thought, I try to identify the good part of me that brings that thought into existence. For example: the next morning I woke up feeling really foolish. As I was getting ready for Day 2 of the workshop and having to confront all those people who had witnessed me breaking down and hearing how I talk to myself in my dark times, I felt really foolish. But, instead of letting that thought linger and grow, I searched for the meaning behind it. I realized I felt foolish because I had opened up. I had been vulnerable in front of a large roomful of strangers. They had seen some of my deepest pain. The vulnerability which connected me to every person in that room the night before, was now making me feel very silly. So I said to myself “No you were not foolish last night, you were vulnerable. And vulnerability is something you want in your life, even though it feels uncomfortable”.
After identifying the beautiful parts of me that led to the negative thoughts, Dr. Burns asked if I was ready to attack the negative thoughts. After I agreed, he began role-playing my inner voice and would speak one of my negative thoughts to me. I would then have to refute the thought. If I didn’t win, we’d change places and he’d be the one defeating the thought. We kept going back and fourth until I had defeated all my negative thoughts in a huge way. Through the role-playing, I learned to not only defeat the negative thoughts, but to obliterate them! Below are some of the ways he helped me to stop thought thoughts in their tracks:
Negative thought: “I’ll be alone forever”
Response now: “I might be alone right now, but I don’t know the future. Anything can happen. Besides I am not alone right now. I have amazing friends and family. I could probably let my walls down with them a bit more so I don’t feel so alone. But I am not alone now”
Negative thought: “My life will always be like this”
Response now: “My life has changed so much in the last 5 years. What on earth makes me think it will stay the same now!!”
Negative thought: “I’ll never be successful or financially stable”
Response now: “I completed graduate school in the midst of the worst kind of grief. I didn’t curl up in the corner and bemoan the terribleness of my life. I set out to do something about it. That same determination will keep me moving forward”
Negative thought: “I’m a fraud at work”
Response now: “I’m inexperienced. Good grief! I got out of graduate school less than a year ago. Of course I don’t understand everything about how to help my clients. But I have client’s that are improving and making progress. And some of them even like me.”
Negative thought: “Life sucks, life is hard”
Response now: “Yes, my life sucks. But there are good things about my life too. I have friends who love me and pray for me. I have family who would do anything for me. I can get out and take pictures and share the beauty I see around me with others. Yes, life is hard. No one ever said it would be easy. But I have help. I have lots of help. I don’t have to do it alone.”
Negative thought: “David (Dr. Burns) may be judging me”
Response now: “Yes he may. But that’s his problem. My faith is what has brought me through this hell, and it’s what keeps me going. My faith has helped me survive. My faith is what’s given me hope. If he cannot appreciate that about me, then he doesn’t need to be part of my life.”
Negative thought: “They’ll think I believe in fairytales”
Response now: “They might think that. But that’s because they’ve never experience the peace of God. They’ve never understood the power that peace can have over their lives. They’ve never known what it’s like to be held in God’s hands. And that thought makes me sad for them.”
This process gave me a profound sense of relief. The negative thoughts have always communicated, in some way, a message of self-hate. After walking through these exercises, the connection between the negative thought and the message it conveys has been severed. That made all the difference and for a moment I felt carefree.
Though this experience was intense, I learned something. I learned the depression and anxiety I’ve experienced the last few years are not things I need to fight against. They honor my loss and the pain I’ve gone through, though that doesn’t mean I have to live with the messages the depression and anxiety speak into my life. I now have the tools to obliterate my negative thoughts and replace them with the truth.