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Friday, February 12, 2010

Psychotherapy: Developing Self Awareness and Making Personal Changes

At certain points in our lives, we might become aware that we're either not satisfied with our lives and that we want to make changes. At those points, we might not even be able to identify what's wrong or what changes we want to make, but we may have a vague sense that we're either not happy or we feel out of sinc with our environment. 

Developing Self Awareness and Making Personal Changes
This may be the start of a rudimentary sense of self awareness or it might be longstanding feelings that "something isn't right." Even if we're not aware of what is going on with us, other people who are close to us might see it better than we can. One of the benefits of psychotherapy is that it can help us to develop self awareness so that we can start to identify what's not working in our lives and we can begin the process of change.

What Do We Mean By "Awareness" and "Self Awareness"?
A few weeks ago, as I was walking home from yoga class, I walked along a block of beautiful, turn- of-the-century limestone buildings. Now, the reality is that I've walked by these same limestone residential buildings countless times before. On this particular day, instead of rushing by as I usually do, I had a little extra time so I was strolling more leisurely. It was also a lovely, sunny day and I was very relaxed from yoga class and feeling more connected to my environment.

So, as I passed these buildings, I suddenly noticed something that I've never noticed before: Each of these two-story residential buildings has a large beautiful image of a young, serene-looking woman just above the entrance way. I was so surprised to notice this, after all these years, that I stopped to admire the artistry and the detail of these images. The images were very pleasing to the eye and, combined with the serenity I felt from my yoga class, I felt a sense of attunement with my environment and more connected to my own internal response to such beauty.

Developing Self Awareness and Making Personal Changes

Then I thought to myself: How odd that I've passed these buildings so many times before and I've never noticed these images which have been around since the late 1800s. This experience made me think about issues of awareness and self awareness in general. Since that day, I now notice these beautiful images all the time, and I have the same sense of appreciation and well-being whenever I see them.

Developing self awareness is an ongoing process. Self awareness is not a state where we feel that we have "arrived." My example above is a simple illustration. But awareness and self awareness, like many things, are on a spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum, where there is more of a lack of awareness and self awareness, there can be delusion.

What Do We Mean By Ordinary "Delusions" and "Self Delusion"?
For most people, when they hear the word "delusion," they usually think about a form of psychotic delusion: the person who thinks they're Jesus Christ or the person who thinks that the FBI has installed cameras in their house to watch them. But ordinary, every day delusion is not psychotic. It's much more subtle than that. For each person, it starts in a different way but, often, self delusion becomes a habitual form of denial. Over time, self delusion can become a serious emotional problem as we go through life not realizing that we've placed blinders on ourselves--about ourselves, the people in our lives and, possibly, the world around us.

The following vignette, which is a composite of several people with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality, may help to illustrate the detrimental impact of ordinary delusion and self delusion:

Helen:

When Helen came for a psychotherapy consultation, she came at the urging of her best friend who was worried about her. Helen did not seem concerned about her friend's worry and brushed it off as well-meaning but misguided. She wasn't sure what her friend was concerned about--maybe her friend noticed that she was under more stress than usual at work. Helen also lacked any real curiosity about her friend's concerns. Helen had never been in therapy before, she was curious about psychotherapy on an intellectual level, and she decided to give it a try.

From Helen's perspective, she felt she was under a lot of stress at work--all she really needed was a vacation so she could relax and she was sure that she'd be fine after that. She described a wonderful, "perfect" childhood. She also talked about her husband and her marriage in glowing terms. Other than some recent stress at work, she felt her life was "perfect" and, it seemed, her attendance at the consultation with me was perfunctory. She felt that, at worse, she would be wasting her time and money and, at best, she might learn some stress management techniques to deal with recent work stressors.

Although she expressed her overall happiness and contentment with her life, Helen seemed somewhat disconnected from her feelings, and she had a somewhat rigid and stiff demeanor. Of course, it's not unusual for people to feel anxious during an initial psychotherapy consultation with a therapist that they don't know. So, we agreed to meet for several psychotherapy sessions to continue the dialogue and see what might develop. I was open to Helen's assertion that she was basically fine and, at the same time, I was also curious to see how the therapy would unfold.

Over the next few weeks, Helen continued to come to her sessions saying that her personal life was "perfect." We talked about stress management techniques, which she began to use. And she continued to tell me that she didn't think she needed to be in therapy. However, increasingly, I noticed that Helen's words, her tone, her emotions, and her body language didn't match. While she was saying that her personal life was "perfect" and that she was really very happy, she came across as being unhappy and anxious. When I gently pointed this out to her, she brushed it off, once again, attributing it to her need for a vacation.

When Helen came to her sessions, it was obvious that she was very meticulous about how she dressed. Her outfits were always appeared expensive, of good quality, and always completely coordinated. It was obvious that she spent time and effort wanting to look put together and, from outward appearances, she did look very well put together.

About a month later, which was a week before what was supposed to be our last session, she and her husband went on vacation. Prior to going on vacation, Helen was anticipating coming back feeling relaxed and refreshed. During our last session prior to her vacation, Helen told me that she was using the stress management techniques that we had discussed. She said she felt sure that she was just fine and after the next session, she would not continue in therapy.

The following week, when Helen arrived for her post-vacation therapy session on what was supposed to be her last session with me, I hardly recognized her. Not only was she not meticulously dressed or relaxed and refreshed--she looked almost disheveled. It was also obvious that she had been crying. It took a while before she could gather herself to begin to talk, but when she did, the words pored out of her.

Apparently, during their vacation together, Helen's husband told her that he wanted a divorce. He revealed that he had been having an affair for several years and he realized that he wanted to be with the other woman. He told her that he would leave her well provided for and she would have nothing to worry about financially, but he wanted to move out as soon as they returned from vacation. He was very apologetic, but he had made up his mind, and he saw no reason to delay what he saw as the inevitable.

Helen talked about feeling like she had been beaten up by her husband's words. His words and the reality of their situation crashed through her sense of reality like a ton of bricks. As soon as they returned, he moved out to be with his girlfriend, and Helen felt more alone than she had ever felt in her life. She was unable to eat, she couldn't sleep, she cried most of the day, and she was unable to return to work. She talked about pacing around her large apartment, where she and her husband had lived together for 10 years, and feeling estranged from everything around her.

Developing Self Awareness and Making Personal Changes: Trying to Piece Together What's Happening
To make matters worse, when Helen confided in her best friend (the one who recommended that Helen come to therapy), she found out that her friend had seen Helen's husband with the other woman and suspected that he was having an affair. It seems that Helen's husband had been to local restaurants and he was openly affectionate with this other woman and not at all discreet about the affair. So, on top of her feelings of betrayal about the infidelity, she also felt betrayed by her best friend for not telling her about the affair. Helen also realized that many of her other friends and neighbors probably knew about the affair long before Helen knew what was going on. Her sense of humiliation was profound.

Over time, as Helen continued to come to her therapy sessions and piece together what had happened, she began to see that there had been telltale signs of the infidelity all along that she refused to see. She also realized, when she thought about it, that her friend had tried to tell Helen about it several times, but Helen was so emotionally invested in believing that her life was happy, well ordered, and "perfect" that she refused to hear her friend. She kept her emotional blinders on. The Helen that came to these therapy sessions was angry, sad, hurt, and resentful, a far cry from the person who had been coming to therapy prior to this but, at the same time, she was much more emotionally authentic.

After her initial shock about her husband's affair, Helen realized that she had been deluding herself in many areas of her life, including her childhood and her history with her family. It took this emotional crisis in her marriage to open her to the many lies that she had been telling herself, aided and abetted by her parents, who wanted to preserve an image of the "perfect" family. Helen realized, for the first time in her life, that her father was an alcoholic and her mother was depressed and withdrawn when Helen was growing up. When she finally allowed herself to see the truth about her childhood, she wondered how she had not seen these things before.

As Helen continued to come for her therapy sessions, she realized that, as a child, she had entered into this fantasy world where everything was "perfect" as a way to protect herself from an emotional reality that would have been too overwhelming at the time. Rather than blame herself from these fantasies, she learned to develop compassion for herself. In her childhood fantasy world, she and her family were happy and loving, and no one had any problems. This fantasy was reinforced by her family who presented a happy front to the world around them. And, without realizing it, Helen continued to engage in this fantasy of perfection as an adult in her marriage. So, what started out as an emotional defense to ward off overwhelming feelings as a child became a habitual form of delusion that she continued to live by.

Although it was painful to come to terms with her self delusion, Helen talked about feeling emotionally authentic for the first time in her life. Her words, emotions and overall demeanor were more congruent. Gradually, as she learned in therapy to use her new, fledgling sense of self awareness to change her way of being, she realized the countless times during the day when she was tempted to lie to herself and to close friends about how she felt or about her life.

Rather than deluding herself when she felt uncomfortable about some aspect of herself or in her environment, she learned to stay emotionally attuned and true to her reality. Gradually, she learned to feel more comfortable in her own skin, even when she felt sad, and that she preferred to feel her feelings rather than mask them with self deception. After a while, Helen also realized that her delusions kept her from hearing her best friend's warnings. As a result, Helen took responsibility for the breach in her relationship with her best friend and reconciled that relationship.

Developing Self Awareness, Making Personal Changes and Feeling More Authentic

Helen realized that, even after she left therapy, there would be many times when she might be tempted to revert back to deluding herself because this emotional pattern was so strong and ingrained in her. She knew she would have to continue to work on her own with the skills that she developed in psychotherapy to continue to be authentic with herself and with those who were close to her. And even though it was challenging, she preferred to have a genuine sense of emotional authenticity, regardless of whether she felt happy or sad, than to remain in denial and in fantasies about life being "perfect."

Self Delusion is Common:
Self delusion often starts as a way to protect ourselves from unconscious feelings that we fear will be too hurtful and overwhelming. There are many ways to develop a better sense of self awareness and emotional authenticity. Meditation and yoga practices are often helpful tools to develop increased self awareness.

Psychotherapy with a licensed therapist can also help you to see where you might be holding onto delusions about yourself or your relationships. Psychotherapy can also help you to work towards changing your life to be more emotionally authentic.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find our more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com