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Friday, October 5, 2012

How Our Expectations and Beliefs Affect Us

How Do Our Expectations and Beliefs Affect Us?

In her book, Counterclockwise, Dr. Ellen Langer describes how our expectations and beliefs affect our own lives as well as other people in our lives. She makes a strong case that our thoughts and feelings affect our health and the aging process. According to Dr. Langer, the first step is to become mindfully aware of our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and others.

As part of her research, Dr. Langer conducted social experiments with the elderly in a nursing home to see how beliefs, self perceptions and a sense of autonomy affect health. In the experimental group, she encouraged residents to make more decisions for themselves. They were encouraged to make their own decisions about where they saw visitors and when to watch movies. They were also given an opportunity to choose a house plant as well as when and how much to water it. The control group was given house plants, but they were told that the nursing home staff would water it.

After a year and a half, Dr. Langer discovered that the first group was much happier and alert, based on tests that were administered before and after the experiment. The first group was also much healthier and, on average, lived longer than the second group. She discovered that being allowed to make choices created mindfulness and helped the residents to be more engaged in their lives. Being happier, more mindful, and having a sense of autonomy contributed to the first group's longevity.

When we think about how, even in the best nursing homes, the staff often have such low expectations of residents and how few choices residents can make in their daily lives, Dr. Langer's research is compelling.

Recently, I went to visit my aunt in a nursing home. She has dementia, but she still knows who she is and who I am. When a new nurse came by with his chart, instead of asking my aunt her name, he turned to me and asked, "What's her name?" I saw my aunt's expression change from being engaged to looking disconnected. I wondered how many times the residents in this nursing home are objectified in this way, and it made me feel angry. I responded to him by turning to my aunt and asking her her name. She perked up suddenly and announced her name in a strong and confident voice.

Without realizing it, we all create self fulfilling prophesies. This nurse, who seemed kind and efficient in other ways, had certain beliefs and expectations of the nursing home residents in general and my aunt in particular. Anyone who has spent time around people with dementia knows that it can vary a lot in the same person from day to day or even in the same day or hour. But what happens when a person with dementia, who still knows who she is, is treated like she's incapable of responding to question asking her name? Based on the brief interaction I saw with my aunt and the nurse and the research that Dr. Langer has done, we disempower people. I saw very clearly how my aunt went from being engaged one moment to being disengaged the next when she was objectified by the nurse. Was the nurse being intentionally cruel and rude? That's not my impression. I think he was simply engaging in his duties in a mindless way, trying to get through his tasks as efficiently as possible.

Even though there might be variability from day to day for a person who has dementia, why not start out assuming the best instead of the worst? How much more empowering this would be! This can apply not only to the elderly, who are often stereotyped, but to any group of people.

For an eye-opening look at how we can all learn to become more mindful in our everyday interactions, I recommend reading Ellen Langer's book, Counterclockwise. The implications of Dr. Langer's work are very powerful for all of us. And, the next time I visit my aunt at the nursing home, I might give a copy of this book to the nursing staff.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist who provides dynamic talk therapy, clinical hypnosis, EMDR, and Somatic Experiencing therapy to individuals and couples.

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Photo Credit:  Photo Pin