Alan Redstone, LMFT

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

What Therapy is All About

Alan Redstone, LMFT

There is a direct connection between your thoughts (beliefs), feelings and behaviors. Whatever you place your attention on expands. If you focus on good or happy things (events, places, people, feelings, thoughts, desires), you will feel good feelings. If you focus on bad or negative things (events, places, people, feelings, thoughts, desires) you will feel bad feelings. If you are feeling bad, you are probably dwelling and ruminating on things you don’t like and don’t want (resentment, blame, anger, fear, trauma, losses, wounds, people who hurt you, etc.) You may be ruminating consciously or unconsciously.

When we feel bad, we want to relieve our stress, frustration and negative feelings. Some of us turn to alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, compulsive busy-ness, or other activities in an attempt to numb, avoid or distract ourselves from these bad feelings that won’t go away. If continued long enough, these behaviors can become habits, and eventually addictions. Even if you don’t have any addictions, all people develop defense mechanisms including, but not limited to denial, rationalization, intellectualization, displacement, projection, avoidance, minimization, withdrawal, repression, compensation and fantasy. These defenses protect us from intensely disturbing feelings and old traumas.

All of us have negative experiences growing up. Children's brains are not developmentally mature enough to understand why bad things happen, or why they have been treated the way they were. All children are born helpless, and have dependency needs for security, protection, love, caring, food and shelter. All children are totally dependent on their caregiver(s) to meet these needs. Often, even in the best families, children’s dependency needs go unmet. There are no perfect parents, and no perfect people. With limited awareness, the child constructs reasons for whatever happened to him or her. These conclusions become beliefs that the child holds as absolute truth. These beliefs are formed from a child’s logic, which is not quite developed yet. These beliefs are often instilled by the messages the caretakers give the child, explicitly or implicitly. The child believes most everything s/he is told by his or her caregivers. The child usually takes the blame for everything that goes wrong, and inevitably believes s/he is the cause of everything that goes wrong. Of course, the child is not at fault, but the child cannot possibly know the truth. A child will always believe that s/he is the cause of the parent’s negative attitudes and behaviors, especially when s/he is being told so.

Whether the child takes on unworthiness from their own faulty logic, or is indoctrinated by explicit messages from the caregivers, the innocent child believes s/he is the cause of his or her abuse, neglect or abandonment. The child then blames himself (or herself) as being guilty. This is the root of toxic guilt and shame. This toxic guilt and shame becomes fused with the child’s identity. These children internally punish themselves, and create a pattern of finding others to treat them in a punishing way, because this is what they think they deserve. This all goes on unconsciously. If undetected and untreated, these patterns can continue into adulthood, and to the grave. (Other patterns can develop in which the child becomes anti-social or psychotic, but those disorders will be addressed in another article.)

Feelings of guilt, shame, fear, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness and despair can damage a child for life. Defense mechanisms automatically kick in to protect the child from these terrible feelings. If not for these defense mechanisms, the child could die or become mentally ill. These feelings become dissociated and lay dormant in the unconscious area of the child’s brain. Later in life, they will keep trying to surface. These are intense feelings that nobody wants to experience. People will do almost anything rather than deal with these intense feelings, which will never go away unless they are dealt with. However, these negative feelings are the last thing anyone wants to deal with. This is the root of denial, personality disorders, and addictions.

Good therapy is a safe place where a person can explore these feelings they have avoided, and connect the dots between their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It’s hard work and it takes great courage. There are no shortcuts or miracle cures. Psychiatric medications only suppress the symptoms and mask the cause. Meds are sometimes necessary and helpful in stabilizing individuals who are experiencing severely disturbing feelings which obstruct normal functioning. However, as a stand alone treatment, they are not the solution. Psychotropic medications merely temporarily regulate the chemical imbalance caused by the negative and dysfunctional beliefs that are generating the negative feelings. Prescription meds can become another addiction, especially if used only to avoid the disturbing feelings, without doing the work of therapy. Good therapy restores balanced brain chemistry without drugs.

The solution is to feel the feelings, uncover and change the faulty beliefs that drive these feelings and addictive behaviors, and replace the dysfunctional behavior(s) with healthy empowering behaviors. Successful therapy also involves learning new communication skills, and education, such as what you are now reading. There’s also a spiritual component involving trust, faith, and letting go. Successful therapy is a process that takes time. There is no magic cure or instant solution. Alcohol, drugs and other addictions work instantly to medicate the symptoms of the problem, but only give the temporary illusion of a solution. Addictive habits are not the solution. They become another problem, layered over the emotional problem. Either you avoid (and stay stuck in) your problems, or you make a decision and commitment to focus on the real solution. If you stay with the process long enough, you will integrate all the components of the solution. Your recovery is the attainment of well being and integration of all areas of your life: physical health, emotional health, spiritual well-being (inner peace), interpersonal, intrapersonal, right livlihood and financial health.

This is nearly impossible to do alone. One who needs help must seek and receive help. Competent help is hard to find, even amongst professionals. There are many competent professionals who have already worked through the process of what you are going through. These are specialists who understand, and can guide you through your own process. Unfortunately, there are quite a few professionals who have not done their own processing work. Just because someone has a degree from a University doesn’t make them a competent healer. On the other hand, there are some exceptional people without degrees who can help you. You may have to try a few different therapists before you find the right one for you. A good helper will teach you how to help yourself, and not let you become dependent on him or her.

Therapy is time consuming and costly, but your well being is worth it. There are certain components that can be self-taught. I’m a big fan of bibliotherapy. That’s a fancy name for reading self-help books. Meditation and prayer are also wonderful tools you can use on your own. You can get a lot of great ideas and educate yourself by reading the right books, listening to the right audio programs, and watching certain videos and DVDs. Please see my bibliography. However, at some point, you will probably need a real therapist who can help you face those gnarly feelings you’ve been running from. Some parts of integration require the interpersonal neurobiology that can only be found in a therapeutic relationship. I will be honored to provide that service to you, or refer you to another professional if it appears someone else may be a better fit, when you are ready.

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