In the previous exercises from this module we worked on recognizing certain situations that are triggering and causing us to feel overwhelming emotions. This is helpful because once we know that certain situation can be potentially problematic for us, then we can also work on doing something before the situation happens again - a type of preparation. This is exactly what we are going to be working on in this exercise. Getting prepared beforehand can give us a sense of control over the triggering situation that is about to happen. We will go through four steps that are going to help you solve the problematic situation before it happens.
Step One: Behavior Analysis
Take your time and try to remember what usually causes you to feel ineffectively overwhelmed. Is it an event with your family, a work situation, your kids or your friends? Next, write down the emotion that you are usually experiencing. Maybe you feel intensively angry, rejected or abandoned, or depressed and anxious. Try to remember how the situation usually takes place and what your ongoing fleeting feelings and thoughts are while the situation is happening.
Event: My husband criticizes my looks. He makes a subtle comment that I should lose weight and that I should dress differently.
Main emotion: Anger
Other emotions and thoughts during the event: At first, I low-key agree with him and I think how fat and ugly I look. I've always hated my body. Before my anger strikes I feel ashamed and sad.
Step Two: What Can I Change?
What out of the three elements from the previous step can you change? Bare in mind that the change that you can potentially make should eventually improve your emotional health and your immediate overwhelming emotion.
Sometimes it's impossible to change the external event, but we can work on our thoughts and how we talk to ourselves internally during the situation. Pick two things out of the elements in the previous step that you think are the most suitable for you to try to change.
In the previous example, the person cannot control what her husband says to her. What she can work on though, is the messages she directs towards herself about her appearance. At the same time, she will also work on the feelings of shame and sadness that are occurring during the event.
Step Three: Brainstorming Alternatives
Now that you have identified the two aspects that you can and would like to change, it's time to brainstorm for alternative ideas. If you chose to work on the occurring thoughts, what else can you say to yourself about the situation? What can you remind yourself of in order to objectify the all-or-nothing thinking or the generalizations you make? Perhaps you want to change the event and do something differently than what you usually does.
In the example we presented, the alternative and objective thoughts that the woman can remind herself of would be:
- "He has no right to make such aggressive comments and body shame me."
- "Even though his tone was seemingly polite, it is not okay to say things like that to your significant other. It's still passive aggressive."
- "I don't have to look a certain way unless I want to. My body serves me in great ways and I am grateful that I am physically healthy."
- "There are many great aspects about me, I am sociable and charming."
- "This trend to be thin will probably have a cultural shift and it will change. It's just a societal pressure and conditioning and I really am smarter than that!"
Step Four: Put the Solution into Action
After you have brainstormed for ideas about what you can do to change the aspects that are changeable, choose what works best for you and try to put the solution into action. Actively decide and remind yourself to act the way you decided to next time you find yourself in the situation.
For example: "Now that I've straightened some of the incorrect ways in which I am thinking about my body, I want to try and remind myself more often of what I actually believe in. Maybe next time this happens I can communicate to my husband what my thoughts are in a polite way and not get angry and make mean comments to hurt him back. I will assertively put boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not."
Use the worksheet to help you prepare for situations that you expect to be difficult.
How should I know which aspect of the situation should I work on changing? I am not sure which one is the most suitable.
Start with the things you have control over. For example, our thoughts and the resulting feelings are usually something we can work on (trying to straighten the cognitive distortions present). You can benefit from the exercise about cognitive vulnerability that we previously worked on in this module. Sometimes the way in which other people consistently behave is out of our control. That is not to say that we shouldn't try to communicate our boundaries. You can also work on changing the way you behave in and do something differently. For example you can walk out of a situation that is harmful to you (if possible).
I can't think of alternatives, my brainstorming session is a little dry.
You can try asking somebody you trust and you know has your back about ideas about the situation. If you regularly put yourself down with the way you think about yourself and the way you interpret the events around you, then you can try thinking about what advice you would give a friend of yours who is in the same situation. Remember that the potential solution to the problem should eventually improve the situation for you and help you with the overwhelming emotion you usually experience. For example, in the body-shaming example we presented, if the woman shamed herself into losing a lot of weight, she would still end up with negative emotions, so that would not be the best solution for her.
What if I can't remember to try the solution I've come up with next time I find myself in the problematic situation?
It is okay if you need some time to get used to implementing the solution. Quality change doesn't come with little effort. If you don't remember to implement the solution the first time, just remind yourself that that is totally fine, be patient and try it again next time. Maybe the first couple of times you won't end up with the emotion you would eventually like to feel, but remember that this is a skill and it can be learned through practice.