One of the greatest privileges of my job as a psychologist is getting to bear witness to the true strength and grit of character that so many of my clients possess. Clients who have overcome every kind of trauma, heartbreak and betrayal imaginable, yet still find reasons to smile and trust and keep going.
Conversely, one of the things that makes me incredibly sad about my job is the fact that these very same people, those whose every day existence are a testament to resilience and perseverance, often find it so very hard to tolerate a kind word about themselves.
At times, simply asking about a particular strength, or focusing on an example of something they did well, is enough to bring them to tears.
I know the reasons why this happens. I can tell you the neuroscience behind negative cognition bias and give you at least 5 different theoretical explanations for the mechanisms behind it, (including response to shame, lack of unconditional love, repeated trauma exposure) and why it persists. But just like my clients, knowing why it happens, doesn’t stop the feelings of sadness each and every time I encounter a bright, intelligent, incredibly resilient client who can sit with all manner of stresses and trauma and downright horrors, dissolving into tears at the mention of a positive trait.
But this is where Jersey comes into it. Our beautiful Jersey girl who overcame her own traumatic background to learn to trust people and love her work as a therapy dog. So at these moments, I sometimes, ask my clients to turn to Jersey and pretend that whatever horrible and negative thoughts they’re currently stuck on about themselves, apply to Jersey. What would it be like to say those harsh words to Jersey’s sweet face and big brown eyes?
The clients will sometimes say, “well those words don’t apply to Jersey” to which I reply, “it doesn’t matter, they’re just words, right? You don’t have to believe them; you just have to say them to her face.”
How many clients, who can be so very harsh on themselves, do you think manage to say those same words to Jersey?
I challenge you to do the same thing here, whatever negative thoughts this post may have stirred up in you:
“well you don’t want to get a big head”
“that [insert good thing here] was just a fluke”
“I’m not good enough”
Look at this picture of Jersey. Look into her eyes and speak those words to her.
How did it feel even contemplating saying those words to that face?
If it was hard. If you struggled at all, then the next questions are:
- Why are you deserving of any less respect than my dog (as cute and sweet as she is of course!)?
- What could you do/be if those words weren’t on constant replay in your own head?
This might be something you want to discuss with your own psychologist, but for now, it’s just something to notice and be compassionately curious about.
As for me, I’ll keep working with my clients until they can be as kind and compassionate to themselves as they can be to Jersey-girl!