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Dealing With Self-Destructive Thinking

As a wellness professional, you know how satisfying it is to watch a client make progress toward her health objectives. As she reaches those goals, you and she experience a mutual sense of success.

Along the way, you see that your professional relationship is working effectively when the client shows up for classes and sessions, absorbs your instructions and applies the guidance she receives. So if a client starts out with a negative mindset or hits a mental roadblock on her wellness path, it’s important to clarify what may be going on internally. The pause in progress may be temporary, or there may be a chronic negative pattern in the client’s way of thinking. Either way, acknowledging the negative thinking and understanding its consequences for your work together are the keys to helping your client move out of a stuck place.

Getting Back on Track
Despite the current popular trend, telling a client to think positively when negative thinking occurs can make her feel worse. What’s more, the positive-thinking approach bypasses an important process of change, in which your client clearly understands that her thoughts are a distortion.

At times, all of us can shift our negative thinking to positive, and that’s an empowering place to be. However, making that shift is not always possible, and it is important to respect where your client is in those cases. Most clients don’t want to hold a negative view of themselves, yet core-belief thoughts can get triggered without warning. If we could always shift our thoughts by simply thinking positively, most of us would. When a client can’t make that shift, warning her that negative thinking will create negative things in her life will only paralyze her.It should never be used as a scare tactic to motivate a client to change.

There are two practical strategies to consider when a client is thinking negatively: does the client need a reality check, or is the best solution immediate action? When the negative thinking is situational, either strategy can be effective. With chronic negativity, immediate action is generally the better choice.

Reality Check
When a client arrives with a negative view of himself and his progress, it’s good to take a few moments to evaluate what may have triggered this mindset. If the client is one of your regulars, you will be able to discern whether this negative thinking is situational or part of a chronic pattern.

If the negativity is situational, you can give the client a reality check. Using this strategy, you positively reframe his negative beliefs by drawing on your experience of him as evidence. You reflect back the erroneous thinking and help him dismantle the distorted self-image he is bringing to his session. Using a reality check also shows the client that one moment of insecurity or indulgence does not define who he is as a whole.

Imagine a scenario where this client missed his personal workout over the weekend and overindulged in excess eating because of stress at work. Prior to this he was making consistent progress and feeling good about his successes, but now he has shown up with a negative belief on board: “I have no willpower” (or “I’ll never get there” or “It’s too difficult to keep going”). It seems as if he has developed amnesia in regard to his health goals.

A practical first step is to acknowledge the client’s feelings, regardless of the distortion. This is important because, despite the exaggerated perspective, the negative belief feels like the truth to your client. After you have allowed some time for his feelings, you can move on to a series of questions that are evidence based. For instance, in response to the statement of inadequacy you might say, “I get that you feel you have no willpower, but if that’s true, who has been coming here week after week?” (or “I understand you think you’ll never get there, but how do you explain the progress you’ve made all these months?” or “I’m curious, if it’s too difficult to keep going, what has kept you coming for all this time?”) Your question causes your client to shift his thinking because he is confronted with the reality of his own efforts. While he may still want to negate reality or find reasons why his efforts don’t count, it will be difficult for him to hold on to his distorted belief when he has to ponder his progress.

Immediate Action
Moving your clients quickly into action is a great way to shift negative thinking. In discussing how to get beyond depression coupled with procrastination, David Burns, MD, writes, “You have to prime the pump. Then you will get motivated, and the fluids will flow spontaneously” (Burns 1980). In other words, sometimes the only way to help a client focus on something other than her negative thinking is to get her into action. This could mean moving your client into a workout; teaching a new skill that is achievable but requires focus; using a visualization technique to help the client relax; asking her to write down all that she has accomplished since she started with you; or having her concentrate on her breathing. As the client dances, runs, relaxes, writes or breathes, she is forced to shift her attention away from her poor self-image. Then she has the opportunity to move literally and figuratively through what she has been thinking and feeling.

Your guidance toward activity provides your client with a focus and diverts her from the loop of negative thinking. The artistry of your work lies in adjusting the actions you have chosen, based on your observations. You should notice how your client responds to each suggestion and then use that knowledge to guide both of you. From a mind-body perspective you will see your client’s energy change as her thinking shifts. Her mood will lift, her face will open up, and her posture will become less burdened. If the activity you introduce frustrates your client, shift to something you know your client can accomplish. Completing the task at hand will give her a sense of empowerment.

As you become more alert to negative beliefs in your clients and learn to help them clarify their thinking for themselves, they will enjoy the satisfaction of making steady progress toward their wellness goals–and that satisfaction will be your success.*

Karol Ward, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and a nationally recognized speaker and writer. She bases her work in the fields of psychology, communication and personal development on the importance of the body-mind connection. Karol teaches people how to access, notice and apply the emotional and intuitive information of the body to all areas of life. Contact her at www.karolward.com.

Burns, D.D. 1980. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: HarperCollins.
Rosenberg, J.L. 1985. Body, Self, & Soul: Sustaining Integration. Atlanta: Humanics Ltd.

Shapiro, F., & Forrest, M.S. 1997. EMDR: The Breakthrough “Eye Movement” Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma. New York: NY Basic Books.

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