Cognitive Therapy: Mindful Awareness

Many of us are afraid to spend quality time with ourselves. We manage to run away in all sorts of ways, trying to escape the unsettling quiet of being alone with our own minds, or noticing how loud our feelings can be when we actually pay attention to them. Some of us mask the “quiet” by constantly talking to other people, chattering endlessly with others and filling up silences the minute they appear. For others, a frenzy of activity offers the desired distraction. And for still others, turning to substances or behavioral addictions such as food, shopping, or watching TV are also ways of avoiding what can be uncomfortable feelings associated with being alone or engaging in mindful awareness.

While introverts and extroverts may differ in terms of whether they enjoy quiet and solitude (a great resource on this topic is Susan Cain’s work on “The Power of Introverts”), I don’t think this is just about one’s temperament; even introverts can fill their minds with endless thought or become hyper-absorbed in a project or work, to avoid the painful experience of the unknown that comes with sitting with ourselves, letting go of control, and opening ourselves up mindfully to whatever seems to come up for us. I often think this is about the ability to be comfortable tolerating uncertainty and surrender, as we let whatever happens happen, and open ourselves up to feelings and experiences that might surprise us. Advanced cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy techniques (third wave cognitive therapy and behavior therapy) are now helping us learn how to have a different relationship with our own minds. It’s no longer just about changing the content of our thoughts (as in earlier techniques from cognitive therapy), nor is it just about changing our behaviors- therapists now know just how important it is to help people start to have a completely different relationship with their minds.

As a therapist, there are times when clients come in and talk so much and so fast, that they don’t even seem to come up for air; it gives me the feeling that they worry that stopping for a moment might force them to acknowledge deeper feelings that perhaps they don’t even know they have. Sometimes I might ask such a client to just pause for a moment and allow for a bit of silence, only to find the person instantly bursting into tears! It seems that this simple pause allows a rush of pent-up emotions to suddenly come to the surface. In a different scenario, many clients struggling with compulsive and addictive behaviors also describe how unbearable unstructured times such as the weekends can be, when the routines (and often frenzy) of activity and interaction of the week are suddenly gone, and there may be way more alone time than is comfortable. Many people fear their minds, complaining of racing thoughts or frightening thoughts, or simply wanting to control their thoughts- believing that thoughts themselves can actually be dangerous. As a matter of fact, many people seek out cognitive therapy for the simple fact that they want to “get rid” of something from their minds.

So what makes it so hard for some of us to simply be open to our own, uncensored experience? Here are a few of my thoughts. For some people, longstanding patterns of being put down by others or criticized for one’s thoughts and feelings may have caused underlying feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem, leading to an underlying belief that simply “being oneself” in the moment may not be ok. There is a sense of needing to constantly control who we are and how we think and feel. For others, internal experiences that are painful or that feel unacceptable (such as upsetting memories, or “taboo” emotions such as anger) are at-risk of coming up in a moment of quiet awareness that is not being blocked by distraction; this can be quite scary. I think there are also those of us who can feel empty when it’s quiet, when we’re not experiencing a rush of energy and adrenaline that tells us we’re real, alive, reacting. And, of course, for those who have experienced trauma or abuse in the past- not knowing when they might suddenly be caught off guard or victimized- quiet moments may be experienced as “the calm before the storm” rather than as ports of safety.

So why does it even matter whether we can tolerate being with ourselves or not?

Well, for one, constant activity, distraction, and stimulation can be very depleting, and can also stop us from reflecting on deeper parts of our experiences that may need to be dealt with. For example, blocking out anger might stop us from making changes to address things in our lives that are unsatisfying or disturbing. Avoiding painful memories may stop us from getting new perspectives on situations we may have overreacted to or taken too personally; we can often get very different perspectives from our initial reactions to upsetting events, if we manage to reflect on them once they’re behind us and we already have some healthy distance. And, not being able to tolerate discomfort as we tune into what we notice in our bodies and minds can make it hard to slow down compulsive behaviors such as eating, spending, or excessively surfing the net.

Which kind of mindful awareness is most difficult for you? When you are alone, is it hardest to be with what you experience in your body, in your thoughts, in your feelings, or memories that come up? Simply noticing what comes up when you pay a little attention can be an amazing first step to learning how to have a healthier relationship with the one person who will always be with you- your self!