Mindful Therapy: Psychotherapy for the Soulby Sherry Gaba, LCSWA middle-aged woman is feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, hopeless and depleted of all of her energy. She explains to her doctor that she has been having these feelings of self-doubt and is desperate to turn back the clock to a time in her twenties and thirties when she knew she was "beautiful," "thin," and "revered." She has tried everything from Pilates, energy healing, life coaching, herbal remedies, hypnotherapy, Reiki, and has visited an array of holistic spas and retreats. Yet she continues to feel chronic emptiness and impending doom. It’s as if she is suffering from soul sickness. No doubt the alternative treatments were effective and initially brought her a sense of renewal and energy. But days and weeks later the debilitating despair of a long-lost youth and the feelings of worthlessness returned. When her psychotherapist recommended learning mindfulness and acceptance skills, she thought it was just another treatment, but in her desperation, she agreed.
So what is this psychotherapy that incorporates mindfulness and acceptance skills? The mindfulness and acceptance method employs both Western and Zen philosophies. This technique encourages clients to make changes to the behaviors that are keeping them from experiencing a more fulfilling life, while simultaneously helping the individual accept basic realities. A client learns to become accepting of themselves while being mindful in the present moment, and seeing reality without denial. For the woman who wants to maintain youth at all costs, mindfulness and acceptance skills encourage her to honor her current attributes with grace and dignity while at the same time, attaining skills necessary to redirect the destructive messages.
Too often we are so busy with our lives, multitasking while rushing to the next appointment, that we get caught up in the "doing" rather than just "being." We forget to stop and take a pause from our daily rituals to just be present. The frenzy is exacerbated by destructive "thinking." We are a society that lives in our heads, often focused on judgments and obsessions about ourselves and others. We are frequently reminding ourselves of personal beliefs concerning what life should be like, how much money we should have, what type of job we should hold, what type of car we should be driving and where we should be living. These endless judgments and longings keep us stuck in a continuous cycle of neediness and insecurity. Our desires can take over our entire existence as we focus on how we want things to be, leaving very little energy for accepting things as they are. True freedom can only exist when we take that sacred pause and experience the “here and now.” It is only then that true insight can blossom and flourish.
Psychotherapy that incorporates mindfulness and acceptance practices can help us identify those thought patterns and obsessions that leave us judging ourselves and others and wanting for more when enough is never enough. It is often caused by a fear of the pain that is buried deep within us that keeps us in negative cycles. Instead of dealing with the pain, we will go to any length to avoid it. Ultimately by not dealing with this excruciating pain, we may engage in destructive behaviors such as binge eating, over-spending, substance abuse, sexual addiction, gambling or entering into unhealthy relationships. These behaviors compliment the cycle of self-loathing and self-judgment that creates a life filled with the misery we were initially trying to avoid. Only when we walk through the pain without resistance does real transformation take place.
Learning mindfulness practice in psychotherapy can be as formal as practicing mindfulness meditation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or diaphragmatic breathing. It can be as informal as learning how to slow down from a hurried day by using conscious breathing techniques and mindfully experiencing the joy of just being present. These skills teach us present moment awareness in the here and now. Best of all, in order to have a Zen moment, it is not necessary to have an adorned cushion, a beaded shawl or even prayer beads. Some of our most blessed and serene moments occur in the middle of our hectic day. Learning mindfulness skills teaches us that we can feel centered anytime and anywhere. When we are in balance, we tend to be less reactive or impulsive, which allows us to make more skillful and effective decisions in our daily lives.
Being mindful allows us to be present with whatever comes our way without needing to control, fix, or manipulate it. When we are not present, we are either focused on getting more of what is pleasurable or avoiding was is unpleasant. This behavior perpetuates the illusion that happiness comes from outside oneself. Thus we are stuck in a pattern of never being satisfied with what we do have and for the way things really are. We become trapped in a swirling vortex, chasing after the pleasure and security we believe provides eternal happiness. We are then disappointed when life throws us a curve ball. Inevitably there will be some sort of crises whether it is a death of a loved one, a divorce, a job loss or even a terminal disease. These crises provide the foundation where a practice of being mindful can heal and transform us. When we learn how to accept stress and discomfort without hiding from it, we discover our deepest authentic self.
When we become aware of our pain and old wounds, it is not uncommon for insecurities and/or feelings of grief, fear and guilt to arise. This is when a trained psychotherapist can help by providing us with support, validation and acknowledgment. We learn new ways to cope and develop a keen awareness of alternate perspectives and new ways to respond to feelings. Although mindfulness skills are born out of a spiritual realm, it is now popular in psychotherapy practices because it works! Clients who regularly practice mindfulness skills are better able to regulate their emotional states, prevent relapses, and can tolerate stress and solve problems more easily. For the women who want to turn back the clock, I offer these words of wisdom from Carl Rogers, "The curious paradox is that when I can accept myself just as I am, then I can change."
Sherry Gaba, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach who works extensively with clients coping with substance abuse, eating disorders, divorce, and grief and loss. She maintains offices in Agoura.. Call (818)756-3338 for an appointment.