September 25, 2012

Lens Lesson

Everybody sees life through the lens of his or her own history. Try as we might, it's almost impossible to view any person, event, or situation completely objectively, without the impact of our experience and memories. Sometimes it's more obvious than others; for example, when someone cringes every time her boss says "Can I speak with you privately for a minute?" it's not hard to figure out that she's carrying the memory of another boss that said the same thing right before he fired her.

Sometimes it's more subtle though. You might not realize that your exaggerated fear of gaining a few pounds developed the time your ex offhandedly mentioned that your jeans looked tight, right before the relationship ended. Similarly, it might not be obvious that your resistance to buying birthday and Christmas presents is the result of the time you gave what you thought was an exceptionally perfect gift, only to receive a devastatingly indifferent response. Such experiences become the lens through which you see weight-related or gift-related situations, and seeing through the lens influences how you behave (e.g., obsessing over the scale, refusing to buy gifts).

Lenses are often composed of thoughts: "I'm not good at choosing gifts." "Gaining weight is unacceptable." "I could get fired at any time." One of my jobs as a cognitive-behavioural therapist is to help clients become aware of their "lens thoughts" and develop alternative thoughts that help them act differently and feel better. I tell clients that when they they feel down, anxious, or otherwise unhappy about a given situation or event, they can ask themselves the following questions:

a) What was I thinking?
b) Is it a lens thought? 
c) What might someone else think in this situation?

Example:  I have a client who was bullied mercilessly in high school and now feels extremely anxious in social situations. When someone so much as glances sideways at her, she instantly interprets the look as one of disrespect, dislike, and scorn. The impact of her social anxiety is that she feels sad and isolated, never attending a work party and avoiding situations like parent/teacher night at her daughter's school. When she received an email invitation to her cousin's baby shower, her immediate thought was "Everyone will make fun of how I look;" she felt shame and dread, and quickly discarded the email. Going over the example using the three questions above, my client was able to identify the thought as a lens thought; she acknowledged that another person who received a baby shower invitation might think something like "Oh great, a party! Hmmm, what will I wear? " This allowed her to label her upsetting thought as a relic from high school, and to focus on choosing an outfit she liked.

Recognizing lens thoughts and putting someone else in your shoes can help you adjust your perspective and change your behaviour.  The next time an event or situation is bringing you down, try the lens lesson!

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