*All names are changed to provide anonymity, and permission was given by the client to publish this article.
*Katie came to me presenting with some difficulties surrounding the relationship with her boyfriend. Despite having a strong, secure and loving relationship, Katie struggled to get over a comment her partner had made in only the first few weeks of them being together. During a casual conversation, her partner had mentioned that Katie wasn’t usually his type but that he was so enamored by her that he just didn’t care! Despite him continuing to say how kind, funny and intelligent he found her, Katie struggled to integrate the totality of his response, finding herself only selectively screening the first part.
The negative aspect of the statement began to gather momentum over time – the perceived hurtful comment playing out internally whenever he told her how beautiful he found her, or how much he loved her.
She struggled to connect deeply with him on an intimate level too, the negative thoughts escalating over time (I bet he fancied his ex-girlfriend more/ He’s probably just humouring me etc.).
At times Katie could catch these thoughts before they took hold by offsetting them against how good the relationship was and how great her partner was. She tried desperately to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones but found the reconditioning self-talk didn’t really change things, only mask them for a brief time.
Throughout her life Katie had struggled with depression and admitted in sessions that she was a very ‘all or nothing’ type thinker.
“I just don’t want to think about this ever again. It’s like there’s part of my brain which just refuses to update and replace old information with new stuff. It means I struggle to let go, even when I know it’s totally irrational.”
This type of incident wasn’t just a one-off for Katie who explained that she had a long history of similar experiences in relationships. As far back as she remembers, Katie had never been able to accept that her partners truly wanted to be with her. She felt they must all have some ulterior motive. She was able to identify that she had a pattern of ‘testing’ others, which in reality only ever culminated in dramatic, unstable relationships and pushing others away.
Katie and I worked together to explore some of her earlier relational patterns and her attachment style (insecure), and gradually moved onto discussions about her mother who often had angry emotional outbursts. Katie was able to recollect:
“I remember being shouted at when I was a very little girl and although I can’t remember the exact words that were said, I remember the feeling. It felt as though my Mum had said she didn’t want me, or that I was a mistake – something like that anyway.
It isn’t clear but the feeling is.”
We explored this feeling of hers and how at the time – despite her mother later soothing her and apologising – little Katie felt as though she didn’t believe her apology:
“I just didn’t believe her. It felt like because she said it, she must mean it, and it couldn’t be taken back. I felt like I knew the real truth – and the truth was that I wasn’t really wanted.”
As a young child unable to accurately interpret adult behaviour, Katie had internalised the abuse and developed a false core belief – that being:
“I am unwanted and unlovable, others cannot be trusted.”
The biology of ‘all or nothing’ thinking is actually quite helpful in terms of primitive evolution. When faced with a large predator about to devour us for lunch, there is little time to think about what to do! We flip into our powerful flight or fight response mode so that we can make a snap decision under perceived threat.
Through therapy Katie discovered that her emotional triggers were all relating to her sense of feeling under threat, prompting her to react with maladaptive behaviours (set of programmes). Katie was an intelligent and self-aware woman but struggled to see a way out of this all or nothing (black/white) thinking:
“How does it work though? How do I just rewire my brain like that? If I see a red triangle and everyone else sees it as a green square, how do I begin to believe them?”
Together, we looked at how such early negative experiences can lead to cognitive distortions and how we set the mind to ‘look’ for danger. Although all of our perceptions are coloured by our own particular version of events, we explored ways of broadening her perception in order in such a way that the perceived ‘dangers’ became diluted.
During our time together, Katie gradually began to update her core beliefs and start to feel less fixed in her all or nothing views.
“It’s still hard to see the grey areas at times, but being more aware of my processes really helps me to reflect on what I perceive to be a trigger in the first place.”
Steph Jones is featured on Counselling Directory Register and registered on the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) Professional Standards Authority Accredited Register (Registered number 202917).
Steph Jones Counselling (MBACP PGDip BSc Hons)
t: 07545 339 175
Professional Counselling and Psychotherapy for individuals and couples in Stockport, South Manchester, Cheshire and Manchester.