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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

How to Get to a Breakthrough without Having a Breakdown

“Why do you keep going back if it’s making you feel worse?” my boyfriend asked.

We were talking about one of the most unsettling experiences of my young adult life — don’t laugh — psychotherapy.

No snowflake, I was surprised that my hands were often trembling as I drove home after sessions. Sometimes my chest was pounding, or I found myself crying.

I didn’t have an answer for my boyfriend (other than to yell, “I’m not a masochist!”). But it didn’t keep me from faithfully showing up for my appointment every other week.

Here’s what I know now:

1. It’s amazing how quickly our brain can change when it recognizes a bigger, better offer.

We’re wired for what feels good. Neuroscientists have located a specific area of the brain (nucleus accumbens) designed to constantly compare rewards and instantly recalibrate us toward the most rewarding option. That nimbleness is necessary to adapt to changing conditions so we can survive and thrive.

The therapy sessions were obviously shaking me up. So why was I so drawn to an experience that was often disorienting and uncomfortable?

Well, a part of me liked being shaken to the core — was irresistibly drawn to it, even. But not like some inner adrenaline junkie. I didn’t enjoy the disorienting sense of discomfort and uncertainty. But on some level, I could sense the shakeup was serving a purpose — a chance to reshuffle the cards and give myself a shot at a better hand.

I didn’t have to force myself or will myself with a «no pain, no gain” mentality to show up for my counseling sessions. And I wasn’t delaying gratification in the quest for some future reward. The present-moment rewards of therapy were the driving force: Every week, l was listened to by someone fully present, emotionally engaged, and non-judgmental. That need for authentic human connection is another survival-inspired part of our human programming. And it was hugely rewarding.

The emotional risk-taking we do in therapy sets us up to “do” our relationships with others better. It gets easier to break out of old, less-functional behavior patterns and replace them with better ones. Like breaking up with my narcissistic boyfriend and trading up for a better type of guy.

But it did take me a while to dump the bad boyfriend. What I know now is that my brain was just doing what it’s supposed to do.

2. It’s amazing how much our brain doesn’t want us to change.

If humans are wired for what feels good, homeostasis might be at the top of the list. And what’s more stable than sameness or more comforting than the familiar? Like recognizing a friend in a crowd of strangers or spotting a KFC in a foreign country, the known is a comforting balm compared to the unknown, particularly when we’re feeling a bit vulnerable.

The familiar is most seductive when we’re stressed. Right when we most need to pay attention closely and critically, the comfort of the familiar fakes us out. It lulls us into an autopilot mode that keeps us stuck in a too-good-to-rock-the-boat but too-bad-to-keep-it afloat holding pattern.

No wonder change is usually forced upon us and catches us off guard.

So how do we deal with the brain’s need for certainty while making the changes we need and want to make? How do you engineer a breakthrough instead of a breakdown? How do you manage to a dump bad boyfriend when you’re afraid to be alone, along with all the other unknowns that go with it?

3. Let it RAIN.

RAIN is an acronym for a mindfulness practice developed to help us tread into unfamiliar territory and not get overwhelmed. Neuroscientists call this thinking skill “opening the window of tolerance,” which expands your field of awareness to hold conflicting aspects of complex situations.

I think of RAIN as a way of exploring our feelings without freaking out and making change feel safe and doable.

Here’s a brief description of RAIN:

RECOGNIZE that an uncomfortable feeling is coming on.

ACCEPT and ALLOW the feeling to be there. Don’t try to avoid it or make it go away. Instead, catch the wave of sensation and ride the experience all the way to shore.

INVESTIGATE the feelings and sensations happening moment-to-moment, studying them carefully with a friendly curiosity.

NOTE and NURTURE: 1) NOTE: Use short words and simple phrases to note the body sensations coming and going moment by moment. 2) NURTURE: Based on the information you gather, explore ways to help yourself feel better right now.

4. How to adapt RAIN to a counseling session:

I think of friendly curiosity, a primary component of RAIN, as an antidote to criticism and judgment. Curiosity can neutralize an Inner Critic attack and make room for the second component, compassion, to move in and jumpstart some productive problem-solving.

In the abbreviated example below, notice how the combination of curiosity and compassion in RAIN can help us get unstuck and moving forward:

CLIENT I overate last night and I’m so upset with myself. Just when I think I’m doing well and on my way to getting this COVID weight off, I do something like this. I hate it.

THERAPIST What did it feel like in your body when you overate the last night?

CLIENT I felt bloated and overfull. I was miserable.

THERAPIST What’s it like to feel bloated and miserable like that?

CLIENT I get really upset with myself. I beat myself up and say, “You’ve got to do better!”

THERAPIST How do you feel right now, as you reflect on what happened?

CLIENT Appropriately sad.

THERAPIST Appropriately sad. What’s it like to feel “appropriately sad”?

CLIENT I noticed as I said that, there was a little bit of a softening around it.

THERAPIST So you’ve gathered some data. You’re aware of this appropriately sad feeling and how noting it also softened it a little bit. So based on what you’ve noted so far, how could you help yourself feel better right now?

CLIENT Well, I could be compassionate instead of critical. I already feel terrible about it. It won’t help me feel better to keep castigating myself. But I’m afraid if I give myself a pass, I’ll slack off and really get off track!

THERAPIST Yeah. What’s it like when you don’t give yourself a pass and keep the pressure on?

CLIENT I feel really down and worried the rest of the day. I’m starting to wonder if criticizing myself makes me feel terrible and may just set me up to overeat again.

THERAPIST How do you feel about experimenting? See what happens when you criticize yourself and when you comfort yourself and compare the results?

CLIENT Then I’ll know which way works better.

THERAPIST What can you do to comfort yourself when you feel upset like this? Something that would help you feel better right now, in this moment?

CLIENT I could get curious instead of critical. One thing that makes me feel better when I’m having an Inner Critic attack is to do some very gentle, relaxing yoga poses. I’ve found them to be very comforting.

Some important points about RAIN:

RAIN is not a technique to make yourself not do something. It’s a tool to make you more aware.

Whether you get yourself to not do something (procrastinate, smoke, drink, yell, overeat, etc.) isn’t as important as gathering data about what does happen, particularly on a feeling level.

The awareness component of RAIN, coupled with the compassion component, makes it possible to freely choose better behaviors without so much forcing and pushing. The effort of RAIN doesn’t exhaust us or wear us down.

RAIN is a deceptively powerful tool. I hope you look forward to hearing more about it from me and exploring it for yourself!