False Beliefs Completely Suck [71]

By Dr. Keith Witt
December 16, 2012
ChainsThe fifty-something wife (Joyce) glares angrily at her husband, who first looks defiantly back, but then turns away in obvious discomfort. She is in the middle of a tirade. “John’s a liar. He just told me he’d take us to Paris to shut me up. He never really meant it.” John looks up in exasperation, “Of course I meant it, Joyce! How was I supposed to know I’d get a huge contract in February?” He turns to me and opens up his hands helplessly. “Tell her. How was I supposed to know?” I look over at seething Joyce and know from previous experience there is currently no chance of convincing her that John genuinely intended to do the Paris vacation, though I’m sure he did. John has had a long history of following through on such plans. At this moment she is unable to consider her angry story might not be true. One of the hallmarks of psychological health is the ability to seriously consider something you believe might be false. It is especially healthy to be able to do this when you’re upset. Noticing and accepting false beliefs is often really hard with lovers or family members (see Blog #26). Is there someone you’re close to who has trouble admitting he or she is wrong, especially when upset? Do you have trouble considering your analysis of a situation might be completely off when you’re scared, sad, ashamed, or angry? Most of us have this problem at least sometimes in our most intimate relationships. Why does this happen so commonly? Well, first of all, intimate relationships generate lots of experiences to draw from when we’re affectionate or hostile–look at all the shared history of husbands, wives, and children. Brains cherry-pick memories to support current states–when I love you my brain accesses memories of you being adorable, and when I’m furious my brain brings up memories of you being a pain. Even more, because our nervous systems were first programmed in relationships with mother, father, and other family members, the closer we feel to someone, the more likely we are to relate to them like we did to early family members–both positively and negatively. When we feel threatened, our brains reflexively try to ready us for flight or fight by generating primitive defensive states that involve distorted perspectives—false beliefs. I see this all the time in therapy, and not just in extreme sessions like John and Joyce arguing about the trip to Paris. A few examples are:
  • “My boss hates me.”
  • “My teenage son is trying to drive me crazy.”
  • “My wife just looks for opportunities to put me down. She loves putting me down.”
In response to these I might gently inquire as to whether your boss actually feels something as passionate and damning as “hate,” or whether your son has any agenda other than teen angst and struggle, or if your wife actually “loves” attacking and denigrating. Of course, any of these could be true, but such beliefs are usually distorted, and often completely wrong. Compassionate understanding is usually the most accurate understanding, and compassionate understanding of myself means considering that angry, hurt, scared, or outraged beliefs are probably wrong to some extent. Compassionate understanding of others means getting that, most of the time, people are trying to do right. Defending false beliefs is a hallmark of crazy. People with borderline personality disorder often can’t even consider they might have false beliefs when they’re angry, and literally start going psychotic if you press them too hard (see Blog #12). The following is a good example: Keith: “I don’t think your boss hates you. I think he didn’t like it that you got the report in two days late. He’s often complimented you in the past about your work.” Borderline client: “I know he hates me. He gave me that hating look—and it’s not the first time. I’ve told you about it, don’t you remember? Haven’t you been listening?” (Borderlines often slip into, “If you’re not with me you’re against me,” false beliefs.) Keith: “Sounds like you’re mad at me for not agreeing that your boss hates you.” Borderline client: “I’m mad at you for not believing me. I know he hates me! You’re my therapist! It’s wrong for you to take his side against me! It’s abusive!” And so on. Considering you might have a false belief is a central skill in what Peter Fonagy calls “mentalization,” or the ability to relate to your own and others’ feelings and thoughts as connected to reality, but not equaling reality. For instance:
  • You look mad at me, but you might not be mad at me. Maybe you have a stomachache. Maybe you are angry, but it’s at another person, or it’s something we can easily resolve if we talk cooperatively.
  • Maybe I should ask you what you’re thinking and feeling, and assume you know more about your thoughts and experience than I do (mostly the case, but not always as illustrated by the above borderline example).
The more we can do this kind of thinking and relating when we’re upset, the healthier we tend to be psychologically (see Blogs #20, #23, #36, and #37). Even just telling someone you think you have a false belief can be soothing and relaxing. What if your husband got furious at you for denting the car, and said something like, “I’m upset and telling myself an upset story that I know is distorted. You’re a good driver and it must have been scary to get dented like that. I’m sorry.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Just when you were expecting an attack, you get self-reflection and validation. What a great guy! I use examples like this a lot when teaching people about false beliefs. Once you can feel how pleasing it is to hear loving understanding, it becomes a little easier to offer loving understanding. How do you think it would feel to John in our first example to hear the following from Joyce? “I know you really meant for us to go to Paris, and I know it’s a huge victory to get that account. I’m just disappointed and frustrated and I tend to make up these angry stories about you when I’m so upset.” John would likely feel more sympathetic towards Joyce’s frustration at losing—or at least postponing—their dream vacation. False beliefs. We all generate them and the solution is compassionate understanding. We can reach for compassionate understanding at any moment (see Blog #14). Just spend the next week paying attention to what you believe when you’re feeling bad (angry, sad, depressed, scared, anxious, ashamed, offended, in physical pain, etc.), and ask yourself, “Is this my most compassionate understanding?” Remember, every time you adjust towards compassion, your brain clicks into a slightly higher level of complexity and equanimity. Catching and correcting false beliefs is one of the best ways to support personal evolution and increase love in all your relationships. Image Credit: t r e v y

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