I distinctly remember the biggest lesson from my first counseling course. I was learning the basic therapy concepts that can help anyone maintain their mental health. It was in that course that I slowly started to transition from the stigmatized view of mental illness to the strengths-based perspective of mental health. But what still resonates with me today is this realization I had: Everyone needs these lessons.
If we all have mental health, shouldn’t we all learn about it? In school, we spend time learning about Freud and leaders within the field of psychology, but not the practical notions to promote personal mental health. Fast forward to my present-day private practice, and now I hear this sentiment echoed by client after client: That makes perfect sense; I just wish I'd known it sooner.
Diagnosis aside, these counseling concepts could have universal benefits. Learning a few terms from Counseling 101 can empower you to reflect and make tangible changes to improve your mental health.
Here are a few to get started.
Metacognition is “thinking about thinking”or having awareness about your own thoughts. With this empowering concept comes the idea that if we have the power to observe our thoughts, we may also have the power to change them. Rather than believing our negative, irrational and/or unhealthy thoughts are facts, we can use mindfulness to observe them and know that our thoughts do not define us.
To work on your metacognition, you can explore the impact your thoughts have, whether or not they serve you, where they come from, and if you wish to keep them as is or work towards altering them.
To achieve congruence, who you are on the inside should match what you convey. For example, say you value commitment and loyalty. The congruent action of choosing to marry your lifetime partner may likely bring you happiness, while the incongruent choice to cheat on your spouse may cause discontent.
To apply this, first think about your core values. Consider how your thoughts and behaviors align. Start small. For example, at the end of the day, consider how what you did that day may or may not align with your values, and subsequently consider how you felt. Think about how you can shift your actions to become more congruent.
Directly related to congruence, dissonance is the discomfort that arises when there is a mismatch between your thoughts, beliefs or actions. Many times, we may experience dissonance, but do not recognize that the cause is the lack of congruence. According to Leon Festinger, we strive for consistency, and the lack thereof prompts psychological stressors, such as anxiety, frustration and sadness. For example, although you may value saving for future investments, you might find yourself impulsively spending from week to week. From this mismatch, stressors may arise, without you even realizing that this may be the source of your stress.
In a situation where you notice a conflict, consider how you can reorient yourself to achieve consistency. After repeated practice, your awareness can transition from a reactive reflection to a strategy you can apply in the moment stressors arise.
Enmeshment is when blurred boundaries may exist in a relationship. One can become entangled and may find it difficult to differentiate between their thoughts, feelings and values and those of another person. Many times, this develops into codependence, an excessive reliance on another person for support. This term prompts us to consider our sense of self and to what extent we may be influenced by others.
While it is not necessarily unhealthy to be inspired by another person, it can be unhealthy to be a certain way because you believe that’s the way that person would want you to be. For example, a child may choose to pursue a career because their parent has flourished in that domain. However, choosing that path because they believe it is what they should do to make their parent happy may be undermining their own sense of self. While this may vary culturally, the lack of clarity for a person’s sense of self, especially paired with frustration and resentment, can cause the development of further mental health issues.
To avoid enmeshment, take a step back and consider your sense of self. Who are you, and who influences who you are? Is there an aspect of your personality that you would like to change, but you worry it might dissatisfy someone in your life? If so, consider the relationship you may have with this person around that quality, and whether it may be unhealthy.
Projection occurs when you attribute your concerns with yourself to another individual. The recognition of the problem is highlighted in someone else rather than yourself. This typically happens as a defense mechanism to protect the ego. When you are frustrated with the qualities of another person, it may be because they relate to you in some way.
Consider two partners in a healthy relationship who have decided to move in together. After a month, Partner A notices an increase in annoyance towards Partner B because of their lack of cleanliness. What does this really mean? Is it simply about Partner A’s standards for cleanliness? Or could this simple example be representative of a bigger issue for Partner A, such as questioning their readiness to live together or the quality of the relationship?
To make use of this notion in your life, tap into your emotional intelligence when someone triggers a negative emotion in you; before considering what this means about them and how to proceed, reflect on what this truly means for you.
Jean Piaget theorized that as we learn, we categorize to make sense of things. From the Greek for shape or plan, a schema is essentially a combined system of organizing and perceiving new information in categorizations. Schemas are flexible, especially in our early years, and develop as we expand the realm of what we know.
During a young child’s first visit to a farm, they might excitedly exclaim, “Puppy!” upon seeing a horse for the first time. While the surrounding adults are likely to laugh, and correct them, “that’s a horse.” What is actually happening is an expansion of the child's vocabulary, and subsequently their schema, which organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. We are capable of learning throughout the course of our lives, and our schemas can change and be expanded at any time.
While cognitive processes do indeed cause learning to be harder as we age, contrary to old theories, we now know we can continue to learn throughout the course of our lives. Never give up on your ability to expand your mind, question what you know, and learn something new.
Shainna Ali is a mental health practitioner, educator and advocate. She recently authored The Self-Love Workbook and is the owner of Integrated Counseling Solutions, a mental health counseling and consulting practice in Orlando, Fla. Beyond the counseling couch, Dr. Shainna enjoys contributing to NAMI to help promote mental health awareness. For more information on Dr. Shainna, please visit www.ShainnaAli.com. You can also reach her through her Facebook or Instagram page.
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