Changing Rigid Beliefs

I think one of the hardest things we work with in the room are people’s firmly held beliefs about their partner, also known as View of Other. This can be particularly difficult with couples who have been together a long time, and the cycle has told them thousands of times “why” their partner acts the way they do. 

It’s remarkable to watch how easily the process can flow with a couple who has relatively flexible beliefs and a higher level of trust. The Withdrawer turns to the Pursuer and says, “It’s really hard for me when you come at me abruptly. I feel like you don’t respect what I’m doing in that moment, and so I get defensive.” And the Pursuer goes, “Really? I never knew that. I didn’t realize I sounded abrupt, I just feel overwhelmed in those moments. I never understood why I saw you get defensive, but now I get it more.” 

Smooth like butter, baby. Everyone feels successful! The couple, the therapist, the model. 

But when I see couples who have had more trauma and more years in the negative cycle, the cycle has caused really strong beliefs to form, so we’re going to hit a lot of different blocks:

 1)  View of other – I believe he/she does this because they are selfish/uncaring/etc.

2)  View of self – I believe he/she does this because I am not valued or loved, or maybe I am not deserving of their love

3)  Emotional burnout – I believe this can’t change, and I’m really tired of trying

I think this is where the therapist needs to get really patient. I can get energized when someone shares clearly and with more vulnerability, but I have to remember it’s sometimes been 10 to 40 years that the partner has seen something opposite to what they’re sharing now. I have to remember it will take many, many times of repetition and emotional deepening that helps introduce this new belief. 

But I have my own blocks in the process, too. 

 1)  Seeing the defeat on the sharing partner’s face, when they’re finally sharing more clearly and vulnerably but their partner doesn’t take it in. This triggers my fear of them giving up.

2)  Seeing the listening partner repeatedly reject the very message they long to hear, because of their understandable protective mechanism.  This triggers my fear that their dynamic won’t change.

3)  Fearing they will see me or the model as ineffective, because these blocks prevent change. Or fearing I actually am ineffective, and someone else could do this so much better.

I was listening to an interview with Oprah the other day, and she said something that resonated with me about this topic. She was talking about how in her career, she’s seen many times where her audience hasn’t been ready to change their beliefs about something. She gave a particular example about a wellness coach she had on in the 1990s. The coach was talking about self-care, and said how important it was to put your self-care first, and the audience actually started boo-ing her. It was such a radical thought at the time, and people were reacting to the fear she was saying to not care about your kids or partner. 

Oprah said, “It’s really hard for someone to change their belief, because it means they are changing how they understand themselves.”

That idea helped me think about just how big of a thing it is for someone to shift their beliefs about what’s been happening in their relationship. As the therapist, we have to balance these two powerful opposing forces. People come in saying, “We need this fixed immediately!!!!!” and yet their systems are sometimes also telling us, “it’s going to take me a long time to shift my beliefs on this one.”

Oprah’s phrase helped me understand better what a big, imbedded belief that the clients have to shift to see the dynamic as cyclical instead of one being to blame. For maybe 40 years someone has thought of their partner as selfish, rigid, and unfeeling. Part of them doesn’t want that to be true, but to change that belief, they have to challenge how they’ve understood this dymanic, and themselves. They also have to sit with the idea they’ve misunderstood this dynamic for this long. As the therapist, I can’t just think of their partner looking better as a good thing, because it’s also scary to think they can’t trust their own interpretation of what’s been happening. 

Look, there might be many therapists out there shifting these dynamics in 12-20 sessions, but I am not. And the more pressure I put on myself to shift these dynamics quickly, the worse I am. I think we are asking massive, massive changes from our clients who have held more rigid beliefs. And I think that takes a slow, gentle approach with ourselves, and our clients. 

2018, March 8, Goop Podcast, Episode 1 with Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey: Power, Perception and Soul Purpose