Creating Trust in the Process of Self-Esteem Work

A Letter from Cheryl M Bradshaw, MA

One of the hardest things to work through with clients on self-esteem and inner voice work is to trust in the process of changing the tone, language, and relationship with the critical inner voice. When a negative inner voice has been around in a single, familiar form for most of a client's life, attempting to help that client change their inner voice can often make them feel like they are being fake or phony. This can quickly disengage the client from the entire process of therapy. In order for any self-esteem work to be successful, the first step is to help the client develop trust and understanding of how the process is going to feel. One of the exercises from the book that best helps young people understand this feeling is what I call the Arm Crossing Exercise. Here is the modified excerpt from the book:

 “Okay, here is one more example to help you understand how hard changing old habits can be, but also that it’s possible! What I want you to try right now is to cross your arms for me. Yup, just cross your arms as you normally would. Don’t think about it. Okay, now look down at your arms. Which arm is on top? The left or the right? I know for me, my left arm likes to be on top, with my right hand tucked up underneath my left.

Okay, now shake out your arms. Now I want you to try crossing your arms the other way. Try it! That means whatever arm was on top last time is going to be on the bottom this time. For me, when I switch my arms, my right arm is now on top, with my left hand tucked up underneath.

Here’s what usually happens: when you go to cross your arms opposite from how you normally cross them, your brain has to slow down and really think about what to do. It takes a lot more effort. You can’t really do much else at the same time because your brain has to put all of the effort into figuring out this new task. When you cross your arms like you usually do, you do it quickly, without thinking, and usually can continue doing whatever other task you were already doing. When you change a habit like this and do it in a new way, you can actually feel your brain struggling to figure things out. It takes longer and it feels really weird. Even once you manage to figure out how to cross your arms the other way, with the other arm on top, it then feels bizarre to hold that position. However, if you were to cross your arms this 'other way' every day for a week or two, your brain would settle down, and it wouldn’t feel so weird. It wouldn’t take so long, and it would start to feel normal. The tough part is getting through that 'weird feeling' phase as your brain reorganizes itself. But change does happen!”

You can use this exercise in sessions with clients to help them experience how the brain reacts to trying to change old, ingrained habits, including changing the negative patterns and habits of a critical inner voice in order to help build trust in the next steps of working through the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and narrative approaches within the book. For more, check out How to Like Yourself. Happy reading!

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