The Art and Science of Change
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I help people transform emotional pain into new resilience, growth, and happiness. Call (916) 549-5772 to find out how I can help you.
Steve Mackey is a cognitive-behavioral, exposure based, and motivational coherence-based mental health counselor and psychotherapist who offers individual counseling and psychotherapy services for issues related to anxiety, depression, fear, mood problems, low self-esteem, anger, habits, and relationship struggles for adults at 2020 Capitol Ave., Suite 5, Sacramento, CA 95811, serving the Sacramento, Elk Grove, Folsom, Roseville, Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Carmichael, Davis, and Galt communities. For more information contact 916 549-5772.
The information provided on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Visiting this website does not constitute a therapist-client relationship. Information found on the internet is not a substitute for individualized evaluation and treatment by a mental health professional. All written and visual materials are the exclusive copyright of Steve Mackey, © 2011-2016.
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"If I cannot add to my own level of understanding, I could ill afford to try to raise that of others,” said Saint Ignatius Loyola, a 16th century Basque priest.
I ran across the above quote some time ago and thought of it again when deciding what might be useful to share on this page. Self-understanding is a tricky thing given how prone we are to bias, blind spots and self-promotion. Nevertheless, as imperfect as it will be, I think that by revealing what I understand to be my path to this profession and a bit about how I now work to help clients, others might recognize some of their own struggles and understand themselves a bit better, with a realization that human struggles are universal and that there are pathways out of misery and distress.
The issue of how much self-disclosure a therapist should use is replete with benefits and problems, but I favor "erring" just slightly on the side of excess. For some clients, therapists' use of self-disclosure is a humanizing process, helping them feel more connected and trusting of their therapists (as long as the therapist has truly resolved most issues and is not using therapy to "heal" themselves - it happens). Others would prefer therapists to keep personal information to a minimum.
But the trend seems to be moving toward sharing more, not less. Mostly gone are the days that a therapist presented him/herself as a neutral sounding board, sharing no personal or psychological information, fearing that any disclosure would either upset the proper balance of power and expertise between client and therapist, or get in the way of the transference process by which therapists are a blank slate that clients can subconsciously project their issues with important others in their past and present lives. But that kind of thinking has largely fallen out of favor, as many Freudian and early ideas about therapy have been discarded.
Clients often to want to know that their therapists have struggled at times, even with issues they've resolved that a client is struggling to resolve. And one of the largest issues many have struggled with is shame, the shame of believing that emotional difficulties and our failings make us inferior to others. This shame can keep us trapped from seeking help, finding camaraderie with similar fallible others, and fearing that we're somehow disordered and doomed to feel separated from others. Our biggest problem can be excessive shame about the very common problems we face.
Shame is a sometimes necessary emotion, helping us show contrition and make amends for things we've done wrong that have affected or may affect others negatively. In moderation, shame helps keep us in good graces with important others when we inevitably reveal our fallibilities - when we screw up - and thus likely can and should never be eliminated, but it certainly can be reduced to levels that have a minimal affect on our emotional lives and the goals we pursue.
But to do that, we've got to take the risk to reveal negative things about ourselves, risking disapproval, even rejection. It can be an ongoing process with many peaks and some valleys, but revealing our vulnerabilities can ultimately be freeing, allowing us to move toward our goals with less fear and emotional baggage. We fear disapproval, rejection, and failure, not knowing there are means of handling these possibilities well while reducing the odds we'll encounter them.
With that in mind, I'd like to offer some of the understanding I've come to about myself and my history that you may be able to relate to in the hopes that it may inspire you to add to your understanding of yourself, enhancing your ability to create the changes in your life that you seek.
I think I've always had an intense desire to understand myself and others due to my childhood and adolescent/young adult difficulties with emotions and relationships, and my seemingly inherent ambition to never stop looking for solutions to my problems. My first brush with the field of therapy was when I was 9-years-old. My parents were quite worried about my unhappiness and my crying jags when I couldn't understand something or do something perfectly. I still have the three pages of notes my parents wrote to the psychologist at Kaiser detailing my challenges, and some of my strengths.
Looking upon this documentation later in life, it's clear that I met much of the criteria for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD, not obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mostly different problem with obsessions and compulsions). OCPD is characterized by a "general pattern of concern with orderliness, perfectionism, excessive attention to details, mental and interpersonal control, and a need for control over one's environment, at the expense of flexibility, openness to experience, and efficiency."
For me it meant extreme frustration when people didn't do as they said they would, or do what they were supposed to do (like follow rules), or when I couldn't play the piano right or understand math or other abstract concepts, as I was "supposed to." I had a high degree of perfectionism and was very morally rigid, which made me very well behaved, but quite unhappy. I also suffered from occasional ticks under stress.
I suspect now that I was "wired" very intensely, but likely also exacerbated my own natural tendencies toward getting upset when things weren't perfect in order to get care and attention from my parents in my sibling rivalry pursuits with my older sister, who was the opposite of me - cheerful, optimistic, social, flexible. No doubt some learning and some genetics were involved, too, as my parents were highly moral and principled people.
I have almost no memories of the counseling, other than being asked what three items I would like to take to a desert island (a radio is all I can remember answering), and being embarrassed that my friends might find out where I was going after school once a week. According to my mother, I expressed a lot of anger toward my sister during the counseling.
The biggest bang of the counseling, according to her, was the psychologist's advice to my parents on how to handle me. If I started crying, they would tell me to stop practicing piano or studying or asking questions and do something else. They did not give me any excess attention for my distress. The crying jags stopped after six months of therapy, not to return. However, diaries I kept in 5th and 6th grade that I read years ago to my own daughter surprised me with how angry I was all the time. I didn't recall that. Perhaps frustrations seemed one of the few things worth writing, or venting, about.
Over time, anxiety about not fitting in, being different, as an adolescent came to be a dominant theme. My social skills were pretty bad, especially around girls, and though girls I liked would sometimes like me, I couldn't seem to say or do the right thing and the "relationships" always fizzled, causing more doubt about myself. Luckily for me, I had always been good at sports, especially running and basketball, so always had some friends and support, and something to keep me occupied every day after school. I was well-known in my high school, respected I think, but never went to a party or a dance except my senior ball with a friend from the girls' cross-county team.
In college, my relationship problems continued. By the midpoint of my junior year, two very brief relationships had ended badly for me. I had fallen hard, but my anxiety had driven the women away quickly. At the same time, repeated injuries derailed what was once a promising running career, causing a loss of near daily camaraderie with my teammates and much of my identity. I also experienced a crisis in my academic career. I knew Business was not the right field for me, but I was into my third year of a four year program and didn't know what I wanted to do.
A full blown emotional crisis ensued. I became extremely depressed and easily met the criteria for major depression. I didn't have thoughts of killing myself, but I distinctly remember feeling so bad that I wondered if death would be a better fate. Suspicions of something being inherently and terribly wrong with me now seemed to have been confirmed.
From ages 20 to nearly 22, I tried to keep my pain hidden, too ashamed to tell anyone or to get any help at the school counseling center. I decided I'd have to figure a way out of this pain on my own, but I was lost and floundering in my attempts. Because I was no longer running, I had time to poor myself into literature in the hopes of finding answers to my depression. I didn't, but because of the encouragement of an English teacher the year before about my writing skills, I decided to switch my major to English and write stories to help me out of my pain. To this day, I'm extremely grateful to Donna Seaton, the encouraging English teacher who has no idea how she impacted me and helped change the course of my life. I also now recognize this as a tentative first step in my now near missionary zeal to do something hard and different when troubles build, to take a risk and see where it leads. No one who had known me to that point would ever have thought I'd end up with a degree in English, but it has been invaluable to me.
Though one problem had seemingly been resolved, I still had no clues about maintaining a relationship, and felt stuck in my job bussing tables, afraid I would fail if I took a more lucrative position as waiter - a much more social job. I remained quite depressed, blaming fate or others for my troubles, but also still convinced that something was terribly wrong with me. I didn't dare approach further possible relationships with women, or try to find a better job, since I was 95% convinced that I was worthless. I didn't want to face more rejection or disapproval and "discover" my worthlessness was 100%.
In that way, my distorted beliefs served a "protective" function, in that though I was miserably depressed, by avoiding trying to establish a relationship, I didn't risk the stabbing pain of rejection, and I didn't risk worse depression by concluding that I was completely worthless to the opposite sex and the wider world. I traded one misery for the protection against what I thought was a far worse misery. (It wasn't worse, I would find out later, but only with experiences that put the lie to my beliefs about rejection and worth. At the time, like many of us, I was pretty convinced that my beliefs about myself had to be right.)
Since literature was not helping much, I switched my focus to reading psychology books to guide me. I read many that fascinated me, but none that helped. One day in a public library, I came across an add in the magazine, Psychology Today, featuring many therapists and their various cassette tapes with all kinds of advice for the problems of living. One in particular stood out. It was from a New York psychologist named Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotive Therapy, and grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapy, whose add asked if you were tired of fearing rejection. It became crystal clear to me at that moment that my main problem was a fear of rejection. It was making me miserable and not allowing for any social skills to grow - a recipe for further misery.
I bought the tape and devoured Ellis' and his colleagues' books, struck by their insistence that my distorted thinking was the main cause of my misery, not external events such as rejection and failure. This seemed a revelation to me, and I saw this new way of thinking about thoughts, beliefs, and emotions as a pathway to stop negative emotions from running my life. (I have come now to a slightly different view about distorted beliefs and thinking being the cause of misery. I now see all thinking as inseparable from emotions, and distorted thinking in particular largely behind the various strategies we employ to avoid what we think is going to be worse pain without the belief systems, even if distorted, that we've developed. More on that here.)
At first, progress was slow, as I did the thinking/writing activities that cognitive-behavioral therapists recommend to change distorted thinking patterns. It was helpful in moments of despair, but it didn't do much to change my emotional or relationship life. Fortunately, Ellis always strongly recommended a behavioral component to his work (later changing the name of his renowned therapy to Rational-Emotive-Behavior Therapy, which it is still called today).
Ellis recommended using behavioral experiments to find evidence that beliefs are true or not - in my case that rejection would prove unbearable and a sign of massive inferiority, or that I couldn't possibly get better at developing more social skills. So, with trepidation, I began testing out the belief that I couldn't stand rejection, knowing that being rejected was the only way to find this out. And so I got rejected, many times. I didn't do anything purposeful to get rejected, but rather pursued women I was interested in the best I knew how.
I won't go into the details, but clearly I didn't know how - no surprise there. I misread others' interest in me at times, still continued to come across as too anxious or uptight, and likely made many other mistakes I'm not aware of. But I could sense real progress with both resiliency toward rejection and growing social skills. My depression completely lifted, but I was still pretty anxious a lot of the time, still thinking that I might yet find evidence that I was hopelessly inferior.
Occasionally I would fall off the wagon, wanting to convince myself there was a shortcut or easy way of changing myself, and would stop making progress on changing my behaviors and facing my fears to improve my life. I read books that held out hope that if I just saw the author's wisdom and came to enough self-understanding, emotional problems would be a thing of the past (yes, there are a lot of books promising life-changing insights - many of them junk). But when things derailed and anxiety returned, I found that facing my fears was always the answer.
I eventually realized that the most valuable self-understanding did not come from reading wise books, but from putting myself out in the world and facing my fears and distressing emotions and the beliefs and assumptions behind them, as well as my shortcoming with various life/career skills. I went to bartending school and tended bar for a few years to get better socially. I volunteered at a drug counseling clinic though I had no experience in the field. I got a job as a child care worker at a residential facility and worked my way up to various positions of greater responsibility. All normal stuff, but things that I had not been doing prior to deciding to challenge my assumptions and change my behaviors in the face of fear. Had I had a guide/therapist, and knowing the nuances to change processes I now know, I think I would have made significant gains in a few months instead of a few years.
By the time I was 25, I felt like I had made a near 180 degree change in my emotional and social life. Pursuing relationships became fun, and though there were still some disappointing failures, the pain was mild, temporary, and never derailed my quest to find a person to build a life with. At age 26, as luck would have it, I did just that, and over 30 years later my wife and I are still together and have reared a young adult daughter who is staking her claim to emotional independence and social interdependence.
I also seriously pursued the counseling field at age 25, hoping to help others as I had been helped, throwing myself into challenges I never would have undertaken without the knowledge that understanding and facing fears provide the best odds of efficiently and lastingly reducing emotional distress and a putting oneself on a pathway to reaching goals. I can only imagine the surprise my parents must have felt as they saw their son become an English major and then a therapist, rather than the accountant they once thought was my best career path based on my then emotional history and diminished social skills.
And my relationship with them improved greatly as I lost any resentment I had toward them for "favoring" my sister. Who wouldn't have liked her better? I had been an unpleasant pain in the ass. My sister and I now faithfully get together every month or two for lunch in the city in which our parents last resided. Any envy I once felt has been gone for decades.
I continue to make understanding my internal conflicts and the fears and assumptions they throw out, and then facing those fears and unpleasant emotions, a focus of my life. Use it or lose it applies to emotional skills as well as practical ones. Though I catch myself avoiding situations that I fear will be painful, more often than not I either resolve to confront the assumptions/fears behind my avoidance, or recognize that it may be best to go ahead and avoid distress from time to time until motivation for one path or another becomes more clear.
I realize that it's impossible to know with precision when you should face fears or hold off. Every decision to face a fear is a decision to possibly avoid numerous other fears. For guidance, I use my sense of making forward progress toward my goals as a benchmark to let me know if I've been avoiding a situation too long. I continue to push myself career wise, socially with new experiences and interactions, and I travel every year on a solo trip or two to continue to force myself into situations that can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. I have never regretted doing so. I enjoy knowing that I can be nearly anywhere in the world and connect with others socially or do things on my own with few to no worries.
I have come to the conclusion that life provides painful moments that have nothing to do with distorted beliefs and thinking, but this pain can certainly be exacerbated by these distortions, especially when the distortions help us avoid what we (often) wrongly think will be even more painful. Rejection and failure are unpleasant, just as working out for better health and fitness or flossing your teeth can be unpleasant. But as the late Dr. Ellis would say, these are hassles, not horrors.
And there are certainly upsides to these hassles, especially in the long-run. Facing the painful aspects of life with a coherent rationale and strategy for doing so brings increased understanding and emotional resilience, clearer thinking, and needed skills. Conversely, excessively avoiding the painful aspects of life tends to bring thinking distortions that magnify current pain and predicted future pain (what us therapists often call catastrophic thinking), bringing further avoidance and a corresponding lack of skill development, leading often to a downward spiral of emotional problems and confusion about how to get out of the emotional traps we set for ourselves.
I have also realized that some of my personality traits will never completely change, nor would I probably want them to. They're just here in a milder form. I still tend toward perfectionism and moral inflexibility, accepting their benefits and costs. I'm a little too invested in being right at times. My competitiveness can lead to me losing some of my empathy for others, resulting in negative feelings from them when I come across as a know-it-all blowhard (still working on that one).
But with that moral sense, I also recognize that some emotional difficulties result from significant injustice, so making a difference toward the realization of my view of justice remains an integral part of my emotional well being. And I recognize that others have legitimate differences with me, and that in order to influence them, I must learn to influence myself and my own emotional reactivity and behavioral responses in the face of conflicts.
Not all problems arise from our own actions or thoughts, but the path forward toward our goals, no mater what stands in the way, ourselves or others, always has a component of self-responsibility and self-change. And self-directed change, whether through therapy, books, recordings, or spiritual searching, is always possible. It's your emotional experiences out in the world, often born of a purpose and a plan, that will make the difference.
Call today at (916) 549-5772 or email me here to schedule an appointment or discuss how I can help you make the changes you seek. If your ready to get started right away, click here to schedule an appointment.
I look forward to supporting your success.