Its My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want To; An Intro to Cognitive Therapy

I guess I let the cat out of the bag, today is my birthday. My anxiety spikes as I type this. The thought that someone is going to read this and wish me a “Happy Birthday” makes my stomach knot. These are not typical feelings associated with birthdays and I am working on changing them, but change doesn’t happen over night.

When I was accepted into the graduate program to become a mental health counselor there were no owls or magic wands, wait who am I kidding there are always owls in my life, but I was not told to buy a book on potions or spells. Counselors do not have the ability to magically dissolve whatever ails you however we do have numerous ways in which we can teach you to make positive changes to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that reduce your distress. While you will start to see positive change during the counseling process if you have deep rooted weeds like me, it takes time and continued effort to get them under control. One of the theories that we often use to help people untangle these weeds is Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy.

Cognitive Therapy believes that maladaptive thoughts are the root of distress and by working to modify these thoughts we can reduce the distress. When I try to explain my brain to others I often say that my wiring was wrong and that messages and emotions get twisted, as I am fixing the wiring it happens less often but from time to time I still get a scrambled signal. Cognitive Therapy helps to untangling these twisted wires. In this post we are just going to just skim the surface of how this theory works and look at the main wiring or schema which Aaron Beck defined as “the rule that governs information processing and behavior”. To uncover the schema we start at the surface by looking at automatic thoughts and then deep diver to discover the intermediate beliefs and then core beliefs that we hold that bubble up through those automatic thoughts. Lets look at mine today as an example…

Its my birthday and my distressing automatic thought is I do not deserve to be celebrated.

The intermediate beliefs might cite “rules” about what we except. My intermediate beliefs related to this automatic thought are:
A person worth celebrating has strong social connections with close friends which I lack. I have a few close acquittances and maybe one of two friends.
By 35 I should have a family of my own and an established career.

Which boiled down lead to my core beliefs. Core beliefs are more global and likely are the related to other intermediate beliefs and automatic thoughts as well. Here are mine:
I am unlovable.
I am a failure.

Altogether these build my schema (my faulty wiring).
I am worthless. No matter how hard I try I will always be less then what I should be and therefore am not worthy of praise. Anyone who praises me is doing it out of pity because no one would actually care about a failure like me.

You may have noticed that my thought process and beliefs are riddled with cognitive distortions which we will explore in my next post. In many areas of my life I have already been able to challenge and start to untangle these twisted wires but like I said, change takes time. I started by working on accepting gratitude and am working my way through praise and then someday I will reach a point where I am comfortable being celebrated. As for today I will be practicing mindfulness and challenging these distorted thoughts, but I may still cry not because I want to but because I am struggling to keep my wires from crossing.

If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health ailments know that you are not alone. These conditions can feel very isolating but do not need to be. My hope is that by being transparent with my story it helps others to feel less alone. There is no shame in seeking support!

The Power of Words- Names

From the time we are born, sometimes even earlier, we are labeled. Labels are applied to us so that society knows how to interact with us. Most of the labels we are given are directly related to some trait we have- genitalia, skin color, ethnic origin, etc. There is one label that is chosen for us, and has great value, our name. Our name is the beginning of our personal brand and our feelings about our name are shaped by how others use it.  

Some names naturally evolve with nicknames, like Elizabeth becomes Beth, while others are shed and new ones adopted. When people make the choice to adopt a new name there is a reason behind it. No longer using a previous name comes with consequences and yet the rewards greater leading to a willingness and continued desire to change.  

Some people chose a new name so that they feel more accepted. This often happens in conjunction with major life changes such as immigrating to a new country to escape poverty and or discrimination. Others select a new name in order to separate from thoughts and feelings associated with their old, birth name. This can be seen with individuals who have decided to live a life more congruent with their true self and or those who have survived abuse. Imagine you spend years hearing your name in combination with demeaning remarks, “NAME you idiot”, “NAME is such a failure”, “NAME you’re worthless”. Over time this combination of name and remarks begins to feel like a definition. By letting go of this name the person can also begin to let go of this maladapted belief that they are those definitions. This is also seen in people whose gender does not align with their birth name. We place so much weight on societal expectations regarding gender that having a name incongruent with our gender can lead to some rather uncomfortable encounters as well. And there are some who choose a name in order to escape from their abusers. These people frequently up root their entire lives and relocate so that they feel safe. 

When you use a name that has been shed you are saying that the experiences related to that name are not valid. You may not, and hopefully do not, use someone’s old name (birth name, deadname, shed name, etc.) with malicious intent. However, using this name can be triggering for some people and bring up maladaptive thoughts and feelings.  

Names are incredibly important to us. Learning how to say other’s names and respecting their name, rather given at birth or chosen as the result of adversity is a simple way to be a better human.  

Sexuality- It’s Not a Choice

Time to talk about love (and lust). Having intimate relationships is a psychological need and is highly beneficial to mental health. There are multiple factors that influence who we find ourselves drawn toward for these intimate relationships. Growing up I was familiar with gay, straight, and bisexual. As I have lived and learned I discovered that sexuality is not a grey scale but rather a broad spectrum of colors. Every time I have a conversation about sexuality, I get some of the same questions about some of the less known labels. Today I want to start by exploring what these terms describe.  

Straight/Heterosexual– being attracted to the OPPOSITE sex  

Homosexual– being attracted to the SAME sex 

Bisexual– being attracted to both men and women, not necessarily equally 

Androsexual– being attracted primarily to men and masculinity 

Asexual– having little or no sexual attraction to anyone 

Demisexual– having sexual attraction to someone only after a strong romantic relationship has developed 

Gay– attracted to individuals of the same sex 

Gynesexual– being attracted primarily to women and femininity 

Lesbian– woman who is attracted primarily to woman 

Pansexual– being attracted to individuals from all sexes, genders, and forms of expression 

Queer– being attracted to anyone outside of the opposite sex 

You may notice a lot of these definitions include ‘primarily‘ which means that there may be some deviation.  Biologist Alfred Kinsey studied human sexuality and found that sexuality was variant and occurred on a continuum and that is reflected in the non-absolute terms above. 

The next topic about sexuality that we need to address is the word preference. Preference implies a choice that is made, sexual orientation is not a choice. We may find that we have preferences within our orientation, such as we tend to prefer or be more attracted to masculine traits. I have heard people infer that when an adult comes out they have ‘become’ something that they were not, “now she is gay“. This is not accurate, what happens is that with maturity and self-expectance, the person decides to live a more honest and congruent life. I was raised straight, I dated males, I have even married one. As I began to breakdown my own inner barriers I accepted that I was also attracted to women, in fact I really didn’t find sex or gender a factor in my attraction and embraced the fact that I am pansexual. I did not change my orientation, what I did change was my willingness to except myself and the variations in my attraction to others. 

Human sexuality and sexual orientation are topics that cannot be completely explored in a single article. There are mounds of research and sources galore to provide more in-depth information about them. My hope is that by providing bit sized pieces we can all learn to be more aware of the beautiful variations that give our world its color. For resources, references and to learn more click here

Gender- Identity & Expression

In life we all have certain roles and responsibilities. There are expectations that are thrust upon us from the moment we are born, maybe even sooner. Some of these expectations are societal and based on our gender. Gender often is assumed to be linked directly to whatever gear we are packing in our pants (penis or vulva). Gender has become such a tool for stereotyping that some people reject the construct of gender all together.  

As we examine gender I want to look at three different parts and the language we use to describe where people are within each. 

The first is how we talk about if our gender aligns with the sex we were assigned at birth. As we learned in the post about sex, the sex we are assigned at birth is not always an accurate representation of our makeup. If we identify our gender as aligning with the sex we were assigned at birth the adjustive ‘cis’ is used. If our gender does not align with the gender we were assigned at birth the adjustive ‘trans’ is used.  

Next let’s look out how we identify. For this post I will specifically be using the gender stereotypes that are perpetuated in mainstream American culture and start by looking at the binary genders of male and female. (Note- these stereotypes do not necessarily align with my personal beliefs on gender roles.)  

Males are strong and powerful leaders. They are assertive and dominate in nature. They have high levels of competition and low levels of emotional expression.  

Females are nurturing care givers. They are compassionate and expressive. Their value their roles as parent and partner and maintaining physical attractiveness.  

What if a person’s gender does not fall into one of these two (binary) categories? Some of these terms provide overlap (much like man and male) allowing for variation in speech and preference in label. 

Nonbinary people have a gender that falls outside the binary of male/female, or rejecting the concept of gender. 

Agender individuals identify as not having a gender. 

Bigender people have a mix of two genders. 

Those who are gender fluid have a gender identity that changes through time. 

Gender nonconforming  people express their gender in a way that does not match societies expectations for their gender. 

genderqueer person has a gender that falls outside the gender binary of male/female. 

Pangender individuals are those having a gender made of a number of genders. 

The way we identify speaks to the way in which we think or our psychological gender. This does not mean that we share all of the stereotypical values of our gender but align the closest with them. Aside from how you identify your gender, there is also how you express your gender. Gender is expressed through levels of masculinity and femineity. Our expression can be seen in the way we act, dress, speak, and more. Masculinity tends to more stereotypically male. Things that are seen as masculine could be wearing pants, having physical strength, athletic ability, skilled with tools, independence, etc. While, femineity is generally associated with stereotypical women. These things may be wearing makeup, styled hair, wearing skirts or dresses, being crafty, emotionally expressive, etc. Gender can also be expressed in the way that we walk, our speech patterns and even word choices.  

I hope that this brief leap into gender helps to open the way people think about gender and all the ways it is impacted from our assigned sex to our identity and our expression. All of the topic that we are tackling in the series are much more complex than can be fully explored in a single post. For resources, references and to learn more click here

Sex- A Biological Factor

Let’s talk about sex! The anatomical kind not the act, but now that I have your attention why don’t we jump right in. 

Sex is a biological factor that is most often assigned at birth and accepted as fact. There is an assumption that whatever presents externally- penis or vulva- is congruent with the chromosomes a person has, their hormone functions, and their internal reproductive structures. You know what they say about assuming though. In a textbook world each human has 23 pairs of chromosomes with either 23 X and 23 Y chromosomes (male) or all 46 X chromosomes (female). However that is not always the case and even when it is, the body’s ability to produce and respond to hormones impact how it develops as well. There are also instances when during the development of the external organs (penis or vulva) is disrupted and ambiguous genitalia form. Often when this occurs doctors and parents decide on a sex to assign and surgery occurs to make the child appear more male or female. If a sex isn’t determined for the child they may receive the sex label of intersex.  

When there is an inconsistency between the chromosomes, hormones, external genitals, and internal structures it is known as a disorder of sex development. There are around 60 different conditions that are considered a disorder of sex development. While some of these conditions are easier to recognize at birth, others go unnoticed until puberty or fertility difficulties become evident, while some may go never discovered. 

There are biological and anatomical factors that are at work when determining sex however, the practice of labeling at birth is to better guide medical professionals as they monitor a child’s growth and screening for congenital conditions. The issue becomes that we assume sex determines gender and use this information to dictate how the child is to be raised and treated.   

The topics we are exploring with this series are complex and cannot be fleshed out in a single post. My hope is that through sharing this small piece of information regarding assigned sex it will help to start changing the way we think about and treat each other. For resources, references and to learn more click here

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