Sunday, 19 April 2009

Creating realistic expectations

In a study of a range of people, some of whom suffered from depression (mild to severe) even mildly depressed undergraduates showed a stronger expectation in the likelihood of future negative events than non-depressed undergraduates (MacLeod & Cropley, 1995). In other words they had a stronger tendency to make negative future predictions. As a therapist, uncovering my client's expectations can provide valuable insight into what their negative expectations are and how these are contributing to or even maintaining their problem.

A very good friend of mine is also an extremely nervous driver. In fact, I had never realised this until fairly recently when we travelled together for a couple of hours, with her driving. I listened to how she spoke and responded each time a car approached from the rear and then overtook her. Her hands were fists, wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, her shoulders and neck were tense and and she made comments such as "oh god, he's far too close .. I wish they wouldn't come up so fast .. I always think they're going to run into the back of me .. etc.". These thoughts all revolved around predicting very negative outcomes. Over dinner afterwards she told me that she hadn't always had this reaction when driving however this problem had been growing, as other problems grew in her personal life. Her self-esteem had taken a knock, and one of the side-effects of this for her was an erosion in her confidence in her own ability to be safe whilst driving. We tested out balancing her negative predictions and on the way back the next day, she agreed to test out more balanced (and realistic) predictions! Although not magically cured it was enough for her to notice improvement and she felt that she was able to drive more competently the next time and practice some more.

During the study I mention above, the future negative events being predicted also included feeling rejected, feeling inferior, finding oneself rather irritated, people getting annoyed with you, people acting hostiley toward you, not handling problems effectively, being a disappointment, not measuring up, making an important mistake, and so on. In another study, depressed subjects were more likely to minimise the gains to be had of taking the risk of approaching new social situations and more likely to magnify the risks and the downside (Pietromonaco & Rook, 1987).

An effective means of countering this, as well as improving someone's mood, can be as simple as engaging them in the following exercise:

Find out what this person's expectations are relating to the thing that they dislike, fear or avoid doing (preferably something that were they to improve at it, it would surely have a positive impact on their life). To illustrate this, here's another example: one of my clients avoided social situations due to their self-proclaimed chronic and "natural shyness" resulting in a dislike of meeting new people, yet he desperately wanted to meet his ideal mate (an unfortunate catch 22 situation). We agreed that in order to increase his chances, he would need to begin tackling new social situatons with renewed vigour. I discovered that his expectations of doing this were expressed in very negative terms, such as "I don't like most people", "most people don't like me", "I will feel like a spare part", "I just feel too awkward", "I will make a fool of myself", "I can't seem to find anything to talk about", "most people are boring", and "I'll end up feeling worse than I do now". We agreed that not only are these expectations negative, but that they are faulty too. We worked together on each one, listing first the faulty expectation and then writing down a possible more realistic (and optimistic) one. Here's some to get you started:

Faulty expectation for not being more outgoing: "I am simply an introvert"

More realistic expectation: "Though like many people I am more introverted than extraverted, I've managed to meet people before in new situations and have made some good friends through this".

Faulty expectation for not being more outgoing: It's all my fault if someone new doesn't like me.

More realistic expectation: Ican't please everyone - no-one can - but it's true that when I feel good about myself, I am more relaxed and this comes across.

Faulty expectation for not being more outgoing: I've tried this before and it didn't work.

More realistic expectation: the past is not necessarily a guide for the future. My shyness is not a problem in all situations, in all areas of my life, and need not last forever (it can be viewed as a phase). I have learned many new skills and through trial and error I can improve at this too.

Being able to reality-test these in a fairly small and safe way is the next step. Breaking down the task of meeting new people into the small steps to be taken, rehearsing this in advance, as well as increasing one's vigilance to this negative self-talk and being prepared with some realistic ones to counter them with, is the next part of the process. Martin Seligman Ph.D. has written extensively about this subject from the perspective of positive psychology (I am reading his book on "Authentic Happiness" right now and I recommend it to anyone keen to develop themselves and overcome any self-limiting patterns). Together with my client above, we summarised his new thinking into a mantra that he could memorise until able to repeat it back to himself automatically, as follows:

"Though I have tried to improve before, my circumstances are different now, I understand better how I have been maintaining my isolation and shyness. I am already developing new and better skills at becoming more outgoing".

With support, care and love if this is affecting a loved one, chronic shyness can be overcome. This method is effective with a wide range of faulty expectations and can assist in many other areas of building relationships. During conflict resolution for example, one can always try to uncover and balance one's own faulty, negative predictions, in order to begin the process of establishing harmony once more!

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