I’m starting with the man in the mirror,
I’m asking him to change his ways,
And no message could have been any clearer,
If you wanna make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself and then make a change.
From “Man in the Mirror” (1988)
Written and composed by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett
Recorded by Michael Jackson
Imagine your best friend, your significant other, or the family member to whom you are closest coming to you in crisis mode. They might be crying, hurt, self-downing, enraged, guilty, or wrecked with jealousy. They come to you because they need help, desperately seeking advice on how to cope with or manage the situation. You have led them to believe that you care about them, and they are trusting you not to judge their crimes and to give them concrete strategies for more effectively moving forward. Visualize them telling you how they feel and then unloading their various beliefs onto you that are contributing to their emotional troubles.
For instance, your best friend has recently gone through a break-up with her boyfriend and is experiencing what she labels “excruciating heartache” associated with the her loss of him to another woman. Apparently, upon ending the relationship he had given your friend the reason, “I’m just not excited about the idea of us anymore, and I’ve met somebody else who gives me what I need.” She tells you that she feels like a “failure as a woman” because she couldn’t hold onto the one man who meant the most to her, and she expresses her hopelessness by crying out that “life will be miserable without him” and that she will “never be happy again!”
Now really put yourself in this situation. Your very best friend has told you these things and is crying on your shoulder. You REALLY want to help her. What do you say? Really think about it. Do you agree with her unrealistic statements? Do you say, “Yeah, honey, you’re right. You are a failure, and there’s no way you will be happy again after this guy. He has sealed your fate—failing and misery for eternity for you, just because of one other person’s decision not to be with you!”
Or because you REALLY want to help her, do you try to convince her that she is not thinking coherently? Do you say, “How does your ex’s decision to break up with you make you a failure as a woman? In fact, I can think of several ways in which you haven’t failed as a woman. You are a devoted friend, a responsible employee and colleague, a giving daughter and sister, AND you loved him the best way you knew how. If it isn’t enough for him, then it’s just that—not enough for him. I don’t see how that means you’ve failed and will continue to fail at everything you do as a woman. I know this is very difficult for you and for most people who go through break-ups. It is not a happy or comfortable experience. But does that mean that you will NEVER find happiness again? Before you met your ex, was your life devoid of all pleasure, a black hole of negativity? And now that he is out of your life again, does that mean you do not have the capacity to find other meaningful, important things to fill your time and bring you joy? Are you suggesting that your life is over because one man made a decision to be with someone else?”
Which response is more likely to lead to the better outcome in someone you REALLY want to help? Do you agree with the illogical, unrealistic, and unhelpful beliefs that are contributing to your friend’s “excruciating heartache”? Or do you challenge this line of thinking to try to get her to see a more valid, emotionally beneficial point of view that is consistent with reality, despite the unfortunate nature of the circumstances at hand? Remember, this is your best friend and you REALLY want to help her.
My guess is that you would choose the second set of responses to your friend’s predicament. Yet I also know that most people who come to therapy are NOT challenging their OWN beliefs influencing their unhealthy negative emotions that they wouldn’t think twice about questioning in their closest friends or family members. Why are we so resistant to dispute our own ridiculous, self-sabotaging cognitions during similar times of emotional upset? Why do we not consider ourselves equal to our friends and thus worthy of the same advice? We behave selfishly in other ways, fending for ourselves in most regards by trying to obtain the cheapest deal, the most solid education, the best job, and/or the most supportive friends and significant others. We go out of our ways to get what we want, yet when we are unsuccessful, we have a tendency to impede our own recoveries. We refuse to help ourselves in moments of crisis in which we would readily help our friends. We instead reject ourselves and withhold useful information and advice in the same way we might with our enemies, or individuals who we really DON’T want to help.
The point of this blog is to alert its readers to an important strategy that is often neglected yet can be an extremely potent one in disputing irrational beliefs that contribute to emotional disturbance. Perhaps a first step is to question how we are so different from our friends that we don’t deserve the same benefits in managing unhealthy negative emotions. And then, why not try to apply THE FRIEND DISPUTE—what would you tell a friend who was rattling off these same unreasonable demands on self and others, catastrophic thoughts about their future, and self-damning beliefs related to their worth as a human being? Would you agree with them or would you work to convince them otherwise? The latter seems more likely if you REALLY want to help.
So why not try being YOUR OWN BEST FRIEND? Treat the person in the mirror that looks back at you each day as you would your nearest and dearest by challenging the same irrational thinking that gets them in trouble when they are in crisis mode. Recognize that all human beings deserve to make the best of their lives and achieve their goals. You are no different from your friends in this regard. And above all, LOVE THYSELF AS THY NEIGHBOR. After all, thyself is the only person you HAVE to live with for the rest of your life. If I were me, I’d probably choose to have the most emotionally healthy person I could find with me for the long haul.
Next up: Kim Kassay, Psy.D. on Helping Children Take Responsibility for Their Actions and Emotions