Self talk that keeps us stuck

I am currently preparing to run a workshop on motivational interviewing for prison officers who are about to manage a unit for prisoners with mental health issues. In my research I came across a great
book chapter by Ronald Murphy on MI (in source below). While the article was on developing motivation in those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its usefulness across other fields was clear to me.

For all of us there is clearly a roadblock to taking that hard look at our own behaviour. Our self-perception, compared to how others perceive us, can be a real contrast. The list of fears that we have as men are powerfully strong in keeping us trapped in ourselves and blocking our need to affiliate (connect) with others. The fears that Murphy identify are listed below (p84). While we may not sign up totally to all of these, I know that I can find an association and connection with many. I have some of these fears some of the time. I recognise the amount of pain this has caused others and myself over the years. Let’s look at what some of these fears might be:

  • fear of rejection
  • fear of change
  • fear of embarrassment
  • fear of feeling “weak”
  • fear of being seen as weak
  • fear of being overwhelmed
  • fear of emotions coming up
  • fear of facing the truth
  • fear of crying
  • fear of not being able to stop crying
  • fear of “I told you so”
  • fear of being “locked up”
  • fear of being judged
  • fear of being seen as “damaged”
  • fear of feeling “stupid”
  • fear that others will see me as “stupid”
  • fear of losing control

The other roadblocks are beliefs about change. Intimate partner violence clearly is influenced by a number of gendered beliefs about the role of men and women. Beliefs about violence itself also contribute to the issue. What Murphy (p84) identifies is a range of beliefs that clearly interfere with change.

  • admitting problems equals weakness
  • shameful to tell other people my problems
  • I don’t deserve help
  • shame about past events
  • don’t want to think about past events
  • the want to have feelings of failure
  • don’t want to fail
  • have to take care of problems myself

As you will recognise many of these beliefs are very much gendered around the reluctance for men to ask for help and to admit problem behaviour. Of course in our business, self-talk is one of the cornerstone approaches to shifting behaviour. Working with men who use intimate partner violence to be able to develop their own self talk checklist for continued progress after intervention is critically important. I particularly like the use of reflective questions around self-talk and thought about how these could be adapted when working with men who struggle to overcome intimate partner violence.  I have therefore taken the liberty to replicate and slightly amend an excellent list from Murphy (see page 82 for original list):

If I am having difficulties after being to a programme, I will consider or do the following:

  • There might be something about the way I am looking at the situation (because of my past experiences) rather than the situation itself that is causing difficulties. I need to check which pair of glasses I am wearing and which view I am using to make sense of the situation.
  • I need to think if my difficulties might be at least partly due to problems I’m not aware of. I need to be open to the possibility that others might see the situation more clearly than myself.
  • Look for “blindsiders”: ways I act or think that I don’t think are a problem but really are. I need to be open to how others experience me. While this may not be comfortable, it is likely to help me have more fulfilling relationships with others and develop my skills of empathy.
  • Threats to my progress after/during treatment are not just problems I already know I have. As I discover more about myself new issues will emerge. I am a work in progress, not a finished product.
  • I have to consider what other people say when they give me feedback about my behaviour or my way of thinking. I need to be generous and recognise that if people have taken the effort to give me feedback, then I should accept it with graciousness.
  • It is important to consider both the positives and negatives about my behaviour or my way of thinking.
  • Comparing myself to guys my age who don’t use IPV can help me decide if I need to change my behaviour or way of thinking. What is it that they think and do that I don’t?
  • I may not understand myself and my problems as well as I think. Problems are challenges waiting to be solved.
  • I’m responsible for handling situations that are difficult, upsetting, or get me angry, even when other people, situations or past issues trigger my reactions.

I invite you next time you are sitting with a man who is engaging in intimate partner violence to work together to develop a list of self-statements that can sustain change over time.

Source: Murphy, R.T. (2008) Enhancing combat veterans’ motivation to change post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and other problem behaviors in Arkowitz, H. , Westra, H.A., Miller, W.R. & Rollnick, S. Motivational interviewing in the treatment of psychological problems. Guilford: New York.

Published on Monday, June 30th, 2014, under Family violence, Motivational Interviewing, Offender work

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