Hello and Welcome to the River Cairn Counseling blog! My name is Christina Spinazzola, mountain hiker, counselor, and life enthusiast!
Life can be tough, we all know that. We know it because we’ve all experienced those crappy times. Break-ups, intense anxiety, embarrassing moments, not wanting to get out of warm blankets. We’ve all watched and helped friends through tough times like grief, unemployment, divorce, losing a child, coming out, debates about having an abortion, depression, addictions. And so many others.
What I’ve learned throughout life is that everyone has their own struggles, their own mountains to climb.
I became a counselor because I wanted to help people find hope and healing in the midst of their pain and struggles. I have developed skills to help people build new lives and overcome their personal mountains. So far, I’ve only been able to help those few who somehow find themselves in my office. And I decided that’s not good enough.
This blog is designed to provide practical help in the messy day-to-day life of overcoming challenges. Challenges and obstacles are messy and hard to conquer, and that’s honestly the whole point. Nobody would be impressed with a hiker that summited Mt. Everest if it was easy to do! Your life challenges are and will be tough to overcome. And every single person has the ability to overcome their mountains.
Words Have Power
I have noticed that one of the biggest struggles people face is not the challenge itself, but their own confidence in overcoming that challenge.
When I was in middle and high school, it seemed like I was the most shy and introverted person on campus. I felt nervous talking with classmates that I had known for years. Everyday I felt judged for my clothes and hairstyle.
I assumed that people thought I looked ugly or stupid, so I kept to myself. I cried myself to sleep many nights, believing there was something wrong with me. None of my friends seemed to lack in confidence. They were all cool, and obviously they were born cool. I believed I was flawed, like confidence was a genetic code that I somehow missed out on.
My thoughts and ideas of myself kept me from interacting with friends and classmates on a genuine level. Which actually is not uncommon. Studies reveal that the language and mental images we tell ourselves and others have extreme power over our behavior and our lives. Our stories can give us the confidence needed to overcome any challenge. Or they can sap us of critical energy and keep us stuck in the cycle of struggle.
What my adolescent brain didn’t realize is that the words we speak and visual pictures our brains play seem automatic. But in fact, we have the power to change our thoughts, words, and imaginations.
How This Works
Your brain is made up of billions of tiny brain cells called neurons. Each neuron can potentially communicate with thousands of other neurons across a gap called the synapse. That’s over 100 trillion possible connections within your brain!
Please forgive the following simplified explanation of the extraordinarily complex process of brain activity. To be effective in understanding the human brain we must make it easy enough to wrap our minds around the concept.
When you have a thought, one neuron will release chemicals to communicate to another neuron, building a bridge between the two neurons. The neurons physically become closer together. This makes it easier and faster to have that same thought again! The more often those neurons fire for that thought or image, the stronger and more automatic those thoughts and images become.
Because of this, through changing your words and imagination, you can hijack your brain and build the bridges that you want. Top athletes and professional musicians use mental imaging to improve their performance. Research shows that picturing the movements involved in an action actually strengthens your ability to perform that action!
So what would happen if you began imagining yourself as successful? How different would your life become?
7 Practice Tips
When you notice yourself picturing a negative outcome, change the story to show you being successful. Your imagination is the limit! It’s OK if your imagination is a little unrealistic at first. The point is to give yourself practice at positive imagination.
When sharing about your day or an experience, notice the language you use. If your language tends to be down or self-defeating, just notice it. Start trying to share stories with others that are neutral or more positive.
Sure, your morning might have started out with you spilling coffee all over your suit right before that big presentation. But when you share the story, make it funny. Or focus instead on how a nice little gentleman smiled at you on the way to work.
The way you present yourself to others is how they will see you. If you want to feel confident and capable of handling your obstacles, it’s a lot easier if other people see and treat you like you’re confident!
Write 3 things a day that you like about yourself, or that you are good at. Make sure that you have no repeats for at least a week. That should be 21 different things you like about yourself. Do this for a month.
This can be hard at first. Start simple. Is there anything that you do that is interesting or different from other people?
Maybe you’re a good skateboarder, or maybe your daughter’s girl scout troup likes your snacks the best.
What would a friend, family member or pet say is good about you?
Over time, these positive self-affirmations will become the new norm. As you begin to feel better about yourself, your body posture and stories will automatically become more confident.
Read your 3 things out loud to yourself in a mirror. This causes multiple parts of your brain to receive the positive messages: the frontal lobe while you are thinking of the positive words, the kinesthetic areas as you write, the speech centers as you speak, the auditory portions of your brain as you hear the words spoken out loud, and the occipital lobe as you see yourself making the positive statements in the mirror.
Start making tick marks on a piece of paper for every complaint that escapes your mouth. You will very quickly cut down on the number of complaints simply by recording them!
For every complaint you catch yourself making, come up with 2 positive comments.
If your current default is to complain, then not only will you need to decrease the negativity, but you will have to actively increase positivity! The 2 positive comments may feel unnatural at first, but you will notice your own confidence and feelings of happiness increase more quickly.
Your mountain doesn’t have to control your life, because you are so much more than that life obstacle. Remember that the mountain is the mountain, and you are you. You might have to overcome your problems, but you do not become your problem.
Instead of saying “I am depressed” say “I have depression.” Instead of saying “I’m addicted to porn,” say “I struggle with porn.” Rather than “I’m stupid,” think, “This math is hard, and I can learn it with practice.” Do not allow your identity to become tied to the struggle.
An easy test for this is if you use the word “Am” in describing yourself connected to that issue. If you notice that you have tied your identity to the issue, that’s OK! Follow the steps above and change your language. Over time your identity will separate from the issue.
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