The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘schemas’

Influencing Boundaries

I’d like to introduce you to Ellen, a Psychologist from Victoria. She is a blogger, author and mum and loves to inspire others. Here she shares her take on boundaries and how they impact on us and our sense of SELF. I really hope you come and join us again later in the week, as Ellen will be back to help us learn how to establish healthy boundaries and increase our self-esteem. I’d love for you to go visit her website after you listen to what she has to say.


Recently a friend of mine, apologising for being a bit out of sorts, explained that she was upset about her 20-something daughter.  She and her daughter had always been close but recently there had been trouble; arguments and disagreements, tension.  According to my friend, the boyfriend was the problem.  Well … not the boyfriend exactly.  She had quite liked him and had certainly made him welcome as the two of them stayed with her during the weekends while working away from home during the week.  It was not him exactly.  Rather it was his influence on her daughter.

Apparently he had a lot to say about who she should be friends with and how much time she should spend with her friends and her family.  Apparently little things that upset him became big things to her and if friends and family were part of his issue then she went in to bat for him, causing tension in her own relationships.

Her mother, my friend, was quite distressed.  She sensed a wedge being driven between her and her daughter and she was quite sure that it was not of her daughter’s doing.  She could see the influence that this man was having.  She didn’t like it but she was at a loss as to what to do as any mention of it to her daughter was met solely with defensiveness.

At the time I expressed empathy for my friend, tried to console her and we brainstormed a few ideas and options.  I related my own experience of being in my 20s with a much-loved partner whom, on reflection, I also went in to bat for perhaps more often than was warranted. I tried to solve his problems and appease his worries when really that was his job.

I was pondering this later when I realised that this was perhaps an issue of blurred personal boundaries.  Personal boundaries, in psychology-speak, are the limits – physical, mental and emotional – that we establish around ourselves to differentiate ourselves from others.  They allow us to separate who we are and what we think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of the people around us.

Givers have to set limites ellen jackson

Personal boundaries are critical to healthy relationships but it can be very easy to let them blur, particularly when we’re young, inexperienced, or perhaps haven’t had clear boundaries and healthy relationships modelled to us in the past.

Signs of unhealthy boundaries include:

  • Feeling guilty for saying no
  • Doing things for others that we really don’t want to do
  • Allowing unwanted physical contact
  • Not speaking up when others treat us badly
  • Giving endlessly to others in order to please them
  • Taking endlessly from others because we can
  • Rescuing others or allowing ourselves to be rescued instead of solving our own problems and encouraging others to solve theirs.

Personal boundaries are critical to our self-esteem.  If we forget that we are each unique individuals with our own feelings, need, interests and values – or we were never clear about these things to begin with – it is so easy to take on board the needs, feelings and desires of our partners, children, friends and even the boss.  It is so easy to forget your importance as a special, unique person and to start to feel and behave as though everyone else is more important.  Do that for too long and your self-esteem – your confidence and belief in yourself – can easily disappear.

My friend’s daughter is still young and she has a strong mum.  With time I think – I hope – she will come to realise that she needs to look after her needs and her relationships and let her boyfriend fight his own battles.  If not, her mum and I agreed that a session or two with a good counsellor or psychologist will be the next course of action.

Stay tuned for my next post to learn how we establish healthy personal boundaries …


ellen jackson

Ellen is a Psychologist, author, mum.  Melbourne-born, she spent most of her 20’s and 30’s in Sydney and now lives in beautiful Ballarat, in the Victorian Goldfields. Ellen writes stuff to inspire and sometimes to challenge.  She knows a lot of stuff about how people work at work, how people are different and unique and how people make the most out of life.  Ellen writes at or if you’d like ask a question or share a story she’d love to hear from you! You can email her at


As the first condition to be covered in our focus on mental health, I have enlisted the assistance of one of my friends and colleagues to talk about anxiety. In this post she gives some great, easy to understand information about it and some awesome tips on how to work with it. In the next post she will share her own personal journey with anxiety and how it has impacted on her daily living. You can find a short bio on Sam below her post.

mental health challenge thoughts

You are a cave-man.  You are just dozing off for the night in your cave while your precious family sleep soundly nearby.  You feel sleepy and relaxed.  Suddenly you hear a low growl coming from outside the cave.  Your ears prick up immediately, you eyes peer out into the darkness … what is it?!  Is it a sabre-tooth tiger?  Can it smell your scent?  Will it attack you?  How can you protect your precious family?  Your heart starts racing, your palms start sweating, your mind is running through all your available options simultaneously – where is your nearest weapon?  Should you fight?  Should you wake your family to run and hide?

saber toothed tiger

Are you my next meal?!?!

This is the fight-or-flight response in primitive man and it is the same response we modern humans experience whenever we feel threatened or fearful.  This is anxiety.

Anxiety is a very common experience for most of us.  It is our survival instinct.  It is a reaction that is both psychological and physical. And it is therefore completely normal.

For example, you might be planning on taking a holiday soon and travelling by aeroplane.  You really want to go but you are feeling anxious about the flight.  You watched a show recently that was about a plane crash.  You keep imagining the worst case scenario in your mind.  It is your thoughts that are causing your anxiety.  But the response is a physiological one.  When you lie in bed at night worrying about flying your body can’t relax.  Your heart beats faster, you feel sick in the stomach and you cannot settle into sleep.

Many things can trigger anxiety: exams, public speaking, being laughed at (it is common to dream about turning up to school

Do I really have to get up in front of people?

Do I really have to get up in front of people?

naked!), job interviews, performance appraisals, being vulnerable, humiliated, rejected or exposed.

Anxiety can often play a positive role in our lives.  For example, if I get a text from a friend saying they will be popping by in 5 minutes, my anxiety about how they might judge me when they see how messy my house is, motivates me to run around tidying up, whilst adrenaline pumps through my body.  Even though for 3 hours prior to this I’ve been lying on the couch watching telly!  My anxiety just got my house looking decent in record time!

However, excessive worrying can negatively impact our daily lives.  We can suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, where our constant worrying can almost paralyse us.  For example, we cancel our overseas holiday because our anxious thoughts about flying become all-consuming.  Or we miss school on the day of our speech, because we have made ourselves so sick over the fear of stuffing up in front of our classmates and teacher that we are sweating, crying and shaking.  Or we pretend we are not home when our friend wants to pop over, because 5 minutes is just not enough time to feel everything is good enough.

Perfectionism is a personality trait that can feed anxiety, because it is a constant state of never feeling good enough.  No one can ever achieve ‘perfection’ so constantly measuring ourselves against some unrealistic ideal is going to cause a LOT of stress.  It has been said that anxiety is the difference between who you are and who you think you should be.  If we could accept ourselves as we are, we would feel calmer and less anxious.

Anxiety can also result in panic attacks, where the physiological response to the feared situation can be so overwhelming that it anxiety girlresults in chest pain and/or hyperventilation.  If you suffer from anxiety and/or panic attacks, empower yourself with knowledge and strategies.  Start by talking to an understanding GP or psychologist or read up on symptoms and treatment.  If you know you are susceptible, learn some strategies and breathing techniques that work for you.  The main thing is to be able to identify the signs in yourself and try to stop yourself from spiralling out of control – slow your breathing down, bring yourself back to the present and challenge your irrational thoughts.

Some people simplify the concept of anxiety as worrying about the future (and depression as sadly lamenting the past).  A lot of the treatment for anxiety (and depression) focuses on mindfulness, focussing on the present and self-acceptance.  Trying to live in the moment and be grateful for what you have (rather than what you don’t have) can help.

Having anxiety can stop us from rolling with the punches and living our lives to the full.  Sometimes there can be physical conditions underlying anxiety also.  So it is worth going to your GP and getting some advice.  It may end up being a combination of things: perhaps some medical interventions to sort out any imbalances as well as some strategies and information from books, online research, a psychologist or counsellor.  Throw in some yoga and meditation to really reclaim your calmness!

mickey mouse yoga

Most importantly of all, dream big.  Life is short, so take some time, set some personal goals and go for it!  Don’t let anxiety paralyse you and stop you from living your life to the full.  Get some support to put it back in its place.

Meet Sam

My name is Sam and I am a 39-year-old mum of two and a counsellor.  I support carers who care for a loved one with a mental sam bioillness or developmental disorder.  I have a special interest in supporting parents and carers of children with autism and Asperger’s.  I am also experienced in counselling and supporting clients who have suffered sexual assault, complex trauma, PTSD, grief, depression and anxiety.

The “battlefield” in your head

I’ve been thinking about this post for a little while now and what it needs to include. I have had a couple of people ask me for some tips on how to combat the battle they have in their heads about what they put in their mouths.

High fat, high sugar, high carb, versus low-fat, no sugar, whole foods.

Junk food versus healthy food.

Bad foods versus good foods.

Bad versus good.

This is a battle that I am more than familiar with myself. My weight has been “battle worthy” my entire life, and my mind the “battlefield”.

I believe that pretty much every diet program around promotes eating healthy foods and avoiding the unhealthy ones. Makes sense, right? But what constitutes healthy versus unhealthy? This is up for debate and it has certainly been a contentious one. The promotion of the diet programs and the huge amounts of media coverage seem to deliberately aim to impact our emotions. A lot of them would have us believe that the only way for us to live happily is for us to follow their program, whichever one that happens to be. We get told that the only way for us to control ourselves is to follow their program. In other words, to purchase their product. It is a selling tool.

This post is not intended to debate the effectiveness of such programs. Rather, it is to point out that in trying to convince you to purchase their product, they need to have you believe that you are currently doing the wrong thing. That by eating the foods you currently eat, you are making the wrong choices. And then by definition, purchasing their program will mean you can make the right choices.

Right versus wrong.

The thing is, when we start following the programs and we receive the message that we are making good choices by eating healthy foods, we set up a neural network in our heads (see previous post on this here) that is triggered every time we make a “bad” choice by eating chocolate or pastry or lollies (or whatever). And so begins a cycle of beating ourselves up and feeling guilty for each and every choice. The more we try to control it, the worse we feel. We end up feeling inadequate and unworthy, even for minor deviations from the plan.

There are those people who would suggest that the ideas associated with this way of thinking have become so ingrained in our society that even the idea of making a choice off the chosen program will have us believing we are inadequate. Really? An idea?? Since when have we been condemned for having a thought run through our heads? But isn’t that what many of us do?

If this sounds just a tad extreme to you, that’s because it is.learning new way to think

We start by feeling guilty for having a chocolate bar. We feel horrible about ourselves and start thinking that we have blown the diet so we may as well just give up. This leads to 2 large packets of potato chips. We feel guilty some more, believe we are completely useless, so we stop exercising, call ourselves all kinds of disgusting names and then reach for more food because it hurts so much!

Sound familiar?

You’re probably fighting a few things here. Firstly, you have a physiological addiction to all the foods you’ve been ingesting. The sugar, simple carbs, artificial sweeteners, salt. Our bodies go through withdrawal symptoms when we try to stop that cycle and it sends our brains into overdrive with cravings in an attempt to get “fed”. I am not an expert on this stuff and don’t profess to be, so I would suggest that if you want  more information on it do some research for yourself.

Secondly, as outlined in the previous post on firing and wiring neurons, you’ve got firmly entrenched neural pathways at play. It’s difficult to change these. Again, I am not an expert, so feel free to do some independent research, beginning with the books I have suggested in my previous post.

Thirdly, you’re fighting cognitive patterns. These are essentially a neural pathway your brain has created for the way you think. You eat the food and your brain automatically takes your thoughts to “I’m useless/worthless/hopeless because I can’t control myself”. It is a well-practiced pathway and I am sure you are used to its experience. It creates more feelings of inadequacy and suddenly you’re in the never-ending cycle you’re so used to.

So, what do you do about it?

My first suggestion is to think about things a little differently. So much of our energy goes into “good” versus “bad”. Healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables are in the “good” category, while chocolate and chips are in the “bad”. While it is human nature to categorise things, do we really need to do this for our foods? How is it helpful for us, when we go from “I ate some bad food and therefore I must be a bad person”? Does that way of thinking support us in achieving a happy, balanced life? Does it support you?

Why can’t we simply have one category: FOOD?

Or could we choose to have often foods and sometimes foods, the way they teach kids in schools? Or maybe use the traffic light system. Red light foods, orange light foods and green light foods?

Whichever categories we choose, they are just that. CATEGORIES.

Without the emotion attached.  You eat a chocolate bar. FULL STOP.  You eat some fried fish. FULL STOP. You eat a fried mars bar. FULL STOP.

So what? One chocolate bar or fish fillet or mars bar (or whatever) does not dictate how you live your life. One chocolate bar, fish fillet or mars bar does not dictate your happiness. One chocolate bar, fish fillet or mars bar does not dictate your worth. One chocolate bar, fish fillet or mars bar does not dictate what you put in your mouth for the rest of your life.

One chocolate bar, fish fillet or mars bar (or whatever), MAY influence the number on the scale you see when you step on it, but since that number is simply a reflection of your relationship with gravity (full stop) and could never EVER tell me about the amazingly wonderful person on top of the scales, why would you allow it to influence the way you feel about yourself?scale and worth

Instead, try thinking of them simply as choices. Sure you may choose the chocolate or fried fish. And it may even result in you moving a little further away from your goal number on the scales. The next choice you make to put something in your mouth could be a choice that may move you closer to that number.  And providing we are making more choices to move us closer than we make to move further away, we are overall moving closer. Correct?

One teeny tiny choice at a time, we can choose to end the battle and ultimately win the war (which, in my opinion, needs to be more about our internal happiness and is therefore more related to our self-talk rather than the number on the scale). Remember this. That number will never be able to tell you how incredible you are as a human being. And the simple fact that you are living and breathing means that you are worthy of that happiness. You are amazing, right here, right now.

let yourself be amazing

Whenever you catch yourself in the pattern of thoughts you are so used to, chances are you aren’t really aware of the things going on around you in your immediate environment. Does it feel like you’re kind of off with the fairies? It can be useful to practice some mindfulness activities. Engage your senses. Sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste. Mindfulness is about bringing your attention into the here and now. So to bring your mind back into the moment, try focusing on the things around you. If you are doing the dishes, pay attention to the feel of the water on your hands, or the cloth between your fingers. If you’re walking, note the smell of the flowers, the feel of the sun/wind/rain on your face. When you’re eating, slow down and really taste your food. Smell it. Feel the textures. Drink in the sight of it on the plate. Make it a real dining experience.

And sometimes, just be with yourself and sit in the solitude. Breathe. Commune with nature. Notice everything you can about the things around you. Focus on the way your breath feels in your lungs, pay attention to your chest or stomach rising and falling. Don’t try and change anything, simply pay attention to it. Be curious, without judging.

Don’t expect things to change immediately. Your brain will kick in with the automatic response again and again. It likes things to stay the same, so it will hit you harder with stuff when you try to make some changes. Persist with it when you catch your mind wondering, your brain is just doing its job.


Play with it and see how it goes.

mindfulness senses

Firing and Wiring Neurons

“Neurons that fire together wire together”


Neurons firing together

This is a well known fact about the way the neurons in our brain work. Neurons are the cells (nerves) in our brains that carry the electrical signals from the brain to different parts of our bodies. They control every bodily function. When they send (fire) those signals, they fire in clusters.

For example, let’s look at our thoughts. Maybe you can relate to this. You have a thought in your head about chocolate; “I could really use some chocolate right now, I’ve had a really hard day at work”. That will lead to “well maybe I can stop at the shop on the way home to get some”, which leads to “while I’m there I should get some milk”, and then, “but I have to go to THAT shop because the cashier at the other one was a real bitch!”, and then “that chick really ruined my son’s birthday when she refused to sell me that stuff”. So we go from “I want some chocolate” to “that bitch ruined my son’s birthday” in the blink of an eye. One thought triggers another and another and another. Clusters.

It might also go from “I want some chocolate” to “I’m a failure because I can’t resist a little chocolate bar”, or from “that person said no to my invitation for a drink” to “I must be ugly if I can’t even get a date!”

So, the neurons fire together. You’ll have this shift from the first thought to the last one in the cluster literally within a millisecond. It is seriously fast and often subconscious. We aren’t always aware of this process happening.

When you think about your childhood I am sure you can think of numerous examples where you were taught things. Your ability to read these words for example, came about from firstly learning what the letters of the alphabet meant and then slowly putting them together into groups that represented words. Once you had that down, you put the words into groups to form sentences. And to make sure they made some kind of sense, you learned all kinds of rules about which words worked with which other words. Now when you first began this process everything was an effort. You had to really think about it and do things very deliberately. When you read these words right now, I bet you don’t even need to think about where the punctuation is and which order the letters are in. Your brain has created a routine (schema) that has become automatic.

Our thoughts and emotions do the same thing. We learn specific ways of thinking and emoting. In terms of neuroscience the process of creating these routines creates neural pathways that become permanent. Well at least we usually believe they are permanent. This is the process of wiring the neurons together so that when we recall the information we get the clusters firing.

I read an article on this the other day and thought I would share it with you. It discusses how the brain can change, and how you have control over the way you think. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change the way it wires. The article is easy to read and understand and explains the processes nicely.refresh your mindset

It also outlines some simple things you can do to begin changing your thought processes. Rather than going from “that guy declined my offer of a drink” to “I must be ugly and unworthy”, the idea is that you get to “well, he might have had a tough day at work and needs some time to himself, or “maybe he has plans to for dinner with his parents and siblings” instead.

The article can be read here.

So, if we are going to learn how to create new neural pathways there are some things we need to know:

  1. It takes time. The old patterns that aren’t serving you were created over time, just like learning how to read. It’s not going to change overnight.
  2. While you’re learning and practicing, be kind to yourself. Changing those ingrained habits is tough. Our brain becomes so used to specific patterns that it travels the pathways automatically. Sometimes we don’t get a choice of where our brains go, particularly when we are stressed. Especially when we are stressed (the reasons for this needs to go in another post).
  3. When you find yourself stressed, STOP and take several deep breaths before coming back to what you were doing. If you need to, take some time out.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. Like any new skill, it is difficult at first and becomes easier the more you do it (because the new pattern will be automatic too).
  5. Be persistent. You are worth the effort!

If you would like to read more on this, try a book called “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD, or “Rewire your Brain” by John B. Arden, Ph. D.

Both books are available in iBooks (itunes), and I am sure you could also find them in hardcopy from somewhere like your brain

the brain that changes itself

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