Mental wellbeing. It is not just about the absence of mental illness, it is also about having a positivity towards ourselves, the work we do, the people we hang out with, and the general attitude we have towards life.
A very crucial aspect of managing one's mental health is self-awareness. Unless we are aware of what is going on within ourselves, it would be hard to know if we are well. We may carry around a lot of stress and self-medicate that stress in unhealthy ways (e.g. unhealthy eating, over-drinking, smoking, angry outbursts). We may think such activities are normal when in fact, they are slowly eating away at our mental health. By developing better self-awareness, we will start to notice our unhealthy attitudes and behaviours, and develop the desire to begin making healthy changes.
Over the years of my work with clients and seminar participants, I have put together a simple yet robust framework to help people develop greater self-awareness and mental wellbeing. It is an abstraction and combination of different therapy modalities** into a simple acronym I call BET'RR [pronounced “better”]. It stands for: Body – Emotions – Thoughts – Reactions/Responses. Let’s talk about B-E-T first.
Our brains are connected to our bodies through the nervous system. We can have a bodily knowledge of our state of being even before we become intellectually aware of it. For instance, when the room temperature rises, our bodies are already responding to the rising temperature before our minds catch a hold of what is happening.
A more sophisticated example of this is the “gut-feel.” Our bodies somehow know what’s going on, but we can’t quite explain it. While the body does not reason quite as clearly as our minds can, sometimes, we ignore the intuitive signals our bodies give us to our own detriment — for example, trusting someone we had the sense that we should not trust.
In order to have good self-awareness, we need to get to know the signals our bodies are giving us — the sense of tiredness, irritability, sadness, hunger, are all felt in the body. In order to get to know our bodies, we need to slow down and pay attention to what is going on.
Going deeper: Eugene Gendlin advanced the idea of having a “dialogue” with our bodies through a processed he called “focusing.” Watch this short video of Gendlin talking about the bodily “felt sense”.
The emotion is an interesting phenomenon that is something of a bridge between a body-sense and a thought. Emotions are akin to a body-thought phenomenon that we label with words such as anger, sadness, fear, shame, or happiness. So a bodily sensation of tightness in the throat combined with the thought "I am not going to see you for a long time" could be labelled as the emotion: sadness. Emotions may come and go, but they provide incredibly important signals to what is going on inside of us.
Some people ignore emotions in order to push through to do the things they need to do (e.g. to perform well in a fast-track career). That can be OK for a while. But to keep on ignoring our emotions is akin to ignoring that odd sound in the car that keeps coming back -- one day, we will break down, just like the car. Our ways of breaking down are often preceded by self-medicating behaviours such as smoking, drinking, over-eating, over-sexualising, addiction to social media, isolating from people, or even violence.
Developing self-awareness requires us to develop awareness of our emotions. Our emotions provide us with the more pure and honest answers to how we are dealing with things. One good way to develop emotions is to tap into our body sense and our language. The more words we have to describe what is going on for us in the body and emotion, the more refined we will be at self-understanding.
Going deeper: A few years ago, researchers mapped emotions to bodily sensations, and found similarities across cultures. Have a look at some of the findings.
I use the word “thought” to mean our reasoning or opinion-making. Between our bodies, emotions, and thoughts, we are likely to be most aware of our thoughts. This could be due to our need to verbalise what we're thinking in order to communicate in society. Furthermore, as humanity becomes more intelligent, we generally focus on the higher cortical brain functions (i.e. reasoning) more, and take for granted the emotional and physiological functions of the brain.
If we are more aware of our thoughts, then why would we need to develop more self-awareness of them? The answer is this: we are not fully aware that how we reason can be influenced by our emotion/body states, especially if we have experienced trauma or prolonged exposure to adverse childhood experiences in our lives.
Negative core beliefs, such as I am unlovable, I am defective, I live in a dangerous world, I am at fault, come from our early experiences. For example, if a woman growing up was badly teased about her looks, she may believe that she is defective somehow. Even though she might have grown into a very beautiful adult woman, that negative core belief may still be operating within her, and may even lead her to make decisions about her life that is not based on sound and objective reasoning.
Becoming aware of our core beliefs may take some work. It starts with taking a look at a list of core beliefs and seeing if any of these apply to us. Then, ask where those beliefs came from in our life experiences. Often, those who are closest to us may be able to give good feedback on the core beliefs that we operate with unconsciously.
Going deeper: In trauma work using EMDR, a very important component to the healing is to identify clients’ negative beliefs about themselves and to help them process their negative beliefs into preferred positive beliefs instead. The process is not just to cognitively reframe a belief, it is a fully embodied shift in belief -- together with positive shifts in emotions and body states.
Reactivity is a result of being in a fight-or-flight mode. It is a survival mechanism that allows us to act quickly without thinking — which might save us from being eaten by wild animals. But in today’s world, the dangers we face are not so much physical as psychological (e.g. deadlines, expectations, arguments) -- so our bodies operate in continual high-alert with modern day stresses. For busy people focused on productive action on a daily basis, stress can cause us to be reactive without our awareness. That reactivity can then impact our closer relationships, the ones that we take for granted, such as our spouses, partners, and family members. Becoming aware of our bodies-emotions-thoughts allows us to catch our chronic-stress reactions, pause, think through our situation, and then choose well-reasoned Responses instead.
Mental wellbeing is not just a condition that happens to us, we can choose it. Rather than to let our wellbeing be determined by poor choices made out of our lack of self-awareness, by increasing our awareness of our bodily, emotional, and thinking states, we are more able to choose better responses. And by choosing better responses over and over again, we are rewiring and training the neural networks in our brain and body to enable and to maintain sustainable mental wellbeing!
Growing in self-awareness and mental wellbeing takes time and practice. Simple exercises such as deep-breathing, mindfulness walking, or just slowing down intentionally for 15 minutes a day to gaze internally at our bodies, emotions, and thoughts, can help tremendously. If we have already been living with poor choices, the initial exercise of growing in self-awareness may not be pleasant. For example, we may become aware of our anxiety more acutely when we slow down and gaze internally into our being. However, the more we spend time becoming aware of ourselves, the more likely it will be that we will want to do something about our ill health. That desire to want to make change happen can be the beginning of a positive move towards mental wellbeing, which of course, also includes physical wellbeing -- because our mental health and physical health are intricately linked!
Since 2018 when I first developed the BET'RR approach, I have given training seminars on it and also use it with my clients during therapy sessions. People have told me that the framework is easy to understand, easy to remember, and works well to give them a simple and useful handle to manage unhealthy reactivity. The most beautiful part about this framework is that it can go really deep as well, especially when used by those who are BET'RRing themselves over time, in a variety of different life contexts: leadership, management, personal productivity, parenting, communication, marriage, addiction control, and the list goes on.
Feel free to try it and share it with friends. If you have any questions about the BET'RR way to self-awareness and mental wellbeing, feel free to contact us. I conduct seminars and talks on this simple yet profoundly wonderful approach to self-improvement!
** In particular, I credit the work of Eugene Gendlin (Focusing), Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and Francine Shapiro (EMDR).
Note: This article is an edited and updated version of the original article written and posted by Dr. Johnben Loy in 2018 here.
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