Paul Micallef

Dear Colleague,

This is my second letter to you on self care and personal awareness. In my first letter published in the July 2007 edition, I wrote about intra-personal communication and its relevance to us professionals working in the health sector. At the time, I invited you to reflect on your own current personal work-life balance and what you are currently doing to achieve a healthy equilibrium in the following human dimensions: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual and social.

Today, I would like to address the area of personal expectations and their direct link to intra-personal communication, the way we communicate with ourselves through our own thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Good intra-personal communication is paramount for positive well-being and holistic health. This precedes inter-personal communication which is what guides us when we communicate with others.

In clinical psychology, nearly everything we do starts with the mind and the way we as people think. The way we perceive situations is fundamental. Therefore, our personal expectations are equally central to the health equation. What influences our expectations significantly is our view of ourselves as human beings and our view of the world around us. We as people are ‘mentally programmed’ in a particular way so that any experience can be perceived, assessed and classified.  

Personal expectations and mental programming are basic to self care as they guide the decisions we take to continue doing something in a particular way or to actually change and do things differently. Personal expectations and mental programming become even more important when an imbalance is created in one or more of our core human dimensions and we realize that we need to do something to regain, or sometimes even find for the first time, health and happiness.

Today I would like to share some basic but powerful tips with you. These tips will help you review and revise your own expectations so that you can control or change your mental programming. Kindly perform this reflective exercise on your own. Take a few minutes to consider the following 4 questions:

  1. Are you an ordinary person with extraordinary expectations? 
  2. How long has it been since you had the time to stop and seriously reflect on your expectations of yourself and those close to you, at home or work?
  3. Are your expectations realistic, reasonable, fair and achievable? 
  4. What mental programming is currently guiding your expectations?

These questions, especially the last one, usually take several consultation visits to explore in depth. I trust you appreciate their potential for debate especially if one is experiencing a personal or professional conflict or crisis.

Mental programming is all about what you have learnt to believe about yourself and the world around you from an early age. It’s the information that is stored in our mind that in turn helps us perceive, assess and classify information and expectations. Have a look at the following list of ‘human programming’ and see whether any ring a bell: 

•     Programmed to deny;

•     Programmed to criticize; 

•     Programmed to be busy;

•     Programmed to please others;

•     Programmed to be self critical;

•     Programmed to defend yourself;

•     Programmed to delay gratification;

•     Programmed to respond to emotional triggers;

•     Programmed with self-limiting thoughts and beliefs.

Our expectations as human beings are strongly influenced by the way in which we are ‘mentally programmed’. If no specific effort has ever been made to reflect on, change or ‘re-programme’ our belief systems and strategies then we continue to use the same initial and basic programming ‘installed’ in our childhood. Most of this programming actually takes place very early on in our life. 

By early to middle adolescence, our parents, guardians, teachers and peers would have together left an incredible mark on us as people. Those who were lucky enough are programmed in a healthy, positive and optimistic way while less fortunate ones are programmed to look at themselves and the world around them in a more negative, pessimistic and helpless way. The latter is obviously more aligned with hurt, anger, shame, anxiety, depression, stress or burnout. The negative perspective is strongly linked to personal suffering. 

The good news is that if you are not satisfied or happy with the way in which you view yourself or the world around you, then you can change your mental programming so that your new way of thinking is aligned with what you want for yourself and a healthier perspective to life. 

As a child you have little control on how you are being programmed but as an adult you choose and control your own mental beliefs that directly influence your emotions, actions, behaviours and outcomes. Basically, this is what a psychotherapeutic process promotes and encourages, a healthier and more balanced perspective of the self and the world.

For those who recognize that some personal mental re-programming is necessary, be careful not to fall into one of the most dangerous yet commonly destructive and self-defeating approaches, blaming others for what is currently your responsibility and problem. Blaming someone else for your woes will achieve nothing, except increased frustration and increased hurt, anger and suffering. Blaming someone else, normally in your own immediate or wider environment, is a non-starter. You’ve been warned.

Remember, if you want to change something, especially something personal like your own mental programming, then only you can do something about it.  Recruiting professional help to achieve this goal is today possible and even encouraged but please do not fall into the trap of blaming others and remaining stuck in your current situation.  If you find yourself insisting that someone else has to first make a move or change their mental programming, you are probably wasting precious time.  Work on yourself, your expectations, your mental programming and you will see how with time, others will start to shift and change their approach too.  This way, a result is guaranteed and it’s usually a positive one, if done carefully and genuinely.

Finally, I promised you some basic but powerful tips to address your mental programming.  Here they are:

  1. Regularly question and challenge your own thoughts and beliefs which precede and are strongly linked to your feelings and behaviours.  You will need to establish your thoughts and beliefs by focusing on what you think of yourself rather than what you are feeling or doing.  When one follows a thought right through, s/he will normally discover that it is a very personal and self focused one (refer to the mental programming list above).  Personal thoughts are usually embedded in what you say to yourself about yourself.
  2. Actively encourage yourself to positively reframe the way in which you view and assess life events especially if you are prone to look at things in a more negative and pessimistic way.  Be creative and think laterally when necessary so that you find a positive reframe to situations that otherwise at face value look difficult, distressing or even impossible.
  3. When you wonder why someone said something particular to or about you, or even when you say certain disparaging things about yourself, politely but assertively clarify what was meant.  Avoid assumptions like the plague!
  4. Finally, often use positive self-talk and reward yourself regularly especially for positive outcomes even when small.  Remember to look at the bright side of life.

I hope you will find this letter useful and the ideas in it beneficial.  In my next letter I plan to focus on assertive communication and how professionals in the health sector are increasingly becoming reliant on this highly effective means of communication to achieve results.  In the meantime, keep well and enjoy the last few days of summer.

Your colleague,

The Clinical Psychologist