“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I shall have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it, even if I may not have it at the beginning.” – Gandhi
I would venture a guess that most people who are reading this article have heard of a phenomenon called the placebo effect which is described as an inert substance either injected or ingested that has perceived benefit for the patient. It could take the form of a sugar pill in place of an actual prescribed medication.
A classic scene from the Robin Williams’, Nathan Lane led film The Bird Cage, showcases this concept brilliantly. In it, Lane’s character believes he is being given a mood stabilizing medication called Pirin, when what it really is, is aspirin with the letters a and s scratched off.
What happens in treatment when medication is not the only remedy and human contact provides advantageous impact?
Bernie Siegel, MD is a medical oncologist whose landmark book entitled Love, Medicine and Miracles opened the door to my own exploration of the ways in which our thoughts and beliefs create pathways to healing. It shaped many of the interventions I incorporate into my therapy practice.
In an article, Deceiving People Into Health, Bernie talks about his direct observation of the placebo effect in treatment of those diagnosed with various forms of cancer. He determined that when patients perceive their care to be benign (such as viewing radiation as sunbeams rather than lightning bolts or chemotherapy as a benevolent rather than toxic substance), they tend to have better outcomes. When they are treated with respect, kindness and compassion, they heal in ways that they may not otherwise.
Bernie refers to his patients over the length of time he has been in practice as exceptional. A long-standing group he began decades ago is called ECaP which stands for Exceptional Cancer Patients. Do some of his patience die? Of course, they do. As much as he believes that love heals, even it can’t keep people in their bodies forever. By observation, some die more healed than they lived.
Human beings find meaning in their beliefs. They can take the form of those listed below as well as their opposites.
- Trust in a benign universe. A Higher Power or Divine Being versus doubt, fear and feeling abandoned.
- Awareness of inner strengths, resilience and fortitude vs. embracing lack and limitations.
- Pronoia, the idea that events are conspiring to work in our benefit, instead of paranoia, the assertion that everyone is against us.
- Personal safety vs. danger which may trigger a fight, flight or freeze reaction.
- Love-ability vs. self- loathing
When I consider the counseling clients I have worked with over the past nearly four decades, I have observed that those who find stability and recovery are those who view the world through clear lenses rather than those that are smudged by cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing, personalization, blaming or jumping to conclusions. It is akin to looking in a fun house mirror and insisting that the images you are seeing are real.
Some share that others hate them, disrespect them, and want them to fail. When we dig deeper, I ask them if those were the words used. Much of the time, the answer is, “Well, not exactly, but that’s what they meant.” Again, I would query, and the response is, “That’s what it felt like.”
Since we act on what we believe, often they would shape their choices based on that perception and would find themselves awash in feelings of despair, frustration and anger. Some carry guilt and shame from childhood choices and judge themselves irredeemably damaged and unworthy of the love and approval they may so desperately seek. Fueled by substances or other habitual behaviors, it causes a downward spiral from which they fear they will never recover.
The Health Belief Model was developed in the 1950s by social psychologists Hochbaum, Rosenstock and Kegels who were employed by the U.S. Public Health Services, It is described as one in which a person will take a positive action, such as giving up alcohol as is the case with many of my clients, if they can avoid a negative condition such as job loss, legal consequences or marital conflicts, and have a degree of certainty that if they do decide to refrain, an undesirable outcome can indeed be prevented and, lastly, that they are capable of such change. That’s often where they get snagged. They may express wanting to change, but lack the motivation to take the necessary steps.
I ask them on a 1-10 scale where they place themselves regarding desire for change. The next question is about how determined they are to execute change and lastly how willing they are to “put legs under” their vision for their lives. It is only when all three are at the same level that success is more likely. I have found that most people don’t do the best they can. They do the best they are willing to do.
I sometimes ask, “If you knew that in a year from now, your life could do a 180, how would you feel in the moment?” Most of the time, they would smile and say, “Great!” I tell them that I guarantee change in that period, since it occurs every day — but it will cost them their limiting beliefs, fear thoughts and scarcity mentality. Let’s make a deal… door #1 or curtain #2.