Blog #2 (November 19th, 2022)
You might’ve heard of the phrase, “You are your own harshest critic.” I think many of us can relate to this. It’s understandable that over time, we’ve normalized our negative thoughts. But I want us to be the #1 supporter and cheerleader for ourselves before we even seek validation from others.
Therapy can be an incredible tool to help us hone-in our “metacognition,” which is the skill of being able to be cognizant of our own thoughts. Simply put—thinking of thinking! How meta! This also captures the ability to mold and train how we talk to ourselves.
You may be asking, “Is that even possible?”
I say—yes!! Hello, Neuroplasticity!
Our brain is a brilliant organ. When I first learned about the concept of neuroplasticity, I was immediately moved and inspired by it.
“Neuroplasticity, also known as neural plasticity or brain plasticity, is a process that involves adaptive structural and functional changes to the brain. It is defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections after injuries, such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury” (Puderbaugh M, Emmady PD., 2022).
More and more contemporary research has been demonstrating how our brain continues to be malleable throughout our lifetime, despite the misconception that our brains have a set window of time during our early developmental years to be plastic. (Voss et al., 2017)
Apart from the science of it, I think there’s something so beautiful and symbolic about how resilient the human body/mind is. Certain experiences such as, hardships and trauma can feel so permanent and scarring.
However, such trauma does not and cannot define us—science says so, too!
The mechanisms of neuroplasticity include multiple variables throughout the person’s lifetime such as, age, sex, psychological traits, and environmental changes. We are sensory beings and we quickly learn and adapt to the ever-changing circumstances. I hope that knowing that our brains’ sensory inputs and the sensory cortex can be partly “rewired” back from something as big as a traumatic brain injury can also help us feel more confident about harnessing our general metacognition.
Our bodies and minds do as much as they can to protect us from harm. Thus, it’s important to take a moment and assess if our brains and bodies have fallen into maladaptive patterns. The more we allow dysregulated thinking styles to repeat itself, the harder it becomes to separate ourselves from it. I like to relate this to the concept of, “core beliefs” in one of my favorite therapy modalities, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Core beliefs are how we view ourselves, others, and the world around us. We can have a range of positive to negative core beliefs. Such beliefs often shape how we think and how we behave in direct correlation.
Here are some examples of unhealthy core beliefs that one may have:
- I am a failure.
- I am not worthy.
- I am a burden.
- I am weak.
- I am broken.
- I have nothing to offer.
- I have to be perfect.
- Everyone is depending on me.
- I cannot let anybody down.
- Nobody likes me.
- Nobody cares about me.
- I have no control.
- People cannot be trusted.
Did any of those sound familiar to your own thoughts? Well, THEY AREN’T TRUE!
Notice the word, “belief.” Core beliefs are not facts or objective truths. They are essentially thoughts that we repeat to ourselves so often (with awareness or no awareness) that they end up feeling true.
When we exercise our meta-cognition skill, we can actually catch the core belief and “automatic” thoughts that rear the way we feel and behave. When we have negative core beliefs, we tend to fall into self-fulfilling prophecies by partaking in avoidance, rejection, and self-sabotage. However, parallel to the malleable nature of our brains– so is our way of thinking! Unlearning and challenging our negative core beliefs can boost our self-esteem, better our communication skills, and improve our interpersonal relationships with others.
That was a long-winded introduction to what compelled me to type this up today… But I think that was necessary context to provide.
As a forever-learning clinician, I love to stay on top of new studies, treatment modalities, and evidence-based data. I feel a great sense of responsibility to my multidisciplinary teammates and the individuals that I provide counseling to; it also keeps me motivated to revisit my previous studies and review the foundations of psychology and sociology in human development within the context of our living environments.
Earlier this year, I was flipping through my old notebooks and journals from my days as a doe-eyed student in academia. I went as far back as the different rudimentary theories in psychological developmental stages.
I’m talking Freud, Piaget, Kolhbeg– you know, the godfathers of psychology!
While reviewing the blueprints of psychology/psychotherapy, I was freshly captivated by Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental Stages.
Erik Erikson was an ego psychologist that was inspired by Sigmund Freud, who is well-known for his Psychosexual Developmental Stages. Yes—you may also heard of him notoriously as the psychoANALyst (Ha.Ha.). Sigmund Freud laid out his developmental stages into 5 stages: Oral (0-18 months), Anal (18-36 months), Phallic (3-6 years), Latency (6 years to puberty) and Genital (puberty & on).
However, Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development focuses on the “social” side of how we develop as human beings throughout our older adult years. It’s also important to note that although he set a sequence of stages, he highlighted that every stage is a life-long process and that former stages can always be revisited and practiced.
As you can see above, (young adulthood) years 21 to 39 is “Intimacy VS. Isolation,” with the virtue of love. Erikson suggests that such years of our lives can be used to pursue meaningful relationships with people. Straying away from this too much in this stage can lead to “isolation.”
The next (adulthood) years 40-65 is “Generativity VS. Stagnation/Self-absorption,” with the virtue of care. Erikson advises that this is a great time to generate something that is meaningful to us. This can be interpreted literally as generating the next generation (kids, family, lineage, etc.) or even meaningful legacy through the work we do or the impacts we have on others (through philanthropy, teaching, coaching, etc.) Otherwise, we tend to feel stagnant and meaningless in our lives.
While I understand that Erikson did not mean his developmental stages to be finite and rigid like the other theories, I can’t help but think that it was highly intentional that those two adult stages were placed in that order, and not vice versa.
Today, I see a lot of adults chasing the latter adulthood stage of “Generativity” prior to “Intimacy” first. Many people have somehow calibrated their minds with negative core beliefs to think that they are not worthy of self-love or of a significant other until they can “provide” some sort of asset or capital. I noticed this is becoming the “norm” unfortunately– especially since the boom of social media. With our constant comparisons to others, better access to financial literacy, and the drive for capitalistic competition– our U.S. culture force feeds our minds and bodies to “Just keep pushing—no matter what.”
However, to endow generational wealth, we have to first tackle generational trauma.
How we define “success,” and “failure,” and how we form expectations about relationships are usually passed down from our parents/caregivers. It’s natural for us to learn from our surroundings and standardize what we observed while growing up.
I believe everyone has to be or strive to be somewhat self-sufficient to attract others who similarly want a healthy reciprocal relationship. However, there’s a difference between self-sufficiency and hyper-independence. Hyper-independence can be a result of negative past experiences or current worries of rejection, loss, and disappointment. It can quickly become a barricade from forming meaningful connections with others. You can begin to lose trust in others and repel from others’ willingness to be soft and lean on you for support– when this is one of the most beautiful parts of being in a meaningful friendship/relationship.
Isn’t it ironic that one’s goal to become “self-sufficient” and “whole” in pursuit of love/self-love can become a barrier to forming meaningful relationships when done in an unmindful manner?
In addition, many people have normalized the fear of intimacy and vulnerability in the contemporary world that is so saturated by others’ unresolved trauma and maladaptive patterns. Thus, I think some people have found it easier to preoccupy themselves with work or unhealthy activities (e.g. substance use, risky behavior, binging shows/food, etc.) to distract themselves from their personal matters; it’s another form of avoidance and escapism.
The COVID 19 pandemic has also not helped, either. We have been forced into SURVIVAL MODE– to literally stay alive in a pandemic. People lost loved ones, lost their routines, and many also lost a sense of self, too. We are collectively grieving. The unprecedented quarantine periods were also isolating to many folks. Add to that–wars, revolutions, economic recessions, inflation, housing shortage, massive lay-offs, food shortages… Keeping our sanity has become a true challenge!
Hence, the lack of boundaries between our work and personal lives (especially if you are working from home), can be even more detrimental when you are hustling harder while the world is on fire. This inevitably can feel confining and lonely. Here comes the hard part– please ask for help and support.
Something has to give.
When we solely fixate on how to get to the next job, next promotion, or next income bracket, we end up neglecting the importance of social supports and interpersonal relationships. Keep in mind that I am not just talking about romantic relationships, but various types of relationships as well, such as family, friends, coworkers, mentors, etc. Human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection and thrive off of it– no matter how introverted you may be.
As Erikson suggests, I believe that it’s never too early nor never too late to work on ourselves and improve how we connect with others around us.
Nevertheless, if you are a young adult who has the privilege of being able to balance your work and personal life from the get-go, please do so. I think this chapter can be seen as the most pivotal time in our lifetime to form and sustain meaningful relationships. Frankly, the older we get, the harder it becomes to make new friends and expect to be welcomed with open arms by “old friends.” We no longer are in the same city, state, country, and have fewer shared functions (school, clubs, hobbies, etc.) as years go by.
“Generativity” will fall into place. It’s also natural that we become more motivated and inspired in all aspects of life when we have stronger foundations of social supports to fall back on. The key is to keep a healthy balance between our work and personal lives. It’s a privilege to love your job, but it’s also a privilege to be able to make time for your hobbies and loved ones. If your job isn’t something you are passionate about, but it still allows you to make time and manage other meaningful parts of your life, that’s a tremendous blessing, too! Be proud.
Of course, shifting our mindset and finding balance is easier said than done. I think we all come from different backgrounds and have had experiences that could have reinforced certain maladaptive (negative) or adaptive (positive) core beliefs that affect our ability to make room for intimacy and generativity.
Let me share a healthy dose of self-disclosure that I think could be helpful to make you feel less alone, no matter what intersecting identities you may hold.
I identify as a cis-gendered woman, Korean American, BIPOC, Asian American, and a “third-culture kid.” I immigrated to the U.S. as a young girl; I remember vividly. There are so many phrases and jargon that I can add on, but there isn’t ONE that truly encapsulates my entire experience and how I relate to the world around me. I used to find this fact isolating, but I have come to terms with it and feel proud to be oozing out of such labels that I felt crammed in. My experience has been entirely unique and it has shaped me into the person I am today both personally and professionally. I have distinct assets and perspectives that I can offer.
I’ve often been the planner in my groups of networks. I like to think big-picture and I like to look ahead. Some may say that is great, but it can also come with shortcomings if not harnessed. For example, I often catch myself recalibrating when I notice ruminating about the future when I can be enjoying the present. I think I’ve met many like me, too—those who have great difficulty celebrating accomplishments (personal & professional)– whether they be small or big. I hope you give yourself permission to celebrate every feat.
As a “1.5-generation American,” I remember the day I realized one of my internal engines for “success,” was guilt– the guilt that we feel to “repay” our parents who left their lives back home for a better future for their kids. I think many children of immigrants/refugees can relate. The pressure to “succeed” and/or to follow the “status quo” was always brooding over my shoulders. Many immigrants and BIPOC folks, especially those who arrived in the U.S. during their developmental years have had to negotiate parts of their identities for assimilation and acculturation.
This also leads to more guilt– the guilt of being a cultural traitor, the guilt of losing our mother tongue, the guilt of the growing cultural gap between us and our parents… Chasing for that validation we never received as children since our parents were also in survival mode…
But what is it all for in the end? What is wealth/success when you aren’t even chasing it for yourself, or don’t have one to share it with? Was negotiating yourself and pleasing others worth it?
When I took time to unlearn things and relearn who I was and how I came to be with self-compassion, I felt like I was finally in control.
I hope we all can take the time to reflect and digest such questions. If you feel overwhelmed with processing and healing on your own, a licensed therapist can offer non-judgmental comfort and guidance to help you answer questions like:
- What is it that you want to do?
- How do you define “success?”
- What makes you happy and feel meaningful?
- Who/What makes you feel safe?
- How do you connect to others?
- How can you strengthen your relationships with others?
- How can you leave unhealthy patterns behind?
While I thrive to be a professional psychotherapist that has clear boundaries with my work and my own self, I hold self-compassion and normalize the events where I feel deeply connected to some of the topics and theories. There’s nothing wrong with feeling such emotions while working with clients; what’s important is that we have awareness of such feelings + thoughts and know how to manage them so that they do not interfere with our work. I think this practice can be adopted in multiple lines of work AND our personal interactions in day-to-day life.
Thank you for taking the time. Please take good care. Be kind to yourself. Good things take time.
Written by Sowoon Park, LCSW
Here are some great readings I have been inspired by:
Baumrind, D. (1991). Parenting styles and adolescent development. In J. Brooks-Gunn, R. Lerner, & A. C. Peterson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of adolescence. New York: Garland.
Berrol, S. C. (1995). Growing up American: Immigrant children in America, then and now. New York: Twayne.
Berry, J. W. (2001). A psychology of immigration. Journal of Social Issues, 57(1), 615–631.
Chen, C., & Stevenson, H. W. (1995). Motivation and mathematics achievement: A comparative study of Asian-American, Caucasian-American, and East Asian high school students. Child Development, 66(4), 1215–1234.
Chung, R. H. G. (2001). Gender, ethnicity, and acculturation in intergenerational conflict of Asian American college students. Cultural Diversity & Ethnicity Minority Psychology, 7, 376–386.
Coehlo, G. V., Yuan, Y. T., & Ahmed, P. I. (1980). Contemporary uprooting and collaborative coping: Behavioral and societal responses. In G. V. Coelho, P. I. Ahmed, & Y. T. Yuan (Eds.), Uprooting and development (pp. 5–17). New York: Plenum.
Costigan, C. L., & Dokis, D. P. (2006). Relations between parent-child acculturation differences and adjustment within immigrant Chinese families. Chil
Puderbaugh M, Emmady PD. Neuroplasticity. [Updated 2022 May 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557811/
Pyke, K. (2005). “Generational deserters” and “blacksheep”: Acculturative differences among siblings in Asian immigrant families. Journal of Family Issues, 26, 491–517.
Rumbaut, R. G. (1994). The crucible within: Ethnic identity, self-esteem, and segmented assimilation among children of immigrants. International Migration Review, 28(4), 748–794.
Smart, J. F., & Smart, D. W. (1995). Acculturative stress among Hispanic: Loss and challenge. Journal of Counseling and Development, 73, 390–396.
Sorenson, C. (1994). Success and education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review, 38(1), 10–35.
Spera, C., Wentzel, K. R., & Matto, H. C. (2009). Parental aspirations for their children’s educational attainment: Relations to ethnicity, parental education, children’s academic performance, and parental perceptions of school climate. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 1140–1152.
Voss, P., Thomas, M. E., Cisneros-Franco, J. M., & de Villers-Sidani, É. (2017). Dynamic brains and the changing rules of neuroplasticity: Implications for learning and recovery. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, Article 657. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01657
Xia, Y. R., Do, K. A., & Xie, X. (2013). The adjustment of Asian American families to the U.S. context: The ecology of strengths and stress. In G. W. Peterson & K. R. Bush (Eds.), Handbook of marriage and the family (pp. 705–722). Springer Science + Business Media. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-3987-5_29
One thought on “Adulting: Harnessing Metacognition to Improve “Intimacy” & “Generativity””
Beautiful, important insights for therapists and anyone curious about psychotherapy and maximizing mental health. The reading list and self-awareness shared is priceless.
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