What the “Berenstain Bears” Can Teach Us About Psychotherapy and Personal Growth
Much to my delight I recently discovered that old episodes of the “Berenstain Bears” can be found online. I read several of those books as a child and I was excited to be able to share the wholesome Berenstain world with my children. Especially as the heat from the Houston summer and pandemic precautions hamper other fun activities. As I have been watching the series with my kids, the episode “Bad Habit” particularly stands out.
In this episode “Sister bear” discovers that she has a habit of biting her fingernails. To remedy this habit to family tries a variety of behavioral interventions. Mamma bear puts tape over sister bear’s nails to prevent Sister bear from biting them. Brother bear helps sister dunk her hands in lemon juice so it would be sour and unpleasant to bite her nails. Papa bear gives sister bear a dime and announces that each morning he will do the same. If she abstains from nail biting each day, she can keep the dime. While these seem like possible solutions, they all fail when sister bear becomes very anxious and without realizing it finds a way to bite her nails.
Many people come to me seeking help for a seemingly straightforward reason. They want to not drink as much, communicate better with their loved ones, better control anger, restore a sense of drive and purpose to their lives. More often than not, people seeking our services have tried many quick-fix ways to solve their problems. Like Sister bear, these have not been successful.
For Sister bear, the nail-biting problem did not change until the family identified and addressed the root of the problem. Sister bear was learning about fractions in school and was having a hard time understanding it. When she thought about fractions or something reminded her of fractions, she would bite her nails. After realizing this the family helped her to understand fractions and the nail biting stopped.
We are often driven by an interplay of emotions, past experiences, instincts, learned responses and behaviors. Addressing the symptoms of an issue and not the root cause will often only lead to temporary relief.
I am reminded of a client a worked with several years ago. This intelligent, driven, professional woman was seeking my services because she wanted to stop drinking. She had tried many things with little success including going to 12 step meetings, reading various self-help books, meditating, yoga, and various diets that mandated no alcohol.
Initially she was closed off and distant about her emotional world. She could easily talk about her professional and academic achievements but could not articulate much about her emotions and significant emotional events. It was difficult to obtain a thorough history but in our initial session she did disclose that that her difficulties with alcohol began less than a year ago. As the sessions progressed, she began to slowly trust me and open up. When we had established enough trust, she disclosed a very traumatic incident happened a little less than a year ago. As we processed the trauma, we were able to connect a lot of her current unhelpful behaviors as means to cope with severe PTSD. When seen through the lens of trauma, we understood her drinking was a way to cope with anxiety, and flashbacks.
As we worked through the trauma her drinking decreased dramatically. Once her sense of safety and agency was restored, she no longer needed to use drinking (and other) unhelpful coping mechanisms. She was able to feel and express emotions that she was previously trying to numb with alcohol.
Like Sister bear, my client’s unhelpful behavior ceased once we identified and addressed the root of the problem (who knew tucked inside my childhood nostalgia was an important message about change and effective psychotherapy).
Of course, life is not a simple as an episode of Berenstain Bears. Usually the problems people come to therapy to address are not going to be fixed in 22 minutes.Identifying a problem is the first step on a long journey. People are complex, and often have several overlapping complex issues. Addressing the root(s) of ones issues can be a long process. Lasting personal growth takes time and often requires guidance from a skilled therapist.