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Mental gymnastics: Navigating challenging relationships

By Grace Hipona May 13, 2022

“I am not sure how they are feeling and what they are thinking. I am confused. I feel like I am going crazy. I question everything, and I don’t know if I can trust what I am feeling and thinking.”

Relationship issues are one of the more difficult problems to help clients manage. When clients make any of the statements above, especially in relation to someone else, I talk with them about what I have coined as “mental gymnastics.” Mental gymnastics can start with unsettling statements and questions but also can lead to impacting other areas of a person’s life. In this article, I discuss how clients can be affected and strategies professional counselors can use to help them navigate these challenges.

Direct communication

When a client is experiencing mental gymnastics, they may commonly ask, “Why is this so hard? Why can’t I make this work? Why is this so exhausting?”

Direct communication, including asking questions, is the best strategy for clients to navigate mental gymnastics. However, if direct questions are asked and the other party does not respond with an honest or genuine answer, then it becomes more complicated. Sometimes, there is a discrepancy between what a person says and how they act. Sometimes, they may not even have this awareness, especially if they are confused themselves.

Unfortunately, it may feel purposeful or malicious when others do not communicate directly, lie through omission or engage in other forms of dishonesty. A classic example is when a person asks, “How are you?” and the other person responds with “I am fine.” However, their body language and tone of voice indicate that they are not actually “fine” but are instead upset or angry. Another common exchange is one person asking, “Do you need anything?” and the other person responding with “no,” even though they need help.

When discrepancies between what clients say and how they act arise, it is natural for clients to question their own inclinations. “Can I trust how I feel or what I think?”

Adding to the internal conflict, the other person can potentially invalidate how the client feels or completely deny their reality. Therefore, as professional counselors, it is important to specifically ask clients their feelings about the relationship in question. This clarity can increase clients’ self-awareness. Clients will find it easier to navigate relationships when they are aware of their reality and have confidence in it.

Good vs. bad anxiety and needs vs. wants

One common example of mental gymnastics that I’ve encountered is when a client has begun getting to know someone (whether a budding friendship or a romantic relationship) and they experience anxiety that is more constant and intense than typically associated with relationship building. This is when clients may begin having unsettling questions and statements: “Why can’t I tell if they like me? I can’t seem to get a straightforward answer. I don’t know what they want.”

When this occurs, I help clients differentiate “good” versus “bad” anxiety. In other words, I provide a space for them to process how they perceive the adrenaline associated with their experiences. A person should experience levels of anxiety when meeting someone new and getting to know them. This could be perceived as “good” anxiety or excitement. Clients may feel butterflies in their stomach, brighter in their affect, and hopeful. With good anxiety, clients may have thoughts and questions such as, “Do they like me?”; “Did I make a good impression?”; and “I can’t wait to see them again.”

If clients experience “bad” anxiety, such as excessive worry, irritability, dread and the triggering of the “fight, flight or freeze” response, this may be a red flag. They may have thoughts such as, “I don’t know what to do”; “I can’t seem to say anything right”; and “What can I say or do so that they will like me more?”

In helping clients assess whether they are experiencing “good” versus “bad” anxiety, I ask them if in general they feel more positive emotions than negative ones. For example, “Do you feel happier more than 50 percent of the time?”

I also help clients determine their needs and wants. I describe needs as things that are non-negotiable to them, such as respect, trust, honesty, marriage, children, and religious or spiritual beliefs. Hard boundaries need to be set around these needs.

Wants are negotiable or flexible. Examples include physical appearance, financial status, educational background and geographic origin. When it comes to positive and healthy relationships, clients should have their needs met, and the relationship should feel like it is a “want” or a choice.

LinaDes/Shutterstock.com

Minimizing and denying

The answers to the assessment questions in the previous section can be interrelated and could lead to more confusion. For example, clients could determine that they feel happy most of the time with their relationship but that most of their needs are not being met. This discrepancy can cause clients to question their feelings, and this could lead to an increase in anxiety.

Another potential cause of internal conflict is receiving information from the other person that minimizes or denies the client’s experience. For example, the client may be questioning their own reality because the other person is directly challenging it: “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way. Are you sure?”

The other person could be completely denying the client’s reality: “That didn’t happen. I know what you’re feeling. You’re not really mad.”

Some may even define this as “gaslighting” (questioning their internal reality or “sanity” based on external pressure and manipulation).

Another example that can cause internal conflict is when the client brings a concern or stressor to the other person, and that person minimizes the client’s experience. The other person might respond with, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing, and you shouldn’t feel that way.” The other person may shift the focus to themselves while minimizing the client’s experience, “You think you’re upset? I’ve felt so much worse. You don’t know what suffering is really like.”

In any of these scenarios, the attention has turned toward the other person, and the client’s thoughts and feelings have been dismissed. In other words, the client is then reactively directing their energy toward the other person, and the client has lost sight of their inner experience. The client could be more likely to “lose themselves” in the relationship and, therefore, not get their needs and wants met.

Like the sport, mental gymnastics requires a person to use energy and effort. However, unlike the sport, mental gymnastics unnecessarily uses a person’s energy. One indicator that clients are engaging in mental gymnastics is that they feel tired and their mood is generally lower than usual. Clients may describe feeling “drained” even though they are not actively and purposefully using their energy. They may feel the need to use certain strategies or efforts to engage with a particular person. Clients may feel the need to “perform” a certain way; otherwise, they may feel judged, criticized and denied any love, support, care or validation from the other person. Clients may feel dueling inclinations of needing to spend time with the other person but also wanting to avoid that person.

Another reason clients may unnecessarily use energy to engage with another person is that even when trying to support this person, clients feel like they “can’t win.” In other words, the intention and effort may be there, but the other person still feels “it is not good enough.” Even if conditions are met, the other person may find something wrong with what has happened. That person may say, “That was a nice try, but I would have liked this instead.”

Aside from helping my clients gain clarity over their needs versus their wants and insight into their internal experience in general, I believe it is important to help clients reality test. Writing a “pro/con” list or something similar can be useful, especially for clients who tend to be visual in nature. Asking the following questions can support development of this list:

  • How do you benefit from this relationship?
  • How does this person meet your needs and wants?
  • How do you feel about them?
  • How do you feel about the relationship?
  • How is your life impacted by this person?
  • How do they challenge you to be the best version of yourself?
  • What do you like about this person?
  • What do you dislike about this person?
  • What do your friends and family think about this person. 

Active and reactive decision-making

After time, effort and space have been given to the questions mentioned in the previous sections and clients continue to move forward in a relationship where mental gymnastics is present, I encourage clients to think about the consequences of this choice. At this point, clients can take ownership and feel empowered by their decision-making.

When I work with clients, I focus on strategies to help them make ACTIVE decisions rather than reactive ones. Once there is a level of insight into decision-making, they can make informed decisions. This awareness can lead to active decisions where the clients feel they have a choice. Without any awareness, clients may not feel like they have a choice. They may feel compelled to do something but not know why.

An example of a reactive decision is when a client chooses not to end a relationship even though there is evidence that the relationship is unhealthy. A client may say, “I don’t want to break up with him because I love him.”

As the client’s counselor, I would ask, “Why do you love him?”

The client may respond with, “I just do” or “I am not sure, but this is how I feel.”

If clients continue making reactive or passive decisions, this can perpetuate or exacerbate negative anxiety. Counselors can assist in exploring the client’s decision-making process so the client can answer the question “why?”

I believe when clients experience anxiety, it is not just their fear of the unknown and the byproduct of internal conflict, but also a result of them not feeling empowered in their own lives. For clients to feel empowered, they need to be an active participant in their own decision-making process. Counselors can help clients manage this anxiety by helping them focus on their locus of control.

Clients can examine what they say and how they act toward the other person. They can focus on their self-care and on other important aspects of their identity. Clients can also concentrate on purposefully coping with their anxiety in healthy ways. These strategies can lead to feeling confident in navigating potential mental gymnastics.

 

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Grace Hipona is a licensed professional counselor for NeuroPsych Wellness Center PC and holds a doctorate in counselor Education and supervision. Her dissertation focus was on disaster mental health, specifically sheltering-in-place. She is also a certified substance abuse counselor and approved clinical supervisor. Her experiences over the past 15 years include working in private practice, managing behavioral health programs, teaching graduate students, and providing supervision for master’s-level counseling students and counselors-in-residence. Contact her at ghipona@hotmail.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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