Shifting Your Reality: Are You Pulling Your Own Strings?

SolitudeYour body is a storehouse of emotions that control your daily experience in ways that are nearly impossible to detect. Only after validating these emotions can they be subject to change. Real change requires real effort to feel, release, expand, and play with the underlying emotions that form the context of your perceptions. There is no magic wand to wave or blue fairy to pull this off. However, the fact inner change can indeed reshape your real experiences in the outward world can feel intensely magical. Reality changes as you change.

Validating Your Emotions

In an unexamined life, your sense of reality is largely prescribed for you by the conditions of your surroundings. As a child, you gather that the routines and behaviors which make sense at home (“I can whine when I’m hungry until mom gives me what I want”) simply do not work the same at school (“I have to wait my turn or I’ll lose my place in line”). Rather intuitively, you assess that home and school belong to two different realities. Successful adaptation into adulthood is dependent upon your ability to deduce which attitudes and means of relational negotiation are required from the different surroundings to which you are exposed.

What does your body learn in the process? Some surroundings validate your emotions, some expect you to do your own emotional validating, and others appear eager to invalidate your emotions altogether.

What’s wrong with you now?

Your point is?

Well, duh!


Comments received from invalidating environments have left their mark upon your behavior and speech. There are emotional scars left from every repeating pattern of invalidation. These signatures on your self-expression take many physical forms. You might roll your eyes or sigh impatiently while struggling to state an opinion. You might rush to explain or justify an emotion as a substitute for showing how you actually feel it. You might lose interest in an emotion you are about to share before you can find words for it.


Never mind.

It’s not important.

I forgot what I wanted to say.

The therapeutic environment is unique in that it offers a chance to participate in a reality based entirely on the emotional cues of one person: you. Aiming to be as close to the core of your sense of self as possible, it is a place that should be experienced as inherently validating. For those not accustomed to such security, it can take some time to relax into the atmosphere. For this one hour per week, no one is asking you to fix, stop, speed up, or slow down; only that you feel what it is that you feel. The therapist will convey plenty of human reactions (sometimes helpful, sometimes not) but most often with the purpose of eliciting more of you, not less.

“Your voice seems to have grown softer. Feeling a little sad today?”

“Maybe, but it’s no big deal.”


“OK, actually, I am a little sad … but I’m also just really, really tired.”

Once a feeling is validated, there arise supplementary emotions that have been lingering unnoticed on the sidelines. As you and your therapist establish trust that emotions can come into the room without criticism or avoidance, a natural curiosity develops for that which remains hidden. More feelings find their way into expression. Over time, you explore more of your deeply hidden emotions. It’s these hidden emotions that carry the most compelling power over your implicit reality.

Your Implicit Reality

Imagine approaching a room and overhearing three close friends trash-talking your latest interest in fashion. Without conscious awareness of it happening, your body becomes suffused with shame while entering the room. Your eye movements are more evasive than usual. Your cheeks are warm. You have a hard time sitting down and want to keep your hands busy and your feet moving. Shame is having its way with you. Soon you may forget their comments, but the shame-induced state persists. You decide to take a seat, but then grow immediately excited by a topic your friends find offensive. The more you talk, the more you notice how discomforted they are by your passion. “What am I doing?” you say to yourself, “I should change the subject.” But, on another level, you find their distaste of you validating. “At least now I can see their contempt for me directly.”

Untapped emotions yield implicit forms of experience that give contextual meaning to your world. More often than not, like a puppet on strings, your actions are under the control of these undetectable, implicit realities. These realities are not always kind or supportive of your survival. In their construction of bodily responses to distressful situations, they engage you in self-perpetuating ways that reinforce and “make more real” the unexpressed stress. Shame, for example, once established as a guiding force in your life, can create repeating cycles of shame-inducing circumstances—each forming its own self-fulfilling prophecy, holding ransom any natural self-confidence that might attempt to emerge. Reality itself appears to conspire against your self-esteem.

Changing Your Explicit Reality

Allow me to dive right into an intervention that might occur in therapy. The following scenario is theoretical.

Joshua is describing a particularly nasty remark thrown his way by his overbearing boss just this morning. He and his therapist have already established a trusting rapport, so Joshua is open to the prospects of exploring his reactions to his boss without getting too defensive. His therapist shoots him a quick smile (“play along with me here”) and slips into a role play where he repeats the accusatory words of his boss. Joshua takes him up on the opportunity and tries out some novel responses that he wouldn’t yet dare try at work. The enactments quickly surface new feelings of power in Joshua while eliciting even more intense feelings of self-doubt.

As therapy continues, Joshua gathers that his implicit reality of self-doubt is the sole focus of attention. Here’s how it tightens his chest. Here’s its negative self-talk. Here’s the taste of defeat. This study sheds light not only the implicit reality of Joshua’s self-doubt but the explicit reality that self-doubt creates in Joshua’s work environment. Here’s how it affects his speech patterns. Here’s the pouting expression it creates on his face. Here’s the dreaded pause where he forgets what it is he wanted to say. During enactments, the therapist notes a desire to pity Joshua, to interrupt him, to talk over the awkward silences, to speak for him rather than trusting that he can speak for himself.

In an atmosphere of compassion, the two discuss how the inner and outer realities of self-doubt conspire to reinforce each other. They assume a stance as witnesses to the drama.

Validation once again serves the purpose of bringing other hidden possibilities to light. Without a need to attack or reverse his co-created situation at work, there arises a natural curiosity to reveal more.

“But let me tell you about this other time when people really trusted me.”

Joshua uses such memories, no matter how mundane, to tap new implicit realities within himself. As he practices speaking from these new resources, he notes as well the impulses to sit more upright in his chair, head lifted, eyes focusing outward before him. Implicitly, Joshua begins to embody his own latent feelings of self-confidence. Explicitly, the mood in the office elevates. The therapist notes a new desire to lean back in his chair, to relax, and to follow Joshua’s lead.

The two go back and forth, exploring the postures of self-doubt and self-confidence and how they create two unique realities within the office. There are preferences, costs, and benefits to each.

The net result is not necessarily an end to self-doubt for Joshua but rather a growing sensation of choice.

Pinocchio did it. Why not you?

In therapy, you are offered new experiences of self-validation which gradually bring to light and change your inward ways of viewing the world. Then, as new inward perceptions take hold, the context of your reality outside the office adjusts accordingly. Like a puppet learning the art of pulling your own strings, the grand puppet master holding reality’s strings has little choice but to follow your lead.

I’ve got no strings
To hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings
But now I’m free
There are no strings on me
Hi-ho the me-ri-o
That’s the only way to go
I want the world to know
Nothing ever worries me
Hi-ho the me-ri-o
I’m as happy as can be
I want the world to know
Nothing ever worries me
I’ve got no strings
So I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, Relational Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Daphne

    October 27th, 2014 at 10:07 AM

    It has unfortunately taken me a very long time to realize that indeed I am in control of my own reality, so no matter what life throws my way, I am the one who either makes the decision to stay with it or do something differently.
    It has been a difficult process for me and I think that the biggest reason why is that accepting that I am the agent for change puts a lot more responsibility on me and for a very long time I did not want to have to deal with that.
    But it has been liberating to finally understand that yes, this is something worth taking charge of, and my life has been so much better as a result!

  • claira

    October 27th, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    following my own lead, I like that a lot

  • Mary

    October 27th, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    It is important to remember the person that you want to be and not allow that person to become overshadowed and buried from fear and pain. Anxiety can cause that, stress can, depression can, and making your way out of those quagmires can be horribly difficult. But you have the strength to rise up and face that challenge as long as you remember to take control, not be controlled.

  • frank t.

    October 28th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    It feels kind of odd to admit to this but I have always allowed others to control what I did because that’s how I was raised and I suppose you could say that that was what always felt the most comfortable to me, not because I like it but because it was my version of normal. I finally feel liberated now that I have taken over the reins but I have lost some people in my life too that I thought were pretty important to me as a result. It kind of became like they didn’t really like me, just that feeling of being in control,and when I took that away from them then away they walked. It’s okay I know that I am better off without them but it does still sting when I think of how long I gave up this part of me just to remain comfortable.

  • Teena

    October 28th, 2014 at 10:16 AM

    While the journey to escape from my past has not been the most pleasant one, I do have to say that my therapist has helped me make such tremendous strides of feeling in control of my life and the things that happen in that life.
    No longer do I look around for who or what I can blame for what has happened. I look in the mirror.
    And by coming to terms with that I also know that when something good happens I can also look in that same mirror and see the one who is fully responsible for that happiness too.

  • yvette

    October 30th, 2014 at 3:56 AM

    the general feeling that I have is that if I am not leading my own way then I am not living my life to the fullest potential

  • Russ

    November 3rd, 2014 at 2:32 PM

    There is something to be said for being able to rely on others, but I think that there is even more to be said when you can take care of your own self without actually having to rely on others. It just feels better to know that hey, I can let these people in if I want to but my entire livelihood does not have to depend on that. Friends are great, even when they are the best thing that has ever happened to you but I think that eventually what you come to appreciate even more than that is your ability to make it on your own.

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