Congruence

“We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed” (Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person).

Carl Rogers referred to congruence as a compatible match between an individual’s ideal sense of self and their actual experience of their sense of self. Incongruence, on the other hand, occurs when a person’s ideal sense of self is inconsistent with their actual observation of self (Rogers, 1961). We are, all of us, in near constant flux between varying degrees of congruence and incongruence. For many years I felt a sense of what Dr. Rogers meant by these terms, but I struggled to define either state in any meaningful terms (much less the flux between them). Then, during one session last year, a client asked me what it feels like to believe you are good enough. Beyond the profundity and heart-break of this modest question, I found an answer that fits for me and that I would like to share with anyone willing to listen.

Both congruence and incongruence have been felt by each of us without realizing it. Congruence “feels right” whereas incongruence “feels wrong.” Incongruence is inherently uncomfortable and a state we attempt to avoid. Congruence is comfortable and a state we tend to stay in or move toward. Quite simply, I am in a state of congruence when my thoughts, emotions, and body sensations are all in alignment with one another. For example: Thought: “I like my friend;” Emotion(s): happy/content/interested; Body Sensations: alert, warm, relaxed, light. Incongruence then is the state of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations being out of alignment. For example: Thought: “I like myself;” Emotion(s): sad/worried/upset/nervous; Body Sensations: racing heart, heavy, cold, hot. This discrepancy of experience helps us understand why cognitive reframing “feels wrong” when we first start practicing it. Though I found this description of congruence and incongruence helpful, I was still left with a nagging question as to the inherent resistance of moving toward more adaptive cognitions…

Why does it feel so wrong to say “I like myself” or “I am good enough” after trauma? I think part of the resistance is due to a tendency toward destructive congruence. If thinking to myself “I am worthless” while feeling sad/hurt/upset and experiencing fatigue, heartache, and queasiness, then I will be in a state of congruence and thereby find comfort in my despair. “Comfort in despair” is a destructive congruence that I felt often while living in my trauma, and it is a sentiment I have heard echoed by hundreds of clients. Though this way of being is ultimately destructive, it “feels right” for someone who has fallen into the grips of depression, chronic anxiety, suicidal ideation, PTSD, etc.

Why does destructive congruence feel right? I believe it is because it answers a fundamental question of traumatic experiences: “Why did this happen,” or, for repeated traumas, “Why does this keep happening?” The answer: “It is my fault.” If I believe the trauma that I experienced (for children, this includes witnessing) was my fault, then I can make sense of the experience without compromising the integrity of the world around me. The traumatic experience leads to emotions and body sensations such as hurt, anger, sadness, fear, trembling, increased blood pressure, sweat, nausea, etc. Once these reactions are paired with this “best fit” explanation of self-blame, the conditions are met to develop destructive congruence, which by its very nature is a self-perpetuating process. Hence, this cycle is an easy one to fall into, and a disturbingly difficult one to come out of.

All of this may be interesting, illuminating, etcetera, but it does not answer the original question of what it feels like to be good enough. It is not enough to understand a problem. When it comes to recovery, there must be a felt answer. This is where the common concept of bilateral stimulation delivered the missing piece. Felt safety (EAAC), bilateral stimulation (EMDR), and cognitive reframing (CBT) are the core components of creating adaptive congruence. Adaptive congruence is simply the alignment of adaptable thinking with matching body sensations that produce equivalent emotions. For example: Thought: “I am okay as I am;” Body Sensations: relaxed, warm, light; Emotion(s): happy/hopeful/confident. Admittedly, these thoughts and body sensations will feel incongruent at first and will need evidence to support them. However, through the consistent repetition of paired body sensations with adaptive cognitions we will begin to feel that this new belief fits, and one day all three will “click” and it will “feel right.”

It is worth noting that this outlook promotes adaptive reframing, not positive reframing. There is growing awareness of the toxicity that comes from blind adherence to positivity (Burger, 2020). We cannot consistently apply evidence to absolute statements like, “Everything will be ok” or “I am the best.” In fact, this type of thinking is part of what led us to destruction in the first place (i.e. “Everything is my fault”). Life will not always be okay. You will not always be the best. And, critically, not everything can be your fault. What we CAN find evidence for our adaptive thoughts such as, “It is okay to not be okay,” “Not everything is my fault,” “I can control some things,” and “I am enough.”

I encourage my clients (and myself) that by consistently pairing a regulated body state with adaptive cognitions that have been substantiated by reality testing, it is possible to believe that you are good enough and actually feel it. That is a realistic hope worth investing in.

Landon C. Dickeson, MS, LPC
For questions or comments, email me at landon@ranchhandrescue.org