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1 Potestraat
Herent, Vlaanderen, 3020

+32 491 19 41 89

Larissa Ernst, English and Afrikaans speaking clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in Leuven, Belgium.


Relativity in relationships

Larissa Ernst

I often explain to couples who are stuck in conflict - continuously trying to convince the other of their perspectives - that perspectives are subjective. I actively challenge the notion of objective reality in my sessions.

I frequently use the example of describing a house from a rigid and objective stance. It will look something like this: person A is placed in the front of the house. Person B at the back of the house. They both received the instruction to describe what they see (with the rigid belief in objective reality that what they see IS the house). So person A starts describing that he sees a garage door, two windows and a front door. Person B reacts that this is not accurate as there is three windows and a door but no garage door. Person A argues that this is not right and explains again what he sees. And so the conversation continues. This can easily escalate into frustration and further escalate into aggression. The only solution is flexibility and a willingness to join the other in what he is seeing. Where he is looking from.

What is real is something that is agreed apon by a very specific group of people. This shared reality is what we perceive and live by asif it is objective reality. An objective truth. We often lose sight of the fact that it actually still remains subjective. When we talk about what we experience in the world, how we interact and relate and how we make sense of all of this it remains subjective and relative to the context (cultural, socio-political, family etc) that you find yourself in.

We co-create reality.

This whole idea stands out even clearer for me now that I live and work in Belgium. A lot of my work is with expats - people coming from all over the world - many of them have also lived in a couple of different countries. Listening to their experiences it is so clear how what is normal in one context can be abnormal in another. How the same behaviour in one context is perceived as rude while in another it is expected and seen as a sign of respect. This list can go on and on.

If you really stand still and look at all the detail of these differences in perspective and reality it is something short of a miracle that relationships work. The magnitude of the challenge of having fulfilling interpersonal relationships becomes clear.

Yet, no matter who you are or where you come from we have a shared need for connection. Research has shown how we yearn for connection and the universality of it.

Perhaps the first step is to approach your interpersonal relationships in all the various contexts that you function in, with great flexibility - especially when it comes to your idea of what is objective, what is fact and what is real. And perhaps you’ll enjoy the byproduct - increased empathy.

Standing in Awe

Larissa Ernst

On Monday I was in the fortunate situation that I finished work early and could drive to the Atlantic Seabord to take a stroll on Sea Point's promenade and watch the sun set. For me that becomes a tranquil, meditative space. A time where my mind is just focussed on my here-and-now experience. Putting worries and stress aside. 


I'm often intrigued by how people are facinated by the sunset. And as I was watching this special sunset  ...


I was reminded of the words of the renowned psychologist, Carl Rogers, on how he looks at people in the same way that he looks at a sunset - non-judgemental appreciation. 


We don't look at a sunset thinking it needs a little bit more yellow or a little less red. Or that the colour combination is too warm or too cold. We appreciate a sunset for what it is. Standing in awe. This is how Rogers viewed people.  


We so easily get bogged down in our relationships by what irritates us or by what we want to change. Often losing focus of the beauty in front of us. Losing focus of what adds value and what is special and unique.  

Alone time

Larissa Ernst

The other day I saw this picture on my Facebook feed:  


It made me think about how often the theme of alone time comes up in therapy.  


For some individuals their happiness lies in mastering the challenge of being able to look after themselves through drawing clear boundaries. Knowing when to stop putting others first. Knowing when to create time for themselves. Whilst these individuals are so busy attending to the needs of others they often end up feeling drained and even can become depressed. 


For others happiness lies in learning to break their "alone time". Breaking their isolation. They have often become quite comfortable in their own company and find that they lack the energy to at times break away from it. They find socialising draining. These individuals often end up battling with symptoms of anxiety and depression. 


May you find your healthy balance between alone time and time for connection with others.  


Larissa Ernst

Could it be that playing exceptional golf is only a thing of the mind?

Well, maybe not only a mind-thing but what can be labelled a winning mind-set could really make the difference between good golfing and breathtakingly brilliant play! This is how it works:

It is common knowledge that dedication and a considerable amount of practice are essential prerequisites when it comes to superior golfing.  There is a real technical side to the things that make for a good round of golf – the grip, the stance, the swing-through, you name it.

Given a reasonable level of health and fitness, logically speaking a high level of dedication and sufficient training and practice should ensure superior levels of play. That could very well have been the case had the human being been the type of animal that functioned logically and systematically. But, alas, this is not the case! Us humans are endowed with a cognitive ability as well as an emotional side that keeps on interfering with our efforts to function as rational intelligent and effective beings! And in the battle between intellect and emotion our attempts at superior performance often takes a crash dive!

Do some of these self-statements in any way sound familiar: “This is an easy shot – I should just concentrate and not botch it!” or “Wow, it’s going well today…. I should just keep this up!” or “I botched the last one, I’d better get back in shape!” or “Today is just not my day – I may as well go home!” or “I should just concentrate and think positively!” or “I can’t miss this one!” or “How on earth could I have done that?” or “What’s the matter with me, I just can’t get anything right today?” or “My previous shot was a beaut! I should just repeat it!” And there are also more “advanced” self-talk: “What’s happened is past – I should just take it one shot at a time!” or “I should not worry about the outcome of this shot – justplay it!” There are many more examples similar to these.

It is just part of any game – including golf - to attempt to “psyche” oneself up. That’s how we try and push and motivate ourselves to improve our levels of performance. Unfortunately that’s also how we often entrap ourselves and often we find that the harder we try to play better the less we succeed, to the point of actually getting depressed and feeling really desperate. Just what is this so-called “entrapment”?

If we look at the examples of self-talk given above one theme easily stands out: In order to mobilise ourselves to greater heights we often, almost forcefully, attempt to “prescribe” to ourselves: “I should this, I should that or I should not,” etc. What are the consequences of this?

Consider the following simple experiment: Please put the article you are reading right now down, close your eyes and for just about two minutes DO NOT THINK OF THE ARTICLE AT ALL! Now, please go ahead and try it!

What was your experience? Chances are that thoughts about the article kept hovering at the back of your mind, that thinking about the article in one way or another kept intruding every now and then, if not persistently, or that you really just could not steer your mind away from it at all! This is what is called a “paradoxical” effect: The harder you try to keep thoughts about the article out of your mind, the more you were thinking about it! Sounds familiar? The harder we try to play better, the worse we often play! And that becomes the entrapment!

Paradoxically it thus would seem that, in order to really perform almost perfectly, we need to have an attitude of absolute abandonment and not caring in the least what the outcome of our efforts will be! How on earth can that be possible: Being highly motivated to achieve and yet not worry about our performance at all?

One possible way out of this very typical entrapment could be to modify the nature of one’s “self-talk”. Instead of so heavily emphasising what should or should not be, one can attempt to replace the talk with a “kinder” variation: “Ok, I’ll try and give this one the best I can,” or “Perhaps I can do this one, let’s see,” or “Maybe I’ll surprize myself!” And on a more advanced level: “Let’s see if I can become the ball,” or “Let’s see if I can switch over to ‘automatic’.”

Acquiring a winning mind-set does not come overnight and necessitates a dedicated effort.  Often a clinical or sports psychologist can assist in the process of turning a good performance into superior play through the acquiring of a winning mind-set.



Benny Bear helps children

Larissa Ernst

Once upon a time in a land far, far away from here there lived a little bear.  His name was Benny Bear.  Benny Bear lived in the woods with his mommy and daddy.  He loved them very much.  Benny enjoyed playing games with dad.  He also had great fun when daddy taught him how to hunt.  Benny loved it when mommy allowed him to bake with her and he felt safe when mommy tucked him in at night.  Benny was a very happy bear.

 One day something happened that broke Benny’s heart and made him feel scared … mommy and daddy told Benny that daddy will be moving to the other side of the woods and that Benny will only see daddy over weekends.  Benny could not understand what was going on, but he could feel that something is wrong.  He felt very sad and lonely …

We fall in love with stories from a very young age. They are useful to teach life lessons and to empower children. Combining storytelling with teddy bears can create effective play therapy environments to assist children dealing with emotional and psychological challenges.

Teddy Bear Therapy is a contemporary form of play therapy where children between the ages of 3 and 12 are assisted in a playful manner through storytelling as medium to solve their difficulties.  The teddy bear becomes the main character in the story that is being created between the psychologist and the child-client.  The problem for which the child has been brought to therapy is creatively ascribed to the bear in the story.  The child is then asked to take the bear home for the duration of therapy to assist the psychologist in helping the bear.  This effectively empowers the child to deal with their own difficulties in a more creative way and enhances their problem solving skills.  Sometimes the challenge the child is faced with is too complex for the child to solve.  The wise Uncle Owl is then brought into the story to assist Benny with his problem. 

In most cases the parents or teachers identify the difficulty that the child is struggling with and then communicates this to the psychologist.  This enables the psychologist to plan the story beforehand.  In cases where it is unclear what exactly the difficulty is, or when parents just want to make sure about their child’s psychological functioning and that the child is okay, the psychologist can create a story which facilitates the child to talk about his/her challenges.  Everything is dealt with on a fantasy level.  Thus, creating emotional distance between the problem and the child, which enables the child to address the problem with more ease.

The kind of difficulties which has been effectively addressed by means of Teddy Bear Therapy is wide ranging and includes: 

  • Fears and phobias
  • being bullied at school
  • poor school performance
  • behaviour problems at school
  • hyperactivity
  • withdrawn and fearsome
  • afraid of going to school
  • separation anxiety
  • lying and stealing
  • adapting to physical disability
  • self-mutilation
  • learning difficulties
  • rebellious behaviour
  • grief
  • lack of confidence
  • over-dependency
  • dealing with parental divorce
  • depression
  • dealing with hospitalisation
  • traumatisation through accidents or crime
  • rejection by friends
  • undisciplined behaviour
  • performance anxiety
  • physical and sexual abuse
  • evidence giving in court
  • adhering to diabetic diet
  • sibling rivalry.

Because of the strong empowerment built into the story and therapy process, as well as the parents’ involvement in the process, therapy is short-term and usually lasts between 4 and 8 sessions. 

One day Benny bear met the wise uncle Owl who understood Benny’s sadness and loneliness.  Uncle Owl comforted Benny and told him that although mommy and daddy does not love each other anymore Benny can still love them.  He also told Benny that he will have two homes and that it is okay to miss mommy when he is with daddy and to miss daddy when he is with mommy.  He will miss them because he loves them so, so much.  This made Benny’s heart feel better and Benny even started feeling excited about daddy’s new home.  So folks and friends, this is where our story ends.

How do you begin to help someone with abandonment issues?

Larissa Ernst

The psychological wounds caused by the rejection / abandonment of a parent does not heal easily and we often carry that well into our adult life unless we specifically address it e.g. through psychotherapy.  

Often people who have experienced rejection / abandonment early in life acquire an interactional style through which they try to prevent experiencing the pain of rejection again.  They thus often keep people at a distance, struggle to trust others and open up and often end up living a self-fulfilling prophecy where in their attempt to prevent rejection by others they make sure that they will (when necessary) rather be in the rejecting position than being the one who is rejected.  They thus easily behave in a hostile manner towards others and distance themselves from others which in the end lead to them being rejected. 

The only way in which you can really help or assist is through compassion, understanding, empathy and unconditional acceptance.  Through this you may create or contribute towards an emotional corrective experience for them. Your challenge is to stick with them in a compassionate way when they become hostile or rejecting - showing them that you will stay no matter what.  Eventually they will learn to trust that you will not just leave or reject them.

How do sociopaths use body language to manipulate people?

Larissa Ernst

Firstly, sociopathy is a very difficult diagnosis to make (and technically this formal diagnosis does not exist anymore - it is an old term for what is now referred to as antisocial personality disorder). 

Sociopaths are seemingly well adjusted individuals who socially seem to feel and experience like everyone else.  Under this mask is a very skilled manipulator who lives for his own power and selfish gain at the cost of others without any remorse.  

Sociopaths can mimic the full range of human behaviour and emotions in their body language depending on what exactly their aim is in a given situation.  A sociopath's body language can range from direct eye contact to the point of an uncomfortable stare to avoidance of eye contact - depending on whether they want to intimidate; or mimic embarrassment or shame.  

Thus, to answer your question - sociopaths utilises the full spectrum of human behaviour and emotions through mimicking to manipulate people.

How do you build emotional intimacy?

Larissa Ernst

Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability.  Most people struggle to show vulnerability early on in any kind of relationship - especially if they've experienced intense emotional pain in relationships before. 

You can try to lower the threshold for your partner through creating emotional safety.  You can focus on showing unconditional acceptance (non-judgementality), genuineness and understanding (empathy) through your own behaviour.  Also try not to put any pressure on your partner to open up more.  This can push your partner further away.  You can further build safety through your own emotional transparency - but try to be careful to not be drastically more transparent than your partner, as this may be threatening.