Insecurities In Relationships: It’s Not Them, It’s You.

Time for yet another one of my revelations: Most (if not all) problems in a relationship can be traced back to insecurity.

Insecurities that make us defensive
Insecurities that make us guarded
Insecurities that make us needy
Insecurities that make us demanding
Insecurities that make us submissive
… you get the idea

Reflecting on my own experiences in relationships I’ve realized that any time I felt angry with, or hurt by my significant other, it wasn’t about something they did – but an insecurity they triggered.

That time they canceled plans because they had to work late, the subconscious insecurities triggered probably went something like: “They must not want to spend time with me. Work is more important to them than me. I better make them feel guilty so they show me they love me again”.

That time they left me with all the chores: “They must not respect me, or even care about how this effects me. I better show them how angry I am so then they will respect me and not do this again.”  

This isn’t to say that the things your partner does aren’t objectively wrong in one way or another, but any extreme negative reaction on your part is always based in some personal insecurity. This speaks to the REBT principle that we do not react to an event, but only to our interpretation of that event. Greek philosophers agree, so you know it must be true.

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”
– Epictetus

Most of us have a psychological make-up that’s a veritable land-mind of insecurities, planted there throughout our life experiences. We view each new experience through a lens of our personal fears, doubts, beliefs, and biases. So when we explode at our partner for not being there on time – we’re not just mad at them, we’re mad at our father for not showing up to our little league game – only we’re not usually conscious of it. 
I would even go so far as to suggest that, due to a most basic need to love and be loved, every variety of insecurity is rooted in a fundamental and universal fear of not being loved… but that’s a tangent you can read more about here.

Relationships consist of a series of bids for love and support from our partners, that we hope will ward off that scary feeling of not being loved. Will you comfort me in this situation, or invalidate my feelings? Will you make me feel wanted, or reject me? Can I depend on you for this, or will you disappoint me? In other words, we’re constantly looking to our partners for feelings of security – security within the relationship, and security with ourselves. When they don’t fill this need, it hurts, and it feels scary. It triggers that deeply buried and powerful fear – that maybe we’re not loved… maybe we’re not even lovable.

This extends past relationships too. We might look to many other things in our external world to make us feel more secure – our jobs, our bank accounts, our looks, our achievements, etc. We convince ourselves that if these factors are just right, we’ll be secure, we’ll have value, we’ll be lovable.  If we don’t feel secure, we assume it’s because one of these factors isn’t where it should be. So we try to change our external world. We try to get more money, or a more prestigious job title. Some people will starve themselves, or have surgery to feel more attractive. In relationships, we fight and argue in attempts to force the relationship to meet our needs for security. We try to change our partners into people that act in ways that will always make us feel secure. get-back-here-and-love-me_610

Other people can make us feel more secure…

It’s true. Research has found that being in a relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style can make us more secure.

If you’ve never heard of attachment styles before, the basic idea is this: Our early interactions with our parents (or primary caregiver) lays the foundation for what we expect and thus how we behave in future relationships. If our parents were consistently available when we sought them for comfort and support, we’ll develop a “secure attachment style” in which we’ll be able to get close to others and trust them to provide us with love and support. However, if our parents were unavailable or inconsistent in attuning to our emotional needs, we’ll develop an “insecure attachment style” in which we have a hard time trusting that others will love and support us. People with secure attachment styles show more empathy in their relationships, seek out support from others more easily, communicate their feelings more easily, and are more trusting. Insecurely attached individuals might be anxious and clingy in relationships, or distant and avoiding, or a confusing combination of all the above. The silver lining is that shacking up with someone who has a secure attachment style, can help you feel more secure in your relationships.

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 2.37.05 PMSo this is good news, but not the perfect solution in my opinion – because I think depending on your partner to make you feel secure can only go so far. Even people with secure attachment style have relationship difficulties, and feel insecure at times.

The External World is Unpredictable

The problem is that anytime we are looking externally to feel more secure – we will be inevitably be let down. We might feel better momentarily, but it’s simply not sustainable. Our partner gets us flowers to apologize for messing up, and we might feel loved again – but it’s a matter of time until something else starts to make us feel insecure. This is because we can never control other people, and so we can never be 100% certain that they will feed our need for security. In fact, nothing about the external world is completely dependable, or without risk. People are unpredictable, our jobs are unpredictable, the world is unpredictable. Relying on external sources of security only creates a negative feedback loop that makes us feel less secure and even more dependent on those external sources.Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 10.39.51 PM

 The self is the only dependable source of security 

The only true source of security is from within. We might exert all kinds of effort trying to control the rest of our world, but the only thing we can really control is ourselves. So what if we put as much effort into mastering our ability to choose the perspective we take of the world? What if instead of trying to change our partners into people that are better at making us feel secure, we change ourselves into people that fill our own need of security? What if we could provide ourselves with our own secure attachment to ourselves?

What would this look like? Well we would give ourselves the type of love, validation, and responsiveness that we hope for from our partners. We would recognize and respond to our own needs with patience and care. We would trust ourselves to love and respect ourselves no matter what. We would put effort towards developing ourselves to be the best version of ourselves, for ourselves.

 Once you realize this, your relationships will improve.

With this in mind, I have two things that I say to myself when I’m having difficulties in a relationship.

1.“It’s never about them, it’s always about you”
In other words, when we’re upset we automatically start blaming things on our partner’s issues, it’s really always about our own issues.

2. “Am I hoping/expecting something external will make me feel better right now?”
(spoiler alert: the answer is pretty much always “yes”)

By making a habit of saying these things during any interpersonal conflict, I remind myself to look inward for the reasons why I am so upset. Once I do this I can work on addressing my own insecurities that are fueling the problem, without making my partner responsible for them. Being aware of how my own insecurities are contributing, I become calmer, more objective, less defensive, and more open to my partner’s perspective. I can communicate my needs and insecurities to my partner without hostility, opening the door for issues to be dealt with in a productive way. Doing this then builds trust, support, and intimacy.

Paradoxically, when we are less dependent on our partners to make us feel secure, intimacy flourishes and our relationships actually become more secure. By being able to provide ourselves with the validation and support we need, we can simply enjoy our relationship without trying to make it serve our needs. We can accept our partners’ differences and short-comings, because they no longer threaten our sense of security. And so we become better romantic partners. We become the type of person that our significant other wants to be with, wants to love, wants to support, etc.

With that I’ll leave you with the best definition of true love I’ve yet to come across:

“It is a caring enough about the person that you do not wish to interfere with his development, nor to use him for any self-aggrandizing goals of your own. Your satisfaction comes in having set him free to grow in his own fashion.”
– Carl Rogers

* For more on learning how to build security from with-in, check out 4 Steps for Dealing with Insecurities in Relationships

Therapize Yourself! Part 2: Person-Centered Therapy

In the first installment of Therapize Yourself I gave a quick-n-dirty run down of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (or REBT if you’re in a rush). Now I’d like to tell you about a completely different (but equally awesome) theory of psychotherapy: Carl Roger’s Person Centered Therapy.
4143908_f260Carl Rogers’ style of therapy is based on his own philosophy of human nature. The premise of this philosophy being that we as humans have a natural drive to grow and fulfill our potential. He calls this “self-actualizing tendency”.

“Gradually my experience has forced me to conclude that the individual had within himself the capacity and tendency, lateen if not evident, to move forward toward maturity. In a suitable psychological climate this tendency is released, and becomes actual rather than potential.”
– Carl Rogers

From the time we’re born, we feel naturally gratified by behaviors that contribute to our personal and unique development. At some point, as profound philosophical little babies we become aware that we have a “self” that’s separate from other people and things. Simultaneously, we develop a need to have a positive image of that “self”, or as Rogers would say: a positive self-regard.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 12.01.23 PM

At first, following our self-actualizing tendency and listening to our internal guides for behavior satisfies our need for positive self-regard. “I like it. That’s good enough for me!” However, we soon realize that most other people judge our worth conditionally. Some things make mommy and daddy pleased with us, while other things make mommy and daddy displeased with us. How we assess our own worth gradually comes to depend on how others view us (or more accurately, our perception of how others view us).
Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 11.55.20 AM

Therefore our behaviors start to become more driven towards wanting to please/impress others, and less driven towards our unique personal development. Our behaviors are guided by what we think will earn us positive regard from others, and we begin to need positive feedback from others in order to feel good about ourselves. Thus our own self-regard becomes conditional. When our own self-regard is conditional, our self-actualizing tendency is further impeded. We hold back. We’re less likely to take risks. We’re not as genuine, because we are constantly trying to maintain a positive view of ourselves that’s dependent on pleasing others.

This causes incongruence, or conflicts between our true selves and the way we are living. When we live in accordance to the expectations of others, we are not living authentically. We begin to feel a discrepancy between our ideal selves (the person we could/should/would be) and our real self (the person we are being). This can cause all sorts of psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, etc.
Real-ideal

 What’s the solution?

Carl Rogers rejected the idea of trying to help people by explaining their problems to them (either rationally or through psychoanalytic interpretation), and he rejected the idea of helping people through formal techniques or assignments.

 “I cannot be of help to this troubled person by means of any intellectual or training procedure. The most they accomplish is some temporary change, which soon disappears, leaving the individual more than ever convinced of his inadequacy.”
– Carl Rogers

Instead Rogers believed that the most healing aspect of therapy was the relationship between the therapist and the client. Through the relationship a therapist can create an environment that allows the client to feel safe to be himself or herself, thus helping them live more authentically and progress towards self-actualization. It’s not about imposing your own ideas on the client of how you think they should change, or what you think they should do. Rogers would warn that this will only increase the client’s dependency on meeting the expectations of others, thus further inhibiting them from fulfilling their unique potential. According to Rogers, the client knows what is best for them, they have an innate ability to discern what to do and where to go with life. The therapist’s duty is creating an environment that makes them feel safe to explore that part of themselves.

 So what’s with this environment?

According to Rogers, 3 therapeutic factors contribute to the client’s ability to move towards self-actualization.

1) Unconditional Positive Regard.

While most other people in their lives likely express approval or disapproval of the person based on certain behaviors, a person-centered therapist tries to convey that they accept and approve of the client regardless of their behavior, simply because they are a person and thus innately deserving of being accepted. This doesn’t mean that you have to approve of all the behavior of the client, but rather you do not view the client’s behavior as representing the person as a whole. In other words, as a therapist I can dislike something you do without rejecting you as a person. Feeling secure that you’ll be unconditionally accepted and warmly regarded by another person frees you to be more open and genuine with that person.

The experience of being authentic in a relationship builds the ability to be authentic outside of therapy. By unconditionally accepting the client, the therapist also teaches them how to treat themselves. It helps the client resist making global judgments about themselves as a whole person when they fail or feel ashamed of a specific behavior. i.e. “I messed up in this one particular instance, but that doesn’t make me a bad person or a failure”.

 “By acceptance I mean warm regard for him as a person of unconditional self-worth – of value no matter what his condition, his behavior, or his feelings. This acceptance of each fluctuating aspect of this other person makes it for him a relationship of warmth and safety, and the safety of being liked and prized as a person seems a highly important element in a helping relationship.”
– Carl Rogers

2) Empathy.

When we listen to other people, we tend to focus on making judgments and assessments of what they are saying: “That’s true or untrue”, “I agree with that, or I disagree” instead of focusing on understanding exactly what the other person is communicating. Empathy is about truly understanding where another person is in the present moment, and meeting them there. It’s relatively easy to give someone sympathy or to think about how you would feel in their situation, but it’s more of a challenge to enter into another person’s perspective, feel their feeling with them, not try to change it, but simply keep them company in their subjective experience. This is particularly difficult when what they are feeling is painful. Especially when it’s someone we care about that’s hurting. We want to stop their pain, “fix” their mood, and change their experience. But it is a great gift when someone has the psychological and emotional strength to join you in your experience, and support you in the full experiencing of it. This is empathy, and this is one of the things that a person-centered therapist strives to give their clients.

Below is a beautiful video description of empathy:

3) Congruence

To be congruent, the therapist attempts to be their genuine self with the client and communicate him or herself as authentically as possible. According to Rogers, a relationship can only grow and develop to the extent that you are being real, and because the relationship is the main mechanism for change in client-centered therapy, congruence is very important. This also models for the client how to be authentic in a relationship with another person.
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By accepting themselves, and unconditionally accepting the client, the therapist paves the way for the client to accept himself or herself. It is this self-acceptance that allows change to happen.

“we cannot change, cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.”
– Carl Rogers

When we can accept our selves unconditionally, we can live congruently (or authentically). We feel safer to take the risks we want to, we know that making mistakes doesn’t make us less valuable as people, and we no longer feel as afraid of disappointing other people. Therefore we regain the ability to chose our behaviors based on what we feel will help us grow, not what we feel will please others. We are back in tune with our self-actualizing tendency.

 So if it’s all about the relationship, how can I help myself?

Well as a psychologist in training, I’m obviously a big advocate for therapy. However, I do think that it is possible to apply Rogers’ theory to your own life. While it’s much harder to do alone (especially if you are already in a psychologically unhealthy place), I think that you can have a therapeutic relationship with yourself. Ideally, you would be providing yourself with unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence.

How do you just start doing that? Well you don’t. Like anything else worthwhile, it takes hard work, and doesn’t happen over night. If you follow my blog regularly, you’re probably getting tired of me pushing Mindfulness… but seriously, just do it. Of all the techniques I’ve learned, therapies I’ve studied, and self-help books I’ve read, this is the most effective thing I feel I can suggest (from my experience) for training your brain to stop fucking itself over. I also highly recommend reading up more on Carl Rogers’ theories. He was one of the unassuming geniuses, that seemed like he was doing nothing spectacular but was actually breaking ground. Here’s a video of him explaining his ideas about therapy and demonstrating it:

And here’s a link to his book “On Becoming A Person” which I highly recommend.

Happy therapizing!

Tips For Guys From A Girl On OkCupid

The Thing About Dating Online Is…

The quantity of prospective dates online is simultaneously the biggest advantage and disadvantage to online dating. I am much more selective of who I respond to online than I am of who I would talk to in the real world, solely due to the sheer volume. If I go out to a bar maybe one or two guys will approach me to strike up a conversation, which I’ll almost always engage in (unless they attempt some a-hole opener) because I’m a decent human being and open to engaging with other decent human beings.

Online however, I receive multiple messages daily. When I first started I wanted to respond to each person (unless they attempt some a-hole opener) because I’m a decent human being, and it seems decent to respond to another human being that reached out to you. Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that the logistics of this simply did not work out. One the major reasons I have an online dating account is because I don’t have a ton of free time. So it ends up that for practical reasons, I probably respond to about 2% of the guys that contact me. This 2% are the one’s that seem the highest quality/most attractive/most compatible from their profile. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean they ARE the highest quality/most attractive/most compatible, but alas I can only do the best with the information available. The point is that the guys who don’t get responses shouldn’t take it personally, chances are that if they approached me in real life, I’d gladly chat with them and maybe they would even be a better match for me.

So I apologize in advanced if my advice comes off as harsh or dismissive of the guys that have reached out to me. Getting many messages and only having the resources to respond to a select few, forces me into becoming very selective. I don’t necessarily like it, or think it’s a perfect system, but I haven’t figured out a better approach. So in the mean time, I thought it might be helpful to share some tips based on what’s likely to quickly turn me off to a person’s profile.

Disclaimer:

This is purely based on my personal experiences and preferences. It’s very possible that what turns me off about a dating profile might not bother some one else. But I think I’m a pretty typical gal, so there’s a good chance other girls feel the same way I do. So without further ado, if  one of my guy friends asked my advice on making a profile, here’s what I would suggest:

1. Smile in your profile picture

I’ve seen quite a few profiles where the guy looks very sad, angry, or intimidating in the main picture (or sometimes all the pictures).  When I see these I think “Why are they sad? I don’t want to date someone who’s sad. That’ll make me sad. I want to be happy! I want to date someone who is happy!” Your profile picture is your first impression. People are attracted to others who look happy and like they are having fun, because we want to be happy and having fun.

Above all else – as a guy trying online dating, the last thing you want is to look angry or intimidating!!! Just by being on the site you already need to be working against a girl’s anxious suspicion that you might be a total creep. The last thing you need is anything in your profile that is going to confirm that fear!

2. Be the best looking person in your pictures

Especially in your main photo, but ideally in all of your photos. The last thing you want to do is have a girl see your picture, think your buddy next to you is really cute, and then get disappointed when she discovers it’s not his profile. Alternatively if she never saw your cuter buddy, she might still think you’re attractive and never experience a let down.

There’s a social psychology concept called “the contrast effect” which states that how attractive people perceive us to be can be relative to the attractiveness of those around us. In other words, I don’t look so great when standing next to a super model, but put me next to a below average girl and I don’t look so bad. So keep this in mind when choosing your picture.

3. Be clearly visible in your main picture

Again, as a girl online I have an overwhelming amount of options. If I can’t tell what you look like right away, you’re going to need to send me a very intriguing message in order to incentivize me to invest time/energy into looking further into your profile. If I can’t get a good idea of what you look like from any of your pictures, there’s almost no way I’m going to respond. Call it superficial, but again it’s a consequence of the numbers. I can only respond to so many people, and actually meet with even less. Chances are that there is a guy on the site with a comparable profile as yours, but with pictures that actually allow me to see what he looks like. In such a case the devil I know is better than the devil don’t.

Things that can get in the way of me feeling like I know what you look like can be:

  • wearing sunglasses/hats
  • being far away
  • group shots
  • side profiles
  • extreme close-ups

*none of these are bad to include, but if all your photos fall into these categories, I’m moving on. If your main photo falls under this category, your making it harder for yourself.

In the same spirit, have more than one picture. We all know a picture can be deceiving, so the more you include, the more confident I am that I know what you look like. Plus more pictures usually give me a better feeling for your personality.

4. Put some effort into it

If it’s obvious you put little to no effort into your profile, you’re unlikely to get a response. Again, I’m not going to invest time messaging/meeting someone who I know nothing about, especially when there are plenty of other options on the site. Being on a dating site but putting little effort into it seems to reflect an attitude of indifference that I’m not really attracted to. As best as possible, your profile should be a reflection of yourself. So think about how it reflects on you, and what it says about the time/energy you would invest in a relationship if you put no effort into your profile. Would you go about putting together a job resume the same way?

Also I have a theory that a lack of effort in a dating profile is an act of defensiveness. It hurts less to be rejected when you didn’t try that hard, than it does to be rejected when you really put yourself out there. Obviously the cost is that you’re less likely to find high quality dates. Personally, I’m not interested in someone that needs to be so protective of their ego. But most girls probably don’t analyze this so deeply  🙂

5. Talk about what you offer, not just what you want

I’ve come across several profiles where guys include lists of what they’re not interested in from girls. Even if nothing you list applies to me, this just seems very critical and confrontational. I (and I assume other girls) am attracted to warm and open people. It also seems a bit cocky to be on a dating site and announce all the types of girls that should keep away from you.

* I realize this post could look like just what I’m describing above, but this list is not on my profile – and the intention is really just to help out some guys that might be unknowingly turning girls away from their profiles by some of these simple faux-pas.

There are also a lot of guys that list what they are looking for in a woman. There’s nothing wrong with this, but don’t forget to include all the things about yourself that would make that type of woman attracted to you.

6. Be confident, but don’t be cocky.

If under “Things I’m Good At” you’ve put “being awesome” I’m going to think you’re not that awesome, or else you would have been able to think of something more specific/creative to put there.

Rather than bragging about positive qualities (i.e. “I’m always making people laugh” “I accomplish whatever I set my mind to” “I’m an extremely passionate person”), include things about yourself that demonstrate these qualities. Don’t tell me you’ll make me laugh, make me laugh. Don’t tell me you can accomplish anything, tell me what you’ve accomplished. Don’t tell me you’re a passionate person, show me how that passion materializes in your life. A truly confident man doesn’t have to convince others of his positive qualities, he just goes about being himself and allows those qualities to come across.

7. Limit the selfies

I understand that guys don’t take typically take pictures as often as girls do, so it can be hard to track down flattering pictures. But if every one of your pictures are selfies, I’m asking myself “why are there no other people in your life?” Plus having a bunch of pictures of yourself taking a picture of yourself can come across as a bit self-absorbed.

8. Open with more than just “Hi”

If all you say in your first message is “Hey, whats up”, I probably won’t investigate further. I get that it’s not always easy to think of what to say to someone, and I’m not asking for some super creative and clever opening, but again consider the numbers. The bottom-line is, if you want a response, you have to stand out, and “Hey, whats up” isn’t going to cut it. Also, “you’re beautiful” and variations of that are nice to hear, but they’re not enough. Pretty much every other message says something along the same lines, so it’s not setting you apart or giving me sense of who you are as a person.

A good start is to let a girl know what about her profile in particular stood out to you, besides the pictures. That way she gets the feeling you actually took enough interest to read through her profile. Look for something in her profile that interests you or that you can relate to. Ask a question to learn more, and let her know how you can relate.

9. Don’t get snippy

I actually don’t mind a repeat message if I didn’t respond to your first one. Often I might get a message from a guy that interests me but I don’t have time to respond right away. So I’ll save the message with plans to respond later, but next time I sign on I have more messages to go through, and get side-tracked, and so on. So sometimes a follow up is a good reminder to me, but what you definitely don’t want to do is get snippy or defensive with me. For example something along these lines has happened several times:

I get a message from a guy that looks like he might have some potential, and save the message to respond to later. I guess the guy sees that I checked his profile and didn’t respond immediately and is insulted. He messages me again saying something aggressive like “Seriously? Not even a response?” or “guess you’re not interested in meeting one of the few genuinely nice guys out there” or “your loss”

Little do they know I actually might have responded until their follow up, which left me thinking “good thing I didn’t respond, that saved me some time”. I’m not sure what these guys are trying to accomplish with such messages, because all it does it make them come across as highly sensitive, defensive, aggressive, not to mention desperate.

10. Lose the ladies

Avoid pictures of you with a bunch of girls. You don’t look like a ladies man, you look like a player. Pictures of you with one other girl look like pictures with an ex girlfriend. I personally (and I know I’m not the only one) don’t want to see pictures of a potential date with their ex. If you use a picture with a girl other than your ex, at least specify in the caption that it’s your sister/cousin/friend/friend’s girlfriend etc.

I do hope this doesn’t come off as too cocky or judgmental on my part. Like I said, every girl might not feel the same way about these things, but on the chance I fall in line with the average girl – I hope this might be helpful for some fellas. I’d be curious to hear other opinions, or any tips for girls from guys! Happy hunting!

The Key to Success: Self-Awareness

Psychology nerd that I am, I’m constantly wondering what makes the difference between those that thrive and those that struggle psychologically. Even more important is the question of how to help those who struggle to build psychological strength. Many years of pondering over this, drawing from personal experiences, college/graduate courses, dozens of books and articles… I’ve come to this belief:

Self-Awareness is the single most important and advantageous tool you can have to find success in any area of life.

It seems to me that developing any other skill or quality must begin with some level of self-awareness; making self-awareness the necessary foundation upon which all other psychological growth can be built. As far as I can think, self-awareness is key in improving any area of life that you might be struggling with. Lets first consider a few of these areas so I can really sell you on the importance of self-awareness, and then we’ll talk about how you can develop it.

Mood

If you’re having problems with depression, anger, anxiety, etc. self-awareness is the first step towards improvement. Ideally, you want to be able to regulate your mood in a way that allows you to go about life as harmoniously as possible. This doesn’t mean that you never feel sad, frustrated, or angry. It means that you:

1. Recognize your emotions

2. Process them

3. Manage them without being overcome by them 

h65A4F673Self-awareness is first needed to recognize what specific feeling you are experiencing, and what triggered that feeling. Simply being able to put a label on an emotion can greatly decrease that emotion’s power over us. In fact brain imaging research has shown that labeling emotions decreases activity in our amygdala (the part of our brain that sends us into fight or flight) and increases activity in our prefrontal cortex (the more advanced and rational part of our brain), making us less emotionally reactive (Lieberman et al. 2007). Identifying an emotion also helps us recognize what may have triggered it. Understanding why we are feeling a certain way helps us feel more in control, and keeps things in perspective. There’s a big difference between “I’m sad” and “I’m sad because the holidays make me miss my mother”. In the second statement, the problem is defined, and defining the problem is the first step to solving it.

Self-awareness then goes hand-in-hand with processing and managing emotions. The very act of processing emotions means being in touch with how we are experiencing our feelings in the present moment, rather than being unconsciously swept away by them. It’s the difference between noticing that you feel extremely angry, noting the thoughts and sensations of anger (racing heart, rising body temp, tense muscles, thoughts of violence), and making a choice to self-soothe, vs. going into a senseless rage before you even realize you’re angry and only being able to reflect after you’ve already reacted.

38805176In order to self-soothe you need to be aware of what positively effects your mood. Maybe you realize that you always tend to be in a better mood after you exercise, or talk to a certain friend, or practice a favorite hobby. With self-awareness you can make a mental map of negative psychological triggers to avoid, and positive coping skills to utilize.

Focus/Motivation

Self-awareness is also the first step in improving your motivation, because the enemy of motivation is distraction. Between advertisements, emails, facebook, text messages, twitter, Netflix, etc., etc., etc., we are constantly bombarded with distractions to the point where it’s often difficult to realize we’ve become distracted.We sit down to do some work – next thing we know we’re on youtube looking at videos of cats and 2 hours have disappeared.

UnknownOne important facet of self-awareness is being able to recognize when our mind has wandered, where it has wondered to, and how to redirect it. Being able to direct your focus increases your motivation because your mind remains centered on the task at hand, and your ultimate goal. Mastering this ability will allow you to increase your productivity and utilize your time in a conscious purposeful way, giving you an advantage over the majority of your attention-divided peers.

Career

So many people agonize over finding the perfect job that will leave them excited to wake up every morning and go to work. Well the first step to finding work you love is knowing what you love, and that’s easier said than done. The next steps are knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are, knowing what motivates you, and knowing the type of working conditions that you thrive in. Obviously, this all requires self-awareness.
Here’s a pretty good TEDx Talk discussing the importance of being a “self-expert” in order to find and do work you love:

Some people work best with ironing out details while others work best with big picture ideas. Some work best under pressure, while others do their best work in a relaxed environment. Knowing yourself and being able to listen to your own internal cues is necessary for finding work that you’ll love, as well as doing the best work possible.

Relationships

You cannot fully love someone until you fully know them, and you cannot fully know someone else until you fully know yourself. Without self-awareness we are quick to blame others for our own negative experiences. We don’t take the time to understand the other person’s subjective experience, because we’re too busy reacting to our own. At the same time, without self-awareness we avoid taking responsibility for our own contributions to relational problems.

Take for example, a woman who constantly nags her significant other for not spending enough time with her, calling him neglectful and cold. She doesn’t consider that her constant nagging has a profound effect on her significant other’s behavior, making him feel inadequate and driving him away. Self-awareness could help her understand that she nags because she feels insecure, which is then exacerbated when her significant other distances himself, creating a cycle. Self-awareness could also help her recognize ways that she can self-soothe when feeling insecure, turning her back into a person her significant other looks forward to spending time with.
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There are many more ways that self-awareness plays an important role in relationships. I’ve already touched upon self-awareness in this post on communication and defensiveness. I plan on writing a separate post soon, diving even deeper into self-awareness and relationships, so stay tuned!

Ok I Get It, Self-Awareness Is Good! Now What?!

Once I started to think about how big a role self-awareness played in happiness and success, my next quest was to figure out how it can be developed. Is self-awareness just an innate trait that people are either born with a high or low capacity for? Or is there some way people can learn to become more self-aware, and if so how can I help them? My search lead me to look into Mindfulness Meditation. Click the link to read on!

Mindfulness Meditation

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 4.47.23 PMIn my post about self-awareness, I talked about how I’ve come to the conclusion that self-awareness is one of the most important traits you can have, and left off with the question of: How can you build this trait?

Well, around the same time that I was looking for the answer to this question, I started to hear the term “mindfulness” pop up in a few different places. It caught my attention. I thought, “What the hell is this mindfulness?”

I didn’t begin to look into it seriously until I started hearing about “mindfulness meditation” in my clinical psychology classes as a scientifically validated intervention. I was particularly intrigued because it was being cited as helpful for some of the most difficult to treat conditions, such as addictions and borderline personality disorder. When I started to do my own research into mindfulness meditation I was surprised/impressed by all the scientifically validated benefits. For example, I found research showing that mindfulness meditation can

  • Help you stop ruminating on disturbing thoughts
  • Increase your ability to focus
  • Improve working memory
  • Help you regulate emotions
  • Reduce stress
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Decrease negative emotions including depression and anxiety
  • Make you less emotionally reactive
  • Increase relationship satisfaction
    … and that’s just to name a few!

If you read my post on self-awareness, you might notice a lot of overlap – It seemed I had my answer.

Now, if you’re anything like me you’ve maybe been intrigued by the idea of meditation before but never really thought you were the “meditating” type. I’m not particularly spiritual, I don’t eat tofu, or do a perfect downward facing dog. It’s hard for me to find the time to sit and read through my emails, never mind make time to just sit and…. well, do nothing. Plus I always kind of felt like people who meditated just liked to boast about it because it made them seem so deep and profound.

46332924But with all the research I found, and my new mission to cultivate self-awareness, I figured this mindfulness stuff was worth a try. So I took the obvious next step, and searched “mindfulness meditations” on youtube. Turns out that while mindfulness meditation started as an ancient Buddhist practice, it doesn’t necessarily have to be incorporated with any specific spirituality, and it’s actually pretty approachable – even for a “non-meditator” like me! I was very quickly impressed and surprised by the positive effect I was noticing in my own life, even from just casually trying out this meditation stuff.

So What Is It?

Mindfulness: “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgement” (Davis & Hayes, 2012).

Mindfulness Meditation: “those self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity, and concentration” (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).

In other words mindfulness meditation is a systematic way of strengthening your ability to focus your attention in general, but also on the present moment in particular. The mind of the average person is typically occupied by ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, and thus misses the opportunity to fully experience the present, which – after all – is the only moment we’re ever living in! The objective of mindfulness is to be able to zero-in on your experience of the “now”. At the same time, mindfulness helps you become tolerant of your thoughts and less reactive to them.

Here’s a nice little intro to mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who’s kind of “the man” when it comes mindfulness:

Harnessing this skill will enable you to be more conscious and proactive rather than reactive in your day to day life. Most of us go along our lives reacting to our mental interpretation of each experience, which is riddled with biases, defenses, and assumptions. Hence we miscommunicate with others, we misinterpret situations, we fall into negative thinking, and we make the same mistakes over and over again. With mindfulness we can catch ourselves falling into these mental traps, because we see them coming up. We can slow down, observe, and evaluate our mental processes.

So How Do You Do It?

Well it’s easier to start practicing than you might think. A good way to start is to find a quiet place, close your eyes, and try to focus your attention on your breath. The reason for this is that being conscious of the present moment is easier said than done, so it helps to start by focusing on something simple with as few distractions as possible. You don’t have to try any fancy deep breathing or anything. Just close your eyes and breathe naturally. Notice how the air feels filling your lungs, and then escaping from your nostrils.

You’ll notice quickly that your mind wanders and soon your thoughts are miles away from the breath. This doesn’t mean you’re terrible at meditating – so don’t judge yourself when this happens. In fact this is a good thing! Simply take note of where your mind has wandered off to and return your attention to your breath. It’s this process – noticing when we become distracted, and refocusing our attention – that actually builds our self-awareness. Science has actually shown that this practice increases our brain’s ability to grow new neural connections. That’s right – it grows yo damn brain! So each time you notice yourself getting distracted, think of it as a mental “rep”, like one you would do with a free-weight to build your biceps.

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Gradually, as you get better at noticing your mind wander and redirecting your thoughts you will develop a greater capacity to master your internal world. You will be able to notice your full spectrum of thoughts and emotions, from your hopes and joys to fears and sorrow, and experience them without allowing yourself to be swept away by them.

This is often described as sitting on the bank of the river of consciousness, being able to observe the natural flow of your thoughts and mental processes without being caught in the middle of the river, and carried down stream without any control. You’ll be able to appreciate your thoughts and emotions as just that – just thoughts. Just events of the mind that come and go, and don’t necessarily have any truth, or need to have any concrete consequences in the real physical world. You’ll begin to realize that your thoughts do not control you, you control your thoughts.

From my personal experience, this is a very profound – and even life changing realization. That’s why I want to encourage anyone to give mindfulness meditation a try. Maybe you won’t have the same experience as myself, but with all the research backing it up – It’s worth a shot, right?!

30 Things to Remember When You’re Feeling Down

This a more personal post than I usually write, but something was telling me to share. I find it’s generally best to listen to your gut in such situations, even if your brain hasn’t figured out why yet. Who knows, maybe the universe is telling me someone else might need to see this.

Like everyone else, sometimes I feel down. As I get older, I think I’m getting better at putting these low moments into a healthy perspective, but some times are more difficult than others. I recently decided to write in my journal about all the things that are helpful to me when I’m feeling down, so that I could later refer to it, and maybe it would help me snap out of future ruts. Below is this journal entry:

  1. Remember to be tough. Stand up to life. You’re stronger than whatever is facing you.
  2. Remember the positives. Focus on your strengths, your blessings, your happy memories, and the things you have to look forward to.
  3. Remember to have a perspective of gratitude. Whenever you get upset about wanting more out of life, remember everything you already have to be thankful for. Focus on enjoying and appreciating what you do have, instead of focusing on how it could be better.
  4. Remember to meditate.
  5. Remember that only you can make yourself happy or sad/secure or insecure. Remember that when you are upset, it is only because you are choosing to focus and indulge in negative thoughts and get carried away by them.
  6. Remember to distract yourself until you are feeling more emotionally/mentally equipped.
  7. Remember that the people in your life can only be who they are. Don’t get caught up in wishing or hoping they would be someone or something other than who they are. They can only do the best with what they’ve got.
  8. Remember to exercise.
  9. Remember that most of the time you are pretty happy, but sometimes you’re just going to be sad – and that’s life. As humans, our moods will fluctuate regardless of our external circumstance.
  10. Remember that your mood has always fluctuated throughout various circumstances in life, and it will continue to do so no matter how your circumstance change. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
  11. Remember that allowing yourself to believe external factors are responsible for your mood/happiness only jeopardizes your external situation i.e. corrupting a relationship because you keep blaming the other person for how you feel or asking for more from the other person so you feel more secure, or convincing yourself your job is awful and keeping you from feeling happy.
  12. Remember to journal.
  13. Remember to get outside. Get fresh air. Get sunshine. And if at all possible, jump in the ocean.
  14. Remember to make yourself laugh. Watch a funny movie, or listen to stand up comedy.
  15. Remember to call a friend. Feeling low can make you want to isolate yourself… fight this urge. Put yourself around others, even if it’s sitting and reading in a crowded Starbucks.
  16. Remember to constantly ask yourself if you’re looking for a sense of security from someone or something else, and avoid doing this at all costs. The only sustainable sense of security comes from within, and the more you allow yourself to depend on outside sources of security (validation from others, financial prosperity, etc.) the more insecure you will feel in the long run.
  17. Remember that you’re lucky to have some amazing people in your life, but you also do just fine on your own.
  18. Remember to listen to music. Especially the kind that makes you want to dance.
  19. Remember to try something new that will help you grow.
  20. Remember that there’s no way to know how the future will turn out, but chances are you’re going to be just fine.
  21. Remember to continually invest in yourself above and before anyone else. Remember how doing this tends to attract positive things, and that doing this is the only way that you can offer the best version of yourself to those you love.
  22. Remember all the happiness you’ve been able to experience despite hard times in the past.
  23. Remember that those who make it through the hardest circumstances are the ones who can assign an important meaning/purpose to their struggle.
  24. Remember to put on an outfit you love. Even if it sounds superficial, remember that when you look good, you feel good, and when you look like a slob, you tend to feel like a slob.
  25. Remember that if you’re a generally happy person, you’ll probably continue to be generally happy even if things don’t work out the way you hoped.
  26. Remember to pray.
  27. Remember there’s a lot of people who think you’re hot shit.
  28. Remember you are hot shit.
  29. Remember that every struggle = growth. Every struggle is shaping you into the person you’re meant to be, bringing you closer to reaching your fullest potential. Remember to find the lesson, and look for the growth within yourself. Remember some of the darkest parts can be what will make the tapestry most beautiful when it’s complete.
  30. Remember that this too shall pass.

What helps you through the tough times???

4 Ways to Avoid Cheating in Relationships

When most people enter a committed relationship, they never expect that they would be unfaithful to the person they love. Yet research indicates that infidelity occurs in anywhere from 25-38% of relationships (Luo, Cartun, & Snider, 2010; Blow & Hartnett 2005).

The reasons why people cheat are complicated and varied. Personality characteristics, situational factors, and relationship issues can all contribute to infidelity. However, I think part of the problem is that people are generally pretty passive about remaining faithful. We make a commitment, but then hardly consider the type of effort needed to uphold that commitment. I don’t think people usually wake up one morning and decide they are going to cheat on their significant other. More likely, they simply don’t define boundaries for themselves. So they gradually approach the line of inappropriate with small, seemingly innocent steps that subtly chip away at the integrity of their relationship. Before they know it, cheating is just a matter of taking one more, small step.

One small step for man... one giant misstep for his relationship!

One small step for man… one giant misstep for his relationship!

I think it’s a shame that more people don’t actively work on honoring their commitment to their partner. I would guess few people even think about how they might do that. So here are some tips on how to take responsibility for remaining faithful in a relationship, based off of what research tells us about people who cheat vs. people who don’t.

#1 Idealize Your Partner

One theory about relationships suggests that we are as committed to our current partner as we are convinced they are the best option for us. Basically, we all want the highest quality mate we can get, so if we think we can do better we won’t be that committed to our current partner. Our perception is important here though. Even if you can’t actually do any better, as long as you’re convinced you can you’re not going to be very committed. On the flip side, you might be with a blubbering idiot but if see them as the best thing since sliced bread, you’re going to be very committed.

homer

So it makes sense that research has found people highly committed to their relationships tend to idealize their partners (Murray, 1999).

The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment, remind yourself often of all the qualities you admire about your partner and all the things they offer that would be hard to find elsewhere. Be conscious of your self-talk regarding your partner. Are your thoughts critical, focusing on their shortcomings, or unfairly comparing them to others? When you notice yourself thinking this way try to redirect yourself back to a place of admiration and appreciation for your partner. Do your best to put them up on a pedestal. It’s not always easy but it will have positive effects beyond protecting the fidelity of your relationship.

#2 Degrade Alternatives

Not only do people highly committed to their relationships idealize their partners, but they are also more likely to derogate their alternatives (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989). In other words, they are more critical in their judgements of other potential mates who might threaten their relationship. To protect our belief that we are with the best possible person for us (and thus maintain our commitment)– we need to tell our selves how wonderful that person is, as well as how icky everyone else is by comparison. I think self-awareness is crucial here, because it can be so much easier to idealize an alternative than our current mate.

You know all the weird things about your significant other. You’ve seen how they look first thing in the morning, you’ve heard them fart, and discovered all their quirks that drive you crazy. On the other hand, it’s easy to let our minds get carried away with fantasies about how perfect that cute guy in office seems. He’s probably the type of guy to get you flowers for no reason, hide love notes for you to discover, and call you just to see how your day’s going….

ryanSure these fantasies seem harmless enough, but we need to be careful. Our thoughts build the reality we live in, and ultimately determine our behavior. The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment to your partner, you will look for reasons why other potential mates don’t measure up.

#3 Avoid Temptation

One of the top reasons for cheating (particularly among men) is opportunity (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). So if you’ve made a commitment to stay monogamous, you have a responsibility to be on the look out for situations that might lead to the opportunity/temptation to cheat, and avoid those situations. Again, these situations are usually the result of several more innocent occurrences. It’s not like you’re likely to walk into a room and find a beautiful woman asking if you would like to commit adultery with her (unless maybe you’re Tiger Woods). Rather, a coworker you’ve exchanged innocent flirtations with might invite you to happy hour… which turns into late night drinks… which turns into less innocent flirtations… and so on. Therefore to protect your relationship, you need to have foresight into what can lead down a dangerous path.

If you’re trying to stay sober, it requires more than turning down a drink that’s offered. It might mean staying away from bars altogether, being careful about how you spend your time with friends who like to drink, and avoiding certain activities that you associate with drinking. If you need to save money, you might have to avoid your favorite stores, or throw out any catalogs you get in the mail. If you’re committed to losing weight, you don’t go into a Dunkin Donuts, and you don’t even look at those delicious looking brownies in bakery window.

Staying faithful to your partner requires similar preventative measures, as well as insight into your own capacity for self-control. If don’t want to cheat, nip temptation in the bud!

#4 Keep It Interesting

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 9.29.15 PMAnother common reason for cheating is boredom (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). In previous posts about relationships, I’ve discussed self-expansion theory, which suggests that we are innately motivated towards growth and expanding of our sense of self, and relationships with others is one of our main methods of achieving this (Aron, & Aron, 1997). Research suggests that our satisfaction with our current relationship is related to how much it contributes to our self-expansion. Research also suggests that when we don’t feel like our partner is helping us grow, we pay more attention to alternatives, i.e. other dating partners who represent an opportunity for growth (VanderDrift, Lewandowski, & Agnew, 2011). This is a risky place to be in terms of commitment, because almost anyone new provides the potential for self-expansion just by being someone new and different.

The way to prevent falling into this trap is to put a conscious effort into making your current relationship continuously self-expanding. This can be accomplished by doing new and exciting activities with your partner that help you both grow as individuals together. Travel some place new together, sit in on a lecture, or take a dance class!

Bonus!

All of the aforementioned advice is to help you take responsibility for being a faithful partner, but the benefits don’t stop there. Each of these tips are likely to also improve your satisfaction with your relationship, and the over-all quality of your relationship – which makes it even less likely that you’ll want to stray from your partner. Not to mention, improving the quality of your relationship will also make it less likely that your partner will be tempted to stray. So stop being passive about your commitment to your relationship – and life in general for that matter! Take responsibility, take action, and reap the benefits!!!

Therapize Yourself! Part 1: REBT

I think it’s a shame that self-help/pop psychology is such a huge industry, and yet most of the general public is unaware of the actual theories and techniques used by real licensed psychologists. While I think seeing a therapist is extremely beneficial, especially when dealing with severe psychological distress, there are many aspects of therapy that you can apply yourself. I know from personal experience that studying the thoughts of history’s most influential psychologists can be very therapeutic in it’s self. I would even go so far as to say that these ideas have the power to change a person’s life – not necessarily over night, but as an important part of self growth. So to do my small part in spreading the knowledge, I thought I would write a few quick n’ dirty explanations of some of my favorite psychotherapeutic theories. At the very least, maybe it will help you think about things a little differently.
mh3

There are several different models of therapy that clinicians may use, each with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Not every model is a perfect fit for every person, but rather each individual may connect with one model over another, or get value from different aspects of several models. For my first post in this series I thought I would discuss Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). While REBT has been built upon and improved upon by more recent models of therapy (i.e. CBT) I like it because it’s simple to understand and easy to apply immediately. Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) was developed by Albert Ellis in the 50s after he got fed up with Freudian psychoanalysis. Below is a video of Ellis explaining and demonstrating his theory with a woman who is just so fabulously 60s.
Heads-up: he’s kind of an ass. He’s got a no bullshit/no sugar-coat/cut to the chase approach that I think is kind of badass… but it’s not for everyone, and it isn’t the only way to do this type of therapy.

Albert Ellis’ model of therapy boils down to the idea that our emotions are determined by our thoughts. Generally people think emotions are consequences of some external event, i.e. “I’m depressed because I lost my job.” However, Ellis would suggest that it’s our thoughts and beliefs about that external event that cause our emotion, i.e. “I’m depressed because I lost my job, and I believe that means I’m a failure and will never succeed at anything“. In other words, we don’t react to the event – we react to our perception of the event. This relationship is summed up by the ABCs of REBT, as shown below.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 9.01.20 PM

This is why the same event might devastate one person, while another is able to easily brush it off. Sandy can easily rebound when her boyfriend breaks up with her, because she believes she’ll find another partner. Susie, on the other hand, is devastated when her relationship ends, because she believes there is no one else in the world for her. When our perceptions are in line with reality, we’re thinking rationally and we experience healthy/appropriate emotion… but when we experience unhealthy emotions, it’s because somewhere along the way our thinking became irrational.

dwight-schrute-meme-generator-my-heart-s-broken-false-you-would-be-dead-due-to-cardiac-arrest-80c0fd

Ellis suggests that neurotic symptoms (depression, anxiety, etc.) are all the result of irrational beliefs. In other words, you might get upset by some event (your dog dying) and that might be an appropriate emotional consequence, but if you get overly upset (can’t stop crying, can’t eat, can’t sleep) it’s because you are not thinking rationally. Therefore the way to treat neurotic psychological symptoms is to train your self to think more rationally.

Step #1: Recognize Your Irrational Thoughts

When struggling with a psychological issue, search your mind for the irrational thoughts that might be at the root of the problem. Most irrational thinking can be recognized by the presence of any “shoulds, oughts, or musts”. We often bombard and berate our selves with “shoulds” and “musts” (but maybe not “oughts” cause who talks like that?) whether on a conscious or unconscious level: “I must get an A in this class” “I must get married and have children” “I should be in better shape” “I should be a better parent.” Ellis would say that all these statements are irrational because they assume that there is some pre-existing plan of how things ought to be – and there really isn’t. Things just are.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 9.41.33 PMYou also want to catch yourself catastrophizing. When we think in terms of “shoulds”, “oughts”, and “musts” we imply that – if not, something terrible will happen.

  • “I must get an A in this class, or I will fail at life
  • “I must get married and have children, or I’ll never be happy
  • “I should be in better shape, because otherwise no one will find me attractive.

Most of the time these beliefs aren’t conscious, because we know logically that they’re not necessarily true, and yet we react emotionally as if they were true. Without really recognizing it, we jump to the worst possible conclusion causing us to have emotional reactions that are disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Sometimes we don’t even really define a conclusion, but just associate some unwanted event with a vague but powerful sense of doom. “I’m not sure what will happen if I don’t get in better shape, but I bet it’ll be really really awful!”

REBT involves training yourself to recognize the irrational beliefs behind your emotional reactions, and challenging yourself to come up with more rational perspectives.

Step #2: Challenge Your Irrational Thoughts

For this step you have to play devil’s advocate to yourself. Once you recognize your irrational thoughts, try your best to poke holes in them.

  • Are you really going to fail at life if you don’t get an A? Aren’t there lots of very successful people who didn’t get perfect grades?
  • Will no one really find you attractive if you don’t get into better shape? Aren’t there people attracted to all different body types? Aren’t there people of a similar body shape as you who have managed to find someone attracted to them?

You get the idea.

If you really want to challenge your irrational thoughts, you can test them out in the real world. For example, maybe the idea of approaching someone you’re attracted to fills you with anxiety. Your irrational thoughts might sound something like “If I approach that person they might reject me, and I must not be rejected because that will be too awful to bear!” One way to challenge the rationality of this thinking, is to force yourself to approach someone who you’re attracted to. Yes, you may be rejected. Yes, it may not feel great. But as with facing most fears you’ll discover your ability to live through the experience, and find that it’s not as unbearable as you predicted. When faced with the situation again, it may still cause some anxiety but probably less now that you’ve been through it already. Thus you can start to adjust your thought to something more rational such as “If I approach that person they might reject me, which might feel bad temporarily but will help me eventually find the right person.” Which brings us to our next step…

Step #3: Look For More Rational Alternatives

From a more rational perspective “It would be nice to be in better shape, because more people will find me attractive. Otherwise fewer people will probably find me attractive, which wouldn’t be preferable but also wouldn’t be the end of the world” This type of thinking might still involve feeling down or frustrated that you’re not in better shape (an appropriate emotional response), but it wouldn’t lead to an inappropriate/debilitating self-hatred. 

Often making your thoughts more rational simply requires completing an incomplete thought. For example, when stressed out or anxious we might ruminate on thoughts such as “I must get this done.” Our thought stops there and repeats over and over again. However if we finish the thought by answering “I must get this done, or what?” we return to a more rational way of thinking. Another way to look at it is realistically defining the worst-case scenario. It’s the difference between “I must get this done, or something really awful will happen” and “I must get this done or I might fail the class and have to take it again. That would be pretty inconvenient, but I guess I could still graduate”.

Easier Said Than Done

Now I know that simply realizing your irrational thoughts and thinking of alternatives isn’t going to make your psychological issues just disappear.

1) It’s not that easy to think rationally when you’re emotionally charged.

brain-basic_and_limbic

Typically, the parts of our brains involved in emotion (limbic system) communicate with the parts of our brain involved with rational thinking (prefrontal cortex), and both work together to guide our reactions to the world. So when we hear a loud “boom” outside our window, our emotion centers might sense a threat and cause us to tense up. However our prefrontal cortex then reasons that the loud noise was simply a car backfiring and presents no real threat, so our muscles relax and our heart beat slows down again. Our brains are wired in such a way that when faced with a threat (either real of perceived), the areas of our brain involved with emotion can dictate our behavior without consulting our prefrontal cortex. This is so we can react for survival when there’s no time to reason. For example if something comes flying towards us, we’ll duck or get out of the way without needing to think about it. While this is great for survival, sometimes our mind can perceive a great threat, and cut off communication with the rational part of our brain, when our survival is not threatened: an argument with our spouse, a social situation, the loss of a loved one. Therefore in times of heightened emotions it can be very difficult to engage rationally.

2) Identifying rational alternatives doesn’t necessarily stop your mind from ruminating on the irrational thoughts.

Every time some event triggers an irrational thought which then triggers an emotion, the connections in our brain between that event, thought, and emotion get reinforced. Therefore, even if we are able to identify the irrationality of our thoughts and recognize more rational alternatives, our minds might still want to focus on the irrational thoughts causing psychological symptoms. It’s like our brain is yelling at us “Hey! We’re supposed to be ruminating on this irrational thought! We’re supposed to get upset over this!!!”

So What’s the Solution?

I don’t point out these problems to invalidate this method of psychotherapy. I merely want give a disclaimer, so that when you run into these problems you don’t become discouraged and give up. REBT is simple and easy to apply right away, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick fix. These obstacles can be overcome, but it will take time, patience, and practice. Just as connections can grow in your brain between events, irrational thoughts, and emotions, so too can you build new connections between rational thoughts, events, and emotions. Having a therapist to help guide and encourage you can be a wonderful resource, but it can be done on your own as well.

One technique that supplements REBT very nicely is mindfulness meditation. I know it sounds very new age-y and maybe you don’t think meditation is for you, but hear me out. All mindfulness meditation really does is build the skill of consciously focusing your awareness, so that you are more present and in control of your experiences. This works well with REBT because it helps you develop an awareness of your thoughts/emotions, and eventually a mastery over your thoughts/emotions. You might be surprised by changes you feel even after just starting off with simple breathing exercises. Below is video of Jon Kabat-Zinn introducing and guiding a simple mindfulness meditation at Google. Go ahead and get your toes wet, and stay tuned for more on mindfulness at some point!

Resources/Recommended Reading

A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel Siegel

Maybe… Don’t Follow Your Passion?

I don’t think there’s any advice given out more than “follow your passion” or some variation of it. There are literally hundreds of books and articles written about finding your passion and capitalizing on it.  We hear it from peers, parents, school advisors, CEOs, and motivational speakers.
Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 10.37.59 AMNow don’t get me wrong – I subscribe to this belief. A lot.
Well… kind of…
Let me explain:
Yes, if you are passionate about what you do, it’ll probably be easier to become successful, enjoy your work, and therefore enjoy life in general. Few things inspire me more than people that are passionate about something, and go after it, and let nothing get in their way. The world needs more of these type of people (unless you’re passionate about killing puppies or something similarly terrible). However, I think the advice to “follow your passion” is overly simplistic and might have some negative consequences for individuals as well as society.

# 1 It’s Made Us Self-Entitled A-Holes.

In the Harvard Business Review, Cal Newport does a great job explaining how being encouraged to “follow our passion” has made my generation into self-entitled brats. I highly recommend you check out his article here, but I’ll try my best to sum up. Historically speaking, the idea of finding a job you’re passionate about is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Passion pic newport
The chart above uses Google analytics to track the amount of times the words “follow your passion” has been printed in the English language throughout the years. Past generations grew up in times of war and depression, and were more concerned about just getting by than being passionate about their work. Our generation, on the other hand, has been increasingly told that not only can we have a job we love, but that we should settle for nothing less. Just listen to Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford Commencement speech:


Well if Steve Jobs says it, it must be true, right? Cal Newport points out that while that speech is super inspirational, it’s also kind of bullshit. Steve Jobs didn’t really follow his passion. He was more concerned with Eastern Mysticism when he stumbled into his career path, and then developed a passion for it. He also worked really f*@#ing hard… a clause that often gets cut off of the phrase “follow your passion”.

When there are millions of people out there who would be thankful for any type of job, who are we to think we deserve nothing less than to be passionate about our job? Unfortunately the idea that we shouldn’t pursue a career unless we’re really passionate about it, might be contributing to why 29% of adults 25-34 still live with their parents (Parker, 2012). I’ll elaborate more on this throughout.

# 2 What If I Don’t Know What My Passion Is?!?

Anyone else remember the stress of graduating high school/entering college and the extreme urge to punch anyone in the face that asked you “So what do you want to do?” graduationWhat an extremely overwhelming question for anyone, never mind a teenager! “Hey you’re barely 18 and have next to no life experience, what do you think you would be happy doing for the rest your life?!” I think a lot of the pressure comes from the consensus that you must find your passion and pursue it. This message is so powerful that it gives a sense that if you don’t find your passion, you’re bound to misery. So instead of majoring in something that we’re kind of interested in, we’re more likely to stay undeclared for fear of committing to anything that might not be our “true” passion. Many might not even go to college, because they have no idea what they want to study. Even after graduation, many will hold back professionally due to uncertainty about what the right career path is. Job searching can be hindered by a lack of conviction as to what job we should even chase, or we might pass on quality jobs while holding out for one that perfectly captures  our passion. Alternatively, we might take a job but half-ass it, because we’ve labeled it as a  “good enough for now” job until we find our true calling. So it takes us longer to establish ourselves on our own two feet, hence many parents end up having to change the “guest room” back into “our room”.
UnknownNow I’m in my mid-twenties, and the majority of my peers still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Hell, most people I know of any age still don’t know what they want to do with their lives! Meanwhile, our fear of investing in something that might not be our true passion can keep us from gaining enough experience in anything to find out if we’re passionate about it, or to develop a passion for it.

imagesWhen hearing the message “follow your passion” over and over again, we get the feeling that we should know what our passion is. Furthermore, it makes us feel like something is wrong with us if we don’t know what we’re passionate about. Cal Newport identifies that part of the problem with this message is that it assumes each one of us is born with some predetermined passion we’re destined to uncover… and this probably just isn’t true. He suggests that instead of looking for our passion, we should be cultivating it. This made me think about my discussion on passion vs. dedication in relationships (which you should check out here). Maybe it’s not so different with careers. Sure there are topics you might become interested in, but if you really want to enjoy what you do for the long-term you need to put effort into being passionate about it.

# 3 It Sets Too High Of An Expectation

Ok I’m probably starting to sound redundant, because the same themes keep popping up in each of my posts – but bear with me! We’re lead to believe that we’ll be happy if we’re passionate about what we do. The problem with this is that whenever we become too convinced that a particular set of circumstances will make us happy (a job, a relationship, a boatload of cash), we will be disappointed. I rant about this more here, but basically the only thing that determines our happiness is our own perspective on things. If you’re the type of person that looks for reasons to be unhappy, you’re going to find reasons to be unhappy with any career. If you’re the type of person that looks for things to be happy about, you’re going to find them in any career.WantingWhatYouHaveThis is another area where careers are like relationships: If you expect a relationship to feel passionate/fulfilling all the time, when it’s not you’re going to start doubting it’s the right relationship. Similarly, when you’re convinced you should be over-the-moon passionate about your career, you’re going to assume any job that doesn’t make you feel that way is wrong for you. Once you have the idea that a certain job isn’t right for you, you’ll have a confirmation bias. For you non-psych nerds out there, confirmation bias is a social psychology term referring to the phenomenon where, once we have a belief we pay more notice to all information confirming that belief, and less notice to all contradictory information. So basically if you’re not happy with your job, you’ll notice all the crappy parts of it, and disregard any redeeming qualities. Therefore having such high expectations sets us up for failure.

Even when people do follow their passion, and become wildly successful, it often doesn’t make them happier, in fact they often end up being less happy. Think of all the great musicians and actors that followed their passion, and sadly ended up committing suicide or overdosing. Perhaps this is partly because they achieved everything they thought they wanted, and realized it didn’t make them any happier.
Celebrities that have committed suicide or O.D.ed

# 4 What if your passion is dumb?

Ok I’m being facetious here – I don’t really think any passion is dumb. Ya passionate about making necklaces out of macaroni? Awesome! You make those necklaces! Ya want to make a career out of it? …Let’s think this through.

"Where's my money, bitch?!?"

“Where’s my money, bitch?!?”

I know people have made careers out of the weirdest passions (check out Natalie Irish painting with just her lips here) but I’m just saying you better have a plan… and probably a back up plan.

When we get to college and try to pick a major that will lead us to a great career, plenty of people are happy to suggest we follow our dreams and pursue whatever we’re interested in. No one want’s to be the bad guy, and say anything that might discourage us away from becoming the first multi-millionaire macaroni jewelry designer. When I chose my major I had no idea what I could expect to earn when I graduated, and I believe this is true for most people starting out college, and even true for many people when they graduate college. No one sat us down and explained that if you follow this path, you might end up with 6 figures of debt, and are likely to make $25,000 a year (if you’re lucky enough to even find a job).
images-3This is partly why so many people in my generation are either freaking out because they’ll be dragged down by debt for the rest of their lives, or they’ve become so desensitized to the idea of debt that they’ll just keep living financially irresponsible lifestyles forever.

"Hello dreams!... Good-bye economy!"

“Hello dreams!… Good-bye economy!”

# 5 What if your passion lies outside of your career?

Who says that what you’re really passionate about has to be the source of your income? Sure, we would all love to get paid to do something we already really enjoy, but we might not all be so lucky to find that. Why can’t our passion be in another part of life? Maybe you’re passionate about being a father, and you hold a nice steady job that allows you to support your family. Maybe your passion is skiing, and while you’re not so good that anyone is going to pay you to ski, you have a good job that allows you to tear up the slopes on the weekends. Maybe you’re not passionate about one thing, but about dabbling in lots of different things. I think this might be true for a lot of the people out there who are having a hard time “finding” their passion, because they’re not passionate about any one thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just going to be difficult finding a career to fit that. So do something else that gives you the flexibility to pick up a new hobby every month.

The Solution

Do we give up on pursuing our passion and just accept crappy/mediocre jobs?
Nope. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. If you have something you’re passionate about, you should absolutely pursue it. BUT think it through:
    Can you really make a living out of it? How will you do that? What’s your back up plan? Is it a passion you can pursue outside of your career?
  2. Don’t forget that to find success doing what you love, might mean working really really hard… like harder than most people are willing to… and harder than is probably even psychologically healthy.
  3. If you don’t have a passion, or know what it is – There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with you.
  4. If you don’t know what you want to do, do anything. Find something even remotely interesting to you, and then find the meaning in it. Look for reasons to enjoy what you have. Take pride in whatever it is you do.
  5. Don’t expect any one person, place, or thing to make you happy – The very expectation sabotages itself.

I’ll leave you with some links to smarter people than me saying what I just said but more good.

TedxTalks: Don’t just Follow Your Passion
Theminimalists.com: Follow Your Passion is Crappy Advice
Psychologytoday.com: The Problem with Follow Your Dreams
Forbes.com: 5 Reasons To Ignore The Advice To Do What You Love

Passion vs. Dedication: What’s More Important In A Relationship?

The dating site OKcupid asks members to answer a variety of questions and uses the answers to predict compatibility with other members. I can’t imagine there’s much validity to this method, but I still find it interesting to read peoples’ answers. There’s one question that particularly interests me: “What’s more important in a relationship? Passion or Dedication?” To me, the obvious answer is dedication – so much so that I figured anyone who responded “passion” must not take relationships seriously enough to qualify as dating material. To my chagrin I noticed an interesting phenomena…
Literally every guy I’ve seen answers “passion”.facepalm-over-animal-ags-stupidity

Really? Really??? This forced me to do some self-reflection – am I crazy for thinking dedication is so obviously more important than passion in a relationship? Am I alone in this?? Of course, seeing that so few agree with me, I have to consider the unlikely possibility that I might be wrong. On the other hand, my background in psychology has allowed me to take classes and conduct research on human relationships, so maybe the difference between my opinion and the general opinion of the Okcupid population reflects a difference in education. I have to remember that what seems like common sense to me now is really the product of being exposed to information that most people might not receive. It’s really a shame if this is the case, because I think the value you place on passion vs. dedication in your relationship can have very real consequences. I’d like to explain my reasoning, and then you can decide if I’m crazy, wrong, or well educated (or all of the above).

Passion is important. Passion is what draws you to another person. Passion is what gives you that “high” of falling in love, and inspires you to keep coming back for more. Without passion, you’re stuck in the friend zone. While passion is necessary to begin a romantic relationship, it is only one part of a successful long-term relationship (and in my opinion not the most important part). But don’t take my word for it; let’s see what the research has to say.

The Triangular Theory of Love, developed by relationship theorist Robert Sternberg, identifies 3 elements of relationships that combine in different ways for different types of relationships. The three elements Sternberg identifies are passion, intimacy, and commitment. Passion is associated with physical attraction and intense emotional arousal. Intimacy refers to a sense of emotional closeness, comfort, and support between two people. Finally, commitment is the choice to be dedicated to a relationship and make an effort to preserve it for the long-term.

lovetriIn Sternberg’s theory, the combination of all three of these elements is labeled “Consummate Love” and is basically the holy grail of relationships. While many relationships might start out with all three of these elements, Consummate Love unfortunately isn’t very sustainable. The reason? Over time passion simply tends to fizzle down. Don’t shoot the messenger, that’s just what the research says.

Why does passion fizzle down? Passion is associated with arousal and arousal is fueled by adrenaline. Think heart racing, palms sweating, and an intense sense of urgency. Sounds like falling in love, right? Also sounds like a high-speed car race or sky diving, right? According to research, your partner doesn’t even have to be the source of the heightened adrenaline in order for your attraction to them to increase. A classic experiment by Dutton and Aron (1974) showed that men who were stopped and interviewed by a female on a rickety, flimsy suspension bridge found the woman more attractive than men who encountered her on a more sturdy and stable bridge. Additional research has validated that heightened adrenaline can be misattributed to another person and increase our attraction to that person.

Do I make you randy baby???

Do I make you randy baby???

This is why passion peaks early in relationships, because the very nature of beginning a relationship is new and exciting. You’re continuously being surprised by learning new things and having new experiences with this person. Without putting any effort into it, the process of falling in love creates adrenaline and makes us feel passion. However it simply isn’t possible to remain in a heightened state of arousal indefinitely. Eventually as you become more familiar with a person, the novelty wears off. Instead of basking in an idealized fantasy of your partner and relationship, you have to face the reality of remaining committed to a real person with flaws and a relationship with ups and downs, or else go seek new passion elsewhere.

I realize this might seem like a very bleak and pessimistic view of love, but I don’t think it has to be. Sternberg’s theory labels love with high levels of intimacy and commitment, but lower levels of passion “Companionate Love”. This is the type of stable and comfortable love that is most typically experienced by partners in long satisfying marriages. Companionate love is not based on fiery passion, but on common interests, sharing, and deep friendship. Research shows that this tends to be the stuff happy marriages are made of. Lauer and Lauer (1985) surveyed hundreds of couples that had been married at least 15 years, asking them what made the marriage work. The most common responses were “I married my best friend” and “I like my spouse as a person”.

Now I’m not saying we should all accept the inevitable fate of a passionless long-term relationship. Research does show that there is a small percentage of couples that seem to be able to make passion last. I think that understanding the nature of passion, along with some dedication, gives you the best shot at being one of those lucky couples. Unfortunately, fairy tales, romantic comedies, etc. lead us to believe that when we find our “soul-mate” we will be madly in love for a lifetime and effortlessly live happily ever after. I think it’s this misunderstanding about the nature of relationships that might account for such a high divorce rate. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the height of passion in a relationship lasts about two years, and most divorces occur after about two years of marriage. If you are passive about your relationship, and expect to live passionately and happily ever after, you’re bound to be disappointed. Furthermore, when passion begins to dwindle you’re likely to conclude that the person you’re with isn’t right for you and seek someone else that gives you that sense of passion (which will be easy because the novelty of someone new will innately fosters arousal, as discussed).

^ Married once, engaged 5 times, currently single. Thanks for the advice Johnny but I'm all set.

^ Married once, engaged 5 times, currently single. Thanks for the advice Johnny, but I’m all set.

On the other hand, if you are very dedicated to your relationship, you can take a proactive approach to keeping passion alive within your relationship. For example, since we know any experience that increases adrenaline can heighten your attraction to a person, doing exciting things with your partner can keep the passion alive. The Self-Expansion Model theorized by Aron and Aron (1997) posits that individuals have an innate inclination towards growth and expanding our self-concept. One of the main ways we do this is through our relationships, and so it’s no surprise that satisfaction in relationships has been correlated with high levels of self-expansion. In other words, satisfying relationships are ones where the partners help each other grow as individuals.

Getting to know someone new naturally expands our self-concept, and so no effort is needed to reap the benefits of self-expansion in a new relationship. As time passes, a relationship is no longer inherently self-expanding; the novelty wears off and you’ve already learned most of what you can learn from simply getting to know your partner. Thus relationship satisfaction can also decrease, but there’s a silver lining. Researchers have been able to increase couples’ views of the quality of their relationship by getting them to engage in new and exciting activities together. So you can improve your relationship by putting a conscious effort into planning  new and exciting activities with your partner that help you both grow as individuals.

Take home message: Passion is important, but not likely to be maintained over time without dedication. Furthermore, placing too much emphasis on passion in your relationship is dangerous, because it sets you up for failure. When the passion in your relationship dwindles (as it almost inevitably will) you will doubt your relationship, be tempted to give up and start over with someone new, and eventually repeat the same pattern. Rather than looking for someone who fills you with endless undying passion, look for someone you enjoy and respect as a person. Take the advice of most happily married couples, and marry your best friend. Then put some effort into making that relationship as exciting as possible.

954786_390046057770738_1093487704_n*side note: I haven’t looked at women’s answers to the OKcupid question, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a gender difference. Research shows that men have more romanticized ideas about relationships, whereas women are more practical. Hence men are more likely to emphasize passion over intimacy or commitment. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised by all the “passion” responses from men. This means that men generally place the most value on the least sustainable aspect of a relationship. Wake the ef up dudes!

Interested in more? Here’s some articles that talk about the same stuff much more eloquently:
Nytimes.com: New Love: A Short Shelf Life?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Is Long-term Love Possible?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Hot and Heavy or Slow-and Steady?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Rekindle the Romance in Your Relationship with Self-Expansion