In my article Insecurities In Relationships: It’s Not Them, It’s You., I discuss how looking to external sources (i.e. another person, money, food, etc.) for a sense of security can create a feedback loop causing you to feel more and more insecure in the long run. I end the article by suggesting that you must look within yourself for a sustainable sense of security, which in turn allows you to have much more satisfying relationships. Of course, this is easier said than done, and so the purpose of this article is to offer some tips on how to begin building security from with-in.
This article is not for those who feel insecure in their relationship due to valid breaches of trust or respect. This article is for those who feel insecure even when their partner gives them no reason to. Or maybe your partner does small things that could be concerning, but you find yourself overreacting and unable to discuss the issue calmly. This article is for those that feel like they need more and more from their partner to feel secure, and who’s partners are beginning to feel nothing they do will ever be enough.
When we look to external sources for a sense of security, it’s due to a subconscious belief that the feeling of insecurity is intolerable. When we think a feeling is intolerable, we feel we must DO something about it. We feel a compulsion to take action in response to our feeling. In relationships, we might try to get our partner to do something to relieve our insecurity; “If only he called more often” “If only she didn’t talk to that one guy” “If only he showed more affection”. If/when our partner follows through with our request, our brains get a shot of dopamine (the hormone that gives us the emotional high of being rewarded). We feel better, but only temporarily. Pretty soon we start to feel insecure again, and we think we need even more from our partner. The more our partner responds to our insecurity, the more we believe we need their action to feel better.
Step 1. is learning to tolerate the uncomfortable feeling of insecurity.
Painful emotions cause our mind to play a tricks on us;
That this feeling will last for ever
That this feeling is intolerable, and something must be done about it.
When you notice yourselves operating this way you must pause and recognize your mind is playing you for a fool. Your feelings won’t kill you; you don’t have to run from them, hide from them, or fight them. This feeling won’t last. Every feeling has a beginning, middle, and an end. Especially intense emotions, by definition, cannot remain so heightened indefinitely. Part of your task is learning how to tolerate feeling pain/discomfort and riding the feeling out, without feeling like you must do something to make it go away. Learning/practicing mindfulness meditation is a great way to learn how to observe your thoughts and feelings without reaction to them.
Step 2. is removing your partner or your relationship as the cause of your feelings. Yes, sometimes events in our relationship make us feel insecure, but it’s also important to remember that our mood naturally fluctuates from high to low. When we’re feeling down, our mind begins to scan the environment for reasons to explain why we’re feeling the way we are. We start to notice every little thing our partner does wrong, we start to feel tormented by negative thoughts about ourselves and our relationship, we start to think if they did something differently we would feel better. But we are not meant to feel perfectly happy all the time. Sometimes we just feel down, and insecure, for no reason, and that’s ok, and there’s no need to do anything about it.
Step 3. is for when you really feel you must take some action to relieve yourself of a painful feeling. Tolerating uncomfortable emotions is important, but you wont learn to do it over night. Balance challenging yourself to sit with an uncomfortable emotion, and using self-care to relieve yourself. The important part is to do something for yourself rather than hope/expect/demand someone else do something to make you feel better. If you’re truly having difficulty tolerating your insecure feeling, try distracting yourself for a period of time until the feeling has lost some power. You should have at least 3 activities in your back pocket that occupy your mind and make you feel good. Try listening to music, exercising, watching a feel good movie, coloring in some adult coloring books; anything that will help you ride the feeling out. Check out my post 30 Things to Remember When You’re Feeling Down.
Step 4. is share with your partner. The idea is not to hide your emotions from your partner, but to not make them responsible for them. Once you’ve used some self-care to lower the intensity of your insecurity, go ahead and share your experience with your partner, but without blaming them. This might sound like “I’m feeling a little down and it’s just got me feeling insecure. Right now I keep thinking that I wish we spent more time together, but it might just be my mood. Maybe we can talk about when I’m feeling better, but in the meantime if you could be a little patient with me I’d really appreciate it.”
Each of these steps will still be easier said than done, but use this as a launching point towards building your own internal sense of security. For further reading, I highly suggest this book.
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.
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
Self-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.
In 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.
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.
One 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.
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.
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.
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!
In 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
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.
But 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.
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?!
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.
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.
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.
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.
You 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.
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!