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.

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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).
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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!

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?!

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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

The Key To Happiness: Lose Your Expectations

I’ve always been a planner. I feel the most comfortable when things are in order, and I feel like I know what’s coming. I’ve also always had very clear goals, and done my best to ensure I’m headed towards achieving them. I know this comes from some control issues, and fear of the unknown. When I have everything planned out, I feel like I know where I’m headed, and I feel secure. The problem is, of course, that it’s bullshit. I’m merely creating an illusion of control, while avoiding acknowledgment that The future is one big scary unknown that can’t be controlled. While this illusion might make me feel comfortable temporarily, it also sets me up for devastation. There have been instances in my life where I thought everything was in place and I was headed exactly where I wanted to be going… and then something happens that sweeps it all away. This can be a ground-shaking experience for a planner. Not only are you back to square one, you’re back to being completely uncertain if you’ll end up where you planned. These experiences have been some of my scariest moments, but also times of monumental self-growth. Each of these experiences has pushed me further along in my journey to being comfortable with the unknown, and understanding that happiness does not depend on life turning out the way you expected it to.

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I used to have such a clear image of the future I wanted. I’m realizing now that there are so many things that I can’t control, or even predict, that could get in the way of that future. It’s starting to seem too risky to put so much emotional weight on everything turning out the way I planned. Furthermore, I’m realizing that the image I had of my future, might not even make me any happier than another future. Ten years ago I thought that by the time I was 25, I would already be settled down and starting a family in the town I grew up in. This was all I wanted in my life, and really couldn’t imagine being happy with any other set of circumstances. Never in a million years would I have predicted that I would be living in a studio apartment by myself, in Philadelphia, pursuing a doctorate degree in psychology… much less that I would be very happy about it! I was a very different person at 15 than I am now, and wanted very different things. I hope that in 10 years I’ll have grown enough to be a different person than I am now. Even though I still become distracted by how I think my life ought to unfold, I really have no idea what I’ll want for myself 10 years down the road.

af268ba0cead9930e8052c5c7bc24787I also don’t want to miss out on amazing opportunities for my future, simply because they don’t seem to fit into my preconceived blue print for my life. Sometimes I have to laugh at my own audacity for assuming (despite limitless possibilities, none of which I have any experience of) that I know exactly what will make me happiest. I want to believe that my future might hold something even better than I could have predicted for myself. The insecure control freak in me still fears the unknown, but the optimistic free spirit inside me thinks that life turning out just as I had planned actually sounds quite boring.

SometimesDreamMy mother is a great testament that you can’t always predict what will make you happy in the future. By the time she was my age, my mother was already married with children, just as she had wanted. Unfortunately her marriage didn’t work out, she went through a difficult divorce, had to start a completely new career, and her middle child developed schizophrenia. Many years later my mother met the love of her life, a woman named Kathy. After being together for 10 years, they had a beautiful wedding last summer. They now have a cabin in upstate New York where they love to garden, and my mother is pursuing a third career as a novelist. Could she have ever predicted the path her life would take? Certainly not. Is she happy? It certainly seems so.

Let-go-of-the-life-we-have-planned

So why do we have these expectations for ourselves and our future, when we know so few people’s lives turn out exactly as they expected? We hold onto these expectations because we assume those are the circumstances that will make us most happy. Often these assumptions are forced upon us from childhood. Our families, the media, and general social norms paint an image for us of how a happy life looks. But how much time and thought do we really put towards making our own conscious judgments about what would make us happy? For example, little girls are given the message over and over again from family members, society, Disney movies, etc.… that the biggest achievement in life will be meeting prince charming and getting married. Not much attention is put towards what comes after the wedding day. In fact, usually the story ends immediately after finding the prince… because, after all, what else could there be?

images-1Rarely is our best capacity for logic able to combat decades of being inundated with the message that falling in love and getting married is the key to happiness, so we passively accept it. We all know of women who have looked forward to getting married all their life, finally have their big day, and then feel completely let down afterwards. The big day comes and goes in a flash, and no one has prepared them for what comes after. No one prepared them for the fact that marriage isn’t a fairytale, and it’s not the answer to all of life’s problems. In fact, marriage will likely bring many more problems and stress into life. Clearly marriage can also be a source of great joy, but if you were not feeling fulfilled before, you probably won’t feel fulfilled after the wedding. Similarly we try to organize numerous other circumstances in hopes that it will bring happiness: “If I could just land this job”, “If I move to my dream house”, “If I can just lose 15 pounds… then things will be different”. But that’s rarely the case.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

In fact, rather than leading us to happiness, our expectations often decrease our happiness. We measure our current circumstances against our expectations, and when there are discrepancies, we find fault with our lives and feel unsatisfied. Therefore the expectations that were supposed to bring us happiness mostly serve to make us less happy.

BQcDAAAAAwoDanBnAAAABC5vdXQKFkNEQVItM3VpU3hxa1g4aTIxOHNfbHcAAAACaWQKAXgAAAAEc2l6ZQI don’t mean to suggest that it’s a bad idea to have expectations. Having goals for our self is necessary because it gives our life meaning and makes our actions purposeful. However, I’m beginning to appreciate the idea of a healthy detachment from my expectations. I know that I would like to achieve certain things, but my happiness doesn’t need to depend on achieving these things. In fact, research tells us that changing our circumstances probably isn’t going to change our level of happiness anyway.

Studies have found that people who have won the lottery experienced a short period of heightened happiness before returning to their previous level of happiness, and people who have recently become paralyzed experience a period of lowered happiness before also returning to their baseline level of happiness (Brickman et al., 1978). Another study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2012 found that genuine and stable happiness was associated with a person’s internal state, and less dependent on circumstances. The findings suggested that simply trying to increase pleasure and ward off displeasure resulted in fluctuating phases of happiness and unhappiness. However, those who are more selflessly inclined and psychologically prepared for whatever life brings, experience a more durable sense of inner peace (Dambrun, et al.). Yet another study by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found that positive changes in circumstances produced only short term increases in happiness, whereas long term changes in happiness were produced by intentional activity. So what does all this tell us?

Happiness is a state of mind, not a set of circumstances.

If you want to change your level of happiness you need to focus more on changing your perspective than your circumstances. We put so much time and effort into achieving the circumstances that we think will bring us happiness. I’ve now spent 23 years educating myself so that I can obtain the job I think I’ll enjoy. I’ve spent years in relationships, and gone on countless dates trying to find the relationship I think will make me happy. I’ve worked crappy jobs to earn money so I can buy things I think will make me happy. The relative amount of time I’ve invested in developing my inner self, my attitude, and general perspective of life, is shameful.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.”

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Though it’s still a struggle for me, I’m beginning the journey of letting go of my expectations and focusing on happiness from the inside out. I still have things I would like to achieve, but I can also imagine being happy without those things. If I end up achieving my goals, it’ll be a cherry on top of the cake, but it doesn’t have to be the whole cake. My new life goals: To grow as a person and to help others. Let me know what you think!

Success and the Fundamental Need for Love

I was watching a Conan O’Brien interview with Jud Apatow (writer/director/producer connected to pretty much every huge comedy blockbuster of the last 10 years) and they were discussing the “neediness” behind their talent. Conan mentioned that when he was young he realized that making people laugh was one thing he had going for him to get people to like him, so from then on he put all his effort and energy into developing that skill. To this day he says his self esteem hangs on every joke, and when he doesn’t feel like he did well, he goes to a “very very dark place”. Jud Apatow related to Conan’s experience of desperately needing to be able to make people laugh and the underlying anxiety that no one would give a shit. And then Conan posed a great question – Would you change it, if it could make you happier?

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I believe behind Conan’s question is the assumption that, while his insecurity and desperation often torture him, it’s also given him the motivation needed to acquire his level of success. Conan was referring to this conflict specifically with comedians, but I think that it’s so much farther reaching. In fact, I might argue that anyone who has found great success in one area or another, got there by trying to compensate for some insecurity. I think at the core of us all is a fundamental need for love and connection, and along with that comes a fundamental fear/insecurity we all share – the fear of not being loved and accepted.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow came to a similar conclusion after studying some of the most accomplished people in history in an attempt to understand human motivation. From his research, Maslow developed his famous hierarchy of needs which includes physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

According to Maslow, the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be met before a person can move on to feel motivated in meeting higher level needs. While I agree with Maslow’s hierarchy, I think that the need to love and be loved might have a particular dominance in human psychology. After all, there are many examples of people who sacrifice their basic needs for love, and research has shown that deprivation from loving connection leads to an unmatched level of psychological disturbance. In fact it was  Maslow’s colleague, psychologist Harry Harlow, who conducted the famous studies on the effects of isolation on monkeys. He found that when monkeys were raised without connection to other monkeys, they exhibited severe disturbances in basically every area of functioning.

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Similarly, studies of over crowded and understaffed orphanages found that infants who were deprived of loving connection early in life were also prone to serious social dysfunction. Now over 50 years later, neurobiology is validating that healthy development of the brain is literally dependent upon loving connection with others (for more on this look into the work of Daniel J. Siegel).

I believe that because our need to love/be loved is so vital to our happiness and healthy development, that we also have a deep fundamental fear of not being loved and accepted. I think our desire to fill this need and our fear of being deprived from it might be the single most motivating factor in people’s lives (whether conscious or unconscious). From this core need/fear springs all of our strengths and our weaknesses. Just as Conan realized that being funny might be his ticket to love/acceptance, someone else might think it’s their ability to earn money, their looks, their athleticism, or their intellectual ability.

It’s easy to believe that the more successful a person is, the more sure of themselves and confident they must be, but I think there’s often a positive correlation between a person’s success and their insecurities. The more insecure they are, the more motivated they are to protect themselves from that feeling of being unloved. However, I think that these insecurities can simultaneously be someones biggest ally and biggest enemy. On the one hand they are propelling us forward, and motivating us to do our absolute best. On the other hand, they are also always getting in the way, paralyzing us in some ways, and holding us back -because we’re operating from a place of fear.

Take Conan for example: His strong need for acceptance motivated him to work on his comedic skill to an extent that propelled him to great success. But if his self-esteem still hangs on every joke, how can he perform his best with that much anxiety involved? If he could let go of the fear, I would imagine he would gain the confidence, freedom, and courage to take risks comedically that might bring his performance to the next level. Hence Maslow making love/belonging and self esteem necessary steps towards self-actualization.

While fear is an excellent motivator, I don’t think anyone can reach their fullest potential when operating from a place of fear. I think that when we are motivated by warding off this fear of being unloved/ not accepted, we sometimes go so far that we forget what we really wanted in the first place. I would imagine that if Conan desperately needs to make people laugh in order to feel loved and accepted, he might be one of those people that’s “on” all the time (and from some of the stories they were sharing in the interview that seems accurate). However, that type of personality can quickly exhaust people and soon turn them off. So even though the original purpose of developing the skill of making people laugh was to gain love and acceptance, too much focus on the skill can come at the cost of the original purpose. Another example would be someone who is motivated to develop financial success because they think money will be their key to securing love and acceptance, but then they get so caught up in earning money that they neglect their personal relationships and drive people away.

The fact that Conan even has to ask the question “Would you blank, if it would make you happier?” is interesting to me. Shouldn’t it be obvious? Isn’t happiness the whole point? Is there any thing else that trumps happiness? And yet I know the answer doesn’t feel that simple. Why is that?

I guess the take home point is that we all share an important need to feel loved and accepted, and with that comes natural fear and insecurity. True self-actualization and true success requires conquering this fear, but I think very few actually achieve this. I wish I had the secret for overcoming this fear myself… but unfortunately I do not. Maybe it has to do with spirituality, realizing a higher purpose, becoming more altruistic and less self-involved, etc.
Maybe that’s another post for another day 🙂

Communication: The Best Defense is No Defense

I’m extremely interested in what makes communication effective vs. ineffective. As I’m working towards becoming a psychotherapist, I think it’s crucial that I have a deep understanding of communication so that I can 1) reach my clients through my own communication, 2) recognize problem areas in my clients’ communication, and 3) help coach them to better express themselves. For personal and professional reasons, I am particularly interested in communication within intimate relationships. It’s no novel idea that good communication can be a couple’s secret to a lifetime of happiness and harmony, while poor communication can make relationships toxic and tear them apart. So what are the keys to good communication in relationships, and what are the traps of bad communication?

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It seems to me that defensiveness is a vital issue in communication between partners. When unmanaged, defensiveness can start a spiral of communication that escalates from a loaded comment to a full blown argument. In fact, while an argument might seem like two people attacking each other, I would suggest that arguments almost always consist of two people defending themselves. Unfortunately we often feel like the best defense is a good offense. However, if you can resist getting defensive when your partner is upset, you are much more likely to be able to resolve the issue and become even closer to your partner.

So why is it so hard to keep down our defenses if we know it would probably make life a lot easier? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious – Keeping down our defenses makes us feel really fucking vulnerable.  Vulnerability is a very scary and uncomfortable feeling that we want to avoid, and so we try to deflect away from our flaws and mistakes. Instead of taking a moment to try to understand what our partner needs, we push back, turn the light on their flaws and mistakes, and invalidate their experience. Staying calm and opening ourselves up when we feel like we’re being attacked goes against our very nature, but it is the key to stopping an argument before it begins.

Our natural reaction to a threatening situation is fight or flight, and in the context of a relationship this often manifests as arguing or shutting down. Though this is a protective mechanism, in relationships it only serves to  hurt us more. We end up hurting the person we love and damaging the relationship, when our relationship is one of our best means of fulfillment. When your partner is hurt, it never helps the situation to go on the defense, even if you have a reasonable defense. When you get defensive, you are focusing on what you need instead of what your partner needs. Your partner needs to feel heard, understood, and loved… it’s very unlikely that any defense you throw up is going to make the other person feel better or give them what they need. When they don’t feel they are getting what they need, they will likely either come back with a stronger attack (since their first attempt wasn’t successful at making you understand how hurt they were) or they will shut down. In either case they end up not feeling like they can trust you to nurture them. The whole situation could have been circumvented if you had the strength to take a breath before reacting and think about what your partner is really trying to communicate, and what they really need.

This isn’t easy. Our brains a literally wired to mirror the energy of those around us, so when you’re facing a furious spouse, your brain says that you should also be furious. It also goes against our natural fight or flight reaction. It takes a real conscious effort to be able to move towards the very thing that you feel is attacking you. However, if you can achieve this, what would have been a relationship damaging argument can become an opportunity to build trust and intimacy with your partner. This is actually the more self defensive thing to do as well, because the faster you let your defenses down, the faster your partner can return to loving position towards you.

So how do you stop yourself from getting defensive? Well I think it takes a lot of self-awareness, because the first step is recognizing when you are starting to feel defensive. This is a challenge, because in these situations our brain is usually too focused on reacting to the threat to allow for self-reflection. With practice however, you can start to recognize the process of  becoming defensive. For me, my heart speeds up, I stop listening to what the person is saying and instead start planning my attack. My muscles tense and my eyes narrow.

Once you recognize the sensation of becoming defensive, it helps to notice external elements that might be contributing to your reaction. For example, is you brain just mirroring the energy of the person you’re with? In which case, can you bring their energy down by managing your own? Is there a lot of other stimulation in the area (lights, loud sounds, etc.) that might be overwhelming your senses and putting you in a heightened state of alertness? Are there other unrelated issues that already had you agitated and left you quick tempered?

Now that you realize you’re getting defensive, how do you return to a loving position toward your partner? You must make yourself empathize with them. Remember that even though you feel like you’re being attacked by your partner in some way, they’re coming to you because they need something from you. The way they’re communicating it might be shitty, but they are actually trying to reach out to you. Try to listen past the complaints, yelling, jabs, etc. and hear what they’re actually trying to convey. Maybe it’s “I’m scared”, “I need help”, or “I miss you”. It’s very hard to get defensive when we’re really making an effort to understand another person’s perspective, especially someone we love.

Here’re some tips:

  • Study self-awareness. This is a life tip because building your self awareness will help you in every area of life (there’ll probably be more on self awareness to follow in another post at some point). Try meditation, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, etc.
  • I know it’s cliche and easier said than done – but take a deep breathe and count to five. This forces your heart to slow down and stops you from slipping into the spiral of defensiveness. This can also be an anchor for you to enter into a more self aware state.
  • Remember that the more angry or upset a person comes across, the more vulnerable they feel. Try to think about what would be making them feel vulnerable.
  • Notice your body language. If your arms/legs are crossed, uncross them. If your making fists, relax your hands.
  • If you’re confident you can do so in a loving way, make some physical contact with your partner. A hand on their knee, or their hand, or even a hug can do wonders for calming another person down and returning them to a loving position towards you.

I know these strategies seem simple and probably common sense, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Keep practicing and keep trying though, and I promise this is a skill that will make a huge difference in your life!