4 Steps for Dealing with Insecurities in Relationships

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;
  1. That this feeling will last for ever
  2. 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.

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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.

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How to Build Trust in a Relationship

Building or rebuilding trust in a relationship can seem like such a difficult task, especially when one or both people in the relationship have been hurt, by each other, or by others in the past. Part of why building trust seems so hard is because it’s a somewhat abstract term. What is trust? What does it mean to trust someone? Does it mean I believe you no matter what? Does it mean I’m confident you’ll never hurt me? Do you build trust by being completely transparent with your partner? Or does trusting your partner mean giving them the benefit of the doubt?
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While it seems abstract, research has been able to clarify how trust is built, and offers us a clear path to a stronger relationship. Dr. John Gottman and his team have spent decades studying couples, and tracking their relationships over many years. By comparing the relationships that have lasted to those that haven’t, he’s discovered valuable insights into many important aspects of relationships – including trust. The truth is that trust is not built or earned by grand gestures, but little by little over a span of time. Trust is built by the way that you respond to your partner in small every day moments.

Bids for Emotional Connection

According to Gottman, relationships are comprised of hundreds of daily bids for emotional connection between partners. A bid for emotional connection is anything we do to seek acknowledgement from our partner. Sometimes it might be conscious, like when you reach to hold your partner’s hand. Other times we might not even realizing we’re signaling for our partner’s attention, like when we let out an exasperated breath for them to hear. Every time we smile at our partner. Every time we respond to them with a sadness in our voice. Every text message. Every invitation to a work function. Every game of footsy under the covers. Every thing we do that our partner could respond to is a bid for connection. In each of these micro moments, the questions are asked “will you respond to me?”, “are you there for me?”, “do you care?”. For each bid, the partner on the receiving end has a chance to respond in a positive or negative way. It’s these seemingly insignificant moments, that across time build trust in a relationship. Each response to a bid representing but a small drop in the pot of trust or mistrust, that over the years determine the balance of the relationship.
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Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Janince Driver have identified nine different types of bids
● Bids for emotional support (“I feel so upset about my mother…”)
● Bids for interest (“I read this interesting article today…”)
● Bids for enthusiastic engagement (“What do you think about trying that new restaurant?”)
● Bids for extended conversation (“Did I tell you about that conversation I had with Mary?”)
● Bids for attention (“Look what I found at the store!”)
● Bids for play (tickling, teasing, a game of backgammon)
● Bids for humor (“How funny is this video?”)
● Bids for affection (hugging, cuddling)
● Bids for self-disclosure (“How was work today?”)

Turning Towards vs. Turning Away

Every time an emotional bid is offered, the partner on the receiving end has a choice to make “do I turn towards my partner, and respond in a loving affectionate way?”,”do I turn away, and ignore my partner’s bid?” or even”do I turn against them and respond negatively?” Of course we all know we should be there for our partner, and it’s common sense that a successful relationship involves responding to your partner in a positive, loving way. However, small and subtle bids for affection can be easy to miss or ignore, especially when we ourselves are feeling in need, and even more so when our needs are in conflict with our partners. On a dramatic scale this could look like your partner asking you to spend the weekend with them, when you’re really feeling the need for some alone time with friends. On a more subtle scale this could be recognizing that your partner is tired, and offering to cook dinner even though you’ve had a long day yourself.

None of us will respond perfectly to 100% of our partner’s needs, and letting a bid for connection slip through the cracks here or there is not going to make or break a relationship. However according to Gottman’s research, the frequency with which partners respond to a bid for connection by turning towards each other is significantly related to whether the relationship will last or not. He found that 6 years after marriage, couples who were still together turned towards each other 86% of the time, while couples that divorced turned towards each other about 33% of the time.

So How Do I Build Trust?

  • Be on the look out for bids for connection, and as much as possible turn towards your partner
  • If you’re not sure what your partner is looking for – ask them! (“What can I do for you sweetie? Do you want to talk? Or would you just like a hug?”)
  • Help your partner meet your needs, by being direct with your bids (instead of an aggravated roll of the eyes, say “honey I’m so stressed, I’d love if you could just listen while I vent”)
  • When your partner seems to be on the offensive or defensive, rather than responding to the content of what they’re saying, ask your self what their deeper need might be. (Her words might say “I’m fine”, but her tone might say “I need to know you really care right now”)
  • Be patient. As mentioned, each bid for connection gives you the opportunity to add a drop to your relationship’s trust. The more you respond positively to your partner’s bids, the more you’ve invested in your relationship’s trust, and the more reserves you have. It takes time to build up strong reserves. When trust and mistrust are equal, or there’s more mistrust than trust – every transgression feels intolerable. When your relationship is heavily weighted towards trust, mistakes are more easily forgiven.

    Learn More!

  • Gottman.com: Turn Towards Instead of Away
  • Thefishybowl: The best Offense is No Defense

Stop Categorizing Other People… and Yourself!

We live in a world that loves to categorize things. It’s the human brain’s little trick for sorting through a lot of information efficiently; “It’s either this, or it’s that”. While categorization can be helpful, there are some negative consequences, especially when applied to human experience. For example, we tend to sort other people into various categories, i.e. male/female, gay/straight, nerd/jock, etc.. This type of black and white thinking not only limits our ability to understand another person’s experience, but often times it can make it difficult to understand our own experience as well. We feel pressure to fit into rigidly defined categories that society has laid out for us, and as a result we might mitigate unique parts of ourself and our experience that don’t fit so neatly into these social boxes. People might hide or play down the parts of themselves that blur the lines so they can fit in and identify more closely with a certain group, all the while feeling fundamentally different. The point of this post is to highlight some examples of areas that we need to challenge our categorical perspective, so that we can all relate better to each other as unique and diverse individuals, rather then members of separate homogenous groups.

Sexual Orientation

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.20.08 PMWe generally think of sexual orientation as identification with a certain category (gay, straight, bi), but this can cause a lot of people confusion when trying to understand their own sexual feelings and experience. A healthier way to consider sexual orientation would be to think of it as a point on spectrum with strict heterosexuality and homosexuality representing the extreme end points of the scale. It’s actually rare that someone would fall on an extreme end of this spectrum. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to the opposite sex, but you can recognize when someone of the same sex is attractive. Maybe members of the same sex even show up in your fantasies from time to time, but you don’t necessarily ever feel inclined to act on those fantasies. The point is, whatever your experience may be, it has a place somewhere along this scale.

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Sexual Fluidity

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.25.26 PMTo add to the dynamics of sexual experience is the fact that sexual orientation isn’t necessarily a fixed trait. For many people, who they are attracted to evolves throughout their life. This concept can also be represented on a spectrum with complete sexual fixedness on one end and complete sexual fluidity on the other. Someone who has always been attracted to one sex (be it same or opposite sex) for as long as they can remember and never experienced periods or moments of attraction to the other sex, would be a very sexually fixed person. A more sexually fluid person might have periods of being exclusively attracted to one sex, but has also had periods of being exclusively attracted to another sex, and maybe also periods where they felt attracted to both sexes. In other words, wherever you fall on the sexual orientation spectrum discussed above, you don’t necessarily remain on that one point of the spectrum, but might move around a bit over time.

Research shows that women tend to be higher in sexual fluidity, and therefore are more likely to change sexual orientation throughout life. However, it’s unclear how much this is affected by different societal gender norms. For example, it’s generally considered more acceptable in our society for a straight women to experiment with other woman (e.g. making out with another girl at a party), than it is for a straight man to experiment with another man. The take home point is that there is a lot of gray area when it comes to our sexual preferences, and it’s totally normal to not fit into our society’s rigid categories.

Gender

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.22.03 PMA related area where society attempts to squeeze us into dichotomous categories is gender. Our society has established ideas of what it means to be a man and we call it masculine. We have established ideas of what it means to be a woman, and we call it feminine. However no man is strictly masculine and no woman is strictly feminine. The reality is that a woman can identify with any masculine trait(s) and it does not make her less of a woman, and the same it true for men. Therefore we can again consider these traits on a spectrum where regardless of your biological sex you may lean towards masculinity or femininity but still identify with traits of either gender. Right in the middle of this scale would be androgyny, which research has actually shown to be connected to many positive traits. In other words, it’s actually best to embrace positive characteristics associated with both genders. If we embrace this spectrum perspective of gender as a society perhaps we will be able to show more compassion and understanding for those who feel they identify more with the gender opposite of their biological sex. Perhaps individuals would not feel so conflicted and confused when their experience doesn’t seem to match what society prescribes for their sex. Perhaps we would all feel more able to explore and embrace our most genuine selves without pressure to conform ourselves to gender norms.

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Relationships

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.33.28 PMSexologist Jessica O’Reilly applies the spectrum perspective to relationships in this TED Talk, where she explains Dan Savage’s concept of “monogamish relationships”. She suggests that strict monogamy doesn’t seem to work for many people (as evidence by high divorce rates), however she states that the opposite (strict polygamy) doesn’t work for many people either. She encourages us to open our mind to the many possibilities in between monogamy and polygamy, and define fidelity in our relationships on our own terms. For example, maybe you and your partner do not have sex with others, but flirting is ok, or bringing a guest player into your fantasies/dirty talk is enough to keep things exciting. Whatever it may be, the spectrum perspective opens up the opportunity to have an honest conversation with your partner about wants and desires that might lay outside of society’s standard definitions of relationships.

Mental Health

Once you understand that most traits exist on a spectrum rather than in categories, you can begin to apply it to many areas of life. Even our typical understanding of mental illness has been defined by categorical diagnoses, and as a clinical psychologist in training I’m all too familiar with the problems inherent in trying to fit a unique person with complicated psycho-social issues into a strictly defined diagnosis. There is actually a current a push in the field of psychology to describe mental health conditions on spectrums rather than categories. An example is the transition from separate diagnoses for Aspergers Syndrome and Autism, to Autism Spectrum Disorder, which recognizes that individuals may experience symptoms of Autism to various extents and thus present in very different ways. In terms of other disorders, the presence or absence of one symptom can currently make the difference between whether someone qualifies for a diagnosis or not. Would it not make more sense to describe a person as “having the following depressive traits” or “falling above average on the depression scale”, rather than depressed or not depressed?

Take Home Point

The underlying point here is that few things in life are black and white, and it does us a world of good to look for the gray areas. It’s particularly dangerous to apply black and white thinking to other people, because we rob ourselves of what we can learn from the idiosyncrasies of others. Furthermore, let’s think about what we lose when we subconsciously apply black and white thinking to our own identity. What parts of life, what parts of our self, have we not explored because they seem to conflict with the labels we’ve applied to ourself? How can we meet our full potential, if we hold ourself to the confines of categories? So periodically check in with yourself… are there any areas where you’re not allowing yourself to explore the full spectrum of life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other people can make us feel more secure…

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

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

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

The External World is Unpredictable

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

 The self is the only dependable source of security 

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

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

 Once you realize this, your relationships will improve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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.

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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 🙂