8 Things You Should Be Doing In Your Relationship: Because Science Says So!

Most people don’t realize how much research exists about what you can do to improve your relationship. So often couples feel so imbedded in the routine of their relationship, they assume that any noticeable difference in the quality of their relationship would require hard complicated work. In reality, science tells us that there are some simple things that are likely to give your relationship quite a boost. Most are easy and fun to do, so why not give them a try?!

1. Self Expanding Activities

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Self-expanda-whataties? According to the theory of self-expansion, we all have an innate drive to grow as individuals. Relationships are one of our primary methods of expanding our own sense of self, as we learn from another person and they expose us to new and different experiences. Studies show that we’re more satisfied with relationships that contribute to our growth, but as time goes on self-expansion in your relationship can dwindle. If you and your partner get stuck in rut of mundane routine, you may no longer feel like your partner is helping you grow. In fact, you might even feel like they are holding you back, which can lead you to look for sources of expansion outside the relationship (like maybe even a new relationship – read more about the influence of self expansion on infidelity here). How do you stop this from happening? Make participating in self-expanding activities a priority in your relationship. What are self-expanding activities? Anything that’s new and exciting. The idea is that you’re engaging in things together that make you both grow as individuals, and thus grow closer together.

Here are some ideas:

  • Travel some place new
  • Take a class together
  • Try a new restaurant
  • Go on a hike
  • Try to learn a new hobby together
  • Go sky diving
  • Run an obstacle course together
  • Literally ANYTHING new and exciting!

2. Building your Love Maps

Relationship researcher and author John Gottman suggests couples build up their “Love Maps”. What does that mean? Your Love Map is your guide to your partners internal world. Your knowledge about the ins and outs of who your partner is as a person provides the soil for friendship and intimacy to grow. It’s little things (what’s their favorite ice cream flavor?), and everyday things (who’s giving them a hard time at work?), and big things (what are their fears?). Gottman has found that couples in successful relationships have well developed Love Maps; they have a rich and deep understanding of their partner’s world. This understanding also helps them handle stressful situations better. So get to know your partner! Again, and again, and again!

Click here for some questions shown by research to build intimacy between two people.

3. Watching Movies Together

No really. Recent research suggests that watching movies together might be as beneficial as participating in couple’s therapy (which hopefully doesn’t catch on or I’ll be out of a job!). Researchers provided couples with a list of 47 movies featuring long-term romantic relationships, and were told to watch one per week for a month and then discuss it together using questions provided. Researchers were surprised to find that after three years this turned out to be just as effective as established therapeutic methods at reducing divorce; cutting the divorce/separation rate in half, from 24%-11%. Pretty big pay off for a few movie nights! Give it a try with your partner – click here for the list of movies and questions used.

4. Having More Sex

National surveys have shown correlations between the amount of sex a couple is having, and their satisfaction in the relationship, and risk of separation. Now this research is correlational, so it’s possible that having less sex makes you unhappy in your relationship, while it’s also possible that being unhappy in your relationship makes you want to have sex less, as it’s also possible that confounding factors (i.e. financial stress, health issues, etc.) might be causing a negative impact on happiness in your relationship and sexual frequency. Regardless, it seems happy couples are having more sex. One reason may be that the open communication required for a satisfying sex life also spills over into healthy communication in other parts of the relationship. Sex is also an exciting physical activity that can contribute to a couple’s sense of expansion as discussed above, and produces all sorts of hormones that makes us feel great and close to our partner (testosterone, dopamine, oxytocin). Sex is also a great stress reducer, and stress is related to decreased relationship satisfaction. So how much sex should you be having? Research shows it’s really a matter of you and partner’s preferences. In other words, how the amount of sex you’re having compares to the amount you or your partner would like to be having is what really makes the difference in relationship satisfaction. And it’s important to know that it only takes one of you being dissatisfied with sexual frequency to decrease both of your satisfaction in the relationship. What we do before and after sex is important too. Showing more affection after sex (i.e. spooning, pillow talk, etc.) relates to increased sexual satisfaction, and increased relationship satisfaction (Muise, Giang, & Impett, 2014). Couples instructed to kiss more frequently for 6 weeks also reported more relationship satisfaction compared to a control group (Floyd, Boren, Hannawa, Hesse, McEwan, & Veksler, 2009).

So here’s some tips:

  • Don’t wait until you’re “in the mood”. Often times even if you don’t feel in the mood to start, you get there. Lean into it (metaphorically… and, well… yeah).
  • Having more sex makes you want more sex. Try increasing the frequency incrementally.
  • Talk about it! Couples who communicate openly about likes and dislikes in the bedroom have increased sexual satisfaction.
  • Check this out for some sexual intimacy exercises.

5. Spending an Extra 6 Hours a Week Together

Analysis of interviews with couples found that those with successful marriages spent about an extra 6 hours a week together. Sound like a lot of time to set aside? Well actually, the 6 hours is an accumulation of a some quicker easier habits. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Take an extra 2 minutes every day before work to say goodbye and ask something about your partner’s coming day (10 minutes per week).
  • Take an extra 6 seconds to hug and kiss your partner when you reunite at the end of a day, and then chat with your partner for about 20 minutes. (1 hour, 40 minutes)
  • Take 5 minutes everyday to express gratitude to your partner (35 minutes per week)
  • Take 5 minutes everyday to give your partner physical affection, especially before falling asleep (35 minutes per week)
  • Set aside 2 hours for a weekly date night (2 hours per week)
  • Set aside 1 hour at the end of the week to discuss what went well that week, and what didn’t, as well as plan for the week ahead. Ask your partner how you can show them love and support over the coming week (1 hour per week)

6. Meditating

Meditating has many beneficial effects for relationships. Research has shown that meditation is related to improved stress management, and stress is known to negatively effect relationships. In addition, meditation has been associated with increased empathy and understanding others, which can positively effect healthy communication within a relationship. Meditating helps a person acknowledge and observe their thoughts and emotions, before reacting to them, therefore enabling them to make more conscious decisions about how they want to react. This is particularly beneficial when discussing topics of conflict within a relationship, because it can help couples avoid negative communication patterns such as defensiveness and criticism, and opt for healthier more supportive communication styles such as active listening and responsiveness. Going back to our self-expansion theory – meditating together can provide quality time and widen your sense of self as individuals and as a couple. In fact, couples that have participated in mindfulness meditation training programs have reported feeling increased closeness and intimacy with their partner. Read this to find out more mindfulness meditation!

7. Writing about Your Conflicts

Eli Finkle and colleagues conducted a study where they had couples write about a conflict they experienced within their relationship from an objective stand-point, for about 7 minutes. Couples did this once every 4 months for about a year, and reported about the quality of their relationship. Those that participated in the writing exercise were able to avoid the decrease in marital satisfaction, passion, and sexual desire that was reported by the control group, and that research has shown relationships in general suffer. In other words, stats show that relationship satisfaction peaks early on and slowly declines over the course of the relationship, but this simple writing task enabled participants to maintain their current level of satisfaction long-term. So exactly was the writing task?

  1. “Think about the facts and behaviors of a specific disagreement that you have had with your partner over the past 4 months. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it.”
  2. “Some people find it helpful to take this third party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third partner perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner?”
  3. “Despite the obstacles to taking a third party perspective, people can be successful in doing. Over the next four months, please try your best to take this third party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next four months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?”
    (A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal)

8. Creating Shared Meaning

John Gottman’s 40+ years of researching relationships has lead him to find that the couples who are really masters at their relationship have found a “shared meaning” for their relationship and their life together. You and your partner may have different thoughts about life and the future, you may have fundamental differences of personality that can cause conflict, and you may have different ways of handling various situations, but having a shared meaning keeps you connected, in-tune with one another, and gives you common ground to build on. You create your shared meaning through rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. You can proactively explore and develop the rituals, roles, goals, and symbols in your relationship, and begin building the meaning of the relationship early on.

Here’s some things to explore with your partner:

  • What daily, weekly, annual rituals are important to you? Sharing a morning coffee? Weekly date night? Yearly vacation?
  • What holidays are important, and what do they mean to you?
  • Do we share dinnertime together, and what’s the meaning of dinner time?
  • How do you see the role of husband, wife, partner, parent?
  • What goals do you have for yourself and your partner?
  • What’s a life dream of yours?
  • What symbols represent your relationship?
  • What does “home” and “family” symbolize for you?

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I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake, but research has a lot more to tell us about how we can improve our relationships. If you’re wondering whether there’s research regarding any more specific issues, there probably is! Let me know what you’re curious about, and I’ll try my best to share some information!

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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

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.
demotivational-posters-nagging
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!