I am starting to doubt the medical model of mental health. I am not so sure anymore that when we chose challenging relationships that it means we are having a personality defect or are attracted to the “wrong person”. I am beginning to believe that our soul – the part of us that is consistent, calm and free from anxiety – choses people who confront us in ways that force us to grow.
The way I learned about psychotherapy was that we are essentially shaped in our families: our parents and siblings and close relatives are the first major influences in our lives and form our beliefs about what relationships should look like.
I still believe that. Yet, another aspect of this model is that we continue to be attracted to the same type of people who in some ways resemble our family members. If your father wasn’t really there for you or was absent in your childhood, chances are that you will feel attracted to a similarly unavailable person as you look for a partner. Or, if your mother was depressed and unresponsive as you were growing up, you may feel drawn to someone who too can be moody or uncaring of your needs.
Freud called this dynamic the “repetition compulsion”: somehow we are prone to make the same mistakes over and over until it hits us over the head that we are supposed to do something different, and we have learned our lesson. Many therapists will tell you to stay away from the same type of personality you keep feeling drawn to, because you will never get what you want, and just settle for the nice guy who may be good for you but don’t really feel an attraction to.
But the real lesson is that we have to engage in these relationships to some degree in order to learn about ourselves. We have to feel the despair of not getting what we want from an unavailable person in order to learn that we have to stop looking to others for the fulfillment of our every need. That first and foremost we …
Introverts and shy people all over rejoice: there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with needing space and quiet, and preferring a low key dinner with a good friend to a loud and extravagant party.
There is nothing wrong with needing time to retreat from the world and recharge your internal batteries, or to feel overwhelmed by too much pressure or too much information.
I’m a latecomer to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s been out for a while, but that doesn’t make its message any less important.
One major point she makes is that introverts are thinkers and creators. “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement”, science journalist Winifred Gallagher is quoted. He concludes that neither Einstein’s theory of relativity nor John Milton’s Paradise Lost was “dashed off by a party animal.”
Susan Cain adds more great achievements by venerable introverts: Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, Chopin’s nocturnes, Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown. Even techno revolutionaries like Google founder Sergey Brin or Facebook creator Marc Zuckerberg are included. The list goes on to include Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi.
Many of us turn to the mind. We are called cerebral, innovative, brooding, creative. But also spiritual, psychologically minded, curious about the inner workings of all things. Endlessly fascinated by the wonders of nature, and inspired by the journey of discovery.
Of course, not all introverts end up famous. Many of us struggle with feelings of loneliness, fear of conflict, depression and low self esteem.
Many times, our negative self image goes back to the messages we received from our families and our culture. Extroverted children are deemed preferable to quiet ones by lots of parents, for fear that their kids will end up as outsiders or loners. The angst they are putting on their children ends up creating just that: youngers who feel bad about themselves …
Couples who start to think about separation or divorce are in a place of high conflict or high dissatisfaction. Sometimes it’s very easy to find the main culprit in the relationship, especially when there is verbal or physical abuse. But often it’s not so clear cut.
Lots of couples aren’t happy in their marriage, but find themselves unable to end the relationship. There may be an element of co-dependency, maybe there’s children involved, and most importantly, there is still a remnant of good will to try and improve things.
Most of us enter a relationship pondering what we can get out of it and how it fits our needs. When we first meet our partner, there is always the deliberation of how being with them can improve our lives. If you’re an introvert and your spouse is an extrovert, there was at one point probably the idea that both partners can gain from the other person’s personality style.
It’s similar in conflict situations. We tend to get hung up on questions like “what did I not get from the other?” “How are my needs not met?” “He or she always does this and I am always at the losing end of the battle.”
What we often neglect is the question of “how can I contribute to the well being of our relationship at this point of impasse?” When two differing opinions bump up against each other, it’s very difficult to not just have one’s own point of view in mind, but to simply ponder “what does the relationship need from me right now?”
We tend to forget that it’s not one against the other, but that our job is to find a third solution that both partners can live with. As soon as we can step out of the unproductive cycle of you against me and take a caring look at the good things you and your partner have built together, there is a way out of the impasse.
If disagreement after disagreement has piled up over the years and they all …
We’ve all been there. It’s Sunday morning. The husband wants to see his parents. The wife would rather go take a hike in the woods. Or the other way around. One insists on what they want, the other resists or doesn’t really engage and you’re off arguing what to do with this Sunday afternoon.
The most important aspect to avoid a fight is your attitude towards the other person. If you internally roll your eyes and get ready to defend your position as the one and only possibility, then you’re already on the path of war. But if you’re able to look at it from a joint perspective – as inwe are going to figure this out together – then you will have a relaxed Sunday afternoon.
When couples disagree about how to solve a problem, both people should put their own opinion on the back burner. Instead, explore what else you would be willing to consider.
Do a little brain storming without getting attached to a solution first. What else could you do with your afternoon? Maybe swing by the parents for a cup of coffee and then take a short walk together? Hike with the in-laws? Have a romantic afternoon at the beach and make dinner plans with the family for next Saturday? Split up and each do your own thing? Find a whole different strategy all together?
Before getting attached to one particular idea, create a pool of possibilities first. Come up with some ideas what each of you want to do. That way you come closer to what each other is willing to give up in order to come to a joint solution.
First you have to give a little. That’s when you gain your partner’s trust and willingness to compromise. If you get hung up on only one solution (yours) you inevitably get into a power struggle and only one person can “win” – but the victory is short lived, because resentment will build within the other.
Change your mindset and include the other in your thought process rather than exclude them. From then on you will get what you want.
Happy couple photo available from Shutterstock
Most people who seek psychotherapy believe that they are weak, that their life force has been shaken to the core, that they can’t face the world and its challenges. But it’s quite the opposite. Daring to look at oneself and one’s imperfections really is an act of heroism.
Most of us don’t like to admit that we often are in need: we crave to be in a loving relationship, grow roots and find stability in a community, want the security of having a financial cushion and so on. So much of our self exploration focuses on our needs and how we can avoid the pitfalls of never saying no to anyone.
And not just that. Sometimes we are weak. When our child is in pain and we can’t help, we feel each pang of that pain with them. When we are exhausted and run down, we don’t have it in us to stand up to whoever we feel treats us unfairly.
Defeat cannot always be averted. All there is to do is to admit that we have failed. There is no way to pretend otherwise. We need to be able to face the truth of our human existence.
Admitting to feeling vulnerable and confused automatically takes the aggression out of a fight. Saying calmly “that really hurt me” or “I just don’t have it in me” deflects anger and opens the door for dialogue and cooperation. It avoids defensiveness and the typical downward spiral of self righteousness and stonewalling.
Seeing our weaknesses enables us to move past them, because we first have to become aware of our limitations before we can try to do something about it.
Knowing that we are vulnerable makes compassion with others possible. Everyone appreciates compassion, kindness and gentleness.
Every feeling is temporary. All things must pass, as George Harrison said. And there will be an end to feeling weak and incapacitated too. It’s all part of the human experience. The sooner we can accept that, the easier we will move past it.
You know that old adage that “we see whatever we want to see?” Turns out, there is scientific research to back this one up.
Compelling evidence is delivered by British neuroscientist Beau Lotto in his Ted talk “How our minds shape perception”. In his talk, Lotto demonstrates how reality always depends on context by showing a variety of colored patches, surrounded by differing backgrounds.
The eye will perceive the colored patches differently, according to whether they are offset by a white or a black background. Sensory information, Lotto concludes, is meaningless because it only becomes meaningful when there is something to compare it with. And the same goes for everything else. “There is no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.”
The whole thing is just as applicable to psychological dynamics. The backdrop to which we all compare our experiences is our past. We are biologically conditioned to base our decisions and perceptions on previous experiences, and to form patterns. Says the neuroscientist: “The brain doesn’t see the world as it is, the brain sees the world the way it was useful in the past.”
Which brings us to mental health, relationships and specifically to couples. When a couple starts fighting, it’s often about differing subjective perceptions of the two parties involved. One person may even accuse the other of lying, while the blamed one sees nothing wrong in his or her actions.
That is where perception comes in. Let’s say a young man grew up with a volatile mother who needed to be pleased at all times in order to prevent violent outbursts of anger. To him, it may have become a highly useful strategy to please and flatter any older woman in some type of authority position.
Say his wife grew up with an unreliable father, who disappeared in the neighborhood bar when things got difficult and flirted with the bartender there.
To him, behaving slightly seductive around women was a survival strategy, even though it may have been completely devoid of actual interest in that person. To her, any form of seductiveness …
“Why Do I Do That?” is the title of a new book by fellow blogger Joseph Burgo which deals exclusively with the ways we try to deal with difficult feelings and situations in life: It’s our defense mechanisms that make us look away when things get dicey or hard to deal with. The book is released on October 29th and will be available on Amazon in print-on-demand and eBook versions. In this interview, Joe Burgo explains how he got fascinated by the topic.
What do people defend against?
In the broadest sense, they always defend against pain. Donald Melzer said that defenses are lies we tell ourselves to evade pain, which is a very elegant way of saying it.
There are different kinds of pain. In my book I divide it into three areas. We are primarily concerned with what it’s like to need and depend on other people, which can lead to frustration, hurt and disappointment. Secondarily, we are concerned with being able to manage a lot of intense feelings that come up in relationships. And we try to develop some sense of personal self worth, to feel that we have value, and when we don’t, that leads to shame, a deeply painful experience. So need and dependency, strong feelings and self esteem, those are the areas where pain comes up and we rely on defense mechanisms.
What are the classic defense mechanisms?
Well, there are repression and denial. All defenses rely on repression, even though it’s a defense in its own right. Displacement, reaction formation. Splitting, idealization. Projection. And then there’s a bunch of other ones that are secondary, like defenses that involve ideas of control, and lastly defenses against shame.
What are these?
Narcissism is the primary defense against shame.
Narcissism is a defense?
Pathological narcissism is a defense against shame. There are people who are currently writing about this connection, its kind of out there in the profession right now.
How do you work with patients in terms of defenses?
As I was writing the book, I didn’t really think that I am working on defenses but I guess …
Exercise can be just as effective against depression as medication, especially in mild to moderate cases. Study after study has come to this conclusion, and it can even help with major depression and to prevent reoccurring episodes of it.
Many alternative health professionals talk about how “food is medicine;” now, the corresponding view is “exercise is medicine.” A recent news item claiming that exercise is more crucial in managing diabetes than food, is an example of this new viewpoint.
Having a stronger body increases overall well-being, even in people with low self esteem. Body and mind cannot be seen separately – an insight that athletes back in ancient Greece were well aware off.
Of course, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to move when you are depressed. It’s important to find an activity that suits the pace you are comfortable with. If walking is all you can do, then walking it is (especially when done in nature). If dancing feels possible, do that. If you like Yoga, great.
You don’t have to hit the gym. Find something that appeals to you. Being active on a regular basis (say two or three times a week) is much more beneficial than doing something strenuous once in a while.
If you can avoid medication and exercise regularly instead, even better. Drugs can have serious negative side effects, especially when taken over a long period of time. Some studies even suggest that antidepressants can lead to chronic depression.
This phenomenon seems to occur in many people, who had an initial positive response to SSRIs, then stayed on the drugs, relapsed and became treatment-resistant. This is when the depression may become permanent.
Other cautionary tales include that psychiatric drugs have led to impairment in brain development in animal studies. Robert Whitaker, author of “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness”, points out that the widely believed theory of chemical imbalances in the brain had turned out to be false.
It is undeniable that drugs have helped and still help countless people, especially with severe mental illness. …
It’s bad enough feeling anxious or depressed. But what makes the emotional pain so much worse, is that we can’t just accept what it going on inside our minds. We have to criticize ourselves for being afraid, angry, jealous and so on. That’s what really brings us down: the inner critic.
Let’s say something went wrong at work. One of your clients decided to go with another firm and you feel directly affected. It’s one thing to get over the loss of business. It means loss of income, loss of contacts, loss of reputation.
It wouldn’t be so bad to just let it go and be done with it.
But that’s usually not the end of the story. We start to feel that we should’ve known they weren’t happy; that it’s something we did wrong, and it’s solely our responsibility. We should’ve done this to prevent their leaving, and that to find a quick replacement.
We come down hard on ourselves and cannot possibly forgive that we can’t read other people’s minds, or potentially made a mistake. It’s unacceptable that we’re human, and humans can’t always know.
What’s needed in order to silence the self-critical voices in out head is self-compassion.
We need to look at ourselves with the benevolence and understanding we’d offer a child or a good friend. “Don’t worry so much”, we could say to ourselves. “You did everything you could. You worked your butt off, talked to everyone you could and made a big effort to make the client happy. Sometimes we can’t control all the factors, and I can’t know all the ins and outs of why they left our company.”
It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of someone who will talk you down from your self-blame and relentless criticism.
And it’s not just psychological strategy to get familiar with self-compassion; there are actual studies that have shown it’s positive affects.
New research concludes that self-compassion leads to “significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness.”
If we can leave …
One of my clients came in the other day and was quite upset. About herself.
“Why can’t I just stick to my guns?” she asked aghast.
It’s something that happens to her quite frequently. She thinks she has an opinion about something, but as soon as someone else explains why they think differently, she sways over to the other side.
“It bothers me that I am so understanding” she concluded.
Indeed, her understanding of others regularly makes her forget her own point of view.
It’s the old story: it’s hard to just say no, put up a boundary and side with one’s own experience. Whenever another influence appears, your own position takes a back seat. We call it self defeat.
Of course, there is always the need for balance. Someone who blindly and continually insists on their point of view is not well adjusted either. Unevenness towards either side – too little consistence or too much – is undesirable.
We need to remember to put up a firm boundary towards others when we feel that we are taken over too easily.
How do we do that?
Awareness is the key, as always. When do you tend to get swept away by others? In a certain social setting, with your in-laws, your wife’s girlfriends, your high school buddies, your doctor?
People in authority have the most power over us – whether it’s a domineering relative, a store clerk or a cop. Any kind of uniform will usually do the trick.
Observe yourself when your determination begins to soften and the other person wins out just by the sheer volume of their words or their voice.
Put both feet on the ground, straighten your posture and stay firm.
Your have come to your own conclusions, and they are worth no less than anybody else’s.