Monthly Archives: November 2012
Troublesome Defenses: Projection
I want to make an important distinction between the neurotic mechanisms (rationalization, denial, etc.) that achieve there magic with feelings and ideas, whereas the primitive or immature defenses (fantasy, projection, sadism, passive/aggression, hypochondriasis, and acting out) maneuver feelings and their objects (the person).
I have always been fascinated by the question of how the “misbehavior” of a con man or sociopath grabs on to people. (My sister had some aspects of personality disorders as well as being manic/depressive).
The question is how are we like Br’er Rabbit who slapped the Tar Baby for discourtesy and found his paw stuck fast. He then kicked the Tar Baby and found his paw stuck too. He kicked the Tar Baby again for this new affront and found himself even more entangled. We are no different for we too take immature defenses so personally. Maybe that is why we find these mechanisms so perverse. We fear that like tar, perversions once touched, will attract us forever. In the presence of a drug addict most liberals become prejudiced. The masochist brings out our sadism…the malingerer our passive/aggression and on and on.
The process by which this all happens is to me, and I think to others, still very obscure. I have begun to pay attention to genetics research since I think that there are yet to be delineated substructures that make for these phenomena.
This is all to say… one is wise to get some psychological distance from the projectionist at times, and he you. You will reclaim yourself over time… but I would say keep asking: “what parts of him/her have I absorbed”?
Projection is the best-known defense: it allows us to refuse responsibility for our own feelings and assign them to someone else.
Most of life’s obnoxious character traits; the prejudiced, the pathologically jealous, the professional rebel, the narcissist, all project blame. No one is harder to reason with than the person who projects blame. No one is more eager to dispense hate and to reject love than the narcissist in the throes of projection.
People who use projection are terrified of intimacy. Just as they assign their feelings to others, they also are frightened by what feelings others may offer them. Since projection produces a fear that those close to you may harm you, it also promises a special kind of intimacy with strangers. It is comforting in a safe way to be close to an unknown.
There is something curious, even eerie, about projection. Jealousy, paranoia, narcissism, demonic possession all result in an over involvement with the enemy. It is gratifying to be on somebody’s Most Wanted list. It is better to receive undeserved criticism than to be utterly ignored. In short, projection is neither a defect nor a sign of insanity; it is merely one of the more extraordinary ways in which humans comfort themselves.
Yet, projection, like dissociation (neurotic denial) makes it impossible for the person to see the truth, and if we distort our outer worlds too much we become difficult to love. We make it difficult to succeed at work and be happy in that success, just as we do our marriages.
There are other paradoxical facts about projection.
We think of the paranoid as aggressive, but in fact, there is no defense more highly correlated with the traits of self-doubt, and passivity. As the contrast between the Lamb and the Lion suggest, consistent assertiveness requires the capacity to love and to trust.
The kinship between projection and altruism is a truism. Both empathy and projection result in a merging of individual boundaries. But to empathize is to perceive clearly put you in the others shoes, not him in yours. The narcissist makes others mad but comforts himself by incorrectly treating them as if they owned his feelings. In contrast, the altruist, using empathy, also feels his way into other people. However, he accurately perceives his own feelings with them and tries to help them. The proof is that he wins their gratitude and not their enmity. In public life, empathy and projection merge. How many great leaders have been seen as saviors by some, and by others as selfish, suspicious despots?
Don Crowe, PhD
One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. Investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier.
The moral dimension of being kind, generous and giving is undisputed. The Bible exhorts us “to be generous and willing to share” (1Timothy 6:18). At a very early age we are taught the idea that kindness and compassion are important virtues and that we are to apply these virtues for there own sake because by definition, it is the right thing to do. It may be ironic, but being kind and good even when it’s unpleasant or when one knowingly will receive nothing in return is also in the doer’s self interest. This is because being generous and willing to share makes people happy. Why?
Let us count the ways.
Being kind and generous leads us to perceive others more positively and charitably (“the homeless veteran may be too mentally ill to work”). It fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and belonging in your community. Doing kindness can relieve guilt, a sense of discomfort over other’s difficulties and suffering, and fosters an awareness and appreciation of your own good fortune. It is a welcome distraction from your own troubles as it shifts your focus to someone else.
A large benefit of kindness is impact on self-perception. When you practice acts of kindness you begin to see yourself as an altruistic person. This new identity can promote a sense of confidence, optimism, and usefulness. You may learn new skills or discover hidden talents…. for example, by honing your teaching skills through uncovering a flair for children or the elderly. This itself can promote a sense of self-efficacy, one of the primary keys to finding meaning in one’s life.
Finally, and most importantly, kindness can jump-start a cascade of positive social consequences. Helping others leads people to like you, to appreciate you, and to offer gratitude. Helping others satisfies the basic human need for connecting with others, winning you thankfulness, bright smiles, and valued friendship. The main reason that being kind to others makes us happier is that it leads you to know how much you are appreciated.
Survival of the Kindest
In November 1943, S.L.A. “Slam” Marshall, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, arrived on the beaches of Makin Island in the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. After four days of bloody combat he was asked to interview many soldiers to clarify some specifics of the battle, with medals, heroic claims, and rights to wartime stories at stake. Marshall subsequently interviewed hundreds of soldiers who had fought in Europe and the South Pacific and published his results in Men Against Fire. His interviews yielded an astonishing finding: only 15% of WWII riflemen had fired at the enemy during combat. Often soldiers refused to fire at the enemy with superior officers barking commands nearby and bullets zipping past their heads. In the wake of this revolutionary finding, the army radically changed how it prepared soldiers to kill. Infantry training exercises played down the notion that shooting kills humans. Soldiers were taught to shoot at non-human targets and subtly taught that the enemy was more non-human as well. According to army estimates, 90% of soldiers in the Vietnam War fired at their enemies.
Had he been able to do so, Darwin might have placed Marshall’s empirical gem in his first book on humans, Descent of Man, published a decade after The Origin of Species. Darwin argued that the social instincts to sympathy, play, belonging in groups, and worrying about the regard of others… are all a part of human nature. Our moral capacities, Darwin reasoned, are rooted in sympathy. These capacities are constrained by association or familial relatedness (later called kin selection theory). Later, in explaining acts of altruism Darwin proposed that we evolved tendencies toward goodness that are performed with the automatic, well-honed speed of other reflexes… the flinch of the body at a loud, unexpected sound, the grasping reflex of the young infant. These reflexes of empathy are stronger than those towards self-preservation, the default position of timid men. Darwin’s early formulations of the social instincts of humans were clearly tilted in the direction of the good being stronger than the bad.
A detailed portrait of the life of our hominid predecessors would shed light on our environment of evolutionary adaptations. Since we will never have such a book we must turn to our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos in particular, with whom we shared a common ancestor some 7-8 million years ago. We can also look at remote tribes in the Amazon, Africa and New Guinea to provide hints at what life might have been like for our hunter-gatherer predecessors. In looking at these species closely we find that our hominid predecessors spent most of their minutes alive in the presence of other group members, living with 30-75 group members. Division of labor was pronounced: females served as primary caretakers of infants and food gathering, while males devoted much of their time to hunting, carving spears, etc.
There would be evidence of the darker side of our predecessors, and the origins of the disturbing tendencies of contemporary humans. The Cro-Magnon anthropologist would have ample data about the regularity of male-on-male violence. There would be observations about warlike behavior, and raids on other groups that might give rise to murder and rape. At the same time however, chapters about the social dimensions of hominids would reveal the origins of emotions like embarrassment, compassion, love, and awe.
Take Care or Die
The prevalence of care giving is a main feature of higher primates. Chimpanzees and bonobos become wildly distressed when witnessing harm to other group members.
Chimps and bonobos routinely protect their own born blind. They shift their play and physical navigation of the environment when interacting with fellow primates crippled in some way. They are attuned to harm and vulnerability. Care giving became all the more important due to the radical dependence of our predecessor’s offspring. The infant’s brain in homo erectus was 50% larger than their immediate predecessors, without the body to support it, resulting in longer periods of careful nurturance. Care giving is a way of life in humans, and has been wired into our nervous system in the forms of emotions, such as sympathy and filial love.
Face to face
The amount of time we spend alone commuting, on the Internet, or fingering our Blackberry is an aberration for our species and is a source of many contemporary social and physical ills. Early humans required one another to accomplish the basic tasks of survival and reproduction. They did so in highly coordinated ace-to-face interactions. Studies of archeological sites reveal consistent evidence of cooperative hunting for meat. The continual coordination required of early human social life coevolved with morphological changes that gave rise to our remarkable capacities to communicate. We lost hair on our faces and developed a wide range of expressivity. We developed a human voice, which in contrast to other mammals enabled us to exhort, punish, threaten, tease, comfort, soothe, flirt and seduce with the voice.
Primate life is hierarchical, in large part because hierarchies enable group members to decide how to allocate resources with speed and minimal conflict. Higher status primates spend a great deal of their day smoothing over rough edges of their group’s social life. They are the ones who are most likely to mediate conflicts, for example by bringing adversaries into physical contact with one another and encouraging grooming activities that reduce conflict. They are the ones who make sure that more equitable allocations of resources occur. Research with humans paints a similar picture. It is not the domineering, fear-inspiring backstabbing types who gain elevated status in the eyes of their peers. Instead it is the socially intelligent individuals who advance the interests of other group members (in service of their own self-interest) who rise in social hierarchies. Power and status goes to those who are socially engaged for the greater good. Social Darwinism is founded on social intelligence.
How to Practice Kindness
First of all it is important to remember that when you decide to practice acts of kindness you will know what to do. No one needs to tell you just how you should become a more compassionate, generous, or giving person. Ever babysat for a harried parent when you were asked? Ever traveled to see a friend in need? Smiled at someone who needed a smile even when it was the hardest thing to do at that very moment? The point is that all you have to do is to open your mind to the possibilities for kindness: as you look with fresh eyes they are all around you.
Second, the deed not be grand or complicated. Sometimes people go to great lengths seeking special causes to which to dedicate themselves when those special causes are living very close by. You do not have to compete with Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama. Acts of kindness can be small and brief.
Timing is Important
In practicing acts of kindness you may choose to decide which acts you intend to do, how often, and how much. Research suggests that you may gain more happiness from choosing a single day in the week and performing one large act of kindness or, several little ones. If you choose the idea of a single day, the acts need to be “new and special” since you are likely to be doing numerous kindnesses every day, and therefore need to do something to pull you out of your routine.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Another implication stemming from kindness research is to vary what you do. Putting extra change into parking meters or doing an extra chore gives you a lift the first few times you do it, but after a time you will adapt to the habit and it will no longer grant you the same amount of happiness. More major commitments that involve deeper contact with other people (i.e., tutoring a student, fund-raising for a cause) may not lend themselves to the same degree of adaptation and may continue to produce benefits for you.
Continually varying your acts of kindness takes creativity and effort.
Here are a few ideas. If you are short of money give the gift of time. Surprise someone with the gift of a home cooked meal. Try to do something that does not come naturally. For me, it’s being nice to telemarketers. Work to develop your compassion, your willingness to empathize. Imagine yourself cold calling all day long to advertize a product you could care less about and being rejected the vast majority of the time. Imagine what it would be like to not be able to pay your bills? Imagine yourself being illiterate? Imagine being unable to drive a car. Keep imagining yourself as a less fortunate person and your compassion instinct will surface for many people who live a marginalized existence.
At least once a week do a kind deed for one of these people that you tell no one about and for which you expect nothing in return.
In designing your unique kindness strategy, remember that acts of kindness often have ripple effects. The recipient may be surprised or comforted and your thoughtful act may trigger the person to return the favor to others. Research shows that simply witnessing or hearing about a kindness leads people to feel elevated and increases their desire to perform good deeds. Kindness is one happiness strategy where behavioral contagion has been well documented. The only trick is that you will likely never actually know how far the ripple you created traveled.
When Kindness “Kills”
The platitude that kindness always brings you happiness has several important qualifications. Certain kinds of helping behavior can be detrimental to your health. The one we know most about is full-time care giving for a chronically ill or disabled loved one. Caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer’s disease show depression levels three times greater than the average person. The dilemma is that any behavior that is burdensome or interferes with your daily functioning may backfire as a path to happiness though it may remain the honorable or decent thing to do.
Another caveat is that acts of kindness need to be done freely and autonomously. Any sense of being forced to comply with another’s wishes will surely bring resentment that will outweigh any benefit.
Finally, unless the situation is critical, resist the urge to help those who don’t want your help. Some people deeply resent being indebted or beholden to others and should not be made to accept what would likely create hostility in return. Give kindness mindfully.
Don Crowe, PhD
Researchers define savoring as any thoughts or behaviors capable of “generating, intensifying, and prolonging enjoyment”. When you “stop and smell the roses” instead of obliviously walking on by you are savoring. When you bask in the pride of a friend’s accomplishment you are savoring. When you suddenly emerge out of a frazzled state and become fully aware of how much there is to enjoy in life, you are savoring. There is a basic difference between flow and savoring. Savoring requires stepping outside an experience and reviewing it, while flow involves a complete immersion in the experience.
Savoring is a psychological term that has a neurological equivalent.
Savoring is self- directed neuroplasticity. How can this be? We know that as your brain changes, your mind changes as well. Smelling a rose will increase prefrontal brain activity, resulting in increased happiness. A rush of cortisol under intense stress will shrink the hippocampus leaving less capacity for contextual memory. We also know that as your mind changes, your brain changes. Thoughts map themselves to neural activity producing temporary and permanent changes in your brain. Long-term love experience enlarges the caudate nucleus permanently, making divorce, for example, one of the harder experiences in life to go through.
You can you use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.
We deliberately use our minds to change our brains for the better when we savor. Savoring is being mindful to let go and let in. Just having positive experiences is not enough. We need to engage positive experiences actively in order to eave them into the brain.
The enemy of savoring is a negativity bias brought about through evolution. Predators, natural hazards, and pain (physical and psychological) were big sticks for our hominid predecessors. Of course, we also had the carrots of food, sex, shelter, social support, and the pleasure of each other’s company. During evolution, avoiding “sticks” (the tiger behind the tree) usually had more effects on survival than approaching “carrots”. This created a sense of urgency in our limbic system since sticks had to be dealt with immediately, while carrots allowed a longer approach.
Sticks had a greater impact on our emotional system since they usually determined mortality, carrots not; if you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll likely have a chance at a carrot tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today… Wham!… no more carrots forever.
The major result of this negativity bias is threat reactivity involving two mistakes: first, thinking there is a tiger in the bushes when there isn’t one (paper tiger) and second, thinking there is no tiger in the woods when there is one. We evolved to make the first mistake perhaps a hundred times to avoid making the second mistake even once. Consequently, our initial appraisals of a situation are often mistaken. We overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. We update these appraisals with information that confirms them and ignore or devalue information that alters them. Thus, we end up with views of others, the world, and ourselves that are relatively ignorant, selective, and distorted.
The cost of this threat reactivity is that we feel overly stressed and easily anxious. It’s sometimes hard to walk across one’s living room without feeling some degree of anxiety. The approach system in the brain is inhibited so we don’t pursue opportunities, we play small, or we give up too soon. Mother nature is tilted toward producing gene copies, but is indifferent towards the quality of life our lives.
So it is imperative we take in the good since it rights an unfair imbalance, given the negativity bias. Of course, negative emotion can have benefits. Anxiety alerts us to inner and outer threats. Sorrow can open our hearts. Remorse helps us steer a more virtuous course. Anger highlights mistreatment and energizes us to handle it.
Negative experience can increase tolerance for stress, build grit, resilience and confidence, and increase compassion for others. But really…. Is there any shortage of negative experiences?
Savoring can involve a focus on the long ago, the present moment, or future times. Regardless of time frame, the habit of savoring is related to intense and frequent happiness. People who savor tend to be more self-confident, extraverted, gratified, and less hopeless or neurotic. Interestingly, those adept at savoring the present, versus the future versus past experiences derive different benefits. Those skilled at capturing the joy of the present moment, hanging on to good feelings, appreciating good things, are less likely to experience depression, stress, guilt, and shame. People prone to joyful anticipation, skilled at obtaining pleasure from looking forward and imagining future happy events, are especially likely to be optimistic and to experience intense emotions. In contrast, those who tend to reminisce about the past, rekindling joy from happy memories, are best able to buffer stress. These findings are strong enough that I recommend to people who are sad or unfulfilled that they learn to savor proactively; that is, to consciously anticipate positive experiences, to mindfully accentuate and sustain pleasurable moments, and to deliberately remember these experiences in ways that rekindle enjoyment after they end.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. First, like all happiness-enhancing strategies, effort and motivation are necessary for true savoring. Our attention is often brimming with intrusive and persistent thoughts about the past (failed conversations, unresolved hurts, shaming experiences) or the future (to-do lists, plans). Committed effort is required to redirect our minds to positive experiences in the here and now. Second, as we already know, the process of hedonic adaptation leads us to obtain less and less pleasure from initially thrilling experiences. It takes dedicated willpower to reappreciate things.
Willpower comes in handy whenever we are taking in the good. Just having positive experience is not enough. They may pass through the brain as if it were Teflon, while negative experiences are caught as if the brain was velcro. We need to engage positive experiences actively to weave them into the brain.
The basic approach to taking in any good is:
(1) Look for positive facts, and let them become positive experiences.
(2) Savor the positive experience: sustain it for 10-20-30 seconds; feel it in your body and emotions, and intensify it as much as you can.
(3) Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body…. registering deeply in emotional memory.
Practice these three actions 5-10 times a day. Over time the positive sticks.
Everyday Strategies to Foster Savoring
The sculpting of the brain by experience is memory: the Objective- personal recollections, semantic memory, and the Subjective- bodily states, emotional residues, perspectives, what it feels like to be “me”. Subjective memory is much larger than explicit memory. Our personal resources are imbedded in subjective memory, so the key target lies in the subjective. What matters most is not the explicit recollection of positive events but the implicit emotional residue of positive experiences.
Relish Ordinary Experiences.
The first challenge in using the strategy of savoring is to learn how to appreciate and take more pleasure in mundane, everyday experiences. An abundance of research shows that when people take a few minutes at least once a day to relish something that they usually hurry through (eating a meal, taking a shower, walking home from work) they experience significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.
Consider your daily routine activities and rituals. Do you notice and savor the pleasures of the day, or do you dash through them? If the latter, then resolve to seize those pleasures when they happen and take full advantage of them. Linger over your morning pastry or your afternoon snack, absorbing the aroma, the sweetness, or the crunchiness rather than mindlessly consuming. Strive to bask in the feeling of accomplishment when you’ve finished a task at home or work, rather than distractedly moving on to the next item of your to-do list.
Enjoy the little things, and one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.
Savor and reminisce with family and friends.
Often it is easier to savor when you share a positive experience with another. Whether you are going to a movie, hiking a trail, or listening to a concert, the pleasure of the moment can be heightened in the company of others who value the experience similarly. Marvel at the present moment with another person. Set aside time each week specifically to share moments with special others.
Another person can also bolster the power of positive reminiscence. Research suggests that using a specific technique to trigger or intensify one’s recall of the past may be successful at producing vivid reminiscence. A common one is the use of guided imagery to re-create the details of a pleasant memory in your mind. You can revisit pleasant times through a scrapbook, listening to a song, or remembering a specific place and time. Let the photos or song lead you down a path of smiles.
Research has found that mutual reminiscence – sharing positive memories with other people – is accompanied by an abundance of positive emotions; joy accomplishment, amusement, contentment, and pride. This appears to be particularly true of older people, who have a wealth of life experience. They are gold mines of positive feelings waiting to be dug out and held to the light of day.
The ability to transport yourself to a different time or place can provide both pleasure and solace when you need it most. It’s an imagination skill that can be honed with practice. Here is how you can do it.
(1) First, make a list of happy memories and positive images. You may use photographs, gifts, or souvenirs. You can also feel free to generate a positive image entirely free of any personal history. A memory can be a wish.
(2) Twice a week try the following exercise.
Turn to your list of positive memories and choose one to reflect upon. Then sit down, take a deep breath, relax, close your eyes, and begin to think about the memory. Allow images related to the memory to come to mind. Try to picture the events associated with this memory in your mind. Use your mind to imagine the memory. Let your mind wonder freely through the details of the memory while you are imagining. Don’t try to be “correct” in your recall of specifics.
This kind of positive reminiscence boosts happiness in several ways. Focusing on positive aspects of past experiences may prompt you to feel that you are attaining your dreams and help reinforce your sense of identity. For example, as you recall past experiences and life transitions, you may come to recognize continuity with the past, gain some insight into yourself, and appreciate your uniqueness. Retelling experiences in positive ways can boost self-esteem and compel you to see yourself in a positive light. Positive reminiscences can produce pleasure and enjoyment for its own sake, especially by laughing at funny moments. Authentic shared laughter is the one time we all know we live in the same world. It closes the distance between us.
If you master this strategy, you will have the best moments of your life available to you, no matter how long ago they occurred.
Replay happy days.
Think about one of your happiest days…. Commencement day (yours or your child’s), the first time you heard the words, “I love you”, the day you brought home a puppy… and replay it in your mind as though you were rewinding a videotape and playing it back. Think about the events of the day and remember what happened in as much detail as possible. What exactly did you (or other people) say or do?
Don’t analyze the day and rework it into something it wasn’t. Try very hard to simply replay it and revel in it. Revelry is a happiness marinade.
People who practiced this one for 8 minutes on three consecutive days felt more intense positive emotions four weeks later!
Celebrate good news.
Sharing successes and accomplishments with others has been shown to be associated with elevated pleasant emotions and well-being. When you or your spouse or best friend win an honor, congratulate him or her (and yourself) in a big, big, way. Celebrate and try to enjoy the occasion to the fullest. While the absence of emotional stinginess or criticism is important when one does well in life, research shows that serious celebration and pride in other’s accomplishments have far reaching effects.
Don’t shy away from pride. It is not he same as boasting. Tell yourself how hard you have worked for this moment; imagine how impressed others will be, especially those who love you. Do the same for your spouse or friend.
Be open to beauty and excellence
This strategy involves allowing yourself to truly admire an object of beauty or a display of talent, genius, or virtue. Strive even to feel reverence and awe when called for. People who open themselves to the beauty and excellence around them are more likely to find joy, meaning, and profound connections in their lives. We need not go through life wearing blinders to everything that is touching, beautiful, virtuous, and magnificent.
Consider the example of Walt Whitman, whose favorite activity was to stroll outdoors by himself, admiring trees, flowers, the sky, and the shifting light of day, and listening to birds, crickets and other of nature’s sounds.
A contemporary of his said: “Until I knew the man, it had not occurred to me that anyone could derive so much absolute happiness from these things as he did. Perhaps, indeed, no man ever liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman.”
The Power of Mindfulness
Attention is like a spotlight, illuminating what it rests on. Because neuroplasticy is heightened for what’s in the field of focused awareness, attention is also like a vacuum cleaner, sucking its contents into the brain. Directing attention skillfully is therefore a fundamental way to shape the brain, and one’s life over time.
Many philosophical and spiritual traditions stress the cultivation of mindfulness as a critical ingredient of well-being. The practice of Zen Buddhism, emphasizing the clearing of one’s mind and grounding oneself in the present moment, is a familiar example to most of us.
Research has turned to those who are mindfully attentive to the here and now and keenly aware of their surroundings. It turns out that such individuals are models of flourishing minds and positive mental health. Relative to the average person these individuals are more likely to be happy, optimistic, self-confident and satisfied with their lives. They are more likely to experience frequent and positive emotions, to feel self-sufficient and competent, and to have positive social relationships.
So how does one wake up to the present moment? Researchers have developed 8-week courses on mindfulness for those in chronic pain for example. Much relief is gained in this short time, just by learning relaxation techniques, paying attention to breathing through stretches and postures, becoming aware of bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. With practice we stay awake to the present.
Meditation is a very personal experience and can be performed in many ways. The experts in this field seem to agree on some basic ideas that support its practice. Here are some ways to attend skillfully.
- Be nonjudgmental: observe the present moment with detachment, without evaluation
- Be nonstriving: don’t be too focused on achieving anything in particular
- Be patient: Don’t rush of force things, but allow them to unfold in their own good time
- Be trusting: trust yourself, and trust that things will work out in life
- Be open: pay attention to every little thing as though you were seeing it for the first time
- Let go: set yourself free of ruminations. This is properly called detachment.
Take pleasure in the senses
Luxuriating or indulging in the five senses in one of the key ways to promote savoring. Pay close attention to and take delight in the momentary pleasures and magical moments. In one lab experiment, people who made eating into a ceremonial occasion, with an attractive presentation, a quiet and comfortable setting, and no distractions (TV, reading material) reported more pleasure and residual positive feelings long after the meal as compared with those who ate “normally”.
In a more serious venue, POWs have been known to meet regularly to share a fancy dinner in their minds, imagining all the details of the lighting of the room, the stiffness of their best suits and white shirts (that did not exist), and the flavors of the food. They would recite heir mother’s recipes for various dishes and correct each other when an ingredient was left out. Many examples exist of people willing themselves to experience pleasures of the mind under severe deprivation. Who’s to say we cannot transport ourselves no matter how ordinary or dull our current setting.
Creating a savoring album.
I carry photos of my family, and other meaningful emblems of my life in my wallet. Whenever I am in a strange place looking at these images never fails to give me a boost. You can create a savoring/memory album that has photos of your favorite people, places, or things… family, friends, pets, famous paintings, etc. One of my clients keeps an album of every significant event, usually music or art or dining, that she and her husband have done over the past few years. She looks at it occasionally. She knows that she does not want it to become like the special photo on the nightstand that has been there for so long it is hardly noticed.
The savoring album is essentially a strategy to create and savor the memories of your positive experiences. It’s also valuable to review the album in less happy times when you’re especially needful of a boost.
Savor with your camera.
Anyone can train himself or herself to use a camera as a savoring tool. Teach yourself to use your camera in a way that enhances your ongoing experiences, by truly looking at things and noticing what is beautiful and meaningful. Don’t just create as many pictures as possible; try to take, print, and frame the best picture you know how. This will make you more mindful, and more appreciative and will lead you to enjoy your experiences more.
Seek bittersweet experiences.
A bittersweet experience is one that involves mixed emotions, usually happiness and sadness mixed together. Such events are usually characterized by the fact that they will soon end… a vacation, a friendship, or a phase of life. When we are fully mindful of things, an impending return home from an overseas adventure, our child boarding the bus for the first day of kindergarten, we are more likely to appreciate the remaining time we have. Although bittersweet experiences also make us sad, it its this sadness that prompts us to come to appreciate the positive aspects of our lives as they are right now. Research has shown that by drawing attention to the transient nature of some positive life experiences it fosters savoring when we are more keenly aware that inevitably such experiences will end.
Don’t shy away from the bittersweet. In some sense, all of life is a bittersweet experience. All good things (and bad things) come to an end, and acknowledging this truth will help you stay present for what life brings.
Although many people associate nostalgia with homesickness, it is actually a pleasant emotion, albeit a poignant one. When you feel nostalgic about a past time in your life, a person you were close to, a seashore you once walked, you may feel a wistful pleasure, a yearning that is both joyfully affectionate, and tinged with sadness as you are fully aware that it is long gone, never to return. From time to time, nurture these nostalgic feelings; they will make you feel warm about your past and bring back cherished memories of beauty, pleasure, goodness, and love. Be careful not to compare these feelings with the present; focus only on the positive and how they have enriched your life. Happy people are able to put such memories in their “psychological bank account” or treasure chests. They experience them as adding meaning and richness to their lives. They do not focus on how the good old days were so much better than today.
Nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. Studies have shown that nostalgic experiences spawn positive feelings, reinforce our sense of being loved and protected, and boost our self-esteem.
Nostalgia can be triggered spontaneously, by a conversation with a family member, a photograph… or deliberately through active reflection. It makes us feel good not only because of the positive memories we recall but because it protects and strengthens our identities, fosters pride, and regenerates a sense of meaning about our lives.
A caution about writing
There is mixed opinion about the utility of savoring the past through writing. Since writing is inherently a structured process that forces a person to organize and integrate ones thoughts, to reflect on what causes what, they help people get past negative events by making sense of them. But you don’t really want to get past a positive event! When it comes to the best experiences of your life, it’s repetitive replaying and savoring of the experiences that maintain the positive emotions surrounding them and enhance your happiness.
Be cautious about savoring through writing; instead, reflect, relish, and share with others.
A final word
It’s possible to overdo living in the present. A flourishing life involves contemplating and planning for the future and learning from the mistakes of the past. One study found that homeless people live almost completely in the present, and observations of Alzheimer’s patients suggest that they do as well. People whose orientation is overwhelmingly present-focused have been found to be less capable of delaying gratification and more likely to engage in a host of risky behaviors. As with anything, strive to strike a balance between absorption in the here and now, and, to think more about the future in constructive ways.
Don Crowe, PhD
Forgiveness as Coping
Coping strategies vary according to the variety of adverse life experiences. One particular kind of painful ordeal comes when you are wronged, hurt, or attacked by another person. The injury could be physical, sexual, mental, or emotional. It may involve an insult, an offense, or a betrayal. It appears that the natural first inclination of human beings to such injuries is to respond in such a manner as to reciprocate harm. The two other typical responses are a desire to avoid the person or to seek revenge. Obviously, such responses breed negative consequences.
Forgiveness is the one act we can commit that can disrupt the cycle of avoidance and revenge in which we often find ourselves.
Forgiveness is not reconciliation. It is not the re-establishment of a relationship with the transgressor. Forgiveness is not a pardon, which implies justifying, minimizing, or tolerating the victimization or hurt. Forgiveness does not mean excusing, which offers extenuating circumstances. “Forgive and forget” is a misnomer since forgiving does not involve a decaying of memory for the event. In fact, truly forgiving someone involves contemplating the injury at some length.
How do you know when you have forgiven?
You have forgiven when you have experienced a shift in your thinking, such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good has increased. You have forgiven when you open your heart to find the good in the other and act like a friend in spite of their flaws.
Clinging to bitterness or hate harms you more than the object of our hatred. Empirical research confirms this insight: Forgiving people are less likely to be hateful, depressed, hostile, anxious, angry, and neurotic. They are more likely to be happier, healthier, more agreeable, and more serene. They are better able to empathize with others, forgive hurts in relationships, and reestablish closeness. Finally, the inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge while forgiving allows a person to move on.
In a marriage, a subtle way in which forgiveness is shown to be wanting is the relative percentage of giving and getting you practice. If there is a high degree of focus on what you get from your partner as opposed to what you give, then there is a relative lack of concern for your partner’s well being. A healthy intention means that we focus on what we get to give not what we get in our marriage. In order to keep this intention alive on a daily basis we must practice forgiveness.
Ways of Practicing Forgiveness
Appreciate being forgiven. Recall a time that you did harm to another person. If those individuals forgave you, how did they communicate it to you and how did you respond? Do you think they benefited from forgiving you? Did the experience teach you anything or change you in any way? What insights do you have about the experience right now? This exercise will help you see the benefits of forgiving and perhaps provide a model for your own forgiving.
Another way to appreciate being forgiven is to seek forgiveness for you. Write a letter of apology, for either a past or present wrong. Recognize and accept that you are sometimes the transgressor so as to give yourself insight into people who are transgressors in your life against you.
In marriage, a common pattern that develops due to the daily intimacy of living together is to sometimes experience the other’s actions as personal insults. We then blame the other for our bad feelings that occur. We create a grievance story, which we rehearse, that then serves to close down our hearts and make us feel vengeful.
If this pattern belongs to you consider asking for forgiveness (in your letter) by emphasizing that you chose the person you are married to. Second, admit that you are flawed and so is your partner and consequently, problems will occur. Third, acknowledge the good qualities of the one who caused you pain. The latter is the human predicament: we all want love and choose from a flawed position someone who is also flawed.
Identify a particular person who you blame for mistreating or offending you. Then engage in an imagination exercise during which you consider the following in order to grant forgiveness.
Understanding. What were the person’s motives for acting the way they did? What needs were they acting on? What emotions do you think were behind the person’s actions?
Empathy. Make up a story about the transgressor that might explain why he acted the way he did. Recall a time when you were motivated by similar needs.
Acceptance. What prevents you from moving on and accepting the situation for what it is? How would accepting the event as something negative that happened and is done with benefit you? Would the altruistic gift of forgiveness hurt you? How?
Forgiveness. Granting forgiveness does not necessarily imply excusing or tolerating the offender’s behavior, but it does entail trying to let go of your hurt, anger, and hostility and adopting a more charitable and benevolent perspective. While doing this imagining, make an effort to consider your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in detail. The practice of empathetic and forgiving thoughts (as compared with nursing grudges and wallowing in painful memories) leads people to feel a greater sense of control over their thoughts, less sadness and anger, and less reactivity to stress.
Write a letter of Forgiveness
This exercise involves letting go of anger, bitterness, and blame by writing, but not sending, a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you. Consider the people throughout your life who have injured you or abused you and whom you have never forgiven. Does this experience, and the lack of forgiveness lead you to persist in dwelling on the person or the circumstances of the hurt? Does it keep you from feeling happy and free of intrusive images and thoughts? If the answer is yes then consider writing a letter of forgiveness.
The letter of forgiveness can be one of the most powerful interventions you can possibly make on behalf of your heart. In it describe in detail the injury or offense that was done to you. Illustrate how you were affected by it at the time and how you continue to be hurt by it. State what you wish the other person had done instead. End with an explicit statement of forgiveness and understanding (i.e., “I realize how that what you did was the best you could do at the time, and I forgive you”).
Below are some real life examples from a variety of people:
- I forgive my father for his anger
- I forgive my friend for using me
- I forgive my graduate professor for telling me I couldn’t speak as well as I write
- I forgive my wife for not being there for me when I was depressed
- I forgive my brother for committing suicide
You may have a hard time writing a forgiveness letter. You may take the position that the act is unforgivable or that you are so overwhelmed by the event that you can’t even begin to think of letting go. If this is the case, put the project aside and try again in a few weeks. Forgiveness is a strategy that actually takes a great deal of effort, willpower, and courage. It must be practiced.
Another strategy to help you overcome a block in writing a forgiveness letter is to learn about other people who have successfully forgiven. I once interviewed a mother whose child was murdered. She eventually became a death penalty protester outside the gates of San Quentin Prison. She is a kind of beacon much like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Others can teach us about this strength that can often seem out of reach.
Empathy is the vicarious experience of another person’s emotions and thoughts. It often involves feeling sympathy, concern, compassion, or even warmth for that individual.
One way to practice empathy in your daily life is to notice every time someone does something you do not understand. Stop and think. Try to imagine such a person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions. Why did he behave the way he did? If possible ask him yourself. You will learn something.
Make Charitable Attributions
A key factor that facilitates forgiveness is positive attributions about the transgressor. An effective way to generate these attributions is to write a letter you would like to receive from the transgressor in response to your forgiveness of her…. her apology letter. What explanations might she offer for her conduct? Do you buy the explanation? Do you find it reasonable and adequate? Would you give her the “benefit of the doubt”? As you right down her responses to you, you may feel your perception of the situation shifting.
Why are apologies so helpful in fostering forgiveness? They produce empathy. They humanize. When the person who has caused you pain apologizes they are showing you a side of them that is vulnerable and imperfect. Perhaps they made a big mistake. Perhaps they underestimated the harm. Perhaps they were motivated by more benign intentions. No matter what, you wind up seeing the situation more from the other’s perspective. This makes forgiveness a lot easier.
People who brood on or obsess over a transgression are more likely to hold on the their hurt and anger and less motivated to forgive. You probably know how these kinds of ruminations feel. You go over (and over) the event in your mind. You feel angrier and angrier, more resentful, humiliated, and mistreated. You plot what you want to say or do to the person who has hurt you. The original event grows and grows in your mind. There is no end in sight.
Some people feel that this kind of imagination exercise is a kind of healthy catharsis. A long history of research has shown that this thinking is dead wrong. Fantasizing about how you might physically or verbally cause pain to someone may make you immediately feel better or release some tension, but it actually increases rather than releases hostility. This is because each time you remember the offense, you trigger all over again the old feelings of hurt, blame, antagonism, and rage.
If images of an offense become intrusive in our daily life you need to deal with them head on. Utilize distraction techniques (immediately diverting our attention to another thought) or just say, “Stop!” Ceasing the rumination is the first step towards forgiveness.
Sometimes it is appropriate and healthy to send a letter of forgiveness. The act of writing the letter and believing in it is something you do for yourself. Communicating that act is something you do to benefit the other person and your relationship to them. The risk is that it may backfire. Be prepared. Also know that communicating forgiveness might end up restoring your relationship and ultimately bring you more joy than you could have imagined. Only you will know whether to send that letter or not. The alternative is simply to be kind to the person you have forgiven.
Don Crowe, PhD
Sacrificial Lamb or Lion?
Your spouse comes home from work and excitedly tells you that she just was offered a promotion—in another state. Do you quit your job and move away from your family to an unknown city so that she can pursue her career ambitions? Should you?
Close relationships require fierce sacrifice much like the lion feeding her young before she allows herself to eat. In fact, many people include sacrificing in the very definition of what it means to truly love another person—and indeed, research has shown that couples are happier and more likely to remain in their relationships if the partners are willing to sacrifice for each other. Sometimes that sacrifice can be life-changing, such as deciding to move to a different state in order to be with your partner; other times it might be something small and seemingly mundane, such as seeing an action movie instead of the comedy you would have chosen. Although sacrifice may be inevitable, when the time comes to do it, it’s not always easy. You may often find yourself weighing a need to be true to yourself—“why should I be the one giving up what I want?”—against a desire to be a good partner and do what it takes to make your relationship work. If this is important to him/her, I should be supportive.
Sacrifice also raises questions of power: If you are happy to sacrifice early in the relationship and your partner isn’t reciprocating, you may find yourself in a situation where you are the one who is always expected to give up and give in, meek as a lamb. Over time this imbalanced pattern of sacrifice may lead to an imbalance of power in your relationship—a recipe for long-term unhappiness and resentment.
In short, research by social psychologists suggests that sacrificing for someone you love may show them you care and may even make you feel good about yourself. But their studies also reveal that if you find yourself always being the one who sacrifices—or if you feel forced to make a sacrifice—then you should tread with caution. Based on this research, there are questions you may want to ask yourself when deciding whether or not a sacrifice is worth it.
1. How committed are you? Is this the person you plan to spend forever with, or do you still harbor reservations? According to research, commitment may be one of the most important precursors to sacrifice. In order for a big sacrifice to be worth it, you consciously or unconsciously make sure that you are invested in the relationship and confident about your future together. Nothing is certain, of course, but a sacrifice becomes much more palatable when it helps bring you closer to the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.
2. Would your partner do the same for you? Sacrifice is two-sided: While you are deciding whether or not to move across the country to let your spouse take his promotion, your spouse must decide whether or not to sacrifice his promotion in order to let you keep your job. So as you debate whether or not to make a sacrifice, research suggests it’s important to question whether your partner has shown the same degree of commitment and is now going through the same thought process. Has your partner been willing to sacrifice for you in the past, or expressed his willingness to sacrifice in the future? In the current situation, are you working together to figure out what is best, or does your partner simply expect you to change your life to accommodate his? If your partner assumes that you are the one who must choose to sacrifice, without assuming any of the same responsibility on his end, think twice.
3. Does one of you want it more? When a situation requires sacrifice from you or your partner, the two of you may not be equally invested in the outcome. Perhaps your partner really wants to attend her family reunion, and although you don’t relish missing your work event, you know your co-workers will understand, and the family reunion is a one-time thing. As you navigate the situation, make sure you are both clear about your own desires and priorities.
4. Does your partner know it’s a sacrifice? There is no need to rub your potential sacrifice in your partner’s face, or use it against them, but if your partner isn’t aware that you consider your act to be a sacrifice, he or she won’t be able to appreciate your selflessness. In addition, by not realizing that you are incurring a cost for the sake of the relationship, your partner might not understand when you want her to return the favor the next time a sacrifice is called for. Finally, it is important to know if your partner disagrees with you and does not see your actions as a sacrifice. Has your partner expressed thanks for your willingness to sacrifice? Clearly, expressing gratitude shows recognition of a sacrifice. If you haven’t received a “thank you,” your partner may be taking you for granted.
5. Is there a better solution? Rather than simply trying to pick through the choices at hand, you should be working with your partner to see if there is a solution that doesn’t require much of a sacrifice from either of you. If your partner wants you to go on a tropical vacation and you really want to take in the architecture of ancient cities, perhaps a little research will uncover a place where you can do both. This isn’t always an option, of course, but even in situations in which there is no clear compromise, there may be a way to reduce the impact of the sacrifice.
6. Can you negotiate? Although close relationships require that you give when giving is needed, it doesn’t mean you and your partner can’t make an arrangement that suits both of you. For example, you can work it out so that you eat at the restaurant you want, and go to the movie your partner wants to see. This may even work for the bigger sacrifices. You could make the move to the new city, but agree that there will be money set aside in a travel budget so that you can fly home to visit your family some number of times a year.
7. What’s your motivation? In many respects, this is the most important question you need to ask yourself. Research shows that people engage in sacrifice for many different reasons, and not all of them lead to happily ever after.
Are you moving cross-country to make your partner happy and keep your relationship going—or are you simply trying to avoid conflict? Sacrifices motivated by avoidance can undermine happiness and satisfaction in a relationship. If you sacrifice to avoid conflict, you might think, “Well, I might feel bad, but at least we won’t fight and our relationship won’t suffer”. It turns out that is not the case: Recent research shows that when people believe their partner sacrificed for “avoidance-motivated” reasons, they feel less satisfied with the relationship.
There is an alternative: When you sacrifice to make your partner happy, that can potentially increase trust and happiness. People who sacrifice for “approach motivated” reasons—for long-term collective gain as a couple or to help fulfill your partner’s dreams—tend to be happier and have more satisfying relationships.
Although sacrificing to make a partner happy can be a good thing, it may be trouble if you find yourself constantly sacrificing out of a desire to be the “good” partner and satisfy your partner at the cost of your own happiness. People who consistently prioritize other’s needs above their own—a situation you might call “unmitigated communion”—can pay a cost in self-esteem and mental health over the long run. Sacrifice is a hallmark of a close relationship, but it should not lead to neglecting your own needs to the point of illness.
Along similar lines, you should ask yourself whether your sacrifice was motivated by a desire to help your partner—or to hold the sacrifice over your partner’s head. Empirical research has shown that genuine helping is healthy, but using sacrifice as a bargaining chip in your relationship may lead to resentment from your partner.
In addition, although there is nothing wrong with negotiating with your partner, choosing to make a sacrifice and then silently expecting your partner to take the fall the next time may mean disappointment for both of you. In close relationships, people typically hold mutual expectations—they believe their partner will help them when they need it and sacrifice without expecting to be paid back in kind.
In fact, studies show that people can become upset when a close partner does try to pay them back in kind. So your partner may be disheartened to learn that you sacrificed only to ensure that he would have to sacrifice for you—perhaps because it makes your romantic relationship feel like a series of economic transactions.
Relationships require sacrifice, but we shouldn’t give up or give in without thinking it through. It is important to consider the pros and cons, have clear communication with your partner, ask the tough questions, and make sure you are sacrificing for the right reasons. The right kind of sacrifice can bring people together, but sacrificing for the wrong reasons may be worse than no sacrifice at all.
Don Crowe, PhD
Silent Sins of Betrayal
The devastation of sexual disloyalty is commonly thought of as the only breech of trust that can ruin a marriage. Other forms of betrayal can be just as damaging as an affair but often go unrecognized or minimized, including by the victim. When a couple keeps getting stuck in a miserable, unwanted existence each feels the other does not put the relationship first. They may not recognize that their trouble is some form of silent betrayal. They may puzzle over why they are discontented and engage in fighting with no end in sight. They may say that their partner has “changed”, or that they have “grown apart”, or are “no longer compatible”.
Negative comparisons are at the heart of many nonsexual disloyalties just as much as they form the core of affairs. In these cases, when a partner comes up short compared with another, the disgruntled member doesn’t cheat but instead expresses disrespect and devalues the relationship in other ways. In some cases the partner compares the other unfavorably with a situation rather than a person.
“If only I had stayed in my home state and not come to California life would be better.” Although this disrespect may foreshadow infidelity these betrayals are for many couples the end point.
Sometimes both partners are aware that one is making negative comparisons, but neither acknowledges nor recognizes the danger. Like most of us, they figure that no one is ever completely satisfied with their life. The disloyalty does not seem as bad as an affair. But research tells us it is. A committed relationship is a contract of mutual trust, respect, nurturance, and protection. Anything that violates that contract can become traitorous. While it is true that some betrayal is inevitable between partners since it is impossible to be in sync all the time, trustworthy couples find a way to correct or get past these missteps, so that betrayal does not consume their relationship.
Relationship killers are founded on two building blocks: deception (not revealing our true needs to avoid unpleasant conflict), and yearning for emotional connection that seems unavailable from the partner.
The following are some of the ways in which betrayal has been seen to play itself out in relationships. Only by confronting disloyalty in a relationship can the couple reestablish the trust in each other.
Note: The worst kind of betrayal… physical or emotional abuse will not be discussed here. If your partner is abusive, acknowledge to yourself that you do not deserve such treatment and seek help. Any kind of unwanted physical touch signals physical abuse. Emotional abuse includes social isolation, sexual coercion, extreme jealousy, public humiliation, belittling or degrading, threats of violence or other acts that induce fear, or damage to property, pets, or children.
Read over the following categories below and see if any of these situations feel familiar or trigger uneasiness. If so, you may need to face a betrayal that has the potential to be a serious threat to your marriage. It’s not about who is right or wrong. It’s not about finding new ways to condemn your partner or just give up.
It’s about looking at the truth of your relationship with a cold eye so that you may recognize a problem for what it really is, and begin the job of repairing it.
The underlying attitude here is: “I’m here for you …until someone better comes along.” Such partners may flirt, ogle, and send out other signals that they are available, even though they don’t follow through. Because they are not fully in the relationship, anything from an argument to a bad mood to work stress can diminish how much intimacy and support their partner receives. It’s not unusual for the betrayed partner to think these triggers are the actual problem (“He’s worried about his promotion, or my depression”) when in reality it is the superficiality of the commitment that fuels most conflicts.
Some couples stumble into conditional relationship when one pressures the other to either marry or cohabitate, wishing the move to deepen their connection. It is a high-risk gamble to marry when you don’t want to. It is hard for the marriage to succeed if it is an attempt to create a strong bond rather than be the result of one. The shallowness of such a marriage invariably manifests itself over time.
In some cases of conditional commitment, one partner isn’t comparing the other to someone else, but to something else. This could be revealed in the type of work one person wishes to engage, the lavishness of life style, the presence of children and so on. If agreement is not reached prior to marriage as to basic goals and values then the shared meaning system will decay. Intimate partners need to open up about what they consider the purpose and significance of their life together.
Of course, even intact long-term marriages can experience the perils of conditional commitment. Commitments can erode over time due to ordinary wear and tear of parenting, work, and insufficient time feeding your relationship. Professional help can be useful if the couple cannot seem to resurrect their pledge of loyalty on their own.
The Nonsexual Affair
It’s common for platonic friendships to develop if you work closely with someone day after day. Such relationships as a “work wife” or “work husband” can also be forged at the gym, a café, or while pursuing a hobby. These relationships are by definition nonsexual, but such friends can get to know intimate details about each other’s lives. Having an intimate work friend is not necessarily a betrayal. A simple, common sense rule might be: If you think your partner would be uncomfortable watching your interactions with this person, or be upset by the confidences you share, the closeness is dangerous. You are doing things unconsciously to hide the new relationship… from yourself. Should your partner discover an overly familiar email from this “other” the result can be as devastating as telltale lipstick or aftershave. Whether or not we can admit this involvement to ourselves confuses the issue. We are committing some form of cheating by keeping secrets.
How do you know if your partner’s shared connection with someone else is a sexless affair and not an innocent friendship? Is the friendship hidden? Are your questions about the friendships discouraged? Have you asked for it to end and hit a brick wall? Have your boundaries been disrespected (“I asked you not to go the concert with him?”) Is the friend the subject of fantasies during rough patches in the relationship? If the answer to any of these questions is yes then the friendship is too intimate.
It’s easy to see why plain old deceit would damage a relationship. Sometimes both partners are guilty of this behavior. It is particularly endemic to relationships where “winner take all” arguments dominate. Bill secretly supports his alcoholic brother while he is unemployed and attending AA. Sally takes their 7 year old to be evaluated privately for possible dyslexia, which is confirmed. They each blow up when these secrets are revealed but each lay claims of entitlement since the other would not permit such expenditures. Disclosure would only end up in a heated win/lose battle. Each person’s deceit in turn makes it difficult to focus on the problems of Bill’s brother or their own son.
Lies uttered to maintain the peace are a breach of trust. Although they are harmful over time, they don’t have to ruin a relationship. Once they are exposed the needs that prompted the lying can be worked on.
There is another kind of lying that should concern a partner. There are people who lie all the time. Chronic liars spin mistruths even when there is no apparent threat to the relationship. The liar increasingly finds it difficult to know whether he/she is lying or telling the truth. This type of problem is not the partner’s fault, nor is it due to some deeper relationship problem. It is sometimes fundamental to the person’s character. Chronic lying is a pattern established early in childhood if parents are punitive, cold, authoritarian, or dismissive of feelings. The child learns to lie to look good, escape punishment, and to control his parents. In adulthood, the tendency to lie is hard to overcome even when the threat of punishment no longer exists. Professional help can often serve to break this pattern so that a more open, honest, and intimate conversation with a partner is possible.
Coalitions Against the Partner
In a partnership there is only one side to be on…each other’s. People lose sight of this fundamental premise of marriage. Wives form coalitions with their mothers against husbands, and husbands join hands with their mothers against wives. A common example would be found where the wife doesn’t “get along” with her mother-in-law, who always seems to butt in. The husband, feeling called to mediate between the two women, betrays his wife by siding with his mother (“She’s just trying to help”, “Don’t be so sensitive”). This dynamic is the cause of the battle in the first place. The women are vying to come first in the man’s life. It is the husband’s responsibility to send his mother a clear message that his wife is in first place and will remain so.
The husband also needs to keep quiet about intimate details of his married life, in particular when conflict arises. He may need to cut back on how much time he spends with his mother if it is interfering with his marriage.
Absenteeism or Coldness
Emotional absenteeism doesn’t have to be dramatic and it often isn’t. It can be as simple as turning away on a consistent basis when a partner needs emotional support about mundane events, such as a friend standing a partner up, or giving a speech. A committed relationship requires being there for one another through both life changing traumas and everyday stresses. It also means sharing in your partner’s joy when good happens. It’s true that couples may have different needs for expressiveness. However, in a committed relationship a calibration occurs in which each learns what the other requires to feel loved, protected, and supported.
Not all cases of emotional absenteeism are solvable, however. Some people are just unable and unwilling to express warmth and emotional support. When a partner lacks empathy the relationship will founder in time, except in rare cases where both people are happiest in an emotionally distant union. Most of us will feel deep rejection if our partner doesn’t express affection.
When you enter a relationship with somebody who lacks empathy, you may assume that our partner is just reserved and will loosen up over time. Most often, he or she doesn’t. Some people have learned to cover up this feeling by imitating the emotions of others. It may take years for the partner to realize the other isn’t just the “silent type”. Eventually the coldness and pretense of caring come to be recognized as cruelty… a character flaw often intertwined with a need for power and control.
Elaine, a stay-at-home mother, would often ask Bob if he would make more an effort to do things with the family, and suggest a specific event. Bob’s reply was often some version of “No, I don’t feel like doing that. And don’t make me feel guilty about saying no. I would never ask you to do something you didn’t want to do”. The cornerstone of this position sounded altruistic, idealistic and even romantic. It was a “bargain” hard to argue with. It also meant he would be unlikely to say yes to a bid from Elaine unless there was something in it for him. With kids thrown into the mix this meant an even lower ratio of “yes’s” to “no’s”
The impact on Elaine was to feel obliged to accept that Bob would not show her much empathy and value her choices of family time. Bob, coming from his particular family, honestly felt his was a loving attitude to hold. In therapy Bob began to see that that simply saying yes to Elaine (without keeping score) provided him a reciprocity of warmth from Elaine he had seldom experienced. Saying no so often was actually depriving him of closeness. Over time he surrendered his idealism and became more emotionally present in many ways.
Emotional closeness is its own reward. Given one’s particular family background it may take a long time for the ice to thaw sufficiently to feel the warm waters of attachment. No matter what one’s beginnings in life, altruism normally grows as we allow our relationships to ripen.
Withdrawal of Sexual Interest
One hears standard advice to rev things up with tantalizing lingerie, a weekend away, massage oil, etc. These may help if distractions from work, kids, and other stresses or obligations have rendered the bedroom a “sex-free” zone. A dwindling sexual life cannot be easily jump-started if the problem is related to deeper issues.
The inevitable physical changes of aging can make both partners insecure but too embarrassed to reach out for support. There are many cases of a woman’s struggle with weight gain leading her clueless husband to insult her attractiveness. The issue here is once again negative comparisons and disrespect. The partner is not being cherished.
There are also couples with mismatched sexual drives. There is even some evidence that about 15% of couples over 45 simply stop having sex. Surprisingly, it is usually the man who loses interest. (Testosterone drives sex in both men and women but there is proportionately larger drop in hormone levels in men over time.) Many of these couples say this waning does not diminish their relationship satisfaction. However, if the withdrawal is not addressed in an honest and loving way, hurt and rejection can consume the relationship.
Whatever your partner’s communications style; direct or subtle… if he or she implies that you are inferior, you are being treated with disrespect. A loving relationship is not about the other person having the upper hand… it’s about holding hands with respect. A contemptuous and superior attitude is emotional abuse whether expressed through frequent name-calling or subtle slights. A most common example is people who always respond to a partner’s complaint by correcting their grammar or word usage. If one person tells the other how they are supposed to talk they are conveying an attitude of intellectual superiority, which diminishes the speaker and erases what they are trying to say.
Dan’s wife was never coy about her criticism of his emotional life. “Can’t you do anything but be suicidal or depressed?” she would say. “You’re just like your father and all you want is for me to be like your mother!” The intensity, frequency, and intensity of her criticisms were extraordinary by any measure. Yet she was astonished when Dan walked out the door. Kate’s style was subtler. Whenever they disagreed she would stare at him, mouth dropped, in disbelief. She would then turn to me with a look of “Have you ever in your life heard such a crazy thing?” Todd would roll his eyes when Mindy suggested they cancel the dinner plans with his friends in favor of hers when they double booked. Mindy would in turn roll her eyes when Todd began to explain why his friends were preferable to Mindy’s. This couple, deadlocked in mutual contempt as a means of exerting power in conflict situations, began to find relief upon mutual agreement to simply suppress contempt and play by fair fight rules of listening and acknowledging. Unless there is a hidden personality issue blocking one’s deserving of satisfaction, respect will ultimately win back lost closeness and felt safety to express oneself in vulnerable ways.
Respect is one of the more important but unrecognized elements in human interaction regarding man to wife and even nation to nation.
Most of us accept that life is not fair. Umpires make wrong calls (especially against the SF Giants), a lazy but manipulative co-worker gets your promotion, the person ahead of you in the grocery “express” lane has 35 items in her shopping cart, plus 15 complicated coupons. A long-term committed relationship should be a haven from injustice. This is not intended as a “pie in the sky” idea. Fairness is fundamental to love. There cannot be mutual satisfaction if one member takes advantage of the other. Of course, this happens frequently in families. Money is spent on a hunting safari but somehow that trip to visit the wife’s aging uncle in Seattle seems out of reach. It may be that they always wind up in her restaurant. Maybe that they have to see only his favorite action packed movies where much blood is spilled and big things blow up. From such petty power plays big problems arise.
Perhaps the most common unfairness concerns housework. Despite an agreement to the contrary, someone stops pulling (usually his) weight. The laundry lands on the floor, usually inches from the hamper. Dirty dishes end up in the kitchen sink rather than the dishwasher. The toilet paper roll isn’t replaced. Larry committed a dual sin by somehow managing to never use the last few sheets on the toilet roll, and never replacing the almost empty roll. He was the expert’s expert in passive/aggressive behavior. He also had no sense of fairness. This led Larry to wallow in a very lonely life. When housework creates tension the big issue isn’t the dust bowls under the couch, but the unfairness. Nothing puts a damper on romance like arriving home from a long day at work to discover a Mount Shasta of laundry with a note saying, “Went to play music”.
Another fertile ground for injustice is handling the finances, the business end of any relationship. Many couples start out agreeing to share this arduous chore, but it winds up falling on one of them. It turns out that one partner is usually better at keeping track of all the details and being on time with bill paying than another. Since creditors and banks have no empathy for late payments one person feels forced to take over the job. It is the sense of unfairness that one creates by reneging on a promise that is the problem.
When a woman decides to stay home after having children despite an agreement that she would return to work, the financial burden fall on the partner who now feels a need to work even that much harder. One person gets to spend their day with the kids while the other’s family time is reduced. Yet some people revel in being the “breadwinner”. There is no right way to divvy up the responsibilities of raising a family. Having children is such a transformative experience with so many variables that cannot be predicted; you simply can’t know what is going to work for your relationship ahead of time. If you do want to make a change in workload then you need to talk it through, especially if a substantial portion of the family income is involved.
The interdependency of long-term relationships means that sometimes partners will need to forfeit their own needs for the common good. Resentment will take root if one partner refuses to demonstrate their trustworthiness. When his first child was about to be born, Andy was reluctant to leave the house for the hospital (with his wife in labor) due to a felt need to complete a work detail. This signaled the beginning of a chronic fight pattern over whose needs came first. For the most part each person was mystified at the other’s changes in behavior. Susan knew that Andy loved the children but was bewildered at his selfish choices when asked to place her and the children first. Andy felt he had enough on his plate to justify weeklong trips with his snowboard buddies, long runs, and time spent at his friends’ favorite watering holes. The children’s births uncovered a defensive selfishness that Susan had not seen before. She encouraged him to go with her for help and he agreed. Together they found that Andy’s becoming a father triggered deep-seated needs and fears in him and these were fueling his self-centered behavior. Susan found relief from her misery of trying to juggle between the children’s’ needs and her husband’s.
Susan and Andy were like most couples who come for help approximately 7 years after the first sign of trouble registers. What this then meant was that the uncovering and reworking of the now hardened personality issues, working through the many tangled knots created out of repetitive, desperate exchanges was more difficult, more time consuming, and perilous. Their story ended happily after a protracted fight for wellness. Not all couples are so lucky or skilled enough to climb out of hole that took so long to dig.
A broken vow is as perilous to love as an intentional lie. Building a life together means agreeing on certain fundamental everyday expectations. You dream about your mutual future and make promises to each other, expressed outright or implied, that strengthen your bond. If those promises go unfulfilled or are contradicted there follows a disappointment that jeopardizes a couple’s trust in each other and consequently their future.
A common broken promise occurs around finances. Many couples marry and agree to save a certain portion of their salaries, which will someday allow them to buy a home. One person becomes over controlling and demanding about delayed gratification. The other, feeling like all the fun is being taken out of life begins to contribute less to the joint savings and wants to make their own decisions about immediate gratification. They begin to buy things on sale and rationalize away the untold departure from the original agreement. When the other finds out about it, what ensues is far rawer and uglier than if the betrayer had confronted their partner upfront. Such a broken promise makes the other feel like they don’t matter anymore and will begin a dangerous walk towards separateness.
The most serious issues that lead to broken promises concern addiction. It is almost always impossible to maintain a healthy relationship in the presence of drug abuse, alcoholism, or a dependency on gambling, sex, or pornography. An all-too- common dynamic develops in which the afflicted partner promises to “change” but doesn’t. The other partner wants to believe in the transformation and begins the subtle change of closing her eyes to what may challenge the wish to believe. Each time the addiction reappears in full transparency, the sense of betrayal deepens. Addiction is a complicated disorder with both physiological and emotional causes. The research is irrefutable: the addicted person must seek professional help if there is to be a chance at salvaging the relationship.
Betrayal vs. Whistle-blowing
A relationship is a commitment, but it shouldn’t be a muzzle. At times, expressing disapproval of your partner’s deeds can be the most loving and supportive action you can take. Blind acceptance is never a healthy strategy. It was Alexander Hamilton who said that to mistrust the government to regulate itself is an obligation of good citizenry. Likewise, sometimes it’s an act of love to hold up a mirror to your partner. We need to acknowledge that all of us are trustworthy sometimes and not others. None of us are immune to bouts of narcissism, selfishness, and poor judgment. Calling your partner on such behavior is healthy. In so doing, you are focused on your partner’s benefits, not your own. We need to rely on each other’s honesty to challenge our values, even if that means having to hear the sting of, “How could you do that?” When you are the recipient of such “corrections”, realize that our partner’s love is motivating the confrontation. It is a gift that is best received by non-defensive, close listening. Realize that the absence of such confrontation is actually more a withdrawal of support and ironically a selfish betrayal of its own. Caring for each other always circles back to mutual honesty, vulnerability, and the will to reach our arms around the other when it is most difficult to do so.
Don Crowe, PhD
October 21, 2012
Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.
And yet we dare not lose it. Because listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills.
Luckily, we can train our listening just as with any other skill. Listen to new music when jogging rather than familiar tunes. Listen to your dog’s whines and barks: he is trying to tell you something isn’t right. Listen to your significant other’s voice — not only to the words, which after a few years may repeat, but to the sounds under them, the emotions carried in the harmonics. You may save yourself a couple of fights.
“You never listen” is not just the complaint of a problematic relationship, it has also become an epidemic in a world that is exchanging convenience for content, speed for meaning. The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.
The hostility of the business community to President Obama seems etched in stone, but the rest of the world is rejoicing. Foreign observers report that in Asia support for Obama ranges from 75% to 94% – Romney’s challenge made no sense in the face of a President who has reached out across national boundaries.
This is seen as critical. In Britain election results were followed in such detail, almost county by county, that commentators were surprised. But other countries see the US as a bellwether economy as well as the dominant power on the world scene. Romney was a stranger to them – which is typical for any challenger to a sitting President – but they sensed a return to Bush-era bullying, isolationism, and faith-based policy.
Obama’s re-election eased those fears. He stands as a symbol of “Let’s move forward” in countries where sliding backward is a real threat. This includes Europe, which lags behind America in its recovery efforts and sees a double-dip recession in a handful of countries already.
The message to business in this country should be clear: Attitudes are just as important in markets as stocks, bonds, and commodities. As vital as jobs are, consciousness is more important in the long run. It will do the us no good to dominate a discouraged world. It will do the US great good to lead a hopeful world. I’m not a businessman, but the ones I know who have succeeded at the highest level understand a secret: You succeed best when you meet the needs of other people. The world gets that Obama feels the same way. It’s time that we did, too.
“Parker (1999) contends that critical psychology aims to reflect upon the diverse ways in which men and women of the various cultures and classes create meaning in their lives, including the manner in which they reflect upon their lived experiences. Because the explanations and concepts of psychology feature so strongly in such accounts, an important part of such an exercise is an examination of how dominant forms of psychology operate here, and operate ideologically in the service of certain interest and power groups. What becomes important here is that we consider the reflections on life of the marginalised groups in society – those reflections typically ignored by psychology – because these reflections may help us to upset some of the ideological uses of certain psychological notions and the interests of power that they serve.”
The Arguably Difficult Life of the Gentle Self
If narcissism is at play in people who showcase their ego to an extreme, what shall we call those who constantly do away with their needs, and put others first at all times while depleting their own resources and neglecting their own points of view?
What is it about those who can never say no to other people’s demands and feel too fragile to stand up for themselves?
It seems that they feel predominantly inferior to others, and this vulnerable self sometimes remains altogether ill-defined. Their healthy narcissistic needs have been oppressed by other people’s agendas, and they feel they have no choice but to simply continue to suppress their own instincts and desires. This makes life difficult in surprising ways.
In this context, narcissism basically means that one’s sense of self is out of balance, that there is either too little of us or too much of us. In many narcissistic relationships, one partner will always have the upper hand and the weaker partner will either suffer form depression or walk away if strong interventions are not made. What is lacking is a genuine ability to engage with the other, to connect on an equal, deeper level. An environment that feels safe enough to disagree without losing face is often needed.
Since many people who chronically suppress their own needs come across as gentle and accommodating to others, they are seen exclusively as “nice guys” or “sweet girls”. They can easily be asked a favor of or made friends with. What often happens is that the favors that are being asked of them become too much, and carrying the burden of maintaining a friendship becomes one-sided. Since the “nice guy” has never learned how to ask for having his own needs met, he has little choice but to walk away and lose another relationship in the process.
Whereas the classical narcissist complains loudly about being neglected and demands attention, the gentle self craves the same but remains withdrawn in her own mind. Whereas the former can’t stop talking about himself in the most glowing terms, the latter can’t cease to think in the most self-critical ways. Both are constantly worried about how they come across to others, what they did right or wrong, fully absorbed in the relentless thinking about themselves. What the two types of personalities have in common is a certain softness and fragility, a gentleness which tends to make it hard to face relationships head on. As soon as the imbalance between their own needs and those of others gets out of hand, they become withdrawn and lonely and have a hard time dealing with their environment. This is experienced as overly aggressive for one type and uncaring for the other.
The main way these types of people cope with their insecurities and their vulnerable selves is by withdrawing from the world, which cuts them off from the most basic sources of self-esteem and well-being: relationships.
While the gentle self does have a genuine capacity to connect, they are forced to use defenses like avoidance, and emotional distance out of fear that their weakened self will be taken over too easily, and ultimately because they are afraid of being rejected by the very people they have learned to trust.
What are the Roots?
The most prevalent difficulty of the gentle self is that of missing out on a certain engagement with the world; either they feel that they are too shy or aloof to really be themselves around others, or their relationships remain somewhat on the surface and at times lack a felt intimacy. Withdrawing from a world that seems harsh can be a dominant characteristic. Withdrawing continues a behavior pattern most likely formed when we are little. Research on infants for example, has shown that toddlers spontaneously fall asleep when they feel overwhelmed. This default behavior continues into adulthood.
If a repair of what the child experiences as an emotional shock and rejection does not occur there are consequences. If, for example, the parent does not pick up the child and soothe his fear and frustration he will inevitably learn to withdraw from overwhelming situations, especially if this happens repeatedly and there is no one else to comfort the child.
The message the child hears is: I am not really sure I am welcome here, so I will make myself smaller and more invisible.
Not everyone who experiences such failures in the way a parent raised us turns into a hermit. Depending on your parents’ and siblings’ personalities, your genes and the influences of other important people in your upbringing, it can go in the other direction to some degree.
We crave positive feedback and seek means to express ourselves without running into opposition, resistance, or jealousy for what we have to show. Although an audience can give us a cool reception and write a bad review, we do not have to face these people and their actual words. The need to retreat, by contrast, is far greater when the injury has been inflicted by someone we wanted to trust but came back to hurt us at just the wrong moment.
Behavioral patterns of nuance often have to do with the convictions we gained as children. If you feel undeserving of an admired a person’s attention, like that of a parent or a teacher, or that you have to thank someone a thousand times for doing you a small favor, then your caregivers probably sent the message that it was not to taken for granted that you deserve to be cared for.
This does not mean your parents did not care for you. They might have made a sincere attempt and did the best they could do, but lacked the emotional capacities to become a supportive parent given the kind of person you are. Because children have no concept of relational or circumstantial factors and must fall back on their developmentally appropriate, self-centered perspective, they inevitably wind up with some kind of self-blaming attribution: “It’s my fault I’m a burden”, “Something is wrong with me”. We may be totally unaware of these voices but they influence our daily lives and our relationships unceasingly as adults. The consequence of these particular convictions that are shame based is withdrawal.
Intrusion is another reason why retreating becomes necessary. A parent who finds meaning only in unending love for her child ends up constantly invading the child’s personal space. Smothering the child, not leaving any room for her to decide how to engage with the other will also result in withdrawal. The child who experiences the constant interest in her physical appearance or emotional process as intrusive, over-stimulating, and overwhelming has no other choice but to disengage.
The same thing happens when an overly self-interested parent constantly imposes his own needs and opinions onto the child without laving any room for the child’s own preferences to unfold. This is often done in a seemingly loving manner. “I’m doing this because I love you” becomes the modus operandi, which leaves the child again with no choice but to comply. The child is condemned to passivity and learns to leave it up to others to make decisions.
An insecure parent who is anxiety-ridden will sometimes try to hide his instability by constantly checking in with the child. Feeling unsure of how to deal with this newborn, the overly anxious parent will nervously watch every movement of the child. The parent’s own sense of insecurity becomes a art of the child’s emotional organization, manifesting in the child a constant watchfulness of others in hope they will provide some clues as to the right things to do. Their is a failure of a core self with values and esteem that comes with the help of a stable, stronger care giver.
Other parents, who haven’t been sufficiently nurtured by their own mothers and fathers, try to use the child to finally get the attention and care they missed out on in their own upbringing. Some of these children become their mother’s or father’s best friends and confidantes. They must carry the needs of the parents, not the other way around. In extreme cases, the ten year old must make important decisions for the overwhelmed parents, a dynamic that is officially defined as child abuse in the US. The child is being robbed of a self that hasn’t had the chance to develop enough to nurture a fragile parent. The child remains overburdened and weakened in their sense of self.
All these examples of faulty parenting are representations of what has been called misattunement: a profound lack of understanding of what the child actually needs, as opposed to what the parents think the child needs. These narcissistic patterns have been divided into several categories: the most important being the under-stimulated, the over-stimulated, and the overburdened selves. Most people who are fragile and vulnerable in their core likely belong to one of these.
The under-stimulated child was put on the back burner early on in family life. They were held still when an injury had to be treated, spoke up only when asked, and said only the most necessary things.
Because of this restraint they experience themselves as boring or even dead. Some start to seek stimulation by going to extremes early in life. They may look for a physical thrill like skydiving or bungee jumping. Some experience devastating fights as stimulating when it is the only source of stimulation in their lives. This kind of acting out is used as distraction from unwanted feelings like anxiety, depression, or chronic anger.
The over-stimulated self feels intruded upon by the parents in ways that prohibit development. The mother may have been unable to soothe the child while crying and instead used distraction to take him away from his pain. Parking a child in front of a TV when she is distressed will teach her that the only means to deal with pain is not to deal with it. The child has no chance to accept disappointment as a normal part of life. Instead she believes that pain is to be avoided at all costs.
Over-stimulated children tend to feel crowded because they are overly mirrored. Parents try to convey what they think is going on with them but never truly understand. This may later lead to confusion about what the child wants from life. These children may have had a dominating, powerful parent whose glamour overshadowed the child’s need to shine. There was no calming presence that would have enabled the child to develop self-soothing mechanisms.
Over-burdened personalities feel unsupported and can’t shake the feeling that they are responsible for everything and, that they can’t be bothered with anything anymore. They are hypersensitive to any kind of stimulus. They take any casual remark as an insult and often become preoccupied with their health and their bodies.
They are taken over by anxiety and the ongoing fear of not being up to the task. This manifests itself particularly in relationships: when a child was always responsible for attending to the parents’ needs she may come to believe this is what she must do for her spouse as well.
When ongoing, all narcissistic injuries result in a weakened self that is easily swayed and vulnerable to more hurt. These three types are not always clear-cut. Sometimes one person can turn out to be under-stimulated and yet overburdened by expectations at the same time.
The gentle self is often the good girl or bad boy of the family, always stepping back when someone else demands attention, trained to cater to the needs of the parents or siblings.
The basic problem with all these chronic child-rearing failures is that one-way or another they communicate to the child: something is wrong with you. I don’t like the way you are. You really should be different.
Hallmarks of the Gentle Self
Avoiding difficult situations like conflict in a relationship is a typical characteristic of the gentle self. We have learned to build up our defenses and prefer to avoid the discomfort of contact. Who wants to confront a friend who has overstepped a boundary? For sure, sometimes avoidance is exactly what we have to do to survive in a difficult relationship, but other times we go overboard in trying to protect ourselves. We do this when we shut ourselves down, shut others out, and don’t want to look at who we are underneath. Underneath we are vulnerable creatures.
Who hasn’t dealt with difficult interpersonal situations at home or work by not dealing with them? Some prefer to hold a grudge against another for decades rather than spell out the hurtful business with that person.
Many of us avoid others out of a fear of rejection. Our friends and peers are baffled by our standoffish behavior wondering what in the world may have caused our retreat, and feel hurt and angry for being ignored, or neglected.
What we tormented gentle introverts don’t realize is that we do have something to offer. We often have a soothing nature that makes our uptight contemporaries feel under less pressure. We often wrongfully feel as if we have nothing to say and tend to ask a lot of questions, which in turn makes the other feel welcome and interesting.
Being bogged down by parents, bosses, partners, and children and mostly one’s own expectations is a good recipe for depression.
These can include feeling obligated to maintain the family peace; feeling to fragile to stand up for yourself; being mired in conflict between what others expect and what you need for yourself; not feeling you have the right to put your foot down; being afraid to hurt someone else more than yourself; and putting the other first, always. This is what depression sometimes is: suppressing one’s own point of view for benefit of the other, not being able or not wanting to be selfish.
General anxiety and Social anxiety
Anxiety is a minor form of fragmentation, the fear of falling apart, and not being able to hold it together anymore. We are afraid we cannot live up to the expectations of our bosses, our partners, and ourselves. Anxiety is often covered over or compensated for by all kinds of compulsions: nail biting, scab picking, hand scrubbing, hoarding, shopping, drinking, eating, etc. We worry constantly about our homes, our loved ones. We are particularly vulnerable to all kinds of fears at night. We are not alone. Over a third of the US will have a diagnosable anxiety condition at some point in life. We want to be able to have control over our circumstances and relationships and our feelings at all times. “There is nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it”.
Unfortunately, the mind and body are oblivious to this kind of attempted self-empowerment. Thoughts cannot be controlled easily; we can only become aware of them and try to refocus them, as they appear unbidden. We are unable to prevent our minds form having bad dreams or feeling sad at times. Mind control is a popular modern myth that is very attractive because of its seductiveness. We have to deal with our thoughts like it or not.
Social anxiety is also common in situations of more than a handful of people. As soon as a group gets too large to hold the attention of even one participant we tend to get that creeping anxiety about being overheard and sometimes simultaneously overlooked. This puts us back in that original situation as children. With this renewed dread of being neglected or not really understood, however benign it may be in a particular social context, grows our sense of being pushed out of the spotlight. We lose connection to those we wanted to address and our voices falter. We may feel discouraged by the belief that nothing we have to say is unique or funny or intelligent enough. We fall silent as if we weren’t there anymore.
Low self-esteem is common among gentle introverts and with it comes all forms of self-defeat, self-effacement, self-deprecation, and even self-loathing. Because of their low opinion of themselves, gentle selves believe, sometimes unconsciously, that their presence is genuinely unwanted, that they waste other people’s time, that they aren’t likeable, that they want too much, that they have to apologize constantly fro their behavior, and the fact that they are there.
We have a deep-rooted sense of having some kind of deficit that needs to be covered up in order to protect ourselves. But our demeanor pushes away people who care for us, which forces us further on to the path of self-isolation. Once we begin to see this is what we are doing we can begin to stop running away from others and see how they do enjoy being with us, how much they value our friendship, and that we are loveable after all.
For many gentle selves the easiest solution in any situation of conflict is to go along with what is asked of them. They want to please their parents, their in-laws, and their peers by agreeing with their stances, by not making any trouble and hoping to avoid conflict and arguments down the road. The problem is that sooner or later they get the creeping feeling that things never go their way, that it’s always the others whose opinions seem more valuable and who speak “louder” than we do.
Because the environment they grew up in forces people to behave according to the expectations of others, many gentle selves develop what has been called the “false self”. This is a self that is bent on compliance. It is a self that does not dare to voice spontaneously their true feelings out of fear of being rejected or abandoned or put down. They wait for others to react first so they can join in.
The need to please can arise form overly strict parents as well as from overly praiseful ones. The person growing up in the latter context knows at some level that there is a false quality to the attitude of constant admiration. Despite the conscious entitlement that may issue from such a background, it creates the nagging worry that one is to some degree a fraud.
The dream of perfection is a hallmark characteristic of the narcissistic personality. We are unhappy with our nose, our friends, our spouses, and our job performance. If we can’t have it ourselves we want to be associated with someone else who is perfect. Someone with a perfect body, the best reputation, the largest bank account. Ideas of perfection don’t just serve to bolster ones’ grandeur. In the case of the gentle self, they usually serve as fantasies to cover up or substitute for anxiety or depression about the less pleasurable aspects of life. Arguably, we want to hide from or what is felt to be an inherently deficient personality.
If I can hold on to the idea that I am the smartest student in the class I can avoid my feelings of inferiority about being short in stature. Fantasies such as this are used to deflect from wounds that have occurred both in childhood and later in life. A destructive relationship with a parent is compensated for by the goal of becoming the best.
Likewise, many adults see their children a means through which they will finally get what they have not procured on their own. They want their son to become a famous scientist since they could not pursue similar goals.
The trouble with perfectionism is that it not only prevents us from feeling good about our work and ourselves (with all our flaws), it can also lead to an inability to make decisions or finish projects. When only the best is good enough, chances are that the pressure to become the best is too much to even get started towards the goal.
Idealization is a normal part of life. As children we idealize our parents, take on their likes and dislikes, adopt their values and behaviors. The desire to be inspired by others continues in an increasingly mature way throughout life. As adults we long to find a mate who possesses skills we can admire and learn from. This often becomes an exaggerated idealization, which in turn sets the stage for contempt. When the people we bank on disappoint us, when they turn out to be much more human and fallible than we need them to be, we quickly turn away from the sense of unwanted burden. These dynamics are of course reinforced by cultural factors. It has been noted for some time now that America is an inherently narcissistic society. In no other culture is the desire to idealize so prevalent.
By mindlessly looking up to those whom we perceive as wise and above us, we underestimate our own potential. We need to learn to appreciate what we have to bring to the table and see others as the fallible, flawed beings that they are. We need to take responsibility for our own failures and stop blaming our role models if they don’t fulfill our desires.
Ambivalence is commonly experienced when two or more conflicting feelings occur at the same time. For many people this is hard to tolerate. In its most innocent form it can come across as simple indecisiveness in a day a day-to-day matter. One feels there are too many choices. Most of us have this experience upon entering a large grocery store and make our way to the laundry detergent. I recall that on a particularly stressful day I left the grocery store in disgust and anger at “someone” forcing me to make what felt like an impossible choice. How can we now have an entire isle of detergent brands?
The very same dynamic occurs on the job or in the family. People can be constantly torn apart by the opposing demands different family members place upon them, always placating everyone without being able to even think about one’s own needs.
Ambivalence is more than just an annoying inability to say no or to make decisions. A familiarity with ambivalence can help us understand the many nuances that color human experience. While our culture places emphasis on quick decision-making, human behavior is more than making a rational choice about the task at hand. It is more often about navigating relationships in the personal, professional and institutional realms. We are all embedded in greater context of family, friends, societies, and cultures. All of these have a certain influence on us. It is the combined impact of these relationships, together with our storehouse of previous experiences that form a person’s decision-making process… and many times theses influences contradict one another.
Ambivalent feelings are present in our most important relationships from the minute we enter this world. We may love our parents deeply yet they drive us crazy. We may harbor gnawing feelings of rivalry towards our siblings yet still adore them for their competence and guidance. We can have love-hate relationships with our partners and still feel unable to fully commit to or separate from them. Why is it that we expect romantic relationships to achieve perfection when nothing like that is at all true in any other relationship we have ever had?
Ambivalence is not a fun feeling to have. What usually provides some relief is the exploration of all these conflicting feelings. The more we become aware of what tortures us, the clearer we tend to become on what we are leaning towards.
It is especially true in therapy that we start nurturing seedlings of what is to become the gentle self’s own point of view, as opposed to everyone else’s. Ambivalence presents an opportunity for growth and change because it involves coming to terms with the rich complexity of experience that might otherwise be avoided and remain hidden in the background of our lives.
Ambivalence feels expansive, enriches thought and fantasy and can be a powerful part of our emotional and intellectual process. The rub is that it can equally hamper making an actual decision. Yet the more we learn to tolerate ambivalence, and just leave ourselves alone, the more naturally we will come to decide on a course of action. The key is to find the right balance between being able to tolerate ambivalence and just taking the plunge and making a decision, all the while risking the possibility of going the wrong way.
Ambivalence, however uncomfortable, comes with one clear advantage: the ability to put ourselves into another person’s shoes. It is a source of the capacity for real empathy. This in turn aids greatly in our ability to compromise with other.
Yet again, as soon as we see things from a different perspective, an easy resolution becomes more and more difficult. Any attempt at returning to simplistic black-white thinking is futile. We start to see things the way they really are in all their imperfections. This in turn enables us to negotiate an agreement with our partner that is more satisfactory since we no longer stubbornly insist on a single-minded point of view. Maturity is about finding a consensus with which everyone involved can be happy rather than steamrolling our way to our egocentric goals.
Paths to Healing
Expanding the Gentle Self
Most of us want a role model we can live up to, who inspires us to want more and to live a fuller and more engaging life. This is short lived in most cases since imperfections always rise to the surface. One’s self interests easily triumph over other’s interests. We are all to some degree narcissists since our own interests must prevail for survival.
What is needed is greater attention to our own expansiveness: channeling our normal expansiveness into healthy self-esteem, and not holding ourselves back like in childhood. Every person, regardless of their station, needs to stop being small and learn to shine. Hiding one’s light under a bushel will never work for the long run.
Expansiveness also occurs when we start standing up for ourselves. We may marry a strong person who is able and willing to make hard decisions but this too can be self-limiting if we do not learn to share in the decision-making. Living one’s own life means we decide for ourselves what is good for the family and then collaborate with our partner.
Dealing with Unpleasant feelings
There is an innate tendency to withdraw from unpleasant feelings and to be intolerant of anxiety. Even love and affection are hard to take; tender feelings are walked away from.
It is important to develop the capacity to contain different emotions without having to act on them… to not distance ourselves by walking out, by becoming enraged, or stonewalling other.
The first rule of thumb when feeling intense emotions is: leave yourself alone. Have empathy for you rather than judge, criticize, and condemn yourself for having feelings.
Finding and Being with a mate
Gentle people crave seeing themselves in the other: we want to have friends and partners who know exactly how we feel. We want our mates to know how we feel about others and ourselves… what it means to hold a certain profession, how it feels to be hurt or rejected. We rightfully want to be included in decision making, even when we make irrational decisions.
We want to be taken by the hand and comforted and cared for and to trust the other without having to worry about things going wrong.
With respect to friends, having supportive social ties is the most crucial ingredient in the gentle self’s psychological recovery and throughout life. We need people who support our strivings without wanting to dominate our decisions, and yet have the courage to intervene when we go too far astray and turn to destructive behaviors.
We humans are by nature intensely social. We desire connection everywhere and just about all the time.
While research shows that married people are happier than unmarried, the latest finding is that married people have more connections to the outside world to keep them alive (i.e., school, church, community events).
Connection means different things to different people. Try to accept what works for you and gently push yourself to stick with situations that may initially feel uncomfortable for the sake of soothing loneliness and isolation.
Don Crowe, PhD