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Category Archives: Mental Health

How to Get What You Want

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Here’s a fact that will save you a lot of self-criticism, and help you to understand why people do things that don’t make sense: we are not as rational as we think. That might not seem comforting in a culture where it’s important to be reasonable, stoic, self-sufficient, and in control, but it’s true.

Let me illustrate how illogical we can be. I’m going to give you some examples of how people try to get what they want from others. But let me first say that, if you are relying on others to get what you want, you have already given up some control, because we have far less control over other people than we do over ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I can barely get myself to do what I want.

Nevertheless, we still try to get what we want by getting other people to change their behavior. We want bullies to stop bullying. We want our kids to come home at curfew. We want our partners to stop leaving wet towels on the floor.

Even in these cases, we often try to change other people’s behavior in ways that aren’t very effective. Maybe they work sometimes, but even when they do, they hurt the relationship.

Usually these strategies involve punishment–guilt trips, shaming the person, passive-aggressive comments, withholding love, the silent treatment. If you’ve never taken an intro psychology course, it may come as a shock to hear that punishment is not an effective way to change people’s behavior, given how often we use it. Rather than lecturing you about the principles of behavior theory, I’ll just give you a few examples to prove my point.

Let’s use bullying as an example. It took me 2 seconds to find this quote about bullying:

Bullying is not a reflection of the victim’s character, but rather a sign of the bully’s lack of character.” 

The message is: bullies are bad people. Don’t be a bad person. Have you ever tried getting someone to stop doing something by telling them to stop being a bad person?

Of course you have. We all have. And I’m guessing what happened is the person got defensive and you had this big argument and you didn’t get what you wanted. Or if you did, it probably resulted in them resenting you more, liking you less. So even if the person stopped leaving their towels on the floor, they pick them up begrudgingly, and it remains a thing between the two of you.

Let’s imagine we try something other than shaming bullies out of their behavior. Perhaps we could try practicing compassion. We could try to understand why this person hurts other people.

Or I can just tell you why. People hurt other people because they are hurting. So if you want to make people stop hurting other people, you have to address their pain, rather than add to it. Asking questions, trying to understand, listening to what they say, and expressing empathy for their pain goes a long way in changing people’s behavior. Yes, that takes longer than telling someone they’re a bad person, but this is how you get what you want. This is how you get a bully to be kind. With kindness.

Another strategy for getting what you want is to use positive reinforcement. The easiest way to use positive reinforcement is to praise someone when they do the thing you want. I’m sure you’ve used this with children, and it is amazing how effectively and immediately it works. Wow, Jane! You are a fast runner! So Jane runs around like a maniac for the next 5 minutes, demonstrating how fast she is. People want praise, so we will keep doing the things that make people praise us.

I encourage you to try out what I’ve just said about punishment and positive reinforcement. See for yourself if it works. And if you do try out your own personal psychological experiment, I’d love to hear about the results.

 

Sorry, Not Sorry

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Never underestimate the value of a sincere apology.

If you don’t give a crap about the person, I guess you can say whatever you want. But a sincere apology goes a long way if you’ve hurt someone you care about and really want to make amends. If you get into arguments with loved ones where there is no clear resolution, it’s probably because they don’t end with a sincere apology, and therefore it’s difficult to reconnect.

Before I outline what to say in an apology, let me first begin with what not to say. Things that will likely prolong the argument and hurt the relationship.

Insensitive comments have to do with shame–the feeling that, if you make a mistake, you must be a bad person. Therefore, the person cannot acknowledge any wrongdoing. And because the person is focused on their own shame for making a mistake, they cannot have compassion for the person who they have hurt. Here are some examples:

  1. You’re too sensitive. This is not an apology at all, obviously. You’re basically saying it’s not me; it’s you. You are flawed. I am not.
  2. That wasn’t my intention. I meant well. Not my fault if you interpreted my good intentions in a different way. So we can just agree to disagree and you need to get over it.
  3. Everyone has flaws. You know how I am. I have a bad temper. Sometimes I blow up. I can’t change who I am. So expect more of the same.
  4. I’m sorry that you’re upset. I can see you’re upset, but I don’t take any responsibility for it. But I do I wish you weren’t upset, because you’re upsetting me.
  5. I’m sorry. I will say sorry to appease you, but I have no idea what you’re upset about. And I don’t really want to try to find out and have to change my behavior.

If you have said one or more of these things, let me reiterate that you are not a bad person. No one likes making mistakes. It activates our defenses and makes us want to protect ourselves rather than attend to the other person. And most of us aren’t taught how to give a sincere apology.

So here’s your chance to change your behavior. These are the steps you can take when you’ve hurt someone:

  1. Acknowledge their pain. Even if you think they’ve misunderstood what you’ve said or done. Try to identify what they’re feeling. Acknowledge that you can see how your actions triggered that feeling.
  2. Tell them that you care about their feelings. Let them know that their pain matters. You do not want to be the cause of their pain because you love this person, and it hurts you to know that you have been, in this case.
  3. Make your apology specific. I’m sorry that I worried you by not letting you know I was running late. I’m sorry that I made it sound like it’s your fault, when it’s not.
  4. Make a commitment to change your behavior. From now on, I’ll text you if I’m running late. I’ll tell you that I need space and tell you when I’ll call back rather than hang up.
  5. Reaffirm your commitment to the person. I care about you and I care about our relationship. I’m going to demonstrate this through my actions.

The best way to practice giving sincere apologies is to practice self-compassion. When you accept your own mistakes and forgive yourself for making them, you learn that making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person. We all make them. We’re all just stumbling along, not knowing what we’re doing half the time.

So self-forgiveness goes a long way.

Ironic, isn’t it? That the best way to learn how to be kind to others is to be kind to ourselves? That’s a win-win, if you ask me.

Be Brave

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I once saw a news story where this guy jumped into the river to save a drowning person. When asked how he was able to be so brave, he said he didn’t really think about it. He just did it. While this is an amazing thing to do, I wouldn’t necessarily call it an act of courage, because he wasn’t afraid. There isn’t really anything courageous in doing something that doesn’t scare you. What’s the risk in that?

I asked readers to share the bravest thing they’ve ever done. A lot of them had to do with taking risks like starting a business, joining the army, going back to school. Most people play it safe–stay in the career or relationship or neighborhood that isn’t fulfilling because of the fear that whatever they choose could be worse. Not many things are scarier than the unknown.

Some people said the bravest thing they’ve ever done was to embrace a painful life experience. Going through childbirth alone, without drugs. Facing a diagnosis of a brain tumor. Watching a loved one die. I had not expected this, but I guess it’s true that life will inevitably throw experiences our way that require us to be brave. No one gets through unscathed.

I would say the bravest thing I’ve ever done was to be single. I had been in a relationship nonstop from 15 to 45, and when I knew that one relationship was about to end, I would start another one so that there was no period of time when I was alone. I was ashamed of this, but I was more afraid of being by myself. And I stayed in a lot of unsatisfying relationships because of this fear. So for me, being single for 4 years was pretty courageous.

In my search to discover how to be a good person, the answer I found was unexpected. To be a good person, to be loving, we must be self-aware. We have to look inward and be with all of those things about ourselves that we try so hard not to face. Our flaws. Our mistakes. Our secrets. We have to accept them, forgive ourselves for them, and understand that this, too, is what it means to be human.

Those who do so can be loving because they know that we are all the same. We all have flaws. We’ve all made mistakes. We all harbor secrets. So who am I to say that I am better than anyone else? We’re all traveling the same road, doing the best that we can. We are all deserving of compassion.

I would say that this is the most difficult kind of bravery of all–to face what is inside us. This is the reason that people come to therapy–and why everyone can benefit from therapy. We aren’t taught how to face our demons. We are told to suck it up, push through, instead. And in the midst of a crisis, that is an important skill to have. But in the aftermath, we have to take time to make sense of what we’ve experienced. That’s when we need to spend some time looking within.

In teaching clients how to practice mindfulness, I tell them that they are learning how to feel their feelings but not respond reflexively to them. Just because we’re anxious doesn’t mean we have to avoid flying. We can still book the flight. We can be afraid but do it, anyway. We can be brave.

What will your next act of courage be?

I’m So Tired I Could Cry

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Have you ever felt so tired you could cry? No? Apparently it’s just me. I am the only person I know who still feels like a toddler.

I used to wonder why toddlers cry when they’re tired. And when they don’t want to sleep. And when they wake up. What are the thinking and feeling? I asked a parent once, and they were just like, I don’t know. He always does that. And this is perfectly acceptable behavior. Yet if I were to cry upon awakening and sulk and be out of it for a period of time afterwards, this behavior would be frowned upon. That’s totally unfair.

I have an advantage over toddlers in that they do not have the cognitive development and verbal skills to articulate what they’re thinking and feeling, but I do. So it’s almost like I can read a toddler’s mind. If I had to describe how I feel in that moment, it’s something like, this sucks that I’m struggling to stay up but I still have to stay at work, drive 45 minutes to get home, go to the grocery store, cook dinner, do the dishes, and get ready for bed before I can sleep! I could seriously fall asleep right now!

OK maybe that’s not anything like what toddlers think. But I still feel their pain.

When I feel like crying when I wake up, it’s more like, that wasn’t enough sleep! I don’t want to get up and do a bunch of chores! I’m hungry! I’m anxious! I have to pee! I’m just going to lie here and sulk for a while as a small act of rebellion against adulthood.

This is probably not normal, either.

I fight sleep like a toddler, too. It’s not even conscious. I’ll feel myself drifting off into a dream state and I’ll do something like roll over and wake myself back up again. Maybe it’s because I have to will on a hypomanic episode just to get ready for bed because it takes about an hour. But then once I’m done my brain is still all hyped up and I can’t turn it off. So then I can’t fall asleep and have to take extra Ativan. So then I wake up tired the next morning, and I feel like I want to cry. And the cycle repeats.

These are the kinds of things that make me feel like I’m not handling adulthood well.

But perhaps there are advantages to being in touch with my inner toddler. Maybe it’s a gift to able to access every version of myself from infancy to the present. Maybe it helps me to be more self-aware, to know myself better. Maybe that’s why I’m able to empathize with people so well. Maybe it helps me to be a better therapist.

Or maybe I’m just making all this up and I’m really just crazy.

That’s OK, too. Maybe there is no such thing as normal. Maybe that’s just some idealized version of ourselves that we can never live up to. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a good thing if we could live up to it. Maybe we are all just different degrees of craziness, and on that continuum, I’m probably average. More than just a little crazy, but functioning well enough to write this blog post without crying.

Adult toddler

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

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Recently I read about a study on self-cyberbullying. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But apparently 1 in 20 teens have anonymously posted mean comments about themselves online. What the?!

As for the reasons why, boys were more likely to say they were just trying to get attention. Girls were more likely to say that they were depressed or psychologically hurt. My guess is that some of the boys may have also been depressed or hurting, but it’s not cool for guys to admit this.

In a way, I guess it’s not that surprising, given the thoughts that go through our heads all day long. Maybe most of us don’t say them out loud or post them online, but they are often as cruel as the things that trolls post to upset people.

I’ve talked about some of the things that go through my head. Stuff like, no one gives a crap about you. Because I’m on to my inner bully, now, it tries to trick me by making it seem like a compassionate statement at first. It’s OK. No one has to care. Even though lots of people care.

In therapy I encourage clients to practice mindfulness by noticing these unkind thoughts and to question their validity. They are so automatic, so ubiquitous, that we think we are our thoughts, when in reality, our brains generate all kinds of statements that aren’t true. I am a terrible person. The world would be better off without me.

Then I tell them to practice self-compassion by replacing that thought with something kind. It’s going to be OK. You’re doing the best that you can. Or if nothing else, to at least replace it with something neutral. Right now I’m in pain, but at some point, I will feel better.

I’ve found a couple of new strategies that work for me. A few months ago I wrote a post about my exercise in accepting love, and that works well. I can actually feel it–the unique sensation of love from each person in my life, as well as the love that people send out into the universe when they practice loving-kindness.

It’s an amazing feeling, but also a little overwhelming–like a wave that comes out of nowhere–and I lose my balance. I brace myself against it, in the same way I brace myself against something painful. And then I have to tell myself that it’s OK. I can let myself feel it. I can let myself be loved.

The other thing I have done is turn on all of the notifications on my phone. I used to find it annoying to have stuff pop up on my screen all the time. But this is when my inner bully is most likely to tell me that there won’t be a message on my phone because no one gives a crap about me.

Granted, most of the notifications are not messages sent by all of the people who love me. Sometimes they are from TJ Maxx, telling me that I haven’t bought the things I left in my cart and I better hurry because there are only a few more items left in stock. But seeing something on there, regardless of the content, is enough to confuse that voice and silence it in the moment.

So take that, troll! I win!

It’s not me. It’s you.

Narcissus

Have you ever wondered where the term narcissist comes from? In case you’re not big on Greek mythology, I’ll tell you the story.

One day Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo, a mountain nymph, saw him, fell deeply in love, and followed him. Narcissus sensed he was being followed and shouted “Who’s there?” She eventually revealed her identity and attempted to embrace him. He stepped away and told her to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life alone, until nothing but an echo remained of her. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, learned of this story and decided to punish Narcissus. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection. He did not realize it was only an image and fell in love with it. He eventually realized that his love could not be reciprocated and committed suicide.

I have become an expert in narcissists. They sense my presence and ask me out, want to become my friend, show up in my therapy office. I once told my therapist that I must be a magnet for narcissists because I’m narcissistic, but then I realized that it was actually because I’m the perfect target for them. I take the blame for everything. If someone tells me I’m wrong, I have terrible taste, I’m not good enough, I’m crazy, I believe them. I try to change. It doesn’t occur to me that it’s them until I am already deep into the relationship. And even then, they make me question reality.

But I’m getting better at spotting them sooner. And in an effort to spare you from becoming a target, I’ll share with you some of the warning signs that you may be in a relationship with a narcissist.

  1. They’re vain. Like the Greek Narcissus, they admire their looks. They are obsessed with youth and beauty and go to great lengths to preserve their appearance. And they are highly critical of people who they believe to be ugly. I once knew a narcissist who literally stared at himself in the mirror for hours while getting ready for work and was therefore chronically late.
  2. They’re better than you. And everyone else. Like the 6 Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman (check them out on YouTube if you’re too young to know who they are), they are better, stronger, and faster than the average human being. They are also smarter, healthier, better looking (obviously), more popular, and superior to you in every possible way.
  3. They demand perfection. As bosses, they are ready to fire you because of the smallest mistake. As partners, they can become verbally and/or physically abusive over burnt toast. And as friends, you better make sure that you are available at a moment’s notice and that you always put them first.
  4. They need people to mirror their greatness. Narcissists pick people like Echo, who tell them how great they are and to help them write off anyone who doesn’t agree. Think of Gaston and LeFou from Beauty and the Beast. No one’s slick as Gaston, no one’s quick as Gaston. No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston…
  5. They have no boundaries. Narcissists believe that what is yours is theirs. They eat your food, borrow your clothes and then return them to their own closet, open your mail, read your texts. And if you confront them about this, they are not sorry and don’t know what the big deal is.
  6. They are always right. For a narcissist, being wrong is a threat to their overall sense of worth. So they are always right and you are always wrong. And stupid. And it doesn’t matter how insignificant the thing that you’re arguing about is. It could be that if you think Cheer is better than Tide. Because only a moron would think Cheer is better.
  7. They make convoluted arguments. One strategy a narcissist will use in an argument is to confuse you with a bunch of unrelated information, or to pick on your weakness, or turn themselves into the victim. And their arguments are so emotional and verbose that you may forget what you were arguing about in the first place. You may even find yourself consoling them, apologizing for hurting them.
  8. They seem charming. Most people who know the narcissist superficially may think that he or she is so perfect, nice, and charismatic. You’re so lucky to have them. They could be President one day. (Someone actually said this about someone I know.) If you try to interject even the smallest bit of criticism about them, people find it hard to believe it’s them and not you.
  9. They’re not capable of love. In the Greek myth, Narcissus realizes that he can’t love himself and commits suicide. Although narcissism seems like extreme self-love, it is actually a defense against self-hatred. Hence the need for perfection, mirroring, always needing to be right. Only lovable people have the leeway to be wrong. With all that effort they put into defending against self-hatred, there isn’t any room left for love.
  10. They’re very sensitive to rejection and abandonment. You might think that, since narcissists believe they are perfect, they would never go to therapy. But we all get rejected, lose jobs, don’t get things we apply for. Usually in these situations people come in because they want to fix whatever is wrong with them (which is also problematic). But narcissists want to blame other people for their problems. And they like talking about themselves. So they actually enjoy therapy. But nothing ever changes.
  11. They could read this post and not know that I’m talking about them. Like the Greek Narcissus, they do not recognize their own image. They would recognize narcissists that they have encountered, however, and be like, I hate those people too! They’ve likely had very close relationships with narcissists, because narcissists breed narcissists–self-hatred that’s passed down from generation to generation.

If after reading this list you realize that you are in a relationship with a narcissist, I feel tremendous compassion for you. It’s not always possible or easy to end your relationship with them. They’re very convincing. And punitive when you leave. But take heart and know that it’s them and not you. Once you realize that, you can decide where you want to go from there.

I’m Obsessing

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I’ve written several blog posts about being obsessive (Obsessiveness, If There were a Prize For Most Likely to Obsess Over Nothing I Would Totally Win, Perception is Reality), and I haven’t written one in a while, so I thought I’d give you an update on whether I’m cured.

The answer is…no. I’m not cured. My brain has a mind of its own, and it really likes to think about the same things. Over and over. All the time.

Yesterday I was particularly obsessive for some reason. I repeated some items that I needed to write down on my grocery list over and over while I was trying to take a nap because I didn’t want to forget them. Which was really conducive to sleep, as you can imagine. Getting up and writing down the items would have been the obvious solution, but for some reason obsessing seemed like the easier choice.

And then there are those important decisions about the future that plague me like, what am I going to eat for lunch 3 days from now? Should I wear jeans on Friday? Should I weigh myself, since the results will probably be depressing? How can I stop from weighing myself, given that I’m obsessive? Should I risk eating chocolate today? Or am I willing to throw up over it?

The good news is, there are things that help me to obsess less. Medication helps. The other day I was remembering how often people use to tell me that they heard wonderful things about meds and I should really try them. I realize now that I was annoying the hell out of them and they wanted me to do something about it. And I have to admit, sometimes I annoy myself. But I am much less annoying than I used to be. So that’s something.

Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion helps. When I am in the midst of an obsessive episode, logic and reasoning are a waste of time. Telling myself to stop doesn’t do much, either. So I tell myself that I’m just obsessing. This is what the mind does. It’s not my fault. I’m doing the best that I can. It’s painful, but at some point it will subside. And then I try to be nice to myself until it does, no matter how long that takes.

Tennis helps. Regardless of whether I win or lose, I feel better afterwards. My mindset shifts, and the things I obsessed about all day become a distant, irrational memory. I had a meditation instructor tell me that I like tennis because it’s a way of practicing mindfulness, so maybe tennis is the most effective way of practicing mindfulness for me.

Blogging helps. The act of writing down all of the things I’m thinking about is therapeutic. It’s a way of listening to myself rather than trying to cut myself off, telling myself I don’t want to hear it. And sometimes people read these posts and like them. Sometimes they even comment on them. So that’s more people who are listening, which makes me feel really good.

So if you have an obsessive loved one, listening is truly one of the most healing gifts you can give. They’ll be much happier with you than if you give them advice or tell them they’re annoying you and they should just stop talking. You don’t even need professional training to do it well. It may not cure the problem, and it is a strategy that is always at your disposal if you remember to use it.

And then you can refer them to this blog post and they will feel much less crazy.