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Category Archives: Relationships

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

apologies

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.

Words of Wisdom

Be You

I’ve been playing a game with some friends where we alternate asking a question to get to know the other person–and ourselves–better. One of my favorites was: what advice would you give to your 16 year old self? My answer was not to date someone just because you’re afraid of being alone, because that habit gets harder to break with age.

I enjoyed hearing people’s answers so much that I decided to ask the same question to followers on my Facebook page and to share their answers on my blog so that we may all benefit from other people’s wisdom. Many of the answers were similar, so I’ve grouped them into categories and have given some of the actual responses.

  1. Be yourself.
    • Find acceptance within yourself first. Don’t look for acceptance from anyone but you.
    • Don’t believe all you hear about what others think, they may be jealous of what you have accomplished.
    • My 16 year old self would just need to be told that she is loved! That’s ALL! The rest will come.
  2. Be mindful.
    • Slow down!!!! I was in such a rush to be “grown”! Now I miss having just One Day where I don’t have to be an adult!
    • Life is a marathon…not a sprint…be patient and stay focused…the best is yet to come..
    • Enjoy every moment…don’t wish time away!
  3. Be kind.
    •  Kindness is magical; it is a real superpower that saves the world one little life at a time.
    • Love much and forgive often.
    • Whether you are struggling or at your very best, turn around and lend a hand to someone behind you.
  4. Be discerning.
    •  Wait a while longer for intimacy; it’s still too early and a decent guy will understand that.
    • You can’t make someone love you if they don’t.
    • Be careful who you choose as friends… not everyone is your friend.
    • You aren’t going to be an old maid….no really, trust me. Don’t cruise in cars with strangers, as the world isn’t a safe place.
    • Don’t believe any boy when he says “I love you”!
  5. Be open to advice.
    • Listen to the people who truly love you…they know life and will never steer you on a wrong path!
    • Listen to advice from your elders or parents but at the same time search for what is best for yourself.
    • You are not the best driver in the world, the ink isn’t even dry yet.
  6. Be prepared.
    • Study harder, do better in school, it only happens once!
    • Wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident.
    •  Invest in Google, Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, etc. And I’d give myself a list of the winners of every Superbowl, and World Series for 20 years.
  7. Be brave.
    • Take chances- you may not ever get the opportunity again.
    • Don’t be so self conscious! Go for it!!
    • Take setbacks with a grain of salt. Things happen for a reason.
    • Don’t be afraid to go to prom alone.

Thanks to all of the readers who offered advice! If you’re reading this post and your words of wisdom are not represented above, feel free to include yours in the comments section.

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.

Accepting Love

accepting love

I always find reading previous journal entries enlightening. Here’s an excerpt from 7 years ago about my struggle to be “normal”:

There’s always this doubt that I’m doing things right. Like if I’m passing for a normal human being. I have to learn what normal people do from observation and piece it all together. Like maybe the way someone feels when they have a learning disability in a non-disabled world. You kind of don’t want to have to point out to people that you don’t get it so you pretend that you do.

A clear precursor to Normal in Training.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been reading journals from way back. Once I got past the entries about Rick Springfield and started having real relationships, it was difficult to read some of them with compassion because I was so frickin’ crazy. I know I still struggle with accepting love, but back then I was downright out of touch with reality.

In one entry, a friend of mine would repeatedly call me in the middle of the night to tell me that he loved me. Granted, he was drunk every time, but based on my experience in working with college students, it is when a person is drunk that they often reveal their deep, dark secrets. I have an eating disorder. I think about suicide. I’m in love with you.

My response in my journal was, I wonder what he means by that? I’m going to have to ask him next time. As I read this, I was like, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you delusional?! Is it not obvious what someone means when they tell you they love you? And then the next line was, why doesn’t anyone like me? Which was even more maddening to read. No wonder my ex boyfriends would tell me that nothing was ever enough.

I get it now, though. I couldn’t take in anything good. I didn’t believe I was lovable, and there was nothing that anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

I have been depressed for the past few weeks because, even though I did a much better job of saying no and conserving my psychological energy, eventually my work load was beyond what I am capable of carrying. Because I have such good friends, many of them recognized the signs (not being social, turning down tennis) and checked on me, invited me to dinner, sent me food. Because they know me well enough to know that I never have food.

It was difficult for me to accept their love. I have the same reaction to love as I do to pain. I can feel myself tightening up, trying to brace myself against it. It’s the craziest thing. But since I was practicing mindfulness, I did what I do when I realize I’m trying not to experience pain–I let myself feel it. Consent to it. I imagined giving the love space, letting it move within me and around me, and to express itself in whatever way it wanted to. I told myself that it was OK to let them love me.

I often tell clients that receiving love is not selfish. It is a gift, and refusing it hurts the person who is giving it. That it is more generous to accept it with gratitude than to tell the person that you don’t deserve it and list all of the reasons why. I actually told a client this yesterday.

I also told a friend that this is what I’ve been trying to do to make myself feel better, so now he reminds me that I have great friends who love me, and that I need to let them. Which pisses me off. Because even though it’s good advice–my advice–I still don’t like to be told what to do. He knows about this flaw, as well as all of my other flaws, but he loves me, anyway. I’m trying to let myself believe that, at least.

And you know what? It really did help. So I’m going to add it to my list of strategies of what to do when I’m depressed–to let people love me.

Happiness is…

Sectionals

It’s been a year since my brother got out of the hospital and I invited him to live with me. The past week has been a series of anniversaries of traumatic events, and in that series, today was the worst day.

A year later, I am having a stellar beginning to my academic year. Further proof of the benefits of practicing mindfulness–the reminder that all things pass, and ultimately you will be OK. I have also learned how to look for happiness when it seems as though there’s nothing to be happy about, and how to savor it when I experience it.

This year began with my tennis team advancing to sectionals. If you don’t know anything about league tennis, this is a big deal. It’s sort of like advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And if you don’t watch basketball, then just think of it as a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the lessons on happiness that I often write about is that you never know how you will feel about something until you get there. I had always imagined that advancing to sectionals would be a joyful thing. And it was joyful, but it was many other things, too. That seems to be the general rule–we never feel just one thing. Instead, we feel multiple, often contradictory things. I was happy we won but it didn’t make me a happier person in general. I still worried about the same things, had the same insecurities. Winning didn’t make me less neurotic, and it didn’t change my life for the better. It was a reminder that, because all things pass, happiness is also fleeting.

During the weekend of the tournament I had the opportunity to get to know two players who I had never spoken to before beyond saying hello. Although they barely knew me, when I needed a place to stay, they invited me to stay in their room on the spot–which helped tremendously with my obsessing about money. Many of my friends helped in whatever way they could–negotiated a lower rate for my room, shared their food with me. It was a reminder that making meaningful connections with other people is the thing that brings me the greatest happiness. It’s why I have the job that I do. Why I captain so many teams. Why I want everyone go out to dinner after our matches.

In a few weeks, we will be off to sectionals, and I am excited about the chance to advance to nationals. I will enjoy the challenge. I will channel my inner warrior. I will go all out to win. But win, lose, or draw, I know that the time off court with friends old and new will give me plenty to be happy about. And after the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat fades, the friendships will still remain.

Control What You Can Control, Part 2

Control

Living with my brother has been an enlightening experience in many ways. I never realized how different our experiences have been, given that I’m 7 years older than him and was not around for much of what happened to him. However, we have experienced enough similarities in our upbringing to struggle with the same problems with relationships–which is why neither of us is in one, we are not married, and we don’t have children.

So far I have dealt with my inability to have a healthy relationship by avoiding them altogether. But at the beginning of this year, I began to panic. Because I really would like to be in a relationship at some point, but I didn’t see how it was possible to change at this stage of my life.

So I have embarked on this self-created intensive relationship rehabilitation treatment program. I have regular phone sessions with my therapist now. I have a syllabus of books that I need to read. I’ve even embraced the term codependence, which I’ve always hated, because it best captures the problems I have with choosing people who have been traumatized, issues of control, and being able to read other people’s feelings but having no idea whether I need to eat, pee, or take an Ativan.

I just finished Breathing Under Water, by Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru. In it he demonstrates how 12 Step Programs are consistent with the teachings of Jesus. So I figured this was a good choice for curing my addiction to unhealthy relationships.

You know how sometimes you really like someone else’s opinion because it confirms your own beliefs? Well, that is not why I liked this book. Most of the stuff he said I would have never in a million years came up with myself. But he made me think, and I want what he says to be true, even though it seems too good to be true.

For example, in the step regarding character defects, he said that the goal is not to fix these defects but to turn them over to God. That’s what people mean when they say to let go and let God. I always wondered. We have to work to admit what our faults are, but once we do, it’s not on us to be able to correct them by ourselves. Which is a relief, because I’ve really, really been trying without much success.

Take jealousy, for example. I used to deal with it by trying to control other people. Don’t do or say anything to make me jealous! Which was not a great strategy. Then I accepted that it was on me and tried to be rational, to practice self-compassion, to distract myself, and every other technique I could think of. But experiencing jealousy hurts in a way that I cannot bear, for reasons that are not my fault. And it’s not my fault that I can’t fix this thing about myself.

So in my attempt to turn my character defects over to God, every time I encounter one, I say something like, OK God, here’s another one. I’ve really tried, but I can’t fix it by myself. I finally get it. I’m not in control. I need your help. I don’t want this thing to hurt me anymore, and I don’t want it to interfere with my ability to love others. So any time you feel like making me whole in this place of brokenness, I’m ready. I’ll just hang out here, waiting patiently. Or I’ll try to wait patiently. Impatience is also one of my character defects that I need help with.

And you know what? It helps. It gives me hope that change is possible, no matter how much trauma I’ve experienced, how old I am, how many times I’ve made the same mistakes, and how long it took me to realize that I can’t control everything.

Don’t get me wrong–I still have my reading list. Because you still have to do the work. You just don’t have to do it all alone.