Apr 22

DRIVEN TO CONTROL

Why are we driven to be in control?  Is it some sort of human instinct or survival mechanism?  Probably, but it consumes an awful lot of time and energy.  Some people have a greater need for control than others and many of the reasons people seek control are valid.  If you grew up with very little control, for example, you may actively avoid situations where you feel powerless.  For instance, experiencing abuse, trauma, and/or abandonment can contribute to the need for control.  Control is a way to avoid vulnerability and insecurity.  Control freaks often struggle with tremendous fears and insecurities that drive them to want to be in control of their environment and people who live in their space.  Control provides a sense of security, power, and stability which are often very important.  However, seeking to be in charge of all aspects of life can be exhausting and overwhelming, not to mention, alienating to the people around you.

Relationships can destruct when both parties are vying for control.  Most couples have conflict over control-related issues.  It doesn’t matter if it’s related to finances, parenting, or bad habits, no one likes to be told what to do or how to do it.  In fact, people may do the opposite of what is suggested even when they know you’re right just to avoid giving up control.  The harder you try to get someone to change the less likely they’ll change and the more frustrated and disappointed you’ll become.  Trying to fix, rescue, problem solve and caretake are all examples of control.  We rationalize it by saying “it’s for their own good” and “I’m only trying to help.”  The reality is that we want to control their behavior and correct their problem by telling them what to do differently.  It doesn’t work!

So what does work?  Sometimes nothing works and you have to decide whether the behavior(s) warrants accepting it and learning to live with it, or occasionally, whether it warrants disengaging or terminating the relationship.  We are all guilty of trying to help someone we love, myself included, and occasionally find ourselves more invested in their change than they are.  I’ve talked about the paradox of control; relinquish it and you’ll have more control.  Easier said than done.  For me, I work on giving control to God and trusting in his plan for my life.  Last week’s blog talked about letting go and often that’s what needs to be done.  We need to allow others to fail, experience hardship, and work through their emotional pain without our intervention.  We can be supportive, compassionate, and encouraging, but fixing the situation can be detrimental.

 

Apr 15

LETTING GO

Why do we have such a difficult time letting go?  Many of us have a fear of letting go and tighten our grip rather than releasing the person, thing, and/or emotion that we are so desperately hanging unto.  We question and fear what we’ll be left with after letting go and often assume that the consequence of letting go is more painful than the hanging on.  Sometimes hanging on to a relationship, even a dysfunctional one, seems better than being alone.  We would rather avoid, deny, and/or distract from this decision rather than confronting it head-on.

Throughout life we encounter times where letting go is our only option.  We may lose a loved one or a pet, a relationship ends, we lose a job, our health fails, we move, face unhealthy conflict or children leave the home.  The process of letting go can be painful, but necessary.  We often go through the stages of grief, initially resisting experiencing the pain until it overwhelms us and we have no choice but to deal with it.  Many people take action only when inaction becomes more painful than action.  The bottom line is letting go causes inevitable pain but the longer we delay the process the greater the pain becomes.

What do you need to let go of in your life?  Maybe it is an unhealthy relationship, a habit/addiction, unresolved emotion, unrealistic expectations, control, or need for approval/acceptance.  Write it down along with the emotions that letting it go produces in you.  Writing a letter and saying goodbye to whatever it is can make it more real and tangible.  Forgiveness can help with this process whether it’s forgiving yourself or someone else.  Remember, we have to go through it to get through it and that which we resist, persists.  Letting go can enable the pain to be acute rather than chronic and starts the healing process.  Suffering and healing often occur simultaneously, so make the choice today to let go.

Apr 08

DIFFERENCES IN PERCEPTION

Why do couples have a conversation and then remember it so differently?  Arguments over two different versions of an event can digress quickly and create significant frustration and conflict.   A study from the early 1980’s published in Behavioral Assessment found that women tend to recall more about relationship issues than men do.  Although women’s memories are more vivid and detailed, they are not necessarily more accurate.  Women tend to report more emotions during relationship events and may pay more attention to those feelings along with the event.  People also tend to remember their own actions better than those of their partner.  Most significant in these studies is that mood plays a big part in memory.  Negative moods tend to cause stronger memories and since research has found that men win more often in interpersonal arguments, it follows that women remember it more clearly.

As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, being right doesn’t bring happiness or resolution.  Couples can spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and negative emotion trying to prove a point.  This type of conflict is so common, yet it can keep couples stuck for days or even weeks trying to discern which recollection has the most truth. Wall Street Journal writer Elizabeth Bernstein covers this poignant topic in her article on couples’ memory differences.  Some suggestions from the WSJ article include: assume good intent, accept that there is more than one version of the situation, avoid arguing based solely on the memories, focus on the truth, and practice collaborative memory.  Remember that different is better than wrong and chances are both stories have some validity.  Focus more on the emotions rather than the specific details of the event and recall joyful events together which creates collaboration.

Lastly, accept and respect your differences since we often grow when we are challenged and required to look at a situation differently.  Our memories of a situation can be tainted by multiple variables including the issues mentioned above, but arguing with the person who is supposed to be on the same team as you seems futile.  Sometimes agreeing to disagree is the best solution.  Try arguing the opposing position for a few minutes to gain a better appreciation for the other person’s perspective.  Regardless of which approach works best for you, decide that fixating on your own perception when your partner views it differently doesn’t work.  If you take action to let go of the need to be right, life will become much easier.

Apr 01

ISOLATION AND LONGEVITY

Why do people seem to die shortly after their spouse or immediately following retirement?  Maybe they’ve lost their best friend, their purpose in life, or maybe they find themselves more isolated and alone.  A recent study from Brigham Young University found that loneliness and social isolation are just as much a threat to longevity as obesity.  The researchers also found the reverse to be true, with greater social connections and contact resulting in a positive health effect.  We are at the highest recorded rate of living alone, with loneliness on the rise.  Some may be surrounded by people, yet still feel alone.  Many couples experience feelings of loneliness in spite of their relationship.  How does that happen?

Many spouses coexist and operate independently of each other.  They may share the same living space and bank account, but have little physical and/or emotional connection.  In some cases this is due to the couple growing apart, but not wanting to terminate the relationship completely for various reasons.  Other couples harbor resentment, anger, hurt, and sadness that they’ve been unable or unwilling to work through.  Sometimes individuals have little awareness or desire to have a deep, personal, and intimate relationship and prefer to have a safe yet detached existence.  Connection requires sharing emotions, being vulnerable, and letting down your guard which some are reluctant to do based on past experiences or perceived rejection.

While the internet can keep people connected especially when there’s a geographic distance, online contacts can lack emotional context and depth.  Even too much texting can hurt a romantic relationship, especially if this is the primary medium for conversation.  To provide connections and create opportunity for deeper friendships, join a group, club, organization, and/or community activity.  Volunteer work, taking a class, and going to the gym or community center for exercise can provide some social connectedness.  Finding a church family and getting involved with a life group can further the likelihood of developing friendships.  Buck the trend of loneliness by not living in isolation from others, and improve your chances for a longer, happier life.

Mar 25

TRUST BUILDS CONNECTION

Where would your relationship be without trust?  The answer is “Over!”  Trust is a necessary component for healthy and strong relationships and deepens the level of intimacy.  But trust comes in many different forms including physical, emotional, financial, relational, and  behavioral.  Where do we learn about trust?  Obviously we learn how to trust through our role models and experiences, our parents, teachers, family, friends, pastors, coaches, and later in life, our peers, colleagues, and mentors.  Some of us trust too much while others don’t trust enough.  Finding a healthy and appropriate level of trust takes time and awareness in relationships.  Breaking trust could involve routine matters such as not following through on projects, always running late or overcommitment to activities and an inability in saying no.  Rebuilding trust that has been broken takes acknowledgement of the pain it caused, remorse for the hurtful words or actions and a commitment to change one’s behavior.   Trust building requires action, not just words.

Many of the couples I work with have lost trust in each other either because of destructive behaviors such as infidelity, substance abuse, excessive spending, lack of commitment, perpetual lies, and/or abuse of some sort.  When we violate other’s boundaries, humiliate each other, and discount feelings and needs, we are likely to erode any trust that may have existed.  Even overreacting, giving the silent treatment, interrupting, and controlling behaviors can damage the level of trust in the relationship.  The good news is that people can regain trust and repair wounds by changing their behaviors and making better choices.  When we make the choice to change, trust building becomes possible.  Being consistent in our words and actions builds trust.

Letting go of our defensiveness and our need to justify and blame the other person are the first steps in repairing trust.  Being open, honest, and direct in a respectful and kind way paves the way for restoring trust.  Couples need to be able to say and accept no and maintain healthy boundaries to establish greater levels of connection.  Building trust requires an acceptance of responsibility for your actions and an apology.  In order to grow the relationship the couple will benefit from self-disclosing, being vulnerable, and forgiving each other.  Confronting and resolving conflict along with letting go of emotional pain is necessary to build trust.  Ultimately, this process takes time, courage, and patience, but can greatly enhance the connection.  Trust is the most important part of a relationship.  Consider what you need to do in your relationship to build trust.

Mar 18

RAISING NARCISSISTS

As parents, we are all guilty of wanting more for our children that we had growing up.  The problem emerges when we lavish them with indiscriminate praise and approval.  A recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explored the origin of narcissism and found that the way parents raise their children is a significant factor.  The study concluded that parents who overvalue their children and provide excessive or exaggerated praise may cause higher levels of narcissism in their kids.  While some contest that genetics play a significant role in the development of narcissistic behaviors, the researchers of this study find that social learning and parental interactions play a significant role.

Are we all guilty of wanting the best for our children and doing what we can to raise their self-confidence?  Of course we are, but there are better ways to build self-esteem in our children.  For starters, provide praise that is linked to a behavior and be specific when praising your children.  Instead of global praise like, “you are really intelligent,” it would be better to say,  “I know that you worked really hard to complete this project”.  Try to be more descriptive in your praise and approval.  Enable your children to take ownership in their work and don’t obsess over every detail of their lives.

Self-esteem is an inside job and has greater staying power when it is not driven by external factors like praise/approval from others.  Serving others can actually make children feel better about themselves and appreciate more of what they have in life.  Failure can also be a time of growth and learning so we need to step aside and provide support but not fix every little problem that comes along.  Be consistent in your words and actions and follow through on consequences when your children don’t follow the rules.  Part of loving our children is holding them responsible and accountable for their actions.  We are all overwhelmed by a society that reinforces self-centered behavior; let’s try to encourage a healthier mindset in our children.

Mar 11

MARIJUANA AND MENTAL ILLNESS

Did you know that marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in America and its use is on the rise?  What many people don’t realize is that the potency of marijuana today is much higher than years ago (THC content was 3.6 percent in the mid 80’s while last year THC content was closer to 10 percent) and that marijuana can be addictive.  It is especially harmful and damaging for teens given their rapidly developing brains.  Research suggests that marijuana impairs critical thinking, reduces attention and memory, along with raising the risk of health, social, and academic problems.  The amount of drug used, the age at first use, and genetic vulnerability contribute to the variability of risk.  The scientific data shows that regular marijuana abuse is linked with increased risk of legal problems, difficulties at school/work and increased likelihood of abuse of alcohol and vulnerability to other drugs.   Based on several studies correlating marijuana use to increased risk for mental illness, the  mental health community has expressed concern about the increasing rate of the drug’s use.

Marijuana can worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression or schizophrenia through its actions on the brain.  There have been multiple studies on marijuana use and psychotic symptoms, specifically schizophrenia, especially for those with a family history of mental illness. Another adverse consequence of long-term use of marijuana is amotivational syndrome, which is diminished or absent drive to engage in typically rewarding tasks.  The research is not conclusive that a cause and effect relationship exists between marijuana use and mental illness, but it appears definitive that it can contribute to the onset of certain mental health problems and exacerbate existing issues.

What can be done to help those in need?   One of the problems with treatment is convincing the user that their substance use is damaging to their cognitive functioning, mental health, interpersonal relationships, and physical well-being.  Often tragedy or a crisis has to occur before change is even considered.  Taking action requires some level of commitment and motivation to quit.  Cognitive-behavioral counseling and/or medication can be helpful in managing the mental health issues and addressing the addiction component.  Self-help groups such as Marijuana Anonymous, www.marijuana-anonymous.org, or Smart Recovery, www.smartrecovery.org, can offer other resources.  We can raise awareness, provide resources, and offer support.  However, only recognition of the negative impact of marijuana abuse will motivate change.

Mar 04

TRAUMA IMPACT

While driving home from work the other day I heard on NPR about a study that tied childhood trauma to health problems.  I found this study fascinating so I researched the source.  The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, (May, 1998) led by researcher Felitti, looked at health risk behavior and disease in adulthood as it relates to childhood abuse and dysfunction.  The researchers surveyed over 13,000 adults and assessed their adverse childhood experiences.  The researchers concluded that the breadth of exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood directly correlated with health risk factors later in life.  The study is a reminder of how trauma can impact lives in a significant way.

Many of my clients have experienced trauma in their past and learned coping mechanisms to adapt to their life circumstances.  Understanding the coping style they’ve used from childhood can provide valuable insight into their current situation.  For some, achievement, performance and productivity through work and/or athletics provided a positive way to channel their pain and distract them from their negative emotions.  However, success can become an obsession when it negatively impacts other aspects of living including self-care, relationships, and hobbies.  Often success-driven people have a difficult time achieving balance in life and often value things over people.

The experience of childhood trauma drives some to seek control since they were powerless and helpless as a child.  In some instances the trauma has contributed to their mistrust of others and their devaluing of relationships.  This causes them to instead focus on ways to be self-reliant and independent.  Success can also be a way to feel worthy, valued, and significant since those who grew up in dysfunctional households felt none of that.  Workaholics can easily justify their behaviors and focus on the ways in which their achievements allow for a richer lifestyle, but not necessarily a happier life.  Many are running, hiding, and/or denying their emotional pain under the guise of success.  Acknowledge and confront your emotional pain today before you lose more people, time, and peace.

Feb 25

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Do you know someone who is dealing with a loss?  Grief is the natural reaction to loss, but some avoid the grieving process and internalize the emotional pain.  We can experience loss from death, divorce, and/or other life-changing events that result in a grief reaction.  Our reaction to loss can impact our cognitions, feelings, as well as our physical, behavioral and spiritual being.  In many situations our defense mechanisms kick in to protect us from pain and fear.  For example, denial/repression may be used when a person is unable to cope with the reality of the loss.  Defense mechanisms become unhealthy when they become the predominate coping strategy and prevent us from dealing with reality.  Everyone deals with loss differently and there is not one standard formula for grieving that we need to follow.

Loss can be devastating, complicated, and overwhelming, especially when the loss is sudden or there is a lack of a support network.  Kubler-Ross described five stages of grieving including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  We can move back and forth through these stages as the grieving progresses.  Sometimes an individual will get stuck in one stage and struggle to move forward.  As mentioned earlier, the course of grief is highly dependent on the individual based on their prior experience and coping skills along with their support systems and expectations.  Feeling helpless and powerless often accompanies loss until the bereaved is able to regain a sense of control in their lives.

The process of grief often involves waves of emotion.  Expressing and experiencing these feelings is part of the healing process.  In other words, we have to go through it to get through it.  In fact, suffering and healing often occur simultaneously.  Saying goodbye through a letter to the person who is gone can help with healing and closure.  Grief takes time, but also action to confront the anger, guilt, and/or depression. Journalling is one method people often find helpful. Seek a supportive grieving environment and adjust to the changes of life.  Remember that you don’t have to let go of the memories of the person, but you do have to let go of the emotional pain.

Feb 18

TRUE APOLOGY

Are you the type of person that never apologizes?  Or do you find yourself apologizing all the time?  Researchers have found that we apologize more to strangers than to our significant other and family, and most to our friends.  So why do couples have such a difficult time saying they are sorry?  Sometimes couples have too much pride and want to win the battle, in spite of losing the war.  In some cases, people fear apologizing because it makes them feel vulnerable and opens them up for possible emotional pain.  Control can be another factor in withholding an apology since some feel it weakens their position and power.  Men are less inclined to apologize unless they are convinced they’ve done something wrong while women offer apologies more readily.

Are there different types of apology?  An article written in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein describes six different types of apology with different levels of sincerity.  The most insincere one is the bully apology which manipulates the other person into some action and offers a band-aid for the offender’s bad behavior.  Then there is the too-late apology which comes days, months, or years later.  The contingent apology attempts to appease the other person, but fails to acknowledge or care what the misdeed was.  The defensive apology is the self-protective strategy whereby you justify your actions with the right words then use the qualifier “but”.  The strategic apology is offered up to stop the fight and quickly move on.  Lastly, the most sincere apology is the heartfelt one that accepts responsibility, regrets ones own actions, and understands the pain it caused the other person.

A genuine apology can go a long way in the healing of a conflict.  In most situations both parties have reason to offer an apology.  A sincere, comprehensive apology is more likely to produce forgiveness.  Ideally this apology includes remorse, acceptance of responsibility, admission of wrongdoing, acknowledgement of harm, promise to behave better, request for forgiveness, offer of repair, and explanation according to researchers from the University of Waterloo.  Of course including all of these components into an apology may seem overwhelming.   The most important aspects are remorse, acceptance, acknowledgement, and an effort for behavioral change.  It is difficult to accept an apology when the behavior never changes and/or  the offender doesn’t get the impact their behavior has had on the other person.  Lastly, a word of caution.  If a person is genuinely attempting to apologize avoid throwing in other wrongdoings and accept their imperfect attempts since it’s better than none at all.

 

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