It’s a new year, and for many of us we are thinking about what we want for ourselves, our family and the world in 2021. Having survived 2020 we probably want something different than what we endured for the past 9 months. Maybe we want health, travel, connection, stability, prosperity, or peace. For many of us it could be all of the above. But how do we go from wishing for these things to actually getting them?
Being a research-based person I turned to science to see what researchers have found on this topic. Fortunately for us, goal-setting and achievement have been studied for many decades. We actually do have a good sense of what steps lead people to achieve their goals versus dream big but stay at home on the couch.
Some of you may have heard about the mythical “Yale study” where graduates of Yale were interviewed years after graduation about their earnings. The typical story is that the researchers asked these Yale graduates (or sometimes it’s Harvard) if they wrote down their financial goals prior to graduation. The alleged study authors “found” that of the 3% of graduates who reported writing down their fiscal goals before graduation they were making more than the other 97% of graduates combined (who did not write down their earning targets). Sounds great, right? Sadly it turns out that study never happened. However, other studies have been conducted, such as this one done by Gardner and Albee in 2015, which showed that following certain steps MORE THAN DOUBLED participants chances of achieving their goals. The bad news is that it wasn’t as easy as just writing them down, sticking them in a drawer, forgetting about them and then years later outperforming 97% of everyone else. It required more effort. However, nothing that the participants did was super-human. One of my favorite parts of the study is that the goal-setters harnessed RELATIONSHIPS to help them achieve more. Since humans are naturally relationally-oriented this makes sense. Since our earliest evolution as pack animals we have been concerned with how others see us and have benefitted from the support of others. So it’s nice to see that this carries over into achieving our goals for a new and better year.
OK, so the nuts and bolts of what this particular study showed is that there are a series of steps that one can take to increase achievement of goals. The more of these steps you take the more likely you will be to achieve them. I’m going to start with Step Two because Step One was just to think about these things without writing them down. I assume we all know how that will go...so let’s move on to Step Two which actually starts the process for real...
Step Two: Write your goal down, rate how difficult it seems, how important it is to you, to what extent you have the skills to accomplish the goal, your level of motivation and commitment to the goal and any prior experiences with working on this particular goal. You can make up your own scale for this, such as a 1-5 scale or 1-10 scale, or use a progressive list of adjectives such as “easy, moderate, difficult, impossible”. So for example if my goal is to get in shape I could say that it seems, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult thing I have ever done, that getting into shape is going to be a “7”. Then for what extent I have the skills I could say, again 1-10 with 10 being “I have all of the skills”, it’s a 9 because I have gotten into shape before so I actually am pretty confident that I know how to do it (what exercises, etc.). My level of motivation, again 1-10 for this example, may be an honest “5” given the year I just had...my commitment may be a “6”.
Step Three: Now write “action commitments” for each goal. These are concrete steps you can take towards a specific goal. For example if my goal is to get in better shape an “action commitment” is to schedule some classes with a personal trainer, or buy a gym membership, or carve out an hour every evening to walk in my neighborhood.
Step Four: Share these goals and action commitments with a friend. In my example this does not need to be someone who is actually going to go to the gym with me but just someone who knows I am trying to get there 5x/week (or whatever my goal is).
Step Five: Update this friend on a weekly basis as to your progress on your goal, using your action commitments as ways to measure your progress.
It’s not lost on me that this process mirrors psychotherapy, be it individual, couples or group. For most therapists goal-setting is an important part of the intake process as well as, over the intervening months, helping clients figure out the steps necessary to take in order to bring these goals into fruition. Then the weekly therapy sessions act as these “touch points” where the client reports to the therapist how they are doing towards their goals. Therapists can offer support, collaborative problem-solving and feedback to help the client move closer to achieving them. Of course this isn’t the only thing going on in therapy but in my experience it is an important part.
OK, so if you are willing to do these 5 steps what can you expect? Based on the aforementioned study, what I will call the “Dreamers” (Step 1, just thinking about your goals) surprisingly got at least 50% of the way there (towards achieving their goals) 43% of the time in the 4-week study period. Of course I’d like to think that they stalled out in weeks 5, 6 or beyond, because in my experience just dreaming about things rarely makes them happen. But another way to look at that is this: if you are too burned out, battle-weary, overwhelmed or depleted thanks to the year we all just had, at least thinking about your goals will, 43% of the time, get you half-way there in a month’s time. So that’s actually good news given how we all probably feel right now.
BUT, if you want to try to channel that Type A, kick-butt, storm-the-hill person you used to be before the pandemic laid us all flat, press on. Because the “Committers with Friends” who actually wrote down their goals, made action commitments and shared it with a friend had achieved at least 50% of their stated goal 62% of the time. That’s a 44% increase in achievement. Not bad for just a brief writing exercise and a one-time chat with a buddy! But of course if you are ready to kick 2020 in the teeth and go for the gusto, keep talking to your new goal-BFF on a weekly basis to update him or her on your progress on those action-statements. That will get you a whopping 76% towards at least 50% goal achievement in a mere month’s time. That’s a hefty 77% improvement over the Dreamers group.
This study was done on folks in their 20’s through 70’s so that’s good news for those of us over 50. You can still teach old dogs to achieve new tricks. It’s also good news for those in a generation that has been plagued by accusations that they can’t achieve doing their own laundry (sorry, Millenials).
The take home point here is that we can ALL get better at making our dreams a reality with a few not-so-time-consuming steps that will increase clarity, committee to, support and accountability. That could go a long way to making 2021 a redemptive year for all of us.
Wishing you health and happiness in the new year, along with better goal achievement!
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Emotion Coaching for Social Emotional Development
by Dr. Jamie Lewis
One of the most important skills we learn as children is emotion regulation. A well-regulated child will not upset easily, and when upset, will learn to regulate and return to baseline relatively quickly. When we learn to regulate emotions as a young child, we are more likely to handle overwhelming experiences as adults. Adulthood is accompanied by a variety of stressful situations (e.g., finances, work conflict, relationship conflict, children, errands, health) and it can feel as though we are just not able to manage it all. Emotion regulation provides more stability so we can better handle what life throws our way.
Emotion coaching is a technique that can be used to facilitate emotional regulation. Before we can expect a child to regulate their emotions (e.g., utilize appropriate and effective coping strategies), we must teach them to identify and label their emotions. Emotion coaching does just this – supports emotion identification and helps build the child’s emotion vocabulary. Parents, teachers, and other adults in the child’s life can take the role of emotion coaches.
The steps to teaching emotional regulation for children are:
Emotion coaches will need to set limits around the emotions they witness in children. For example, an emotion coach should try to separate emotion from actions (e.g., being mad is acceptable, but hitting is not acceptable). In the case of high dysregulation, emotion coaches will need to allow more time and space to calm down before moving into problem-solving. A dysregulated child has limited access to their frontal lobe and will not be able to engage in problem-solving until they have calmed. Once the child has calmed and regained access to their frontal lobe, they are ready to begin problem-solving (e.g., identifying alternate solutions).
Below are some emotion coaching phrases:
The first rule of emotional regulation coaching with kids is that the adult has to be regulated themselves! So take a quick break to calm yourself down if you need to, or takes some slow deep breaths, or use other techniques to help yourself get calm. Then use the tips above to help the child learn to identify, label and regulate their emotions. This is a vital skill and can be taught with some effort and patience.
It’s that time of year again where we (pre-COVID) should be lining up outside of haunted houses, spending hours crafting scary costumes and hosting Halloween III movie parties. All to scare ourselves (and others) silly. But why? Why do we like being scared? What draws us to the dark side of things where people are stalked, maimed or even killed?
This delight in discomfort goes waaaay back. Clearly the Victorians were having a heyday with it with stories of Jack the Ripper, Frankenstein, Dracula and mummies curses. Around that time Freud was also developing his theories and actually speculated that humans have a “death drive” that he called Thanatos. Freud believed that humans contained this ultimate duality between a drive for life and a drive for death. To him this made sense, that the natural world would balance things. And as arcane as that sounds many theorists since have, in one way or another, agreed with him.
Freud based his theories on the observations that people who had endured traumas like war seemed drawn to repeat things that reminded them of the trauma. He called this the “repetition compulsion”. He noticed that if you had gone through something terrible you would likely end up drawn to some version of it at some point. I saw this as a play therapist all the time. If a kid had been physically abused he or she would come in and spank or hit the play dolls in a violent manner, as if re-enacting the abuse they had suffered. Freud felt like it was a core human compulsion to revisit things that were traumatic. Horror movies where people are terrified, chased, physically harmed or tortured can be a way for someone who has experienced physical, psychological or sexual trauma to re-play aspects of that out on the screen. And why would we re-play it? Freud and many psychologists after him believe that it is because humans are trying to achieve a sense of mastery or control over the trauma. If I am a child who is abused and I can then “abuse” my dolls I go from being the object of trauma to the perpetrator of it.
However, most of us don’t want to go around threatening, scaring, torturing or beating people up. But we can watch fictitious people do it in horror movies or hear about criminals who have done those things. And in this way we feel like we can take, albeit unconsciously, the position of the person in control. Which relieves the feeling of being vulnerable to the mistreatment of others. If you think that is far-fetched, just go to a boxing match and see the enjoyment that people get out of watching other human beings harm each other. It’s a way to release fear of being harmed.
Beyond instincts towards life or death there is also brain chemistry at work. Dopamine is a chemical that causes reinforcement. For example the brain releases it when you taste sugar which makes you reach for a second and third cookie. Dopamine tells the brain, among other things, that. You want to “do it again!”. Interestingly researcher Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan discovered that dopamine is also released in fear. For pleasure and reward dopamine is released in the front part of a brain area known as the nucleus acumbens. For a fear response it is released in the back of this structure. However the difference between a pleasure response and a fear response is literally only a few millimeters. So perhaps these response can, for some people in some circumstances, become linked. Feeling scared can become pleasurable in some contexts.
Along with dopamine, adrenalin is also released in the fear response. Adrenaline produces a rush— you feel full of energy, alert, ready to tackle anything and full alive. Many people enjoy this state and some even become addicted to it. It’s the feeling you get after rock climbing, skiing down a steep slope or skydiving. But imagine that you could have that amazing rush, that thrilling feeling of conquering a rock face or speeding down a slope full of moguls, without getting off the couch? Introducing the horror movie. Because the brain has trouble distinguishing between imagined situations and real ones in some circumstances our bodies respond to horror movies much the same way we respond to actually feeling afraid in a dark alley. Our adrenaline surges in an attempt to prepare us to fight or flee. And this feeling can be appealing.
It turns out that some people have a more intense response to dopamine than others. Researcher David Zald found that some people’s brains don’t regulate the release and re-uptake of dopamine as well as others. For these people they are receiving bigger doses of dopamine and may derive more enjoyment from risky or scary situations.
Regardless if you are one of those lucky folks who has extra dopamine buzzing around or just a normal amount, it may be that the feeling of getting really scared and having that fight-or-flight reaction, with adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine flowing feels like a great cheat. We feel ready, prepared to kick-but-and-take-names, all while sitting on the couch at home.
Along with watching slasher films there is another dark pleasure that many of us indulge in to get our thrill kick— true crime. This genre has been around since Victorian times and is more popular than ever thanks to podcasts.
But why would we want to hear about such misfortunes of real people? It’s one thing to watch on the screen while an actress is (fake) killed, but perhaps quite another to hear about the tragedies of real people much like ourselves.
In addition to all of the reasons mentioned above about why people love being scared by horror movies true crime offers yet another twist. In true crime we often get the satisfaction of knowing that the perpetrator is apprehended and dealt with. Although this information is sometime withheld until later in the story, allowing us to take the role of investigator and enjoy the “problem-solving” aspect of the story. Humans do love to problem solve. Just take a look next time you are in the checkout aisle of the grocery store— Sudoku, crosswords and word finds abound. Even primates in zoos enjoy puzzle toys and they are standard equipment for the living spaces of our closest relatives.
But why use our problem-solving neurons for crime? Why not ponder how to create the perfect sour dough starter instead? Perhaps it has to do with trying to fend off the fear of death that is a unique mishap of our evolutionary heritage. Terror Management Theory grew out of Ernest Becker’s famous book The Denial of Death as a way to explain how humans manage the knowledge that they will ultimately die. Every organism that has ever existed before humans developed shared one “prime directive” — don’t die. All organisms exist for this one purpose— to continue to live. Humans, as far as we know, are the only organisms that after millions of years of evolution have the knowledge that ultimately this prime directive will fail. We will die, no mater what we do. Terror Management Theory and Ernest Becker essentially state that this is overwhelming to humans and that we have developed many different and elaborate beliefs, systems and behaviors to ward off this anxiety.
In hearing about crimes in high level detail, where one can picture the route taken by the killer, the clothes worn by the victim, the manner of death, a person becomes a voyeur of sorts. We can imagine the scene so vividly, as if we could have been there. And yet we are not. We are cozy on our couch listening to the podcast or reading our book. We have escaped death yet again. In some ways we are trying to trick ourselves that we can outwit our eventual mortality. Terror Management Theory would also predict that as we listen to how other people fell victim we are ticking off the ways we are different from them. They were young, we are older. They lived in the country, we live in the city. We look for difference to reassure ourselves that we will not befall a similar fate. This also reassures us that we will ultimately survive (although of course we won’t!).
Many surveys indicate that true crime is especially popular with women. This may be because women understand their enhanced physical vulnerability compared to men. They listen to true crime, in part, to learn how to avoid the fate of the victims. My own daughter, who was 15 at the time, announced to me as we approached my car in a parking lot “Mom, make sure to see if there is anyone sitting in the car next to us before you go to get in. That’s one way that predators wait to abduct you”. She shared that she had heard this “tip” in a true crime podcast and that she liked to listen to them to learn how to be more “street smart”. This view was affirmed in a study done by Amanda Vicary and R Chris Fraley at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published in 2010 who found that women are more likely to listen to true crime podcasts as a means of trying to arm themselves with information about how to be safe.
Finally in some ways true crime stories are like children’s fables where in the end the band people are punished. That makes us feel safe and like the world has some justice in it after all. If we have to live in a world where bad things can happen, and we ultimately may not be able to protect ourselves from being a victim of such things, at least we can feel better that these people will be harmed as well. Locked up for life or better yet given a death sentence. This restores a sense of order to the world when we are feeling scared and vulnerable.
The moral of the horror and crime story here is, whether you are gunning for adrenaline and dopamine or studying up on how not to become the next cold case, horror and true crime can actually be your friend.
For more reading on this see the article I contributed to by Patti Greco on Health.com!
Enjoy the Halloween season and remember if you have topics you would like to see me write about drop me a note.
Loving-kindness Meditation (LKM) -- Beating Stress, Loneliness and Isolation While Sheltering In Place
These are surely trying times. I have been in practice for 25 years and never seen the level of interest in therapy that I see now. Everyone is stressed, isolated, lonely and frustrated. Some folks are scared or worried.
And yet access to our usual supports-- churches, synagogues, mosques, neighborhood BBQ’s, family reunions, book clubs, bowling nights, even date nights are on hold or have changed so drastically that they are hardly recognizable. But as humans our need to connect persists even in the face of a pandemic.
So what can you do without access to other people and without leaving your house?
One answer is in an ancient tradition called Loving-kindness Meditation (often abbreviated LKM or sometimes referred to as “metta” meditation. This tradition originated in the east as part of Buddhism but requires no spiritual beliefs. In Buddhism there is a belief that all life is connected and that all life has value. So LKM was developed to help cultivate a sense of connection and compassion for all. We now know that “loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day” . So if you are isolated like most of us during COVID-19 you are literally increasing your health risks as much as smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day! That’s a big change in your health.
Everyone who reads my blogs knows that I am a big research nerd. So I would not be recommending this technique if I had not read multiple studies showing it’s benefits. For a brief amount of time (15-20 minutes) you can increase positive emotions and decrease the negative ones , including less depression and less symptoms of illness-- both very helpful in this time of a pandemic! We’ve known for many decades now that there is a direct link between stress and the immune system, (so things like meditation that decrease stress can help improve our bodies ability to fight off invading germs. There is also a link between loneliness or social isolation and the immune system. ”Loneliness can alter immune system cells in a way that increases susceptibility to illness”. And in a time where you can’t get together with friends or family as easily, LKM is a great way to combat loneliness!
LKM can also increase our “emotional intelligence”. One aspect of emotional intelligence is the ability to have empathy and compassion for others. According to one author on the subject, “loving-kindness practices strengthen empathic concern: our ability to care about another person and want to help them”. There is a great video embedded in that interview and I recommend watching it during your new now-I-work-from-home schedule…
And if decreasing loneliness and feelings of isolation, improving immunity and feelings of empathy towards others and having more positive emotions (and less negative ones) isn’t enough...LKM is also good for your brain! Studies have shown that it increases gray matter (brain cells).
Loving-kindness meditation also improves your ability to relax. If you have been feeling stressed by changes due to the pandemic then practicing LMK for even just 10 minutes a day can help your body drop into a more relaxed and healthy state. Remember that your body has only 2 modes-- the stress response (bad if triggered too often or for too long) and the relaxation response. If you can stay in the relaxation part of your nervous system more often it fends off stress-related illnesses and emotional problems like anxiety and depression.
And if the pandemic has not been stressing you out then consider this-- practicing LKM makes you less biased towards others. During these times of social change and focus on racial issues this can be an important act of social responsibility for all of us.
And if you have been feeling like an unproductive lump during the pandemic and beating yourself up about what you are not getting done, consider this study that showed that LMK decreases self-criticism.
So if you have been feeling lonely, isolated, depressed, anxious, self-critical or less tolerant of others during this pandemic I suggest that you try out Loving-kindness Meditation. There are plenty of youtube videos you can experiment with. Another great resource for meditation is psychologist Dr. Seigel’s website, which has not only LKM’s you can stream or download but also lots of other information about mindfulness practices.
Remember, it doesn’t take a lot of effort. LKM does not require you to “empty your mind” or even track your thoughts! It can be done in 10 minutes and most people find it very pleasant and relaxing. I hope you will be wiling to give it a try and if you find it beneficial pass this information along to a friend!
Wishing you health and peace in these stressful times,
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When my son was little he told whoppers. And not just occasionally. At one point it seemed that every other sentence that came out of his mouth was pure fabrication. As a parent I have to admit I was a bit concerned. So I did some research. And felt a lot better...
Here's the good and bad news. About half of us lie. A study done in 2009 showed that lying does vary-- some people don't really tell any, some tell a few and some tell many. The good news is that the prolific liars are rare-- about 5% in this study. There are even "mega" liars, who tell 20+ lies per day. These folks are only about 1% of the population and if you hang around them for a hot minute you can quickly figure out who they are.
Aside from these Mega Liars one of the biggest predictors of lying is age. Kids under the age of 2 are actually VERY honest. They have not figured out how to lie yet. Teenagers lie about 60% of the time. For most people lying peaks in adolescence. Some professions have more liars than others (business and tech being the top liar-rich professions). But of course those are generalizations so please don't go accusing every VP or techie of lying.
One piece of information I found immensely helpful in regards to children lying was understanding more about moral development. Children are not born with an inherent ability to think about morality. So to tell a 4 year old not to lie because "it's not nice and it makes Mommy sad" is NOT developmentally sound. They don't have the moral development to understand that. I found the following chart to be very informative:
So basically if a kid under the age of 8 is lying please don't lecture them about the morality issue. Just help them understand what's in it for them if they are truthful. How lying is going to get them into more trouble and how telling the truth will get them more friends, more accolades or more ice cream. Because that is the level that their brain is capable of understanding things at that point.
Now some of you are probably saying "well, not MY child! When he was just 3 years old he was already taking care of other children's hurt feelings and sharing because he knew it was important to be kind". I hate to break it to you, but your kid only did that when you were watching. Kids know what parents want from them and because parents are necessary for children's survival they will learn how to please parents. Where the rubber meets the road is what your kid does when they think no one is watching. And let me be clear, before the age of 8 they do what is best for THEM, not what you or I would think is moral. And that's OK. That's just part of being a kid with a brain that is not fully cooked yet.
So how do we think of adults who lie? Well one way to think about it is that those adults are developmentally stunted. Seriously. They may have grown up in stressful conditions without enough positive investment by good adults and literally they may have stalled in their moral development. That does not mean that we should not hold them accountable, but it may help you have more compassion for their impulse to lie to get out of a scrape. It takes bravery to face the music and bravery, I would argue, can only be learned if you have enough emotional support early on.
Another possibility is actually neuroscience. Researchers have found that people who lie a lot have more white matter in their frontal cortex than more honest folks. White matter helps brain connectivity, so that messages can travel at high speeds between different brain areas. This allows a person to think quickly on their feet. So if I ask you where you were last night and you are an average person you may stall, fidget, say "um", "er" and eventually after a second or two cough up a semi-believable lie. But someone with extra white matter in the frontal area of the brain (and also less gray matter, which helps with inhibition) will quickly and without pause churn out a very believable story. We assume that since they did not hesitate it is the truth because for most of us lying on the spot like that is difficult. One study using functional MRI's showed that "liars had 26% more white matter compared with anti-social, non-liars, and 22% more than the controls. Liars also had 14% less grey matter than the controls." The researcher noted that lying is a very complex task that requires the cooperation of different brain regions to be done well. “It’s a bit like being a mind reader. You have to think, 'what does she know about the situation, what does she not know’. You also have to suppress anxious emotions and the automatic impulse to tell the truth." Interestingly "Autistic children, who find it very difficult to lie, develop white matter at a sixth the rate of ordinary children." So their difficulty lying may be due to a lag in developing this white matter.
Which leads me to my good/bad conclusion about my son. I decided that he is probably one of these people who has more white matter. For him lying is easier. As a young kid he had not yet had enough experience to realize that lying was ultimately going to get him into trouble. As far as he could tell at the ripe old age of 8 he was getting away with it. Which he was most of the time. So we talked a lot about how even if someone believes you in that moment they may find out about the lie later and it could cause you to lose friends. It took a few years of having these talks and also giving him a 24 "grace period" during which after telling one of his fabulously believable whoppers he could come clean with us with no repercussions. I am not kidding you it was impressive the lies he admitted to. He was GOOD. His lies were smooth, plausible and effortless. I would have never spotted them if he had not later confessed. Which is why I eventually concluded that he has that different brain (he's also great at other tasks that require the coordination of different brain areas). So the way I think of it, some people are wired such that lying is easier and they get caught less often. Which, if you start in childhood, can become an easy habit to keep up into adulthood. At that point it is just second-nature and harder to stop. Again I am not saying that you should give people a pass even if you are holding their brain imaging in your hot-little-hands as they lie to you. But it may help you have more compassion about how they developed that nasty habit to begin with. I would argue that if we all had that increase in white matter and less gray matter we may ALL lie a lot more. Most of us probably don't lie much because, in all honesty, we just aren't that good at it and we don't like getting busted.
I am pleased to say that my son no longer lies reflexively. Well, as far as I know. Because believe me, he was darned good at it. But if I do catch him in one, while he still has to face the music, I try to be compassionate and think that it's hard not to use a super-power when you have one.
Wishing you health and happiness,
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Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illness in the United States. Around 40 million people struggle with anxiety that is at debilitating levels. That's one in five people!
So what's going on in anxiety? Basically your sympathetic nervous system, which is designed to help you fight or run from predators (think a bear chasing you in the woods) has gone a bit haywire. Things that should not provoke this response (racing heart, dilated pupils, cold sweat, massive amounts of adrenaline in your bloodstream) have triggered this response. Which feels pretty terrible. Some people experience intense anxiety only occasionally, like before giving a talk in front of an audience, but other people experience anxiety on a daily basis.
Regardless of how much anxiety you have or when it comes on the treatments are essentially the same (except for simple phobias like fear of snakes or fear of flying, which really needs exposure therapy). You can reduce your overall anxiety by following any of these tips:
As always wishing you health and happiness,
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Many of us have heard of the myth of Narcissus-- the Greek hunter who saw his reflection in a body of water and was so overcome by his own beauty that he fell in love with the image and could not bear to leave it. He ended up dying, although the means vary from one version to the next. But the basic idea is that Narcissus could not love anyone other than himself.
Fast forward to now, 2019, and we can all attest to the longevity of the Narcissistic character. So I thought I would try to shed some light on this problem, because it's actually more complex than you might expect.
First, there are different types of Narcissism--
While it’s true that at its’ core narcissism can be thought of as self-involvement it can manifest in so many different ways that I think it’s often missed. The obvious narcissist is what psychologists call the Exihibitionistic or Grandiose Narcissist. This is the person who clearly is “in love” with themselves (or so it appears!). They strut around preening and posing and letting everyone around them know that they think they are superior. They try to surround themselves with other “special” people and are strongly drawn to wealth, power and status. They can be obsessed with their physical appearance, wanting to appear young, sexy and attractive at all times. They can become fixated on small flaws-- a mole, a small fat deposit-- and go to extreme measures to “perfect” themselves. They tend to be immature and may have tantrums. They tend to blame others. Apologizing is not in their wheelhouse. They are competitive and must have the newest, best things. They tend to treat their children as extensions of themselves and want their children to reflect well on them. Their children must be well groomed, well educated, well mannered and they must excel in everything important to the narcissistic parent. They expect everyone around them to adore them and see them as powerful and worthy of worship. They take advantage of others as, clearly, they deserve special favors, status or exceptions to rules. They may exaggerate their accomplishments in order to win approval of others and tend to be envious or assume others are envious of them.
Yes, they are exceedingly annoying to be around. What a lot of people don’t know is that narcissists, the exhibitionistic kind and others, actually don’t love themselves. Quite the contrary, they secretly (and usually unconsciously) deplore themselves. If they were to be able to get in touch with what is going on in the deepest levels of their mind they would see that they loathe themselves and feel inferior, ugly, useless and without value. This is why they have such a strong need to appear the opposite and cannot tolerate any criticism or question of their perfect veneer. They usually had childhoods where their emerging authentic self was not accepted. Typically they had narcissistic parents themselves who needed them to fit into a particular mold rather than be themselves. These parents would often withdraw love or affection as punishment if the child was not acting the way the parent wanted, even if that was as simple as the child having a different favorite color or food from the parent. This kind of rejection of who the child fundamentally is gets stuck deep down as a feeling of being emotionally abandoned. This abandonment feeling is mixed with shame, guilt, loneliness and feelings of emptiness at not having the approval of the parent, but also rage at being rejected. That rage can oscillate between being directed at others, who are seen as the potentially rejecting parents, or at the self in an attempt to kill or harm the “bad” self that the parent rejected. However again the self-loathing is deeply unconscious and usually is not expressed directly but rather projected onto others who are then tortured for their failures. Sadly one way or another if you are around a narcissist you are likely to be the object of their scorn, at least eventually.
All of this inner conflict is not only shoved under the rug with narcissism, it is usually then covered in six feet of steel-reinforced concrete and then buried under a mountain. People around the narcissist rarely see the inner turmoil and the narcissist is almost never aware of it other than a vague sense that other people need to be kept at bay and cannot be trusted. This is the narcissist's fear of being vulnerable and letting anyone get to know them, lest these inner painful wounds come to the surface.
So, if this is the Exhibitionistic Narcissist, what are the other types of narcissism? The flip side, so to speak, of the Exhibitionistic Narcissist is the Closet Narcissist or Fragile Narcissist. These people look on the outside as though they have poor self-esteem. They tend to be self-effacing and anxious and shy away from the spot-light tending to end up in supportive roles (often with an Exhibitionistic Narcissist). They are the “wind beneath the wings” of the more grandiose Exibitionistic style. However, don’t be fooled. These people are still narcissistically organized but are manifesting it differently. Instead of competing in the world directly to be the smartest, best, richest, most powerful, etc. person in the room they want to affiliate with that person. They want to work for them, marry them or be their best friend. They do this so that they can get the feeling of also being important by admiring and supporting the Exibitionistic Narcissist. These people usually had narcissistic parents who would attack them if they tried to “steal the spotlight”. These parents did not want their child to be #1 on the debate team because it made the parents feel inferior. They wanted their children to worship them but at the same time make themselves small so as not to compete with the parent. These kids grow up craving and needing the adoration that the Exhibitionistic Narcissist needs but they go about getting it quite differently. If confronted about possibly being selfish or self-interested they are quick to defend that they “do everything” for the Exhibitionistic Narcissist in their life, not admitting that the reason they are providing all of these “goodies” to the Exhibitionistic Narcisisist is so they can bask in that person’s reflection (which is essentially self-serving). The Closet (or sometimes called Fragile or Covert) Narcissist does not have the inflated defenses of the Exhibitionistic style and therefore is more prone to experiencing envy and low self-esteem that they are painfully aware of. They are also more likely to be depressed and may fail to achieve their potential in life.
Finally there is one more type of narcissistic type-- the Malignant Narcissist. You can think of this person as a cross between Narcissistic pathology and Antisocial Personality Disorder. While the Exhibitionistic Narcissist may be difficult to be around (a “blow-hard” , “egomaniac”, insensitive, etc.) the Malignant Narcissist is dangerous. They are cruel, sadistic, deceptive, manipulative and see themselves as “above the law”. They are likely to commit criminal acts (although if highly intelligent they may never be held accountable). They are often rageful, vengeful and dehumanize those they have contempt for. Your Exhibitionistic Narcissistic uncle may forget to tip a bell hop at the hotel because he is so focused on bragging about how he was upgraded to the penthouse because he knows the owner; but the Malignant Narcissist may spit in the direction of the bell hop and use racially derogative terms to let him know he does not deserve a tip. Or if he feels the bell hop has offended him in some way he may stalk him over the weekend, determine which car in the employee lot is his, and slash his tires. These people are criminally-minded and not only lack empathy but enjoy hurting others. Malignant Narcissists are sometimes called Pathological Narcissists and are definitely the kind of narcissist you need to stay away from at all costs.
If you have a narcissist in your life, and many of us do, it helps first to figure out if they are the Malignant kind. If they are then you really need to protect yourself with strong boundaries. These are predatory people who you cannot trust in any situation. However if you have an Exhibitionistic or Closet narcissist in your life you may choose to continue to have a relationship with them. However you would do wise to understand that they are never going to be great at empathy, are extremely vulnerable to shame and feeling exposed, and are often not self-aware to any degree. Narcissism is actually one of the earliest pathologies to develop (it comes about from problems between the parent and child before the age of 3) and as such it is very difficult to change. Interestingly twin-studies on narcissism show a 64 percent correlation, indicating a strong genetic component. Medications do seem to be helpful for the condition. There are psychotherapies that help narcissists (usually ones that focus on "transference", or the relationship between the therapist and the client). However narcissists rarely seek out therapy. So those in relationship to them shouldn’t hold their breath and it may also be a waste of time trying to confront them. Adjusting your expectations around a narcissist may be the most reliable way to manage the relationship. And it does help to remember that deep down they are just a little kid who feels they cannot be loved for who they truly are.
I hope this information helps make sense of what you may be hearing in the media or over your holiday meals with extended family...
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As always wishing you peace and happiness,
As a research-oriented person who spent A LOT of years in college I am a bit inclined to think that if something is simple it may not be very effective. I am often fond of saying to a new client "if your problem was easy to fix you would not be in my office!". And while on the whole I do believe that to be true, I have had a humbling experience with one particular "intervention" that is, at least in practice, quite simple. That intervention is monitoring and changing "self-talk".
So what do I mean when I say "self-talk"? Have you ever dropped a glass of water and as it shatters on the floor making a huge mess thought "God I am such an idiot!". Or locked yourself out of your house and thought "I can't believe I could be so stupid!". Well, that's self-talk. The interesting thing is that not everyone calls themselves stupid or an idiot when they make a mistake. Yes, I know, hard to believe. As someone who grew up with a lot of negative self-talk I was surprised to realize at some point that 1) I was doing it (we often don't realize what the inner dialogue is) and 2) that changing it would make any difference. But I was in for a big surprise because tracking my inner dialogue and making a conscious effort to change it paid big dividends.
Exactly how did I do that? Basically every time that I made a mistake and felt that inner "wince" I tried to pay attention to the default response I gave myself (see above for real examples!). And then I would imagine talking to a 5 year-old who made the same mistake and tried to picture what I would tell him or her. For example if one of my kids at age 5 had dropped a cup of water and it broke and spilled all over the floor I would certainly not have yelled " you idiot!" at them. Of course I might have felt frustrated at having to clean up the mess but I would have said something like "Oh bummer, it broke. Well, accidents happen!". By saying that I would be hoping to avoid the kid feeling too much guilt or even shame. So basically I started talking to myself like a 5 year old ;-)
And it worked. Yes folks, all of those years in graduate school, all of those deep analytical texts I devoured, all of the fancy theories I can wax poetic on... and one of the most powerful tools I have found for helping people love themselves more and be less self-critical is to talk to themselves more lovingly.
And it's not just me. While I often like to try interventions on myself before unleashing them on clients (and I highly recommend this to all therapists) I have tried this intervention now with dozens of my clients over the years. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One person I worked with for several years said it was the most powerful thing he had learned from me. And while I hope that I can offer a lot of different useful tools and transformative experiences in the end sometimes just one thing can make a lot of difference.
What prompted me to think about this today happened to be something in my in-box from a group dedicated to helping people who grew up in dysfunctional families. It's called Adult Children of Alcoholic AND Dysfunctional Families and it's a 12-step group. The email contained the following text:
"Many adult children struggle with self-forgiveness because we are oriented to doubt ourselves or to be hypercritical of ourselves as children." Big Red Book p. 234
We carry messages in our heads that if we do something and anyone has a negative reaction, we must have made a mistake. And if anyone tells us we did something wrong, our first thought is, 'Of course they're right!' It doesn't matter whether we actually did something wrong or not.
We tell ourselves things like 'I should have known better!' 'What's the matter with me?' ... These are like the messages we heard as children that became so ingrained that we learned at a very early age to say them to ourselves."
And this group has hit the nail on the head. We learn this from our parents growing up. This can happen in different ways. Our parents may have literally told us we were stupid or "should have done better" or "weren't living up to our potential" or that we were lazy. Or any number of criticisms. Some parents simply don't know that criticizing a child is not the best way to motivate them. They were probably criticized themselves as children and are just doing what they learned.
Some parents are able to not directly criticize their children but convey disappointment in other ways such as sighing when you bring home a less than perfect report card or favoring your older sibling who is the all-star athlete and not spending as much time with you since you are not the shining star of the family. We can learn in various ways that perfection is the standard and that bad things happen when we are not perfect ( or at least really, really good).
I invite you to conduct an experiment. Listen to your self-talk. Especially when you mess something up. If you notice that it is negative, harsh, critical, punitive or unforgiving then I invite you to try changing it to something more positive. I am not saying that when you realize that you forgot to pay that traffic ticket and now there is a warrant that has been issued that you should applaud yourself. I am saying to talk to yourself a bit like this "well, I had a lot on my plate last fall and I can see how that got away from me. I will take care of it now and move on. There is no use beating myself up about it, no one is perfect".
Try it. See what you find out. You just may be pleasantly surprised. And while it's no substitute for therapy if you are having big struggles it can be a step in the right direction to feeling less guilt, shame, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
Wishing you happiness and healing,
We've all heard that its hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But what about humans? How easy is it to change a person? We've all tried to make changes to ourselves, whether it's losing weight or stoping smoking...and sometimes we can do it and sometimes we fail. So clearly people can change, but clearly it's not an entirely easy process!
Psychotherapy is, at it's core, designed to change people. We do this through helping people have new experiences that are more in line with their goals of who they want to be and how they want to operate in the world. Our brain is shaped largely by experience. If you have the experience of practicing piano every day then the pathways of neurons (brain cells) that are used to play piano get stronger. Think of neurons like muscles-- the more you work them out, the stronger they get. So if you work out the same "set" of neurons (a "neural pathway") every day, say by practicing piano, then those get stronger and stronger and easier to activate. This is how we build proficiency in things, like playing baseball or practicing piano, or even being good at making small talk.
Some people grow up in families where they don't have certain experiences like being able to talk about their feelings, or being able to ask for what they need from others.
When those experiences are missing in childhood those neurons that are associated with that behavior are weak and hard to activate. Psychotherapy aims to provide experiences that were missing in childhood (or adulthood) that are needed to build adaptive behaviors that help us lead happy and fulfilling lives. So for example a person who grew up in a house where it was not OK to talk about one's feelings gets to talk openly about how they feel in therapy. That in turn exercises those neurons and strengthens that neural pathway so that talking about one's feelings becomes easier and easier.
In a very real sense psychotherapy is like hiring a personal trainer at your gym-- a person who can learn about how you would like to be (versus where you are now), set up an "exercise routine" to work out those muscles (neurons) and take you through those steps so that you can develop the muscles (skills) that you want. If we were to take a "before" and "after" picture of your brain we could actually see those neuronal changes that are a result of psychotherapy. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that one impact of psychotherapy is that the connections between the frontal lobe (which involves planning, organizing, regulating emotions, understanding consequences, controlling impulses and lots of other things we associate with being mature and healthy) and the limbic system (which is associated with raw emotions that can be overwhelming and "messy" if not regulated) are strengthened. So in a very real way psychotherapy helps your brain use the "smart part" (frontal lobe) to regulate your more primitive emotional center. This give you more control over intense emotions that otherwise may derail you from staying balanced.
The bottom line here is that our brains do change. Even in adulthood. This is good news for those of us who would qualify as "old dogs"! So if there are things about yourself that you wish were different I would encourage you to consider psychotherapy. As one person put it, "it's never too late to have a happy life".
Wishing you heath and happiness,
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It should be no surprise with the rapid advances in genetics these days that they have identified a gene that may help to explain what a lot of folks call the Highly Sensitive Person. A researcher at the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Levenson, postulates that a variation of the serotonin transporter gene on chromosome 17 may may account for people who feel their emotions very acutely. This serotonin transport gene can have two common variations-- the "short allele" or the "long allele" version. It's the short allele version that seems to be responsible for some people feeling things more intensely. This gene variation also seems to be correlated to higher rates of depression, anxiety and ADHD. Which bolsters what clinicians who work with those populations have noticed for decades-- that if you have anxiety, depression or ADHD, you are likely to have not just one of those but two or even all 3. And that if you have some of those difficulties you are also likely to see those same problems in blood relatives, hinting that there is a genetic linkage.
Dr. Levenson posted a fantastic youtube video that explains his research in a very understandable and fun format (he even uses emojis!). If you resonate with the idea that you tend to feel things more deeply than others you may want to look at other sources of information about this trait such as the wonderful website The Highly Sensitive Person which has books, videos, research links, self-tests and more.
So if you are a highly sensitive person what can be done about it? Well, years ago I encountered a theory in psychology that seemed so completely WRONG to my therapist's ear-- that the goal of therapy should not be to change people but teach people who they already are and how to live the in the world given who they are.
Anyone who reads my blog or does therapy with me knows that I am a huge fan of splitting the difference, finding the middle path or blending opposing ideas. So while at first I balked at what sounded like a completely hopeless perspective-- that we should not try to help people even try to change-- I came to realize that there is room for some of this perspective in my view of personal growth. Whether you are a Highly Sensitive Person, someone with ADHD (you can be both of course), an extrovert or on the spectrum, all of which are known to be highly genetically determined, or have some other genetically linked trait, you CAN make some changes to how you operate in the world. And, at the same time, there WILL be things you cannot change and, as the old 12-step saying goes, it's learning "the wisdom to tell the difference" that is the key to really thriving. So if the idea of a highly sensitive person resonates with you I encourage you to learn more about it and educate those that are close to you so that your behaviors do not get misinterpreted. Then set about learning how you can navigate the world with a little more comfort.
A few examples of HSP that I have known or worked with-- one woman notices that too much noise is very overwhelming for her, so she has skin-colored ear plugs that she wears if she is going out in public (like the mall, a noisy restaurant, etc). They dampen the ambient sound but she can still hear the people she is talking to just fine. If this idea appeals to you I suggest trying the off-the-rack cheap kind first and if you really love them you can order ones that are more high-end or even have them custom made by shops that cater to musicians.
Another HSP I know gets a lot of anxiety when entering into social situations because of the increased complexity of interactions. The combination of more voices, conversations bouncing around, more eye contact, etc. just jangles her nerves and she used to find herself making excuses and not joining into groups. Once she learned that she was an HSP she experimented with different methods of entering into groups that reduced her feeling of exposure to the increased input. She found that when she enters a room, house, venue, etc. if she can wait a minute (she can pretend to check her cell phone, go find a restroom, etc.) her nervous system has time to acclimate to the new environment. Once she has done that if she is still feeling a bit overwhelmed she can stand sideways to the group (this does not have to be too noticeable, the main thing is the have your torso perpendicular to the group but your head can be facing them). This has an interesting impact on the mammalian nervous system. Mammals are most physically vulnerable when their guts are literally exposed. So when one mammal faces another mammal if their torso is exposed the mammalian brain notices this and there is a deep evolutionary alarm that can sound and may feel like anxiety. This is especially likely if the group includes people you don't know or if you are in an environment you have never been in before (a new restaurant, a new friends house, etc). But by simply turning your torso 90 degrees, like you would if you were fencing, your mammalian brain is more likely to ratchet down the threat level and you will relax more.
For this particular person she even had a third level of "defense" for her nervous system if the first two things did not help enough-- she to develop particular imagery that was settling to her nervous system (if you are not familiar with the amazing power of guided imagery I recommend taking a look into it!). For this person imagining standing behind a huge one-way mirror when she was entering a new group was helpful. In the mental image she could see others but they could not see her. This deactivated her fight-flight response that was predicated on the idea of being seen. Again --to go back to how we are just large bipedal animals dressed in clothing-- being seen is the first step to being eaten. So for some HSP just being looked at can trigger a lot of anxiety. Because the brain, while in some ways is extremely sophisticated, in other ways it is very dumb. Sometimes the brain does not always know the difference between a very well rehearsed imagery and reality (just try thinking about biting into a lemon and see what your salivary glands do). So once this person had locked-in to that image as one that reduced her anxiety and she had rehearsed it numerous times she could call it up when under stress in social situations and it would reduce her feelings of being overwhelmed.
Again I am not suggesting that a HSP can turn themselves into a non-HSP. On some level we are who we are. But learning strategies to help modulate one's innate responses can give us more flexibility in our lives and lead to less stress and anxiety.
If you feel you are an HSP therapy can be a wonderful way to learn about yourself and get some help managing your beautiful but slightly tricky nervous system. Our office offers FREE 30-minute consultations so you can see if any of our therapists would be a good "fit" for you. And if you are an HSP in a relationship couples therapy can be a wonderful way not only to learn about yourself but to have your partner also learn about you in ways that can deepen the intimacy and de-personalize some of the problematic things that can crop up with a HSP in partnerships.
As always I wish you well in all of your endeavors and explorations in life, whether you are an HSP or not. The world has room for all of us and we all contribute in meaningful ways to create the rich diversity of the human condition.
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First I need to give credit to the originator of this metaphor, a friend and mentor Dr. Stephen Finn. Dr. Finn is a psychologist in practice here in Austin, Texas and is on faculty at UT Austin. He has mentored many psychologists over the years and is a world-renown expert on psychological assessment. If you are interested in psychological assessment you may find his website, www.therapeuticassessment.com, of interest. Now that I have given credit, let me explain what "saucering" is.
When an infant is born, he or she has a very limited capacity to tolerate distress.
This is why babies cry as much as they do. When they are cold they cry. When they are wet they cry. When they are hungry they cry. This is because they really can't do much to help themselves. Not only can they not change their own diaper or get their own blanket, but they can't tell themselves "well, it's OK that I am cold/wet/hungry right now because I know that it's only going to be a few minutes and then someone will come and take care of me". They can't do this because they don't' have a sense of time yet, a or of cause and effect , or of problem solving, etc. So they are just stuck with their crummy feeling and it doesn't take long before they feel overwhelmed and start to cry.
So if you think about their capacity to tolerate upsetting feelings (physical or emotional) as a container, it would be very small.
An infant, for example, would have maybe a thimble-sized container inside of them in which to store painful experiences. Once that thimble is overflowing with distress the baby will start to fuss and cry because they are overwhelmed.
Feeling overwhelmed is not good for your nervous system.
Our brains and bodies were not designed to manage distress for long periods of time. This is what people are talking about when they discuss stress-related illnesses. Long-term emotional or physical stress taxes our bodies and our psyches. So we don't want that little baby to sit in their distress for very long. We know that they only have a tiny little capacity for distress and we need to be ready to swoop in and put a saucer under their thimble. That way the over-flow is caught and doesn't make a big mess. When a parent or caregiver is able to quickly come in and put a saucer under the thimble of the baby when it starts to overflow, the baby learns that "OK, that was really uncomfortable to feel overwhelmed, but someone came along quickly and helped me contain it so it didn't' make a huge mess". And through that experience the baby learns to expand his or her capacity for distress. So over time the thimble-size container grows and becomes larger-- say a small teacup or espresso cup. So now the baby has more capacity to manage distress the next time it comes up.
Over the span of one's childhood, if the person is lucky enough to have parents who can provide support quickly and adequately, the capacity to tolerate distress grows considerably large.
By adulthood if all goes well a person has a container inside of them that is the size of a rain barrel. This means that as they go through their day they can tolerate a lot of stress and discomfort if need be. Which is a fantastic capacity to have in our stressful modern world!
However, as you can imagine, if a child grows up in a family where the parents are not able to quickly and adequately support the baby things can take a different turn.
Maybe mom is depressed, or dad works two jobs, or one of the parents is an alcoholic, or mentally ill. Or one of the siblings has a serious medical condition. There are many reasons why parents may not be able to adequately saucer their children. But regardless of the reason for the failure the result is the same. The child grows into an adult who still has that thimble-sized capacity for distress inside of them. And this means that they are constantly feeling overwhelmed and flooded by painful feelings that interfere with their functioning.
For some people the effects may be obvious-- not being able to keep a job, not being able to maintain friendships or romantic relationships. For others it may be the underlying reason for developing addictions. Or just never fully reaching one's potential. The manifestation of having a small internal capacity for distress is different for different people but it is damaging to all.
So what can be done about this? Since the "failure" is in childhood, what can the person do as an adult to work on this problem? Well, it turns out that therapists are fantastic saucers. Pretty much everything we learn in our training is in the service of saucering people. And when you take an adult with a thimble-sized container for distress and put them with a good therapist, the therapist can swoop in and "saucer" the person when they start to feel flooded. And this gives that person the experience they were missing in childhood.
So through therapy and repeated experiences of being "saucered" by the therapist the adult is able to increase his or her capacity for distress, just as the child would have. While these changes take time, they are also permanent and far-reaching.
If you feel that you have trouble sitting with painful feelings, whether that's anger or sadness or grief or boredom or anxiety…or any other uncomfortable feelings, you may want to consider finding a good therapist. Remember that the most important thing in starting therapy is to feel comfortable with the therapist, to feel that the two of you have a good "fit". Feel free to interview several different therapists-- we don't mind! Any good therapist will encourage you to shop around and wait until you feel you have found someone that you can feel comfortable with. For more information on finding the right therapist for you, see my page on this website entitled "Frequently Asked Questions".
Wishing you health and happiness and good saucering,
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We've all been there. You're in the middle of a screaming fight (OK, some of you are probably not screamers, so maybe a glowering fight) with the exact person that just 24 hours earlier you were feeling so incredibly in love with. Or you are furious with your 15 year-old for breaking curfew YET AGAIN when just last week you were sharing a touching moment with them where they thanked you for being such a great parent. And now you want to kill that same child. Not literally, but...
Yes, it happens. We can hate the ones we love. So what's going on here?
Psychologists call this a "complex feeling". It is literally a feeling that is a combination of other feelings. Just like "dusty rose" is a combination of pink and grey, many of the feelings we have during the day are actually combinations of other feelings. There are several schools of thought in my field that believe that there are only six truly distinct emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. Paul Eckman suggested that there are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness.Newer research is actually asserting that there are only four! Regardless of how many "distinct" emotions we have, in my experience the ones that really confuse us and cause most of our trouble are the "complex" or "blended" feelings. I feel great about liking my co-worker but then one day when she breaks my favorite coffee mug after I have asked her not to use it. I now have the weird experience of liking her overall, but at that moment being perturbed with her. What's even worse is what if she broke the coffee mug in the process of grabbing me the last piece of that amazing chocolate cake from the kitchen because she knew I was under deadline and missed the birthday celebration? And she knows how much I love cake! Ugh!! Now I feel really confused. Let's add in maybe that I envy my co-worker's amazingly fit figure and she never seems to even want cake. But she brings me cake. I do love cake. And I want cake. But I feel slightly guilty eating it in her presence because her size 6 jeans make me feel insecure. So we now have "happy" (yay! she brought me cake!), "surprised" ("wow, thanks for the cake, I though it was all gone!"), angry ("you broke my mug! I asked you not to use it!") and sad ("that was my favorite mug!"). I also apparently feel envy, which those smarty-pants researchers did not include on their list, but I would assert seems to be a very real feeling for many of us!
Why make the fuss about complex feelings? So what. We feel lots of feelings at the same time. Well, in my experience, lots of people find complex feelings unsettling. In fact, being able to tolerate complex feelings is a real developmental achievement according to mental health practitioners. Humans like to keep things simple. It frees up processing space in our brains. Really. We like to sort things into categories-- good/bad, smart/dumb, safe/dangerous, Republican/Democrat... This unfortunate evolutionary tactic to reduce load on our brains so that we can function more efficiently can make it hard to acknowledge or manage complex feelings. It's like being in a tug of war with your cortex-- one part of you knows that this person is important to you and that you like or even love them, but the other part of you is trying to "keep it simple stupid" and focus only on one feeling in that moment.
I have learned as a therapist that even just pointing this out is helpful to folks. Again the way humans evolved we are not geared to even notice this much less know what to do with it. So this is one of those situations in which even noticing the problem really helps. The next thing that has proven useful to me as a therapist is literally to tell the person to "make space for" each of the feelings. Don't judge them or try to get rid of one of them. Just notice them (mindfulness skills here!) and accept that they are co-existing in your brain right now. Allow both of them to be there. Don't beat yourself up for having some or all of them. Don't expect yourself to be internally consistent. Humans are inherently internally inconsistent, trust me.
The last step in dealing with complex feelings is assessing whether or not the person you are feeling them towards is a safe person to talk to about all of this. If that person generally can take feedback well and does not blow up then I recommend just telling them "hey, right now I feel mad at you but I also love you" or "right now I don't want to be around you but that's weird because I also have missed seeing you". (sidebar-- if the person does not seem like they are safe to talk to and it's someone that is important to you-- a spouse, a child, a friend-- you probably want to consider doing some therapy with that person to improve the communication between you!)
Mixed feelings are only problematic if you try to ignore them or judge yourself for having them. If you just let them sit there like the weird little creature that they are (OK, maybe weird BIG creatures if you are a big feeler like me!) and be like "oh, hey, yeah I see you there. It's weird that my love for my spouse is sitting right next to my desire to throttle him right now. Yep. Weird. But OK." then they will tend to subside. If you can accept the incongruence and explore it and hopefully talk about it the discord usually resolves all on it's own. Until it comes back. Which it will. Then it's wash, rinse, repeat. Welcome to humanity.
If you struggle with accepting feelings in general, or maybe just some specific feelings like hate or envy or whatnot, take a look at my blog on Acceptance and the resources there. And as mentioned above, Mindfulness also has great skills to help with tolerating things that make you uncomfortable. The more you can tolerate and accept what's going on inside you the more energy you will have to fight battles on the outside of you, like getting your taxes done or cleaning out the garage. Or maybe planning that fabulous vacation.
Wishing you health and happiness even when you feel conflicted,
Attachment styles represent the strategy that we learned as infants in order to keep our caregivers in close physical proximity. Human infants literally can't last more than an hour or so without having an adult caregiver nearby. Babies MUST keep this in their awareness and work hard to keep their caregiver close.
Different caregivers respond to different methods in order to maintain contact. If you
have a parent who is highly distractible, for example, it would pay off to intermittently cry or fuss a bit so that s/he doesn't forget that you are there. And you probably also want to cock your head in their direction periodically to see if they have absentmindedly wandered off on you. Now if you have a parent who doesn't like to be bothered you might try the opposite strategy-- be quite and don't cause a fuss. That way your parent will let you lie close by and stay safe.
Infants are hard-wired to develop these kinds of strategies to adapt to whatever caregiver they end up with. Kids who learn to "signal" a lot and keep track of their caregivers are termed "Anxious-Ambivalent" or "Angry-Resistant" in infant research. Dr. Stan Tatkin calls them "waves" as adults. Kids who learn to lay low and not ask for much are labelled "Anxious-Avoidant" or just "Avoidant". Dr. Stan Tatkin calls these folks "islands" as adults. Kids who are lucky enough to land a caregiver who does not need much adapting to are called "Secures".
There is a third attachment quality that was not even realized in the early research. These are kids who are in a bad dilemma. The caregiver they are with may, at times, provide nurturing and support. But that same caregiver can also be neglectful, abusive or can accidentally do things that scare the child.
Researchers found that parents did not even necessarily need to be abusive or neglectful to produce this attachment pattern. Parents who had themselves been abused or neglected sometimes looked scared when their babies cried. It's as if they were remembering on some deep level their own experiences of distress and fear related to their own parents. Babies see these faces full of fear and become fearful themselves. This stems from our evolution as primates who survived by living in groups. If one monkey in a tree sees a tiger it looks scared. A monkey sitting next to this one may not see the tiger but sees the fear on the face of its friend and therefore also gets scared. This fear behavior triggers a fight/flight response in BOTH monkeys. The one who saw the tiger and the one who only saw his friend looking scared. But now both monkey's bodies are in a fight/flight state, giving them both an equal chance of getting away safely. So as humans when we see someone who looks scared, we also get scared, even if we have no idea what they are responding to.
To a dependent baby, having a caregiver who is all of a sudden acting scared or checked-out can generate fear in the infant. Babies depend on caregivers to be calm and present. So if they see you really scared or off in another place in your head for more than a few second they can get scared themselves. Are you going to be able to take care of them in that moment? Will they be safe?
This kind of situation, if it happens regularly, can create what we call and "unresolved" or "disorganized" attachment style. Babies can, of course, also end up with a disorganized style from direct abuse or neglect. So if your parent was violent, or regularly threatening, or even severely depressed or drunk a lot of the time, you may as a baby have been scared that you were not going to be well cared for. And you may have had experienced where your caregiver was directly hurting you. This puts you in a bind-- the same person who is supposed to help you feel safe is now making you feel unsafe. The human brain does not have a good way of dealing with that dilemma. The kids are trying to attach to a parent to stay safe (our evolutionary strategy of being physically close to our protector) while at the same time either knowing in that moment that the parent may not be safe or having had numerous experiences that the parent has not been safe in the past.
As Dan Siegel, MD, explains it "The child is stuck in an awful dilemma: her survival instincts tell her to flee to safety, but safety may be in the very person who is frightening her. The attachment figure is thus the source of the child’s distress. Children in this conflicted state develop disorganized attachments with their parental figures. Disorganized attachment arises from fright without solutions."
Children who simultaneously feel a desire to move towards their parent for comfort but remember also not feeling safe with the same parent are caught in a "double-bind". There literally is no solution for this situation. Researchers observed a lack of organized behaviors in these babies because they could no reliably predict the right way to respond to their parents. They were called "disorganized" babies. They would display a mix of behaviors. For example, when upset they may start to crawl towards a parent, only to freeze mid-way and "zone out" for 10+ seconds. This is what is considered a "lapse" in strategy. A secure baby will continue to move towards the parent, not stop mid way and freeze for a prolonged period of time. Or a baby may back away from a parent when upset, which is the opposite of what a secure baby will do. Of all of the 4 strategies researched these kids had the highest risk for bad outcomes such as mental illness (including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, etc). They were also at risk for criminal behavior and had more trouble in school academically and behaviorally. Kids in this category show more dissociation-- from mini episodes to more prolonged states of "checking out". They may also block experiences from memory so that they have gaps in memories from childhood. For example they may say when interviewed "I don't remember second grade. It's just a big blank".
If you are a parent you may be freaking out right now thinking "oh no, did I ruin my children? Was I a terrible parent?" Let's be clear. No parent is perfect. I know because I am a parent and I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of parents in my career. Even great, wonderful people make mistakes rearing children. Some of us make BIG mistakes. Almost never because we don't care and even more rarely because we are trying to make our kids miserable or mess them up. I am fond of saying that the incidence of psychopathy is less than 1% of the population. Psychopaths are the only type of people who would lie awake at night trying to figure out how to ruin their child's life. So 99% of parents, no matter how poorly they are doing, are actually trying to be decent parents. But unfortunately sometimes even a parent who is trying to do a good job can lack the tools and create these fear states in their babies too often.
How often does this happen? Research suggests that anywhere from 15-30% of average (not particularly high-risk) families babies or toddlers meet criteria for disorganization. If you limit it to just "high risk" families (where at least one parent has a serious mental illness, substance abuse problem or is violent) then the risk for disorganized/unresolved attachment jumps to 80%. So if you are a therapist you should expect to see more disorganization than not in your practice. If your childhood background includes abuse or neglect it is probable that you also meet criteria for this type of problem. Or if one or both of your parents experienced abuse or neglect in childhood or suffered from unresolved PTSD as an adult.
How does this show up in your everyday life? Remember that our attachment system most strongly triggered in two situations-- parent-child interactions and long-term romantic partner interactions. So with friends, or co-workers, or the person who is checking you out at the grocery store you are not going to see much fall-out from this. But as mentioned above, if you are a parent and your child does something that reminds you of your own fears in childhood, you may either look or act scared, move into anger or dissociate. In romantic relationships you will likely have trouble soothing yourself when you get upset (similar to those with the anxious-ambivalent/angry-resistant style). But you will ALSO, simultaneously, have trouble using another person to soothe yourself (similar to the anxious-avoidant/avoidant style). Again, like the disorganized baby, you are caught in a dilemma with no clear solution. You will want comfort from your partner but feel anxious/fearful about how to effectively engage them. It is likely that you will have difficulty trusting your partner. This can actually trigger your partner to feel as though you can't be trusted! You are may frustrate your partner as your signals are confusing. Remember, you are not doing this on purpose! You are stuck in a dilemma from your early childhood which you had no control over.
So what can be done about this situation? First, if you think you may have a disorganized/unresolved style I STRONGLY recommend seeing a therapist who is both trained in attachment theory AND trauma treatments. This will give you the best chance of moving from what in adults we call an "unresolved" style to a "resolved" one. Making this jump helps to reduce or alleviate the problematic behaviors of not being able to trust or rely on your attachment figure and problems in self-soothing. This type of work can be done in individual therapy or in couples therapy as long a the therapist has the right training. It is not short-term therapy, you can expect it to take a year or more rather than weeks or months. However it is definitely worth the investment!
Dan Siegel, MD, has developed an online course that helps with creating what is called a "coherent narrative" to work on an “Unresolved Style ”. I also strongly recommend actually working in person with a therapist as this is how the human attachment system was meant to be "wired"-- through live interaction with another human nervous system. This is definitely not the kind of problem that you can fix by reading articles about it and journaling or doing phone therapy or even Skype or FaceTime therapy. You need to be in the room with a real live therapist.
I hope that understanding this category of attachment is helpful. Remember, as much as a third of us from "low-risk" families may be disorganized and the rates are even higher if your parents struggled with significant emotional issues including their own past childhood trauma. No one is passing this along on purpose". And having a disorganized/unresolved classification does not mean that you cannot be successful in life. I can hazard a guess that certain well-known figures who have become very successful probably would fit into this category (think any celebrity/public figure who have mentioned abuse or severe neglect in their childhood, such as Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Chevy Chase, Queen Latifah, Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinham, Ludwig van Beethoven, Billie Holiday, Carlos Santana, Johannes Brahms). If many of these highly successful people can rise above their difficult childhoods and potential unresolved attachment then we all have that capacity. However, getting the right kind of help will significantly increase your odds and make the journey a lot easier.
And just to make sure that my blogs are completely scientifically accurate I need to add an addendum here. Researchers never simply classify a kid (or adult) as disorganized/unresolved. They always give a secondary classification of "best fit". So you can be avoidant and disorganize/unresolved, or angry-resistant and disorganized/unresolved, or even secure and disorganized/unresolved. The disorganization/unresolved category has to do with whether or not your attachment strategy is consistent or if it gets derailed and confused when under stress. The other classification of best-fit has to do with what most of your attachment behaviors look like aside from those episodes of disorganization.
Hopefully this explanation itself is not too confusing! Attachment research is rich and complex and sometimes difficult to explain. However, understanding some of the basics about it can be IMMENSELY helpful to individuals and couples.
One final note. If you find "attachment style" quizzes on the "inter webs" (as my friend Margaret likes to call it) please know that, so far, research has not found self-reports like quizzes that you fill out about yourself to be terribly accurate in determining your attachment style. I can attest that when I first learned about attachment I thought I was definitely and completely a wave but actual attachment testing later proved me wrong! So be careful about assuming you know for sure what your own classification is. We seem to have a hard time assessing this component of ourselves without an outside observer. If you are interested in having your attachment style professionally determined you can look for a clinician who is able to administer the Adult Attachment Inventory or the Adult Attachment Projective. Those are two well-researched, well-validated instruments that can tell you what research category your attachment behaviors fall into. A PACT-trained couples therapist can walk you and your partner through various exercises that can also tease out what attachment style behaviors you manifest with your partner under attachment-related stress.
As always I hope that this information is helpful and if you have questions or comments feel free to send them to me!
Wishing you success in your relationships,
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The following article appeared on time.com last month and is a HUGE topic in my work with couples. One of the first things I try to teach couples is that memory is faliable and so the "he said/she said" fight where one person opens with "when you said/did _____" and the other person fires right back "THAT'S NOT WHAT I SAID/DID!" to which the other now disbelieving partner yells "Oh my gosh YES IT IS!" followed by something like "I remember EXACTLY what you said, it was Tuesday and we were standing at the kitchen sink and Timmy was watching Sponge Bob and I was making lasagna and you said/did ____!!" Wash, rinse, repeat...
Believe me, watching this cycle is just as frustrating and pointless for the therapist as it is for the participants. If a couple can't learn to get past this stalemate they are doomed. They will keep arguing without "moving the ball forward" as Dr. Tatkin likes to say. This ongoing stalemate will contribute to both feeling hurt, unheard, invalidated and hopeless. Over time intimacy wanes, distance increases and thoughts of divorce, affairs or falling into addictive patterns creep in.
Interestingly research done by Dr. Gottman indicates that the goal of healthy couples is not to stop fighting. It's to USE fights for what they are meant for-- again, as Dr. Tatkin says-- "moving the ball forward". Each partner needs to feel that their own agenda has been advanced while also NOT harming the other partner. This is a LOT harder than it seems!
I have studied a lot of different theorists and clinicians that work with couples. My absolute favorite is Dr. Stan Tatkin. He is practical, realistic and science-based. What follows here are excerpts from an article that was written by BELINDA LUSCOMBE on 12/12/18. She is an editor-at-large at TIME and interviewed Dr. Tatkin. Luscombe writes about the "inevitable really stupid fight you keep having over who threw whom under the [bus] last time you went over to that person’s place for that thing." She talked to Stan Tatkin who has just released his new book We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection and Enduring Love about his experience with couples fighting and his approach, the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy.
Luscombe discusses how Dr.Tatkin "studies couples by filming them during a fight and then doing video microanalysis (a slow-motion, frame-by-frame examination of the footage) to see what’s really going on. Through this analysis, he has found that the human brain has a set of characteristics that can make fights with our loved ones worse—and that we can out-maneuver, to find better resolutions faster." She states that Dr. Tatkin found predictable errors that partners make, including the following:
And by the way, here is a hint-- the right responses to the bold-faced mistakes are in bold italics!!
I found Luscombe's article well-written, clear and very helpful! I recommend reading it and trying to apply these tips in your relationships with other fallible, poorly communicating, subjectively-limited but wonderful human beings. If you want to reach out to her or the editors at time.com contact them at email@example.com.
Wishing you love and connection in all your relationships,
PS If you have found this information helpful or interesting please "tweet" about it on Twitter, re-post it on Facebook or spread it via other social media platforms! Help me spread the word about good mental health resources! Thanks!
And of course if you want to leave a comment I will respond ASAP. Also feel free to suggest future blog topics.
"An Introduction to PACT Therapy" will cover the fundamental aspects of PACT therapy that make it so distinctly different (and arguably more effective!) than other forms of couple's work. If you have avoided working with couples for fear of the complexity this talk will help excite you to the possibilities and show you a clear and coherent model that is elegantly simple. If you already work with couples and find that there are particular couples, dynamics or situations that you struggle with this talk may help you see how to work in a new and different way that taps implicit learning and deep emotional patterns, creating fast and lasting change.
In an effort to spread the word about PACT I’m going to be giving a talk in Houston on Friday, January 11, 2019. All are welcome to attend. If you would like to purchase a ticket please click on the link below!
For many decades, spirituality, and even more so religion, was considered to be at odds with psychology and psychiatry. It is true that Sigmund Freud, arguably the inventor of "the talking cure", was not a fan. However, as with everything in life, things change. Psychology is no longer as opposed to spirituality and religion as it's creator may have intended it to be. Personally, I am a researcher by nature, so as with all questions I like to consult the data.
I realize that may sound quite contradictory for something that is predicated on instances and people whose existence cannot be proven-- God, the Holy Spirit, immortal life, karma, reincarnation, sin, heaven, hell, deities, etc. However, the position I take as a therapist is not to have an opinion on the veracity of any particular religion or spiritual belief system, but to have a position on the benefits or utility of such beliefs for the human condition. And this is where research is the perfect tool.
There has actually been a fair amount of research on the impact of a spiritual or religious belief system on mental health. For example the American Journal of Psychiatry and Archives of General Psychiatry found that of articles published over a 12-year span that included an assessment of spiritual or religious commitment in clients, 72% of those variables were shown to be beneficial to mental health. Additionally this same study found that participation in religious services, social support, prayer and a relationship with God were beneficial in 92% of citations.
There have been numerous studies showing that a spiritual or religious belief system, and an active relationship with that belief system (as evidenced by attendance in services, prayer, meditation or other regular expressions of this belief system) have a beneficial protective factor against depression (for example see Brown and Prudo).
However depression is not the only diagnosis that seems to benefit from this quality. Sharma, et al (2017) looked at 3151 military veterans and found that religious or spiritual belief systems were associated with decreased risk for lifetime PTSD, major depressive disorder and alcohol use disorder. The higher the rating of spiritual or religious beliefs the higher the rating of a sense of gratitude, purpose in life, and good recovery from PTSD.
Perhaps even more impressive is a study done on people suffering from schizophrenia, a severely debilitating and life-long mental disorder. The Department of psychiatry at Christian Medical College, Vellore did a multi-site study involving three clinics over 5 years of follow-up. The results showed that those patients suffering from schizophrenia who spent more time in spiritual or religious activities tended to have a better prognosis.
Spirituality and/or religion seems not only to benefit the individual but also their offspring. Thomas Ashby Wills, Professor of Epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that having a strong investment in one's religious beliefs "kept children from smoking, drinking and drug abuse by buffering the impact of life stresses." (emphasis added) Gene H. Brody, a research professor of child and family development at the University of Georgia, Athens, found that parents who incorporated regular spiritual or religious activities into their lives had better marital relationships and parenting skills. Their children rated higher on measures of competence, self-regulation, psychosocial adjustment and school performance. Miller et al. made a 10-year follow up study on depressed mothers and their offsprings and reported that mothers who had a strong spiritual or religious belief system and who had children who also agreed with these beliefs had less incidence of depression in their children. In terms of how people with mental illness rate the importance of spirituality or religious beliefs, Wagner and King conducted a study of patients who had psychotic illness and found that the existential (i.e. spiritual or religious) needs were the most important even compared to things like housing or employment.
Again this is just a sampling, but having reviewed many more articles over the years it is my firm belief that having a strong spiritual or religious belief system, coupled with an active practice of those beliefs (through prayer, meditation, attendance of services, reading of literature or other activities) can be a significant source of help and protection in the area of mental health. Research shows it not only protects us against developing many mental illnesses but helps us recover better from or live better with those disorders. It strengthens our pair-bonds/marriages, helps us be better parents and improves our outlook on life. As a therapist I am an unabashed fan of spirituality and religion. What kind is up to my client and their spiritual advisors. But I do encourage anyone who has not found a spiritual belief system or religion that feels comfortable for them to continue to look. There are many options and, so far as we can tell from the research, no one provides more mental health benefits than the other.
I hope during this holiday season, when images and reminders of spirituality and religion abound, you will pause to consider whether or not you have these beliefs in place and how that may impact your mental health. While no one can argue that religion and spiritual beliefs have at times been grossly misused, it may be time not to throw the baby out with the bath.
Wishing you health, happiness, peace and serenity in this holiday season and into the new year,
PS If you have found this blog post to be helpful PLEASE "like" it on Facebook or tweet it on Twitter or re-post it to any other social media. This helps others find my blog and spreads it as a resource for those wanting science-based information on mental health. Thanks!
Some time ago I published a blog on the "Care and Feeding of your Island/Avoidant Partner". For those of you unfamiliar with the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT), "Islands" and "Waves" are the terms coined by Dr. Stan Tatkin to help people understand attachment styles and how they show up in romantic relationships.
"Wave-ish" partners have a few hallmark qualities that can help you identify them. They tend to like to talk, especially at night as they are settling down. They tend to be soothed by contact, so they tend to like physical touch. They tend to be more expressive with their faces and their voices, some would say leaning towards the dramatic...In terms of weaknesses, waveish folks may complain about feeling overwhelmed more than others. They also have a tendency to have more of a negativity bias so they may regurgitate old hurts in the midst of an argument. It can feel like they never really let go of anything.
Since one of the main principles of successful relationships is that they are fair and equal it only makes sense after writing about how to care for an island that I now go on to talk about how to take great care of wave-ish partners too. So here goes...
Wave-ish folks, like the rest of us, are subject to becoming more extreme versions of themselves once married. This has to do with breaching that final level of commitment to where our partners are now also family. We all carry around inside of us memories of how we were treated in childhood, and how we observed our family members treating each other. These templates are more flexible and less evident in our relationships with our friends and co-workers. Once someone enters into the realm of true family these templates are often re-activated in powerful ways and they tend to amplify our natural tendencies learned as children. This is the reason that you hear "but I don't have these problems with ________ (insert my co-workers, my friends, my neighbors...). We use different neural networks in relating to our attachment figures (like our romantic partners) compared to other people in our lives. That's where the real rubber meets the road...
So as with Islands, once Waves are truly committed you may see the following tendencies emerge more strongly:
Fear abandonment, even in ways that seem more minor. Wave-ish folks experienced inconsistent parenting, such that they were sometimes coddled and given lots of attention but then sometimes unexpectedly rebuffed or pushed away and even shamed for being "too needy" or "too much". They intuitively expect the other shoe to drop and expect to be rejected. This gets worse with commitment for the reasons mentioned above. Your wave-ish partner may start reacting to you leaving, even if you are just running some errands, causing you to feel bewildered and frustrated. Know that departures can be triggering for them and leave with an extra dose of love. Let them know that you are going but will be thinking of them while you are gone and look forward to seeing them when you get back. Give them a hug before you leave. Send them a text (doesn't have to be fancy, a heart or smiley face will do) while you are out. Think of them as a kid who gets nervous when their mom or dad are suddenly unavailable. They need reassurance around both departures and reunions.
Can get prickly when you reunite after being apart. Again this can be VERY confusing for their partners, who have no idea that the separation was stressful. They come home from running some errands to a wave-ish partner picking a fight. Crazy, I know. But remember that they fear you leaving and when you do they may feel a surge of anger at being left. Since they tend to have trouble letting go of the past they may think about this the whole time you are gone. Then when you get back, wham! they let you have it. THEY DON'T DO THIS CONSCIOUSLY OR ON PURPOSE. Please, please, keep this in mind. It is no picnic for them either. No one likes to feel upset, so if your wave-ish partner is being cranky or downright mad remember that what is underneath that is emotional pain. They are hurting. One of the most fool-proof ways to soothe a wave-ish person is to hold them. They usually melt under touch. They also tend to love eye-contact. So hold them, gaze lovingly into their eyes and tell them that they can depend on you to never abandon them. Tell them that you know that they don't like it when they are alone and tell them you missed them! This, along with a good warm hug, usually works wonders on a cranky wave.
Can ramp up their emotional intensity, especially if you are island-ish. Remember the opposite styles amplify each other. So if you are island-ish, after marriage or deep commitment you will tend to move away a bit. This is likely to bring about protest behavior from your wave. It may be more clinging or it may be more frustration and accusations about how aloof you are. Or both. Try to remember that a wave-ish person is like a fussy baby. They make a lot of noise and you may be inclined to simply leave rather than deal with the fuss. But just like a crying baby they need your help, love and soothing. They tend to calm down MUCH faster than their partners think. So moving in, using touch, soothing words and eye contact can usually get a wave-ish person to get some emotional equilibrium pretty quickly. Even if you are not an island your wave-ish partner may get extra emotional after the deep commitment. Be prepared for this and don't blame them or tell them they are crazy. They are expressing their fear that you are not going to connect to them. Waves need a lot of connection and get more dramatic and emotionally messy when they don't get sufficient connection. Sadly they often unconsciously drive people away with their "fussiness", depriving themselves of the connection they need to get calm again. So know this and help them. It will pay you back tenfold in that you will not only have a more calm partner but you will have a partner who is eternally grateful to you for knowing what they need and giving it to them. Like islands, waves are often misunderstood. Your job is to not fall into that trap, to know them and take care of them.
May "spoil" things you try to do for them. This one is bound to make you feel crazy but remember they are not doing it intentionally. They want to be happy, just like any person does. However, since they have a childhood history of having the other shoe constantly dropped they anticipate being disappointed. So if you do something nice for them they may just turn around and "spoil" it somehow. If you take them out to dinner they may complain about the restaurant. If you buy them a gift they may tell you it's not their style, or the wrong color, or whatever. While the natural reaction to this would be to tell them to take a hike, you need to remember that they are acting from childhood pains. Tell them how much you love them and that you know they have been disappointed in the past. Tell them you don't want to disappoint them and you are open to hearing what they need from you. Don't take it personally when they try to spoil a gift or kindness. I know it's a tall order but you will be healing a deep and very painful wound from their childhood. Which is really, in my opinion, what marriage is all about. And that's a two-way street, so when you heal your wave's painful childhood issues they will do the same in return. And once wounds are healed you will see a lot less of this behavior, so it pays dividends forward.
Tend to respond with a negative a lot of the time. So if you propose a vacation to the beach they are likely to tell you the five reasons that's a bad idea. Don't bite. Just let them know that you know that they tend to find "what's wrong with the picture" before being willing to see what might be right. Tell them you are going to overlook their first response and give them another chance. If your partner is good with humor, you can say something like "OK my beautiful nattering naybob of negativity, now that you have gotten all the no's out of your system, can we revisit the idea?". Then flash them a loving smile. When used with love and kindness humor can be a great way to re-boot an activated wave.
May get really preoccupied with being "too much" or "too needy". Remember that wave-ish folks had childhoods where people alternately showered them with attention and told them they were too much and rebuffed them. So they are naturally afraid of overwhelming people. Paradoxically this leads to a lot of anxiety, which can make them more emotional, more clingy and more negative. Which has the unintended consequence of making their parter get exasperated with them! Be on the lookout for your wave-ish partner feeling judged as too needy or overwhelming. A wave-ish partner may misinterpret signals like you looking away during a conversation or sighing when they tell you something they need. Be careful to let your wave-ish person know they are NOT too much for you and that you have no intention of leaving them. Help them feel safe and secure and you will find their wave-ishness will actually diminish!
May have trouble ending an argument or letting it go afterwards. Wave-ish folks have trouble with endings, even arguments! They may keep it going because closing up something feels in a way like loss. They may also hold on to hurts from the past to act as a bulkhead against being vulnerable towards you in the future, which they fear will be rewarded with more hurt! Help your wave let go in an argument by reminding them that while there may be a part of them that tends to hang on, their body and mind deserve relief. Hold them tight at the end of a rough conversation and reassure them that if they let go they are not going to be setting themselves up for additional injury.
May not look out well for their partner in social situations. If you go to a party or event your wave-ish partner may wander off to socialize and "drop" you. This is because their parents dropped them (emotionally) as kids. Don't take this personally and remind them before you go out to social events that you would like for them to keep track of you and circle back at predetermined intervals to keep you feeling connected.
Waves are not any more difficult than islands. And like islands they do not do these things "on purpose" or with the intent of making their partner crazy. Learn to love your wave and help them to manage their emotional reactivity. They will greatly appreciate your help in containing some of their intensity and you will feel calmer knowing you are not about to be plowed under by a tsunami!
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Wishing you happiness and health,
I recently came across an amazing article that really helps to delineate the difference between attachment parenting, which is a style of parenting that promotes specific behaviors like co-sleeping, breastfeeding and "wearing" your baby, versus secure attachment, which is more about repeated patterns of moment-to-moment attunement in interactions and how repairs are made (or not made). While many parents, myself included, would like to think that practicing attachment parenting guarantees secure attachment in your child, it actually does not.That isn't to say that there is no merit in attachment parenting suggestions, however, in and of themselves they are insufficient to produce a securely attached kid.
I felt like this article did such a good job explaining all of this it seemed crazy to try to paraphrase it on my own. So I am just copying it here. I hope others will find it as helpful and thought-provoking!
What is a Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn’t “Attachment Parenting” Get You There?
April 3, 2017
A few months ago, a young friend of mine had a baby. She began a home birth with a midwife, but after several hours of labor, the baby turned to the side and became stuck. The midwife understood that the labor wouldn’t proceed, so she hustled the laboring Amelie into the car and drove the half-mile to the emergency room while Amelie’s husband followed. The birth ended safely, and beautiful, tiny Sylvie emerged with a full head of black hair. The little family of three went home.
When the baby was six weeks old, Amelie developed a severe breast infection. She struggled to continue breastfeeding and pumping, but it was extremely painful, and she was taking antibiotics. Finally she gave in to feeding her baby formula, but she felt distraught and guilty. “Make sure you find some other way to bond with your baby,” her pediatrician said, adding to her distress.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh!” he whispered.
”Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
— A. A. Milne
Fortunately, sleep came easily to Sylvie; she slumbered comfortably in a little crib next to Amelie’s side of the bed. Still, at four months, Amelie worried that the bond with her baby wasn’t forming properly and she wanted to remedy the problem by pulling the baby into bed. Baby Sylvie wasn’t having it. When she was next to her mother, she fussed; when Amelie placed her back in the crib, she settled. Again, Amelie worried about their relationship.
“Amelie” is an amalgam of actual friends and clients I have seen in the last month, but all of the experiences are real. And as a developmental psychologist, I feel distressed by this suffering. Because while each of the practices—home birth, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping—has its benefits, none of them is related to a baby’s secure attachment with her caregiver, nor are they predictive of a baby’s mental health and development.
“Attachment is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.”
— Alan Sroufe “Attachment is not a set of tricks,” says Alan Sroufe, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota. He should know. He and his colleagues have studied the attachment relationship for over 40 years.
Why the confusion about a secure attachment?
Over the last 80 years, developmental scientists have come to understand that some micro-dynamics that take place between a baby and an adult in a caring relationship have a lifelong effect, in very specific ways, on the person that baby will become.
“Attachment,” Sroufe explains, “is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.”
A secure attachment has at least three functions:
In spite of the long scientific history of attachment, psychologists have done a rather poor job of communicating what a secure attachment is and how to create one. In the meantime, the word “attachment” has been co-opted by a well-meaning pediatrician and his wife, William and Martha Sears, along with some of their children and an entire parenting movement. The “attachment parenting” philosophy promotes a lifestyle and a specific set of practices that are not proven to be related to a secure attachment. As a result, the movement has sown confusion (and guilt and stress) around the meaning of the word “attachment.”
The attachment parenting philosophy inspired by the Searses and promoted by an organization called Attachment Parenting Internationalis centered on eight principle concepts, especially breastfeeding, co-sleeping, constant contact like baby-wearing, and emotional responsiveness. The approach is a well-intentioned reaction to earlier, harsher parenting advice, and the tone of the guidance tends to be baby-centered, supportive, and loving. Some of the practices are beneficial for reasons other than attachment. But the advice is often taken literally and to the extreme, as in the case of my “Amelie,” whose labor required hospital intervention and who suffered unduly in the belief that breastfeeding and co-sleeping are necessary for a secure attachment.
Attachment parenting has also been roundly critiqued for promoting a conservative Christian, patriarchal family structure that keeps women at home and tied tightly to their baby’s desires. Additionally, the philosophy seems to have morphed in the public consciousness into a lifestyle that also includes organic food, cloth diapers, rejection of vaccinations, and homeschooling. The Searses have sold millions of books, and they profit from endorsements of products that serve their advice.
“These [attachment parenting principles] are all fine things,” observes Sroufe “but they’re not the essential things. There is no evidence that they are predictive of a secure attachment.”
Sroufe unpacks feeding as an example: A mother could breastfeed, but do it in a mechanical and insensitive way, potentially contributing to an insecure attachment. On the other hand, she could bottle-feed in a sensitive manner, taking cues from the baby and using the interaction as an opportunity to look, talk, and play gently, according to the baby’s communication—all behaviors that are likely to create secure attachment. In other words, it is the quality of the interaction that matters. Now, one might choose breastfeeding for its digestibility or nutrition (though the long-term benefits are still debated), but to imply, as Amelie’s pediatrician did, that bottle-feeding could damage her bond with her baby is simply uninformed.
There is also confusion about what “constant contact” means. Early on, the Searses were influenced by the continuum concept, a “natural” approach to parenting inspired by indigenous practices of wearing or carrying babies much of the time. This, too, might have been taken up in reaction to the advice of the day, which was to treat children in a more businesslike manner. There is no arguing that skin-to-skin contact, close physical contact, holding, and carrying are all good for babies in the first few months of life, as their physiological systems settle and organize. Research also shows that the practice can reduce crying in the first few months. But again, what matters for attachment is the caregiver’s orientation and attunement: Is the caregiver stressed or calm, checked out or engaged, and are they reading a baby’s signals? Some parents misinterpret the prescription for closeness as a demand for constant physical closeness (which in the extreme can stress any parent), even though the Searses do advise parents to strive for a balanced life.
“There’s a difference between a ‘tight’ connection and a secure attachment,” Sroufe explains. “A tight attachment—together all the time—might actually be an anxious attachment.”
And what of emotional responsivity? This, too, has a kernel of truth, yet can be taken too far. It is safe to say that all developmental scientists encourage emotional responsiveness on the part of caregivers: The back-and-forth, or serve-and-return, is crucial to brain development, cognitive and emotional development, the stress regulation system, and just authentic human connection. But in my observation, well-meaning parents can become overly-responsive—or permissive—in the belief that they need to meet every request of the child. While that is appropriate for babies in the first half to one-year year of life (you can’t spoil a baby), toddlers and older children benefit from age-appropriate limits in combination with warmth and love. On the other hand, some parents feel stressed that they cannot give their child enough in the midst of their other responsibilities. Those parents can take some comfort in the finding that even within a secure attachment, parents are only attuned to the baby about 30% of the time. What is important, researchers say, is that the baby develops a generalized trust that their caregiver will respond and meet their needs, or that when mismatches occur, the caregiver will repair them (and babies, themselves, will go a long way toward soliciting that repair). As long as the caregiver returns to the interaction much of the time and rights the baby’s boat, this flow of attunements, mismatches, and repairs offers the optimal amount of connection and stress for a baby to develop both confidence and coping, in balance.
What is the scientific view of attachment?
The scientific notion of attachment has its roots in the work of an English psychiatrist named John Bowlby who, in the 1930s, began working with children with emotional problems. Most professionals of the day held the Freudian belief that children were mainly motivated by internal drives like hunger, aggression, and sexuality, and not by their environment. However, Bowlby noticed that most of the troubled children in his care were “affectionless” and had experienced disrupted or even absent caregiving. Though his supervisor forbade him from even talking to a mother of a child (!), he insisted that family experiences were important, and in 1944 he wrote his first account of his observations based on 44 boys in his care. (Around the same time in America, psychologist Harry Harlow was coming to the same conclusion in his fascinating and heart-rending studies of baby monkeys, where he observed that babies sought comfort, and not just food, from their mothers.)
Bowlby went on to study and treat other children who were separated from their parents: those who were hospitalized or homeless. He came to believe that the primary caregiver (he focused mainly on mothers) served as a kind of “psychic organizer” to the child, and that a child needs this influence, especially at certain times, in order to develop successfully. To grow up mentally healthy, then, “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with this mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”
But the attachment figure doesn’t have to be the mother or even a parent. According to Bowlby, babies form a “small hierarchy of attachments.” This makes sense from an evolutionary view: The number has to be small since attachment organizes emotions and behavior in the baby, and to have too many attachments would be confusing; yet having multiples provides the safety of backups. And it’s a hierarchy because when the baby is in need of safety, he or she doesn’t have time to analyze the pros or cons of a particular person and must automatically turn to the person already determined to be a reliable comfort. Research shows that children who have a secure attachment with at least one adult experience benefits. Babies can form attachments with older siblings, fathers, grandparents, other relatives, a special adult outside the family, and even babysitters and daycare providers. However, there will still be a hierarchy, and under normal circumstances, a parent is usually at the top.
In the 1950s, Mary Ainsworth joined Bowlby in England, and a decade later back in the U.S. began to diagnose different kinds of relationship patterns between children and their mothers in the second year of life. She did this by watching how babies reacted in a sequence of situations: when the baby and mother were together, when they were separated, when the baby was with a stranger, and when baby was reunited with the caregiver after the separation. Ainsworth and colleagues identified the first three of the following patterns, and Mary Main and colleagues identified the fourth:
The mothers who fall into this pattern are responsive, warm, loving, and emotionally available, and as a result their babies grow to be confident in their mothers’ ability to handle feelings. The babies feel free to express their positive and negative feelings openly and don’t develop defenses against the unpleasant ones.
The mothers in insecure-avoidant attachments often seem angry in general and angry, specifically, at their babies. They can be intolerant, sometimes punishing, of distress, and often attribute wrong motivations to the baby, e.g., “He’s just crying to spite me.” One study showed that the insecurely-attached babies are just as physiologically upset (increased heart rates, etc.) as securely attached babies when parents leave but have learned to suppress their emotions in order to stay close to the parent without risking rejection. In other words, the babies “deactivate” their normal attachment system and stop looking to their mothers for help.
As toddlers, insecure-avoidant children don’t pay much attention to their mothers or their own feelings, and their explorations of the physical world are rigid and self-reliant. By preschool, these children tend to be more hostile, aggressive, and have more negative interactions overall. Avoidance and emotional distance become a way of dealing with the world, and instead of problem-solving, they are more likely to sulk or withdraw.
These babies are not easily comforted. They seem to want the close relationship, but the mother’s inconsistency and insensitivity undermine the baby’s confidence in her responses. This pattern also undermines the child’s autonomy, because the baby stays focused on the mother’s behavior and changing moods to the exclusion of nearly everything else. In insecure-ambivalent babies, separation anxiety tends to last long after secure babies have mastered it. Longitudinal studies show that these children often become inhibited, withdrawn, and unassertive, and they have poor interpersonal skills.
This pattern can also result when the mother has a mental illness, substance addiction, or multiple risk factors like poverty, substance abuse and a history of being mistreated. Babies of mothers like this can be flooded with anxiety; alternatively, they can be “checked out” or dissociated, showing a flat, expressionless affect or odd, frozen postures, even when held by the mother. Later these children tend to become controlling and aggressive, and dissociation remains a preferred defense mechanism.
“The emotional quality of our earliest attachment experience is perhaps the single most important influence on human development.”
— Alan Sroufe and Dan Siegel
How important is attachment?
“Nothing is more important than the attachment relationship,” says Alan Sroufe, who, together with colleagues, performed a series of landmark studies to discover the long-term impact of a secure attachment. Over a 35-year period, the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaption (MLSRA) revealed that the quality of the early attachment reverberated well into later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, even when temperament and social class were accounted for.
One of the most important—and, to some ways of thinking, paradoxical—findings was that a secure attachment early in life led to greater independence later, whereas an insecure attachment led to a child being more dependent later in life. This conclusion runs counter to the conventional wisdom held by some people I’ve observed who are especially eager to make the baby as independent and self-sufficient as possible right from the start. But there is no pushing independence, Sroufe found. It blooms naturally out of a secure attachment.
In school, securely attached children were more well-liked and treated better, by both their peers and their teachers. In one study, teachers who had no knowledge of a child’s attachment history were shown to treat securely attached children with more warmth and respect, set more age-appropriate standards, and have higher expectations. In contrast, teachers were more controlling, had lower expectations, got angry more often, and showed less nurturing toward the children with difficult attachments—and who, sadly, had a greater need than the securely attached kids for kindness from adults.
The MSLRA studies showed that children with a secure attachment history were more likely to develop:
A large body of additional research suggests that a child’s early attachment affects the quality of their adult relationships, and a recent longitudinal study of 81 men showed that those who grew up in warm, secure families were more likely to have secure attachments with romantic partners well into their 70s and 80s. A parent’s history of childhood attachment can also affect their ability to parent their own child, creating a cross-generational transmission of attachment styles.
But early childhood attachment with a parent is not destiny: It depends on what else comes along. For example, a secure preschool child can shift to having an insecure attachment later if there is a severe disruption in the caregiving system—a divorce or death of a parent, for example. But the effect is mediated by how stressed and available the primary attachment figure is. In other words, it’s not what happens, but how it happens that matters. Children who were previously secure, though, have a tendency to rebound more easily.
Sroufe writes in several articles that an insecure attachment is not fate, either; it can be repaired in a subsequent relationship. For example, good-quality childcare that offers emotional support and stress reduction can mitigate a rocky start at home. A later healthy romantic relationship can offset the effects of a difficult childhood. And good therapy can help, too, since some of the therapeutic process mimics the attachment process. Bowlby viewed development as a series of pathways, constrained by paths previously taken but where change is always possible.
Without conscious intervention, though, attachment styles do tend to get passed through the generations, and Bowlby observed that becoming a parent particularly activates a parent’s childhood attachment style. One study looked at attachment styles over three generations and found that the mother’s attachment style when she was pregnant predicted her baby’s attachment style at one year of age for about 70% of cases.
What about parents who might not have gotten a good start in life and want to change their attachment style? There’s good news. Research on adult attachment shows that it is not the actual childhood experiences with attachment that matter but rather how well the adult understands what happened to them, whether they’ve learned some new ways of relating, and how well they’ve integrated their experience into the present. In other words, do they have a coherent and realistic story (including both good and bad) of where they’ve been and where they are now?
Support matters, too. In one of Sroufe’s studies, half the mothers were teenagers, which is usually a stressful situation. Sroufe found that the teenagers with good social support were able to form secure attachments with their babies, but if they didn’t have support, they were unlikely to form a secure attachment.
How to parent for a secure attachment and how to know if it’s working.
“The baby needs to know that they’re massively important,” says Sroufe. “A caregiver should be involved, attentive, sensitive, and responsive.”
“The baby will tell you what to do,” Sroufe explains. “They have a limited way of expressing their needs, so they’re not that difficult to read: If they’re fussing, they need something. If their arms are out, they want to be picked up. And if you misread them, they will keep on signaling until you get it right.” He gives the example of bottle-feeding a baby: “The baby might want a break, and she looks around. What does the baby want? To look around! If the parent misreads and forces the bottle back, the baby will insist, maybe snap her head away, or pull away harder.”
“How can I know if my baby is securely attached?” a client asked me about her six-month old. Clearly observable attachment doesn’t emerge until around nine months, but here are some clues that a secure attachment is underway:
Beyond this age, the attachment relationship becomes more elaborated. With language and memory, the rhythms of attachment and separation become more negotiated, talked about, and planned, and there is more of a back-and-forth between parent and child. By toddlerhood and beyond, an authoritative parenting style deftly blends secure attachment with age-appropriate limits and supports. A sensitive parent allows the changing attachment to grow and stretch with a child’s growing skills, yet continues to be emotionally attuned to the child and to protect their safety.
One of the best resources for how to parent for a secure attachment in the first few years of life is the new book Raising A Secure Child by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell, all therapists who have worked with many different kinds of families for decades. Their work is based squarely on the science of attachment, and they call their approach the Circle of Security. The circle represents the seamless ebb and flow of how babies and young children need their caregivers, at times coming close for care and comfort, and at other times following their inspiration to explore the world around them. The caregivers’ role is to tune into where on the circle their child is at the moment and act accordingly. Parenting for a secure attachment, the authors say, is not a prescriptive set of behaviors but more a state of mind, a way of “being with” the baby, a sensitivity to what they are feeling. The authors also help parents see the ways that their own attachment history shows up in their parenting and help them to make the necessary adjustments.
The neurobiology of attachment
“Attachment theory is essentially a theory of regulation,” explains Allan Schore, a developmental neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. A clinician-scientist, he has elaborated modern attachment theory over the last three decades by explaining how the attachment relationship is important to the child’s developing brain and body.
Early brain development, Schore explains, is not driven just by genetics. The brain needs social experiences to take shape. “Mother Nature and Mother Nurture combine to shape Human Nature,” he writes.
Infants grow new synapses, or neural connections, at a rate of 40,000 new synapses a second, and the brain more than doubles in volume across the first year. Genetic factors drive this early overproduction of neurons, Schore explains, but the brain awaits direction from the social environment, or epigenetic processes, to determine which synapses or connections are to be pruned, which should be maintained, and which genes are turned on or off.
One of the first areas of the brain that begins to grow and differentiate is the right brain, the hemisphere that processes emotional and social information. The right brain begins to differentiate in the last trimester in utero, whereas the left-brain development picks up in the second year of life. Some of the regions that process emotion are already present in infants’ brains at birth—the amygdala, hypothalamus, insula, cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex. But the connections among these areas develop in specific patterns over the first years of life. That’s where input from the primary relationship becomes crucial—organizing the hierarchical circuitry that will eventually process, communicate, and regulate social and emotional information.
“What the primary caregiver is doing, in being with the baby,” explains Schore, “is allowing the child to feel and to identify in his own body these different emotional states. By having a caregiver simply ‘be with’ him while he feels emotions and has experiences, the baby learns how to be,” Schore says.
The part of the brain that the primary caregiver uses for intuition, feeling, and empathy to attune to the infant is also the caregiver’s right brain. So it is through “right-brain-to-right brain” reading of each other, that the parent and child synchronize their energy, emotions, and communication. And the behaviors that parents are inclined to do naturally—like eye contact and face-to-face interaction, speaking in “motherese” (higher-pitched and slower than normal speech), and holding—are just the ones shown to grow the right-brain regions in the baby that influence emotional life and especially emotion regulation.
The evidence for epigenetic effects on emotion regulation is quite solid: Early caregiving experiences can affect the expression of the genes that regulate a baby’s stress and they can shape how the endocrine system will mobilize to stress. Caregiving behaviors like responsiveness affect the development of the baby’s vagal tone (the calming system) and the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (the system that activates the body to respond to perceived danger). High quality caregiving, then, modulates how the brain and body respond to and manage stress.
Schore points out that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain region in the right hemisphere, both has the most complex emotion and stress-regulating systems of any part in the brain and is also the center of Bowlby’s attachment control system. Neurobiological research confirms that this region is “specifically influenced by the social environment.” 
Stress management is not the only important part of emotion regulation. In the past, Schore explains, there was an overemphasis in the field of emotion regulation on singularly lowering the baby’s distress. But now, he says, we understand that supporting positive emotional states is equally important to creating [what he quotes a colleague as calling] a “background state of well-being.” In other words, enjoy your baby. It’s protective.
A baby’s emotion regulation begins with the caregiver, and the Goldilocks principle applies: If the caregiver’s emotions are too high, the stimulation could be intrusive to the baby, Schore explains. Too low, and the baby’s “background state” settles at a low or possibly depressive emotional baseline. Just right, from the baby’s point of view is best.
And babies are surprisingly perceptive at registering their feeling environment. Hoffman, Cooper and Powell write:
The youngest babies can sense ease versus impatience, delight versus resentment or irritation, comfort versus restlessness, genuine versus pretending, or other positive versus negative responses in a parent when these reactions aren’t evident to a casual observer. Little babies may pick up on the smallest sigh, the subtlest shift in tone of voice, a certain glance, or some type of body language and know the parent is genuinely comfortable or definitely not pleased.
Schore explains that in a secure attachment, the baby learns to self-regulate in two ways: One he calls “autoregulation” which is self-soothing, or using his own mind and body to manage feelings. The second is “interactive regulation” which is going to other people to help up- or down-regulate feelings. This twin thread of self-reliance and reliance on others, then, begins in the earliest months, becomes very important in the first two years of life, and continues in more subtle ways throughout the life span.
This all might sound daunting for a new parent, who could still be tempted to overdo the focus on the infant and how the connection is going—potentially leading to the same kinds of stress and guilt that the attachment parenting movement creates.
But fortunately, the caregiver doesn’t have to be 100% attuned to the baby and ongoing repairs are an important part of the process:
“The idea that a mother should never stress a baby is problematic,” Schore says. “Insecure attachments aren’t created just by a caregiver’s inattention or missteps. It also comes from a failure to repair ruptures. What is essential is the repair. Maybe the caregiver is coming in too fast and needs to back off, or maybe the caregiver has not responded, and needs to show the baby that she’s there. Either way, repair is possible, and it works. Stress is a part of life, and what we’re trying to do here is to set up a system by which the baby can learn how to cope with stress.” Optimal stress, he explains, is important for stimulating the stress-regulating system.
Still, both Sroufe and Schore acknowledge the emotional labor of parenting. And they are vehement that parents need to be supported in order to have the space and freedom to care for babies.
“It takes time for parents to learn to read their baby’s signals,” Sroufe said.
Schore calls America’s failure to provide paid family leave—and we’re the only country in the world that doesn’t—the “shame of America.”
“We are putting the next generation at risk,” he explains, pointing to rising rates of insecure attachments and plummeting mental healthamong American youth. Parents should have at least six months of paid leave and job protection for the primary caregiver, and at least two months of the same for the secondary one, according to Schore, and Sroufe goes further, advocating for one full year of paid leave and job protection. And a recent study showed that it takes mothers a year to recover from pregnancy and delivery.
Intellectual and cognitive development have been privileged in our society, but it is our emotion regulation that organizes us, our existence, and how we experience life, Schore says. A study from the London School of Economics draws the conclusion that “The most important childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is the child’s emotional health…. The least powerful predictor is the child’s intellectual development.”
So where does this leave my friend Amelie? The hard part will be navigating the distracting advice and creating the workarounds she needs for the lack of cultural support. But she enjoys her baby immensely, and I’m confident that she’ll form a secure attachment with Sylvie, as she trusts her own “right-brain” flow of empathy, feeling, and being, and tunes in to Sylvie’s own unique ways of communicating.
And Sylvie will do her part to draw her parents close. Because regardless of babies’ individual personalities—and whether they cry a lot or sleep very little, whether they’re breastfed or bottle-fed—they draw you in with their wide-open gaze, their milky scent, and their tiny fingers that curl around your big ones. Before you know it, they light you up with their full-body smile that’s specially for you, and they draw you near with their plump little arms clasped around your neck.
And the sweet elixir of the attachment relationship is underway.
 While many medications are considered safe to take while breastfeeding, complete side effects may not be fully understood. For example, recent research suggests antibiotics may change the test baby’s microbiome (the implications of which are unclear), and some antibiotics are thought to discolor developing teeth.
 This section refers to primary caregivers as mothers since this research focused just on mothers.
 This section was adapted from the chapter on Attachment, in D. Davies’ Child Development: A Practitioner’s Guide, Guilford, 2011.
 Sroufe, A. & Siegel, D. “The verdict is in: The case for attachment theory.”
 From Schore, A. (2017). Modern attachment theory, in APA’s Handbook of Trauma Psychology, p. 6.
 Schore, A. (2017). “Modern attachment theory.” In APA Handbook of Trauma Psychology: Vol 1 (publication pending).
 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ecoj.12170/full p. F720, in Layard,R., Clark, A.E., Cornaglia, F., Powdthavee, N. & Vernoit, J. (2014) What predicts a successful life? A life-course model of well-being. The Economic Journal, 124, p. F720-F738.
I get this question a lot. So I decided to write a blog post about it. Now, of course first you need to realize that you cannot control another person. Believe me, I have tried and tried hard. I like to say that I am just stubborn enough and strong-willed enough and persistent enough that if anyone COULD control another person it would be me. And I have always failed every time I tried.
So please realize that. You cannot force another person to do anything, least of all couples therapy. Not without firearms being involved (shotgun therapy?) which most therapists will strongly discourage.
That said you do have some options if you are a partner who wants to get into couples therapy and your person is not on board. First I would suggest trying to understand their position. This is best done when you are CALM. So not in the midst of a fight. Seriously. That's important.
So if you are calm, sit down with your person and ask them if this is a good time to talk about something that is important to you. This cues them to pay attention and reminds you not to try to have this conversation while you are driving to dinner, doing laundry together or generally distracted. These kinds of conversations need their own time and space. As a PACT therapist I also recommend that you sit in a way where you can face each other directly so that you can see each other's faces dead-on. This helps reduce the chance that you will mis-read each other's facial expressions or accidentally trigger a threat response and cause your partner to become instinctually defensive.
Now that the stage is properly set let your partner know that you have given this a lot of thought and that you would very much like them to go to couples therapy with you. I am pretty sure if you are in this situation you have asked them this before. So they may get a little activated and say "I already told you I don't want to do that!" or something equally contrary. STAY CALM AND CARRY ON! You could say something like "You are right", (people love it when you tell them they are right), "you did tell me that. And I wanted to know if we could talk about why you don't feel like couple's therapy is something you want to do. I want to understand more about how you feel about it." Generally people want to be understood so this is a pretty non-inflammatory statement. However look at your person and if the veins in their forehead or neck are starting to bulge make sure that you take a nice slow breath and settle yourself as best you can. Then just let them know you just want to talk about it for maybe 10 minutes. That way they know that they are not trapped there forever. You can also say "I'd like to talk about this for maybe 10 minutes to see if I can better understand how you feel about it, unless that's not OK with you." Phrasing it this way tends to help people who can be a little reflexively defiant to be more agreeable. Then set a timer on your smart phone and put it on the table so your partner knows you mean business. They are not trapped forever!
Once you have set the stage as well as you possibly can, and assuming they have not stormed off, I recommend starting with asking them why they feel couples therapy would not be helpful. DON'T COMMENT!! Just listen. No matter what they say don't interject. This will be hard, trust me. But to be effective at this point you must just listen until they stop talking. Then repeat back to them what you think they said and ask "did I get that right?". Yes, folks, this is that "active listening" that you probably practiced in that hokey "emotional intelligence" class in High School. But trust me, it's important.
Then if they agree that you heard them right you can start taking their concerns one at a time. For example if they say "it's too expensive" you can say "yes, it is expensive, but I would be willing to forgo my weekly pedicures, or poker nights with the guys, or my daily Starbucks, or whatever, to contribute to the cause. Try to show that you understand that whatever their concern is there is some legitimacy to it but you are willing to give ground to allay their concern. If they say "I don't have the time" you could offer to take some chores off their plate or in some other way help them to create the time. You want to show that you are willing to put skin in the game.
Sometimes your partner may question how couple therapy can help. You can explain that having the right skills to be good in a relationship is just like any other skill we learn, like tennis for example. You can try to teach yourself tennis by reading a book or watching other people play tennis and you may learn to hit the ball but you may also develop some bad habits like holding the racket incorrectly or using a backhand when a forehand would be more effective in that moment. So if you really want to learn tennis well it makes a LOT more sense to engage a tennis instructor for a few lessons. After that you will understand the proper form and be able to practice on your own much more effectively. Couples can try to learn how to get along well without professional help, and they may make some progress, but they may also fumble more and even develop patterns that are not super healthy. Better to hire a "relationship coach" to help learn how to get along and after a period of time (3-6 months) you may have all of the skills you need to go do it on your own.
Another helpful offer in trying to get ones partner engaged in couples work is to ask him or her to just go to ONE session to see how s/he feels about it. Often a partner will be willing to go once (to an actual session by the way, not the 30-minute consultation, since no therapist could do enough in 30 minutes to help anyone see the value). In my experience I have never met with a couple once and had them not see the potential value of couples work.
Since I practice a very specific type of couples therapy (PACT) if you are interested in that style of couples work you could also ask your partner to at least familiarize himself/herself with PACT by :
These resources may help your partner understand what PACT couples therapy would look like and what kind of relationship principles you are interested in applying to your situation. It may spark some helpful conversations with your partner and/or help to get your partner more engaged around the idea of couples work.
Or finally if none of these suggestions works and you REALLY feel like you do not want to stay in the relationship if s/he is not willing to go to therapy then you have what we call a "deal-breaker" situation. You sit down with your partner and CALMLY tell him/her that you are simply not willing to continue in the relationship without professional help. You need to make VERY specific requests at this point (not vague) such as telling your partner that you need him/her to consent to scheduling meetings on a weekly basis for at least 6 months (these are the terms I recommend) and if s/he can't commit to that and show up and try it then you want to end the relationship. The thing about this option is that you MUST be willing to follow through with ending the relationship if your partner says no. So this only works if you are really at the end of your rope and don't want to go on without therapy.
Relationship are tough. Intimate relationships, in my opinion, are the toughest. Plenty of folks who can earn 6 figures, run companies, paint masterpieces, compose symphonies, run 4 minute miles or solve quadratic equations in their heads while doing back flips fail at intimate relationships. There is no shame in that. But there is help! I hope that these tips are useful to you in trying to engage a reluctant partner in therapy.
Wishing you happiness and harmony in your intimate partnership,
PS Remember if you have found this blog to be helpful to "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" about it on Twitter to help others find it! And always feel free to leave a comment, I will respond as soon as I can.
One of the clearest definitions of love addiction I have seen is "a compulsive, chronic craving and/or pursuit of romantic love in an effort to get our sense of security and worth from another person." Or, if you prefer something more pithy, author Ethlie Ann Vape calls it "affection deficit disorder". She goes on to say that "Every woman with an absent father-- whether through divorce, death, disease or distance-- is going to associate feelings of affection with feelings of abandonment" and therefore "confuse love and longing". That also seems pretty on target to me in terms of how people end up here. And men can be love addicts, too, and often have the same route to getting there-- a distant relationship with a parent that they desperately craved love and attention from.
Of course it's normal to gain a sense of security from being in a romantic partnership and we tend to feel especially good about ourselves if our partner occasionally tells us how great they think we are. Those are good and normal things. But in love addiction those normal aspects of being partnered become turbo-charged in an effort to prop up our inability to actually feel good about ourselves without a romantic connection. And unfortunately our culture is all to quick to provide is with totally unrealistic ideas of what love is. Sofo Archon, in his article "The Trap of Romantic Love", states that "Just like pornography fools us into believing that perfect sex exists, the romantic tradition fools us into believing that perfect relationships exist." We are fed a steady diet of Rom-Coms and images of celebrities falling madly in love and swimming off into the sunset on their private Caribbean island. It all seems so AMAZING and, insanely, we think that we too can have that and it will last forever...
Since our culture is obsessed with both sex and romance so it's no wonder that many of us are confused about what is healthy. I remember after my daughter was born walking down the aisles of Toys R Us acquainting myself with what little girls may want to play with. I was absolutely stunned when, in the aisle for 3-6 year olds I came up on a giant box about 3 feet tall that contained a mini wedding dress, tiny white plastic shoes, a veil, plastic flowers and a fake diamond solitaire ring. Yes, folks, it was a bride-in-a-box. The only thing needed was the poor hapless groom. I remember asking myself "what are we teaching our girls?" and noting that there was no corresponding "groom-in-a-box" option in the boys 3-6 aisle. While boys were busy being introduced to fake power tools, fireman's outfits and play lawn mowers girls were being trained to get hitched up and knocked up all before the age of 6. Sadly it was not the last of those surprises Then came all of the princess movies. The ones where princesses are cast into spells only to be awoken by a handsome prince. This was before the days of Frozen. And while Frozen is great, I still don't think it's enough to stem the tide of images that our girls absorb about the importance of romance and sex. Cosmopolitan magazine still has images of nearly eating-disordered young women scantily clad advising you on "how to give your man the best orgasm of his life" or "how to make him never forget you". The emphasis is still on a woman in relation to a man rather than as a stand-alone person. It's no wonder that MORE girls don't grow up to be love or sex addicts.
So what is love addiction? Is it a "real" addiction? If so, what does it have in common with other addictions? How can you tell if you suffer from Love Addiction? And if you do, what can you do about it?
One way to investigate whether or not the concept of Love Addiction might apply to you is to take an online test. The Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles, California has an online questionnaire that you can fill out. Love Addicts Anonymous (LAA) has their own version which may also be useful. I have worked with clients who used the Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) program and found that helpful also. SLAA has their own questionnaire that you can download as a pdf.
Once you decide whether or not you think you have a lot in common with this form of addiction what can you do? There are many ways to approach treatment. A qualified therapist can help you figure out what is unhealthy about how you create and participate in your romantic relationships and then format goals for what you would like to have with a partner. The therapist can help you develop a plan to achieve that goal which may involve therapy, support groups, readings and "homework" exercises to retrain your brain to relate romantically in a healthier way. Untreated love addiction, like any addiction, can create years or even decades of misery. By placing the love object at the center of your universe you lose the ability to know what is best for YOU and how to make decisions that will be equally beneficial to your partner AND yourself. This can result in a life that is woefully unfair and unfulfilling. The goal of treatment is to help you place yourself at the center of your priorities so that you can enter into a balanced relationship with others in which you enjoy them and value them but don't need them to plug holes in your self-esteem.
This year (2018) at the SXSW Film Festival a movie entitled Unlovable got rave reviews. It was written by, and stars, a woman who is a love addict. It is not yet available to rent but keep a lookout for it. I am betting it is going to be moving and funny and a great insight into one person's personal experience in looking to fill that "affection deficit" in all the wrong ways.
In the meantime if you feel like you may have a problem with love addiction I strongly encourage you to take one (or more) of the tests mentioned in this blog. The first step to fixing a problem is diagnosing the problem. Many resources exist to help those with love and/or sex addictions (by the way they are different but can co-occur). Like most emotional disorders this pattern can be changed and the result can be a much more balanced, fulfilling and peaceful live.
Wishing you health in your relationship to yourself as well as others,
P.S. As always if you have found this blog post to be helpful please "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" about it on Twitter. This helps others find the information and resources for mental health.
VICTIM. RESCUER. PERSECUTOR. That about covers it sometimes, right? Ever feel like you are in some weird play where there are always the same three characters? One person is getting screwed, one person is the hero trying to rescue that person and one person is the villain who is always seen as the bad guy. Which one do you most often get cast as? And how can you get out of that dynamic?
That dynamic is called Karpman's (Drama) Triangle. I would love to say that I invented this dandy little concept. But it's actually been around for a long time. Since 1968 actually. It was invented by Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis, and was called Karpman's Triangle or the "drama triangle". As anyone who has ever been in this dynamic can attest, it is definitely drama-producing! None of the roles are actually healthy and the goal if you find yourself in this situation is to move as much to the middle as possible, not aligning yourself with any of the positions.
Despite what they might say about how they feel in the moment, be aware that the Victim role is not actually a person who is being harmed, it's a person who is emotionally invested in looking like they are being harmed. It is also a person who does not want to have to take responsibility for helping themselves out at all. They want everyone else to come and rescue them. They often complain to others that they are being abused, oppressed or victimized and that they cannot do anything about it. They are likely to block any suggestions that they can change their circumstances by saying things like "that won't work" or "I can't do that because _______". In reality they are invested in not acting as agents of change for themselves. These roles are usually learned in childhood by having them modeled by a parent, so if your mom played the victim role, you may find yourself repeating that pattern. Interestingly people who tend towards the Victim role will seek out Perpetrators if they don't have one in their life currently. Unconsciously they don't feel comfortable not being in that position so they have to create it. Sometimes what is at the bottom of this is a history of having been rewarded for being helpless and small and dependent as a child. This creates a conflict where they feel that in order to get their needs met they cannot actually do things for themselves or "grow up" and act as mature adults. They have to find ways to get a Rescuer to save them from a Perpetrator because they were trained never to "rescue" (or take care of) themselves. Remember that all of this is happening unconsciously so no one is actually "asking" to be victimized while being aware that is what is going on. The Victim thinks that they are just in a bad spot and can't seem to find a way out until they find the magic Rescuer who rushes in to save the day. I am not in any way saying that we cannot be compassionate about someone whose life is not going the way they want it. I am also not saying that whatever is done to someone in the victim role is acceptable. I am not victim-blaming. I am, however, saying that everyone has some power to make some changes in their lives and that victims often have a hard time seeing this.
Rescuers are compulsive helpers. This is the classic Martyr role. Rescuers are so inclined to rescue that if they see a person in need and don't rush to their aid they feel terrible. They feel compelled to help others and don't see that this can deprive the Victim of learning to do for themselves. It also allows the Rescuer to focus on other people, which tends to be much more comfortable for them. They derive a lot of status and satisfaction from taking care of others and they don't have to face any of their own issues. Al-anon was originally developed for Rescuers and one of their mottos is "keep the focus on yourself (not the Victim!)". However just like the Victim, Rescuers are usually totally unaware that their role serves to keep them from dealing with their issues since it is entirely unconscious. They just tend to think of themselves as "good" people in a world where a lot of folks need a lot of help! They were often raised in families with a Victim and they learned early on to care for the Victim, which made them feel better about the situation of the family.
The Persecutor tends to come from families in which one or both parents were bullies. They have seen this behavior modeled and follow along, blaming others, trying to control them, being critical, rigid, angry and often acting (or at least feeling) superior. The Persecutor thinks of themselves as "realistic" and "hard-nosed" but typically not malicious. They feel that the Victim and the Rescuer are naive and don't realize that it's a cold world out there and people are going to take what they can. It's kill or be killed and they plan to be on top. They view Victims as people from whom things can be extracted-- work, love, sex, money, status-- but not in a mutual way that cares for both people. When they have gotten what they need from others they may discard them. This can come in the guise of "realizing it just wasn't working out" because they have detected a "fatal flaw"in the person. As parents they tend to want to "toughen-up" their kids and may make kids feel like no matter what they do it's not good enough. Or they may blow up and rage at the kid(s) and then blame the kid(s) for causing them to get angry. They may have unreasonable rules that must be followed and refuse to allow kids (or partners) to negotiate on their own behalf.
While we often learn one of these roles more deeply than the others in our families of origin we can also switch roles at any given time. A Victim may see an opportunity to retaliate against someone who has been a Perpetrator and take it, often in a passive-aggressive way that is not easy to detect. In this way they temporarily enjoy being a Perpetrator while maintaining the image of the Victim. A Rescuer may get tired of taking care of others and experiment once in a while with throwing up their hands and acting like a Victim. A Perpetrator may find that by occasionally acting like a Victim they can avoid taking responsibility for bullying others. However if we do this "drama triangle" regularly we do tend to gravitate towards one position based on our early experiences.
Again the goal of emotional health is to not enter into any of these roles. Each of us has the capacity to be passive and dependent and wish that some fairy God mother/father would come along and take care of everything for us. And each of us has the fantasy of being the knight in shining armor riding in to save someone. And yes, even if we often don't like to admit it, we can also all be the kill-or-be-killed person who steps on others to get ahead and gets a thrill out of winning, even at any cost.
If you suspect that you came from a dysfunctional family you may want to spend some time honestly asking yourself whether or not your parents show up in this triangle. If they do then you can ask yourself do YOU show up? And where? And what work do you need to do in order to move more to the middle? Victims need to learn to do for themselves and to feel pride and competence by growing up and owning their own power rather than wanting others to fix things. Rescuers need to ask themselves how they are avoiding their own pain, anxiety, sadness, grief, etc. by focusing on others all the time. And Perpetrators need to learn to be vulnerable and realize and express their own desires to be dependent sometimes rather than to only feel safe when they are lording themselves over others.
Therapy can be a great way to learn about the Karpman triangle and other dysfunctional dynamics. It is also one of the best ways to change those dynamics. You don't have to stay stuck in the Drama Triangle forever.
Wishing you health, happiness and balance in all of your roles in life,
At it's most severe form it is when a person who has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is exposed to something that reminds them of their trauma and their nervous system has a big reaction. For example if I was trapped in a burning house as a child I may be triggered by getting too close to an open bonfire. My body might react by a racing heart, feelings of panic, difficulty breathing or other symptoms of sympathetic arousal of my nervous system. A less intense but much more common form of being "triggered" is when someone does or says something that touches an emotional "nerve" you have, such as someone questioning your competence when all of your life people treated you as though you were incompetent. We tend to have the biggest reactions to things that have been sore spots for us emotionally, especially from our childhoods.
So what is happening in the brain when we are triggered? Effectively we lose IQ points. We lose cognitive flexibility, we lose problem-solving skills, we lose the ability to see things from another person's point of view. We become more self-centered, protective and defensive. Sound familiar? Anyone who has been in a non-productive argument (yes, there are such things as productive arguments, read my blog on anger...) knows this feeling or has seen in in the person you are arguing with. The logic has gone out the window and the person is just trying to "win" the argument at any cost.
Where "triggering" happens in the brain is in the amygdala. It's a tiny almond-shaped structure inside of the limbic system, which is part of our mid-brain. This part of the brain has been around for a LONG time and was designed, in part, to keep us safe from saber-tooth tigers and other long-ago predators. Unfortunately the limbic system is sorely in need of an upgrade (or more accurately about a dozen upgrades!). Clearly we don't hunt wooly-mamoths anymore but our brain is still using that same operating system. Seems like a recipe for disaster, right?
I found a great article by Diane Musho Hamilton on the Harvard Bussines Review. I have posted it below for your edification, I hope you find it helpful in understanding how this tiny little part of our brain can really run the show at times, and in a not-so-helpful way.
Calming Your Brain During Conflict
"Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our modern context, we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.
We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.
When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.
The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten and jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.
The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.
And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice. It is ridiculous.
Practicing Mindfulness in Conflict
Mindfulness is the perfect awareness technique to employ when a conflict arises — whether it’s at work or home. It allows us to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness. Instead of attacking or recoiling, and later justifying our reactions, we can learn to stay present, participate in regulating our own nervous system, and eventually, develop new, more free and helpful ways of interacting.
Practicing mindfulness in the middle of a conflict demands a willingness to stay present, to feel intensely, to override our negative thoughts, and to engage our breath to maintain presence with the body. Like any skill, it takes practice.
There are different approaches to working with a provoked nervous system and intense emotions, but they all have some elements in common. Here are four simple steps (which I also describe in my book, Everything is Workable) that I try to use when I find myself with an overloaded nervous system and a body racing with a fight or flight impulse.
Step 1: Stay present.
The first step in practicing mindfulness when triggered is to notice we are provoked. We may notice a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened, and are therefore running on automatic pilot.
We have to decide to stay put and present, to be curious and explore our experience. For me, it helps to remind myself to relax. I have a visual cue that I use that involves my son. When I’m worked up, he has the habit of looking at me, raising and lowering his hands in a calming fashion, and saying “Easy Windmill.” I try to reflect on this and it helps me calm down because he’s so charming when he does it.
Step 2: Let go of the story.
This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.
Step 3: Focus on the body.
Now simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, not trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur, what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurts. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of the sensations, and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.
Step 4: Finally, breathe.
Everybody knows that it helps to breathe. There are many different qualities of the breath, but we only need to learn about two: Rhythm and smoothness. As Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, if we focus on these two dimensions, even for a few short minutes, the production of the cortisol and adrenaline will stop.
To breath rhythmically means that the in-breath and out-breath occur repeatedly at the same intervals. So if we inhale, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; this establishes rhythm.
At the same time, we should invite the breath to be even or smooth, meaning that the volume of the breath stays consistent as it moves in and out, like sipping liquid through a narrow straw. If we manage those two qualities for just a few minutes, the breath assists us in remaining present, making it possible to stay with intense sensation in the body.
Paying attention to our body re-establishes equilibrium faster, restoring our ability to think, to listen, and relate. This takes practice, but eventually, we retrain ourselves to respond rather than to react. Anger becomes clarity and resolve, sadness leads to compassion, jealousy becomes fuel for change.
There will also be certain moments when we fail. Becoming more intimate with our body’s response to a hijacked nervous system is challenging, to say the least. This is because the sensations are very uncomfortable, our emotions are volatile, and our mind is usually filling with unsupportive thoughts like “Get me outta here,” or “How can they be saying that?” or “This is a waste of my time.”
Each time we succeed in being mindful of our body in moments of distress, we develop our capacity. Even more, we may observe something new when it occurs. A moment of pause, an unexpected question when it appears or a laugh that erupts. When anything new happens, taking note of it helps to free us of the pattern to our old way of doing things. Before we know it, our old habit of fight or flight is changing, and the world is a safer place."
I hope you have found this information helpful. While we are not born with an "owner's manual" for this amazing brain that we have we can, through self-study and experience, learn how to better use our hardware and software to achieve the kind of life we want. Despite our triggers. Remember that if you have had a difficult or stressful childhood you may have certain "buttons" pre-installed and that you may need help getting under control. Therapy can help.
Wishing you health and happiness,
PS Please remember that if you found this information helpful to "like" this blog post on Facebook and/or to tweet it on Twitter. Or post it on any other form of social media you have (I am sure at this point I don't know them all!). And if you post a comment or question I will respond. Also if you want to get these blogs delivered directly to you please fill out the form below.
In a nod to the Irish, who have been noted to have "a tear in the eye and a song in the heart", I decided to revive a former blog on crying today. People often remark that they "need a good cry" and feel better afterwards. I've been curious about the underlying mechanisms involved in crying and just why it seems to help us feel better.
Dr. Judith Orloff, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, has done some research on this very subject. She explains that we actually produce three different kinds of tears that are made up of different chemicals and reflect different needs of the body. Reflex tears help us clear out irritating particles in our eyes such as pollens, dust or dirt. Continuous tears are produced on a regular basis to keep our eyes lubricated. This is what goes wrong when someone suffers "dry eye syndrome". Our eyes need to stay moist even in the absence of irritants and so continuos tears perform this function. They contain a chemical called "lysozyme" which also is an anti-bacterial and helps the eyes avoid infection.
Emotional tears have unique qualities as well. "Tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis investigated the chemical differences in tears and discovered that reflex tears are made up of 98% water, whereas emotional tears actually have stress hormones in them. This is the bodies way of getting rid of these potentially damaging hormones and other toxins after a stressful event. Crying also causes our body to produce endorphins, which are natural pain relievers. Since the brain processes physical and emotional pain in the same areas it makes sense that the same chemical that the body produces on the battlefield to help and injured soldier survive is produced in the midst of a painful breakup or other significant stressor. In addition to riding our body of noxious chemicals produced from intense emotional states crying also slows our breathing and heart rate, creating a calmer physiological and emotional state.
Certainly evolution has helped us to develop a mechanism whereby our bodies can help us recover from intense emotional duress. Regardless of the origins of this wonderful mechanism we can all be grateful that we can cry and use that gift to help heal us from deep emotional pain. Far from the ideas that crying belies weakness, a good cry might just be the smartest and most adaptive thing you can do when the emotions get overwhelming.
I occasionally meet people who tell me that they cannot cry. Often this pattern has been in existence for a long time, such as a person who says "I haven't cried since my mother's funeral when I was 8". It is often associated with some adult encouraging the poor kid not to cry, such as "she would want you to be strong, son". Other times a person may have been raised in a family where they were warned "I'll give you something to cry about" if they began to tear up. These kinds of experiences when we are young can lead to feeling blocked when it comes to crying as adults. Interestingly I have known clients who suffered from sinus pain or headaches from this difficulty in doing what Mother Nature intended us to do when distressed-- fall apart and have a good cry.
If you are lucky enough to let the water-works flow when watching Terms of Endearment, A.I. or Bambi consider yourself lucky and let the crying begin. If you are feeling stuck and wishing you could get passed feeling blocked you may want to check out some of these movies. Or pick up a copy of Watership Down, Old Yeller or The Fault in Our Stars. Still not sobbing? Consider a consultation with a good therapist to take a look at what might be keeping you from Mother Nature's natural stress-buster.
Wishing you happiness, health and the occasional good cry,
As always if this blog has been helpful please consider "liking" it on Facebook or "tweeting" it on Twitter to help spread the word about mental health information and resources. Thanks!
What do you see? A cute puppy with floppy ears? Or two cats with a hear hovering between them? Or both? And what might predict which image you see first? Growing up with dogs? Owning a cat? To me as a therapist one of the most useful things about optical illusions is to show us that we can't necessarily trust our perceptions. Remember the blue versus brown dress controversy? I would have sworn on my life that dress was a golden color and had not a hint of blue in it. The actual statistics on what people saw are that 1,401 people were asked what color they thought the dress was and 57 percent described the dress as blue/black, 30 percent described it as white/gold, 11 percent as blue/brown and 2 percent as something else. So who's right?
The reality is that no two human brains are identical. Just as we all see colors slightly (or sometimes vastly!) different, and just as one person loves spicy food and another shuns it, so too do we interpret the outside world quite differently. Most of the time this goes unnoticed as long as no one is feeling threatened emotionally or physically. But when a disagreement arises our differences in perception can become battering rams against the person we are engaged with. We cry out "you've got it wrong! I never said that!" or "you say you aren't mad but I can tell that you are!". Sometimes the disagreements are even more subtle. We walk into a room and see our partner sitting on the couch looking at a magazine. We think to ourselves "oh gosh, isn't she cute?" and our partner looks up and thinks "he's wondering why I haven't done the dishes yet. Why is he always on my case?"
What can account for these vastly different ideas? Part of it of course is just wiring. Our brains really are all unique in some aspects. But part of it is also our histories. If I grew up in a household where my value in the family was based on being helpful then I am likely to be prone to thinking that my partner is wondering why I haven't done my chores yet. If I grew up in a home where I "couldn't do anything right", I am prone to thinking that my partner is disappointed in me if their toast is a little too dark. Believe me, this kind of stuff can cause HUGE disruptions in your relationships. And everyone does it.
How do you know if what is going on in the present moment is being infected by the past? There is a pithy saying in the recovery community "If it's HYSTERICAL, it's HISTORICAL". Or, as we say in psychology, if the response (in the present moment) is out of proportion to the event, there is probably something in that person's history coming up.
What can you do about it? The #1 rule when you think your partner is coming from the past is DO NOT try to defend, argue, convince, counter-attack or analyze what the other person has said. While on some level this seems like the BEST thing to do (I mean, after all, this poor person has lost their grip on reality, right?) I can tell you with 100% assurance that the other person is going to get more entrenched, defended and frankly pissed-off. It is going to quickly widen the gap between the two of you and you will have even less of a chance coming to any kind of detente or mutual understanding.
So suck it up (yes, I know, this is going to be HARD!) and do this instead:
Yep. I know, it sounds crazy. It's like telling the person who thinks the FBI has implanted a micro-chip in their nose that they are right. Seems like a bad idea. But in this case you validate the feelings, not the details of the particular accusation. So it looks something like this:
Person A SAYS: "I can't believe that you were late again! You know how much I hate waiting on you! You are completely unreliable!"
Person B THINKS: "Oh my gosh you have got to be kidding me! I was 5 minutes late! How can 5 minutes matter? Plus I told you there was a roll-over accident on the freeway? How can I control that?!!!"
Person B SAYS: "Wow I am so sorry. I can see how upset you are. I know it is frustrating to have to wait on someone and I know that you in particular really hate that. I also know that it would feel really crappy to feel like you can't depend on someone who is important to you. I mean, if you can't depend on me (your best friend/partner/whatever) then it must feel like the whole world is full of unreliable people. That would be terrible. I am so sorry that my being late lead to all of those painful feelings. I will try harder in the future to be on time."
Yes. No kidding. That is what you say. Now, if you are like me, you have an inner 2-year old screaming THIS IS NOT FAIR!! I DID NOTHING WRONG!! S/HE IS A CRAZY PERSON!!!
However, I 100% guarantee you (I literally do this, I tell clients if they try this and it doesn't work I will give them a free session, and in 20 years I have never had to do it!) that this approach will work. Let's see what is likely to happen:
Person A FEELS: "Phew. Finally someone who understands me! Sometimes it does feel like the whole world is full of unreliable jerks who just don't care about upsetting me. Thank goodness this person is so thoughtful and kind. I am so glad that they are in my life."
Person A SAYS: "Thanks. It means a lot to me. I know that maybe 5 minutes is not a lot to you but for some reason it just really throws me off. Maybe next time if you are running late you can text me and I can go grab a coffee or something. I am not trying to be unreasonable but it really does bother me. So thanks for seeing that."
So what is "really" going on here? Person A probably has a history of being disappointed, let down or otherwise hurt by parents or other significant people in their childhood who were not attuned to their needs and feelings. They may have also been left waiting on caregivers who were busy taking care of themselves rather than attuning to the child. Your partner is responding from this history and assuming you are going to be the same way. That is coloring their interpretation of the Present because of input from the Past. We all do this. We all try to anticipate what is going to happen moment to moment based on past experience. We have to because otherwise we could not "automate" things and we would never be able to get out of the house. If I don't have an idea of what will happen when I step on the gas in my car and have to re-learn that every time I get behind the wheel I am not going to be very fluid in getting to work every day. I base my anticipated present experience of pressing on the gas against my past experiences with this. Which allows me to automate a certain percentage of that, which frees up my brain to think about other things like whether or not I should take the expressway this morning because I heard there was a wreck on the central artery. We all do this. I repeat, we all do this. Our brains are set up to. But just like screaming at the top of your lungs at your 16 year old while they are behind the wheel in heavy traffic is probably going to cause an accident (they will be so startled and freaked out by you yelling at them to slam on the breaks they may lose control of the car), you will also freak out and amp-up your partner if you try to disagree with them when they are bringing the past into the present.
Your best shot is to remain calm, not take it personally (did I mention that we all do this?) and de-escalate the person by attuning to their feelings and validating them. Once they have re-oriented themselves to reality (whatever that is, because really we construct it moment-to-moment and all have a different experience of it) we can have a discussion about what both of us experienced in that moment.
If you find yourself feeling resentful about the thought of doing this ("it's not fair!") I would encourage you to think about whether or not in your own history your parents or other significant caregivers showed you that your feelings mattered or made you cater to their needs an unreasonable amount. If not then you may have some work to do in order to feel ready to extend that to others.
Wishing you happiness and growth in your connections to others,
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There is a saying that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. I have to say that personally every time I find myself sitting with a resentment it has boiled down to that. I had expected that a person would do something (or not do something) and they did not act as I had expected. find myself feeling perturbed or sometimes downright angry about it. It's that kind of self-righteous indignation that can feel so powerful and intoxicating. It has real lasting power. So what is at the root of this strong emotion?
The word resentment comes from the French "re" and "sentir", meaning to re-feel. Which is such a great insight into the experience, because when we hold on to a resentment we are literally re-feeling the original upset. Which I find a useful thing to contemplate. If I was so unhappy with the experience the first time, why on earth would I keep deliberately re-feeling it? The entomology points out the futility of the situation. If you are resentful that, for example, your spouse forgot your anniversary, then by holding on to that resentment you continue to re-feel that original hurt. Ouch.
I find that people who have trouble with letting go of resentments are often very sensitive. If I am the sort of person who gets their feelings hurt easily (which, by the way, is NOT a bad quality, it's just a personality trait like being extroverted), then if I let myself forget that you hurt me I won't keep you at a distance. And then if I am not keeping you at a distance you have a chance to hurt me again. If I am a very sensitive person (sometimes called a Highly Sensitive Person), then it takes me longer to process my hurt feelings and they tend to run very deep. So it makes sense for me to really hold on to my hurts so that I don't forget about people who have hurt me. I can keep them at arms length by holding on to the resentment, or re-feeling the original hurt on a regular basis. That keeps me holding them at bay and not letting them close to me. Which reduces the chances that they will hurt me again. It's a good strategy if your primary goal is not getting burned twice.
Let's just say that most therapist are highly sensitive people so I *may* know a thing or two about resentments. Enough to know that while they protect you from further hurt in one way they also rob you of the opportunity to deepen intimacy in other ways. If we don't let people matter to us, if we don't let them in to our hearts, then we also cannot feel all of those wonderful feelings of intimacy, love, acceptance, joy, humor, delight and other things that people can revel in together.
The Recovery Podcast has a great episode on resentment. That is where I learned about the origin of the word. For people who are using 12-step programs there is a teaching that resentments are going to interfere with you successfully "working your program", which is to say getting past your character defects and becoming a better person. Some alcoholics I know (ones in recovery) have said that resentments and shame are two of the biggest risks for relapse. I would argue that shame can actually be tied to resentments we hold against ourselves. If I had an expectation that I was going to be the best mother in the world and then once I had my kids I realized that sometimes I come unglued and yell at them, I may feel shame. Underneath that feeling, I would argue, is (1) my expectation that I "should" have done better and (2) my continuing to re-feel my disappointment in myself. Which sounds a lot like holding a resentment against myself. A part of me may feel that by continuing to re-feel my anger and disappointment towards myself I can force myself to not make that mistake again. However in my experience what usually happens is that we walk around feeling so crappy about ourselves that we don't have a lot of emotional resources to actually learn to do better.
A better strategy may be acceptance. In this situation acceptance of one's own shortcomings and failings to live up to one's standards can be a pathway to letting go of shame (aka self-resentment). It's also a powerful exercise to ask oneself now and again what expectations one is holding. Good places to check for hidden expectations are towards yourself, towards your significant other, towards your children if you have them, towards your boss, or your career, or your friends. Really anything that matters to you. If you find expectations, think about challenging yourself to let go of them. Ask yourself if you can imagine accepting the person or situation however it is on an moment-to-moment basis. See what kind of freedom that can bring.
A note of reality here-- just as with my blog on acceptance I am NOT saying that one should never have basic expectations of safety, decency and the like. I think it's perfectly OK to expect that the person in the grocery store line is not going to spontaneously turn around and clock you for no reason. There are some basic expectations that I think we all have that allow us to leave our house and move around in the world without feeling terrified.
Likewise I am not saying to settle for mediocrity in all areas of life and have no aspirations. I personally think that aspirations are different from expectations. If I aspire to make six figures and instead I end up making half of that I can still be happy. It was a goal but not an expectation. To me an expectation is the belief that something SHOULD happen. As in, I am entitled to it. If it does not happen that's not "fair". The word stems from Latin meaning "an awaiting". We don't wait for things that we are not sure will happen. We wait when we feel confident that they will/should happen. So if the thing we are waiting on does not happen, we feel surprised and let down. That is different from having a goal, which one understands is potentially going to happen but also may not. I fully believe in setting goals but not expecting any particular outcome and, most importantly, having the mental flexibility to accept whatever outcome does occur.
Since humans are pretty messy, imperfect creatures it's not a bad habit to check and ask ourselves are we actually creating expectations that are setting us up for future disappointments and resentments? And are we willing to let go of those? Consider the possibilities that choosing acceptance over resentment and expectation can bring in to your life. Dream big but know that nothing is promised. Accept the imperfections in yourself and others. Stay open even when things don't go the way you wanted. Live bravely.
Wishing you health and healing,
As always if you find this blog helpful PLEASE "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" it on Twitter. Or share on any other social media you use! And feel free to leave a Comment, I do respond to all of them! Thanks.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.