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,
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"They knew that there was a power and a beauty deep inside me, but that I was afraid of this and I was in fragments. Men and women alike, old and new at teaching, were like aunties or grandparent in their firm patience with me, in their conviction of my worth. They had a divine curiosity about me-- "Hey, who's in there? Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company? Do you want to make friends with your heart? Here-- start with this poem.
This is who I want to be in the world. This is who I think we are supposed to be, people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness."
Indeed. I agree. I believe in the inter-connectedness of all beings and in the interdependence of people as an essential part of the human condition. We are now learning that loneliness is a greater risk factor than smoking for disease and death. I believe it is not only a capability but a responsibility of all of us to reach out to each other. To be that curious person who will keep company and share poems and generally help our fellow humans. To quote John Lennon, "imagine" how the world could be if we all took on that job.
And I can't bear not to share just one more excerpt from this book:
"When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own weird, fixated minds, we are saved. When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us."
Again the research on social isolation and altruism comes to mind. How we can help ourselves by literally helping others. I think it's not a coincidence that many 12-step programs tell folks to do "service work", literally to go serve others, as a way to save themselves from their destructive habits and addictions. Sometimes spending too much time navel-gazing can drive a person crazy. Sometimes you just need to get out of yourself and realize that other people are struggling and you can probably do something to help them.
So Stitches is about pain, it's about how life can knock the wind out of you and then kick you while you are down. And that while you are down there you just may realize that there is some beautiful little insect crawling around on a blade of grass that you would have never seen had you not been face down in the lawn gasping for breath. It's about how just when you need it someone can come along and offer you a hand, and you may find yourself helping them in kind. About how somehow we keep finding ways to mend and darn and pull the threads together to keep this sometimes fragile thing we call life from fully unraveling.
It's a mercifully short book given how busy we all are these days. The writing is beautiful. It may make you feel better about being human and messy and confused a lot of the time. I loved it and I am looking forward to delving in to another one of her works soon.
Wishing you health and happiness, and feel free to recommend books for me to read and review!
By now you may have heard some of the buzz. Scientists first started experimenting in rats and are now doing human studies which seem to show that by introducing certain strains of bacteria into the gut symptoms like depression and anxiety can be altered. Very exciting indeed! I am imagining in 20 years instead of taking Prozac or Xanax we will be eating carefully cultivated symptom-specific yoghurts or kefirs. A much more elegant solution to mood disorders with little to no side effects.
I recently read a study (Steenbergen, Sellaro, van Hemert, Bosh & Colzato, 2015) in which the researchers gave a combination of Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus salivarius and Lactococcus lactis to a group of depressed patients. The participants took the supplement for 4 weeks and showed a significant decrease in symptoms of negative thinking, including negative thoughts directed towards the self. Anyone who has experienced a depressive episode can attest to the painful cycle of rumination on negative thoughts and events as well as the painful self-recrimination and self-attack that occur so often in depressions.
While all of us experience a sad mood from time to time some of us begin to slide down the slippery slope, ending up in a clinical depression. Much of the time mental health providers attribute this vulnerability to genetics, and it very well may be just that. However our ability to influence our genetics at this point is extremely limited. Better to impact the sad mood before it gains momentum and turns into an insidious depressive episode that can span months and debilitate a person.
So how is the magic happening? The mechanisms are still being worked out but our gut actually produces an abundance of chemicals that interact with the brain. Some, like tryptophan, reach the brain through the endocrine system. Others impact the immune system which in turn impacts the brain in areas linked to mood. Research so far seem to indicate that gut microbiota communicates with the nervous system via neural, endocrine and immune pathways. Microbiota also seem to be involved in the regulation of the stress response (e.g. hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). So having the optimal gut bacteria may actually help us shut down the stress response or even avoid engaging it. The gut is also involved in the inflammatory response and inflammation has been shown to be related to depression (as well as other problems like cardiovascular disease).
So far human studies are limited (I have reviewed 4 to date) but ALL have shown improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately the studies don't all use the same bacterium so it's not yet clear which ones are the most powerful. This most recent study utilized a combination of 7 and that seems to be a good way to "hedge your bets". Lactobacillus casei has been used in 3 of the 4 studies I have reviewed so that might be one to look for. As always consult your medical professional if you are going to make changes to your diet including any supplementation. And keep a lookout for more studies to be rolling in. The way to improve your head may just be through your gut!
Wishing you health and happiness,
"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."
~ Anne Lamott
"Hope contains within it the powerful notion of potential. Although we cannot yet see the towering majesty of the oak tree, we see in the acorn our hope for it. Just so with relationships: We intuit a connection and begin to imagine the future we've always hoped for. But how can we nurture our hope amid a sea of doubt, cynicism and pessimism?" This question, posed on Dr. Katehakis's site centerforhealthysex.com, brought to mind something said to me in graduate school. That the job of a therapist is to hold the hope for a client when they have not yet been able to have it. But some people are fearful of hope. Those with histories of trauma can feel that hope has been cruel. That time and time again as children they may have dared to hope that things would improve, only to have them worsen. Some people need to be shown how to not dash hope, how to not kick it right in the teeth when it starts to show up.
I have a not so flattering story about crushing hope when it arrives. Years ago when I was still young in my marriage I came home one day to see my beloved planting rose bushes in our front yard. He smiled proudly and announced that he decided that instead of giving me roses for Valentine's Day ( a few days away) that he would plant me rose bushes instead! He waxed on about how he knew how much I loved flowers but of course cut flowers die, and how he planted the bushes along our front walk so that every day as I walked out the door I would see the evidence of his love and every day as I came home I would see it again. And completely uncharacteristic of my discrete, shy, introverted partner, he even went so far as to say that he wanted all of our neighbors to know how much he loved me and so he planted them in the front yard! Any normal person would have jumped for joy, accosted him with kisses and praise and swooned from the overflowing romance and sentiment. Not yours truly. Being one of those people who, as Dr. Stan Tatkin says, is "allergic to hope", I stood there silent. After a tense minute I said, I kid you not, "do they smell? Because I really only like roses that smell." I watched the blood drain out of his face. And yet I pressed on, driven by deeply embedded memories of being disappointed as a small child. "I mean, a lot of roses these days, they don't smell. They breed the smell right out of them, which I really don't understand because that is what a rose is supposed to do! Smell!" I had a classically exasperated look on my face, standing hand on hip. Every time I recount this story I assure you I cringe. But back then I simply had no idea that I was a hope assassin. Highly trained in the art of killing any small green shoots of hope that might dare to peak out from the desert of my soul. My husband, in his final rally, tried again regain his ground. "I, I..I researched them to make sure that they were drought tolerant (we live in Texas) and disease resistant and all of that". I stood silent, unmoved by his pleas. Like any real person, he snapped. "Nevermind!" he said. He grabbed the remaining plants and threw them in the back of his truck. "I'll pull the rest out tomorrow! You are impossible!"
I tell this story not to make myself look bad (although undoubtedly it will have that effect), but to show how it can look when someone has become so afraid of hope, so afraid of being truly loved, that they will literally fight against it. That they will crush the hope offered to them and grind it into the ground, all the while bemoaning how no one cares about them. I see this when clients tell me "I know you say you care, but you are paid to care." They need to find a way to reject what is being offered, which is compassion, connection and genuine affection. My pithy reply is that you can pay me to keep this seat warm for an hour but you cannot pay me to actually care. The caring is not for sale. Which is true.
Dr. Katehakis noted that "According to the Ancient Greeks, the gods punished humankind by stowing all evils in a box for curious Pandora to open, as they knew she would, and thereby unleash those miseries upon the world. After the evils took wing, all that remained in the box was hope. But how can mere hope defeat everything that boiled over from that unholy box?" Indeed. How can hope undo all that we have experienced?
We test. I often tell my new clients in their first weeks of therapy "you will spend the next year testing me because relationships have, in the past, been unsafe. And that is OK. We need to allow the most deeply hurt parts of yourself to look for the cracks in the foundation of this new relationship. Since I know that you and I are not perfect there will be cracks. But we will assess them together and acknowledge them together and I will hold the hope for you that this relationship will be different. You will not need to ignore the cracks, walking around them pretending you don't see them. You don't need to worry that if you point out the cracks I will fly into a rage or shame you for showing them to me. We will notice the cracks together and acknowledge the difficulty of creating relationships between two human beings. We will work together to decide what to do about those cracks. And you will begin to have hope that relationships can support you and that you can truly be yourself in them.
Many clients test me, just as I tested my poor husband many years ago (and by the way he stuck it out, thank goodness, and is still here putting up with me. And I hope I have learned to be more gracious about his shows of love!) My hope is that through a process of them testing me, and seeing that they are not being rejected, they can begin to nurture that small flicker of hope. And over time that it can grow stronger and stronger.
As Dr. Katehakis describes, "relationships require the tremendous resilience born of hope. When we stay unconditionally willing to remain teachable despite prior trauma, we're using hope as a healthy tool to sow the seeds of happiness... When we stop fearing change and instead embrace it, we grow mentally, physically, spiritually...just as we had hoped".
Indeed. Not a journey that is easily taken, and certainly not a journey that is devoid of fear. But in my experience of nearly a quarter of a century, a journey that ends with more riches than people ever dreamed possible.
Wishing you hope in all that you strive for,
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Dr. Tatkin wrote a great blog post on how betrayal actually impacts the brain and nervous system the same as trauma would, say for instance a bad car accident or witnessing a shooting.
I wanted to copy it here so that readers of my blog can hear what he has to say. Dr. Tatkin has his own blog in which he addresses issues of couples and relationships and if you have not already visited it I strongly encourage you to do so.
Betrayal Causes Trauma
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
In matters of betrayal—lying, cheating, stealing—the breach of the attachment system is acute and often long lasting and can be understood neurologically as a trauma-related problem.
Franklin and Zeynep, a couple in their early 40s with two young children, came to therapy because of a discovered set of sexual affairs. Franklin, an American-born academician, was found to have an affair with one of his students. Zeynep, a Turkish-born emergency room nurse, discovered the affair after accidentally viewing Franklin’s phone text messages. The texts were explicitly sexual and contained incontrovertible evidence of Franklin’s deceptions and betrayals. Although Franklin was contrite and desperately wanted to be let back into the relationship, he had great difficulty dealing with Zeynep’s unrelenting preoccupation with his affair. She wanted to know details. Fearful of making matters worse, he refused to give details. Zeynep would wake up in the middle of the night crying, and suddenly burst into a rage while they drove to dinner. She did not want Franklin to touch her. He was not to sleep in their marital bed. Franklin’s patience was at an end. He began to believe that Zeynep was purposely punishing him and was invested in making his life a living hell. Neither partner wanted the relationship to end, but neither could escape the strong wake of the betrayal itself.
PACT therapists will recognize that betrayal by a primary attachment figure is likely to be processed as trauma. Betrayals in adult romantic partnerships most commonly revolve around sex and/or finances, but central to all betrayals is the matter of deception. Partners who feel deceived by their loved ones suffer a particular kind of loss that can affect the historical memory of that relationship. Deceived partners will review the entire relationship in an attempt to reorganize their experiences of self and other. This review reorients the memory toward doubt, fear, and rage. In Zeynep’s case, we see that she could not stop thinking about Franklin’s betrayal and demanding details. Even though he did not provide details, her brain filled in its own details, which fed her doubt and fear. Flooded by these emotions, she would alternately withdraw from him and rage at him.
Once initiated, this review process cannot be interrupted because the brain must reorganize and adapt to the new information. As in PTSD, the brain and body must metabolize the trauma and cope with amygdalar hyperactivity as the amygdala responds to multiple internal and external triggers. However, different from PTSD, betrayal forces a hippocampal review and re-contextualization of the past with new information from the present. PTSD usually does not compel the brain to review past events; in fact, victims of PTSD commonly wish to avoid any review of the traumatic event, and their hippocampal function can be compromised by the traumatic event.
Betrayal, therefore, usually leads to a preoccupation with the new reality-shattering information. This presents an enormous challenge to the couple attempting to recover from it. Like Zeynep, the victim cannot stop being preoccupied with the past, present, and future, nor escape the emotional volatility that accompanies this process. The perpetrator therefore must tolerate the other partner’s perseveration and emotional volatility, as well as the constant questioning, grief, and anger that come with the healing process. In this case, Franklin had to learn patience for the couple to have any chance at rebuilding their relationship. Somewhat ironically, the perpetrator is in a unique position as not only the cause of the trauma but also its solution. This is not an easy task for the perpetrator to perform. Yet, the PACT therapist takes the position that the betraying partner must provide ongoing and sufficient support to regulate disturbing states related to the trauma whenever they arise.
Copyright © 2003-2014 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved
I get this question a lot. Usually framed as "you can't do that, CAN you?" I hear a strong wish underneath the prohibition. "PLEASE tell me I am allowed to ask my partner to change!!" Many of us have absorbed the popular culture myth that we should not ask our partner to be different from who they are. Which sounds very loving, very accepting and very... unrealistic in my book. What if how are partner is acting is hurtful to us? What if it's damaging our relationship? How do you make the distinction between things you can ask to have changed and things that are supposed to be off limits? Is anything off limits?
PACT teaches that the real issue here is not changing your partner. It's changing how your partner is WITH YOU. How your partner treats you (and vice-versa). If my partner is a shy, introverted type, I am not going to change that. Introversion is one of the most stable personality traits researched. So even if I wanted to change that, even if my partner wanted to change that about him/herself, it's not likely to happen. But if part of how I get my emotional needs met is to have friends over every few weeks my introverted, shy partner may need to learn how to support that for me to some degree. This does not mean that s/he necessarily enjoys these social situations. But s/he does learn to support this need I have to connect with others by inviting them over every so often. Likewise if I am a strongly extroverted person my partner is not going to change that about me. But s/he can expect that I am going to not bowl him/her over with my need to have people at the house every day of the week. S/He can expect that I will allow him/her some "alone time" to recharge at the end of a day where s/he has had to talk to a lot of people. And that I won't take that personally or shame him/her about it.
In this scenario no one is actually changing. I am still an extrovert. He or she is still an introvert. But we respect each other's needs enough to BEHAVE in ways that take care of each other. And yes, you can "ask" for this. I would argue if you don't ask for it you may not get it. And if your partner is not acting in ways that support your deepest needs then they are not doing their job and you are not getting the benefit of being partnered. And over time, this lack of support for your deepest needs may begin to erode the positive feelings towards your partner. The relationship will no longer feel like a place where you can get important needs met.
Where many of us go wrong is in confusing how we want our partner to ACT and who they ARE. We feel disappointed that our partner is not a certain way and forget that we can ask for behaviors that feel good to us, and that our partner can behave in those ways even if it's not their personal default. Of course we need to learn to ask in ways that are respectful and kind and still honor our partner's own needs and wiring.
For an excellent in-depth explanation of how your partner is wired and what is likely to come naturally to them (or not!) see Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program Your Brain on Love or his book Wired for Love. Or for those of you who are not yet partnered see Dr. Tatkin's book Wired for Dating. Learning how your partner's brain is set up will help you appreciate why they do what they do (and don't do), how to ask for what you want and need and how to take excellent care of them in return.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
Ever wish when you were staring down a big decision that you could consult with thousands of people who have successfully navigated those waters before? Well one smart fellow did just that when preparing to pledge himself to another person for the rest of his life. Mark Manson has a website and used it to crowd source his very own guide to a happy marriage. He solicited people who had been happily married for at least 10 years to give their best perspective on what made their marriages work so well. Below are some of the things people said. You can view the full list at MarkManson.net.
"By itself, love is never enough to sustain a relationship." I tell this to my clients ALL THE TIME. And believe me, as a hopeless romantic, I am not crazy about having to admit it. But it's true. Love is not enough. There must also be trust, respect, compassion, compromise, humility, tenacity and sometimes a bit of insanity to just keep trying even when things are looking pretty bleak. I will admit that I don't recommend marriage (or a long-term committed partnership) without love, but I hope you have a lot more than that going for you when you take the plunge.
Mr. Manson's readers also agreed that it was important to "Have realistic expectations about relationships and romance." This follows love not being enough in my opinion. A reader named Paula went on to say that " You are absolutely not going to be absolutely gaga over each other every single day for the rest of your lives, and all this 'happily ever after' [stuff] is just setting people up for failure. They go into relationship with these unrealistic expectations. Then, the instant they realize they aren’t 'gaga' anymore, they think the relationship is broken and over, and they need to get out. No! There will be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer, when you aren’t all mushy-gushy in-love. You’re even going to wake up some morning and think, 'Ugh, you’re still here….' That’s normal! And more importantly, sticking it out is totally worth it, because that, too, will change. In a day, or a week, or maybe even longer, you’ll look at that person and a giant wave of love will inundate you, and you’ll love them so much you think your heart can’t possibly hold it all and is going to burst. Because a love that’s alive is also constantly evolving. It expands and contracts and mellows and deepens. It’s not going to be the way it used to be, or the way it will be, and it shouldn’t be. I think if more couples understood that, they’d be less inclined to panic and rush to break up or divorce."
Paula's comments remind me of a friend in graduate school whose mom told her "there will be days...weeks...months....well, sometimes years....where you really don't like the person that you married. But then it gets better!". I recall hearing this and not knowing whether to feel relieved since marriage sounded so much more do-able given this caveat or whether I should go join a convent and just give up. Now that I have been married for 19 years (and counting) I think it is very sage advice. Setting the expectation that you may not really enjoy the person you are with all of the time and that in and of itself is not a problem leaves you free to continue to enjoy the rest of your life (your work, your friends, your kids, your hobbies) while you wait things and and eventually start liking your spouse again. This is NOT a reason to be mean to your spouse or give up on the marriage. Just to realize that sometimes our partners go through things that we don't fully understand and that sometimes this requires us to give them a wide berth. I am thankful that in my own marriage I have never gone more than weeks not enjoying my husband's company, but I am prepared for longer stints if necessary.
Manson echoed the work of Helen Fisher in saying that "Love is [like a drug, it]... makes us highly irrational... It’s nature’s way of tricking us into doing insane and irrational things to procreate with another person—probably because if we stopped to think about the repercussions of having kids, and being with the same person forever and ever, no one would ever do it...Romantic love is a trap designed to get two people to overlook each other’s faults long enough to get some babymaking done. It generally only lasts for a few years at most. That dizzying high you get staring into your lover’s eyes as if they are the stars that make up the heavens—yeah, that mostly goes away. It does for everybody. So, once it’s gone, you need to know that you’ve buckled yourself down with a human being you genuinely respect and enjoy being with, otherwise things are going to get rocky. True love—that is, deep, abiding love that is impervious to emotional whims or fancy—is a choice. It’s a constant commitment to a person regardless of the present circumstances. It’s a commitment to a person who you understand isn’t going to always make you happy—nor should they!—and a person who will need to rely on you at times, just as you will rely on them."
Manson elaborates "That form of love is much harder. Primarily because it often doesn’t feel very good. It’s unglamorous. It’s lots of early morning doctor’s visits. It’s cleaning up bodily fluids you’d rather not be cleaning up. It’s dealing with another person’s insecurities and fears and ideas, even when you don’t want to.But this form of love is also far more satisfying and meaningful. And, at the end of the day, it brings true happiness, not just another series of highs."
His reader Tara writes "Happily Ever After doesn’t exist. Every day you wake up and decide to love your partner and your life—the good, the bad and the ugly. Some days it’s a struggle and some days you feel like the luckiest person in the world."
Another thing that Manson's readers agreed upon was that "The most important factor in a relationship is not communication, but respect." His reader Laurie said "What I can tell you is the #1 thing, most important above all else is respect. It’s not sexual attraction, looks, shared goals, religion or lack of, nor is it love. There are times when you won’t feel love for your partner. That is the truth. But you never want to lose respect for your partner. Once you lose respect you will never get it back."
Now, as a couples therapist I can say that I don't believe that it's always as black-and-white as Laurie reports. I have seen couples lose respect for each other, such as during the throws of an addiction or affair. And I have seen those same couples rebuild respect. I think what makes the difference is if the respect was there in the first place and how hard the partner who has lost the respect is willing to work to get it back.
Manson noticed another interesting trend. He said that "People who had been through divorces and/or had only been with their partners for 10-15 years almost always talked about communication being the most important part of making things work. Talk frequently. Talk openly. Talk about everything, even if it hurts...But..people with marriages going on 20, 30, or even 40 years talked... most [about]respect." He goes on to say that he feels that these long-termers "through sheer quantity of experience, have learned that communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt." I could not agree more. Research has shown us that all couples, happy and unhappy, fight. And that the amount of fighting is not predictive of marital satisfaction or divorce. The ability to recover from a fight is predictive. Another astonishing thing is that about 2/3 of your conflicts will have no permanent resolution. My husband hates that I clutter up the house with piles of stuff-- work papers, laundry that has not been folded yet, magazines I plan to read. He is a neat freak. He has lived, begrudgingly on some level I am sure, with my piles for 19 years. I have tried to reform myself (really I have!) but I am just as messy now as I was as a teenager. This is not going to be resolved unless we agree to live in separate houses (which neither of us are interested in). Does this mean we can't be happy? I certainly hope not.
Manson's readers went on to tell him that "the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another—often more than you each believe in yourselves—and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got. Without that bedrock of respect underneath you, you will doubt each other’s intentions. You will judge their choices and encroach on their independence. You will feel the need to hide things from one another for fear of criticism. And this is when the cracks in the edifice begin to appear."
His reader Nicole offered "My husband and I have been together 15 years this winter. I’ve thought a lot about what seems to be keeping us together, while marriages around us crumble (seriously, it’s everywhere… we seem to be at that age). The one word that I keep coming back to is 'respect.' Of course, this means showing respect, but that is too superficial. Just showing it isn’t enough. You have to feel it deep within you. I deeply and genuinely respect him for his work ethic, his patience, his creativity, his intelligence, and his core values. From this respect comes everything else—trust, patience, perseverance (because sometimes life is really hard and you both just have to persevere). I want to hear what he has to say (even if I don’t agree with him) because I respect his opinion. I want to enable him to have some free time within our insanely busy lives because I respect his choices of how he spends his time and who he spends time with. And, really, what this mutual respect means is that we feel safe sharing our deepest, most intimate selves with each other."
Manson also offered that "Respect for your partner and respect for yourself are intertwined." One of his readers, Olov, stated, “Respect yourself and your [partner]. Never talk badly to or about [him/] her. If you don’t respect your [partner], you don’t respect yourself. You chose [him/] her—live up to that choice.” This sounds a lot like what Stan Tatkin teaches about having your partner's back and never throwing them under the bus, in public or in private. Manson says " NEVER talk [badly] about your partner or complain about them to your friends. If you have a problem with your partner, you should be having that conversation with them, not with your friends. Talking bad about them will erode your respect for them and make you feel worse about being with them, not better. Respect that they have different hobbies, interests, and perspectives from you. Just because you would spend your time and energy differently, doesn’t mean it’s better/worse. Respect that they have an equal say in the relationship, that you are a team, and if one person on the team is not happy, then the team is not succeeding."
Echoing the work of Stan Tatkin again Manson also cautions "No secrets. If you’re really in this together and you respect one another, everything should be fair game. Have a crush on someone else? Discuss it. Laugh about it. Had a weird sexual fantasy that sounds ridiculous? Be open about it. Nothing should be off-limits." Partners need to tell each other everything and be the go-to people for each other.
Manson elaborates "Respect goes hand-in-hand with trust. And trust is the lifeblood of any relationship (romantic or otherwise). Without trust, there can be no sense of intimacy or comfort. Without trust, your partner will become a liability in your mind, something to be avoided and analyzed, not a protective homebase for your heart and your mind." Your relationship, I tell my couples, should be where you go home and "plug-in" at the end of your day to get charged up and refueled. Where you heal the wounds from slaying dragons all day. If you can't trust your partner, and feel the need to keep things from them, then how can you let down you guard and really fall into their arms for comfort?
Of course this will require that, as Manson's readers advise, you "Talk openly about everything, especially the stuff that hurts." One of his readers Ronnie says that he and his beloved "always talk about what’s bothering us with each other, not anyone else! We have so many friends who are in marriages that are not working well and they tell me all about what is wrong. I can’t help them, they need to be talking to their spouse about this, that’s the only person who can help them figure it out. If you can figure out a way to be able to always talk with your spouse about what’s bugging you then you can work on the issue.
Manson says that he has always advised his readers that "If something bothers you in the relationship, you must be willing to say it. Saying it builds trust and trust builds intimacy. It may hurt, but you still need to do it. No one else can fix your relationship for you. Nor should anyone else. Just as causing pain to your muscles allows them to grow back stronger, often introducing some pain into your relationship through vulnerability is the only way to make the relationship stronger."
Manson points out that trust in the context of a decades long relationship can get into some very deep and possibly life-or-death places. "If you ended up with cancer tomorrow, would you trust your partner to stick with you and take care of you? Would you trust your partner to care for your child for a week by themselves? Do you trust them to handle your money or make sound decisions under pressure? Do you trust them to not turn on you or blame you when you make mistakes?" He makes a great point that "Trust at the beginning of a relationship is easy." We don't know the other person yet and so don't have much to lose. We haven't invested years of our life, created children with this person, come to rely on them when we are sick or infirm.
He says that "the deeper the commitment, the more intertwined your lives become, and the more you will have to trust your partner to act in your interest in your absence."
Manson's readers told him that "The key to fostering and maintaining trust in the relationship is for both partners to be completely transparent and vulnerable: If something is bothering you, say something. This is important not only for addressing issues as they arise, but it proves to your partner that you have nothing to hide. Those icky, insecure things you hate sharing with people? Share them with your partner. Not only is it healing, but you and your partner need to have a good understanding of each other’s insecurities and the way you each choose to compensate for them. Make promises and then stick to them. The only way to truly rebuild trust after it’s been broken is through a proven track record over time. You cannot build that track record until you own up to previous mistakes and set about correcting them."
Another great point offered by Manson's readers was that the person you marry is not going to be the same person you are with 20, 30, 50 years from now. Humans have an interesting habit of changing and evolving. One of his readers "commented that at her wedding, an elderly family member told her, 'One day many years from now, you will wake up and your spouse will be a different person, make sure you fall in love with that person too.'" That reminds me of a friend whose father told him "Your mother has changed many times over the course of our marriage and I have fallen in love with each new version of her". What a lovely way to go through life, having numerous love affairs with numerous versions of the same person you committed yourself to all those years ago.
A man named Michael wrote to Manson " When you commit to someone, you don’t actually know who you’re committing to. You know who they are today, but you have no idea who this person is going to be in five years, ten years, and so on. You have to be prepared for the unexpected, and truly ask yourself if you admire this person regardless of the superficial (or not-so-superficial) details, because I promise almost all of them at some point are going to either change or go away."
Another one of his readers, Kevin, offered "Two years ago, I suddenly began resenting my wife for any number of reasons. I felt as if we were floating along, doing a great job of co-existing and co-parenting, but not sustaining a real connection. It deteriorated to the point that I considered separating from her; however, whenever I gave the matter intense thought, I could not pinpoint a single issue that was a deal breaker. I knew her to be an amazing person, mother, and friend. I bit my tongue a lot and held out hope that the malaise would pass as suddenly as it had arrived. Fortunately, it did and I love her more than ever. So the final bit of wisdom is to afford your spouse the benefit of the doubt. If you have been happy for such a long period, that is the case for good reason. Be patient and focus on the many aspects of her that still exist that caused you to fall in love in the first place." So again, even if our partner does not change we may go through periods where our feelings do. Don't jump to conclusions and call the divorce attorney. Ride it out and assume that they are still lovable you are just having a hard time finding the connection.
Manson's readers also agreed on the idea of fighting productively and fairly. As Ryan Saplan stated "The relationship is a living, breathing thing. Much like the body and muscles, it cannot get stronger without stress and challenge. You have to fight. You have to hash things out. Obstacles make the marriage." Personally I would love to do without the arguments but in my opinion they are just inevitable. You have two totally separate brains, nervous systems, histories, preferences, triggers, personalities, temperaments and all of that. How on earth would you never disagree, even passionately so? So whether you feel like the arguments increase the depth and strength of the marriage or you regard them as an unavoidable part of being human you still have to figure out how to get through them as gracefully as possible.
Manson goes on to talk about some of John Gottman's research. He summarizes that Gottman "spent over 30 years analyzing married couples and looking for keys to why they stick together and why they break up....Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously. [Gottman] has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are
Manson said that many of the 1500 respondents to his invitation to opine on marriage agreed with Gottman that these 4 habits were very destructive to relationships. They cautioned "Never insult or name-call your partner. Put another way: hate the sin, love the sinner." Manson went on to make the point that" Gottman’s research found that 'contempt'—belittling and demeaning your partner—is the number one predictor of divorce." He added "Do not bring previous fights/arguments into current ones. This solves nothing and just makes the fight twice as bad as it was before. Yeah, you forgot to pick up groceries on the way home, but what does him being rude to your mother last Thanksgiving have to do with anything?" I assure you this both harder and more important than it sounds. I work very hard with couples to learn to fight clean, resolve fully and then leave the past in the past. Too often, however, fights are done dirty and not fully resolved, and then the past cannot help but to intrude in a very ugly way into the current conversation.
Manson suggested that "If things get too heated, take a breather. Remove yourself from the situation and come back once emotions have cooled off a bit." This is a big one for me personally—sometimes when things get intense with my wife, I get overwhelmed and just leave for a while. I usually walk around the block two or three times and let myself seethe for about 15 minutes. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a much more conciliatory tone." I agree but would also add that if you are going to walk away from your partner in the midst of a fight you still need to let them know that 1) you still love them and 2) that you are going to go calm down and come back in ___ minutes (and make sure you keep track of time and come back when you said you would). This helps to reduce feelings of abandonment in case your partner is sensitive to that.
Manson also offers to "Remember that being 'right' is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may be right, but if you are right in such a way that makes your partner feel unloved, then there’s no real winner." Or as some people say, it's better to be close than to be right.
Of course if you are being honest, telling each other everything and not avoiding fights, then there will be some forgiving that might have to happen. Manson's readers covered this as well. A fellow named Brian wrote that "When you end up being right about something—shut up. You can be right and be quiet at the same time. Your partner will already know you’re right and will feel loved knowing that you didn’t wield it like a battle sword." That one is going up on my refrigerator. Seriously. And then there was Bill, who concisely reminded us that " In marriage, there’s no such thing as winning an argument." Agreed.
Manson opined "When an argument is over, it’s over... When you’re done fighting, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, it doesn’t matter if someone was mean and someone was nice. It’s over. It’s in the past. And you both agree to leave it there, not bring it up every month for the next three years. There’s no scoreboard...When your partner screws up, you separate the intentions from the behavior. You recognize the things you love and admire in your partner and understand that he/she was simply doing the best that they could, yet messed up out of ignorance. Not because they’re a bad person. Not because they secretly hate you and want to divorce you. Not because there’s somebody else in the background pulling them away from you. They are a good person. That’s why you are with them. If you ever lose your faith in that, then you will begin to erode your faith in yourself."
A reader named Fred wrote that he has "Been happily married 40+ years. One piece of advice that comes to mind: choose your battles. Some things matter, worth getting upset about. Most do not. Argue over the little things and you’ll find yourself arguing endlessly; little things pop up all day long, it takes a toll over time. Like Chinese water torture: minor in the short term, corrosive over time. Consider: is this a little thing or a big thing? Is it worth the cost of arguing?" I often ask my couples-- in 10 years, will this matter? What about in 20?
Readers also wrote that it is important to stay connected through every day things. Brian advised that partners "meet for lunch, go for a walk or go out to dinner and a movie with some regularity....Staying connected through life’s ups and downs is critical. Eventually your kids grow up, your...parents will die. When that happens, guess who’s left?...You don’t want to wake up 20 years later and be staring at a stranger because life broke the bonds you formed before the [drama] started. You and your partner need to be the eye of the hurricane.
Mason added that "This seems to become particularly important once kids enter the picture. The big message I heard hundreds of times about kids: put the marriage first." One of his readers, Susan, said that "Children are worshipped in our culture these days. Parents are expected to sacrifice everything for them. But the best way to raise healthy and happy kids is to maintain a healthy and happy marriage. Good kids don’t make a good marriage. A good marriage makes good kids. So keep your marriage the top priority." Dr. Stan Tatkin teaches the same. Dr. Tatkin advises that partners keep each other in a "couple bubble" and that all other entities, whether they are kids, careers, hobbies, parents, etc., be lower status than the relationship with your spouse. I have seen this advice save many marriages that were strained nearly beyond repair by kids, step-kids, ex-spouses, ailing parents and demanding careers. Keeping each other as the first priority is essential to a happy partnership.
Manson's readers also agreed that "Sex matters… a LOT". Readers said that when the relationship was ailing the sex lagged. And that it was important to make time for it, even if there are kids, jobs, chores and whatnot imposing on your time. His readers echoed what Helen Fisher cites in her research, that sex bonds people. "That when things are a bit frigid between them or that they have some problems going on, a lot of stress, or other issues (i.e., kids), they even go so far as to schedule sexy time for themselves. They say it’s important. And it’s worth it.
A few people even said that when things start to feel stale in the relationship, they agree to have sex every day for a week. Then, as if by magic, by the next week, they feel great again."
And again Manson and Stan Tatkin agree that creating rules or agreements in the relationship is essential. One of Manson's readers, Liz, stated that "There is no 50/50 in housecleaning, child rearing, vacation planning, dishwasher emptying, gift buying, dinner making, money making, etc. The sooner everyone accepts that, the happier everyone is. We all have things we like to do and hate to do; we all have things we are good at and not so good at. TALK to your partner about those things when it comes to dividing and conquering all the [stuff] that has to get done in life."
Manson talks about "The fact is relationships are imperfect, messy affairs. And it’s for the simple reason that they’re comprised of imperfect, messy people—people who want different things at different times in different ways...The common theme of the advice here was “Be pragmatic.” If the wife is a lawyer and spends 50 hours at the office every week, and the husband is an artist and can work from home most days, it makes more sense for him to handle most of the day-to-day parenting duties. If the wife’s standard of cleanliness looks like a Home & Garden catalog, and the husband has gone six months without even noticing the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, then it makes sense that the wife handles more of the home cleaning duties. It’s economics 101: division of labor makes everyone better off. Figure out what you are each good at, what you each love/hate doing, and then arrange accordingly. My wife loves cleaning (no, seriously), but she hates smelly stuff. So guess who gets dishes and garbage duty? Me. Because I don’t [care]. I’ll eat off the same plate seven times in a row. I couldn’t smell a dead rat even if it was sleeping under my pillow. I’ll toss garbage around all day. Here honey, let me get that for you." I often tell couples that their differences are a net strength for the relationship. One person is great with finances, the other can work a crowd and schmooze the new neighbors. Together they can benefit from the things the other person is better at.
And finally Mason offered the advice of a sage reader named Margo "You can work through anything as long as you are not destroying yourself or each other. That means emotionally, physically, financially, or spiritually. Make nothing off limits to discuss. Never shame or mock each other for the things you do that make you happy. Write down why you fell in love and read it every year on your anniversary (or more often). Write love letters to each other often. Make each other first. When kids arrive, it will be easy to fall into a frenzy of making them the only focus of your life…do not forget the love that produced them. You must keep that love alive and strong to feed them love. Spouse comes first. Each of you will continue to grow. Bring the other one with you. Be the one that welcomes that growth. Don’t think that the other one will hold the relationship together. Both of you should assume it’s up to you so that you are both working on it. Be passionate about cleaning house, preparing meals, and taking care of your home. This is required of everyone daily, make it fun and happy and do it together. Do not complain about your partner to anyone. Love them for who they are. Make love even when you are not in the mood. Trust each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt always. Be transparent. Have nothing to hide. Be proud of each other. Have a life outside of each other, but share it through conversation. Pamper and adore each other. Go to counseling now before you need it so that you are both open to working on the relationship together. Disagree with respect to each other’s feelings. Be open to change and accepting of differences. Print this and refer to it daily."
Thanks, Margo, I think I will. Because even couple's therapists need reminders from time to time.
Wishing you health and happiness in your connections to others,
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Recently a therapist friend of mine forwarded me a link to Brene Brown's talk on The Anatomy of Trust. I would love to say that I was basking in the warm glow of pride as I reflected on how great I am at providing trust in my important relationships. However my reaction to this incredible talk was more like a gut punch. Hearing Dr. Brown describe what she feels trust is really about made me realize that I still have some room to grow in that department.
Probably one reason I like Dr. Brown is that she loves definitions. So do I. I am actually a person who asked for, and got, a 900 page dictionary for her 30th birthday. That was back before Google. Don't ask if you don't know what I am talking about. Dr. Brown scoured the literature and found a great definition of trust by author Charles Feltman. He defines trust as "choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else." Take the picture above. I am pretty sure that the kid in the air values his physical safety. Broken bones are no fun. And he is putting that physical safety in the hands of the dad and making his safety vulnerable to the ability of the dad to catch him. I cannot think of a more concrete illustration of what she is talking about. But of course when we are 20 or 40 or 60 it's not so much about people catching us flying through the air as sharing a hope or dream with someone and not having them discount it or tell us all of the reasons it won't work out. Or marrying someone and trusting that they will not go off and steal all of your retirement, buy a sports car and run off with the nanny/manny, crushing your dreams of a happy family life. Charles Feltman also defined distrust, which is "when something I have shared with you that is important to me is not safe with you." Ouch. I think we can all conjure up examples of that.
Dr. Brown then broke down the idea of trust into an acronym: BRAVING. She went on to elaborate that B stands for Boundaries-- we need to feel that another person knows what they are capable of and can stick to that as well as respecting what we are comfortable with and capable of as well. For example if I routinely can't say no to anyone and get overcommitted I am not going to appear very trustworthy to anyone who needs some of my time (I personally don't know anything about this.... Um, OK, actually-- note to self to work on that one). The R stands for Reliability-- that people know we will do what we say and do that repeatedly/consistently. Being there for someone once is great but doing it over and over is where trust is built. Accountability (A) is about being able to own our mistakes, apologize and make amends for them. The V is for Vault-- as in, if someone confides in us we won't betray that confidence. Interestingly Dr. Brown expanded this and pointed out that even if we are keeping one person's confidence, if that person hears us spilling secrets other people have told us we can still end up not looking very trustworthy! She went on to talk about Integrity (I), which she defined as "choosing courage over comfort, what's right over what's fast, fun or easy, and practicing, not just professing our values." Again she expanded this to say that not only does a trustworthy person act with their own integrity but they encourage others to act with it as well. Non-judgment (N) made her list, apropos of my previous blog on Acceptance. Dr. Brown elaborated that non-judgement means that I can fall apart and ask for help without being judged by you and vice-versa. She also said that it has to be a level playing field, meaning if I am OK with you asking me for help but I don't like to ask you when I need it then I am not going to be perceived as trustworthy. Those of us who tend to gravitate towards the helper role (again, not that I know anything about that!) often don't like to ask for help ourselves. At the core of this, however, is an implied power differential where we see the helper as being more empowered and the person asking for help, let's be honest here, as somehow "less than". This is NOT going to promote a feeling of trust. Finally Dr. Brown brought up Generosity (G) and as usual she had a very interesting take on that. She said that generosity in terms of trust means always giving me the benefit of the doubt. If I have screwed up, forgotten something, said something hurtful or generally been a schmuck you will assume that I did not have bad intentions. Furthermore, and this is great, you will CHECK IT OUT WITH ME rather than just avoid me and think the worst of me. Imagine how many relationships could be helped by just this one construct! As a person who is prone to nurse hurts (I know, I am working on it!) I really appreciated her reminder to assume that the person you are dealing with is a good, decent person who probably just screwed up by accident. So go ask them what's up and don't go in with guns loaded for heaven's sake!
All in all I really loved this talk. Brenee Brown, if you have never heard her, is funny, smart, relate-able and just a great speaker. She has a number of great books out there also on topics like shame, vulnerability and learning to go a little easier on yourself. I hope you have found this review of her trust talk helpful.
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Wishing you trust in all of your deepest connections, including with yourself.
I heard once that "acceptance is the answer to all of your problems". The part of me that loves to solve problems immediately thought "bah! that's too simple!". But the more I have thought about this statement the more true it seems. Not always, obviously. If you are in an abusive relationship I would not recommend acceptance. If your boss is sexually harassing you, acceptance is not the answer. But if you find yourself plagued with envy of your best friend's six pack abs, or new car, or you feel frustrated by your shyness or freckles, or your partner's annoying habit of leaving wet towels on the floor, then maybe acceptance IS the answer to all of your problems.
More and more I feel like life is moving at an unrealistic pace. We all have full inboxes, full voicemail systems, endless to-do lists and FOMO on a nonstop basis. Life is not slowing down for us. Which means for many of us (me for sure!) we are getting farther and farther behind on some things. We are, I would argue, having to come to grips with the fact that keeping up on all of our goals may prove to be impossible.
So how do you square yourself to feelings of personal failure? When you feel that you are not measuring up? I recently found a wonderful video that talks about just that. Kristen Neff's Youtube talk on Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem was really on point about how we treat ourselves in the face of adversity and disappointment. She is a researcher right here in Austin, Texas who started off looking at self-esteem. What she quickly realized was that self-esteem was impacted by self-compassion. So she started looking at that. I love that she shared personal experiences (divorce, being a mom of an Autistic-spectrum kid) that caused her to want to figure out how to feel OK about herself when she felt that life was throwing her curve balls.
Dr. Neff points out something that I found particularly helpful-- that when we attack ourselves, criticize ourselves and entertain negative thoughts about ourselves we are actually triggering the fight or flight response/stress response in our bodies. This causes the release of large amounts of cortisol, which is very damaging to our bodies. In fact, prolonged/repeated exposure to cortisol can cause depression. So now on top of feeling disappointed in yourself and judging yourself harshly you are debilitated by depression and not in any position to make any positive changes!
Dr. Neff explains different ways that we can be self-compassionate which avoids this pitfall of depression. Below are two graphics that I found that cover her main points. In general you can think of self-compassion as treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend in the same situation. If you are berating yourself for being late to deliver a work project think about what you would tell a good friend in the same situation. If there is a difference in how you would talk to your friend versus how you talk to yourself then you may need to work on self-compassion!
One of the most interesting tips she gives on self-compassion is that we can actually soothe ourselves chemically by stimulating our own oxytocin release. Oxytocin is the chemical that mothers release when nursing babies, or birthing babies, and when any of us receive loving touch. It's the hormone that is meant to bond us and calm us. It helps promote a state of relaxation and even sleep. Dr. Neff explains that you can release your own oxytocin by touching yourself in a caring manner. Like giving yourself a hug and rubbing your arms. Corny, I know. And super awkward if anyone were to see you! However, science is science. If you can touch yourself lovingly (in your car in the parking lot? in the bathroom stall at work?) you can actually calm yourself down by administering your own oxytocin. Dr. Neff also recommends talking to yourself in a soothing voice (again here I recommend privacy!). Humans are also wired to respond to what is called "vocal prosody" or that sing-songy voice we use with babies and cute little animals. So saying something to yourself like "I know I'm feeling really crummy right now but this will pass" in a soothing voice can actually cause your nervous system to settle down and help you feel better. Again contrast this to the way many of us tend to speak to ourselves which goes something like "Geez I can't believe how stupid I was! What a screw-up!". As they say in the computer world, "garbage in, garbage out". If you talk to yourself in a negative manner you are going to cause negative chemical reactions in your brain and nervous system. If you talk to yourself lovingly you will release chemicals that will calm and sooth you and help you access the more complex (and capable!) parts of your brain.
Dr. Neff has a website where you can take an online quiz to check yourself on six different aspects of self compassion: self-kindness, self-judgement, common humanity, isolation mindfulness and over-identification with your feelings. I found this to be very useful in identifying which areas I may need to work on to become more self-compassionate.
If you are the sort of person that tends to be hard on yourself, has low self-esteem or sets potentially unrealistic standards for yourself you may benefit from looking into self-compassion. The research is quite strong that increasing self-compassion can help with self-esteem as well as depression and happiness.
As always if you find this post useful please "like" it below or "tweet" about it to help others find these resources. And if you are unfamiliar with mindfulness you may want to look for some resources (online or locally where you are) to help you learn this incredibly powerful tool for being in the present moment, even if that moment is cruddy. While it sounds weird being fully present in an uncomfortable moment actually turns out better in the long run.
Wishing you self-compassion, self-esteem and a fulfilling sense of connectedness to all people,
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.