When Hope Fails

Feeling Alone

In the past I have talked about how it is natural for passion to wane in long term relationships. There are things couples can do to prevent it, and there are ways couples can try to rebuild passion once it has been lost. In order to rebuild a relationship you need to make it a priority again. But you also have to believe change is possible, and you have to put in effort.

I’m a cheerleader for long term relationships. I believe in them, and believe that as long as people love each other they can get through anything. I believe with a little bit of effort on both parts, each day can be better than the last. Couples can work to better understand each other and build a deep enduring love. I believe forever can be real, and couples can “grow old together” still very much in love.

Belief for me is the easy part, and part of my goal with this site has been a hope that my belief can be infectious and I can inspire others to believe when they are having a hard time doing so on their own.

But I recognize that isn’t the case for everyone. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, and hold onto hope. Sometimes you try focusing on the positive, but a little part of your brain keeps insisting that things will never get better. What if you do truly want things to get better, but you just can’t bring yourself to put in the energy or the effort?

What do you do when hope fails?

If hope has failed, it may be that your brain and heart are telling you your relationship is beyond saving. But what if it’s something else entirely?

If you look up “sense of hopelessness” you will find it is one of the major signs of anxiety and depression. In my last post I talked a little bit about mental illness. What I didn’t talk about was how mental health has a direct impact on relationships.

According to statistics, mental illness will directly impact roughly 20% of people at some point in time in their life (though some stats show this as high as 25%). Relationships involve two people, so according to my math 40%-50% of couples will deal with a mental illness at some point in time, adding an additional layer of challenge to the normal trials and tribulations relationships go through.

Impacts on Relationships

Stats from counselors indicate that more than 80% of couples who come in for counseling show signs of mental illness (predominantly in the form of anxiety or depression). This is not surprising, as the nature of mental illnesses often break down the very characteristics required for a strong, healthy relationship. They can impact a persons ability to feel love and affection, while also making it harder to cope with the regular stresses of a relationship and day to day life. This in turn puts additional stress on the relationship.

When a relationship is struggling and there is the presence of something like depression and/or anxiety, a question that can be asked is “does the mental illness contribute to the relationship issues, or do the relationship issues lead to the mental illness”. Honestly, that’s a valid question. But I would argue that the answer doesn’t really matter. Allow me to explain…

depression vs. Depression

We all have had bad days and days that we feel depressed. When you’re depressed, you’re generally feeling down, or in a funk. You probably feel listless and a bit tired, and you really don’t want to do much. Everyone has days like that, and they are usually triggered by something that has happened.

When I first heard about depression, I thought this is what people were talking about. As a result, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. After all, feeling depressed is a normal thing that everyone experiences. In my mind depressed people just needed to cheer up, and they would feel better soon enough.

The reality of depression isn’t so simple. Depression as an illness (also known as clinical depression or a major depressive episode) is different. It may start the same as the “normal” funks that people go through, and that’s probably a big part of why most people don’t get help for it. I suspect that many sufferers think it’s just something they can wait out. Or they think they are feeling “down” because of something in their life, and if they just changed that thing they would start to feel better. But as time goes by it just deepens and worsens. Clinical depression is only partially understood, but it causes changes in brain chemistry that can make it very difficult for people to get out without help.

In a similar fashion everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, but when anxiety becomes a common part of daily life then anxiety may be a disorder. I recently wrote on the impacts of stress on relationships. People with anxiety disorders are constantly dealing with elevated levels of stress. The symptoms of anxiety disorders are very similar to those of depression, and these extended periods of stress often result in anxiety disorders causing depression.

Trusting Emotions

Who are you? What makes you “you”? Some people talk about the separation between the body and the soul, and the idea is usually that the soul is the essence of what makes you who you are. It’s your thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories. These are what make us who we are, and what makes us human.

That’s a problem with changes to moods and emotions. It’s easy to see these things as “who we are”, or “how we truly feel” about things. But what if we can’t trust them?

One problem about moods, feelings and emotions is that they are affected by our mental state. At some level we know this happens. I suspect everyone would admit that they have had days where they are frustrated and irritable, and as a result inadvertently lashed out at someone (displacing anger and frustration from something else).

With mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, these “bad days” can become the norm. Moods change and emotions change.

Some of the main symptoms are irritability and bouts of anger. Difficulty sleeping (which likely contributes to irritability and emotional volatility). There’s also tiredness and a lack of energy, a feeling of hopelessness or being trapped, and issues dealing with stress.

Impacts on Relationships

Anxiety and Depression can be devastating for the person who is suffering from them. But they also take a considerable toll for both members of a relationship.

For the person who is suffering, the illness can break down feelings of love, and lead them to question whether or not they actually do love their partner. We are taught to trust our feelings. So when the “feeling” isn’t there, it’s easy to conclude that the reason is because the love has broken down. Often the affected person doesn’t understand why the feelings are gone. They may not be able to identify why they don’t feel affection any more. They may want to, and they may mourn the loss. But because of the chemical changes in their brain, they are unable to feel for their partner.

Ironically, although they find it hard to maintain feelings of long term love they are still able to feel the oxytocin fueled feelings of “new love” – which can act as “proof” or validation that something was wrong with the initial relationship. Research on depression shows that someone suffering from depression has an increased probability of having an affair, as a way of trying to fill the feelings of emptiness inside and “feel alive” again.

For the partner who isn’t suffering, it can be difficult to watch the person you love withdraw. There is a sense of walking on eggshells, as you aren’t sure what to do to help. And the relationship often becomes characterized by cycles of withdrawal and anger. It causes immense stress, and often the “healthy” partner ends up falling into a depression themselves.

There are a lot of books on depression and how it impacts people, but for a look at the ways depression can impact relationships I recommend reading Depression Fallout by Anne Sheffield. She has lived both sides of depression, and has some valuable insights into it.

Making Decisions

Earlier I said it didn’t matter whether a relationship is damaged by a mental illness or the whether the depression was caused by relationship issues. This is because most literature on illnesses like depression say that you should never make significant life choices (such as changes in jobs and relationships) while depressed because of the way illnesses can impact feelings of love and closeness.

When feelings and emotions are impaired, making significant decisions is similar to getting behind the wheel of a car while drunk. You may “get by” safely. But you may also do significant damage, to both yourself, your loved ones and your future. It’s important to try to address the illness first.

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can be treated effectively, but unfortunately only around half of the people dealing with a mental illness ever seek help.

If you are having problems in your relationship, and struggling with putting in the effort needed to turn things around because you believe things will never get better, keep in mind that it may not just be an issue with the relationship. Especially if you are having a hard time pinpointing what is “wrong” with the relationship, it may be a sign of something else.

If so, talk to your doctor and tell them exactly how you are feeling. You might just be able to save your relationship, or prevent it from breaking down unnecessarily.

Making Changes

change_banner

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of basketball. Well I’ll let you in on a little secret – I can’t shoot. I’ve had days that I will hit 10 in a row, but those are rare, and tend to be followed by stretches where I won’t hit at all. If you meet me on a day that I happen to be hitting you may think I’m a good shooter. However if you play with me for long enough, it becomes apparent that I can’t.

Shooting is only part of the game and I would like to think I can get by with some of the other things that I do well (or at least better). But still, it would help my team if I was able to hit shots more consistently.

I have never been coached. As an uncoordinated youth, I started playing late and learned basketball largely through observation, then by trying to recreate what I saw. In the process I came up with a shooting mechanic that “worked for me”. Through the years I’ve recognized that my shot is a weakness in my game, so I try to listen to other people and get pointers when I can. I’ve made some adjustments over the years, but the only consistent thing about my shot is its inconsistency.

Last summer my son was at a basketball camp and there was a “shot doctor” who came in and taught the kids the proper mechanics of shooting. I’ve read books, watched videos etc, but this was the first time I had ever had someone really break down the mechanics of a shot into their components. As he taught the kids, I listened intently.

After the camp, when I came home from work I tried to put what I had learned into practice.

My “old” shot had been internalized. It was reactive, meaning I didn’t have to think about it. And that made it really hard to change. Here’s the thing, when you have YEARS of “bad habits” built up, it becomes really hard to change them.

To make changes you need to really slow down, think about what you are doing, and go back to the basics. It took me a while to get the feel for the “new” shot mechanic, but once I did it was amazing. I was hitting shots at a much higher rate, and more importantly with greater consistency over time.

slow-changes

This improvement had me looking forward to the start of my mens league season, and I believed that this year I would have more confidence in my shooting.

The season started, and guess what – the speed of an actual game is quite a bit different from shooting on your driveway with no defender. I didn’t have time to think about the shot mechanics, and in the pressure of the moment I found myself reverting to my “old” (you can also read that as bad) form.

You see, its one thing to understand what you have to do to change. It’s something entirely different to put it into practice on a regular basis and in a “real life” situation.

Putting in Effort

For me basketball is just a pastime. I love it, but it’s really not that important to my life. So I haven’t put in the hours needed to really internalize the improved mechanics so I can use them in a “real life” situation. I realize that true change takes effort, and that applies to any changes in life.

In a recent post my buddy Gandalf talked about changing his life. As he said:

One item needed for this is dedication. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to see this through and continuously try to improve every week. I needed to put lots of effort into getting better, which is where hitting rock bottom helped. I knew the problem was me, and only I could make myself better.

Learning to Cope

Over our lifetime we develop coping mechanisms for getting by in life. Similar to how I learned to shoot in basketball, we find something that “works for us”, no matter how broken or ineffective these coping mechanisms may be. As long as we are able to get by, that’s good enough for us.

When times are good it’s not a problem. But life isn’t always easy, and times aren’t always good.

How do you react when life gets tough? My buddy’s approach was to run away. Well, not literally. But his avoidance was such that his way of dealing with things was to not deal with them at all. He would withdraw, not make decisions, and retreat into his comfort zone. And it worked for him – kind of. Unfortunately he wasn’t happy. In fact, he was miserable, and he hated himself. For years he blamed his unhappiness on external things. The reality was, his coping mechanisms were broken and they were causing him to spiral further and further down into unhappiness.

Even though his coping mechanisms were at the root of his problems, they were still safe, and they were what he knew.

It’s unfortunate that people seem to need to hit rock bottom before they can get better. But I guess until they do, their coping mechanisms are still “working” for them, no matter how much damage they are doing. It’s only when they fail completely that someone is forced to face themselves, and see the need for change.

It’s only then that someone will WANT change badly enough to make it happen.

The Need For Change

I think maybe rock bottom is needed because until then, people don’t NEED change. They may want it, and they may realize at an intellectual level that it would benefit them. But change is scary.

Until someone has hit rock bottom, they don’t want change badly enough to dedicate themselves to it. So they say they are trying, but their attempts are half-hearted. Because the effort isn’t truly there, the change doesn’t work or is ineffective, so they revert back to their old ways.

Then they can tell themselves “hey, I tried”. But in reality all they ever did was set themselves up for failure.

When you look around, it’s amazing how much effort people actually seem to put into avoiding change. I think it’s due to fear. People fear change, and so even when they know change is needed, they will half-heartedly attempt it. Then when it doesn’t work, they retreat back to the old ways. But giving up on change causes it to fail before it even has a chance. And this failure becomes proof that they didn’t really need to change after all, allowing someone to slip back into the comfort of their broken coping mechanisms.

It’s kind of like when I tried adapting my new basketball shooting mechanic in a game situation. I hadn’t put enough effort in to make the change sustainable, and the stress of a real game caused me to retreat back to my old form.

Baby Steps

My buddy Gandalf had a lot of changes he needed to make. And looking at all those changes was daunting. So to move forward, he had to do it gradually.

With his doctor, he identified different levels of change, and he started with the easy changes and steadily progressed forward. There was a vision of where they wanted to be at the end, and they made a plan to get there.

Big changes are always made up of a number of smaller steps. But even for small changes, the desire and the effort has to be there. There has to be momentum. You have to WANT it, and you have to be willing to work at it.

make-big-changes-in-small-steps

Take a look at your coping mechanisms and ask yourself, are they really working? Or are you just “getting by”? If you tell yourself “that’s just the way I am”, guess what – you’re just like my buddy Gandalf used to be. That’s what he told himself. He expected other people to conform to him, after all, *he* couldn’t change.

As a result, he hit what for him was rock bottom. There’s a problem with rock bottom though. Depending on how far you have to fall, sometimes the climb back up is really hard. And sometimes you need to find a new path, because you’ve destroyed your old one in the process.

So ask yourself, are your coping mechanisms actually working? Or are you just getting by?

Change is hard, and it can be scary. But sometimes it’s needed for a happier future.

Life Without Self-Love – Part 2

inner-peace

Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.

Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).

One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.

In my last post I talked about how the breakdown of self-love impacts day to day life. In this post, I want to focus on how it impacts relationships (like my last post, Gandalf’s thoughts and comments are in blue).

Selfish Love

In relationships, we all start out with a selfish approach. There is always something (or multiple things) we are hoping to get out of the relationship, and when looking for a prospective partner we are interested in finding someone who will meet our needs.

Over time though, for the relationship to succeed and/or flourish, it has to stop being about our own needs and wants. Although our partners are separate and distinct from us, their needs and wants have to be just as important as our own. We need to shift from thinking in terms of “me”, to “we”.

When someone doesn’t love themself this mental shift becomes a challenge, and often love continues to be all about you.

It was early in my therapy and my psychologist had me list out what I thought was the perfect partner. After going through that list with him he said one word that I’ll never forget. It was “selfish”.

My mindset at the time was that I wanted and needed loving, but I didn’t think that I needed to give any love back. It never even occurred to me that I should even give any love back. To me, my thinking was that it was their duty to give me love and that I didn’t have to return anything back because just the act of loving me should be enough for them.

There was no empathy for anybody else. My mind only focused on me. It is known as the Narcissus Paradox, where it appears that I would be thinking of others, but really, my mindset was only focused on me and my needs. I was nice only to the point of where I could get other people to show me affection. My thinking was only on how to get other people to show me love, and not on how to love other people.

This leads to passive aggressive behavior and giving people the silent treatment because I didn’t understand how to deal with conflict or how to get what I wanted from other people.

This focus on “me” is described by Daniel Smith (Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety) as follows:

An anxiety sufferer can feel as if he too is imprisoned in his own mind, but with the demonic twist that his mind can think of nothing but itself. Anxious thoughts are radically personal thoughts. Their central concern is what affects you, what threatens you, what you need, you regret, you dread, you fear.

Anxiety is a condition of near-total self-absorption, made only worse by the fact that the sufferer typically realizes that he is being self-absorbed and grieves over his sad inability to see past himself.

Relationship Impacts

For my buddy Gandalf, anxiety and a lack of self-love prevented him from being in any romantic relationships for a long time. He’s now in a much better place now, and is in the first real serious relationship of his life. While talking about relationships I asked if he knew “why” he had never been able to be in a relationship. I think his response speaks volumes on how anxiety and a lack of self-love can damage relationships.

For me, there were several factors that prevented me from getting into a romantic relationship:

  1. Fantasies. I didn’t know what being normal was, and that goes for relationships too. My expectations and reality were very far apart. There was no way that reality could match my fantasy, so I would always be disappointed
  2. Avoidance. I avoided anything that was scary, so I’d avoid talking to people. I couldn’t talk to others, unless it was about my interests, in which you just couldn’t shut me up. This all or nothing type of talking really turns people off of talking to you. I would never ask how the other person is doing. Basically I had no empathy for another person
  3. Expectations. I expected that I had to do nothing in a relationship, so I’d do no work in the relationship. Even if there was a woman that I was interested in, I expected her to do all the work, like introducing herself to me and, well, everything else in the relationship. I expected that she do all the work and that I had to do nothing. This came from the avoidance and learned helplessness behaviors, plus my sense of entitlement
  4. Negativity. Not much to say about this except that a negative perspective is not conducive to building a long term and lasting relationship. Also, the constant doubt and insecurity from the negativity didn’t help either
  5. Empathy. When trying to engage a woman in conversation, there was no emotional connection, or empathy, between myself and the woman. It would be just a complete and total physical attraction and the arousal response would take over.
  6. I was also always scanning the other person for emotional displays, but I would only focus on the ones that affected me and I’d usually place negative meanings to it (e.g. “She just yawned, therefore I must be boring her.”)

The end result is the lady would need to do all the work to start the relationship and keep it going. This is not only unrealistic, but the real question is why (would she)? Why would any lady put the time and effort into a guy who didn’t show affection back? This is where I was and why I never had success in relationships.

Even for friends and family relationships, some of the above played into those relationships too. Except I didn’t have the sexual fantasy, and without that, the other items became bearable enough to suppress my anxiety and actually form a friendship. Even then, it was hard.

I would never show who I really was because I hated, or loathed, myself. So I always changed and became what my friends wanted. It was not so much as showing facets of a diamond but burying the diamond in the ground and showing an amethyst instead.

I so desperately wanted to be accepted, receive affection, and be with others that I would suppress who I truly was. The real fear that I had was that if they saw the real me, they would reject me and I’d lose them. So, yeah, it was mostly fear of rejection and loss, and I felt this all the time.

I recently read that people who suffer from anxiety disorders cannot engage the pre-frontal cortex part of their brain, which is where the higher processing functions are (empathy, emotional regulation, etc.) This makes complete sense to me as this is what I felt.

Being with a friend or lover must feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcoming, and relaxed. When I was suffering from anxiety, I felt threatened, insecure, rejected, and stressed when I was with another person. This was all in my mind, as I was the one who made being with another person like this.

Once I changed my perception of being with people to be non-threatening and reduce my anxiety, then I was able to relax, feel comfortable around people and enjoy their presence.

I’m now thinking that anxiety and the related disorders are the number one killer of relationships. I have no proof, but anxiety is completely counter to the personality qualities needed for a long term stable relationship.

Reduction of Intimacy

One of the ways anxiety damages relationships is through the erosion of intimacy.

I found a great article describing how anxiety damages a person’s sex drive. The article states:

when you have anxiety, it’s not uncommon to also have a low libido. Your sex drive is directly affected by the way you feel, and anxiety is the type of condition that can make it hard to find your partner or the idea of lovemaking to be arousing.

Intimacy is one of the things that defines a relationship, so when sexual issues arise they tend to cause tension in other areas of the relationship. When you combine this with avoidance, you have an issue that can quickly grow out of hand, resulting in a growing dissatisfaction with the relationship.

If the anxious person doesn’t recognize that the sexual issues are a direct result of the anxiety, the anxious mind can read meaning into this that can lead to doubts about the relationship itself.

“I don’t feel attractive or attracted to my partner, what does that mean? Does that mean I don’t love him/her? Does that mean there is something wrong with the relationship?”

The Four Step Dance

My buddy Gandalf didn’t have experience with relationships until after he learned to address his anxiety and love himself, so instead of him I will turn to Daniel Smith to describes this pattern of how anxious thought damages relationships.

He describes this as follows:

  1. Mounting Uncertainty. Anxiety leads someone to question the feelings they have for their partner. Maybe it’s not actually love. Maybe it was just infatuation, desperation or loneliness. Maybe this relationships is not what they really want
  2. Withdrawl. Due to doubts about the relationship, you withdraw from the relationship emotionally, and stop putting any effort in. Or worse, you may become outright neglectful or hostile in a passive aggressive way of expressing unhappiness in the relationship.
  3. Blowback. The behavior displayed while withdrawing causes the relationship to start to break down. Arguments start, and the environment starts to become toxic for both partners
  4. Retreat. Realizing the damage that is being done, the anxious partner starts trying to repair the damage.

This process repeats, as the anxiety leads the relationship to continually go through cycles that do more and more damage to the relationships each time.

Healthy Love

My buddy Gandalf had it right when he said:

Being with a friend or lover must feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcoming, and relaxed.

Your relationship should be a safe haven. Sure, you will have your squabbles and your issues – nothing is ever perfect. But if you are in a committed relationship you should know that you will always be there for each other. You should know that your needs and wants in life are important to your partner (as theirs are to you), and that you will always work to get through things together. There is a level of peace and comfort that comes with knowing those things.

Anxiety and a lack of self-love breaks that down. Life becomes living with stress and doubting yourself constantly. Even the strongest of relationships will be challenged by anxiety and a lack of self-love. After all, how can you ever truly let go and love someone else when you don’t even love yourself?

Next up, how my buddy turned his life around and was able to move forward with a healthy sense of self (and in turn be able to build a healthy relationship).

Life Without Self-Love – Part 1

self-acceptance (1)

Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.

Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).

One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.

In my last post I talked about how self-love can break down. Today’s focus is on how it impacts day to day life. It may not be the same for everyone, but I suspect my buddy’s experiences are not uncommon. In this post I’ll introduce different areas, with Gandalf’s insights in blue.

Body Image

One of the biggest ways not loving yourself manifests is in body image. You may be able to build up mechanisms to hide the emotions or deadness that you are feeling inside. But you can never escape yourself.

For people who love themselves, when you look in a mirror you see yourself fairly objectively. Yeah, you may have flaws (we all do), and as you age there may be more grey/wrinkles/sagging skin/whatever then there used to be, but that’s just part of you. For someone who doesn’t love themselves, often when they look in a mirror they don’t see the good. All they see are the flaws, and worse, those flaws are magnified in an unrealistic way.

When I first started therapy, I talked to my psychologist over the phone and I said that I was an obese person and he should expect a fat person when we meet.

To put this into context, I had been exercising for several years, so I was a healthy weight at the time. When we met, he was surprised to see me because he thought I was in good shape, which I was. The problem was that I couldn’t see myself like that because I loathed who I was. That self-loathing not only affects your mental self, but your physical self too.

Now, when I show my girlfriend pictures from when I was really fat, she says, “you don’t look fat at all. You look great”. Part of it is because she loves me, but part is because I really wasn’t that fat, just a bit over weight. She can see me in a more realistic light than I can.

Even now, I’m in better shape and some days I have to fight the thoughts that I’m fat or over weight. But it hasn’t happened since I started doing my mindfulness exercises twice a day.

Similarly I was also camera shy as I thought I’d ruin a picture if I was in it, so I tried to avoid photos. Now, I’ll gladly pose for a picture and be in a photo, either by myself or with others.

A Negative Outlook

One of the main characteristics of people who don’t love themselves is a negative approach to the world, which leads to taking things personally.

We have all been around “negative people” and you can usually tell who they are in a short period of time after meeting them. Negative people often have a negative energy around them that can bring others down.

But not all people are overtly negative. When I met my buddy, I had no idea that he had a negative outlook. He projected a fairly placid exterior, while inside him there was considerable emotional turmoil.

I only looked at the negative side of a situation, and never the good. Because I expected the worst, when there were no negatives I would manufacture one. Gifts always came with a catch, a complement had a hidden meaning that usually was an insult, and anything good that a person did to or for me was explained that they just wanted something from me.

Everything in life was bad, and when something good happened it was a fluke, easily dismissed, or the bad was waiting to happen.

Losing Perspective

In addition to the negative outlook there is a tendency to blow things out of proportion, and turn little things into big issues. Events are misinterpreted through a broken lens, so offense is taken even when none was intended.

My anxiety disorder caused little incidents to become massive life altering events in my mind, and I took every negative action in life as a personal attack.

If the bus started driving away from the stop I arrived, I would think that the bus driver hates me and is laughing at me. If my line at the store is slower than the others, the clerk and customers in front were slowing down the line on purpose just to spite and annoy me.

In my mind the entire universe was out to get me and make my existence miserable every single day.

Avoidance and Blaming

I talked a bit about avoidance in my last post, but it warrants looking at again as it’s one of the key components. Avoidance leads to a refusal to acknowledge and deal the real problems, as it’s easier to blame something else.

Sure, you may not be happy – but it’s because of this, or because of that. If you could only change those things then everything would be better. There is a tendency to look for magic wand solutions to life, or a belief that if you wait things out then problems will magically get better.

When you have anxiety, over time feeling anxious becomes normal and the only thing that changed was the amount of anxiety that I felt. I started to view anything that caused my anxiety to increase as bad. New, changing, or uncomfortable situations caused anxiety, so if I avoided them then my anxiety reduced. In my mind new/change came to be seen as bad.

Any discussion of issues caused my anxiety to rise so I would deflect the conversation to something else instead of the real problem. I came to believe that the events in my life were the problem, and think “If only these events weren’t happening then I wouldn’t be stressed or anxious.” My coping mechanism was to try to avoid a problem (any problem) instead of confronting it.

Anything that I couldn’t avoid, I’d just endure. But I would never take action to reduce my anxiety or improve my situation. I’d just wait, do nothing, and hope it would go away.

Putting in effort either meant something was new or changing, and to me that led to more anxiety. Contributing to my own anxiety was like inflicting pain on myself, and I tried to avoid that at all costs. So I did nothing.

However the real issue was never the event or problem, it was my ability to handle the stress these events caused.

Physiological Impacts and Insomnia

Beyond the negative self-image, there can also be actual physiological effects. People may be more prone to headaches, or constipation. But the most difficult part is hypersensitivity to the world around them. There is a constant state of “alert” which leads the body to be in a constant state of stress, often leading to muscle tension.

Incidentally it is this stress state that often leads to clinical depression, as constant stress can lead to biochemical imbalances.

With my heart racing all the time due to perceived threats, my blood pressure was always elevated. I couldn’t relax even if I wanted to. My mind was always racing, and this led to insomnia as I just couldn’t stop thinking when going to bed. I would keep thinking random thoughts which would lead me to worry and cause my heart to continue racing.

I was so nervous going to bed that my heart was still racing even after going to bed. After about one to two hours, my body would calm down just enough to fall asleep.

The best description that I have is driving a car at 60 km/h then jamming the transmission into Park. That’s what going to bed and trying to sleep was for me.

Weekends were my only reprieve as I was able to sleep until noon, which was 9 to 11 hours of sleep. Every night, sleep was a battle.

Hopelessness

Another common characteristic of people who don’t love themselves is a pervasive sense of hopelessness. This is something often associated with depression, and self-loathing and anxiety commonly lead to depression. But the sense of hopelessness comes first.

I cannot describe the feeling of despair that I woke up to each morning. It was a battle to get out of bed and get to work as I felt to the core of my being that it was totally and completely meaningless to do anything, including work. All personal items and duties seemed equally meaningless. Why clean the house when it would just get dirty again? Why do anything at all in life when in the end, you’re going to die and be forgotten? Yes, I was depressed and only those who have suffered from depression know of the hopelessness and despair that you feel.

Compulsion and Numbing Behaviors

Compulsion and Numbing behaviors are similar in that they both are forms of “escape”. The difference is people turn to compulsions because they provide a positive feeling, or a temporary relief from the sense of hopelessness and self-loathing; while numbing behaviors allow someone to dull the pain, and not feel anything at all.

These behaviors sometimes appear benign or even healthy, such as working out, watching TV or reading books. Or they can be things like turning to alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating or even sex.

Other than drugs, none of these things are inherently bad (yeah, I consider drugs bad – you’re welcome to disagree). But any behaviors are indicative of a problem when they become compulsive.

This one is the most destructive of them all. Life seemed to have no meaning, so when I found something that I thought made me happy, I held on to it like a dog with a bone. For some, it’s gambling, or work (workaholics), but for me, it was video games. I played games as if my life depended on it. To me, video games WERE my life. They gave me meaning, tasks to accomplish, and recognition for completing a game

I didn’t realize that it was a problem, but in hindsight it was. I couldn’t stay away from video games. I would constantly be thinking of games and wishing that I was playing them. It was my entire life, I felt that my existence was validated when playing, and I couldn’t stop.

I mentioned I had a negative self-image. That led to exercise becoming another compulsion for me. When I was exercising compulsively I remember how I’d get when life interrupted it. I would get *mad* and immediately think that I’d get fatter if I missed just one exercise session, as exercise was linked to my self-image, which was negative at the time.

Now, I’m fine with missing a day or two as I know it won’t cause me to get fat.

Making Choices

Anxiety goes hand in hand with avoidance. Avoidance has a number of negative side effects, but one of the ways it manifests itself is in decision making. Decision making becomes HARD. And often, it’s easier just to not make a decision and force someone else to make the decision for you. That way you don’t have to make it, and you aren’t responsible for it if things don’t work out.

In addition, there is a tendency to second guess decisions that you have made and focus on the past. “What if I had just done this or that differently? Maybe then things would be different today.”

Decision making was hard because I was so scared of making the wrong decision that I would freeze mentally and not make a decision. Every decision that I made felt like the fate of the universe was hanging in the balance and that a wrong decision would be the end of the world. The reason for this was that I would ruminate on every wrong decision that I made, and most seemed wrong as I only looked at the negative side, and mentally beat myself up over it.

As you can see, the impacts are wide and varied, but they all add up to an individual with an unhealthy outlook on the world, themselves, and those around them. Next I’ll be looking at how a lack of self-love impacts relationships.

The Breakdown of Self-Love

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Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.

Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).

One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.

Issues with self-love usually originate in childhood. I’m a parent, and I’ll admit that although we usually have the best of intentions we rarely have any idea what we are doing. We make mistakes, and can inadvertently harm the very people we care the most about.

Sometimes it’s not showing children sufficient affection, berating them for their faults or continually comparing them to others (why can’t you be more like…). Sometimes it’s because we don’t love ourselves, and without a strong model of love this issue is perpetuated from parent to child.

Although each person is different, there are often commonalities across situations. My buddy didn’t just struggle with self-love, he hated himself.

Trying to understand this, I asked him if he had any idea where this self-loathing originated. From reading on Attachment Theory, my guess was it had something to do with avoidance and anxiety at these traits are closely linked to chronic unhappiness.

Here was his response:

Yes, I know exactly how my self-loathing occurred, and you are correct that there is a relationship between anxiety, attachment, and avoidance. For me to understand, I had to work backwards as I started at the end of the list and uncovered the different steps along the way. Here is how it happened for me:

Stage 1 – Hyper-active arousal

This is the stress arousal, or fear response, that everybody is born with. In about 20% of all babies, this stress reaction is hyper-sensitive and everything causes a stress, or fear, response.

This is how I started. Even as a baby I was fearful. I don’t have memories of this, so I heard this from my mom. But I was hyper-sensitive to any new or novel stimulation (person, place, toy, etc.)

Stage 2 – Poor attachment

For a child where the entire world is scary, you need a place where you feel safe, loved. Parents provide this through unconditional love, and lots of touching, of all things. Touching calms the stress response, provides comfort to the child, and signals that they have a safe haven to explore from.

Without this “safe haven”, the world remains scary, home and parents provide no comfort, and the child is actually more stressed at home than away. It’s ironic that the environment where a child should feel most safe and secure ends up being where the child feels most stressed and scared.

I was never “loved” as a child, and I can’t recall my parents ever hugging me or comforting me. My dad would sit in front of the TV all evening and my mom would make the meals, and clean the house. They were very hands off and fend for yourself parents. I ended up being the teacher’s pet as that was my only outlet for attention and affection. But this did damage as well, as I ended up linking my self-esteem to my school work.

Stage 3 – Anxiety

From here, everything is now scary and induces a stress response that the child cannot control. Going to school is a daily ordeal of stress and fear. Activities are not fun, sports are difficult as the child cannot coordinate themselves properly as they are paralyzed with fear, and making friends is difficult as you are tongue tied and stumble, or stutter, words in the conversation.

The fear response is triggered from new/novel situations and people, and without a “safe haven” to start from, the child does not learn how to control this reaction. This is now full-blown anxiety.

It didn’t start out that I was scared of everything right away. I tried to make friends, and I tried to be involved in school activities, but without a supportive adult helping you, it’s difficult. At first I tried, but eventually, I stopped trying all the time and that’s when I started to avoid life, which is the next stage.

Stage 4 – Avoidance

Avoidance is when you stop doing things. I would think “If I just avoid doing this activity, then I won’t feel stressed”. The issue is eventually you apply it to everything in life, including life itself.

It becomes a natural response to any situation. You don’t explore, take chances, engage with other people, or do activities as all of these are new (and therefore scary). Just avoiding everything that causes discomfort, stress, annoyance, and anxiety become so easy and was the solution to all of my problems. Or so I thought. What I didn’t realize is that I disengaged from life. I was there, existing, but not really living.

Avoidance is the most common coping mechanism for dealing with things, and becomes part of your personality. But there are others. For me, computers and games became that “safe haven” for me where I felt loved, accepted for who I am, and safe. The problem with coping mechanisms is they prevent you from getting at the root cause of the problem and dealing with it.

Stage 5 – Negative thinking, Narcissism, and Self-Loathing

I have lumped these together as they occurred together for me and are linked.

Negative thinking directly comes from the avoidance coping mechanism. As I avoided people and situations, I started to think that I wasn’t good or that I can’t do it, but what I really was doing was rationalizing why I was avoiding people and situation. If I convinced myself I couldn’t do something, then I wasn’t avoiding it out of fear. I built up this negative persona of myself to protect me from my anxiety and to rationalize my avoidance. However from a mental health perspective, this is horrible.

Narcissism is an ironic effect from anxiety and not one most people think is part of it. Anxiety sufferers become hyper-vigilant to try and avoid any conflict as they don’t know how to deal with it. So they constantly scan the environment, including people, for signs of danger or trouble. This means anxiety sufferers are constantly scanning others for signs of anger/unhappiness/sadness/disappointment and evaluating if this will “hurt or affect me”.

This leads to what one book called “Nice Guy Syndrome”. I would try to please everybody all the time and pretend to be happy so nobody would be upset or angry around me. I did this by being hyper-vigilant to the people around me and trying to please them instead of myself. My thinking was that if I did this nobody would have any cause to be upset or angry at me allowing me to avoid conflict. On the outside, it look altruistic, but the motivation is completely self-centered.

As I avoided what I wanted to do and suppressed myself due to Narcissism, I started to hate myself, and I don’t mean just a part, but my entire core being. I really can’t describe how this self-loathing feels, other than to say that

I felt trapped in a prison that I had both designed and built. The worst part is that I knew I did this to myself, but I didn’t know how to get out of it.

Every time I suppressed myself to accommodate somebody else, I hated myself a bit more, but I didn’t connect this to my anxiety. It just became a coping mechanism for avoiding conflict.

Stage 6 – Behaviours

There are three behaviors that come out of Stage 5: Routines, Passive-Aggressiveness, Learned Helplessness, and Depression.

Routines became a way to minimize new situations in life. After all, if you’ve done something before and it didn’t hurt you, then it’s fine. Like an obsessive compulsive I would ensure that I stuck to my set routine every day as much as possible, and any deviation from my routine was met with anger, resistance, and childlike whining or tantrums.

Passive-aggressiveness was my only way to deal with conflict. I won’t say too much here as the article you wrote sums it up well, but I do want to say is that its roots are in avoidance. Passive-aggressive behavior is the mechanism that anxiety sufferers use to avoid conflict. When an argument can’t be avoided, then I would just avoid communicating to avoid further conflict.

Another part to passive-aggressive behavior is a belief on how other people should treat you. From my routines, I developed very strict and ridged rules on how people should interact and please me, but I never communicated them to other people. Instead of asking for what I wanted I would drop hints, like, “I really enjoy X”, which meant I wanted someone to got get or do X for me. I never clearly stated what I wanted, but if I didn’t get it I would still be upset with someone for a short time and then carry on like nothing happened.

Learned Helplessness became a way of life for me. The more I avoided, the more helpless I became. Eventually, it became my default behavior as I would say, “I can’t do it. Here, you do it.” I actually would not do anything new unless I was with somebody else to be there with me.

Eventually depression set in. The more you suppress, the more you loath yourself, the more I avoided, the more I deferred to others as I thought I was helpless, eventually leads to hopelessness. This hopelessness caused the depression. I saw all my dreams disappearing one by one as I did nothing to pursue them because I was helpless to do anything. Life became meaningless and all I did was go through the motions of my daily routine.

As a kid I had linked my self-worth to my school work. As an adult it was my job. My core self-worth and self-esteem was completely dependent and linked to my academic and career performance. Without being in school or in a meaningful job, my depression deepened as there was nothing to fill the emptiness inside. I was looking for external validation for my existence and self-worth, when it can only come from inside. The end result was a hopelessness and despair that I can’t explain. My life had no meaning, and there was no point to anything.

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Stage 7 – Acceptance

This step means that you have accepted the anxiety as a part of your core being. This is the final stage in the process. I really can’t say much of this stage as I didn’t reach this stage, but I’ve seen it in other people, and the result is that the person stops trying to fight the previous six stages, and gives up. They become set in their ways, and won’t, or can’t change.


I’m not sure I agree that it’s ever too late, but all of these stages led to a chronic unhappiness and a sense of self-loathing. Next I will look at the broken thinking patterns and toxic behaviors that arose from this, and how they impacted his life and relationships.

Do You Love Yourself?

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Do you love yourself?

As I’ve learned more about interpersonal dynamics and relationships, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three things which significantly impact a persons ability to have a happy relationship.

  1. Your mindset. This is whether you believe your base traits and characteristics are largely fixed, or whether you believe they can change over time. I’ve touched on this in the past (and will deal with it in more depth in the future), but essentially EVERYTHING can change and everything can improve over time. When you don’t believe it can, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  2. Your ability to let your partner in. I recently wrote on this in a post on Emotional Walls. When we wall ourselves off from our partners, we create barriers to the intimacy or closeness we can have. Without closeness relationships suffer.
  3. How much you love yourself. This is about self-acceptance, and a sense of self-worth.

Of these, the ability to love ourselves is THE most important. And I suspect it’s related to the other two. If you don’t love yourself, you are less inclined to let your partner in. After all, if you don’t like you, and your partner were to see you as you see yourself, then perhaps they wouldn’t accept you or love you either. So why would you let them in? Instead people build facades and present the version of themself they believe their partner wants.

The problem is, when they do this they aren’t being authentic or true to themselves, and over time this will invariably lead to unhappiness (and potentially resentment).

Loving Yourself

What exactly does it mean to say you “love yourself”? At it’s core, I think self-love is about acceptance. You accept yourself for who you are. That doesn’t mean you can’t change, and can’t improve. You definitely can. It simply means that you don’t believe you have to as you are fine the way you are. Self-love means you believe in yourself and the person you are. You have self-confidence, and a positive self-image.

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This is not to be mistaken with arrogance, of being cocky. It also is not “self-love” in a narcissistic way. Loving yourself is healthy. Being in love with yourself of being full of yourself is not healthy.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret. The people who seem to love themselves most are often the ones who love themselves the least. When someone seems to love them-self it is because they are adept at self-promotion. They draw attention to themselves because they need external validation.

Self-love doesn’t require external validation, as it comes from within.

A Point of Reference

So I’ll ask again, do you love yourself? This can be a difficult question to answer.

A few years ago I went on a trip with a buddy and we shared a hotel room. Going in I knew he snored, but I had no idea how bad it was. His snoring kept me up at night, but worse than the snoring was the fact that it was broken up by long stretches where it seemed like he stopped breathing. After seconds (that felt like minutes) there were large gasps for air, and he would start snoring again.

I’m no doctor, but it was pretty alarming. I told my buddy that he should get it checked out and he insisted he was fine. I asked him if he always found himself tired or rundown, and he said no (even though he fell asleep when he was supposed to be navigating for me on the trip. Very helpful). To him, he was perfectly fine.

A while later I related this story to a co-worker who has sleep apnea, and he told me that it sounded familiar. When I mentioned that the guy insisted he was fine, my co-worker laughed and said that’s because it’s his normal state. He’s always tired, he’s always exhausted. And because of that he doesn’t understand how it feels to be rested.

He believes he’s not tired because he has no point of reference to compare himself to.

I see self-love as being similar. It’s not something you “know”. Sometimes people believe that they love themselves when they really don’t. We can’t get into other people’s heads, so if you have negative thoughts about yourself then you might think it’s normal. After all, it’s what you know.

Incidentally it’s been almost two years since that trip, and my buddy STILL hasn’t seen a doctor (and of course insists he’s fine). He’s not. Sadly the people who need the most help are often the last ones to see it as to them it’s just “the way they are”.

Signs You Don’t Love Yourself

To help understand self-love, let’s start with a looks at some signs and characteristics of people who don’t love themselves.

  • You are critical of yourself. This is one of the big ones. You second guess your decisions (or believe you made the wrong ones), your behavior, and you are unhappy with your body.
  • You spend a lot of time in the past thinking “what if…”. What if I had done this differently, or what if I had done that differently.
  • You become angry at yourself when you make mistakes
  • You don’t have dreams, or your dreams feel out of reach and you don’t see a way to make them happen.
  • You commonly operate out of guilt, or shame.
  • You worry about how you are perceived, or “what others will think”.
  • You believe things would be better or you would be happier if “X” were to happen. Maybe if you lost 10 lbs, got a better job, found a different relationship, etc…
  • You procrastinate.

It’s normal to feel all of these things occasionally. But when they are a pattern of thinking for you, then they are signs that you may not love yourself.

Signs You Do Love Yourself

So what do people who DO love themselves look like? The easy answer is, the opposite of the above characteristics. But as I mentioned earlier, if someone truly loves themselves (and has self acceptance) then it’s not easy to see.

One characteristic is that they tend to have a sense of calm. They are comfortable with who they are, and in their own skin.

They aren’t perfect, and they both know and accept that. They are also able to handle criticism fairly well, as they realize it’s not a reflection on them.

People who loves themselves tend to have a sense of personal accountability and a belief that they have control over their own lives.

They also can look at themselves naked in the mirror without thinking *too many* negative thoughts (regardless of body type).

Filling a Hole

One of the big problems with self-love is that it has to come from within. However, for people who don’t love themselves they often don’t see that. They know there is something wrong, but they can’t identify what it is. Because they don’t understand (or won’t accept) that the issues comes from within they start looking outside of themselves.

When acceptance and self-worth doesn’t come from within, they start looking for external validation. The problem is, validation from outside will never be enough.

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Everyone enjoys being complimented – it feels good to know that someone finds you attractive, or thinks you are good at something. But for people who stuggle with self love, often compliments are needed. But all the compliments in the world won’t help. If someone doesn’t believe it themselves that self-doubt shows through, and there is a continuous need for external validation.

This can result in all sorts of messed up behavior.

The Explanatory Gap

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t understand what it’s like to not love yourself. I’ve tried, but I can’t. Loving myself is just part of who I am. See, I like me. I don’t think I’m cocky or arrogant, but I am confident in myself. Most importantly, I know I’m in control of my own life. Things don’t always work out, but they often do. And when things don’t I can always adjust accordingly and find a new path. I make decisions, and they may not always be the right ones. But that’s fine, because they seemed right at the time. When I screw up I try to use it as a learning experience, and a way to do better “next time”.

Understanding what it’s like to not love yourself is as foreign to me as it is to understand what it’s like to be a woman on her period. As a guy, it’s impossible for me to understand that. Yeah, I know the biology – the lining of the uterine wall has thickened in preparation of a fertilized egg, it doesn’t happen so the extra stuff (pretty sure that’s the scientific term) breaks down and is released. It’s accompanied by hormonal changes that can impact mood and how someone feels. Intellectually I get it (kind of). But I don’t understand, and I never will.

This lack of understanding is often referred to as an explanatory gap. Understanding the mechanics of something doesn’t mean I can understand how it feels. In the case of a menstrual cycle, I’m fairly confident I will never understand that. Likewise for self-love.

So to help me understand this a bit better and start to close that explanatory gap I turned to a buddy who has lived this. Someone who has been through the fires, and come out a stronger person for it. We’ll call him Gandalf (as his experiences have made him quite wise).

Because I believe self-love is an important component of happy relationships I had the idea that he could help me understand the mindset a bit better.

When I first approached him on the idea the exchange went something like this:

Me: I’m thinking about writing on self-love, and thought you might be able to help me with a post.
Gandalf: Errr, me? Self-love? Umm, how do you know… (starts blushing and looking at his feet)
Me: Huh? Oooohhh. Dude, I’m talking about self-love, as in “do you love yourself”. Not self-pleasuring!!!
*Awkward silence *
Gandalf: So, how about that ball game last night…

Alright, that never happened. Well in my head it did, and it make me laugh. And since it’s a fairly serious topic I figured it would be good to start with at least a smile.

My buddy Gandalf was unhappy for a longtime and he spent years blaming his unhappiness on everything around him, pushing away the people who loved him the most in the process. He eventually had a breakdown that led to him being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that led to him falling into clinical depression.

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental disorder, and there is a strong correlation between anxiety and a lack of self-love. In the grips of anxiety, my buddy hated himself and it almost destroyed his life. But instead of accepting that this was just “the way he was” and allowing his anxiety to control him, my buddy decided to educate himself, learn as much as he could about it and try to regain control of his life.

Over the next few posts I will be doing something a little different. He will be my co-author, sharing his story. I think his story is at once fascinating and inspiring. Whether you love yourself or not, his experiences are ones that I believe we can all learn from.

Emotional Walls

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Over my last few posts I have been exploring attachment and emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is what brings couples together. We all want to feel loved and valued. We all want to be accepted for who we are, quirks and all.

In Building Closeness and Intimacy I looked at how emotional intimacy, or closeness is initially created. There really is no secret science to building closeness. It requires mutual self-disclosure (that’s a fancy term for sharing information about each other). It requires opening up and letting the other person in. That’s a simple fact, and at least on some level anyone who has been in a relationship know this.

I’m not sure if anyone ever lets the other person “fully in” to their world, but the degree to which we do determines the degree of satisfaction we can have in our relationships. So why is it so hard sometimes to let other people in? Why do we build walls, and hold back in a relationship?

When we are talking about dating, it’s understandable that we don’t let other people in. Trust takes time to build, and as the relationship develops the walls we build around ourselves should come down.

But what about marriages or other long term relationships? If you are able to commit to life with someone, should that mean you are able to let them in?

Impacts of “Holding Back”

Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Even in marriages and long term relationships, we don’t always let our partners in. We all have our secrets; moments in our lives that we aren’t proud of or moments that we wish we could forget. In some cases there are parts of our past that we have actually been able to block out, and convince ourselves never happened.
Allowing other people into access to our hearts and souls doesn’t require us to reveal every secret, but we do need to let our chosen partners in. As individuals we choose how close we are willing to let other people get to us, and how much of us we are willing to let them know.

Here’s the problem with holding back though. It limits the depth of emotional connection we are able to achieve and limits our ability to experience satisfaction in our relationships.
This is summed up in a great quote from this article:

Keeping your guard up in a relationship is guaranteed to keep the love out too.

This reminds me of Brene Browns thoughts on numbing behaviors (from “The Gifts of Imperfection”). She said that we can’t numb selectively. If we are numbing ourselves from negative emotions, we end up numbing ourselves to positive emotions as well. So if you are holding back in a relationship, you are effectively limiting your ability to love.

This makes absolutely no sense to me. If you love someone and want a life with them, why hold back? Why have a fraction of the happiness and joy in a relationship that you could potentially have? Holding back definitely limits the satisfaction we can have, so why do people do it?

Protection against Being hurt

The most common and obvious reason people hold back in relationships is to protect themselves from being hurt.

We’ve all been hurt, and the people we love are the ones who have the ability to hurt us the most. It’s a terrible feeling, and when hurt it’s understandable to want to protect ourselves from being hurt again.

One way to do this is not allowing yourself to get too attached. After all, if you never fully let go then you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be hurt. It’s a form of self-protection. But it’s flawed, because it results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You aren’t letting people in because you are protecting yourself. But doing this means you are never able to develop strong emotional attachment. As a result your relationship ends up feeling lacking, as if something is missing. The distance that has been built in ends up acting as a barrier to love.

There are two main flavors of this:

  • Broken trust in the existing relationship. Trust is a very fragile thing. Some of us find it easier to trust than other, but once trust is lost it is very hard to rebuild. It takes time, and while it is being rebuilt it is easy to become hyper-sensitive, seeing shadows in every corner. Here’s the thing though, if you are looking for reasons to not trust someone, you will always find them. It’s easy to read too much into things and misinterpret simple (positive) words and actions in a negative way.
  • Baggage from prior relationship. To me this is a really unfortunate situation. I commonly hear stories where someone has been badly hurt in a prior relationship, and because of that they decide (normally at a subconscious level) to never let that happen again. They protect themselves by walling themselves off emotionally, never giving the next person a fair chance.

Issues with Identity

Holding back due to prior hurts makes sense. It’s unproductive and does more damage than good, but it’s understandable. As I looked into reasons why people hold back in relationships, one thing that surprised me is it can happen due to issues with identity.

If someone doesn’t have a strong sense of identity, they may hold back out of a belief that if they allow someone else to get too close they will become dependent, or they will “lose control”. They fear losing their own identity in the other person, so they hold back from the relationship in order to preserve their sense of self.

Another variation on this is a fear of acceptance for who you are. In discussing this, a buddy of mine related the following story:

I feared the other person wouldn’t accept me for who I am, so I suppressed myself and conformed to what the other person wanted. The phrase “everything to everybody” sums it up. The problem is that you don’t feel accepted for who you are, so you never feel comfortable around the other person. You never relax and just be yourself as you are always vigilant for signs of rejection. I never asserted myself with others in fear of offending them with who I am. I never was accepted for who I was, and therefore, I never accepted who I was either, which led to self-loathing.

It is similar to the fear of losing yourself in the other person, as both have the fear of acceptance and rejection at the heart of the issue. They just manifest differently.

The “all or nothing” thinking came from my negative view of reality. It is a cognitive distortion and it was part of my depression. My fear was that if a person didn’t like one part of me, they would hate all of me. There was no in between. It’s not a realistic view and my cognitive behavioral therapy deals with this all or nothing thinking and changed my perspective to that which is realistic. A person may not like a part of me, but still like the other parts.

In one case someone holds back because they are afraid of losing themselves. In the other case someone holds back because they are afraid of not being accepted. There is a belief that if someone got to know the “real you” they wouldn’t love you.

Interestingly both scenarios are symptomatic of people who do not have a strong sense of identity. When you are comfortable with yourself, then you can see that another person is able to enhance your identity. You don’t fear losing your identity, and instead see a relationship as being beneficial to both parties.

Fear

In my last post where I talked about attachment styles I mentioned that anxiety and avoidance levels are the two primary characteristics leading to unhealthy attachment. People with high levels of either tend to have more issues in relationships, and it is very common for people with avoidant personality types to hold back in intimate relationships.

When you look at the reasons for holding back, at their root they all come down to fear. It may be fear of getting hurt, fear of rejection, fear of losing their identity, fear of dependency, fear of losing control, or even fear of your own feelings.

All of these lead to holding back due to a fear of intimacy itself, and this is seen most clearly in anxious or avoidant personality types. They both want and fear intimacy, and as a result they hold back. Or when too much closeness occurs, they push their partner away. It creates an emotional distance that results in them either being alone, or living largely as two people leading separate lives.

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People have talked about love being like a drug, and the early stages of love can definitely feel that way. But if love is a drug, then anxiety and avoidance is the antidote.

In his book “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety”, Danial Smith talks about how for him falling in love was the magical cure for his anxiety. But it is a cure that never lasts.

Unfortunately, what an anxiety disorder does to love is far more consequential than what love can do to the disorder. Anxiety is a wily, reactive affliction; it often recedes in response to positive life events. But it seldom recedes for long. Like acne or arthritis, anxiety is always lying in wait, ready to flare back up. My anxiety came back shortly after Joanna moved in with me and when it did it quickly consumed our relationship.

In his story, Danial Smith tells how his anxiety made him hold back, and question everything. He ended up losing the love of his life, because he wasn’t sure if he even loved her. His story has a happy ending (spoiler alert!!!). He conquers his anxiety, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he learns how to deal with in in such a way that it no longer controls his life. And in the process he was able to win back the girl he had lost.

Learning to Let go

We all want to be loved, accepted, valued and cared for. And I think that all of us hope to find someone to be with “happily ever after, till death do us part”. But when we hold back in relationships, we are not only sabotaging our relationships, but also our happiness and our future.

At it’s root, holding back is about fear. So ask yourself, what are you really afraid of? Losing yourself? Are you afraid of rejection? Are you afraid of being hurt?

My buddy was afraid he wouldn’t be accepted for who he was, so he tried to be what he thought everyone else wanted. He was afraid of rejection. When he finally learned to let go, he found that the people who loved him loved “him”. They cared about the person he was, not just the one he portrayed.

If you are in a relationship and you are holding back or hiding yourself, you need to ask yourself if you are holding back from the people you love, or from yourself? If your loved ones accept the bits of you they have seen, why would you not believe they would love you as you are? No one is perfect. We all have our quirks. Part of love is accepting the other person and loving them for who they are.

Some people who hold back blame their partner. They convince themselves that maybe it’s their partner. Maybe they would be able to let go with someone else, if they could just find the right person. Your partner may contribute, but usually it’s something inside the person themselves.

There’s a saying, garbage in, garbage out. You only get out of life what you put into it. When you hold back, you limit your potential happiness and your future.

If you have built up walls, you are the only one who can decide if you will ever let them come down.

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If you have someone who loves you even with those walls, imagine how much stronger it could be if you would let them in. When you hold back, you may believe you are protecting yourself. But consider the cost.

So make the choice to let someone in. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and allow yourself to be hurt. And guess what, you probably will be. We often hurt those that we love. But better to have a strong, pure love where you accept that there will be issues, and know that you will get through them together.

Power and Control

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Power and Control. Two things you don’t ever want to think about in a relationship, but at the same time they are things that affect EVERY relationship.

Relationships are full of decisions, big and small. Where you live, how you save/spend money, who takes care of what chores, what car you drive, how you parent, how you spend your leisure time, how often you visit family. Even something as simple as what shows you watch. The list is pretty much endless.

Some decisions are individual ones, as they only affect one person. But when you are in a relationship, a surprising number of decisions actually affect both people in some way shape of form. That’s the thing about relationships; you are no longer just a “me”. You are part of a “we” and you often have to take your partner into consideration with the choices you make.

Add to this the fact that people are different. Chances are good you have some similarities with your partner, often in values and common interests. But for every similarity there are a number of ways that you are probably very different.

These differences allow us to complement and enhance one another, but when it comes time for decision making they can be sources of conflict. Big or small, conflict can happen in all decisions.

The Balance of Power

It’s safe to say that all relationships have some sort of balance of power. If you don’t like the word “power”, replace it with influence – but it’s essentially the same thing. In a perfect world it is an equal split, where both parties in the relationship have equal say in all decisions, and they contribute equally to the relationship. Reality is not that simple though, and an equal split only happens in a mythical magical world where unicorns roam the land (and perhaps not even there).

“Equal” doesn’t actually exist. And with all the areas that people can influence a relationship how would you even measure it? Some decisions have more impact than others, and others involve more efforts. But “equal” shouldn’t actually matter. Some people are more dominant and others are more passive. Some naturally take on a leadership role, and other people are happy to follow. In most relationships people find a rhythm, or a balance that works for them. That balance may be 50/50, 55/45, 60/40 or even 80/20. I can’t see how the last one would work, but as long as both parties feel they are valued, being heard, and their needs are being met it shouldn’t matter.

As a side note, in most cases I believe people actually overvalue their own contributions to a relationship in relation to their partners. If you think about it, you know about all the things that you do. Chances are, there are a number of things you do that your partner doesn’t even notice. Well if you do things they don’t notice, there are probably things they do that you don’t notice. This dynamic creates a skewed view of who is actually contributing what to a relationship. Anyhow, back to the topic at hand…

Power Struggles

If power is relatively balanced in a relationship, you probably don’t even think about it. But even in the most balanced relationships, there will be times that your needs and wants will conflict, and choices have to be made. How a couple handles these times can be very important to the relationships overall success.

Studies show that needing to be in control, or to have things “your way” is one of the fastest routes to unhappiness. No one gets things their way all the time, and it would be extremely unhealthy if they did. Relationships involve two people, and both need to feel valued. So sometimes decisions will go the way you want, and other times they won’t. The question becomes, how do you respond when things don’t go your way?

Do you accept it? Do you get angry? Do you sulk? Do you keep score, and figure your partner got their way this time, so next time it’s your turn?

Who is Right?

Maybe you think that things should be your way, because your way is usually right, or better. First off, that line of thinking is broken. In most circumstances there isn’t a “right way”. There are usually multiple approaches to accomplish the same thing and each persons ideas and contributions have at least some merit.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that your ideas are consistently better than your partners. Does that mean things should be the way you want? I would argue no.

I’m reminded of my grandmother. Growing up, visiting grandma was always a highlight, and one of the things that we did was play cards. This was my introduction to gambling, as we played for money. Of course, grandma provided the money so there was never any risk to me. She would win some, and I would win some. But at the end of the day I always came home with a bit of change in my pocket.

As I got older I realized that as I was learning, grandma always held back. Cards are somewhat random, but she let me win, and let me build confidence in myself and my abilities. As my abilities grew, she played harder, until eventually we were on a fairly even level.

How well would I have learned if she didn’t hold back? If she repeatedly beat me, would I have ever learned the games? Would I have enjoyed them? Heck, would I have liked HER very much?

I’ll admit, cards are different from life. But a focus on things being “your way” immediately makes thing adversarial. It means someone else isn’t getting “their way”. As grandma taught me, even if I know I’m right, the relationship is more important than getting my way. Pick your battles. It’s important to stand up for what you believe is right, but often there is no right and wrong. Relationships aren’t just about one person. They require compromise, and letting someone else have their way is an important component of keeping the relationship happy.

Control

Are you a parent? If so, how do you get your child to do the things you want? If you aren’t a parent, how did your parents get you to do what they wanted?

A common parenting tactic is praise/reward and punishment. Praise reinforces positive behavior (the behavior we want), and punishment is intended to be a deterrent for negative behavior. Punishment can be active (scolding, spanking, time outs etc) or passive (taking something away, not talking to them, etc).

Praise and punishment are needed with children, because children are inherently selfish. They are initially unable to see the world in any way other than how it impacts them. Empathy is learned.
When dealing with your partner however, using punishment to address relationship issues is a VERY bad idea.

Dealing with Anger

Anger is natural, as we all get angry sometimes. However anger is one of the most destructive forces in a relationship, and it requires a healthy outlet. Explosive anger can create an atmosphere of fear. Withholding anger can be even worse as it can result in passive aggressive behavior.

Passive aggression is when instead of dealing with anger through discussion or confrontation, it is dealt with in a more subversive fashion. Often anger is expressed through body language, withdrawal, silence, or withholding affection.

It is understandable to not want to be around the other person when angry. But when this happens for extended periods or becomes a pattern of behavior then this about punishment and control. Passive aggression is a form or retaliation, it is something that is done to hurt or get back at someone.
Interestingly, people who exhibit passive aggressive behavior often don’t fully realize that they are doing it. For them it is simply their method of coping, and is often a result of how they were taught to deal with anger as a child.

A few notes on passive aggressive behavior:

  • It is one of the highest predictors of divorce
  • It is often a symptom of poor communication
  • It leads to low levels of intimacy in a marriage
  • It is the most common form of emotional abuse

When it comes to anger, here are a few things to think of:

Anger

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Say What you Mean

There are always elements of power in a relationship. But relationships should never be about getting what you want, and struggles over power and control have no place in a relationship.

A relationship should be a place of emotional safety. It is supposed to be an environment where you are there to support each other, and each others needs. Your partners needs should be as important as your own, and shouldn’t be conditional on whether or not they have met your needs first.

If your relationship is characterized by anger (overt or passive aggression), or struggles for control, then it is not a healthy environment. But it can change. In almost all cases, this is a result of poor communication and coping skills, which likely developed prior to the relationship.

It is important to learn to communicate in a healthy fashion.  Doing so will not only increase the chances of success in your relationship, but it will also help reduce tension and build intimacy.  Beyond the ways that it will improve your relationship, it’s important to your own health.  Anger is natural, but it helps nothing.

Anger is an acid that does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured – Mark Twain