Ruled By Fear

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When I was younger I wanted to be a physiotherapist.  Actually, before that I wanted to be a comic book artist, and before that I wanted to be an animal trainer (come on, you KNOW that would be awesome).  But in late high school I started thinking seriously about a career, and physio was what I wanted.

I was serious about it too.  In grade 12 I volunteered at a physio clinic in order to better understand what was involved, and as I saw it in action I knew it was something I would not only enjoy, but would also be good at.

So off I went to university, and in my first year I took all the prerequisites for Physiotherapy.  To get into Physio you need to apply to the faculty, and due to a limited number of spots available every year there was an interview process to get in.  I was confident I had a shot if I could get to the interview stage; but only the applicants with the top marks received interviews.

My marks were good, but not good enough.  And I tried for two years before coming to accept maybe physio wasn’t going to happen for me.

One day I was talking to someone about it, and they suggested I apply at different schools (out of town) as I would have a much better chance to get in.  That idea had never occurred to me, but even after hearing about it I never even tried.  I DID want to get into physio, but I was also an 18-19 year old kid who had never been away from home.  The reality was, I didn’t even consider trying to get into school somewhere else.  That wasn’t an option to me at the time.

Although I didn’t see it, my fear of being away from home, my friends and my family was greater than my desire to get into Physiotherapy school.

And so I didn’t even try.

I didn’t think of it as fear, but at some level that’s what it was.  I wanted something – I really did.  But I didn’t want it enough to make the take a chance, and to do what needed to be done to pursue that dream.

 

In life, we are often ruled by our fears.  We fear failure, and we fear rejection.  And these fears often end up shaping our behaviors and decisions.

 

Fear of Failure

When we fear failure, there are a few different ways it can manifest.

The most obvious one is removing ourselves from a situation, and not even trying.  When you don’t even try, it may be because you’ve convinced yourself in advance that you were going to fail – so why bother when you know how it will end up.

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Not trying may also be so you can convince yourself you didn’t fail.  I’m sure we’ve all seen and heard people say something like “I would have done X, if not for Y”.  Things like I would have been a professional musician if not for my mom and dad needing my help, or I would have been a doctor if I didn’t have kids, or any number of things.

When you don’t try it’s easy to lie to yourself and tell yourself these things.

Maybe it’s true and you would have been X; then again, maybe not.

You’ll never know.

The “what if” game is a wasted exercise, because no matter what you think may have happened – it didn’t.  You made the choices you made.  And life worked out the way it worked out.

 

Sometimes people do put in some effort, but fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They don’t believe they can succeed, so they sabotage themselves by putting in minimal effort.

Then, when things don’t work out they tell themselves “see, I knew it wasn’t going to work out.”  Not accepting that the way they approached it was a significant contributor to how things ended up.

 

When this happens, one of the lies people tell themselves is if it didn’t work out it wasn’t meant to be.

Meant to be.

Fate.

To me that’s a cop out.  “It wasn’t meant to be” turns us into victims, and absolves us of any responsibility for the course of our life.

Things work out sometimes, and other times they don’t.  But if it’s all about “meant to be” then why are we here?  “Meant to be” turns us into nothing more than observers, it means we are passive participants in our own lives; and I can’t accept that.

Rather, I think life presents us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do them.

Sometimes we pass those opportunities by, maybe because we are scared we will fail or we feel we aren’t ready.

Life doesn’t care if we’re scared – it doesn’t care if we think we’re ready.  Opportunities arise, and we need to decide what to do with them.

Sometimes we embrace those opportunities and give them our all.  And sometimes we still fail.

When that happens it can hurt like hell.  But if it’s something that mattered to us and something we believed in, at least we know that we’ve tried.

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Fear of Rejection

I’ve written a lot about authenticity in relationships, and about how important it is to just “be yourself”, whoever that is.  And I DO believe that being authentic and vulnerable in a relationship is key to both happiness and long term success.

But one thing I tend to gloss over when writing about authenticity is how hard that is to do sometimes.

See, we all have egos and want to be liked and accepted.  And rejection hurts.

 

Fear of rejection can lead us to hide parts of ourselves, or even to pretend to be something we are not.

We probably all do this to a degree, because we want to impress and we want to be accepted.  And in the early days of a relationship it’s somewhat understandable.

It’s a paradox, where we need to feel accepted in order to feel emotionally safe with the other person.  At the same time, we need to be vulnerable and let our partners in in order to feel accepted and safe.

So usually in the early days it can be a gradual process of sharing and revealing ourselves.  Ultimately we need to let the other person in though, as much as we can.

Similar to how not trying out of fear of failure can CAUSE us to fail, holding back out of fear of rejection will limit the closeness in our relationships and ensure we will never be accepted for who we are.  After all, our partner can’t ever fully accept us if we won’t let them truly see us.

When that happens, that’s not a failure of the relationship.  That’s a failure within ourselves.  Because often, when a fear of rejection is causing us to hold back (or try to be someone we’re not), it’s because we have not accepted ourselves.

 

Accepting ourselves can be very, very hard.

We all have damage.

We all have insecurities.

We’ve all been hurt.

When that happens it’s very easy to build walls around ourselves in order to “protect” ourselves from further hurt.  It doesn’t work though, because our fears just hold us back from the life we really want.

 

Facing our fears is hard.

Letting go is hard.

Embracing life and opportunities is hard.

And being vulnerable and authentic is hard.

Each of these things comes at a cost, but the cost of not doing so is even higher.

 

We all have fears, of failure and of rejection.  You have them, and I have them.  And we all need to address them in the way that seems right for us.

For me, I don’t want to let fear hold me back.  When life presents me with opportunities, I don’t want my fears to cause me to pass them by.  If it’s something I believe in, I want to embrace it.  I want to be the authentic me, and take a chance.

I may be hurt.

I may fail.

But whether I succeed or fail at something, for the things that matter I want to be able to face the mirror at the end of the day and tell myself I gave it my all.

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How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

Before I became a parent, I had a vision of the type of parent I wanted to be.

I thought I would be someone who would talk “to” his kids –not down to them.

I would treat them like “people”, with kindness and respect.  They were small people, sure; but they were still people.

Because of this I figured I wouldn’t need to raise my voice or yell, and I definitely wouldn’t ever do anything like spank them.  Instead, I would be patient.  I would explain things to them, and use reason when dealing with them.

Ha.

Man was I ever naive.

Nice idea in theory, but in practice?  It doesn’t necessarily work.

 

See, kids are still learning how to interact with the world around them, and they are just learning about their own emotions.

Sometimes kids (mine included) will have tantrums.  And experience has shown me that during time of high emotion (such as during the heat of a tantrum) there is no reasoning.  There is no logic.

In those moments, they are simply REACTING, and are completely out of control.

After the moment has passed and they have calmed down, THEN I can talk to them.  That is when they will be able to actually hear me, and reason will kinda/sorta/maybe work.

In a heightened emotional state though, reason has no chance.

 

 

I see this a lot in life.

Times where people do things and make choices that leave me dumbfounded.  Often I’m left wondering “what the hell are they thinking?”

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

Sometimes people WILL made decisions that are absolutely TERRIBLE, and have long term ramifications that seem so obvious I can’t understand HOW people could possibly make the decisions they do.

But maybe in those moments people aren’t actually thinking.  Maybe in those moments they are just reacting, and aren’t actually CAPABLE of understanding the implications of their choices.

 

The Primal Brain

Now, a bit of a disclaimer here.  Usually my posts have a fair bit of research to them, and I have facts to support what I’m saying.

For this one, I’m kinda flying by the seat of my pants and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.  So hopefully this makes sense to someone other than me.  Maybe there is data to back it up, maybe not; but it still “feels” right to me.

I first started thinking about this stuff when reading up on anxiety, and the fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is something we’ve all probably experienced at one point in time or another.  It occurs when you are in a situation that you feel threatened, or uneasy, and it’s largely a physiological response.  Biology takes over, and (as the name implies) a person gets ready to either stand and fight or run away.  It’s a survival mechanism that is built into our DNA.

I’ve seen this described as being part of the primal, lizard, or reptilian brain.  And it’s described as follows (from brainupfl.org):

Our most primitive piece of brain anatomy is responsible for basic functions (i.e. breathing, heatbeat) and primal instincts (i.e. survival, dominance, mating).

 

Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

All of these things are kind of important, and they are also things that often get people in a TON of trouble!!!

In each of these areas, you hear stories where people sometimes do things that they never believed they were capable of – sometimes for good, but usually for bad.  And when these things happen, those who know them look at these people and struggle with reconciling the action with the person.

Abuse, affairs, murder even.  The term “crimes of passion” is used to describe actions someone took because of a strong sudden impulse, but was not premeditated.

In these cases, I think the primal brain is at work.

To be clear, I don’t think the idea of people reacting to the primal brain means they aren’t responsible for their choices.  They still are – ALWAYS.

But this does highlight the importance of people being more responsible for their own emotional state (more on this below…).

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I think this idea of the primal brain and certain instinctual behaviors being able to override logic and reason (and the ability to think through consequences) is supported by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is an idea about human motivation and personal growth.  In it he breaks down different levels of needs, with the fundamental ones at the bottom and the “higher level” needs at the top.  One of the primary ideas is that we need to be in a position where our lower level needs are being met before we can move up the hierarchy to the higher level needs.

maslow-pyramid

 

Taking a look at the bottom level (or basic needs) you have things needed for survival, followed by a need for safety and security.  And although it’s not depicted on the chart I have here, often sexual instinct is seen as a need that sits at the level of basic needs.

Psychological needs such as love and intimacy are next, which means they can’t be met until our physiological and safety needs are met.

This makes a ton of sense.

Love and intimacy is based on trust, and when issues occur in relationships that break down trust usually the sense of intimacy soon breaks down as well.

 

Coping Mechanisms

Any regular readers will know that I talk a lot about coping mechanisms.

Over the past few years I’ve come to believe that the coping mechanisms each individual brings to the table are probably the most important things that contribute to the success and longevity of the relationship.

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

Our coping mechanisms are the default behaviors we exhibit when confronted with threat or conflict.  These behaviors are our automatic responses, and are probably a combination of nature and nurture.  Although there may be an inherent component to them, they are also learned behaviors.

Going back the Fight or Flight response, I think everyone’s coping mechanisms fall someone on a spectrum, where we have aggression and anger (fight) on one side of the scale, and we have withdrawing or shutting down (flight) on the other end of the spectrum.

BOTH of these approaches are TERRIBLE for both individual health and for relationships.

The way I see it, both extremes of fight and flight are responses of the primal brain.  In both scenarios, someone is simply reacting to a situation, and during those moments they are incapable of reason, logic, or thinking of consequences.

But these responses aren’t either/or, they sit on a spectrum.

So a goal we should ALL have is to work on our coping mechanisms.  We should work on regaining control, and not letting our primal brain take over.

If we are someone who reacts with anger when things go wrong, we need to learn to control that.  If we are someone who shuts down and withdraws when times are hard, we need to learn to work with other people and stop retreating into ourselves.

 

As kids, we are learning the world around us and learning to manage our feelings and emotions.  And sadly, some of us don’t really learn that very well.

But the key word here is learn.

Shutting down and withdrawing, or becoming aggressive and angry in the face of perceived threat or challenge is never the answer.  We should always strive to find a way to push back the primal brain and respond with reason.  Because caring, compassion and empathy are all higher level functions; and they require us to be able to stay in control

Our coping mechanisms, no matter how broken, can always be improved.

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.

The “Easy Road”

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My last post was about living in fantasy land, and how dating and affairs are really a form of escapism.  They aren’t real love, and they aren’t even real life.

And I think sometimes problems can occur when people get confused about what “real life” actually is.

When people have online profiles (like facebook), they only present the things they want you to see.  It’s usually a “sanitized” version of their life.  They show the good parts, the celebrations, the parties, the trips.  If you looked only at peoples profiles, you would think they all had the perfect life, where everything was happy all the time and there were never any problems.

But that’s not what life really looks like.  Real life isn’t just the image of ourselves we portray.  It’s not the like the movies, and it’s not about escapism.

Real life can be messy.  It has highs and lows, and it requires us to face challenges and overcome them.

 

Looking for Fun

In the comments section of my last post, commenter wordsaremylife wrote (about her husband leaving):

my father summed it up perfectly, “He wants to be a college kid again. Fun without responsibility.”

 

This is a common thread in almost every story of a failed marriage or an affair.  Someone eventually seems to come to the conclusion that a marriage is just too much like work, and for some reason they believe it should be different.

They seem to think:

  • Life should be easy.
  • Love should be easy.

So many people seem to want life to come with an easy button, and when they find it doesn’t because things have gotten difficult?

They quit.

They walk out, and go in search of something simpler.

In search of fun, without responsibility.

Because it’s easier to walk out than to work on improving what you already have.

Thing is, often what they are walking out on is simply “real life”, and they are leaving it in pursuit of something that doesn’t actually exist.

 

Accepting Responsibility

I’ll be the first to admit that people often get so caught up in the “responsibility” side of life that they forget to have fun.  And when you ARE caught up in responsibility, it can be overwhelming.

But quitting is not the answer.  Escaping is not the answer.

Here’s a few important things that often get overlooked:

  • Life isn’t always easy.
  • Life doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to.
  • Life doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time.
  • Life is not all about you!!!
  • Responsibility isn’t a bad thing.

Not only is responsibility not a bad thing, I actually think it’s a great thing.  Being able to be responsible, and take responsibility for things means you are taking ownership of your own life.  And what could be better than that?

Responsibility means you aren’t a victim. 

Things happen in life, sometimes good and sometimes bad.  And usually we have no control over those things.

But we ALWAYS have control over ourselves, and how we react.  How we respond.

That is something that is always up to us.

We choose what situations we put ourselves into, and we choose how to respond to those situations.

 

Putting in Effort

If you’re an adult (legally, if not mentally) you have bills.  So I’m pretty sure you have a job too.

I’ve had a number of jobs over the years, and in all the time I’ve held a job I have yet to find one that doesn’t expect anything of me.

I’ve yet to see a job description that says something like “We will pay you a fantastic salary to do things the way YOU want.  You can come and go as you please, with no real duties and no expectations on you.”

*Maybe* jobs like that exist.  I kind of doubt it though.  If they do, I’ll guess there aren’t very many of them and they’re probably in high demand.

No, generally the jobs that pay more also have higher expectations and responsibilities.  That’s kind of the way it works.

With most things in life, if you want to get more out of something you need to be willing to put more in.

Putting in effort in everything in life is key to maximizing what you get out of it.

This is why I can’t understand the mentality of people who are looking for the easy road in life.  People who are looking for fun without responsibility.  And people who just quit and walk away when things get hard.

If everything is supposed to be easy, where is the sense of accomplishment?  Where is the sense of ownership in having built something that matters?

 

I’m not saying people should NEVER quit.  Because there comes a point in time where you have to accept that things aren’t working, and you have to be willing to go in a different direction.

But I am saying there’s a HUGE different between putting everything you have into something, and being able to accept when it doesn’t work, vs quitting when things get hard or when things make you uncomfortable.

 

The Color Red

Years ago I took some philosophy classes in university.  University was a long time ago, so I don’t remember much; but periodically bits of Philosophy classes pop up in my head.

One of my classes was Epistemology (the study of knowledge), and in it I remember my prof presenting a hypothetical world where everything was red.

Paraphrasing here, he asked us:

“in a world where everything was red, would you be able to see the color red?  Would you even be able to conceive of it?”

That’s always stuck with me, and I think it’s especially relevant here.

Life isn’t always easy, and not only is that alright – it’s also NECESSARY.

We need to experience good AND bad, pleasure AND pain.  It’s the opposite side of the spectrum that allows us to appreciate the differences in life.

 

When people are looking for the “easy road”, they are trying to avoid the parts of life that make them uncomfortable.  Fun, without the responsibility.  Which is similar to pleasure, without the pain.  Or love, without the sacrifice.

 

But that’s not the way life works.

One of the more formative books I’ve read in recent years is Brene Browns “The Gifts of Imperfection”.  And beyond the discussion of trying to live an authentic life, one of the most important moments in it is when she talks about numbing behaviors.

We all have issues, and we all have pain to deal with in our lives.  But if you’re looking for the easy road, it’s because you want to avoid that pain.  So people turn to different things in order to numb the pain.  Drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex (affairs can be big ones), there are a number of numbing behaviors people will use.

But all of these are just escapes, and they don’t deal with the actual problems.  Because as Brene Brown says, we cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also number the positive emotions.

Fun without responsibility, pleasure without pain?  These aren’t sustainable.  They are short term “fixes” that do more harm than good.

 

The Keys To “Real Life”

Real life is complicated, and messy.  In real life we can’t selectively choose what we want to deal with and what we want to avoid.

But this also makes real life wonderful.

Earlier I mentioned that it’s the opposite side of the spectrum that allows us to appreciate the differences in life.

The key word there is APPRECIATE.

 

In real life, we need to be able to appreciate what we have, and not just look at what we are missing.  In fact, practicing active appreciation is probably one of the most important things you can ever learn to do.

 

People who can’t appreciate what they have tend to be chronically unhappy, while people who practice active appreciation tend to be happy, or at least content in life.

Active appreciation means living in the moment.  And when I say that I don’t mean being a selfish hedonistic a$$hole.  It means looking around you at what is REALLY important.

I guess that means different things to different people, but to me that means family and friends.  It means trying to do the right things and live with integrity.  It means facing issues instead of avoiding them.  It means BUILDING something instead of just using something.  And it means trying to appreciate what I DO have in my life instead of focusing on what is missing.

 

That doesn’t mean things are always good or I’ll get what I want.  And that doesn’t mean I’m always going to be happy.  But it means I can always put forth effort, and influence my situation in a positive way.

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Why Counselling Fails

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Picture this scenario:

There’s a couple, who love each other; but one day they realize they are having problems.  Or maybe they aren’t even having problems, and instead they find themselves thinking that maybe there should be more to life.

Whatever is going on starts to put stress on their relationship, and they are starting to question if they really want this relationship any more.  Or maybe they know they still want the relationships, but not as it currently is.  They want to see some sort of changes that they believe will improve the relationship.

So, either because they think it may help or because other people are suggesting it is a good idea, they decide to see the help of a couples counselor.

 

The problem is, counselling often doesn’t work.

 

I don’t have any real hard numbers here, but from what I’ve seen only around 10% of couples show any sort of improvements in their relationship after seeing a counselor.  And for people who choose to see a counselor, around 50% of the relationships end up failing.

That 50% number is right in line with overall divorce rates, so really, what’s the point.  If seeing a counselor doesn’t really improve the success rate of relationships, it looks like it’s just a waste of time and money.

 

Why?

 

Is counselling nothing more than a waste of time and effort?  Or can it actually help relationships?

I happen to believe counselling CAN be very valuable – both individually and as a couple.  But you need to be doing it for the right reasons, and you need to go in with the right mindset.

 

 

Prevention or Cure?

The first big problem with counselling is, couples often go to a counselor WAY too late.  In fact, many counselors feel that a couple has gone to see them a year or two later than they probably should have.

In many ways this is understandable.  Our personal issues are, well, personal.  Communication is hard at the best of times, which probably the biggest reason that couples get into trouble in the first place.  Yet couples who are struggling with some sort of issues are supposed to now go to see some third party (with their partner) and talk to them about the exact issues they find it hard to talk to their partner about?

Ummm, yeah.  Not fun, or easy.  So it’s easy to see why people often opt to instead do nothing, and hope that this is something that will pass, or something they can just live with.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Ignoring things doesn’t work, and will never make things better

As the saying goes:

prevention

Yet most couples see counselling a last resort, so what may have been fairly manageable issues tend to grow and become magnified.  Resentment often sets in, and by the time people are willing to accept that it’s a big enough problem that they need to do something, there is a lot of damage that needs to be undone before any true improvements can be made.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Another big problem with counseling is, in order for it to be effective BOTH people must want it, and see a need for it.  Unfortunately relationship issues often don’t work that way.

Commonly one person is actually pretty happy (or at least content) with the things that are a problem for the other person.  This can make it very difficult to see any real improvements, because the person who wants to see changes needs to get buy-in from someone who doesn’t see a need for any changes.

 

An important thing to remember is, a relationship involves two people and both peoples needs/wants have to matter.  If one person believes there is a problem (lets just call it an opportunity for improvement) – then guess what, there’s a problem.  The other person who doesn’t really see this as an issue can’t just convince their partner it’s not an issue, or wish it away.  Whether they like it or not, if their partner believes there is an issue then there’s a legitimate issue.

In fact, one of the WORST things they can do is try to convince their partner it’s not an issue.  By doing that, they are invalidating their partners’ feelings and beliefs (hopefully unintentionally).  And doing that will only serve to widen any gaps between a couple.

 

 

What is your Goal?

The last (and largest) problem I see with counselling is the reason people go.

See, we have this (broken) notion that unconditional love means you are being accepted “as you are”.  And being accepted for who you are means you shouldn’t have to change.

But if a couple is talking about going to counselling, generally there is a reason.  Something is not working, or could be working better.

And how is that supposed to happen without change?

I’m pretty sure a couple doesn’t expect to go to a counselor, describe their issues, and then have the counselor say something like “Sounds great, keep doing what you’ve been doing”.  That won’t address anything.  That won’t allow anything to improve.

No, couples go to counseling usually because one person is pushing them there, and on at least some level the person pushing for counseling is expecting the counselor to side with them.

They are expecting to go in and tell their story, and have the counselor “fix” their partner for them.  They want the counselor to tell their partner to change their behavior in ways that better accommodate them, and their needs.

 

And that is where I think counselling really starts to fall apart; because that’s not what it’s for.

 

To me, counseling is not about determining who’s right or wrong.  It’s not about having one person change their behavior to accommodate the other person.

It’s really about trying to understand the conflicts facing a couple, the gaps between their needs and wants, and trying to find a path forward works best for BOTH people.

And that will almost never involve change on only one side.

 

For counseling to be successful, I think both people need to be willing to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about themselves, and their roles in the problems their relationship faces.  Yeah, one person may be “more to blame” than the other, but that doesn’t really matter.  If you are looking for who’s to blame, you’re already in trouble.

What’s really more important – for things to be better, or for you to be right?  People often say they want things to be better (for both people), but really they usually want to be right.  Because accepting that they have contributed to the problems means they have to change too.

It’s easy to see how and why our partners should change to accommodate us, but looking at our own part in things?  That’s hard.  It means we may have to change some things too, and no one wants to change – because change is scary as hell.

 

 

Maintaining Relationships

If we buy a car, we understand we need to do periodic maintenance or it will break down (seriously, just try driving your car and never changing the oil.  I promise it won’t be fun).  If we buy a house we understand there is yard maintenance that needs to be done and general repair.

Hell, we understand that doing something like taking a bath or a shower on a regular basis is fairly important to personal hygiene.

Everything wears out, gets dirty or breaks down over time if you don’t maintain it.  But our relationships?  In theory they should be one of the most important things in our lives – yet most of us do a TERRIBLE job of even maintaining them (never mind growing them).

 

Counselling is often seen as a last resort for couples who are searching for how to “save” their relationship, or make it better.  And often even when we do go, it’s more about how we can make the relationship better for us than it is about how to make life better as a couple.

 

So what is your goal?  Do you truly want to grow old with your partner?  If so, wouldn’t it maybe be a good idea to try and make your relationship the best it can be – for both of you?

If so, putting in effort and working on your relationship a little be every day may go a long way towards keeping it strong.  Trying to truly listen to your partner, and acknowledge when problems exist (even when it doesn’t seem like a problem for you) and show willingness to work on them may also help.

Sometimes it’s hard to work through things together.  Sometimes we do need a bit of help – and that shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

Divorce rates continue to hover around 50%.  And success rates for couples who seek counselling are also believed to be around 50%.

But if you could quantify the success rates for couples who are able to put ego aside and really focus on doing what’s best for “us” instead of what’s best for “me”, I’m confident the numbers would be considerably higher.

Happiness is Overrated

asian young Couple not talking after  fight  in living roomThere seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.

I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed).  And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.

I hear things like:

  • I just want to be happy
  • Everyone deserves to be happy
  • Lifes too short to not be happy
  • I’m happy now (in the new relationship)

This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept.  And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.

Of course people “want to be happy”.  Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite?  Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).

Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).

I totally get all that.

Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?

Do you know?  Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.  I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling.  Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.

Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”.  You can be happy at home, but not in your job.  Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.

Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.

 

“Unhappy” Relationships

So what does this really mean to relationships?

When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.

Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.

Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment.  That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard.  A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen.  So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.

Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.

With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.

And THIS will result in…

(ready for it?)

…unhappiness.

 

I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing?  Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?

Nope, and the distinction here is really important.

 

First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship.  It means you’re normal.  Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together.  You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.

Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.

And understanding that?  THAT really matters.

Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy.  You need to understand the actual problem.  And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!

 

The Search for Happiness

My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy.  They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.

They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.

They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah).  So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.

(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.

 

Building Relationships

One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person.  I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.

Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person.  I just need to find someone more compatible.

Sorry, that’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).

But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill.  And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship.  No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.

And THAT should be good news.

The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill.  And both parties need to be willing to do this.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying.  And if they are?  Then ANY issue can be improved upon.

Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed.  But all problems can get better.

 

Believing Change Can Happen

Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up.  They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”.  And as a result they don’t really try.

This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.

It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying.  But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions.  As I said, ANY issue can be improved.  But you have to be willing to put in the work.

learnedHelplessness

 

Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution.  Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works.  And you are NEVER helpless to make change.

It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost.  But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.

Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there.  These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).

 

The way out of this mess is through communication.  REAL communication.

When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking.  Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.

If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.

CommunicationIssue

 

 

Happiness is Mostly About You

One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act.  It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU.  While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.

Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.

For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us.  It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.

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Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you.  It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues.  It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.

But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime.  They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.

In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.

 

Built to Last?

Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.

Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.

And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.

Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright.  Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again.  In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.

 

So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out.  An excuse.

I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.

I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.

At least those reasons are honest.

They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there.  That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.

 

But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling?  That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.

 

meantToBe

Connect by Disconnecting

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Over the last 20+ years, perhaps the single most significant technological change (in terms of the number of people it touches daily) is the rise of the internet.

It impacts all sorts of areas of daily life; from marketing, to how many jobs are done, and even how we interact on a daily basis.  One of the newer ways the internet is used is social media.  A few years ago I had never even heard of social media, but now “social media” has become part of the social consciousness.

One of the catchphrases of this change is that we are now living in the “connected” era.

The Connected Era.

I saw a recent study that said in North America the average person has almost three devices that connect to the internet.  Initially most people connected to the internet with a computer, and although they are still commonly used they are increasingly replaced by tablets and smartphones.  Devices that allow us to continue to be “connected” wherever we are, 24-7.

The internet and social media allows us to connect with almost anyone in the world.  We can keep up with them and know what is going on in their lives in ways we never could before.

But this seems to come with a cost.

One of the ironies of today’s world is that through technology we have many more opportunities to be “connected”.  Yet at the same time, depression and anxiety levels are increasing dramatically, and many people seem to feel more disconnected in their lives than ever.  And there is a growing belief that technology is playing a significant role.

 

The Social Media Age

Over the years I lost touch with one of my closest childhood friends, and due to Facebook I now have a bit of a window into his life that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible, which is great.

I have a brother on the other side of the country, and although he doesn’t post much I am able to periodically see my nephew and niece due to social media.

Hell, I have another brother who lives in the SAME city as me, and I find out more about him through social media than I do through actually talking with him (which is pretty damned sad if you think about it).

Furthermore, this blog is only possible due to online connectivity.  It’s a great outlet for me, and through it I’ve come to get to “know” a handful of people around the world that I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and hopefully my words have been able to give hope to some people, or at least let them know that they aren’t alone.

So yeah, there’s a lot of good that can come from this world of online connectedness.  It’s just a tool though, and all tools have both positive and negative sides.

 

The Importance of Connection

In my last two posts I have talked about the importance of connection.  True connection with another person is a feeling of being seen, heard and valued by that person (and feeling the same for them in return).  It’s an intangible energy that can be thought of as closeness, or intimacy.  And it’s a key component of love.

I believe that kind of connection is a basic human need.  But it can be difficult to achieve, because it requires us to be able to be in the moment and it also requires us to be vulnerable with another person.

And this  is where the dark side of online connectedness comes in.

 

The Highlight Reel

We all crave connection, but connection isn’t easy because it requires us to be vulnerable with someone else and to allow them to see our true self.

And that can be scary as hell.

For many, a fear of rejection and of not being accepted causes them to keep others at arm’s length; either limiting intimacy in the relationships they do have, or keeping them alone.

Social media gives us an avenue to partially fill this void, without all the risk associated with it.

fearofintimacy

One problem is, with an online persona we can be whoever we want to be.  And I’m not talking about the whole “your internet girlfriend is really a 40 year old man” type of fake persona, or retouching images like they do for models.

What I mean is, we get to be very careful about how we portray ourselves.  We are selective in what pictures we put up of ourselves, and what sort of things we post.

Thing is, it’s not real.  Well it is, but it’s more like a highlight reel of a person’s life.  Their life doesn’t always look like that!!!

I recently went on a car trip and posted pictures from it to my facebook account.  The pictures are the sanitized version of the trip, with everyone “smiling and happy”.

There are no pics of my kids continually arguing in the backseat while I drove, or my son getting carsick (that was fun).  There are no pictures depicting my stress level when my check engine light came on in the mountains and I was about an hour away from the nearest service station.

But that stuff was all part of my trip, and it’s part of life.  And when looking at online profiles, it’s easy to forget that.

It’s easy to look at the highlights of other people’s lives, and either consciously or subconsciously compare them to your own.  And since you know about all the details of your own life, it’s easy to imagine that everyone life is better than your own.  Funner, more exciting, and happier.

And our own life will often feel lacking by comparison.

 

Fear of Missing Out

Another problem with social media is a fear of missing out (yeah, that’s actually “a thing”).

Fear of missing out (FoMo) is related to anxiety, and is where someone has a desire to continually see what others are doing due to a fear on what they could be missing out on.  Instead of being able to live in the moment there is a fear of making “the wrong choice”, and time spent ruminating about “how things could be different”.

Wikipedia describes this as follows:

On one hand, modern technologies (e.g., mobile phones, smartphones) and social networking services (e.g., Facebook,Twitter) provide a unique opportunity for people to be socially engaged with a reduced “cost of admission”.  On the other hand, mediated communication perpetuates an increased reliance on the Internet. A psychological dependence to being online could result in anxiety when one feels disconnected, thereby leading to a fear of missing out or even pathological Internet use.  As a consequence, FoMO is perceived to have negative influences on people’s psychological health and well-being, because it could contribute to people’s negative mood and depressed feelings.

FoMO may drive someone to constantly look for a better or more interesting connection with others, abandoning current connections to do so, without realizing that what they move to is not necessarily better, just different.

For people who grapple with FoMO, social media involvement could be attractive because it serves as a convenient tool to be socially connected with a relatively low cost. However, social media could not completely substitute face-to-face communication. Therefore, people with FoMO end up with a higher level of loneliness and isolation, which leads to more FoMO.

 

The Golden Triangle

One of my life philosophies (stolen from the business world) is the Golden Triangle.  Basically, everything in our life is fighting for limited resources.  We only have so much time and energy, and the quality of everything we do is impacted by how much time and energy we are able to devote to things.  As a general rule, if we want something to be good (or great), we need to put time into it.  And the more time/effort we put into something the better it can be.

This has huge implications for our connections and the world of social media.

Look, back in grade two I may have been great friends with little Billy who lived a few houses away.  And yeah, in todays world I can probably look him up, send him a friend request and catch up on his life.  And yeah, it’s would probably be great to see him again and laugh about the things we did.

But every time I do that, I am taking away from time I am able to devote to something else.

Do I REALLY need to spend a bunch of time looking at the lives of people I would likely never see or hear from outside of social media?  It may seem like a harmless diversion, and it often is.  But it can also start to negatively impact our lives and relationships.

A while back I wrote a post called You can have anything (just not everything).  We CAN’T have everything, and attempting to means we stretch ourselves too thin while reducing the quality of the things we DO have.

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We need to pick and choose what’s really important to us, and allocate our energies accordingly.  And sometimes that means letting go of things that we would like.  It’s unfortunate, but that’s just life.

 

The connected era can make it really hard though, especially when the tools we use for it are literally designed to make us “feel good”.  Companies spend a ton of money on trying to understand human psychology, and the way our brains reward system works.  And this trickles down to the products they create and market.

The “ding” of a message coming in, seeing the number of “likes” that you get on a picture or a post, the friend request.  All these mechanisms are designed to release dopamine, and make us “feel good”.  And that sort of instant gratification is often easier than the effort required sustaining our relationships in everyday life.  Kind of like escaping into substance abuse and affairs, it’s so much easier to escape into the world of online connection than it is to face the connections we have in real life.

 

With that I’ll leave you with two questions to ask yourself:

  1. What REALLY matters to you?
  2. Do your actions reflect that?

 

 

Avoiding Life

AvoidanceHeader

Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to grow and improve as a person.  I would like to think I understand certain things a bit better, but for the most part I haven’t really changed that much.  There have been some changes I suppose, but they are largely small tweaks and refinements.

Really, the “new” me isn’t that different from the “old” me.

There is however one area where my outlook has changed considerably, and that’s in how I look at and approach conflict.

 

Conflict has become an area of interest for me, and it’s something I’ve written about in the past.  A few years ago I viewed conflict as a bad thing.  It was a sign that something was wrong.  And that’s bad, right?  Well, if that’s right then the absence of conflict must be a good thing.

That was how I viewed the world.

And that’s a viewpoint I’ve come to believe was completely wrong (like, totally and completely wrong).

 

You Aren’t Me And I’m Not You

Each person is an individual, with their own wants, needs and interests.  And this uniqueness is a part of our beauty.  However, because we have differences there are times our differences will collide.

My new(ish) viewpoint on conflict is that it is a natural and unavoidable part of any relationship.  Conflict is simply the collision of our differences and can actually be a very positive thing; as the process of learning to accept each other and work together in spite of these differences (because let’s face it, they aren’t going away) is the key to a healthy relationship.

So although there can be issues in how we “deal” with conflict, conflict itself isn’t bad.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Currently I’m back in school, taking courses that will in theory help advance my career; and if not at least keep me somewhat current.  And one of the courses I’m taking has a section on conflict.

Reading over the course materials, I came across the following:

Of all the issues that people tend to avoid, managing conflict ranks at the top of the list, along with public speaking and swimming with sharks.

Most people see conflict as indicative of a problem because disagreement feels uncomfortable and threatening.

When there’s no open conflict we can carry on as though things are all right even if, really, we know they aren’t.

 

It’s the last line that really stands out to me – open conflict is the key.  If there is no  open conflict we all can carry on as though things are alright even when we know they aren’t.

People can be kind of stupid at times.  For whatever reason, sometimes we don’t see things that are right in front of our faces.

Sometimes its ignorance, or we misjudge the severity of something.  Or maybe we simply lack the context to truly understand what we are seeing.  For example I have a buddy that almost died from a heart attack a few years back, when he thought he had the flu.  That stuff happens, and is largely understandable.

It’s a VERY different scenario though when there is a problem and we KNOW it.  But we pretend it isn’t there.  When we ACT as though things are fine as long as we aren’t talking about it, and it’s not out in the open.

That approach is very destructive, to everyone involved.

 

When to Deal with Issues?

Conflict isn’t fun, and I think it’s safe to say most people don’t want to deal with it.

Imagine you’re at home and you notice a drip in your bathroom faucet.  Let’s imagine the progression of this problem faucet looks something like this (with some sort of time lapse between steps):

  1. We see the faucet dripping for the first time.
  2. We realize the faucet is still dripping over a period of time.
  3. We notice the drip is getting worse.
  4. Instead of a drip, we see that there is now a steady stream of water coming out of the faucet
  5. We notice that the room underneath the bathroom has water stains in on the ceiling.
  6. We notice that there is water streaming down the walls of our house.
  7. Sections of the ceiling below start to crumble and collapse
  8. We can no longer open the bathroom door, because the flow of water has gotten so strong that the water pressure is holding the door closed

Let’s face it, problems suck.  However although we don’t want to, most of us recognize that there comes a point in time when we HAVE to deal with them.

WHERE we draw that line differs from person to person.  For example, some people will get on an issue as soon as they see the first sign of trouble.

Personally, I would find that exhausting.  I would rather wait a bit to determine if it was an actual (recurring) problem.  If something happens once and then not again?  Well, it might not be worth worrying about.

Thing is, when small problems aren’t addressed in time they have a tendency to grow into much larger issues.  I would like to think though that most people wouldn’t allow the leaky faucet to get to step 8.  Hopefully somewhere between step 2 and step 5, people will accept that there is an issue and be willing to put in whatever work is necessary to address it.

 

Avoidance

Unfortunately some don’t accept that issues need to be dealt with – ever.  In fact some people will walk around their house in rubber boots with a diving mask and snorkel insisting that there’s no problem and everything is alright; as the faucets are pouring water and their house is rotting and crumbling around them.

In psychology this is known as Avoidance.

Psychology Dictionary defines avoidance as:

the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, activities, environments, individuals, things, or subjects of thought because of either (a) the anticipated negative consequences of such or (b) the anticipated anxious or painful feelings associated with those things or events. Psychology explains avoidance in several ways: as a means of coping- as a response to fear or shame- and as a principal component in anxiety disorders.

 

Avoidant people are masters at pretending that things are fine, because as long as they don’t acknowledge a problem openly they can tell themselves everything is alright.

Thing is, avoidance brings with it a slew of problems.  Stealing another section from my course materials:

There is one main reason to engage in conflict, and that’s to reach a resolution. Without resolution, conflict merely becomes an opportunity to recycle old arguments, disagreements and opinions: nothing moves forward, feelings get stirred up and reinforced.

 

By denying problems and refusing to deal with them avoidant people actually make things worse.

They allow small problems to grow, and ensure there is never a resolution.  Nothing ever moves forward, and they end up stuck.

 

Misdirected Effort

One of my sons hates cleaning his room.  And when I ask him to, it always turns into a big production.  He talks about how he doesn’t want to, and how he thinks “it’s not that bad anyhow”.  Then he complains about how much time and effort it would take to clean it.

Usually it turns into some sort of power struggle where he refuses, and I’m forced to come up with some sort of consequence for not doing it as a way of getting him to clean it.

When he finally gets to cleaning it, I’m always struck by the fact that he will have spent WAY more time arguing over and fighting against cleaning his room than it actually took him.  He expends all this energy “refusing” to clean his room.  And if he would just DO it, a lot less time and energy would be wasted.

He’s 9, and I’m optimistic/hopeful that this is just a stage he’ll grow out of.

 

In many ways, his behavior is similar to avoidance.

An avoidant person will expend a tremendous amount of effort ignoring a problem, pretending it’s not there, and refusing to deal with it.

And to a non-avoidant person faced with this, often it feels as though the issue at hand (whatever it is) is actually resolvable.  And likely could have been easily resolved with considerably LESS effort than there seems to be spent ignoring the problem and maintaining a (broken) status quo.

It’s like they are trying to talk to someone while the other person is walking around with their hands over their ears chanting “la la la la la, not listening”.

 

Relationships with avoidant people can be difficult, because couples often get stuck with issues that often seem normal, or manageable.  However because the avoidant partner won’t acknowledge the issue they are unable to move forward and improve.

So every leaky faucet has the potential to cause the whole relationship to crumble down around them.

And let’s face it, we all have leaky faucets.

 

Admitting to issues in your relationship is never easy, but if you don’t you can never, EVER resolve them.  And you can never improve.

For any avoidant people, I ask you this – what is your goal?  What is more important to you?

Is it more important to create the illusion of a perfect relationship and not have to deal with issues (even when you know that the issues are there)?

Or it is more important to have the best relationship you can?

 

A while back I read an article on couples counselors, and in it the counselors talked about how their ability to help a couple is often hampered because couples frequently come to them YEARS later than they should have.  I suspect this is often due to avoidance, where a couple is refusing to deal with their faucets until the relationship is crumbling around them.

People can talk about priorities, but actions are much more important than words.  So if someone “says” they want their relationship to be better but they refuse to work to improve it?  Well, they are showing that they find the pain of a broken relationship to be less than the pain of trying to work on things.  THAT shows true priority.

And if pretending things are good even when you know they are not is more important that improving, remember that if the rot sets in too deeply there will be no way to pretend any more.

 

 

Conflict comes from differences and differences are just part of who we are.  Having a relationship with another person means there WILL be conflict.  And accepting that conflict as normal allows you to deal with it proactively, and make your relationship the best it can be.

Strength in a relationship isn’t built through the absence of conflict, it’s built through encountering obstacles and getting through them together.  So although we should never want conflict, we should always see it as an opportunity to improve on where we are.

A perfect relationship will never exist, no matter how much you pretend it does.  But your relationship CAN always get stronger.

IF you accept that there are issues.

IF you accept that conflict is an opportunity for improvement.

And IF you are willing to face your issues and work on them.

If you can do those things?  Then your relationship will never be perfect, but it will be as strong as you make it.