Dealing with Grief

grief

 

I recently watched the movie Wild, with Reese Witherspoon.

I guess it’s supposed to be a positive/inspirational movie about someones personal growth when they hit a difficult time in their life.  And in some ways I guess it is, but it’s also pretty messed up.

The movie is based on a true story, and it’s about (Spoiler alert!) a woman whose life falls apart while she’s dealing with grief over the death of her mother.  It cause her to shut down, and go down a very self-destructive road, destroying her marriage and her life with drugs and promiscuous sex, until she finally hits rock bottom and decides to reboot her life by going on a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail (with no prior outdoors experience).

 

One of the things the movie drives home is that grief can really mess people up.  And while grieving, people will often do some crazy, self-destructive things.  This doesn’t just happen in movies though, you see this in the real world too.

There are so many stories where someone suffers some sort of a personal tragedy – maybe a loved (parent, child, close friend) dies or gets a serious illness, maybe THEY get a serious illness.  And in response to the situation, sometimes a person just (for a lack of a better term) “breaks”.

They shut down, retreat into themselves, stop caring, and stop “feeling” – becoming numb to the world around them (or some combination of these things).  They become like the walking dead, going through the motions of life but not really being engaged in it anymore.

During these times of grief, it’s not uncommon to hear about people falling prey to addictions (or just addictive behaviors) such as drugs, alcohol, affairs, gambling or any number of issues; as a way of “dealing” or coping with their grief.

 

Why does this happen?

I think this quote sums it up pretty well:

GriefQuote

 

Think about this for a moment…

The story wasn’t finished.

 

Why wasn’t it finished?

Because we weren’t ready.

We thought we would have more opportunities.

And we thought the story would have a different ending.

 

Grief is about loss we weren’t prepared for, where we are left feeling helpless and powerless to change things.

And I think maybe this sense of helplessness is where grief is strongest.

Helplessness.

A lack of control.

A feeling that it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t change anything, and you can’t make things any better.

 

Elisabeth Kubler Ross defined the 5 stages of grief (a series of emotional steps people will experience while dealing with grief) as:

  1. Denial – refusing to accept that something is actually happening, and clinging to the hope that maybe it’s a mistake.
  2. Anger – accepting that something has happened, but lashing out because it shouldn’t have happened, or it isn’t fair.
  3. Bargaining – a way of trying to avoid the grief.  A promise (often internal) of changes that would be made if only this problem would “go away”.
  4. Depression – accepting that this has happened (there’s no denying or bargaining), but despairing at what it means and at the sense of loss that comes with it.
  5. Acceptance – coming to terms with the event.  Fully accepting that is has happened, and cannot be changed.  And realizing that life will move on – maybe not in the way you once expected, but that things will still be alright.

 

I think when grief causes people to break, they are stuck somewhere in those first four stages.  To them, the story wasn’t finished and they are unable to accept that.  They are unable to cope with the pain and the sense of loss, so they don’t actually deal with it.

Instead, they shut down to insulate themselves from that pain – often acting in a self-destructive fashion in order to escape from it.

However no one can escape forever.

Eventually all things need to be faced.

 

The final stage of grief is Acceptance; and I think acceptance is when we finally realize that yes, the story actually WAS finished.  It just didn’t end the way we thought it would.

Life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, and not all stories have a happy ending. 

And maybe that’s alright. 

 

Because in life, what can you actually control?

The reality is, we control almost nothing.

Through our own efforts and actions we can exert a degree of influence on the things around us.  But we can’t change anything.  We can’t force people or events conform to the way we want.

Bad things happen to good people sometimes.  And sometimes people do terrible things and don’t face consequences.  Sometimes things don’t make sense, and there is no “reason”.

Sometimes things just happen, and all we can really do is try to manage the fallout.

And we do that through the things we CAN control.  The primary thing we can control being our own responses to the events that occur in our lives.

We control our own choices.

Our own actions.

Our own responses.

And really, that’s about it.

 

We can’t control how other people will treat us, or what they will do.  We can’t control external events.

When we try to, it’s understandable that we will feel powerless – because we are powerless to control these things.

Instead of feeling powerless over our lack of control though, I find it freeing.

We can influence thing, but not control them.  The ONLY thing we can control is our own actions and responses.  Accepting that and focusing on these actions and responses is a form of power.

For me, it allows me to understand that life can’t be fit into a box.  I may have ideas on where my life is going, but those ideas are only how things look right now.  Things happen, and things change.

So maybe the most important thing we can do is learn to be resilient.  To accept that some things are beyond our control, and to adapt accordingly – directing our energies towards those things we CAN control.

 

Grief happens when we believe the story wasn’t finished.  But if we are able to let go, we can see that our own personal story is always being written.  And it’s up to us to be open to new roads, and to be willing to see where they take us.

controlQuote

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Showing your “True Colors”

true_colors_header

I’ve been blogging for around 3 years now, and in addition to writing I try to follow a number of blogs.

One of the blogs I follow regularly is another relationship blog, written by a guy who went through a divorce a number of years back.  His divorce broke him; so he started writing about all the things he did both consciously and unconsciously that ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage and his divorce.

It’s refreshing, and self-aware.  Like myself, the guy who writes it seems to believe most relationships can be improved by looking inward at the things you are doing as a person, and BEING BETTER.  And a big part of being better is gaining an awareness of what often goes wrong and trying to better understand and accept the other person.

Anyhow, his blog seems pretty successful, and has a really active community in the comments section.  Great group of people by and large, but like any “family” it sure has its own dysfunctions.  And a few months back the comments section broke down.

A new reader came along with a very different set of beliefs compared to most readers.  Beliefs that were frequently offensive and hurtful to others.  These comments started to disturb what had been a pretty happy/healthy commenting community, and many (myself included actually) became upset that this one commenter was, for a lack of a better term, poisoning the comments.

Some asked for this commenter to be banned, or at least something to be done.  But nothing was, and things became worse for a while.

Eventually, when multiple requests to do something to improve the comments section were ignored, one readers suggested that by not doing anything the author of the blog was “showing his true colors.”

Communication can be difficult and frustrating at times; so I can’t say exactly what was meant by that.  But my interpretation of that assertion was, in writing his blog the author talked about things like equality and improving relationships between men and women.  However by allowing dysfunction in the comments section he was showing inconsistency with this.  So perhaps the reality was, he really didn’t care.

This post really has nothing to do with the issue with the comments section story.  Similar to how my last post opened up with a story about renewing a mortgage, and then went on to actually be about how people can place differing values on the same thing; that’s just a backdrop to a larger idea (or at least that’s my intent).  And that’s the idea that in life, there are always nuances.  And things are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

 

Patterns of Behavior 

I like to think I am a good person.  I have a strong moral compass, and I try to live my life with integrity.  Truly, I try to do “the right thing”, whatever that is.  And I would *like* to think I’m a fairly empathetic person, who does his best to think through the consequences of his actions before he does them.

But you know what?  Sometimes I hurt people.  And sometimes it’s a lot.  In fact, even for the people I care about the most, I PROMISE I will hurt them.

I hurt people in different ways too.  Sometimes by something I do, and sometimes by something I don’t do.  Sometimes I do things that get interpreted in ways I never meant.

Does that make me a bad person?

 

If I do 50 “good” things and 5 “bad” ones, do those bad ones show “the truth” about me?  Do they show that I’m actually a bad person?  That my “good” actions were just a show?

Yeah, I’ll acknowledge there are differing degrees of what good and bad are.  So yes, I suppose it’s possible that one bad action (particularly in the case of extreme behaviors, which again is subjective) can completely undo the good.  But by and large, I say no.

 

In statistical analysis, there is the concept of outliers.  Outliers are values that “stand out from other values in a set of data”, because they are aberrations in some way.

We are all going to have good days and bad days.  We are all going to do things that hurt others sometimes.

What REALLY matters is not each discrete individual action.  A bad action is a bad action.  A bad choice is a bad choice.

What matters is the PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR, and it is these patterns that speak to a person’s true character.  How you consistently act is a much more accurate measure of who you are than any specific action.

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

Cognitive distortions are broken thinking patterns that are often found in mental illnesses and mood disorders.  They are commonly found in anxiety disorders and depression, and are also believed to be part of why it’s so hard to break the cycle of anxiety and depression – these thinking patterns reinforce negative thoughts and emotions, “feeding” the issue (as an aside, one of the most effective ways to deal with/manage depression and anxiety is cognitive behavior therapy, which is intended to rewire the brain to correct these thinking patterns).

There are a number of different cognitive disorders found in anxiety and depression, and perhaps the most damaging is Splitting, or All or Nothing Thinking.

 

All or Nothing Thinking is kind of self-explanatory.  It is a form of thinking where we look at things in extremes, or as black and white.  You are a success, or a failure.  Someone loves you, or they hate you.  Something is perfect, or it is broken.

To be clear, we ALL fall into this sort of thinking once in a while (so when I reference the “comments” situation at the top I am in NO way suggesting anyone there is mentally ill).  But although we all do this sometimes, this type of thinking becomes a HUGE problem when it becomes a common or default form of thinking, or a pattern of behavior.

 

A while back I talked about the primal brain, and how the primal brain overrides reason and logic.  Well one of the big issues with all or nothing thinking is that it’s rooted in emotions, and normally extreme emotions.  It’s part of the automatic fight or flight response that you generally see with depression and anxiety.

 

Impacts on Relationships

Hopefully it’s clear that an automatic form of thinking, which overrides rationality and is rooted in extreme emotions is unhealthy.  But just in case it’s not, here’s a common way it impacts relationships:

In the early days of relationships, we all have a tendency to idealize our partners.  We see them as we want to see them (not as they actually are), and are often blind to their flaws.

This is normal, and science has shown that in the early days of love, brain chemicals are actually altered, contributing to this.

Eventually though (generally between 6 months and 2 years), this altered chemical state goes back to normal and we are able to see the person more clearly.  Normally we see a few rough edges, but are still able to accept the other person for who they are.

With all or nothing thinking however, these “flaws” often become proof that “something is wrong with the relationship”.  And if something is wrong, then this person is not “the one”.

 

All or nothing thinking has a perfectionist view of relationships; where there is a belief that if you can just find the right person, everything will be perfect and you will be happy forever.

But no one is perfect, and not being perfect doesn’t mean someone is a failure.  A relationship isn’t good or bad, rather it will have good and bad elements.

 

Popular dating site eharmony even talks about this thinking pattern and what it can mean to relationships:

Rather than seeing people as having both positives and negatives, overly critical people hold their romantic partners to an unrealistic expectation of having no faults whatsoever. Sadly, this type of “all-or-nothing” behavior can repeat over and over in one relationship after another until a person realizes that they themselves are the problem.

 

Basically, all or nothing thinking does a lot of damage to relationship.

 

And in addition to doing damage, it also makes is so people fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that things can never get better.

I’ve talked about loss of hope before and how destructive it is to improving a relationship.  With all or nothing thinking, the mere existence of problems shows that the relationship is flawed.  And if it can’t be perfect, what’s the point?

It makes it hard to see or appreciate incremental improvements, as the relationship is all or nothing.

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

All or nothing thinking puts tremendous strain on relationships.  And unfortunately, people who suffer from it usually don’t even realize that their way of thinking is unusual and damaging.  It’s a thinking pattern, so for them, that’s their reality – or just who they are.

A question to ask yourself is, do you often think in terms of extremes?  Do you get caught up in thinking that things have to be perfect, and if they aren’t they are ruined?  Do you give up on things easily because you “know” you can’t do them, or you feel they are impossible?  Do you think in terms of “always”, or “never”, “terrible” or “awful”?

If those sorts of thoughts are common, you may deal with all or nothing thinking.  And it may be doing a lot of harm to your relationships, and your personal life in general.

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

You can love some parts of your life and not others, and still have an amazing life.

You can be terrible at something, but still be able to improve it.

Your partner can love you, but still be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

 

And nothing in life can ever get better, until you can accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Living with Guilt

Guilt-Pain

I’m a big believer in personal accountability, and feel it’s often missing today.  Too often people are looking to blame, and while that’s and easy road to take it’s also completely non-productive because blaming doesn’t allow us to grow, or change.

To me, accountability is all about accepting responsibility for those things that you should be/are actually responsible for, and only those things; no more, and no less.

Accountability doesn’t always come easily though, and there are a number of mental processes that we go through before truly accepting responsibility and becoming accountable.

I’ve written about this process before, but for a recap the idea is as follows:

 

Some sort of stressor occurs (an issue, and argument, a disappointment, whatever it is); and when this happens our primal brain kicks in and goes through a series of steps to determine how to deal with this stressor.

This process starts with Denial, and then moves to Blame, Justification, Shame/Obligation, and only after that does it move to Responsibility.

The first three, denial, blame and justification are easy to explain. In these, rather than taking any sort of ownership we are deflecting the issue away from us. In denial there is no problem. In blame the problem is seen, but it’s not “my” problem, it’s someone else’s. And in justification I only partially accept that it’s my problem. I am saying that yes, it’s my problem – but there are a number of reasons as to “why” it happened (and these reasons somehow absolve me of any blame).

What I’m interested in today is the next mode – when we operate out of guilt or obligation.

 

Operating out of Guilt

In many ways acting from a state of shame or obligation is worse than denial, blame or justification. When you do any of those, you are deflecting an issue away from yourself.  With shame or obligation though, you are doing something but you feel as though you are being compelled to do it by some external force.

It’s almost as though your choice to do something is being made under duress.  You aren’t doing it because you want to, or because you believe it’s the right thing to do.  You are doing it because of a fear of consequence.

With guilt and obligation the consequence we are trying to escape is usually other people’s perception.  Saying I need to do this because so and so expects me to is really saying I need to do this or I will disappoint so and so.  And really, that’s a crappy reason to do something.

When this happens you are liable to build up resentment that you “have to” do something, and you are also liable to build up resentment for the person that you are trying to not disappoint.

Doing something from a state of shame or obligation is fine when done occasionally, but if it is a common state for you then are liable to give up or quit.

 

Guilt and Shame

Brene Brown (a prominent writer who has researched shame and guilt) says:

I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

Brene Brown

 

According to her guilt is positive, and is a way of telling yourself “I have done something bad”.  Shame is negative, because instead of just believing we have done something bad, we start to believe that we are bad as a result.

With shame, it’s like we have internalized the action and believe it comes to represent who we are.  So shame starts to touch on self worth, and feelings of adequacy.

 

I think I understand what she’s saying about guilt and shame, but there is one problem with the idea that guilt is positive.

If guilt occurs when you are doing something that you know is wrong, then it’s dependent on what you have been taught.

Unfortunately, right and wrong aren’t that straightforward.

 

The Problems with Guilt

There are some “big” things I suspect most will agree on.  Killing others is bad.  Stealing from others is bad.  Hurting other people is bad (though we seems to have a lot less of an issue with hurting people emotionally than we do physically).  Those are fairly obvious.

Guilt is tied to morals though, and morals can get very murky.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights are in the news a lot these days, and many LGBT people struggle a lot in their early years because they are taught that the way they feel is not normal.  There is a lot of guilt and shame that has to be overcome in order to accept who they are.

Going beyond LGBT issues, anything to do with sexuality is often a HUGE source of guilt and shame for people, and most of us struggle with feelings of embarrassment when the topic comes up.  Why?  It’s a natural act, and none of us would even be here today without sex.  But we are taught that it is “adult stuff”, and therefore taboo; so many people struggle with accepting that they are sexual beings.

 

Another area where people struggle with what they have been taught is emotions.

Men are often looked as emotional Neanderthals, and sadly we often are.  To me, this is an example of misdirected guilt.

Little boys (and girls, but more commonly boys) are often taught they are supposed to be “strong”, and that crying is for “sissies”.  This causes them to try and hold negative emotions in, and over time feelings of sadness will make boys feel guilty.  Holding things in can lead to suppressing emotions, and can cause people to start to disassociate themselves from emotions in general.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli.  Yet they are often suppressed, or associated with guilt – simply because of what someone has been taught.

 

An additional problem with guilt is that it is often rooted in comparison, or perception instead of in reality.  Often guilt is related to not wanting to disappoint another person.  Yet the feelings of guilt are based on our own interpretation of how the other person would feel about us; and that interpretation is often completely flawed.  It’s something that WE project.  So it really comes from us more than from the other person.

 

Lastly there is the subjective side of guilt.  Look at some of the areas that are often considered major conflict areas in relationships:

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Work
  • Children and Parenting
  • Chores

In each of these areas, conflicts are usually because each person has different ideas about what is right and what is wrong.  The problem is, there IS no right way or wrong way to deal with any of those topics.  It’s easy to believe that our way is the right way – after all, it’s what we know.  But when we insist on things being our way (because it’s better), we are saying that our partners approach is inferior to ours.  And that can cause feelings of guilt (and shame) in our partner.

 

Letting Go of Guilt

The way I see it, guilt does have some value.  As Brene Brown has said, guilt provides us with psychological discomfort when we do something that goes against our values.  Essentially it’s our conscience saying “hey, should you really be doing this” or “c’mon, you KNOW you shouldn’t have done that”.  That side of guilt can be helpful, as it can help guide us to make better choices in the future.

It’s important though to remember our understanding of right and wrong is based on what we have been taught, and due to this I think it’s always valuable to question our beliefs and be willing to adjust them as needed.

So a huge element of guilt is really about identity, and self-acceptance.  If you accept yourself, love yourself and believe in yourself then it really doesn’t matter what other people think.  If you KNOW you are making good decisions, and are doing the right thing then what is there to feel guilty about?

Are you worries about disappointing parents?  Disappointing your partner?  Realistically, if you can honestly say you accept yourself, and try to do the right thing (balancing your needs with the needs of others) than any disappointment on their part is their issue – not yours.

 

I don’t understand doing things out of guilt or obligation.  If you REALLY don’t want to do something, then don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong, we all have times that we need to do things we don’t really want to do.  That’s part of life, and part of being an adult.  But doing something you don’t want really want to because it needs to be done is doing it from a position of responsibility.

If someone finds themselves continually doing things out of guilt or obligation, then it seems there is at least some part of a person that believes they should be doing this.  Either that or they have been taught to believe something they don’t truly agree with.

So question things.

Accept yourself.

Accept that “your” way isn’t necessarily the “right” way.

Accept that others won’t always agree with you, and that’s alright.

 

When you do that, if you accept that sometimes things have to be done (even though you don’t want to) then approach them from a position of responsibility.  If you determine that it’s not something you should have to do, then don’t do it.

If you do that knowing you have done the right thing for you, then you can let go of guilt.

Love and Connection

broken mask

In my last post I talked about connection, and how connection requires you to be able to be in the moment.

Increasingly I think connection is what we are all looking for.  In family, in friendships, and especially in romantic relationships, connection is the key that binds us together.  Brene Brown describes connection as:

connectionquote

 

Connection is intangible; but at the same time you know when it’s there and you know when it’s missing.  We all want connection, and because humans are social animals I think it’s just as much of a need as food and shelter.

Intimacy (closeness) and love, these are all about connection.

 

Learning about Love

Growing up, we are taught the wrong things about love.  I realize I’m stereotyping here (so feel free to ignore this if you disagree), but little girls seem to be taught that love is all about passion and romance – flowers, kisses and hearts that pound at the sight of the other person.  And many women seem to internalize this, and come to believe that’s what love is.  Intensity.  Passion.

In fact, I recently saw a blog post talking about how the author wants her love to be like a hurricane.  Passionate, and furious.

And I get that in a way.

But hurricane’s tend to not last very long.  They burn out quickly, and leave a lot of damage in their wake.

 

Boys?  I’m not sure if we are really taught anything about love.  We see the same stories about love that the girls see, but we are never really taught that love should be a goal, or something to strive for the way girls are (it’s pretty common to see little girls dressing up as a bride for Halloween – but how often do you see a little boy dressing up as a groom).

For us love seems to start as more of a physical/hormonal response, as we’re often oblivious to girls until one day we realize “damn, she’s pretty hot”.  Maybe because of this, for many of us it seems we come to associate sex with love.

I think this is why you hear that women need to feel connection in order to have sex, while men need to be having sex in order to feel connected.  And this fundamental difference in how we think (due to how we have been taught) is the source of a ton of problems.

 

In any case, I think we both learn the wrong things.  We are learning about the early phases of love, and thinking that’s what love actually is.

At its core though, I think we’re all really looking for connection.

We all want to find someone we feel connected to.  We feel safe with, we feel we can be ourselves, and they will hear us, and respect us, and value us.  And we’ll want to do the same for them.  Connection is what is truly important.

 

The Problem with Connection

As much as we really strive for connection however, many people are afraid of it.

Because real connection requires vulnerability, it requires letting someone else in.

And that can be scary as hell.

 

Many of us, and perhaps most of us, struggle with letting other people in.

True connection requires allowing someone else to see all of you – the good sides and our darker sides, the parts of us that we hide from other.  And it requires allowing that other person to love us anyways.

Allowing.

My wording here is very deliberate.

As people, we often sabotage ourselves because we are afraid.

Afraid of rejection.  Afraid that we aren’t enough.  We don’t accept ourselves, and love ourselves enough.  And if we can’t even love ourselves, then how is someone else ever going to love us?

So we hold back, and we build walls.  We try to only ever let the other person see the parts of us that we want them to see.  We build these walls subconsciously with the intent of protecting ourselves from being hurt.

In doing so, we don’t allow that other person the opportunity to truly know us.  We don’t give them the chance to accept us for all of us, good and bad.

We’re scared they won’t, so we don’t give them the opportunity.

And in the process we ensure that we will never have the connection that we truly crave.

deadinside

Emotional Disconnection

We all limit how close we let people get to us.  We all have things that we hide from both ourselves and others.

In fact I’m not sure if it’s even possible to let the other person in 100%, as doing so would require a level of self-awareness that most of will never achieve.

But for emotionally healthy relationships, we have to be in a situation where both parties are able to let the other person in and feel safe doing so.

Emotional disconnection happens when people won’t let others in.  They will have healthy relationships on the surface, but will hide their feelings and not allow someone to get too close.

Sometimes this happens due to upbringing and a person’s attachment style, but it can also be brought about due to problems with depression or anxiety.

Both depression and anxiety can cause anhedonia, a state where a person feels as though they have no emotions, positive or negative.  For sufferers of anhedonia there is an absence of emotion and they often feel dead inside.  Sufferers do still feel some emotions, but they are primarily negative emotions or a pervasive sense of sadness.  Positive emotions are not felt very strongly, and they find it hard to feel happiness.

During these dead or flat periods, external relationships frequently suffer, as connection breaks down.

Calmclinic.com describes this as follows:

Emotional detachment is usually an issue caused by severe, intense anxiety – most notably panic attacks, although any form of severe anxiety can cause emotional detachment.

While it’s not entirely clear what causes this detachment, it most likely is a coping mechanism for the brain. Severe emotions are not only mentally stressful – they’re also physically stressful, and your brain actually experiences very real stress and pressure that can be somewhat overwhelming.

So your brain may shut off or turn down those emotions, because dealing with no strong emotions at all may be easier for your brain to handle than intense emotions.

Also, don’t forget that your emotions really do change your brain chemistry. Sometimes those changes stick around for a while. Your anxiety may have caused your brain to produce less “positive emotion” neurotransmitters, which in turn causes you to experience emotional distance.

 

Allowing Love and Connection

We all need connection.  Without it, couples aren’t a “we” and instead are just two people occupying the same space.  Without connection, you aren’t able to truly share life, and experiences.

Connection however requires you to accept your emotions (good and bad), share them, and be vulnerable.  It doesn’t happen unless you allow it, and allow the other person in.

Without that there is no intimacy, and only a hollow, dispassionate version of love.

vulnerability

People are scared to be vulnerable because they are scared to be hurt.  Scared to be rejected.  And so they hold back – both consciously and subconsciously.

But all holding back does is limit your ability to connect with another person.

It’s true, people can’t hurt you if you don’t let them.  And allowing yourself to be vulnerable means you will be hurt sometimes, by those you love.

That’s part of life though, and you need to be willing to accept it as part of the tradeoff.

 

Given a choice between being vulnerable and allowing myself to be hurt, or walling myself off from potential hurt and instead feeling nothing, I know what I pick.  And really, it’s an easy choice.

Because without connection, you can’t really have love.

Communication Is Hard

In life, communication is probably one of the most important skills we can learn.

But it’s also one of the hardest.

I recently had a bit of a back and forth with my sister, and it became clear that we were not “getting” each other. The communication was through email, and while written communication allows people an opportunity to get their thoughts out in an organized fashion, it is also prone to misinterpretation.

See, we all have our own triggers and filters. So no matter how clear one person *thinks* they are being, they can’t control how the other person will receive the message. This idea is summed up pretty well here:

what we see

It’s true, we don’t see things as they are presented. We see things as we interpret them. These interpretations are based on our own experiences, and sometimes they can be quite different from the initial intent.

This concept was definitely played out in our interaction.

She had some thoughts and ideas she wanted to share, I received them, interpreted them in a different way then what was intended, and responded accordingly. Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time.

What makes matters worse though is that when she saw my response, she thought she had offended me. And because she thought she had offended me, she felt it was best to apologize and not address the issue any further.

How We Can Help

Maybe it’s just me, and my own poor communication skills – but I see this everywhere. We all have moments where we are scared to say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, and hurt someone we care about. So often, we say or do nothing.

It’s natural, and understandable. But I feel this approach is very broken.

When you care about someone, you will hurt them sometimes. You will piss them off sometimes.

And that should be alright.  That’s part of what a relationship is about.

When you genuinely care about someone, you care when you see them hurting. And you want to support them and help them however you can. Thing is, you can’t actually “do” anything. With the people we love, we can be there to listen and support them. And we can try to make suggestions and advise them. But that’s about it.

Incidentally, this is one area that guys seem to get themselves in trouble. Guys are “fixers”. We have a hard time listening without thinking solution. Not sure why, but it seems to be something that’s hardwired into us. And from what I read/hear/see, women don’t actually like that. Sometimes they want to talk and have us guys just listen and not say anything. Ladies, I have to tell you – sometimes it’s really freaking hard to do that.

In any case, everyone has their own battles to face, and only they can face them. So even when someone you care about is hurting, or you think they are making poor decisions, or you think you can help them – you can’t actually do anything more than listen, support and advise.

It’s the advising part that gets us in trouble though.

 

Dealing with Advice

When offering advice, how you do it is very important. It always has to be done in a way that is about the issue or behavior at hand, and not the person. No matter how careful you are though, you still have no control over how the other person will interpret what you say.

And sometimes the recipient will not to be receptive to what you have to say.

People don’t like being criticized, told they are wrong, or feel they are being told what to do.  And advice can often feel like all of those things.

It’s important to remember advice is often an attempt at constructive criticism, and not the same as being critical of the other person. It’s only when it is poorly presented or when we are oversensitive that they things can appear the same.

If you are someone who can’t take criticism (constructive or not), consider this. People often provide advice for two different reasons:

  • they feel they know everything, and they are more than happy to share their opinions (solicited or not). Often trying to force their ideas on someone else
  • they feel they may have experiences/knowledge that gives them insight into what someone is going through, and they want to share that to try and help the other person

These are two very different approaches. And when in doubt, it’s probably a good idea to assume that someone is giving advice because they do actually care, and want the best for you.

Learning to accept criticism is very important.

Everyone’s experiences are different, and no two situations are exactly the same. Even if they were, we are all different so what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But we can still try to learn from each other. Learning is all about doing things, seeing flaws in our approaches and learning from them.

We can’t learn unless we accept the flaws and limitations in how we do things. And sometimes we are blind to those flaws, and need some guidance from the people who care about us.

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If someone can’t take criticism, often this is more an issue with them and their own insecurities.  But it means they often remain stuck, and unable to improve on where they are.

 

Afraid to Offend

When people care about each other, they shouldn’t be worried about hurting each other. They should be careful about what they say and not hurt the other person intentionally, but hurting each other is part of caring about the other person. They tend to go together.

It’s only when you do care about someone that they have the capability to hurt you.

I think good communication is about being able to say what you feel is right without fear of how the other person will interpret it. And also being able to accept that your thoughts may or may not be accepted the way you want, and that’s alright.

A big issue with communication is that people worry too much, and end up scared to say the important things because they feel the other person will not see it as information/advice, and will instead take it as an attack.
So instead they say nothing.

When it comes to the people we love and the people we care about, I think one of the most important things we can do is learn to say “no”, or to say “I disagree”. If I’m being selfish, a jerk, or an idiot – I WANT the people I care about to call me out, to tell me that how I am acting or what I am doing is not acceptable.

It may hurt, and it may piss me off. But that’s alright.

To my sis, I know she cares. We won’t always see eye to eye, and that’s alright. If there’s something she wants to say, I don’t want her to ever be scared to say it. If I think she’s out of line I will tell her. But I’ll also listen, and consider what she has said.

And to me, that’s a big part of what relationships are about.

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Passive Aggression

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In my last post I talked about Avoidance, and how avoidance is one of the most destructive things you can do. It limits quality of life and personal happiness while also doing damage to relationships.

Relationships require communication – even (perhaps especially) about the difficult things in life, while avoidant people withdraw or check out when confronted with anything difficult or uncomfortable.

The avoidant approach is, why deal with something if you can ignore it? After all, if you ignore something long enough it will just go away on its own right?

Spoiler alert – it doesn’t. Actually, things just get worse. And here’s one of the main reasons why…

Avoidant people may do their best to avoid conflict, and they may “think” they are succeeding. But everyone has emotions, and feelings; and eventually these frustrations find a way out. But since they have never developed healthy ways to express and deal with emotions and feelings, they find “subtle” ways to express them.

Ways that are very, very damaging.

The Four Horsemen

In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work John Gottman says he can predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy whether or not a couple will succeed or fail. And one of his beliefs is the existence or amount of conflict itself has nothing to do with the success of a relationship.

What matters is HOW a couple fights.

He describes the following “corrosive negative behavior patterns” as being the strongest predictors of divorce, or as he put it – “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

  • Criticism: No relationship is perfect, and we all have things about our partners that make us unhappy. Complaints are fine and are about behaviors you want to change. A criticism is a way of expressing the complaint that becomes an attack on the other person. With criticism, the issue isn’t the behavior – it’s the other person.
  • Contempt: This is the use of things like threats, name calling and insults. Contempt is when there is an air of superiority, and the offending person focuses on their partners mistakes instead of appreciating them and seeing the good. The existence of contempt is the highest predictor or divorce in a marriage
  • Defensiveness: This is when any attempt at discussion of issues becomes interpreted as an attack. When people get defensive, they attempt to “protect themselves” by doing things like counter-attacking, denying, or re-directing the conversation away from the topic at hand. There is no acceptance of the issue, or acceptance of responsibility. If you think back to my post on accountability, defensiveness is the first few steps – denial, blaming/justifying
  • Stonewalling: This is when in a discussion the listener emotional withdraws or “checks out” on the discussion. They likely are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, or flooded by the discussion; so they don’t engage. They may listen, but they don’t focus or give any clues they are actually paying attention. For the person trying to have a discussion, they feel ignored.

The first two are predictors of early divorce (supposedly 5.6 years after the wedding), while the next two predict later divorce (16.2 years after the wedding). Defensiveness and Stonewalling are the hallmarks of avoidance, and they are classic signs of passive aggressive behavior.

 

What is Passive Aggression?

Passive aggression is perhaps the worst thing you can do in a relationship. If you aren’t familiar with passive aggression, here’s another term for it – treating your partner like crap (I’m not sure if that’s the official scientific term. If not it probably should be).

What does passive aggression look like?

I found a great description of it at this site:

Passive Aggressive behavior can be defined as conduct which is conflict avoidant. Anger is not openly expressed but manifests itself by way of covert resistance, procrastination, withdrawal, sarcasm and more.

Broken agreements, withholding emotional support and/or sex, sabotage, sulking and silent treatment are all common features of passive aggressive behavior.

Many Passive Aggressive people simply refuse to contemplate that they might be doing anything wrong and simply do not believe their conduct to be anything untoward.

Basically it’s “conflict avoidant” behavior, where the real feelings of conflict (anger/frustration/resentment) leak out in other ways.

Passive Aggressive Behaviors

Here are a number of common passive aggressive behaviors (cobbled together from a number of sources):

Refusing to say what you mean. This is when someone will say one thing (usually what they believe the other person wants to hear) even when they don’t actually mean it. Sometimes they will say Yes when they really mean No. Or they will say “We’ll See” instead of saying No outright. But then they show what they “really mean” through their behavior.

Putting on a false face. This is similar to the previous one, but at a bit different. Passive aggressive people will often appear to be kind and agreeable, while inside they are actually hurt, angry or resentful.

Afraid to be alone, but also afraid of being dependent. There are difficulties with communication due to a fear of rejection that make relationships difficult. At the same time emotional walls are built to keep close relationships at a distance because there is a fear of dependence. Passive aggressive people do want relationships, but only on their terms. There is a strong need for control.

Learned Helplessness/Victimization. When conflict arises (which it will), the inability to deal with it often leads to anger and resentment. However instead of recognizing the problem is due to a lack of communication, it is perceived as being the other persons fault. “They” did this, or that. They caused the conditions that led to the anger (which of course is seen as justified). There is no ownership by the passive aggressive person. They are a victim of others being hard on them, unreasonable or expecting too much.

Resenting Demands/Expectations of others. Relationships have expectations, and these expectations form the boundaries of relationships. Passive aggressive people will often view others demands/expectations as unfair or unjust. But rather than expressing this and trying to find a path that works for both people they will hold things in and allow resentment for the other person to build.

Procrastination. Everyone procrastinates sometimes, but for a passive aggressive person procrastination is a form of control and punishment. They don’t like “having” to do things, especially when this is related to the expectations of others. So they won’t. But instead of saying they won’t, they make them wait and come up with excuses on “why” they haven’t been able to. When someone calls them out on their lack of follow through on things they either promised of agreed to, the passive aggressive person will often find ways to turn it around and blame the other person for why things aren’t done.

Not giving honest answers. When dealing with uncomfortable topics passive aggressive people will usually try to change the subject. When they can’t, they often say a lot of things without actually saying anything. Often no real answer is given. Or instead of being truthful, they will withhold information, and be selective in what they say and how they respond. They may not “lie”, but honesty is not just about the words you say. The ones you don’t say are often just as important.

Sulking/Withdrawing/Pouting. When things aren’t going their way, or they are unhappy about a situation passive aggressive people will shut down emotionally and withdraw. They will withhold affection, kindness (and empathy really) as a way of “showing displeasure”. Again, this is about punishment and control. Silent treatment and “walking away” are common ways of “dealing” with issues. This may sound a lot like tantrums. Well guess what, they are. This sort of behavior is basically an adult tantrum by someone who has never learned to communicate and deal with emotion in a healthy way.

Keeping Score. Passive aggressive people have a very difficult time letting things go. We all have times people hurt or disappoint us. Instead of confronting the issues, dealing with it and letting it go; passive aggressive people will hold onto things. Not only do they not let go, they also often feel someone doing something to them entitles them to do something in retaliation/response. In relationships (especially ones that matter to us) taking this approach is destructive, and will only escalate things.

Silent Treatment. This is one of the hallmarks of passive aggression, as well as being one of the great killers of relationships. When someone is upset they withdraw – emotionally and/or physically. Passive aggressive people often tell themselves they do this to ensure they don’t “say something they will regret”, and there is some truth to that. But they never return, and never deal with the issue at hand. They avoid it, and this becomes both a way of dealing with things as well as a form of punishment and control.

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Take a good look at the items in the above list.

I’m pretty sure any rational person will accept these are all COMPLETELY TERRIBLE things to do to your partner. Hell, they’re terrible ways to treat people who you DON’T like; never mind ones you are supposed to be building a life with.

That said, we ALL do these things once in a while. But people with healthy communication and conflict skills realize they are being an asshole when they do it, while passive aggressive people don’t seem to see a problem with it – or they have a long list of excuses and reasons (usually someone elses fault) as to “why” they are doing it.

At least at some level though, even the people exhibiting these behaviors have to KNOW these are self-destructive behaviors that are damaging their relationships; as many of these behaviors are selfish, petty and cruel. These behaviors don’t belong in a “loving relationship”.

So why?

Why willfully engage in behaviors that at some level they know are destroying their relationships?

Why do it?

An Inability to Cope

There are two main reasons people are passive aggressive.

  1. They don’t realize they are doing it
  2. They don’t know any other way.

One thing to be clear on…

…when you look through these behaviors it can make it seem like passive aggressive people are horrible monsters. They’re not.

Often they are good, kind people “most” of the time. They simply been taught conflict is bad, so they have spent their lives repressing feelings and negative emotions, and have never learned how to effectively communicate and deal with conflict. As a result they are emotionally crippled, and shut down in the face of negative emotions.

Passive aggressive behavior often goes hand in hand with anxiety and avoidance, because at it’s root it is about a fear of conflict, and a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with being unable to deal with conflict.

Conflict happens though. It’s a natural (and needed) part of life. So passive aggressiveness is really about an inability to cope with the reality of life. This is why many passive aggressive people try to present an image of perfection. It allows them to create and escape to a fantasy world where conflict doesn’t exist.

Healthy Conflict

At the beginning I talked about John Gottmans book, and how he believes there are behaviors that are good predictors of divorce. Passive aggression is one of the biggest ones.

Well, what does a “healthy” relationship look like according to him? Gottman says the signs of happy couples are:

  • Couples who behave like good friends and handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.
  • Couples who are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and are able to process negative emotions fully.

See the key words in those two things?

Handles conflict.
Deal with negative emotions.

These are things the avoidant and passive aggressive person either can’t or won’t do.

There is good news though.

People are not avoidant or passive aggressive by nature. It is a communication and coping style that is learned. Because of this, it is also something that can change.

I’ve written on change in the past, and although it’s not an easy thing to do is CAN happen. But for it to happen, the person making the change needs to truly understand how their behavior is hurting them. They need to face the mirror, and realize the way they have approached things has not been working.

If you are someone who defaults to avoidance or passive aggression as your default coping mechanisms, here’s something to consider:
Avoidance and Passive Aggressive behavior are among the most damaging behaviors one can have. When you look up “Toxic Behavior” the behaviors listed are usually lists of both passive aggressive and avoidant behavior.

If having your default coping mechanisms defined as “toxic” doesn’t convince someone to try and change, I not sure what will. However avoidance and passive aggressive behavior ARE toxic. They are behaviors we all should be aware of, try to recognize when we do, and try to minimize.

For our relationships, our happiness and for those around us.

Dealing with Emotions

Anger

Of the many roles I play in life, one of the most important is that I’m the father of two young boys. Being a parent is hard, harder than I ever imagined. And one of the hardest parts (in my opinion) is trying to teach my children to manage and regulate their emotions.

It’s easy to say that emotions are normal when we are dealing with positive emotions. Joy, laughter, curiosity, excitement, anticipation etc. But you can’t have positive emotions without also accepting the negative ones – things like anger, fear, guilt, despair, grief, shame and apathy.

We aren’t all one thing. We can’t always be happy, and we can’t always be positive. We need to accept all parts of ourselves, and be able to express them.

Recently I came across the following quote about anger:

AngerAristotle

I think this quote is perfect. Everyone gets angry sometimes. Anger is a normal and natural response to some sort of external stimuli. But having your level of anger be appropriate for the situation at hand? That’s a lot harder. And directing your anger at the right person, to the right degree, for the right reason? Much, much harder.

Emotions and Mental Health

A while back I came across this video, and it’s probably one of the most powerful 3 minutes you can spend (seriously, if you haven’t seen it check it out). It’s described as an exploration of masculinity, but to me it’s really about emotion, trying to learn and conform to what is considered “acceptable” emotion; and the problems people encounter when they try to suppress emotions and feeling that aren’t seen as acceptable.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli. When we try to suppress them, we are trying to deny part of what makes us who we are. And when we suppress them over an extended period of time, we do considerable harm to ourselves. The result of trying to suppress emotion is found in pain, misdirected anger, fear and loneliness. Over time this can even lead to depression.

So no, we should never try to repress emotions. Crying, anger, sadness – these are all normal, and acceptable. Going back to the Aristotle quote, the key is to be able to have an appropriate level of response.

The video above is focused on boys and men and notions of masculinity, so it applies to me as a father of two boys. But the suppression of emotions or treating emotions as “bad thing” is a wider problem. One that affects everyone – man or woman, young or old.

Emotions and Relationships

Which brings me back to my normal topic – relationships. Relationships are supposed to be a place of safety – both physically and emotionally, and emotions are also a big part of what brings us together initially. One of the key aspects of a relationship is how the other person makes us “feel”, and how we feel about ourselves around them.

I believe that when relationships struggle and/or fail often it is not due to a lack of love, but rather because of an inability to regulate emotions.

Our physical and emotional health are linked. Most people are more irritable when they are feeling stressed, or even if they are just tired or hungry. And I suspect we all know that when we are irritable we are prone to take out our emotions on others.

When this happens, our response is no longer in line with the event.

We are all human, so at least at some level we get it, and are normally willing to accept it from our partners. But it becomes an issue when it is a pattern of behavior. When the other person is frequently irritable, easily angered, and directs the anger at other people, or at inappropriate levels for the issue at hand.

We need to recognize when this is happening, recognize when it has become a problem, and take steps to prevent it.

Some people will claim “This is just how I am”, but that is absolutely the wrong approach. Yes people are different. Some are more sensitive than others, and yes we change over time.

But when your ability to regulate emotions is affecting your life and spilling out into your relationship, it’s a problem.

Often people have excuses. Yes, I lashed out – but I was having a bad day. But the baby was crying, but I was hungry, but…

There is always a reason, and taken individually they are usually valid. It’s not about specific incidents though, it’s about patterns of behavior.

Even the best of people have times when their tempers are short, and they take that out on someone they shouldn’t. The question is, how frequently does it happen (better not be often), and after it does what is the response. Does someone own the action and show remorse? Or do they just try and pretend it never happened?

Patterns of negative emotions or patterns of anger where we take out our frustrations at the wrong person or to the wrong degree over a period of time has a name.

Emotional Abuse.

Emotional Abuse

Everyone has moments where they say things they “didn’t mean to”. Guess what, when you lash out at someone, whether you meant to or not doesn’t change what has happened. It’s one thing when these are rare moments that are out of character for someone, and they are genuinely apologetic or embarrassed afterwards. Then perhaps you can chalk it up as a poor response to external stress. But when outbursts become more common, all the apologies in the world don’t matter. It is the behavior that matters, not the words.

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To put this in perspective, in physically abusive situations the abuser will often claim they “didn’t mean” to hit their partner. And maybe they didn’t. Commonly they will say (or think) it happened because “you made me do it”. They believe that they wouldn’t have hit the other person if their partner hadn’t done something to make them angry enough to do it. In truth, there probably was some incident – but the response was completely unacceptable and out of line with the actual issue.

Emotional abuse is based on the same premise. But the scars that it leaves aren’t as easily seen.

Letting Emotion In

I don’t profess any expertise here, but I suspect in cases of physical and emotional abuse, the abuser is like the boys from the video. They are people who have never learned to accept their emotions, and as a result they have never learned to regulate them.

Maybe they were told “not to cry” because crying is for sissies. Maybe they were punished for showing emotions, or they felt that emotions made them weak.

As father of two young children, I will admit to moments of frustration when my children are having tantrums, or crying over “silly things”. I try to teach them that all emotions are fine, and acceptable.

I don’t want them thinking that it’s wrong to cry, or that they have to “be strong” all the time. I want them to express life the way that is right for them. To love, laugh, and cry. To accept that anger is natural, but to not let it poison them and their relationships. And to not be ashamed of who they are.

I have no idea how I’m doing, and I probably won’t know for many years to come. But that’s my goal, and it’s something I will always strive towards.

Misdirected Anger

As I said above, we all have moments that we inadvertently (hopefully) take our anger and frustration out on those we love. If you are someone who struggles with anger, and find that this has become a pattern I have one question for you.

Why?

Why would someone stay with me if I was always irritable or angry? And more importantly, if I frequently direct anger towards them with inappropriate levels or at inappropriate times?

In relationships, conflict happens. It’s natural, and can actually be very healthy. After all, if there is no conflict how are you learning? How are you growing as a couple? Encountering and overcoming obstacles together is probably one of the greatest ways to bond as a couple.

So don’t try to suppress conflict. Accept it, and allow it in. And allow all the emotions that comes with it to come in as well. But try to do this in a healthy way.
Although anger is natural and should not be held in, it needs to be directed at the right person, and at the right level. In accepting our emotions we still need to be respectful of those around us. And learning to do this consistently is something that can take a lifetime.