We are all Damaged

BrokenMask

I was recently talking with a close friend who is in the early stages of a divorce, and our discussion made me think back to a line from the first post I ever published, back in early 2014.  In it I wrote the following about learning what it meant to be a parent:

Suddenly we were parents, and it was up to us to discover what that meant.

We spent the next few years learning and I’m sure we made some mistakes along the way.  The bumps and bruises healed, and any psychological damage we did hopefully won’t surface for a few years yet (at least until he’s out of the house).

It was meant to be funny at the time, and it still kind of is (to me anyhow).  But at the same time, in the years since I wrote that I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of truth to it as well.

 

While talking things through with my buddy, one of his biggest concerns (about the divorce) is how it will impact his kids.  And really, the question is how, not if; because there WILL be impacts.  Some of those impacts will be felt immediately, with pain and confusion.  Tears, anger, withdrawal, etc.  A divorce can have impacts that cannot be predicted though.

As children, parents often shelter us from the world and make us feel safe.  Having your parents split up is often the first time that safety is really threatened, and it can be many, many years before the full impacts of that are felt.

I think these are natural concerns, and in fact I would be more concerned if he wasn’t worried about how the divorce would affect his kids.

 

This post isn’t about divorce.  Divorce just happens to be one of the many things that can happen in someone’s life that will have long lasting impacts.

Rather, it’s about how all the little things that have impacts we can’t fully understand or appreciate at the time.  Parents are always shaping our children through the things we say and do.  As parents we are models to our children, and they learn much more than we realize.  Hopefully a lot of what they learn from us is positive; but a lot of the issues they have in future life will come back to the “mistakes” that were made in raising them.

 

Attachment Theory is a psychological model that talks about how we form attachments with others; and how our relationships shape us, especially when we are hurt or feel threatened in those relationships.

Attachment theory has three attachment styles (four in some places, but the last one is just a mix of these three so I’m going to ignore it):

  1. Ambivalent Attachment.  This is characterized by a reluctance to get close to others, and a fear that your partner doesn’t love you.
  2. Avoidant Attachment.  This is characterized by problems with intimacy, holding back emotionally from the relationship (which probably contributes to the intimacy issues), and being unwilling to share feelings and emotions.
  3. Secure Attachment.  This is characterized by being comfortable sharing feelings with partners and friends, and an ability to have trusting lasting relationships.

 

I mention parenting above, because our earliest relationship is with our parents; and it is these early years that are believed to be the most important for shaping how we are able to form attachments as adults.

Which is kind of scary really.

I’m a dad, and I’ll be the first to admit that I have no freaking clue what I’m doing most of the time.  I try to do my best, as I’m sure most parents do.  Am I a “good” dad?  I would like to think so.  Yet I know I’ve made mistakes in the process.  Just as my parents did, and their parents before them.

This same dynamic has played out in our own lives.

As people we are the sum of our experiences.  Everything we have gone through up until now has impacted us in some way, and has shaped us into the person we are today.

Think about that for a moment.

How we were raised, what our parent’s relationship looked like, and also what our earliest relationships looked like.  All of these things have shaped HOW we form attachments.  I say “shaped”, because they influence it but they don’t have to control it.

 

As attachment theory says, it’s the fears, threats, and the hurts in our relationships that shape our future relationships the most.

We’ve all been hurt.  We’ve all suffered pain, and disappointment at the hands of those we love.  And these things leave marks on our lives.

If we’ve been hurt a lot, it’s understandable that we start to become more tentative around people, or build walls to protect us from being hurt again.  If we’ve been betrayed, it’s natural to start to lose trust in people, and fear these same things happening again.

All of the pain we’ve felt leads to insecurities, and we all have them.  We all have some sort of damage that we carry with us into our future relationships.

The danger here is, if we aren’t careful the damage we carry with us can poison our future relationships and end up causing the exact situation we are trying to avoid.

If you’ve been betrayed and find it difficult to trust, that lack of trust can lead you to see threat in situation that don’t warrant it; and that lack of trust can drive people away.

If you’ve been abandoned that fear of abandonment can make you hold on too tightly, pushing people away.  Or it can cause you to remain distant, preventing close attachments from developing.

There are all sorts of things we can do that sabotage our relationships; and while they may be understandable to those who know our histories that doesn’t mean they are healthy or acceptable behaviors.

The absolute worst thing you can do is say “this is just who I am”.  It’s not up to our partners to accommodate us.  To a degree they need to, but it’s also on us to try and heal ourselves, to be “better”.

We need to try and be self-aware and look at ourselves.  Try to understand what we are bringing into our relationships that is causing harm.  Because it’s only when we recognize and accept that damage that we can start to change it.

It’s a lot easier said than done though.

 

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who is fairly self-aware and emotionally healthy.  I realize I’m affected by my experiences and I think I understand what my own insecurities are.

Yet even still I have times that I catch myself doing things and/or saying things that at some level I *know* are counterproductive to what I want.  I know these things are self-defeating, but like turning your head to watch the scene of an accident, it’s hard to stop.

I’ve written many times that I don’t believe in “meant to be”.  I believe life presents us with opportunities, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do with them.  So it’s especially frustrating when we do things that undermine those opportunities when they are presented.  When we don’t give ourselves the best chance to succeed.

 

One of my current favorite bands is Editors, and in their song Bones they have the following line:

In the end all you can hope for
Is the love you felt to equal the pain you’ve gone through

I think there’s a lot of truth there.  As I said, we’ve all been hurt.  We’ve all been disappointed.  We are all damaged in some way.

But it’s up to us to recognize that damage, and accept that it’s part of us.  And while it may be part of our past, it doesn’t have to shape our future.

Advertisements

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

What if Life had a Rewind Button?

rewindHeader

A few weeks ago I sold a car.

I’ve never sold anything worth more than a couple of dollars before, so the experience was actually a little bit intimidating.

To get the car ready to sell we needed to bring it to a shop for a safety check, and then address any issues that came from that (thankfully there’s weren’t many).  Once that was done and the car was cleaned up inside and out it was time to put it up for sale.

All that was left was the little question of price.

What was an appropriate price?  Truthfully, I had no idea.  So it was time to do some research.  I looked up other ads for the same model and year, talked to an insurance company for an estimated value, and checked a website with estimated values for cars.

I took all these numbers, factored in the condition of the car, and made a judgement call on what seemed “right”.

I posted the ad on Friday morning, hoping that the car would go within a few weeks…

…and then my phone started to ring.

I had a number of people interested in coming to take a look at it, and when I got home from work I had two people show up at my place right away.  Both were interested in the car, and I ended up selling it for exactly what I asked.  No bargaining, no haggling.

Pretty good, right?

In most ways, yeah.  But the response also makes me think I could and probably should have charged more.

I kind of wished I could have gone back in time 24 hours and added another $500 to what I was asking.  I mean, I could definitely use the money and I’m (now) pretty sure I would have got it.

Thing is, I can’t.  There is no rewind button.

Pricing the car was based on a decision that seemed like the right one at the time.  And that was all I could do.

 

 

That’s pretty much how life goes.  We are constantly making decisions, both big and small.  And when we make them, they are the decisions that appeared right to us in that moment.

Why?

Who knows.

Maybe our choice was based on careful deliberation or maybe it was an impulsive action.  Maybe we did something because we thought it was the altruistic thing to do, or maybe we were only thinking about ourselves (basically being a selfish asshole).

In some ways, our “intent” doesn’t matter as much as the result does.  Was that decision actually a good one?  And more importantly, if presented with the same choice in the future would we make the same decision?

Even if we later realize that the decision was a terrible one, we can’t change it.  Life doesn’t come with a rewind button.

Once we’ve made choice, it’s happened – and it’s up to us to own our decisions and live with the consequences – good or bad.

 

In psychology, rumination is a term used to describe being:

compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solution

– Wikipedia

 

Generally speaking, rumination is a BAD thing.  Getting caught up in would’ve, could’ve, should’ve and what if? can trap you in the past.  Sometimes people spend so much time and energy worrying about the things they’ve done and how they should or could have done them differently that they are unable to move forward in life.

The way I see it, time spent in rumination is nothing but wasted time.

No matter how much we may wish life came with a rewind button we can’t change it.  It doesn’t matter if you would do something differently with what you know now, you didn’t.

It’s happened.

A choice we made, and now all you can do is live with the consequences.

 

That’s not to say the past doesn’t matter.

We are still the owners of our own decisions.  So we need to own them, and be accountable for them.

This is well summed up by the late Muhammad Ali:

LearningAndGrowth

Learning is the key here.  Life doesn’t have a rewind button.  We are always moving forward, whether we like it or not.

 

We should always try to learn from our choices.

I’m not the same me that I was at 20.

I’m not the same me that I was at 30.

And I shouldn’t be.

 

Our past is important because it shapes us.  And it provides considerable value if we look at what we’ve done, what was good, what was bad, and try to be better next time.

But it should never trap us.

We make choices, good and bad.  But we only become trapped in our past when we refuse to use it to grow.

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.

Avoidance

AvoidanceHeader

Do you like horror movies? Some people do, others don’t. Some people love romantic comedies, others hate them. Movies, hobbies, foods, styles. It doesn’t matter what it is; we all have our own interests and preferences – things we like and things we don’t.

A natural result of this is putting our energies towards those things we enjoy (and not towards things we don’t).

Sure, there are benefits in expanding our horizons and trying new things. But if we don’t like something or we decide it makes us uncomfortable, it’s alright to avoid these things.

When things are just personal tastes and preferences, it really doesn’t matter if you like them. You can choose to ignore them without doing any harm to yourself or those around you.

But not all of life is like that.

Sometimes there are things we need to deal with, whether we like it or not. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable it makes us feel.

 

Responsibilities

It’s easy to say “I don’t like horror movies so I won’t watch them”. It’s a bit tougher to say “I don’t like paying bills so I won’t pay them”. I mean, you can, but over time there may be some impacts of making that choice.

Bills are just one obvious example of things we can’t ignore.

The fact is, there are a lot of things we have to do. If we live on our own, we need to pay rent or a mortgage. Which means we need some sort of income – which usually comes in the form of a job. Which means we need to show up at work and put in enough consistent effort to hold a job.

We need an income to live. And we need to both manage our income and live within it.  At the very least, jobs and bills are something we need to deal with.

We may not like the restrictions this places on us, and we may feel uncomfortable when we look at our bills and our account balance.

But it’s not something we can ignore.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I CAN ignore things that make me uncomfortable. That won’t make them go away though, and has consequences of it’s own.

In fact ignoring problems tends to backfire over time, as small problems often grow into something much larger when they are not addressed.

avoidance3

Avoidance in Relationships

If life were just about me, it would be easy to do what I want and avoid the things that make me uncomfortable. Yes, this is unhealthy and there are usually negative consequences for doing this. But if I choose to do this, hey, it’s on me.

However most people don’t want to be alone. There is a natural tendency to seek relationships with others, both as friendships and intimate relationships. With friendships you can still get away with avoidance to a degree, as your friends only see you sometimes. In intimate relationships however this will ultimately cause problems.

Intimate relationships can be wonderful and rewarding. But they can also be challenging.

Life doesn’t always go down a happy path, sometimes things don’t go the way we want. Because people are different all relationships occasionally run into conflict, and some of the most common conflict areas are the following:

  • Money/Finances
  • Children (can be whether to have, or child rearing once you have them
  • Chores/Domestic Work
  • Sexual Expectations
  • Family (dealing with extended)
  • Elderly Parents (care of)
  • Life Priorities

None of these are fun, or easy topics to deal with.  And yes, at times it would be easier to just ignore them.  But for a relationship to thrive (or even just survive) the couple needs to find a way to navigate these in some way.

Navigating them involves accepting the each member of the relationship may have different ideas, accepting each persons opinion as valid, and working through the problem to find a common ground.

When something affects the couple and has impacts on them, the issue NEEDS to be addressed and dealt with.

It doesn’t matter if we like dealing with the problem or not, if we feel it’s an issue for us personally or not, or if it makes us uncomfortable.  If it’s a problem in the relationship, it’s a problem.

This isn’t like choosing not to watch scary movies. These things matter.

In life, we can’t just pick and choose the parts we want to deal with and ignore/avoid the rest.

Avoiding problems puts stress on the individuals, on the relationship, and over time it will threaten to destroy the relationship if a different path is not found.

avoidance1

 

When Avoidance Becomes a Problem

No one likes to deal with difficult or uncomfortable issues, and unless you love conflict (which some do) everyone will try to avoid things sometimes.

However when avoidance becomes a pattern of behavior, or a default ways of “dealing” with issues and conflict then it has become a problem.

According to Merriam-Webster avoidance is an act or practice of avoiding or withdrawing from something.

As noted, we all do this sometimes. But why does it become a (very broken) method of coping for some people?

One explanation for this can be found in the Fear Avoidance Model.

This is a psychological model that believes avoidance is driven by pain, and fear of pain. Conflict and dealing with conflict comes to be associated with discomfort, which can be physical or psychological.

Due to this fear, over time people start to avoid situations associated with this pain in the belief that doing so will “protect” them from it. However this same act of avoidance over the long term does more damage than good – as people will increasingly restrict their life to only include things that are “safe”, resulting in disability and depression.

Fear-avoidance_model

Avoidance is strongly linked to anxiety, as anxiety is based on fear. So an anxious person will often avoid situations that make them uncomfortable, even to their own detriment.

In extreme cases, anxiety can cause people to avoid life; and they end up trapped in a cage of their own making.

These extreme cases are often referred to as Avoidant Personality Disorder. Wikipedia describes this as being characterized by the following traits:

  • Hypersensitivity to rejection/criticism
  • Self-imposed social isolation
  • Extreme shyness or anxiety in social situations, though the person feels a strong desire for close relationships
  • Avoids physical contact because it has been associated with an unpleasant or painful stimulus
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Severe low self-esteem or Self-loathing
  • Mistrust of others
  • Emotional distancing related to intimacy
  • Highly self-conscious
  • Lonely self-perception, although others may find the relationship with them meaningful
  • Feeling inferior to others
  • Uses fantasy as a form of escapism to interrupt painful thoughts

Communication and Avoidance

It is often said that communication is the most important thing in a relationships, and there are a number of quotes like this:
communication1

Communication builds closeness and mutual understanding. You build intimacy through letting the other person in and being vulnerable around them. This doesn’t happen without communication. In fact, in its purest for physical intimacy (sex) is really just a form of communication.

But we are all different, with different ideas and beliefs. And these differences provide the potential for conflict – especially in areas that make us uncomfortable.

I’ve written in the past on conflict, and how dealing with it is one of the most important relationship skills you can have. Conflict allows us to improve our mutual understanding of each other, and understanding is important to the long term success of any relationship.

Well what happens when you don’t communicate well, or perhaps not at all?

Avoidance is really the complete opposite of communication. Indeed, it is a refusal to communicate.

If communication is the lifeblood of a relationship, then avoidance is one of the biggest roadblocks to a happy relationship.

Avoidance often goes hand in hand with silence, or the silent treatment. What is often overlooked is that silent treatment is a form of punishment and control. In fact avoidance/withdrawal and the silent treatment are leading form of emotional abuse.

Avoidance2

A Better Way

I believe avoidance is one of THE biggest killers of relationships. But instead of ending relationships, it often leads to couples being “unhappily married” or in “bad relationships”. Because problems happen, and not only are they never addressed, but they are also never discussed and never out in the open.

Tension and body language makes it obvious problems exist, but they are avoided, leading to unhappiness and resentment.

We all have things that make us uncomfortable, and dealing with problems is never easy. But if you are someone who falls back on avoidance as way of “dealing” with issues, then your happiness and potentially your relationship depends on your ability to learn a different way.

As shown in the fear-avoidance model, avoidance is a destructive coping mechanism. By using avoidance to cope, people end up shutting down and withdrawing. As the model shows, the avoidance is due to fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of consequences.

Guess what? Life happens. And yes, things DO have consequences. This doesn’t mean you can’t deal with them and get past them though.

Avoidance goes hand in hand with anxiety, and one of the main components of anxiety is this fear of what “could” happen. Effective anxiety treatment is all about showing that yes, things can happen, and yes actions have consequences. But the consequences are almost always much less than the anxious person believes. Anxiety is about irrational fear (though it seems very rational at the time).

Like anything else in life, the only way to improve something is to do it. Avoiding is the opposite – it involves not doing. So it also involves never improving.

Take a chance, and try to overcome your fears. Try to actually tackle issues head on instead of avoiding them. Start small, and hopefully you will find the fear is greater than the reality.

Over time you can take your life back, and instead of avoiding you can start living.

avoidance5

Living with Anxiety Part 1 – Chased By Bears

RoaringBear

Do you ever question your relationship? Do you wonder if you really love him/her? Wonder if maybe there’s something more – someone out there that you would be happier with? Do you ever ask yourself ever questions like “is this how I am supposed to be feeling? Do other people feel differently about their partners? I should be feeling more, shouldn’t I?”

Romantic love tells us things like love conquers all, and true love will find a way.

It tells us things like:

truelove

So if you are having doubts that probably means there’s *something* wrong with the relationship, right? There must be, or these doubts wouldn’t be there.

Add to this the fact that we are often told to follow our instincts, or trust our gut. If you are having doubts, then at least at some level your brain is giving you a warning.

But what if you can’t trust your brain?

What if you can’t trust your own thoughts?

To most, the prospect of not being able to trust our own brains seems ridiculous. But it’s something that millions of anxiety sufferers around the world live with every single day.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is something that we all experience it at some level. And in small doses, it is probably even healthy. But it can become debilitating, and it can destroy lives and relationships.

So what is it?

One good description I found is:

Anxiety is a normal emotional response to perceived danger, and most of us experience moments of it on a regular basis. However, when anxiety becomes chronic and leads to a decline in a person’s function or quality of life, it is classified as an anxiety syndrome or disorder. Individuals with anxiety syndromes experience a wide range of excessive and uncontrollable feelings of nervousness, panic, and fear. These feelings often develop into a number of diverse behaviors and problems, including obsessive-compulsive rituals, irrational fears and phobias, social isolation and avoidance

Anxiety becomes a disorder when it is chronic, and negatively impacts a persons life. There are different variations of anxiety disorders, but they share many traits.

Some of these traits are physiological, and in fact anxiety is sometimes referred to as a state of fight or flight arousal.

With this state of arousal (no, not THAT type of arousal) the body is in a heightened state of awareness. It’s constantly alert for signs of “danger”, and when it finds them the body prepares itself accordingly.

The heart starts beating faster, the body tenses up, and breathing becomes faster and more shallow.

You are ready to either run, or fight and defend yourself.

This sort of physiological response would likely have been helpful in an older era, when life literally was a fight for survival. In a world that involved foraging for food and being chased by bears, hypersensitivity to the world around you could mean the difference between life and death.

Today though? It’s a bit less useful. It still has moments that it’s helpful, but those are outweighed by the drawbacks.

(if you’re interested in a pretty good overview of the fight or flight response check out this article)

For chronic anxiety sufferers, these physiological impacts can take a considerable toll. Sore muscles, tension headaches, irritability, problems with concentration, and difficulty sleeping (leading to chronic fatigue) are among the problems.

Catastrophizing and Rumination

Although the physiological impacts of anxiety can be difficult, perhaps the most insidious effect is what it does to your thinking.

The anxiety response is designed to protect you from danger, and keeps you in a state of alert. Well, when you are looking for danger (consciously or subconsciously) you can always find it – even when it wasn’t initially there (with anxiety it’s common to read too much into things, and misinterpret things). And over a period of time this perception of danger comes to represent threat itself.

The anxious mind will Catastrophize. Catastrophizing is an irrational thinking pattern where the mind will both imagine and come to expect the worst case scenario in a situation, leading to a constant state of stress and fear. It also commonly results in an anxious person not even trying something, because they “know” they will fail.

Catastrophizing goes hand in hand with another cognitive disorder known as Rumination.

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes bad decisions or screws up sometimes. That’s just life. Most people pick themselves up, hopefully try to understand what went wrong, and try to do better next time.

For an anxiety sufferer, rumination can short circuit this. Rumination is a broken thinking pattern where people get caught up in the past. They have a hard time letting go of things, and get caught up in guilt over things they may have done, or could have done differently.

If I had only…”, or “things would be better if…” are common thoughts for someone trapped in rumination.

Rumination prevents you from moving forward in a healthy way. You are so caught up in what “could” or “should” have been that you fail to act on what ACTUALLY IS.

Rumination combined with Catastrophizing also causes people to misinterpret things. Someone may make a simple innocuous comment, and an anxiety sufferer will look for meanings, and sometimes imagine negative meanings that were never there in the first place.

over-analysing-quote

The World Turns Inward

With a heightened sensitivity to the outside world, anxiety puts the body and mind in a constant state of stress. And stress has a way of turning the world inward.

Think about the fight or flight arousal. What is “fight or flight”? It’s a mode of self-preservation. What do “I” need to do in order to escape this situation?

The focus is on “self”.

The anxious mind sees the world in how it affects them, and their needs (though in true evolutionary fashion, and anxious person can also be fiercely protective of their kids).

Daniel Smith has written on anxiety, and he talked about this inward focus in an article he wrote for CNN:

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

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

I wanted to become: a good husband, a good father, a good brother, a good friend. How could I become these things when, in my towering distress, I could pay heed to no one’s existence or needs but my own?

My buddy Gandalf also experienced this sense of self-absorption in his struggles with anxiety:

I just cannot say enough times how anxiety, stress, and depression short circuit the empathy part of the brain and causes the person to only think about themselves. I know what it’s like to only think about yourself and how destructive this is in a relationship. Yet, it’s completely and totally logical for the person to be selfish at that time and in fact, I couldn’t make myself think of others.

I had to get my anxiety down significantly before I was able to empathize with other people. Now after over half a year of being more or less relaxed, my brain has gone under significant rewiring to be more empathetic towards others. It’s now becoming the natural and default state of my mind.

With a chronic state of stress, a focus on “self” and a breakdown of empathy, anxiety makes relationships (and especially romantic relationships) difficult. But it also damages relationships in additional ways, that aren’t always apparent.

In my next post I will be focusing on these issues.

The Magic Sword

magic sword

Growing up I read a lot of books, mostly in the fantasy genre. I read a lot, and from grades 7-10 I probably averaged a book a week. After a while I found that most fantasy books followed a standard formula:

  • Young boy of unknown parentage is being raised somewhere in the middle of nowhere
  • Young boy meets a mysterious stranger, who convinces him to embark on a quest for a magical talisman (with a party of battle savvy comrades of course)
  • In the process, young boy finds out he is the last survivor of an ancient (probably royal) lineage
  • Young boy masters the magical talisman and uses it to defeat the great evil that is threatening the land

I’ve probably read that story (or some slight variation on it) hundreds of times, and I have to admit that as long as it’s fairly well written it never gets old for me.

One of my favorite fantasy authors is Terry Brooks, and somewhere around grade seven I read his first book (The Sword of Shannarra); which follows the standard fantasy template pretty closely.

Young boy meets mysterious stranger? Check. Young boy embarks on quest for magical talisman? Check. Even back then, the book didn’t really present a lot of surprises. But I could always look forward to whatever twist would exist on the magical talisman. It turned out this one was a sword.

What was the magic of the sword going to be? Was it going to burst into flames? Would it shoot ninja stars? Maybe it would shoot flaming ninja stars!!! My excitement and anticipation mounted as I read the book. So what did this magic sword do? It’s power was…

(wait for it)…

It made people see the truth.

The truth? Really?

Let me tell you, when you are 12 or 13 years old, that’s a pretty freaking disappointing power for a sword to have. Flaming ninja stars would have been SOOOO much cooler.

As a child, the truth seems like a pretty stupid power. Over the years I’ve come to realize that the truth is actually VERY powerful. And it’s not always easy.

We All Lie

Truth is a difficult concept. But even accepting that there are different interpretations of “truth” I believe it is safe to say that as people, we commonly hide behind lies and partial truths.

If you are one of those people who claim you never lie, then I want to make clear that my personal definition of lying includes lies by omission, as well as semantic manipulation.

Some people are EXTREMELY careful in their wording of their responses so that they can say “hey, I didn’t lie! You just didn’t ask the right question”. Guess what, if someone is asking you a question with a specific intent, but you are finding loopholes to dance around that intent based on wording, you are still lying.

Sometimes people tell just enough of the truth to downplay the question at hand. Holding back truth is still lying in my book. It’s probably worse actually, because now in addition to lying you are engaging in manipulation.

So yeah, we all lie. Some do it more frequently than others, and some lie about larger things than others. But we all do it.

Why do we Lie?

If we can accept that people lie, the question becomes why. Why do people lie?

Here’s my take:

People lie to “protect themselves”. The most obvious reason is to avoid consequences. We have done something, and we know there are negative consequences associated with it. So we lie to protect ourselves from the consequences of our actions.

Not all consequences are tangible though. Often the consequences we are trying to avoid lie in the realm of feelings and emotion. Feelings such as fear, ridicule, guilt and disappointment are the strongest drivers behind lying.

People will generally acknowledge that lies and deceit are bad. Lies (when discovered) can destroy the foundations of relationships, altering them forever.

But even more damaging than the lies we tell others are the ones we tell ourselves.

The Responsibility Principle

A while back I wrote a post on accountability. In it I discuss the responsibility principle, which is an idea that our brain naturally goes through a series of steps in the process of becoming accountable.

First we try to deny things. If that doesn’t work, we see if there’s someone we can blame. We then try to rationalize things, saying “yeah, I did this. But it was because of X”.

Next we “accept” responsibility, but only because of a sense of shame or obligation.

The last step is taking true responsibility. Accepting we are accountable for something because we know we are (accountable), and because it is the right thing to do.

Incidentally those caught up in taking responsibility due to shame or obligation also tend to take on responsibility for things they aren’t actually responsible for – which isn’t healthy.

An important thing about these steps is they happen subconsciously. And they aren’t “all or nothing”. No one is responsible all the time, and even the people who blame and rationalize the most have moments where they take ownership.

Avoiding Responsibility

We ALL try to avoid responsibility. Not all the time maybe, and the frequency differs from person to person. And when we do the people around us usually bear the brunt of this.

As a kid, things happen and it’s the fault of our parents, or our siblings. Someone gets us mad and we lash out, so it’s their fault for getting us mad. After all, WE shouldn’t be expected to channel our emotions in a healthier way. And we wouldn’t have lashed out if THEY didn’t do something first.

(Incidentally, this is the excuse abusive partners give in their relationships. “I didn’t want to hit her, really. But she did X and made me mad”. If it’s not an excuse for physical abuse, then it shouldn’t be an excuse for emotional abuse either. As kids we are just learning to understand our emotions, so it’s *somewhat* excusable. As adults? Not so much.)

Maybe we’re having problems in school. Well, clearly it’s because we have a bad teacher. Having a hard time at work? It’s probably because of your boss, or the co-worker that doesn’t like you.

And then there is our partner…

If you are in a committed relationship, your partner is likely the person closest to you and the one you spend the most time around. So they are likely to bear the brunt of the blame. You aren’t happy? Well, they aren’t doing enough, or they don’t support you enough. Or maybe it’s just that it’s a bad relationship. Obviously you would be happier with another person.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes your siblings do get you mad. Sometimes parents don’t understand, and all too often communication in relationship could use improvement. But if you find that you are often the victim of bad luck and/or bad situations, the commonality is probably you.

I see a blaming, justifying and rationalizing as a form of lying. But it is lying where we aren’t lying to others, and instead we are lying to ourselves about our own role in our choices and decision.
A good example of this was my buddy Gandalf.

He was chronically unhappy, but he always had reasons for it. Maybe it was this, or maybe that. There was always *something* to explain why he was unhappy. But it was never his fault. As he changed things and remained unhappy, he eventually ran out of things to blame. The truth was, it was never the external items. His issue was within himself, and HE needed to make changes to his outlook on life in order to change.

We all do this in some capacity. We tell ourselves lies in order to feel better about ourselves. And eventually we convince ourselves that those lies ARE the truth, and they become our reality.

Scared to Try

It’s not only our actions and the decisions we make that we lie to ourselves about. We also lie to ourselves about the decisions we don’t make.

Fear, ridicule, guilt and disappointment. These are some of the main feelings that we lie to avoid.
Let’s say there’s something we want, but we are scared. Maybe we’re scared to try, and maybe we are scared of failing. So we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough, or smart enough, or pretty/handsome enough. We tell ourselves these things, and they become excuses for why we won’t even try.

Well if you tell yourself “I can’t” for long enough, eventually you start to believe it.

self-acceptance

I Can’t

One of the worst things you can do is say “this is just who I am, or this just the way I am”.

It can be hard to believe in yourself at times, but not believing in yourself is one of the most damaging things you can possibly do.

If you find yourself focusing on what you “can’t” do, stop. And take a breath.

We all have limitations.

There are always things we can’t do.

But focusing on what we can’t do or what we don’t have makes us victims. It leaves us out of control of our own lives. Instead find out what you CAN do. Finding what you can do, and working towards solutions is much more important.

Making Choices

I recently read an awesome post (at a great blog) about dealing with an “unhappy marriage”.

In it the author says you have three choices. You work to fix it, you accept it as it is, or you leave. Those are your choices. That’s it.

People often look at those choices and they don’t like any of them. They think – Fixing it requires communication and effort, but I don’t want to accept it, and I’m scared to leave. So they go for a fourth option. They “stay”, putting in no effort, and instead have an affair to have their happiness on the side. They blame their partner for their unhappiness, and justify the affair to themselves by saying “hey, I wasn’t happy. Everyone deserves happiness”.

They are looking for shortcuts, and instant gratification. They are looking for a solution without effort, and life without consequences.

In all aspects of life I think those same three choices apply. Fix it, accept it, or leave it. But to face that, you have to face the truth. And the truth is life requires effort, and things don’t just get better on their own.

Life isn’t always fair. Sometimes really good people get dealt really bad situations. And I am not going to pretend that people can “make things better” if they just believe, or if they try hard enough. There are a lot of things that are out of your control. But there is also a lot that you can control.

Your choices.

Your decisions.

Other people may influence you, but you own them.

Sometimes decisions have big consequences, so it’s so much easier to deny, blame, and rationalize. But the “cost” of doing this is very high. It cost us our happiness and our belief in our self.

In The Sword of Shannarra, the main character was able to vanquish evil with truth. But very few people could handle the truth, and often it comes with great cost.

A journey into the mirror is not always easy. But sometimes we have to face truths that are unpleasant in order to grow and improve.