Can You Change Your Partner?

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In my last post I looked at whether or not you should have to change.

My take is no, no one should ever *have* to change. Your partner should be able to accept you for who you are, flaws and all.

And we do have flaws. All of us.

So if we can accept that we are all flawed, then it’s important to accept that a relationships involves two flawed people.

The notion of “the one” is a myth – there is no magical person who will make everything perfect. Yeah, some people are better fits than others. But there are many facets to people and relationships. So believing that you just need to find the right person is actually pretty unhealthy, because it implies that relationships don’t have to require effort.

We are different. We have good sides and bad sides, and sometimes this causes conflict. It’s easy to get along when things are going well, but how you deal with adversity says a lot more about your chances for future success. In fact, many seemingly “great” relationships are ruined by a lack of willingness on the part of one or both member to do the dirty work.

When we talk about “change” in a relationship, it’s not actually intended to be change in the other person. Instead it’s about change in the dynamic. In the way a couple communicates, interacts, and deals with their areas of conflict.

So while we should never have to “change”, we should all be willing to try and improve ourselves and work on our relationships. Communication is a skill. Relationships are a skill. And they can both be improved with consistent effort over time.

When we don’t? That’s when we run into problems.

The Need For Change

Relationships often fall into unhealthy patterns where they need to make some sort of changes (or at the very least it would be beneficial for the couple if they could).

If you are feeling as though you need some sort of change, you need to first ask yourself what changes you are looking for, and why you need them.

Commonly the problems a couple faces revolve around needs that are not being met. Common conflict points are sex (different drives), money (different spending habits or priorities around money), kids and time spent together.

Whatever the issue(s), it’s important to remember that relationships are a team sport. Both people matter. Both peoples needs are important.

Usually a need for change is an attempt to have your partner change to accommodate you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if so, what are you doing to accommodate them?

It’s not unreasonable to want changes. But you need to be able to find a middle ground somewhere that works for both partners. It may not be ideal for either partner, but that’s better than things only working for one person.

Need vs. Want

For any conflict area, it’s important for the couple to accept that this is an issue that impacts the couple (not just one person). If it’s a problem for one person but not the other, guess what?

It’s still a problem.

When one person refuses to deal with an issue because “it’s not an issue to them”, that is disrespectful to the needs of the other person. An issue for one person IS an issue for the couple, and left unresolved can poison the relationship.

In trying to deal with issues your options are as follows:

  • Accept things as they are, recognizing that while it may not be perfect it’s good enough. If you can do this, then the issue in question is a “want” and not truly a need.
  • Alternatively you can work on any issues and try to improve them. Generally this requires communication, and an acceptance that things may be more or less important to the different people in the relationship. It may always be an issue, but it needs to be reduced to a level that is acceptable for both people.

Those are your options. That’s it.

Well, those are the only good ones. If you can’t accept the current situation and you are unable to work on it in a way that works for both people, then you are in trouble.

It either continues to be an issue and the couple will grow increasingly resentful about it, or it will cause the relationship to fail.

When there are needs that aren’t being met, you accept it, work on it or walk away. There’s not much else you can do.

Can You Change Someone?

Which brings us back to the title of the post. Can you change your partner?

Some people hold out hope that “things will change”. That they will be able to change the person they are with.

Well, guess what. People generally don’t change, and even when they do you can’t change someone. Change is hard, and people only change when THEY want to and they are ready to. They need to see a reason to change, and understand how it will benefit them.

All you can do is try and show the other person how important something is to you, and what it would mean to you. Perhaps that will influence them to try and make changes, but you can’t ever MAKE anyone change.

Any change needs to come from within them.

Setting Boundaries

Where does this leave you if you are someone who needs to see change in the relationship, but your partner isn’t buying in?

In this case the only thing you can do is set boundaries about what is okay and what isn’t.

Attachment Theory says boundaries are one of the keys to healthy attachment. I would like to think that as adults we shouldn’t need to set boundaries, but the reality is that sometimes we have to.

Boundaries are not intended as threats, or ultimatums. They are about respect, and compassion. They are about clearly stating what we want and need in our relationships.

Enabling

Although boundaries are not intended as ultimatums, you need to set them appropriately and be prepared to stand by them.

If you clearly communicate to your partner what you need and it is constantly ignored, what do you do? If you do nothing, then you are enabling the bad behavior and at the same time devaluing yourself.

People are adults, and they make their own decisions. All decisions have consequences, and people need to live with the consequences of their decisions.

As much as we may want to shield them, sometimes we have to let them go.

It can be very difficult, especially if there are children involved or you believe in the “for better or worse” side of marriage.

But think of marriage as a contract that involved conditions. Are they keeping up their end of the deal? Or are they getting the “for better” while you deal with the “for worse”?

Both people matter. Your needs matter. The relationship has to work for both people..

I’m not saying walk away at the first sign of problems. Give things time, and as long as there is steady forward progress and it is something you can accept try to hold on.

But sometimes loving yourself means you need to let go.

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Letting Go

A buddy of mine shared how he felt letting go of a long term relationship that he still wanted very badly, but it seemed to him like he was the only one.

Nothing is more difficult than watching your relationship die.

Watching someones love for you change and deteriorate while yours still burns strong.

You desperately want to understand it and make sense out of what has become of your life, but you can’t.

So you hold on, trying to repair things, and trying to rebuild what you once had and you know you could have again.

You believe with all your heart that life could be not just good, but great, if they would put in even half the effort that you are.

But they don’t.

You care so much about the other person, but it feels like they won’t even try.

Still, you stay. Even as you feel the relationship shift. As you feel them pull away and shut you out.

And it hurts all the more, because although they are physically present they are a million miles away.

And you realize they’ve left the relationship, but they don’t even have enough respect for you to end it.

So it’s left to you.

Nothing is harder than making the choice to walk away from someone you still love, even after all they’ve put you through.

Unless someone has been there, they cannot understand the pain that comes with making that choice.

Sometimes you desperately want things to work out, but your partner doesn’t show a willingness to work with you to make things better. It doesn’t matter how much you love someone.

Know your value. If you know you have done your best and things still haven’t worked out, never forget that it’s not a reflection on you.

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Killing with Kindness

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Best intentions.

Ideally when we act, we are acting with best intentions. But sometimes our best intentions don’t work out the way we had hoped. Sometimes the question of “best for who” can be raised, as there can be conflicting interests. And sometimes our understanding of what is best is skewed.

I see two different ways that we can inadvertently do harm with best intentions. First is trying to do (or help) too much, and the second is by trying to avoid conflict and never saying “no”.

Becoming a Parent

I first started to understand the complexity behind intentions and motivations when I became a parent. As a parent, we have a few different roles.

One of those roles is to provide for our children. We provide them with a safe environment. A home full of love and caring. It’s easy to get caught up in being a provider and try to provide every “thing” and every opportunity for our children.

It’s easy to understand why we do it though. Maybe we want to give our children an opportunity we always wanted but never had; and so it becomes important to us to ensure our children have those opportunities.

Because we love our children we try to give them everything and do everything for them. But in the process, we are doing considerable harm.

Attachment Theory

A while back I wrote about attachment theory. One of the main ideas behind attachment theory is that healthy attachment is all about establishing boundaries.

As young children everything is about us, and our needs. When we don’t believe our needs are being met we respond with stress, anxiety and fear. As babies this may be crying, as toddlers it becomes tantrums.

With healthy attachment children learn that needs not being met doesn’t indicate a lack of care or love. Further, they learn that not all needs will be met, and that’s alright.

In unhealthy attachment however, not having their needs met continues to result in stress, anxiety and fear.

Any parent knows that kids can be masters at manipulation. As parents we try setting boundaries, and our children continually push them. They push while exploring and trying to understand the world around them. As parents we need to get them to understand and accept “no”. But have them understand that “no” doesn’t mean we love them any less.

When we fail to establish boundaries, we are actually crippling our children. We are teaching them that they can do whatever they want, and that rules either don’t matter or only apply sometimes. By doing this, we are giving them a sense of entitlement.

Provider and Teacher

In addition to being a provider for our children we are also teachers; and this is the harder role. It’s relatively easy to provide food and put a roof over our children’s heads. It’s MUCH harder to teach.

Think about how you learn. You learn by failing. By making mistakes, seeing where things went wrong, and trying something different next time.

As a parent, the hardest thing to do is watch your child fail. So sometimes we try to make decisions for them. We try to prevent them from making the same mistakes we may have made.

But our children need to learn on their own.

This is where boundaries come in. We need to set boundaries, but let our children explore and learn within those boundaries. We need to be able to watch them fail. We need to know when to let them pick themselves up and when to help them. And that’s a VERY hard balance, and a difficult thing to do.
It hurts to watch your child fail, so sometimes we try and help them to prevent them from failing. We are doing it because we care, but we do too much.

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This conflicts with our role as a teacher. As a teacher, our real role is to prepare our children for life on their own. To mold them into independent beings, who can make the right choices when they need to. But when we do too much, instead of “helping” our children we are creating dependence.

Adulthood

Societally we have this notion of adulthood. People reach some magical age (18 or 21) where they are now “legally adults”, and they are now deemed responsible. This doesn’t mean we actually ARE responsible (look at college life for ample proof of that), it simply means we are now responsible for our own decisions.

We start relationships, maybe even start a family of our own. And hey, we’re adults, so we’ve got everything figured out now. But in many ways not much has changed since we were children. In many cases we are still that child pushing boundaries in order to understand the world around us and our place in it.

Dealing with Conflict

I’ve touched on this in the past, but one of the biggest failings we have in our development is most people grow up with the notion that conflict is bad (I know I did). A logical conclusion that can be made is, if the presence of conflict is bad, then avoiding conflict means things are good – right?

Yeah, not so much.

Because we want to avoid conflict, we fail to establish boundaries in our relationships. Your partner is doing something that hurts you, and often we don’t want to say anything. It’s “not a big deal”, so we let it go in order to avoid conflict. And in the process we set ourselves up for larger, more serious conflicts in the future.

I’ve got a buddy who is really into sports. He has a wife and a young family, but most of the year he’s out 3-4 nights a week with his buddies playing various sports and then going for drinks after. According to him she’s fine with that. I’ve often wondered, is she really fine with that? Or does she just not want to say no?

If I were her I think I’d be more than just a wee bit resentful.

Establishing Boundaries

Establishing boundaries in relationships is difficult. I think part of the reason we don’t want to do it is because we don’t feel we should have to. Our partners should “know” when they are pushing boundaries too far. They should “know” when they are hurting us. But honestly, unless we say something they probably don’t.

It makes me think of contract negotiations in sports. Often you hear about players who are horribly overpaid. When you think about it though, who’s fault is that? I would argue it’s the fault of the person paying them (team owners). Players may often overvalue their worth, but the owner has to be the one to agree to it. They can always say no, or offer less. If a player is offered more than they are worth, of course they will accept it.

Relationships are the same. Just as the authors of books need editors, sometimes we need our partners to reel us in and keep us in line. Sometimes our partners need to tell us “no”, or say “you can choose to do that, but be aware that I’m not fine with it”.

For my buddy who’s out almost every night, maybe his wife IS fine with it. I’m sure she’s fine with him going out once a week, maybe even twice. Supporting your partner in their interests is important. But I would guess she would also like some help at home, and some additional time spent with her husband.

He probably started with one or two nights, and then added more. And if she never said anything, he probably thought the silence was consent. He pushed boundaries, and she never established where they were.

My guess? This turns into a significant issue for them sometime in the future. And he’ll be stunned, because he always thought she was fine with it.

My buddies scenario is just an example, but I think we all run into cases like this. We want to be “the good partner”. We want to be supportive. We also want to avoid conflict. So we put ourselves in situations where we give and give. We want our partners to establish boundaries on their own, and usually they do. But we are all different, so where they establish the boundary may be different from where we believe it should be.

When this happens, instead of being resentful with our partners we need to take a look at ourselves. We need to learn to say “no”. To say “hey, I matter here too”. I like to think the best of people, and I believe that in most relationships both partners truly do love each other. So done right, I think most partners will understand and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Being an adult doesn’t mean we have things figured out. Relationships are complex, and we should always be growing and learning. Just as a parent plays a dual role of provider and teacher, in a way we do the same in our relationships.

A common complaint I see is that relationships become one sided. One person feels they are giving and giving while the other person just takes. That’s not a relationship.

For the person who feels they are “giving”, ask yourself what are you asking for in return? Are you allowing yourself to be taken advantage of? Kindness and caring doesn’t mean always doing something for the other person and not asking for anything for yourself in return.

It’s not about being petty and withholding stuff until you get what you want (that’s about power and control, and is bad news). It’s simply knowing your value and saying “I’m worth your time. I’m worth your attention. My needs matter in this relationship too.”

Your partner matters, and you matter. For the relationship to be successful and happy you need to find a balance where both people feel valued and appreciated. And establishing boundaries is essential to that, and to happy relationships.

Are you a Dreamer or a Realist?

Night Dreamer Girl
In my last post I talked about “the triple constraint” (the idea that everything we do is bound my limitations on the amount of time, money and energy we have). When you truly understand this, I believe you can have and do virtually anything. You just can’t have everything.

That got me thinking of dreams.

We all have dreams. We all have goals, and things we want out of life. So what’s the difference between someone who has dreams, and a dreamer?

I frequently hear about dreamers and realists, as if these are two contradictory concepts or opposite sides of the coin. But I don’t believe that’s right. I think you can be both. Actually I think being both is a very positive thing.

Sometimes when I hear people talk about being a dreamer, it seems people are actually using the label of “dreamer” to rationalize a lack of responsibility for their behavior. Likewise the term realist often seems used to rationalize being negative.

That’s not what they are about.

To me a dreamer is someone who is sets goals and then is willing to strive for them, no matter how realistic or unrealistic they may seem to others. Often people are ruled by fear. They are scared to try things, and scared to fail. As a result they sell themselves short, telling themselves they can’t do something. A dreamer is someone who isn’t afraid to take a chance on that dream.

But being a dreamer doesn’t mean you will do something blindly. It doesn’t mean moving forward without a plan, and it doesn’t mean you don’t understand or care about the consequences of your actions.

Being a realist doesn’t mean you see the flaws in everything. It doesn’t mean you look for reasons not to do something, or reasons why you can’t do something. That’s just negativity. Negative people talk about why things can’t be done. Realists may see those things, but they don’t use them as excuses for not doing something. They are simply things to be aware of when doing something. Instead of saying they can’t do something, a realist says “these are potential problems, and this is what we can do about them”.

So being a dreamer is not contradictory with being a realist. They are complementary.

You can do anything you want with your life. Think big, set goals for yourself, and believe in yourself. Don’t let others doubts bring you down. But ground your dreams in reality. Understand that you have limits on time, money, and energy. Understand the implications of your actions and how they affect others. Acting blindly without considering others is irresponsible. But having a plan doesn’t mean you aren’t following your dreams.

Be a dreamer, but temper it with reality.

Making Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting in Effort

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

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

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

Learning to Cope

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Need For Change

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

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

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

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

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

Baby Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Love yourself

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

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

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

Over the last few posts I have talked about where my buddy’s lack of self love came from, and then how it affected him in day to day life. He was in a bad place emotionally and mentally, and had a number of negative and self-defeating mindsets.
Hopefully other people in a similar boat can learn from his situation and learn to love themselves either again or for the first time.

Facing the Mirror

One of the hardest parts of learning to love yourself is taking ownership of your issues. It’s very easy to blame other people or situations, and it’s easy to rationalize behavior. And when someone doesn’t love themselves, self-defeating mindsets are frequently the norm. It can be very difficult to turn things around, so I asked my buddy what his secret was.

That is an easy answer in theory, but DAMN difficult to put into practice. Simply put, I had to realize:

  1. there was a problem, and more importantly
  2. *I* was the problem.

Once you realize *you* are the problem, you now have nobody to blame but yourself. All the excuses, all the lies, all the daydreams and fantasies you comfort yourself with, the avoidance and coping mechanisms, all of it no longer works. And that is when you start on the path to recovery.

Hmmm, so no real shortcuts then?

No.

I want to clarify one item, and that is why I didn’t realize *I* was the problem. For me, I have always felt the hyper-active arousal and the anxiety that comes with it, so I thought that this is how I should normally feel and this is how other people feel too. After all, I’ve never felt anything else other than this, so I didn’t have a different state to compare it to. I didn’t know how I should really feel and I didn’t know what normal was, except that this was normal for me. So the connection between my behaviors and my anxiety never occurred to me until I was forced to confront these destructive behaviors and solve the root cause instead of using my coping mechanisms.

Sounds a lot like my buddy with sleep apnea, who is always exhausted but insists he is fine and that he isn’t tired (even while he’s nodding off when he’s supposed to be navigating). His point of reference is so messed up that he doesn’t know what it’s like to not be tired.

Yeah, it’s exactly like that. Being anxious had become my norm, so I didn’t realize how much damage I was doing to myself and the people around me that I cared about.

So your “secret” to getting better was to have all of your coping mechanisms fail? You’re saying you had to hit rock bottom before you would accept that you were your own problem, and it’s not until then that you stopped blaming your issues on others? You know, as secrets go, that kind of sucks.

Originally, I thought that I had lost everything when I got to this point, but that is not correct. That was the effect of what happened, not the cause. Being forced to abandon your comfort zone and forced to deal with reality on your own with no possibility of retreat caused me to confront the problem head on. I could no longer deny the problem; pretend it did not exist, or lie to myself thinking that it was somebody else’s fault. In essence, the coping mechanisms failed and I had to deal with the root cause.

Until this point, I had thought that it was everybody else’s problem rather than mine. This was a very logical conclusion because:

  1. hyper-arousal was normal for me
  2. I was scared of anything new
  3. I was self-centered (Narcissistic)
  4. I had a negative viewpoint of life

To me, I expected others to conform to my wishes and desires without having to conform to theirs. Yes, this is where entitlement came for me. I don’t know exactly where it came in, but eventually, I just had this mindset that others should conform to me instead of the other way around.

Because I was so scared of the real world, I ended up in my own fantasy world which I built up to be a comfort zone from reality. I won’t go into the details, as that’s irrelevant to the topic, but the point that I want to make is that this retreat into a fantasy world is normal for anxiety sufferers. The inability to deal with reality causes this retreat. For me, my retreat was into videogames.

I don’t advocate the use of coping mechanisms as I think they hurt more than help. This includes not only games and fantasies, but smoking and alcohol as well. Both have been shown to reduce anxiety temporarily, but the underlying root issues are still there, and the person hasn’t learned how to deal and confront them. It just prolongs the suffering, as games did for me.

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Changing Mindsets

Once you accept that change is needed, and that it is in fact “you” that needs to change, the question becomes WHAT? What is it that needs to change?

Alright, remember how I said that there’s no secret to getting better? Well that’s not entirely true. Here’s the real secret:

Loving yourself is not about your weight, clothes, fitness level, job, relationship, or anything like that.

Sure, making improvements in all of those areas may help, but at their core those are all external items.

It’s like the saying about putting lipstick on a pig – changing those things may make someone feel better temporarily, but it doesn’t change the underlying issue. The temporary high will fade, and you won’t be any happier.

Real change needs to begin within.

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A lack of self-love if normally accompanied by a number of negative mindsets, and it is those that need to change. Some of the most common are avoidance, all or nothing thinking and rumination (dwelling on the past):

For my buddy Gandalf, learning to love himself was all about changing mindsets.

Once I started seeing a psychologist we worked on three items simultaneously – self-esteem, anxiety, and negativity. Working on all three simultaneously really helped as each one is interlinked and I couldn’t just work on one and not the others.

When I worked on my self-esteem, I had to look at myself with my view, and then from other people’s view. After several sessions, it started to dawn on me that my negativity led to a distorted view of who I was. It also lead to the discovery of “The Critic”, or the little voice in my head that was always telling me that I was no good, or bad, or awful in everything that I tried to do. Once you discover that, you can now start to silence that voice and eventually, eliminate it.

I worked on negativity by writing down the first thought that came into my head about a situation and then examining why I thought like that. These are the automatic thoughts an anxiety suffer has. For example, when I sent an email, I’d expect to receive a reply within 15 minutes, and if I didn’t, I’d get anxious. I found out I had an automatic thought that if I didn’t get an email within 15 minutes, then the other person didn’t like me. What I didn’t realize at first is that this is only the first automatic thought in a series of thoughts that cascade down. I would then think that if that other person didn’t like me, then nobody likes me and that I will never be liked by anybody. This is the “All or nothing” cognitive distortion that anxiety suffers have.

There are others as well, and getting to the heart of them is like peeling the layer off of an onion. To deal with these cognitive distortions, I had to analyze each one and logically determine why it was not true. Once I did this, the automatic thoughts became less frequent and eventually stopped altogether. This also helped with silencing “The Critic” and with my anxiety.

Anxiety was the easiest and most difficult, to deal with. The cure is simple, I just had to face my fears. The problem was *everything* was scary. My psychologist had me expose myself to something I found scary, but not *that* scary. We made a list and evaluated items from 1 to 10 as to how scary it was to me and we started off at the low end of the scale (1 and 2) and then work my way up to the 9s and 10s. Every week I had to go and do at least one of them. The next week, we would talk about why I was scared and if my fears matched reality. It was this talking that helped reduce and eliminate the anxiety, because it lead to the method of logically analyzing and assessing how scared I should be in situations, and the same process used for negativity was used here too as the same automatic thoughts came up again.

There are situations I should still be scared of (like a bear chasing me), but most situations I shouldn’t be (like thinking about being chased by a bear in an upcoming camping trip). The realization that anxiety is all about future items that usually won’t come to pass significant diminished the power anxiety had over me.

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

I learned strategies to combat my anxiety instead of just coping with it. I needed to get to the root of my anxiety and fight it instead of cope with it by avoiding or controlling it.

Everything else fell into place after learning these simple strategies, like dominoes. The rest became easy, but still took effort. Things like exercising, eating healthy, sleeping for 7 to 8 hours a night, being more assertive, outgoing, and empathic to others was easier to accomplish once the foundation was built.

One last item is that mindfulness really helped quite the thoughts in my head, and it was the last piece of the puzzle. With that, I can now quiet the thoughts in my mind and relax almost on demand, which I thought was impossible just a short time ago.

So there you have it. The “secret” to love yourself you have to start to learn which behaviors and thinking patterns are toxic to you, so that you can recognize them and start to fight back against them. But secret doesn’t mean shortcut, and none of these things are easy. But they ARE worth it. No matter who you are, YOU are worth it.

self love

Life Without Self-Love – Part 2

inner-peace

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

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

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

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

Selfish Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationship Impacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reduction of Intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Step Dance

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

He describes this as follows:

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

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

Healthy Love

My buddy Gandalf had it right when he said:

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

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

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

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

Life Without Self-Love – Part 1

self-acceptance (1)

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

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

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

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

Body Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Negative Outlook

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

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

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

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

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

Losing Perspective

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

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

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

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

Avoidance and Blaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physiological Impacts and Insomnia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopelessness

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

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

Compulsion and Numbing Behaviors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Choices

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

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

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

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

The Breakdown of Self-Love

Balance_Rocks-500x3461

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here was his response:

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

Stage 1 – Hyper-active arousal

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

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

Stage 2 – Poor attachment

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

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

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

Stage 3 – Anxiety

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

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

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

Stage 4 – Avoidance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 6 – Behaviours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stage 7 – Acceptance

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


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

Do You Love Yourself?

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Do you love yourself?

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

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

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

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

Loving Yourself

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

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

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

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

A Point of Reference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs You Don’t Love Yourself

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

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

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

Signs You Do Love Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

Filling a Hole

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

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

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

This can result in all sorts of messed up behavior.

The Explanatory Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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