Owning our Part

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I’ve got a buddy who drives me a bit crazy.  He’s a great guy, he really is; and I love him to death.

Thing is, he also happens to be a bit of a slob.

Not a slob in terms of his appearance or anything.  But, well…

…he’s kind of lazy.

And where you see it the most is he almost never cleans up after himself.  I mean, the dude will eat his food and just walk away, leaving his plate behind.

Not taking it the 10 steps to the sink.  Not putting it in the dishwasher.

He just leaves it.

 

I don’t have to live with the guy, so I guess it really shouldn’t bother me.  But it still kinda does.

I like things to be fairly tidy; and seeing plates sitting around with leftover bits of food?  Well, that’s pretty gross.

It makes me think, what the hell man – how hard is it to put your stuff away?  Why do you leave your stuff out?  Why do you think it’s alright?

 

Let me ask you a question – do you like paying bills?  It doesn’t matter which type of bill.  It could be mortgage, utilities, credit card, or any bill really.

Unless you’re weird, the answer is probably no, you don’t like paying them (and if you DO, I have a bunch that you can pay if you want).  Nah, we pay our bills because we have to.  Paying the mortgage is preferable to having the house repossessed.  Paying the utilities is better than having them cut off.  If we want the thing the bill is for, we have to pay it.

But what if you didn’t?

What if you got that bill in the mail and you never had to pay it.  What if it just paid itself?

Would you cry?  Would you complain?  Would you cry out in indignation saying “hey, I WANTED to pay that electrical bill!”

No, probably not.

Rather, you would probably think it was pretty awesome.

Maybe the first time the bill “paid itself” you would wonder how/why it was paid.  If it was a mistake you may contact the electrical company and let them know, or you may just hope they wouldn’t notice.  And if someone paid it for you, you would probably be thankful.

Thing is, over time if they just continued to pay it and you never had to you would probably start to expect it.  And eventually you would take it for granted.

 

So, back to my buddy…

He doesn’t clean up after himself, and in all the years I’ve known him he’s never had to.  He doesn’t seem to even think about it, because he gets away with it.

It’s frustrating to me, but I think it’s also human nature.

No one wants to feel like a parent to their partner.  We don’t want to feel like we are nagging them.  We want our partners to do things because they are showing consideration to us and because they recognize it’s the right thing to do, not because they have to.  But at the same time, it’s human nature to do the least amount possible.

So looking at my buddy, yes he needs to own his behaviors.  Yes it’s his “fault”.

But it’s also the fault of the person who enables him to do it.

Bear with me a moment here…

 

When “bad things” happen to us or we are hurt by the people we care about, we often struggle to understand things like how could they do that to me?  How could they hurt me?  Don’t they care?

The focus is on what has happened to us.  And when we are hurt, it’s easy and even sensible to blame the person who hurt us.

The harder question is what did you do to contribute to the situation?

This isn’t a popular question, especially when people are hurting.  And in asking it in the past, I’ve even been accused of victim blaming.  I don’t see it that way though.

Trying to understand how you have contributed to something is not the same as taking blame for it.  People are responsible for their own choices and behaviors.

I am never *responsible* for someone else’s choices.  That’s on them.

So when someone has done something, whatever it is, it was their choice.

However that doesn’t mean I haven’t contributed to the situation in some way.

 

Let’s say your relationship is breaking down – does it really matter who’s fault it is?

I don’t think so.

It may be 50/50.  Or it could be 90% your partners fault and 10% yours.

Ultimately you have no control over what the other person has done.  The only thing you have control over is you.  Your actions, your response.

The only thing you can actually change is your part in things.

So be willing to recognize and own your own part.  Owning your part is very different from taking the blame for someone elses part.  That’s on them, and only they can own it.

Some people won’t own their own part.  Instead, they will blame others for their own actions and their own choices.  Saying things like “you made me do this”, or “I did this because you did that”.

 

When we blame others for the bad things in our life (and ignore our own part in things), what are we doing?

We are making ourselves victims.

And we are giving that other person control over us.

That doesn’t help us at all – blaming others keeps us trapped, or at least makes us feel trapped; when in reality we always have choices.

Even if our only choice sometimes is to walk away.

 

When do we learn?  When do we grow?

We grow when we struggle.  We grow when we fail.

We don’t grow when things are easy, and when our life is going down the happy path.

As I said, owning our part in things does NOT mean we are taking ownership of someone else’s choices.  It does not mean we are taking the blame for the things they have done.

It means we are accepting that our choices are our own, taking ownership of those choices, and realizing we have the power to make different choices in the future.

It means seeing how we may have contributed to the situations we are in, and looking for ways that we can change that moving forward.

 

Facing our own role in things is difficult.  It forces us to take a long hard look at ourselves, and sometimes what we see will make us uncomfortable.

This isn’t a bad thing though.  Rather, being uncomfortable with something about ourselves is often a sign that we’re on the right track.

And it’s a sign that we are ready to grow.

Be aware of your own bullshit

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Doing the “Right Thing”

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A little while back someone at my work was fired for theft.  I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time everywhere in the world, but I was still a bit shocked by it.  I work for a pretty good company (benefits, wages, environment), so I didn’t understand why someone would put their job at risk; especially when this guy lost his job over theft of an item worth around $25.  I mean, really?

I was talking this over with one of my co-workers, telling her I didn’t understand why someone would do it, especially when this will now be attached to his employment record and can impact his future.  My co-workers response was that this guy simply figured he wouldn’t get caught.

 

The Fable of Gyges Ring

This situation made me think of The Fable of Gyges Ring, from Plato’s Republic.  Just to be clear, I don’t normally go around reading things like Plato.  I HAD to read it for school years ago (but have to admit it was actually pretty good).  The Republic presents Plato’s ideas on justice and morality, and the part I remember the most is the fable of Gyges Ring.

In this story a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible and somehow this invisibility means the shepherd can take actions without consequences.  Ummm, invisibility means no consequences?  That seems like a bit of a stretch (and perhaps inspiration for Tolkien).  But hey, the story was written over 2000 years ago so I guess we’ll have to cut it some slack.

Anyhow, with his newfound power the shepherd seduces the queen, kills the king and takes over the kingdom (because of course, that’s what we would all do if there were no consequences, right?)

Now here’s the interesting part.  In discussing this tale, Plato theorized that if two of these rings existed, and one was found by a “just” man and the other by an unjust man, the ability to do what he wanted without consequence would cause the just man to become corrupted.

His suggestion was, it’s really only consequences that keep us in line and at our core we are all unjust.

 

What is Justice?

Are we inherently unjust?  And what exactly does that even mean?

Merriam Webster defines justice as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals”.

I’ll acknowledge that sometimes there is a disconnect between law and justice, but for the moment let’s accept that law is an attempt at placing rules around what is “right” or “moral”, and setting consequences for the violation of those rules.

Based on that, is Plato right?  Is it really only the threat of consequences that keeps us in line and makes us act in a moral way?

Without consequences will people really just do whatever they want?

 

Learning Right From Wrong

In some ways I think Plato was right.  After all, I do think we are born selfish.  If you think about it, as infants all we understand is our own needs and other people are basically vehicles for this need fulfillment.

As a parent, my experience has been that right and wrong needs to be taught.

Children initially don’t understand why they can’t just do what they want, or take something they want.  They need to learn about boundaries, and ownership.  They need to learn the concept of exchange.  Hell, even empathy seems to be something that is largely learned.

I may wish my children would just “understand” right and wrong, but they don’t.  And while learning this, consequences are a practical way of helping them understand why they need to do the right thing.

Eventually I think people have to get to a point where we are no longer doing something to avoid consequences.  Instead, they need to do something because they have come to believe it’s the right thing to do.

There’s a distinction between these two things (avoiding consequences vs. doing what we believe is right); and although it may seem subtle I believe it’s extremely important.

When we are doing something because we believe it’s the right thing to do, we have internalized that value.  It has become part of our belief set.

At that point, the consequences from other people for violating that value aren’t important anymore.  Because overriding any fear of what other people will think is the betrayal of our own core valuesThe disappointment in ourselves far outweighs any concern about being caught.

After all, we can hide things from others – but not from ourselves.

 

Integrity

Which brings me to one of my favorite topics – integrity.

Integrity is all about how we live our lives.  It’s about whether we actually live the values that we profess.

It’s really easy to SAY things.  But to walk the talk, and to do it consistently?  That’s a lot harder.

integrity

Now, I’m not trying to push my sense of morality on anyone here.

I readily acknowledge no one is perfect.  We all have a darker side to us.  We all have moments that we do things we later regret.  We are all sometimes petty, selfish, stupid, ignorant – whatever.

Having integrity doesn’t mean you never do those things.  Instead, it’s about how frequently do we stick to our values, and how badly do we stray from them when we don’t.

And because we know we ARE going to screw up sometimes, an important element of integrity is accountability.  When we screw up (and yes, it’s a WHEN and not an IF) how do we handle it?  Do we try to hide it?  Do we blame?  Justify?  Or do we own it, accept any consequences from our actions and then try to use the moment as an opportunity for growth?

 

Shared Values

In relationships, it’s important to find someone with whom you share similar values.  And I think a mistake people often make is they don’t actually get to know who their partner really is.  Instead, they just assume their partner shares a lot of the same beliefs.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t black and white and right and wrong can at times be subjective.  So when it comes to core values, simply assuming someone shares them can often lead to disappointment.

Here’s a little rule of thumb I have.  If someone does something “bad”, and you are shocked because it seems so out of character for them – that’s probably a good thing.  It means they either don’t do things like that often or they just rarely get caught (I’m a glass is half full kind of guy, so I’ll take it to mean they don’t do things like that very often).

If they do something and you find yourself going “sigh, again?”, then maybe that’s just who they are (or more accurately who they CHOOSE to be).  And in that case, you’ve got to ask yourself if that’s a person you really want to be with.

Of course, WHAT they do is also pretty significant.

If someone is “mostly” awesome, but oh yeah they also happen to be a serial killer?  That MAY be a problem for you.

Or maybe not, after all different people have their own boundaries on what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Murderer/sex offender/drug dealer are fairly universally accepted as “deal breakers” for relationships.

For many, finding out their partner is an adulterer/cheater is also a deal breaker (though many who believe that find things are a bit more murky than expected when actually faced with that situation).

 

To me, affairs show a complete lack of integrity.  I see them as the ultimate selfish act, as they are all about choosing “me” at the expense of “we”.

I understand the conditions that lead to affairs.  I understand when a couple is struggling, when someone feels unhappy in their relationship and/or with themselves.  I understand that having other people show interest in you feels good, and when in a bad spot mentally/emotionally people want more of that feeling.  I understand the dopamine rush that comes with new relationships, and the sense of freedom that comes with being able to do what you want, and not have to worry about the restrictions that come with relationships.

When you hear stories of people who have affairs, there are a lot of things they are feeling and a lot of reasons they do what they do.  And I think I kinda/sorta get that.

Even still, I KNOW I would never have an affair (even if I had Gyges ring allowing me to escape consequences).

Because if you truly care about and respect the person you are with, an affair is completely disrespectful to that person.  So I would NEVER do that to someone else.

And beyond that what I would be doing to someone else, I simply think that it’s wrong.  And I know I could never live with ME if I were to do that.

 

Being You

I guess that’s the point of doing the right thing.  It’s not about someone else.  It’s not about consequences, and what other people would think if they found out.

It’s about you.

It’s about what you truly believe, and what beliefs you are willing to stand up for.

In the past while I’ve written about being authentic, and being true to yourself.  Well, integrity and doing the right thing is a huge part of that.

Not saying one thing, yet doing another.  Not hiding parts of yourself and presenting a different version of yourself to different audiences.  Not denying fault, blaming or rationalizing your actions when you screw up.

But knowing who you are, and owning your choices and actions.  Being who you are in all aspects of your life, and living a life you believe in.

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What if Life had a Rewind Button?

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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.

Broken Trust

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I’ve talked before about my love of basketball, and in the news recently there was an incident that hit headlines.

Although they are terrible these days, the Los Angeles Lakers are still one of the “glory” franchises in the NBA. They hit headlines though because a video was leaked where one of their top newcomers (D’Angelo Russell) was talking to another player (Nick Young) about his relationship, and in it Nick Young apparently admits to cheating on his fiance.

Interestingly, the furor over this video has nothing to do with Nick Young cheating on his fiance. Instead, it has been about the actions of D’Angelo Russell – filming and then purportedly posting this video (he denies posting it, and insists he doesn’t know how it got out).

See, regardless of what was being said the discussion between Young and Russell was private. And in letting it out there, Russell has violated his trust.

In the sports world the outcry against Russell has been considerable, with some even going so far as to say that Russell (who is a rookie) will never be able to recover from this, because his teammates will never be able to trust him again.

A sports team in many ways is the same as any other team. The players don’t necessarily have to be friends, and they don’t even have to like each other. But to be successful they need to be able to effectively work together. And that requires a degree of trust. When that trust breaks down, it damages the chemistry between players. And trust once gone, is very difficult to rebuild.

Breaking Down Trust

I’ve written before about honesty in relationships, and although I don’t believe anyone is always honest I do feel it’s important that our actions toward each other are characterized by empathy and respect.

In relationships trust can break down in different ways. Sometimes it is big events, and other times it is an accumulation of smaller events over time. At the end of the day though, trust is about the questions “can I count on you?”, and “will you be there for me when I need you?”

When the answer is no or there is significant doubt, then trust has broken down. When this happens, often our entire perception of the other person changes. They aren’t the person we thought they were. And this realization can leave us feeling betrayed and hurt.

If trust has broken down, can it ever really be rebuilt? Or is it something that once broken is gone forever?

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Making Mistakes

Are you perfect? Have you made mistakes?

We all make mistakes, both big and small. And it doesn’t matter how kind, or caring, or devoted you are – we all have days and moments where we are tired, frustrated, or selfish.

At some level we know this, but we still expect more from the people we care about the most. After all, we care about them – and we expect them to care about us. So we don’t expect them to be the ones who hurt us. We expect better from them.

However the ones we care about the most are often the ones we hurt the most. When I look at my life, overall I think I’m a pretty good guy. Yet I know I’ve done things that have hurt those closest to me.

It’s the law of averages – for the people who see us the most, they are more likely to see us at our worst moments. While being around people more gives us more opportunities to “be on our best”, it also provides more opportunities to hurt them.

Unfortunately, it’s often the bad stuff that people remember the most.

There’s No News Like Bad News

Take a look at any newspaper, or any media outlet. Sure, sometimes there are “feelgood” stories that get traction. But by and large it’s the bad news that sells. And it’s the bad news that sticks with people.

That’s just human nature – and unfortunately it’s bad news for relationships.
In his work on relationships John Gottman talks about this – and he even has a formula for what it takes to have a successful relationship. According to him, healthy relationships need 5 positive interactions for each negative one.

We remember what affects us more, and the bad often outweighs the good.

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Letting People In

As the saying says, trust takes years to build and moments to break.
There are definitely different degrees of bad choices, but if a person has done a lot of good for a long time and then does something bad, does that make them a bad person?

Some would argue that it depends on the severity of the bad choice, and there’s truth to that. Some choices are so terrible that it’s hard to ever accept. I still think history matters though. As does a person’s reaction after the fact.

If someone continually exhibits selfish or disrespectful behavior then that’s one thing. But if someone takes ownership for their actions, shows contrition and demonstrates changes in their behavior, we should be able to rebuild trust over time.

When we can’t?

I think that often issues with trust aren’t only issues with the actions of the person we are struggling to trust. Instead, they are issues with us being unable to let go and being unable to forgive.

When we’ve been hurt it’s good to be cautious, and it’s good to try to protect ourselves. But it’s important to remember that building walls and not letting the other person back in will ensure the relationship is never able to move forward.

 

D’Angelo Russell made a mistake, and that mistake cost him the trust of his teammates. Does that mean he’s untrustworthy?

I don’t actually know anything about the guy in question, but I would say no, one mistake no matter how big does not mean someone is untrustworthy. Right now all it means is that he made a selfish decision that hurt his teammate. If that mistake is part of a pattern of behavior, then I would say yes.

That’s not to say the affected teammate should just forget it and trust him blindly moving forward. Some mistakes are bigger than others, and Nick Young needs to decide if he is willing to even consider trusting Russell again.

Trust isn’t just about one person though. So if they do want to move forward as teammates Russell needs to consistently show he’s worthy of that trust, and Young also needs to let him back in. If Young doesn’t, then nothing Russell does will ever be enough, and trust will never be rebuilt.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Relationships aren’t always easy. Like anything else in life, they have peaks and valleys. They have times where everything is going well, and couples are happy. At other times though conflict and problems arise, challenging and potentially threatening the relationship.

This is because we are first and foremost individuals. With our own needs, wants, and expectations for our life. And in a relationship we are trying to build a life with another individual who’s needs and wants will never perfectly match our own.

I recently read an article on dating that talked about this ideas that relationships start as looking for fulfillment of our own needs:

If you’re thinking that I’m telling you to use someone for your own benefit, you’re right: It is. But if you think dating is anything more than that, you’re confused. We date people to satisfy OUR wants and OUR needs. Once we find the right person, things get less selfish and egocentric.

This really sums up the dilemma people face with relationships. We start them because of what they do for us. We like how the person makes US feel, how well they meet OUR needs, and OUR wants.

When we are first getting to know them, we may think they are nice, or kind. But honestly, we don’t give a crap about them.

It’s all about us, and what they do for us.

But this sort of approach to a relationship is not sustainable in the long term. For a relationship to be successful, we need to become more than just two individuals spending time together. Instead of seeing the relationship as a vehicle for our own gratification, we have to start to see ourselves as part of a “we”.

And finding this balance between “me” and “we” is at the heart of all relationship problems.

This is less of an issue when you are dating, because dating is a facade. In dating, although we are *hopefully* being honest and being ourselves a part of us is also trying to be what we think they want in order to impress them.

In a long term setting this perfectly built facade breaks down, and the unedited version of the person comes out. Sometimes that person is VERY different from the one that was initially presented (in which case it’s probably a good time to get out – fast). Other times it’s largely the same person, but with a few more rough edges.

And when these rough edges start to show, it becomes apparent that this other person isn’t actually perfect (gasp!!!). They actually do have flaws, and to maintain a relationship with them our needs won’t always be met.

A Part of Something Bigger

When the flaws and problems start to surface, in order to sustainable the relationship, the focus on “me” has to change. You have to be willing to let your own ego take a back seat, and the only way to do that is if you see yourself as part of something bigger – a part of a couple, or a team.

If you look at the world of sports, there are many, many cautionary tales of people who has all the talent in the world. They were amazing athletes, and skilled from an “individual” standpoint. But their focus was them, and how the team was helping or hindering their career. This sort of focus is not conducive to a healthy team, and usually athletes who bring in this focus are eventually cut loose. To truly be successful, then need to embrace the concept of “team”.

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That may be sports, but the same rules apply in any team setting; including relationships.

What allows people to do this is sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence.
There are all sorts of definitions for emotional intelligence, and a high level of emotional intelligence is often correlated with high levels of success – both personally and in a career setting.

Wikipedia defines emotional intelligence as:

the ability to recognize one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.

One of the ways of identifying emotional intelligence is through self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy.

  • Self-awareness is being aware of your own emotional state, and knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Self-regulation is about being able to control your emotions, and not allowing emotions to control your decisions and actions (in an impulsive fashion).
  • Finally, empathy is being able to understand other people’s emotions, and taking them into account when making decisions.

What is a Relationship

Dating is about having fun. It’s about having your needs met. And when they aren’t, you move on.

Relationships on the other hand are a bit more complicated. They are about building a partnership, and sharing your life with someone else. They involve both good times and bad, so they require both commitment and a willingness to work through conflict.

In a relationship, a high level of emotional Intelligence is perhaps the most important characteristic you can have. You NEED to be able to take the needs and wants of your partner into account in almost everything you do.

Does this mean you “give up you”? Does it mean your needs don’t matter? No, not at all.

You still matter. It’s not about giving up on your needs. But you aren’t the only thing that matters. Your partner also needs to matter to you. And when these needs conflict (which WILL happen at times) you need to be able to reach a common ground. That common ground may not be ideal for you, but sometimes the “we” needs to be bigger than the “me”.

Not All about you

Relationship Breakdown

When relationships start to break down, a common complaint is that one or both parties start “acting like they are single”. This doesn’t mean they are going out messing around with other people (though it could). Usually what it means is that empathy has broken down.

Empathy in a relationship is about taking your partner into account, and understanding that your actions impact them. Understanding that even if something isn’t important to you, it still needs to be a priority if it’s important to your partner.

The offending partner often stops taking the other person into account. Or maybe they still do, but only when that persons needs happen to line up with their own (in which case it doesn’t really count, does it?).

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As it says above, focusing on yourself and doing what is best for you isn’t exactly the best recipe for a successful relationship.

A truly successful (and happy) relationship requires a reasonable degree of emotional intelligence by both parties. It requires empathy – considering your partner and taking them into account at all times.

In times of stress the world tends to turn inwards, and emotional intelligence breaks down. Thankfully, like anything else it is a skill that can be worked on and developed.

If your relationship is going through a hard time, always try to keep you partner in mind. Emotional intelligence, and empathy, is the key to long term success.

Behind the Masks

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Who are you?

By that, I’m referring to the “true” you.

I’ve written previously about the roles that we play, and how they impact us. We all play a number of different roles. Parent, child, sibling, friend, co-worker, lover.

Are all of these things simply roles? Are they acts that we put on, depending on our audience? Or are they components of who we “really are”?

Who are we? Is there actually a “true” you?

Who are You?

The idea of a “true you” has always interested me.

If it exists, when was it formed? Did you have the seeds of this true you when you were an infant? Did it start when you started attending school?

I guess it is the age old nature/nurture debate, but to me it seems clear that if it exists, it is something that formed over time. I suppose there may be some seeds to your personality in your genetic makeup, but your experiences definitely contribute to shaping who you are.

If we can accept that experience at least contributes to the “true you”, then the question becomes:

When (if ever) are you “complete”? When it your identity fully formed?

Did it stop when you became a teenager? When you reached the age of majority?

I definitely changed when I became a parent. And over the last few years I’ve watched my parents’ generation go from being the adults to the seniors, while I have gone from being one of the younger generation to being part of the adult generation.

During this time I have watched children grow into young adults. I have watched people fall in love, marriages fail. People get sick, loved ones die. I have watched great joy, love, anger and sadness.

These things impact you. The experiences change you.

So if I’m constantly changing, who am I? Was the “me” at 20 any more or less valid than the “me” I was at 30? Or 40?

Losing Yourself

We all have many roles we play in our lives, and each of these roles comes with a set of unwritten rules and expectations.

The behavior that is “acceptable” as a student is different from what is acceptable as a child, a friend, a parent, a co-worker, a lover. The list goes on.

Conforming to these acceptable behaviors can be like donning a mask, and sometimes we let the masks slip. For example, I don’t swear often, but have a tendency to in times of frustration or anger. Even still, there’s a part of me that knows that it’s different to swear with my buddies vs. in front of my children. I make that distinction at a subconscious level. Yet I have sworn in front of my children, and in those moments my “parent mask” has slipped.

When it does, is it the “true me” that is coming out?

I don’t think so. It’s a side of me, sure. I don’t believe the true me is someone who goes around swearing all the time. The true me also isn’t someone who never swears. I will occasionally, out of frustration or anger. But I would like to think the true me know which situations are appropriate, and which aren’t.

Sometimes juggling all the roles we play can seem overwhelming. And in doing so, at times it can seem like we have lost sight of ourselves, and we aren’t even sure who we are anymore under all those roles.

I think this sense of losing ourselves happens when we act the way we think people want us to act. People talk about “authenticity” as being true to yourself. And if we aren’t being authentic then the roles we play become just that – roles. We become like actors, trying to put on the appropriate mask for the appropriate setting.

When we do this, we lose sight of who we are.

masks-quote

Finding Yourself Again

But wait a minute? Didn’t I just say that we all have many roles to play, and there are certain expectations associated with these roles?

Shouldn’t we have to meet those expectations?

This is where the challenge comes in. We do all have roles we play in our lives, but at the same time we should never just be “playing” a role.

Instead, we need to find ways to make that role our own.

Let me explain…

I’m a father, and my dad was my biggest influence for what a father is. After all, he’s what I grew up with. But I’m not the father my dad was, or the father his dad was. I can never be him. I need to define what it being a father means to me, and that’s the father I need to be. But even this isn’t “fixed”.

The father I was to my children when they were babies is different from the father I am to my children now. I learn, adapt, and change.

I’m sure other people look at some of my parenting techniques and see things I’m doing “wrong”. Well, yeah. I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. But hopefully I’m also doing a lot of things right. And most importantly, I’m finding an approach that works for me. It’s fluid.

A harder one is my role as a husband.

Similar to learning to be a parent, I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. Hopefully I’m doing a lot of things right too. The thing is, I’m sure my wife has certain expectations of me. And I likewise have certain expectations of her.

This presents a challenge, because if I do something simply because it’s expected of me then I’m just playing a role or putting on a mask. But at the same time there ARE expectations, and I can’t just pick and choose the parts I want to deal with, or the ones I am comfortable with at a given moment.

As a couple, you need to be clear with each other what your expectations are. No one’s expectations will match completely, and this can be a significant source of conflict in relationships.

Bridging this gap is important to the success of a relationship.

You should never feel like you are playing a role, or doing things simply because they are expected of you. But at the same time, when you are in a relationship you do have responsibilities to the other person.

I think this is where empathy comes in.

For both members of a relationship to feel valued, there must be a belief that both members needs and expectations matter to the other person – even when they don’t match.

Accepting this allows you adjust your expectations somewhat, and fill a role without just playing the role. It allows you to make it your own, and find a way to fill the role that seems natural for you.

It is only when you do this that you are being true to yourself.

When you do this, it’s not just a role. It becomes part of you.

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Embracing Change

Identity can be a difficult thing, and I don’t think there are any “easy” answers to the question of who we are.

But I don’t believe there is a “true you”. Or rather, the true you is always evolving and always changing.

We have countless roles we play in our lives, and each of them shapes us. But at the same time, we don’t have to let them define us.

So who am I?

The true me is both good and bad. It’s full of all sorts of flaws and contradictions. And all of these pieces are all still me.

I’m all sorts of things. I’m a father, a husband, a friend, a co-worker, a son, etc. All of these things are me, and all of them make up my identity. But I am not any single one of these.

And no matter which role I am playing at a given time, all of them are still “me”.

Living with Anxiety Part 2 – Doubting Love

anxious Love

In part 1 I talked about the fight and flight arousal response of Anxiety, and how it can cause a sufferer to be in a state of chronic stress and cause the world to “turn inwards”.

Chronic stress is unhealthy, and is also damaging to relationships.

Stress makes people irritable, tense, causes a lack of sleep (increasing irritability), etc. None of these are positive conditions for relationships.

Relationships also require empathy, and a focus on your partner and the idea of “we”. So adding the tendency to focus inwardly and think primarily about yourself compounds the issue.

But that’s not even the worst part; the worst part is probably doubt.

Anxiety can make people question love.

This can happen in two ways – doubt about the feelings someone has for you, or doubt about the feelings you have for someone else.

Doubts about what someone feels for you tends to lead to a need for constant reassurance. When there are doubts about what YOU feel however, the normal response is to withdraw. Anxiety can lead to either of these types of doubt, and in some cases it can even lead to both.

Daniel Smith talks about this doubt in his book on living with anxiety, and there are also countless other stories of this same sense of doubt.

Here’s one I found particularly poignant:

My depression/anxiety has a particularly pernicious aspect in that my negative thoughts are almost entirely focused on my boyfriend: including thoughts I don’t love him, he isn’t attractive enough, I will never find him sexually attractive and that things will never work out.

This is particularly frustrating because I will have ‘moments of clarity’ either whilst with him or apart from him where I realize all of this thinking is ridiculous, I have an amazing relationship and we have so much in common, and I find him very attractive. Whenever I get to the point of asking myself: ‘do I want to leave the relationship?’ the answer is always a very clear ‘no’ in my head.

Yet my thoughts plague me every time I see him. Sometimes I can shut the thoughts to the back-burner, other times they overwhelm me and I feel incredibly sad. We have been together for a year and half now, and I’m kind of at the end of my tether.

Because this has continued to plague our relationship since its beginning, I’m often forced to ask myself “Is it all just the relationship?” and I don’t know how to get the perspective to figure that out.

I have certainty that I love my boyfriend because I miss him when we are away, I get rushes of pleasure and happiness when we kiss, I relate to him on a really strong intellectual and emotional level. We never have conflict or disagreements, because we hold the same views.

Yet when I’m down I get plagued by recurring thoughts: 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? Do I find him attractive? If I don’t find him attractive now, does that mean it is all a lie? Have I tricked myself into feeling this way? If the sex was average, does that mean our sex life is terrible? Maybe we have no physical chemistry? etc etc

I then feel guilt and sadness for being unable to figure out my feelings and for having doubts. After all, it isn’t really fair to him is it? Then there is a cycle of questioning: Do I really love him? Am I wasting my time?

Then when I think of breaking up with him, I get another rush of sadness and guilt because part of me really doesn’t want to, even though another part of me is sick of the doubt and would rather leave to end it all.

The problem with doubt is that it can be very destructive. Like many things, relationships are all about effort. What you get out of them is very closely related to what you put in.

When you doubt, you are less likely to invest the time or effort in a relationship that it requires. After all, why put effort into something that isn’t going to work out anyhow? But by not putting the effort in, you all but ensure the relationships failure (or at the very least minimize the level of satisfaction you are able to have).

doubt

This sense of doubt that anxiety can create is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the condition. Incidentally, the person who wrote the story above found that after trying medication (SSRI’s) the doubts cleared up, resulting in a happier and healthier relationship.

The “Dance” of Doubt

The doubt comes from the combination of catastrophizing and rumination, and creates a pattern of doubt and withdrawal:

  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. Withdrawal. 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 continually repeats, as the anxiety leads the relationship to go through cycles that do increasing amounts of damage to the relationships each time. Left unchecked, it can destroy the relationship.

In his book Daniel Smith describes his own experience with this process:

Over and over again, I pushed Joanna away and pulled her back, drawing her into an abusive four-step dance.

First, I would grow increasingly uncertain. “Was I truly in love with Joanna?” I would ask myself. How could I be when we didn’t appreciate all the same books, the same music, the same movies? Was it possible that what I called love had been merely infatuation, lust, desire?

Second, torn by my doubts, I would grow withdrawn and sullen, even openly hostile. I would ignore Joanna, make nasty little remarks, put her down in front of her friends.

Third, Joanna would start to fight back. Neglected and mistreated, she would respond with anger and sadness. Why was I being so cruel? What had she done to deserve this?

Fourth, horrified by my behavior, I would try urgently and with great remorse to repair the damage. I’d buy her flowers, send her cute messages during the day, hang on her every word.

Then, after a short respite, the dance would begin again.

The Breakdown of Intimacy

What is intimacy? Though they are often used interchangeably, intimacy and sex are NOT the same thing.

Intimacy is about closeness, and connection. It requires vulnerability, and a willingness to open yourself up to the other person. Intimacy requires trust.

Well, what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a condition that causes chronic stress and tension, and causes people to overthink and imagine the worst in situations. It causes doubt, and fear. It leads people to put up emotional walls to “protect” themselves, pushing people away instead of letting them in.

A common complaint of anxiety sufferers is the sense of being “uncomfortable in my own skin”. The hypersensitivity to the outside environment also extends itself to a sense of self, and a feeling of self-consciousness around others about how they look.

With this discomfort in your own skin there is a tendency to pull away. Touch, seen as a sign of closeness and comfort for most people, is often a source of discomfort for people with anxiety.

Anxiety can create almost the polar opposite of the conditions required for intimacy.

Behaviors impacting Relationships

Anxiety can lead to a number of different actions and behaviors which sabotage and break down love (list copied from the site referenced):

  • Cling – When we feel anxious, our tendency may be to act desperate toward our partner. We may stop feeling like the independent, strong people we were when we entered the relationship. As a result, we may find ourselves falling apart easily, acting jealous or insecure or no longer engaging in independent activities.
  • Control – When we feel threatened, we may attempt to dominate or control our partner. We may set rules about what they can and can’t do just to alleviate our own feelings of insecurity or anxiousness. This behavior can alienate our partner and breed resentment.
  • Reject – If we feel worried about our relationship, one defense we may turn to is aloofness. We may become cold or rejecting to protect ourselves or to beat our partner to the punch. These actions can be subtle or overt, yet it is almost always a sure way to force distance or to stir up insecurity in our partner.
  • Withhold – Sometimes, as opposed to explicit rejection, we tend to withhold from our partner when we feel anxious or afraid. Perhaps things have gotten close, and we feel stirred up, so we retreat. We hold back little affections or give up on some aspect of our relationship altogether. Withholding may seem like a passive act, but it is one of the quietest killers of passion and attraction in a relationship.
  • Punish – Sometimes, our response to our anxiety is more aggressive, and we actually punish, taking our feelings out on our partner. We may yell and scream or give our partner the cold shoulder. It’s important to pay attention to how much our actions are a response to our partner and how much are they a response to our critical inner voice.
  • Retreat – When we feel scared in a relationship, we may give up real acts of love and intimacy and retreat into a “fantasy bond.” A fantasy bond is an illusion of connection that replaces real acts of love. In this state of fantasy, we focus on form over substance. We may stay in the relationship to feel secure but give up on the vital parts of relating. In a fantasy bond, we often engage in many of the destructive behaviors mentioned above as a means to create distance and defend ourselves against the anxiety that naturally comes with feeling free and in love.

Anxiety and Sex

Intimacy and sex are two different things, and in a relationship intimacy is much more important. But maintaining a sex life is actually pretty damned important too.

Not surprisingly, Anxiety can also get in the way of the sexual side of a relationship.

Anxiety is an overwhelming form of daily stress. Many find that living with anxiety daily causes them to experience significant sadness and discomfort in their daily life, often leading to less enjoyment of the things that previously caused them happiness.

That’s why 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.
calmclinic.com

When anxiety impacts the sexual side of a relationship Calmclinic.com suggests the following:

Talk Openly to Your Partner

When anxiety affects your arousal, don’t try to hide it. Trying to hide it and overcome it causes further stress, because you’ll find that you try too hard to get aroused. Arousal is an automatic function, and not something you can force, so the more you try to force it the harder it gets. If you talk to your partner about it, you’ll find that the added pressure of knowing that you’re open about the problem takes some of the stress off of you.

Try to Make Love Anyway

Extended time away from an active sex life can put strain on your relationship and potentially lead to more stress. If possible, try to make love anyway for fun. Talk to your partner, and don’t make it a stressful event. Make it something you do to keep your sex life going and try to remember the enjoyment you experience when you do get aroused. If making love isn’t physically possible, at the very least you should spend time being romantic and having fun in an intimate way to at least keep that component a part of your life.

Avoidance

In dealing with sexual problems, calmclinic.com recommends “talking openly with your partner”.

Sound advice.

Unfortunately, for people with anxiety communication is often not a strong suit. Discussing “difficult” issues causes the anxiety response, and it’s hard to deal with issues when the body is in fight or flight mode. As a result, for many anxiety sufferers the “preferred” way of dealing with problems is to simply avoid them.

Avoidance becomes the go-to communication style (though lack of communication style may be more accurate).

Many people say that communication is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Well, if communication is a mark of a healthy relationship, then avoidance is definitely a sign of trouble.

Fighting Back

Anxiety affects many people around the world to varying degrees, and it can put considerable strain on relationships. This isn’t to say that people with anxiety disorders can’t have healthy relationships, as they can. But to do that they need to actively fight back against the anxiety, and recognize that if they are in a relationship then the anxiety is not only affecting them – it also affects their loved ones.

One of the worst things an anxiety sufferer can do is resign themselves to it and say “this is just the way I am”. There is some truth to that, as anxiety sufferers will never get rid of the anxiety. Rather, they have to learn how to manage it instead of allowing it to control their life.

Accepting it will always be there is the first step to a healthy way of managing it. As one sufferer put it:

I think the issue facing many who deal with anxiety is that we want to be cured. We want to go back to that time period we can remember when it didn’t seem to overwhelm our every thought and impact us physically. We want to go back to that time in our relationships when we had no doubts and live there – because it seems as though once doubt sets in, you can’t shake it.

And sure, pills and therapy are fantastic ways to work on anxiety, but I think what we have to realize is anxiety can be managed, not cured.

I’ve found as I’ve worked on accepting that, I’m more receptive to negative thoughts associated with anxiety because I know they will pass – that yes, I have these thoughts which can ravage me emotionally, but that’s all they are – thoughts that my anxiety-distorted brain has come up with. It doesn’t take away the frustration and pain of having them, but makes them much easier to bear.

The next thing to do is educate yourself. The danger of anxiety is in that it is an automatic response or irrational thought. Increasing your knowledge of anxiety allows you to differentiate between rational and anxious thought.

One of the leading treatments for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT takes the approach that thoughts and feelings affect behavior. Anxiety is based off of irrational thought, or cognitive distortions. So identifying these negative thoughts allows you to “fight back” against them.

There are also medications that can be used to treat anxiety and depression, and they can be helpful and even necessary at times (as anxiety is often tied to imbalances is brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine). My personal opinion is that medication alone is never enough. It can help get anxiety down to a low enough level to start working on changing the underlying thought process. But without that work, you are simply masking the problem. And medication has a tendency to become less effective over time.

Anxiety is a very difficult condition, and not one that can be understood by non-sufferers. It’s not as simple as “don’t worry so much”, though it can often seem that way to outsiders.

But it is true that it’s “in someone’s head”, as it is a condition that originates in broken thinking patterns. Changing those thoughts and mindsets takes time and dedication. But the cost of not doing so is extremely high, as anxiety can infect all aspects of life.