Asking the Right Questions

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I suspect everyone has gone to see a doctor at one point in time or another.

Let’s say you hurt your hand somehow, and it’s bothering you enough that you decide to see a doctor. What happens?

Does the doctor put your arm in a cast? Does he/she send you straight to surgery to amputate your hand? Do they remove your liver?

You know, while they may ultimately give you a cast or amputate the hand (your liver is probably safe), it’s a pretty safe bet that those (fairly drastic) measures aren’t where they start.

Instead, they start with something simple.

A question.

They start by asking why you are there – what is bothering you? Then they ask a series of questions related to your reason for coming in. Maybe they ask when the hand started hurting, and they may ask you to try moving it in different ways while describing any sensations.

I hear complaints sometimes that doctors don’t always “get it right”. But really, if you think about what they have to do I suspect their job is quite difficult.

People go to them with a list of symptoms, and based on these symptoms the doctor has to determine what the underlying issue *could* be. Sometimes there are multiple potential issues matching the symptom list, so they ask additional questions to try and narrow things down; to ultimately find the actual cause of the problem.

What does the doctor base their decision on?

They base it on knowledge gained through years of schooling and experience. We go to them because we trust that they have built up sufficient skills to help us. And if they haven’t, hopefully they refer us to someone who is better qualified.

When we have problems, it’s important that we turn to the right sources. In the example above, the “problem” was a sore hand. For a sore hand do you call an auto mechanic? A gynecologist? No, you need to turn to someone who has knowledge and expertise in the problem area. Even skilled professionals sometimes make mistakes. But by turning to an “expert” we better position ourselves for the best results.

Dealing with Problems

The human body is a pretty complicated thing. But at least it’s tangible. At least you can point to an area that “seems” to be the problem (though due to the interconnected nature of things, sometimes that is actually just a symptom and the real problem lies somewhere else).

When we are dealing with feelings and emotions though, things get much more complicated.

We all have problems and issues that we deal with, and often our hallmark of “good health” is our level of happiness. If we’re happy then things must be going well. And when we aren’t, well then that indicates some sort of issue – right?

Things like issues with anger management or chronic unhappiness let us know that something is not right in our life. So we try to figure things out, or “get by” on our own.

And that’s where we go wrong.

The thing is, we are terrible judges of our own problems because we are too close to them. We can’t see past the emotion of our involvement in order to see clearly. And because of this frequently we can’t see the difference between a symptom and the actual problem.

Sometimes we really have a splinter, and we end up doing makeshift surgery on ourselves – amputating the arm and the liver instead.

One of the areas this manifest itself the most is with relationships. Our relationships are some of the central things in our lives, so if we aren’t happy it’s easy to look at the relationships for what is wrong. All relationships have problems, so once you start looking it’s usually pretty easy to find something.

But a question you need to ask is, is the relationship issue the actual problem? Or is the relationships issue actually a symptom of something else?

Looking for Help

For most of us, there are a few people in our lives that we are able to turn to when we need to open up and talk about our problem. Ideally our partner is the person we open up to the most, and beyond that it’s usually close friends or family.

It’s great to have sounding boards, and often these people can provide a different perspective and help ground us. Even then you need to remember that they only have your side of the story, and only have what you give them.

If we go in to a doctor and say “I’m sore”, but aren’t able to (or won’t) tell them where it hurts, when it started or what it feels like, they really don’t have much to go on.

Here’s a larger issue though…

…these people have only their own personal experiences to draw upon, and this colors their ability to give you advice. Even if they have been through something similar, it doesn’t matter. Every person is different. Every situation is different. What worked for them or what was best for them isn’t necessarily what is best for you.

Shopping for Answers

Sometimes when there is a problem people have come to conclusions about what is wrong and what they need to do, but a part of them is scared to act. After all, what if they are wrong?

So they turn to others for their “opinions”. But those opinions don’t really matter, because they are really looking for opinions that match their own.

They could get multiple opinions that aren’t what they want to hear, and those are ignored. But when an opinion matches the one they want? Then it provides validation that they were right (that sort of thinking reminds me of this scene from the Lego Movie).
When you have already decided what the appropriate answer is, all the questions in the world don’t really matter.

Starting Fresh

A buddy of mine was recently divorced, and he’s loving being single again. He had been married a number of years and had a family.

When I asked him what he’s enjoying the most, he says it’s the freedom and the time to himself. He doesn’t have to answer to anyone, and has been able to pick up some new hobbies.

Well, except for when he has his kids. When he has his kids, his week revolves around them and he has no time to himself to do his new hobbies.

Oh yeah, and he’s started dating again so during his *me* weeks he has to make time to fit in his new girlfriend.

It makes me wonder, is that new freedom real or is it just an illusion? Was it really the marriage that was the problem?

Maybe.

But perhaps it was actually the sense of responsibility that came from going to work everyday and coming home to a wife and children who both put demands on his time.

Maybe he just needed to find a way to carve out a bit more time for himself. Marriage and families definitely restrict you. You aren’t “free” to do what you want. But maybe he could have found a way to get a bit of balance back in his life.

My worry is, if/when he hits the point where he’s either married or living with someone again he will find himself back in the same spot he was in before. And he’ll have broken up his family in the process.

For many people, there is often a sense of relief after a separation or divorce. A sense that “yeah, I made the right decision. I’m happier now”. And that sense really comes from the nature of changing up a stagnant situation.

Often within six months to two years though, people find that their “new” situation is really no better than the old one. Some parts are better, and others worse.

The grass isn’t greener on the other side. Both sides have patches of green and patches of brown. But unfortunately the grass often looks greener from afar, and it’s not until you actually get there that you realize it’s only green where you water it.

Keep an Open Mind

When trying to understand our problems, one of the most important things is being able to keep an open mind. It’s easy to have an idea of what is wrong and then latch onto that. But is it the problem? Or it is a symptom?

Depending on the nature of the problem you are dealing with, the consequences of mistaking a symptom for a problem can be considerable.

When dealing with issues that can have serious implications (such as issues with long term relationships or when kids are involved), I would definitely recommend looking into professional counseling services when possible.

Not all counselors are good, and even the goods ones aren’t always a good match for a couple or individual.

But it’s always a shame when someone mistook a symptom for a problem, and amputated an arm when they really had a splinter.

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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Should You Have to Change?

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Love is an interesting thing. We all want to be accepted, and we all want to be accepted for “who we are”.

In fact, by definition unconditional love means is that someone is not putting conditions on their love for us. They are accepting ALL of us, the good and the bad. In fact, part of the concept of self-love is being able to look at yourself and say “I am enough”.

Being able to love yourself, and being loved unconditionally are two things we should all strive towards. And in my opinion they probably the most important building blocks to happiness, and healthy relationships.

One place people seem to get confused though is in the belief that unconditional love and accepting yourself as you are means you are a finished product. It means you can’t change, and you can’t improve.

Patterns of Behavior

It doesn’t matter who we are, we can always improve. And sometimes we really should.

I know a guy who never seems to be able to hold a job for long. He would spend a few months here, a years or so there. In all cases he would leave the job and I would hear about how awful it was at the company. Usually it was an issue with management, how terrible they were and how they treated the employees poorly. Although it must have been hard on his family, his wife was very supportive of him. She seemed to admire the fact that he was willing to stand up for himself and what he felt was “right”.

Then one day I got a job at one of the places he used to work and I met some of the managers. When I met them, I had a hard time reconciling the stories I had heard with the people I had met. That’s when it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t the places or the management.

Maybe it was just him.

But when he spoke about how terrible these places were, he genuinely seemed to believe it.

A few years ago I read a book by Anne Sheffield about how depression impacts relationships. She had grown up in a household with a mother who suffered from depression, and as an adult she had a few failed marriages.

All her marriages ended because of similar issues, and after the second or third (I can’t remember) she realized that maybe the problems didn’t lie with her partners. Maybe the commonality was her. It was at that point that she started to realize she also had depression, and it had been affecting her ability to maintain a relationship.

Reading that story made me think of the guy who couldn’t hold a job for long.

Each time he left or lost a job, he had a reason. And taken individually each of those reasons seemed valid and defensible. But when you look at them as a pattern of behavior, the one common item was him.

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Through the Looking Glass

I’ve talked about my buddy Gandalf, who spent much of his adult life without fulfilling relationships before. He ended up seeing a psychologist and related to me some of his experience:

Early in my therapy 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.

I now realize that this is not only very selfish, but childish and immature. There are several factors that contributed to me having this mindset, but lack of being loved as a child is a significant factor in this. If you don’t grow up in a loving environment (both between the parents and the parents to the child) then you grow up without knowing and understanding what love is and the empathy required for a loving relationship. I am now in the process of learning this, but it takes time. However, as my friends have told me, it’s better late than never.

He had people around him who loved him, and accepted him for who he was, flaws and all. But I’m sure the people who cared about him (myself included) wanted and hoped for him to change.

Change is a difficult concept. We’ve probably all seen people who have relationships where there are parts of their partner that they don’t like, and they try to change those parts. For anyone who has seen that, you know that it never works out well. People generally don’t change.

I have children, and one of my most important roles as a parent (in my opinion) is to try and shape their behaviors in a way that they can interact with the world in a healthy fashion. When I do that, am I not trying to change them? I am the parent, and part of being a parent is teaching.

A big part of teaching as a parent is around helping your children understand their emotions and their feelings, and allow them to cope in a healthy fashion. Is that changing them? Yes, I am the parent and they are the child, so part of my role is teaching. But am I only trying to teach them because I am the parent? No, it’s because I love them and want the best for them.

Don’t we want the best for all the people we care about? We aren’t responsible for others, but isn’t it normal to want to help those who seem to need it?

It’s a fine line between wanting someone to change to better suit what YOU want from them, and wanting them to change for THEM. And the distinction between those two things is blurred, because often the types of changes that benefit the individual also benefit the people who care about them.

What makes you “You”?

The idea of change often scares the hell out of people. Even when people know their behaviors and actions are damaging and destructive, they often defend them by saying “this is just who I am”. To change would mean you are changing who you are, and by extension that would mean you are no longer “you”.

This is scary. But really, what are you? We are a collection of habits and behaviors, some good and some bad.

What if some of your habits or behaviors are broken? What if something is wrong with the current version of you?

Thinking of my buddy Gandalf story above, he recognized that there WAS something wrong with the old version of him. And although it was hurting the people around him, the main person it was hurting was himself.

This is a difficult situation, because generally we are told that people should be able to accept us as we are. We shouldn’t have to change in order to be accepted, and we should be able to be happy with who we are. So the idea that he should have to change somehow seemed wrong.

But here’s the thing, he wasn’t happy with who he was. In fact, he didn’t really like himself at all. Interestingly the people around him generally did accept him. But he didn’t see that, and he didn’t accept himself.

It was only later when he found himself chronically unhappy and falling into clinical depression that he started to realize and understand exactly how broken this thinking was. And he needed to change, because the way he approached the world was not a situation under which love or true intimacy can thrive.

Should he have had to change?

No.

But not doing so would have kept him in the same negative cycles he had been in for years.

Were there benefits to him for making changes?

Definitely. Both for him, and for those around him.

Although he saw that, he was terrified to change. Because the way he was, and the way he coped with life, was the only way he knew.

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I think back to the guy who moved from job to job. He didn’t have to change. Although it probably put tremendous pressure on them, his family accepted him as he was.

He didn’t see a need to change, because in his mind he was never the problem.

People often deny they have a problem. Or they accept it, but say “it’s just the way I am”.

But when you deny a problem, blame others, or minimize it and fail to see how it impacts both you and those around you, you give up the power to change.

The Road to an Affair

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Affairs.

Lots of people have them.

In some cases people are serial adulterers. They are hedonists who are only interested in themselves, and they don’t care about who they hurt in the process. Basically they are narcissistic and selfish, and just overall not nice people.

But stats say that anywhere from 20-40% of people have affairs at some point. That many people can’t ALL be terrible human beings.

People generally don’t advertise when there has been an affair in their relationship, but often it gets out. And when friends and family find out that someone they know had an affair they are often stunned. A common reaction is:

He/she had an affair? I never thought they were the sort of person who would do that. I guess I didn’t know them that well after all.

This sort of reaction isn’t just isolated to outside observers though, as the betrayed partner is often in a state of shock.

And not only is the betrayed partner shocked, but often the person who HAD the affair is also shocked. Many people who have affairs are somewhat horrified with themselves both during and after. They never thought *they* would be the sort of person to have an affair.

Yet they did.

And that leads them to realize that they aren’t who they thought they were either.

When you look at stories, there are a lot of common elements. Usually starting with long term relationships that are “in a rut”, where the passion is gone or fading. But sadly, that happens to most of us over time.

So is everyone at risk of having an affair? Well, even if 40% of people do, 60% don’t. So are there actually some common characteristics of people that make them more susceptible? I believe there are.

In this post I want to explore that, as well as provide some thoughts for those who are either having an affair or have thought about it.

The Myth

I think the idea that sexual needs not being met leads to an affair is only partially true. Yeah, if your sexual needs aren’t being met it will spill out into the rest of the relationship. But I actually think that’s a symptom and not a cause.

I believe affairs are much more frequently about emotional needs and connection. And when you feel emotionally connected then sex is a natural result of that.

So people are in relationships that are in a rut, and the emotional connection has broken down. They meet someone and connect emotionally, and don’t actually intend for it to go any further. But once that emotional connection has been made, nature takes over.

In fact, a recent British survey on affairs found that for both men and women, attention and emotional connection were among the leading reasons for affairs. Here are the top three reasons, broken down by gender:

  • I felt flattered by the attention (men 35%, women 44%)
  • I felt emotionally deprived in my relationship (men 29%, women 43%)
  • I was dissatisfied with my sex life (men 32%, women 15%)

Note the difference between men and women when it comes to their sex life. Sex is twice as important to men than women. I suspect those numbers are skewed a bit by different perceptions around sex. For men, sex is often seen as symbol of the relationship, so dissatisfaction with a sex life is dissatisfaction with the relationship. For both genders however sex is only part of the reason behind an affair, and attention and emotional connection are more significant factors.

When people say they didn’t mean for an affair to happen or it was a mistake, I think there is some truth to that. They probably weren’t looking for an affair. They were actually looking for attention and an emotional connection that was lacking in their own relationship.

They just didn’t mean for it to go as far as it did. But by pursuing a friendship/relationship after they knew feelings were developing, they are completely at fault.

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The Cheaters Perspective

In the blogsphere you find many stories of relationships broken by affairs, mostly from the perspective of the betrayed spouse. A few months back I found a blog written by a guy on the other side of the fence; someone who betrayed his wife and is now trying to deal with the fallout from his decisions.

An affair is always wrong – I will never suggest otherwise. But although we may not choose to have affairs, the pain and loneliness of a stagnant relationship is something I suspect many couples in long term relationship can relate to.

In his blog he starts with the affair and it’s ongoing aftermath, and slowly peels back different layers of his history. But for purposes of telling his story here I will try to stitch together a few pieces in some degree of chronological order (The sections below in blue are reprinted from his site with permission).

The Breakdown of the Marriage

Up until this point in our marriage we only really ever fought about one topic. Sex. I have a higher drive than she does and so it has always caused friction. I would make an advance, sometimes I would handle it poorly and sulk for a short time but often times I just would leave the bedroom to watch TV or something else. Just so I would not bother her. Then she would feel extremely guilty and we would end up doing it in the morning half the time or maybe the next week. Either way neither of us ever felt good about the situation.

After a few years of this, I started to believe that even when she accepted my advances she was just doing it to get her “wifely duties” completed. It wasn’t because she wanted me or even sex for that matter. It was very hard for me to deal with but I did what I thought was best. First I assumed I must suck at sex. I must be awful because I love how she makes me feel and if I don’t make her feel this way then I could see why she doesn’t want me.

I would try and talk to her about it but it usually ended up having the focus about sex and not just my wanting to know that she did indeed want me around. Then she would feel guilty and then try to have sex with me and then I did not want it because it was only because she felt guilty, not because she wanted me. It was a frustrating cycle. I don’t know if you can imagine but having the only person you have known and loved constantly reject you and avoid you will destroy you. She was everything I had ever known.

My response was to keep slowly pulling out of our marriage. I stopped going out of my way to work on us. I stopped reading and researching ways to make your marriage better and closer. Instead I just avoided alone time. We stopped having sex but every couple of months and it was nothing spectacular.

The Rise of the Affair

One day as I was driving home from my commute I came across an app to meet other people. I could view peoples pictures and decide if they were a match for me. After a couple of weeks I had a few dozen matches of people I thought were out of my league. I would chat with a few here and there but one drew me in particular. She was funny and cute and we seemed to really have a good time chatting back and forth. We talked for a few months and I noticed I was much more pleasant at home. I felt good about myself because my ego was being fed. I was happier and even my kids noticed it.

I thought this was a perfect setup. I really believed I had no intention of ever meeting her and she never pushed to meet me. We were both content with what we were getting. It seemed to take the edge off my marital problems and my wife and I were getting along better. We still were not very active in the bedroom but when she denied me it wasn’t such a big deal because I knew there was at least someone else who found me attractive and good company.

But it also started a destructive dialog in my head. It was something like:

  • “These women find you funny and attractive but your own wife doesn’t.”
  • “She won’t be intimate with you because she does not find you good-looking.”
  • “You are just the father of her children and her partner but you will never be the love of her life and you can never make her happy.”

These thoughts or ones similar would just pour through my mind. I couldn’t get them to stop.

Exciting and New

We kept sharing more and more personal information with each other. This went on for a days and I felt like we really had a connection. She kept telling me how easy it was to talk to me and how I can make her feel so safe that she can share most anything with me. She told me that she has not felt this at ease with anyone before. I told her that I felt the same. I was a lot less guarded around her and felt like I could say anything and it would not surprise her or scare her away. I was thinking how much different she was than my wife. How exciting, how refreshing. I did not feel judged, just accepted. I felt like she really understood me and liked me for who I was, even though she truly did not know who I was yet.

I think this led to a lot of the attraction I felt. It was new and exciting and she was interested in everything I had to say. We were sharing and exploring each other intellectually and emotionally. I really believe that is what really hooked me, it had been a long time since someone made me feel this way and I wasn’t even sure if I actually felt this excited and close to my wife all those years ago. Now in hindsight, I can say that this is probably how I first started with my wife.

Crossing the Line

Now I have thought about this for a while, why did I finally decide to meet her again even though I was pretty sure deep down that I knew what I was getting into. I know on the surface I thought I could control myself. So really, the second time I was going to see this woman we would actually do it. No way! Not in a million years! Uggghhhh… (I guess on the surface I was old-fashioned, but deep down I knew. I really knew).

Ending the Affair

I was lonely and dying for attention, which is what led me to look for it else where. I did not do this looking for an affair, but just some attention that validated I was worth something. Then I met the other woman (OW), one thing led to another until I was in a full blown affair. It was euphoria when were together and agony when we were apart. This is what fed the illusion that it was such a great “relationship”. The reality was, it was just fantasy land and as I began to see her with everyday problems like us, the less and less I wanted to be with her.

I think I was finally really realizing what I had done. I was seeing that the OW was really just fantasy land and none of it was real. My wife helped me recognize this by her asking about the OW and why she was so perfect. I told her she wasn’t and if I decide to leave the marriage I am not running into her arms. She has a lot of problems that she would have to fix before I would let her around my kids. Once I told her this it pretty much shattered the fantasy that I had with her. I started seeing her with her problems and everyday trials just like everyone else.

I have tried to give excuses for why the affair happened. The reality is I am the one who made the decision to cheat. If I thought the marriage was that bad I should have left, not taken this route. I made that choice and she had nothing to do with that choice. I have to take responsibility and be a key component in both her recovery and my own.

Things to Learn

As I said earlier, cheating is always wrong. But generally, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Most commonly, an affair is an attempt to fill gaps that are missing in a relationship. And attention is the number one thing both men and women are looking for.

They want to feel loved again, and they want to feel valued. In the story above, the guy turned to “dating apps” for the attention he felt was missing in his relationship. This is not uncommon.

I recently read an article on Tindr that found 36% of users are actually married, and an additional 12% are in a “committed” relationship. That’s almost ½ of all users who are probably not looking for an actual relationship. So what are they looking for?

Sex? Probably. An ego boost? Definitely. But mostly, attention.

It’s a sad commentary that in many relationships, we often do a poor job of making our partners feel loved and valued. And eventually, they look elsewhere for the attention that is missing.

In a prior post I talk about some of the reasons I think this happens. Basically I think we get too caught up in every day life, and we stop making our partners a priority. After all, they will always be there, right? Thing is, when you stop making the other person a priority they start to feel it. And it hurts.

Some people won’t like this, but I believe in relationships damaged by an affair the partner who was cheated on does hold some of the blame. I’m not suggesting it’s 50/50 or anything, and they aren’t the ones who cheated. But in most cases they contributed to the conditions that led to affair. Unless they recognize their own role in the breakdown of the relationship (whatever it may be), they will never be able to heal and move forward.

Life does get busy. Jobs, kids, house maintenance, personal lives etc. But in order for a relationship to survive, it needs maintenance. It needs time, and effort put into it. And it can’t only come from one person. Both members of the relationship need to feel valued, and loved.

When we subconsciously think “I’m married now, I don’t need to try”, problems will invariably set in. Relationships only stagnate when you let them.

For the person who has cheated (or is on that path), a few things to consider:

When the guy in the story above was on the dating app, it felt good. He was getting the attention from other women that he wasn’t getting from his wife, and it made him question why? He came to his own conclusion:

What did they see that my wife didn’t? This question never went away. I could not get it out of my head. It would not go away. I was the same person wasn’t I? I looked the same, had the same personality, then why?

It is a funny question to me now. What did they see that my wife didn’t? I can answer it without a problem. They saw someone who had an interest in them. Who made them feel attractive and interesting. So they never saw me, they saw what I was giving them. So the real question I should have been asking myself was not “What did they see that my wife didn’t?” but “What I am giving them that I am not giving my wife?”.

Another thing to note is that an affair is rarely about our partners, or our relationships. It is about ourselves, and our coping mechanisms. As another person wrote after his affair:

I wish I’d known what love was. I craved feelings I labeled as love. Feelings that came from having someone I valued value me in return. It made me feel I was all that. In fact, the more I esteemed the other person, the stronger the effect. But, what I really loved was how they made me feel about myself. The reflection of my image in their eyes made me feel amazing. But love isn’t that feeling, rather it’s the grace my wife extended, not when I deserved it, but rather when I least deserved it.

One final thought.

People are often more susceptible to have affairs when they are dealing with things like depression, or if they have issues with self-esteem or self-love. If you struggle with loving yourself, external validation from others is needed. However it’s important to understand the following:

All the external adoration, respect and adulation in the world, can’t drown out the internal voices that tell us, we are not good enough and unworthy of; happiness, love and an abundant life. When we need others to tell us we’re amazing, worthy and lovable, in order to feel good about ourselves, it is never enough. It goes into the bottomless pit where our inherent self-worth should be. It may feel like we are reaching out to receive love, but in actuality, we are seeking external noise to help drown out our negative core beliefs.”
― Jaeda DeWalt

Affairs are never the answer. They are a form of escapism, a way of running from the problems that relationships will face from time to time. Sure, the cheater gets an ego boost and some sexual release – which helps them feel better (for a time). But they don’t solve anything, and they don’t make things any better.

A better solution is effort. Communication. No matter where you are, and how deep the hole is you can always get out. But you need to want to.

The guy in the story realized that he felt good around other women because they were giving him attention. But that attention was in turn because of the attention he was providing to them. Attention that he had stopped giving his wife long ago.

Is This All There Is?

Driving off

Is this all there is? This is a question everyone asks themselves eventually.

Is the life I have right now the one I want?

Is there more to life?

Growing up, we have a bit of a romanticized notion of what “being an adult” will be, and what life will look like.

We will be free. We won’t have to live under the rules of our parents. We won’t have to go to school every day. We will be adults – we will be our own person and be able to live our lives how we want!!!

And then we get there.

Once out “on our own” we need a place to live, and we need to eat. So we get a job. Maybe we find one we like, and maybe we just find one that will pay us. But that’s alright, because it pays enough of the bills to let us get by. If we want more “stuff”, we need a better job.

But the job is just a job. Sure we may make some friends at work, but our job is just there to help us finance our life; and our life is the important part.

In our personal life we have friends and family. Often we have a spouse or a partner, and maybe we have kids. THOSE are a greater source of happiness than our job.

But our friends and family have their own lives too. And as much as we may love our spouse and kids, they can be sources of stress and conflict almost as much as they are sources of joy.

We live our lives, and although there may be a lot of joy, life becomes routine. We need to work to pay the bills, and hopefully put away a bit of money to be able to go on a vacation once in a while. Or get a nicer car, or a nicer house.

So we find ourselves in this cycle, going through the motions of life day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Eventually though, *something* triggers you to take a look at your life.

And you come to the realization that being an adult is not what you expected. Careers aren’t what we expected. Marriage is not what you expected. And being a parent is not what you expected.

And you find yourself asking, is this it?

Is this all there is?

Midlife “Crisis”

I think this stage of taking a hard look at your life is what is often referred to as a midlife crisis.

As a kid, I thought a midlife crisis was a bit of a joke. When I heard the term I had visions of an older guy who would divorce his wife, get a sports car and a girlfriend at least 10 years younger (probably a yoga instructor).

It was the sort of thing you saw in movies and on TV, but I didn’t think it really happened.

Of course as a kid I also thought that marriages lasted forever, people would always love their partners and affairs only happened in soap operas. Ha!!!

Now that I’m at midlife myself I read peoples stories on blogs, and I look around at friends and acquaintances and I see that midlife crisis is actually quite real.

It’s just not quite what I thought, and the idea of the sports car and the yoga instructor isn’t often that accurate.

More commonly, instead of a “crisis” people have a period of midlife reflection and transformation.

Sure, some people respond badly, act selfishly and do some really stupid things (and those are the ones we most frequently hear about). But that doesn’t have to be what it’s about.

And in fact, this period in life can also be very healthy.

What Causes Midlife Crisis?

If midlife crisis is a period of reflection and transformation, what causes it?

I think mid-life crisis is really about recognition of our own mortality. It happens anywhere from some ones late 30’s to early 50’s (around “mid”-life). And if you hear enough stories you start to see that there is usually some sort of trigger.

The person going through it often has lost someone close to them, or perhaps they or someone close to them has been impacted by a serious illness.

Sometimes the trigger is just age, and with it the realization that statistically their time on this earth is moving into its second half; and we are closer to our death than our birth.

Why do People Handle it Differently?

To me, the biggest question is why do people handle it so differently? At this time of reflection, some people don’t seem affected at all. Others take stock of their lives and decide to take up a new hobby. And then we have those who dump their partner, buy a sports car and start dating the yoga instructor.

It’s clear that not all approaches are equal, and some have much more significant long term repercussions than others.

Each person is doing what seems right to them at the time, but in the cases that are “newsworthy” to friends and loved ones it often seems like they are watching a car crash. They are watching a loved one engage in what appear to be self-destructive actions and decisions.

So what causes this difference in behavior?

I think it’s primarily due to two things:

  • The size of the gap between where you hoped/wanted to be and where you feel you are
  • The degree of control you feel you have had over how you got to your current situation

The first one seems obvious. You sit back and look at your life, and it’s not what you expected. Maybe a big part of that is due to a romanticized notion of what life “should” look like, but if your life doesn’t look like the one you wanted and you believe that your time is running out, it makes sense to want to make changes.

I think the second reason is actually MUCH more important though.

I write about relationships, but the main underlying theme in my writing is choice and accountability. I feel that choice, and the belief that you have the ability to make choices is one of the biggest keys to happiness.

When I hear stories about midlife crisis, the people who make the biggest changes are usually people who have been living the life they thought they “had” to, or the life they felt was expected of them. Commonly they didn’t assert themselves, and instead just went with the flow.

And now they don’t want to do that anymore. Instead, they decide to live the life they “want” to live – usually acting very impulsively and with little thought about consequences. It’s at once a rebellion and an assertion of individuality; a way of taking control of their own life – with either very little thought given to the damage being done in the process or a belief that they have “sacrificed” for long enough and they don’t want to anymore.

I truly believe this element of choice and control is much more important than the actual gap between where someone is and where they want to be.

If the gap is large but it’s a result of your own choices? Well, there’s no one to blame but yourself. You may not have what you want but you’ve done the best with what you had.

If you feel that you have been living the live that was expected of you though?

People can have what from all outward appearances are great lives. Great families, jobs, partners that truly care about them and support them. It doesn’t matter how “great” a persons life is though if they don’t feel they “choose it”.

No matter how much good there is, if they feel they have been living the life that others expected of them then it lays the groundwork for considerable resentment.

What is the Crisis?

When this midlife time of reflection becomes a crisis, there are a few common areas. These include the following:

Loss of Identity

This is probably the biggest one. In life we play a number of different roles. And in the process of growing and changing it’s easy to find that in all the roles we have “lost ourselves”.

We have become the parent, the partner, the co-worker, the child. We are all these different things to different people. But who are we?

I think we are the sum of all these things. Each of them makes up a part of us that is part of who we truly are.

When there is a sense of lost identity, maybe people never actually knew who they really were. This realization can be painful, but also powerful.

And midlife becomes a time of finding yourself again, and perhaps finally accepting yourself for who you are, instead of looking at who you are not.

Loss of Freedom

At midlife people often talk about “wanting to be free”. There is often sadness at lost youth, and a yearning for the freedom that came with it.

But the sad truth is, as much as we may try there is no going back. We were “free” because we were kids. We had adults to take care of us and look after us.

Once you are an adult? Freedom doesn’t really exist – at least not in the way it did when we were kids. You pretty much have to go to work. You have to have shelter, you have to eat. If you have kids, you have to take care of them. And if you want a relationship, you have to put effort in.

All of these things definitely DO put restrictions on you.

You absolutely CAN choose to walk away from those restrictions, and some do. Some hit a point that they find the stress too high and they just walk away one or all of these parts of their lives – their partner, their job, and even their children.

However when people do that they are looking for a freedom that they will never truly find. And that type of freedom not only comes at great cost, but is also usually not quite what someone expects.

Feeling Stuck

Another issue that can cause midlife to be a time of crisis is the sense of being “stuck”. Life has become mundane and routine. You feel like you are just going through the motions. Alive, but not truly living.

The advertising world tells us that “normal” is bad. It tells us that we are special, we aren’t like all the “other people”. We deserve more.

Then we look over and see the kids. And the mortgage. And the bills. And the pile of laundry.

And over time a sense of sadness and hopelessness builds, which in time can turn to depression.

I think this is probably the leading cause of affairs and divorce. People are looking for some sort of change to shake them out of the rut they are in, and finding comfort in the arms of another is an easy (and temporary) way out. People who have affairs often say that they wanted “to feel alive again”, and that they had lost that feeling.

Affairs are a quick fix though, and they don’t address the underlying issues. I talk about this as it applies to relationships in Losing the Spark. But even individually we all need goals. We need things to strive towards (both individually and as a couple) in order to allow us to get through day to day life.

Truthfully, we all could probably do with a bit more excitement our lives. But it doesn’t just happen, we need to build it in.

A Time for Change

Midlife is a time for reflection. Even if you have been living the life you felt you had to, or the one you felt was expected of you – sometimes when you take a good look at it you realize hey, it’s not so bad.

Maybe there are a few changes you can make, a few goals to pursue, a bit of improvement in communication with people you care about.

And sometimes improving a few little things can make a world of difference. We don’t necessarily have to wipe the board clean and start our life over again.

Last year I hit 40. Mid-life.

There was a bit of turmoil in my life at the time, but I can truly say I never entertained thoughts of the sports car and the yoga instructor.

I did reflect on my life, and I do on a fairly regular basis. But every time I do, I come to the same conclusions.

Yes, life could have been different. There are any number of choices I made which, had I chosen differently would have resulted in a different “me” today.

But I have no regrets. All of my choices were mine, and all of them helped shape me into the person I am today.

And honestly? I like me. Hell, I love me.

And I love my life.

My life is not perfect and it never will be. And things won’t always work out the way I want. But I have a lot of things to be thankful for.

And I ALWAYS have choice.

Others matter to me, and I care about their opinions. They may even influence some of my choices in the way I live my life. But they were still my choices.

I can always choose to improve the things I don’t like, accept them as they are, or change them.

And so can you.

The Magic Sword

magic sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

(wait for it)…

It made people see the truth.

The truth? Really?

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

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

We All Lie

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we Lie?

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

Here’s my take:

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

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

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

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

The Responsibility Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding Responsibility

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

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

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

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

And then there is our partner…

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

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

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

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

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

Scared to Try

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

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

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

self-acceptance

I Can’t

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

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

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

We all have limitations.

There are always things we can’t do.

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

Making Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your choices.

Your decisions.

Other people may influence you, but you own them.

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

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

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

Embracing the Journey

long-journey

Back when I was in high school, I was part of a test run where the school introduced a series of “advanced placement” classes. School had always come easy for me, but even still I remember feeling proud that I had been selected for a program for “smart kids” (what can I say, we all have egos).

In most of the cases I didn’t really notice a difference between the regular classes and the advanced placement ones. With one exception – math.

Math had always been one of my stronger subjects, but for some reason I started to struggle. We were dealing with concepts that I was having a hard time with, and before long I was feeling that I was in over my head. As someone who had always been able to just show up in class and do well, this was a new (and unpleasant experience). A few months (and tests) in, my math marks were suffering, and I started to worry about my grade.

Somewhere along the way though, things started to click. I finally started to understand what we were doing, and my marks improved. Even still, I worried about how my earlier struggles would impact my final grade. One day I mentioned that to the instructor, and he told me not to worry. To him, the early struggles didn’t matter. He told me that the concepts built upon each other, and even though it took me a while I had shown I had learned the concepts. Because of that he was willing to throw away the earlier marks. Normally the first half of a course is weighted for roughly half the final grade, and I had done poorly the first few months so I was ecstatic about this. Based on what he said, what I “heard” was that as long as I did well on the final, I could still finish with a good grade. To me, it was that final grade that mattered.

But I missed the point. It was never about the grade. The grade was a goal, or a destination. These goals are important as they give us something to strive towards. In many ways though that grade was just an empty number. What really mattered was the process, the journey of learning and gaining understanding.

As people, we do this all the time. We get caught up in focusing on the destination. We focus on what we want to have, or who we hope to be. And in the process we don’t appreciate the moment. We are focusing on what we feel we are missing or what we don’t have instead of focusing on what we do have, and who we are right now.

Your Highlights

Imagine a photo album of your life. What would that look like?

Chances are your albums are full of your “highlights”, or your best times. Maybe it has baby pictures, and pictures from events such as graduations, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries (all of these are both yours and those of people in your life). Each of these moments is simply a snapshot – a window into a point in time in our life. These may be some of the things we remember most, but these images don’t do a very good job of representing who we are or the life we have. They show what we want to show.

Not all of our moments are highlights. We make mistakes, do stupid things, and hurt the people we love. And the same things happen to us. People come and go from our lives. People we care about hurt us and disappoint us. Tragedy happens. Those moments are just as much a part of us as the ones that make it into our photo albums. We are the sum of our experiences, and all of these moments are part of the journey of who we are.

In fact I think it is often these harder moments, and how we deal with them that has the greatest impact on who we are. When we are going through difficult times, I have to admit, it kind of sucks. But these harder moments are important. They shape us and they are how we grow. For good or bad, we wouldn’t be who we are without them.

Who Do You Want to be

I write mostly about relationships, and the struggles that are common to long term relationships. Couples often hit a point where they are struggling, and they aren’t sure if it’s worth it anymore. Sometimes the passion is gone, or they just aren’t happy anymore (with themself, their partner, or in the relationships). They look around at other people, other couples, and think “is this it”? If you are at that point, have you communicated it to you partner? If so, what was their response?

Something to remember is that each moment is simply a snapshot, a point in time. Where you are today as an individual or in a relationships doesn’t define you. It’s simply a view of where you are or how you feel right now. Another thing to remember is that when you look at other people, you aren’t truly seeing them. You are only seeing a snapshot of their life. And chances are, you are only seeing the parts they want you to see.

Everyone has hard times, everyone has moments where they struggle. But that’s part of the journey.

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I think that “trying” is the most important thing of all. Having a vision of what you want is a positive as it gives you a goal to strive towards. But the goal is simply a snapshot of a future state. The important part is your process for getting there. And that process is based on effort. With effort, anything is possible.

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.

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Life Without Self-Love – Part 1

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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 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.

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.