Under Pressure

pressure

Recently I discussed the idea that many (and perhaps most) relationship issues are not actually issues with the relationship, but are rather issues with coping skills and handling stress and pressure.

Sometimes life gets hard, and there is a sense of being “trapped” in a situation and a longing to be “free”.

Free from responsibility.

Free from expectation.

The things is, that sort of freedom is a fantasy and is not attainable. I would also argue it’s actually not even desirable.

Responsibility, pressure and expectations are part of life. We all have them and always will. Even at your most “free”, you had them.

People sometimes believe they will be happy if they can only find “freedom”, and life without responsibility and pressure.

And when life gets hard, people sometimes are willing to throw away the good parts of their life with the bad, just to have a taste of freedom – even if it’s just for a moment.

But any escapes from them are always temporary, and never real.

Your Life is Not Your Own

We are individuals. We can be who or what we want. We are free to make our own choices. In that sense, we are entirely free.

But just as throwing stones in a pond creates ripples, each and every choice we make has impacts, or consequences. And because of that, none of us are ever truly free.

Does that mean you should live for others and do that what want?

No. Not at all.

You should never live for someone else. You should always be able to tell other people “no”, and do what you want.

But those choices about what you want don’t only affect you. And it’s important to understand that when making them.

Are We Ever Truly “Free”?

Think of your late teens/early 20’s. Some people call these years “the best years of your life”.

I completely disagree with that notion, and think it’s actually pretty sad to think. If your life peaked at 18 or 20, there’s *probably* something wrong. Ideally your current years should be your best – whatever they are.

That said, those years from 18-25 are probably when you had the most freedom.

You were considered an adult. You may have been living with your parents still, or you may have been out on your own for the first time. But chances are, for the first time in your life you were making your own decisions. Your own choices.

You probably had a job, so you now had money to do some of the things you wanted. Maybe you were going to school, but if so it was up to you if and when you wanted to go.

Life was easy.

Your biggest concerns were whether to study, work or to go out with your friends tonight.

Your choices largely affected you.

But even then you weren’t free. You couldn’t truly do whatever you wanted.
If you wanted to go on a vacation or get something new you still needed to save for it. Or rack up credit card debt, but eventually that caught up to you.

If you were on your own you still needed to come up with money for food and rent. And if you were living with your parents, you knew that one day that would have to end.

Your choices still had impacts – it’s just that less people were impacted by them. And those impacts were more indirect.

carefree

Feeling Pressure

So where (and when) does pressure come in?

I think pressure comes in two related forms. Look at the following definitions of pressure:

– the continuous physical force exerted on or against an object by something in contact with it.
– the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something.

The first definition is like responsibility. Work, mortgage, bills, parenting, our relationship. They are always there, constantly. Sure, there are weekends, and maybe a couple of weeks vacation every year. But as much as we may wish it, responsibilities don’t go away.

The second definition is like expectation. Expectation is when you feel that you need to do something, or you feel you are being measured against some sort of standard.

When you look at these concepts expectation and responsibility, pressure really comes when there is a struggle to meet one or both of them.

Expectations

While responsibility is something we all have and there is no real escape from it, expectation is a bit different.

Expectation may appear to come from others, but it is actually largely internal. Whether others expect something of you or not in many ways doesn’t matter. What really matters is what you expect from yourself, what you believe others expect of you and what you expect you should be able to do for others.

The pressure people feel from expectation comes from within. Often we “believe” that other people expect something from us, when they don’t. Or maybe they do, but not nearly to the extent that we believe they do.

Even if someone does expect something of us, that expectation has no power over us unless we also expect it of ourselves.

When we internalize this expectation, it gives us a sense of how we are being measured. And when we feel we aren’t meeting it, we experience guilt and shame as a result.

So expectation is the voice inside our head, telling us we need to do this, or that. It is the internal critic, and it is this expectation we place on our self that tells us we aren’t good enough, smart enough, or pretty/handsome enough.

Being “Free”

When the pressure of responsibility and expectation becomes too great, people break.

That’s when they feel trapped, and feel a need to be free. But when you are feeling this sort of pressure, the “freedom” you are looking for is simply an escape, and often an unhealthy one.

A few year ago a buddy of mine’s girlfriend died. They had been together for a lot of years, and had four kids together. Not long after their fourth child, things went bad. The pressure of everything got to her, and according to my buddy she talked about just wanting to “be free”. She walked out, leaving him with the kids, and ended up escaping into a world of drugs. Within six months she was dead of an overdose.

That’s a pretty extreme case, but this next one is more familiar:

Another buddy was married, and he and his wife welcomed their first child. In his mind, life was good. They had a house, cottage, and family. They both had pretty good jobs, and a great future. Then one day she told she wanted out, with no warning that there were any troubles between them. He felt blindsided, and tried getting them to counseling, but she was going through the motions. She had decided she was done before he even had a chance.

So they split up, and she went back to her “party days”. Around two years later she contacted him and told him she realized she had made a huge mistake. She wondered if it would be possible for them to try and work things out. The pressure of life had gotten to be too much for her, and she wanted to be free. But she realized that what she was chasing wasn’t real. It was simply an escape from life.

It was too late. Too much damage had been done, and he had moved on.

Pressure and Anxiety

People have different levels of stress, and we also have different ways of coping with the stresses in our life. Everyone feels pressure at some point in time, but this is accentuated for people with anxiety issues.

My buddy Gandalf is somewhat of an expert on anxiety (in my mind anyhow), and he gave me following description of how the dual pressure of responsibility and expectation affects someone with an anxiety disorder…

Most people fear failure. But when they fail most people accept something didn’t work and try a different approach. When someone has an anxiety disorder they cannot separate the failure of a task with the failure of their core being. Plus, they fear others will dislike them if they fail, especially if they value the other person’s approval. With little to no internal self-worth, their self-worth come from the people they are seeking approval from.

This makes anxiety suffers avoid responsibility, unless they can control the outcome so that it’s always a success. They pick battles that they know they’ll win before starting. But in a weird twist they also fear success, because it usually means increased responsibilities they cannot control and automatically succeed at. So the easiest path in life is to avoid responsibilities.

This is freedom, but it’s actually freedom from worrying, not responsibilities. Responsibilities cause fear, worrying, and anxiety, and all they want is for that to stop. Being unable to handle the fear of failure, the only option is to not be responsible for anything. Thus, when free of responsibilities, they are free of the anxiety that comes with it, and they are “free”.

Expectations are a subset of responsibilities. These are personal evaluations of a person by another, like a friend, family member, or coworker. They place a condition on their relationship that one tries to live up to. If the person suffering anxiety feels they are not meeting that expectation, they start to worry the other person will not like them and be angry with them. Also, if the anxiety sufferer feels they are exceeding the other person’s expectations, they want that external validation. When it’s not there, they get upset and feel like they are not appreciated.

Like responsibilities, expectations are to be avoided as well, and resentment occurs when the person suffering from anxiety feels that expectations have been placed on them by others, especially ones that they feel they cannot succeed at, or live up to. The main difference is responsibilities can usually be chosen, while expectations are usually arbitrary.

Responsibility and expectation can be hard for anyone, but when someone has anxiety feelings of guilt and shame also get mixed up in there.

Not a lot of fun.

Managing Expectations

Which brings me back to my regular topic, relationships.

Relationships inherently have both responsibility and expectations. That’s not a bad thing, but when life is hard these responsibilities and expectations can be difficult. And the pressure can take a toll on our relationships.

When we are under pressure, hopefully our partner will be understanding and try to help alleviate some of that pressure. But when the pressure persists for extended periods, then it’s important to try and understand it.

When you are feeling pressured, trapped and in need of an escape make sure you ask yourself the right questions. Is it really the relationship? Often relationships are blamed for pressure because stress spills over into them, making them an easy target.

Maybe the pressure is actually coming from responsibility.

If so, we taking too much on? Are there ways we can lessen the load, or are the responsibilities we face part of normal everyday life?

If our responsibilities can’t change, then we have to look at expectations. Expectations normally come from within. What is your inner critic telling you? Working to silence (or at least reduce) the internal critic is one of the most effective ways of managing stress.

Actively work on managing your stress and your internal critic. Your physical and mental well being will thank you for it, and so will your relationship.

Should You Have to Change?

changeHeading

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.

alwaysdone

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.

LifeChange

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.

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.

Are you a Dreamer or a Realist?

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

That got me thinking of dreams.

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

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

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

That’s not what they are about.

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

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

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

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

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

Be a dreamer, but temper it with reality.

You Can Have Anything (Just Not Everything)

i-want-it-all

I’ve mentioned before that I spend my days in the world of business and that I see parallels between what it takes to succeed in business and in relationships. One of the business concepts that I always have in the back of my head is something known as the triple constraint.

The Triple Constraint

The triple constraint is based on the idea that we are restricted in what we do by three different things; time, resources and scope. Each of these are interrelated, meaning you can’t change one without impacting the others. In the center of the triangle you see quality, indicating that the quality of what we are doing is dependent on finding a balance between these three things.

Triple-Constraint

To illustrate this concept, let’s look at building a fence.

Scope is the extent or area that something deals with. You can also think of it as the range, breadth, span or reach of something. Basically it’s “what” something is. If you want to build a fence, your scope involves a lot of things. What is the fence around? Is it your whole yard? Only once side? How many feet of fence do you need to build? How tall does it need to be? What materials do you want to use? All of these details about what you are trying to accomplish are the scope of the fence.

Time is the duration of building a fence. This isn’t the time in terms of effort, but is the amount of time from start to finish. Do you want to build it in a day? A week?

Lastly you have resources. This is what you put into building the fence in terms of both money and personal effort (your time invested).

To see how these different sides of the triple constraint are related, picture a specific fence (a fixed scope). If you want to build it yourself, your resources will be the cost of materials and your effort in building it. How fast you can build it will depend on the time you have available. If you are on holidays maybe you can build it in a few days. If you are working and have other responsibilities it will take a lot longer to complete.

If you want it built faster, you can always get friends to help or hire someone – but that means it will increase your costs. If you don’t want to increase your costs (maybe you can’t afford it) you may change the design of the fence somewhat (the scope), to reduce your costs. Likewise if you want a fancier fence, or something using different materials it will impact the costs.

At some level, we have all seen this principle at play. There is a sense of “value” behind items. For example, we understand that a burger from a fast food restaurant generally costs less than a burger at a sit down restaurant. Inherent in that cost there is a sense that a higher price indicates a better burger. Maybe it’s larger, or has better ingredients, or the restaurant has better service. Similarly we expect “fast food” to be ready in a few minutes, while at a sit down restaurant we expect to have to wait a while.

good_cheap_fast_sign

Competing Priorities

In life, it’s possible to have or do almost anything if you put in enough time and effort. We’ll do better at some things than others, but you can still do anything.

However everything we do is constrained by limits on money, energy and the number of hours in a day. We only have so much of each of them. So while it IS possible to do almost anything, we can’t have everything. Working towards one thing sometimes means we can’t work towards another thing at the same time. We have to pick what is really important to us, and focus our energies on that.

Remember, the triple constraint says the quality of something is dependent on finding a balance between scope, time and resources. When we try doing too many things at once, we lose that balance. We end up burning ourselves out and the quality of ALL the things we are trying to do will suffer.

Prioritizing Love

The triple constraint is easy to see when looking at things like building a fence, but it also applies to our relationships.

In the early days of building a relationship, you are often putting considerable time and resources (both energy and money) into the other person. You may be figuring out what the “scope” of the relationship is (are we just going out once in a while? Are we exclusive? Are we a couple?), but because of the investment of time and effort you are building a level of quality into the relationship.

So where do we go wrong with long term relationships? One of the main reasons long term relationships become stagnant is because we stop prioritizing them. We stop putting in the time and effort needed to both maintain and grow our relationships.

After a while we start to feel “safe”, and believe our partner will always be there. In many ways this is a good thing. The problem is, due to this belief that our partner will always be there, when life starts to get in the way it’s our relationship that we let slide.

We have jobs, and friendships to maintain. We have hobbies, and we want to take care of ourselves both physically and mentally. Kids come, and they become the primary focus for a long time (I’ll admit kids have to be the focus, and they take a tremendous amount of energy.

But these things become reasons to neglect the relationship. It may not happen intentionally, but it happens all the same. We may “say” that our relationship is a priority to us, but when you look at how we prioritize our time our actions often don’t back up our words.

The triple constraint says there is a relationship between time (duration), energy (resources) and scope. For committed relationships we hope to spend a lifetime together, so the duration we are looking for is pretty large –it’s the rest of our life. If our duration is fixed, then that leaves scope and resources.

When we stop focusing on our relationship by spending less time with our partners and putting less energy into the relationship, the only outcome is to impact the scope and/or the quality of the relationship. Instead of having a close loving relationship, we end up as roommates.

One day we realize that, and instead of looking at WHY, we mourn the loss of the relationship.
Some people accept this reduced scope, and largely live separate lives. Others are roommates who have sex sometimes and maybe go on the occasional trip together. And others walk away because “the relationship has failed”.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

What we get out of something is dependent on what we put into it. What is it that you put into a relationship? Think of the resources side of the triple constraint – what you put in is time and energy (effort). Well, money too I suppose. But buying your partner things as a sign of affection without putting time and effort into the relationship is meaningless.

So ask yourself, what exactly are we doing when we let our relationship slide because life has become “too busy”? When we stop making time focused on being a couple?

When we do this we are taking our relationship and our partner for granted. We may say they are important, and they probably truly are. But actions speak louder than words. If we aren’t finding a way to prioritize our partner in our life, then we aren’t showing they matter to us.

This is when resentment and apathy starts to creep in, and relationships start to break down. Usually people know they are letting their relationship slide. They realize it, but with all the other things going on in life they can’t find a balance and they can’t find a way to make time.

Think of the triple constraint. If you can’t find a balance between time, scope and resources the quality of things suffers. Maybe you are taking on too much. Maybe as much as you want to do everything, you have to let something go.

Maybe you actually need to do everything that you are currently doing. If so, maybe you can get help from your partner to reduce the load and free up more time for each other.

People often say “I can’t find the time”. When you look at the damage done to a relationship by not finding the time, I think it’s more accurate to say you can’t afford not to.

Depending on what is happening in life (and especially if there are kids) I don’t think anyone is really expecting the amount of time and effort spent on the relationship that there was in the early days. That’s likely not realistic. But it’s important to recognize that your level of closeness in the relationship is like your scope. So when you have less time and effort to put into the relationship, your closeness will be impacted. That doesn’t mean you are falling out of love – it’s simply the triple constraint at work.

So think about what is truly important to you, and then look at how your time is spent. Do the two things line up?

ThinkingAboutPriorities

Sometimes it is hard to make time for your relationship, and I think both partners understand this. But the effort has to always be there. With the triple constraint quality is in the middle. You can’t control the number of hours in the day and you can’t control the amount of money you have.

But you CAN take advantage of the moments you do have to focus on each other. In the process, you may find that you are building quality and closeness back in.

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.

i_cant_promise_i_perfect_relationship

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.