Showing your “True Colors”

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I’ve been blogging for around 3 years now, and in addition to writing I try to follow a number of blogs.

One of the blogs I follow regularly is another relationship blog, written by a guy who went through a divorce a number of years back.  His divorce broke him; so he started writing about all the things he did both consciously and unconsciously that ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage and his divorce.

It’s refreshing, and self-aware.  Like myself, the guy who writes it seems to believe most relationships can be improved by looking inward at the things you are doing as a person, and BEING BETTER.  And a big part of being better is gaining an awareness of what often goes wrong and trying to better understand and accept the other person.

Anyhow, his blog seems pretty successful, and has a really active community in the comments section.  Great group of people by and large, but like any “family” it sure has its own dysfunctions.  And a few months back the comments section broke down.

A new reader came along with a very different set of beliefs compared to most readers.  Beliefs that were frequently offensive and hurtful to others.  These comments started to disturb what had been a pretty happy/healthy commenting community, and many (myself included actually) became upset that this one commenter was, for a lack of a better term, poisoning the comments.

Some asked for this commenter to be banned, or at least something to be done.  But nothing was, and things became worse for a while.

Eventually, when multiple requests to do something to improve the comments section were ignored, one readers suggested that by not doing anything the author of the blog was “showing his true colors.”

Communication can be difficult and frustrating at times; so I can’t say exactly what was meant by that.  But my interpretation of that assertion was, in writing his blog the author talked about things like equality and improving relationships between men and women.  However by allowing dysfunction in the comments section he was showing inconsistency with this.  So perhaps the reality was, he really didn’t care.

This post really has nothing to do with the issue with the comments section story.  Similar to how my last post opened up with a story about renewing a mortgage, and then went on to actually be about how people can place differing values on the same thing; that’s just a backdrop to a larger idea (or at least that’s my intent).  And that’s the idea that in life, there are always nuances.  And things are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

 

Patterns of Behavior 

I like to think I am a good person.  I have a strong moral compass, and I try to live my life with integrity.  Truly, I try to do “the right thing”, whatever that is.  And I would *like* to think I’m a fairly empathetic person, who does his best to think through the consequences of his actions before he does them.

But you know what?  Sometimes I hurt people.  And sometimes it’s a lot.  In fact, even for the people I care about the most, I PROMISE I will hurt them.

I hurt people in different ways too.  Sometimes by something I do, and sometimes by something I don’t do.  Sometimes I do things that get interpreted in ways I never meant.

Does that make me a bad person?

 

If I do 50 “good” things and 5 “bad” ones, do those bad ones show “the truth” about me?  Do they show that I’m actually a bad person?  That my “good” actions were just a show?

Yeah, I’ll acknowledge there are differing degrees of what good and bad are.  So yes, I suppose it’s possible that one bad action (particularly in the case of extreme behaviors, which again is subjective) can completely undo the good.  But by and large, I say no.

 

In statistical analysis, there is the concept of outliers.  Outliers are values that “stand out from other values in a set of data”, because they are aberrations in some way.

We are all going to have good days and bad days.  We are all going to do things that hurt others sometimes.

What REALLY matters is not each discrete individual action.  A bad action is a bad action.  A bad choice is a bad choice.

What matters is the PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR, and it is these patterns that speak to a person’s true character.  How you consistently act is a much more accurate measure of who you are than any specific action.

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

Cognitive distortions are broken thinking patterns that are often found in mental illnesses and mood disorders.  They are commonly found in anxiety disorders and depression, and are also believed to be part of why it’s so hard to break the cycle of anxiety and depression – these thinking patterns reinforce negative thoughts and emotions, “feeding” the issue (as an aside, one of the most effective ways to deal with/manage depression and anxiety is cognitive behavior therapy, which is intended to rewire the brain to correct these thinking patterns).

There are a number of different cognitive disorders found in anxiety and depression, and perhaps the most damaging is Splitting, or All or Nothing Thinking.

 

All or Nothing Thinking is kind of self-explanatory.  It is a form of thinking where we look at things in extremes, or as black and white.  You are a success, or a failure.  Someone loves you, or they hate you.  Something is perfect, or it is broken.

To be clear, we ALL fall into this sort of thinking once in a while (so when I reference the “comments” situation at the top I am in NO way suggesting anyone there is mentally ill).  But although we all do this sometimes, this type of thinking becomes a HUGE problem when it becomes a common or default form of thinking, or a pattern of behavior.

 

A while back I talked about the primal brain, and how the primal brain overrides reason and logic.  Well one of the big issues with all or nothing thinking is that it’s rooted in emotions, and normally extreme emotions.  It’s part of the automatic fight or flight response that you generally see with depression and anxiety.

 

Impacts on Relationships

Hopefully it’s clear that an automatic form of thinking, which overrides rationality and is rooted in extreme emotions is unhealthy.  But just in case it’s not, here’s a common way it impacts relationships:

In the early days of relationships, we all have a tendency to idealize our partners.  We see them as we want to see them (not as they actually are), and are often blind to their flaws.

This is normal, and science has shown that in the early days of love, brain chemicals are actually altered, contributing to this.

Eventually though (generally between 6 months and 2 years), this altered chemical state goes back to normal and we are able to see the person more clearly.  Normally we see a few rough edges, but are still able to accept the other person for who they are.

With all or nothing thinking however, these “flaws” often become proof that “something is wrong with the relationship”.  And if something is wrong, then this person is not “the one”.

 

All or nothing thinking has a perfectionist view of relationships; where there is a belief that if you can just find the right person, everything will be perfect and you will be happy forever.

But no one is perfect, and not being perfect doesn’t mean someone is a failure.  A relationship isn’t good or bad, rather it will have good and bad elements.

 

Popular dating site eharmony even talks about this thinking pattern and what it can mean to relationships:

Rather than seeing people as having both positives and negatives, overly critical people hold their romantic partners to an unrealistic expectation of having no faults whatsoever. Sadly, this type of “all-or-nothing” behavior can repeat over and over in one relationship after another until a person realizes that they themselves are the problem.

 

Basically, all or nothing thinking does a lot of damage to relationship.

 

And in addition to doing damage, it also makes is so people fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that things can never get better.

I’ve talked about loss of hope before and how destructive it is to improving a relationship.  With all or nothing thinking, the mere existence of problems shows that the relationship is flawed.  And if it can’t be perfect, what’s the point?

It makes it hard to see or appreciate incremental improvements, as the relationship is all or nothing.

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

All or nothing thinking puts tremendous strain on relationships.  And unfortunately, people who suffer from it usually don’t even realize that their way of thinking is unusual and damaging.  It’s a thinking pattern, so for them, that’s their reality – or just who they are.

A question to ask yourself is, do you often think in terms of extremes?  Do you get caught up in thinking that things have to be perfect, and if they aren’t they are ruined?  Do you give up on things easily because you “know” you can’t do them, or you feel they are impossible?  Do you think in terms of “always”, or “never”, “terrible” or “awful”?

If those sorts of thoughts are common, you may deal with all or nothing thinking.  And it may be doing a lot of harm to your relationships, and your personal life in general.

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

You can love some parts of your life and not others, and still have an amazing life.

You can be terrible at something, but still be able to improve it.

Your partner can love you, but still be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

 

And nothing in life can ever get better, until you can accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

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Dealing with Emotions

Anger

Of the many roles I play in life, one of the most important is that I’m the father of two young boys. Being a parent is hard, harder than I ever imagined. And one of the hardest parts (in my opinion) is trying to teach my children to manage and regulate their emotions.

It’s easy to say that emotions are normal when we are dealing with positive emotions. Joy, laughter, curiosity, excitement, anticipation etc. But you can’t have positive emotions without also accepting the negative ones – things like anger, fear, guilt, despair, grief, shame and apathy.

We aren’t all one thing. We can’t always be happy, and we can’t always be positive. We need to accept all parts of ourselves, and be able to express them.

Recently I came across the following quote about anger:

AngerAristotle

I think this quote is perfect. Everyone gets angry sometimes. Anger is a normal and natural response to some sort of external stimuli. But having your level of anger be appropriate for the situation at hand? That’s a lot harder. And directing your anger at the right person, to the right degree, for the right reason? Much, much harder.

Emotions and Mental Health

A while back I came across this video, and it’s probably one of the most powerful 3 minutes you can spend (seriously, if you haven’t seen it check it out). It’s described as an exploration of masculinity, but to me it’s really about emotion, trying to learn and conform to what is considered “acceptable” emotion; and the problems people encounter when they try to suppress emotions and feeling that aren’t seen as acceptable.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli. When we try to suppress them, we are trying to deny part of what makes us who we are. And when we suppress them over an extended period of time, we do considerable harm to ourselves. The result of trying to suppress emotion is found in pain, misdirected anger, fear and loneliness. Over time this can even lead to depression.

So no, we should never try to repress emotions. Crying, anger, sadness – these are all normal, and acceptable. Going back to the Aristotle quote, the key is to be able to have an appropriate level of response.

The video above is focused on boys and men and notions of masculinity, so it applies to me as a father of two boys. But the suppression of emotions or treating emotions as “bad thing” is a wider problem. One that affects everyone – man or woman, young or old.

Emotions and Relationships

Which brings me back to my normal topic – relationships. Relationships are supposed to be a place of safety – both physically and emotionally, and emotions are also a big part of what brings us together initially. One of the key aspects of a relationship is how the other person makes us “feel”, and how we feel about ourselves around them.

I believe that when relationships struggle and/or fail often it is not due to a lack of love, but rather because of an inability to regulate emotions.

Our physical and emotional health are linked. Most people are more irritable when they are feeling stressed, or even if they are just tired or hungry. And I suspect we all know that when we are irritable we are prone to take out our emotions on others.

When this happens, our response is no longer in line with the event.

We are all human, so at least at some level we get it, and are normally willing to accept it from our partners. But it becomes an issue when it is a pattern of behavior. When the other person is frequently irritable, easily angered, and directs the anger at other people, or at inappropriate levels for the issue at hand.

We need to recognize when this is happening, recognize when it has become a problem, and take steps to prevent it.

Some people will claim “This is just how I am”, but that is absolutely the wrong approach. Yes people are different. Some are more sensitive than others, and yes we change over time.

But when your ability to regulate emotions is affecting your life and spilling out into your relationship, it’s a problem.

Often people have excuses. Yes, I lashed out – but I was having a bad day. But the baby was crying, but I was hungry, but…

There is always a reason, and taken individually they are usually valid. It’s not about specific incidents though, it’s about patterns of behavior.

Even the best of people have times when their tempers are short, and they take that out on someone they shouldn’t. The question is, how frequently does it happen (better not be often), and after it does what is the response. Does someone own the action and show remorse? Or do they just try and pretend it never happened?

Patterns of negative emotions or patterns of anger where we take out our frustrations at the wrong person or to the wrong degree over a period of time has a name.

Emotional Abuse.

Emotional Abuse

Everyone has moments where they say things they “didn’t mean to”. Guess what, when you lash out at someone, whether you meant to or not doesn’t change what has happened. It’s one thing when these are rare moments that are out of character for someone, and they are genuinely apologetic or embarrassed afterwards. Then perhaps you can chalk it up as a poor response to external stress. But when outbursts become more common, all the apologies in the world don’t matter. It is the behavior that matters, not the words.

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To put this in perspective, in physically abusive situations the abuser will often claim they “didn’t mean” to hit their partner. And maybe they didn’t. Commonly they will say (or think) it happened because “you made me do it”. They believe that they wouldn’t have hit the other person if their partner hadn’t done something to make them angry enough to do it. In truth, there probably was some incident – but the response was completely unacceptable and out of line with the actual issue.

Emotional abuse is based on the same premise. But the scars that it leaves aren’t as easily seen.

Letting Emotion In

I don’t profess any expertise here, but I suspect in cases of physical and emotional abuse, the abuser is like the boys from the video. They are people who have never learned to accept their emotions, and as a result they have never learned to regulate them.

Maybe they were told “not to cry” because crying is for sissies. Maybe they were punished for showing emotions, or they felt that emotions made them weak.

As father of two young children, I will admit to moments of frustration when my children are having tantrums, or crying over “silly things”. I try to teach them that all emotions are fine, and acceptable.

I don’t want them thinking that it’s wrong to cry, or that they have to “be strong” all the time. I want them to express life the way that is right for them. To love, laugh, and cry. To accept that anger is natural, but to not let it poison them and their relationships. And to not be ashamed of who they are.

I have no idea how I’m doing, and I probably won’t know for many years to come. But that’s my goal, and it’s something I will always strive towards.

Misdirected Anger

As I said above, we all have moments that we inadvertently (hopefully) take our anger and frustration out on those we love. If you are someone who struggles with anger, and find that this has become a pattern I have one question for you.

Why?

Why would someone stay with me if I was always irritable or angry? And more importantly, if I frequently direct anger towards them with inappropriate levels or at inappropriate times?

In relationships, conflict happens. It’s natural, and can actually be very healthy. After all, if there is no conflict how are you learning? How are you growing as a couple? Encountering and overcoming obstacles together is probably one of the greatest ways to bond as a couple.

So don’t try to suppress conflict. Accept it, and allow it in. And allow all the emotions that comes with it to come in as well. But try to do this in a healthy way.
Although anger is natural and should not be held in, it needs to be directed at the right person, and at the right level. In accepting our emotions we still need to be respectful of those around us. And learning to do this consistently is something that can take a lifetime.