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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Love and Connection

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In my last post I talked about connection, and how connection requires you to be able to be in the moment.

Increasingly I think connection is what we are all looking for.  In family, in friendships, and especially in romantic relationships, connection is the key that binds us together.  Brene Brown describes connection as:

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Connection is intangible; but at the same time you know when it’s there and you know when it’s missing.  We all want connection, and because humans are social animals I think it’s just as much of a need as food and shelter.

Intimacy (closeness) and love, these are all about connection.

 

Learning about Love

Growing up, we are taught the wrong things about love.  I realize I’m stereotyping here (so feel free to ignore this if you disagree), but little girls seem to be taught that love is all about passion and romance – flowers, kisses and hearts that pound at the sight of the other person.  And many women seem to internalize this, and come to believe that’s what love is.  Intensity.  Passion.

In fact, I recently saw a blog post talking about how the author wants her love to be like a hurricane.  Passionate, and furious.

And I get that in a way.

But hurricane’s tend to not last very long.  They burn out quickly, and leave a lot of damage in their wake.

 

Boys?  I’m not sure if we are really taught anything about love.  We see the same stories about love that the girls see, but we are never really taught that love should be a goal, or something to strive for the way girls are (it’s pretty common to see little girls dressing up as a bride for Halloween – but how often do you see a little boy dressing up as a groom).

For us love seems to start as more of a physical/hormonal response, as we’re often oblivious to girls until one day we realize “damn, she’s pretty hot”.  Maybe because of this, for many of us it seems we come to associate sex with love.

I think this is why you hear that women need to feel connection in order to have sex, while men need to be having sex in order to feel connected.  And this fundamental difference in how we think (due to how we have been taught) is the source of a ton of problems.

 

In any case, I think we both learn the wrong things.  We are learning about the early phases of love, and thinking that’s what love actually is.

At its core though, I think we’re all really looking for connection.

We all want to find someone we feel connected to.  We feel safe with, we feel we can be ourselves, and they will hear us, and respect us, and value us.  And we’ll want to do the same for them.  Connection is what is truly important.

 

The Problem with Connection

As much as we really strive for connection however, many people are afraid of it.

Because real connection requires vulnerability, it requires letting someone else in.

And that can be scary as hell.

 

Many of us, and perhaps most of us, struggle with letting other people in.

True connection requires allowing someone else to see all of you – the good sides and our darker sides, the parts of us that we hide from other.  And it requires allowing that other person to love us anyways.

Allowing.

My wording here is very deliberate.

As people, we often sabotage ourselves because we are afraid.

Afraid of rejection.  Afraid that we aren’t enough.  We don’t accept ourselves, and love ourselves enough.  And if we can’t even love ourselves, then how is someone else ever going to love us?

So we hold back, and we build walls.  We try to only ever let the other person see the parts of us that we want them to see.  We build these walls subconsciously with the intent of protecting ourselves from being hurt.

In doing so, we don’t allow that other person the opportunity to truly know us.  We don’t give them the chance to accept us for all of us, good and bad.

We’re scared they won’t, so we don’t give them the opportunity.

And in the process we ensure that we will never have the connection that we truly crave.

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Emotional Disconnection

We all limit how close we let people get to us.  We all have things that we hide from both ourselves and others.

In fact I’m not sure if it’s even possible to let the other person in 100%, as doing so would require a level of self-awareness that most of will never achieve.

But for emotionally healthy relationships, we have to be in a situation where both parties are able to let the other person in and feel safe doing so.

Emotional disconnection happens when people won’t let others in.  They will have healthy relationships on the surface, but will hide their feelings and not allow someone to get too close.

Sometimes this happens due to upbringing and a person’s attachment style, but it can also be brought about due to problems with depression or anxiety.

Both depression and anxiety can cause anhedonia, a state where a person feels as though they have no emotions, positive or negative.  For sufferers of anhedonia there is an absence of emotion and they often feel dead inside.  Sufferers do still feel some emotions, but they are primarily negative emotions or a pervasive sense of sadness.  Positive emotions are not felt very strongly, and they find it hard to feel happiness.

During these dead or flat periods, external relationships frequently suffer, as connection breaks down.

Calmclinic.com describes this as follows:

Emotional detachment is usually an issue caused by severe, intense anxiety – most notably panic attacks, although any form of severe anxiety can cause emotional detachment.

While it’s not entirely clear what causes this detachment, it most likely is a coping mechanism for the brain. Severe emotions are not only mentally stressful – they’re also physically stressful, and your brain actually experiences very real stress and pressure that can be somewhat overwhelming.

So your brain may shut off or turn down those emotions, because dealing with no strong emotions at all may be easier for your brain to handle than intense emotions.

Also, don’t forget that your emotions really do change your brain chemistry. Sometimes those changes stick around for a while. Your anxiety may have caused your brain to produce less “positive emotion” neurotransmitters, which in turn causes you to experience emotional distance.

 

Allowing Love and Connection

We all need connection.  Without it, couples aren’t a “we” and instead are just two people occupying the same space.  Without connection, you aren’t able to truly share life, and experiences.

Connection however requires you to accept your emotions (good and bad), share them, and be vulnerable.  It doesn’t happen unless you allow it, and allow the other person in.

Without that there is no intimacy, and only a hollow, dispassionate version of love.

vulnerability

People are scared to be vulnerable because they are scared to be hurt.  Scared to be rejected.  And so they hold back – both consciously and subconsciously.

But all holding back does is limit your ability to connect with another person.

It’s true, people can’t hurt you if you don’t let them.  And allowing yourself to be vulnerable means you will be hurt sometimes, by those you love.

That’s part of life though, and you need to be willing to accept it as part of the tradeoff.

 

Given a choice between being vulnerable and allowing myself to be hurt, or walling myself off from potential hurt and instead feeling nothing, I know what I pick.  And really, it’s an easy choice.

Because without connection, you can’t really have love.

Living in the Moment

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Where are you right now?

If you’re reading this you’re probably staring at a computer so maybe you’re at a desk, or on a couch.  With tablets and phones you could be anywhere I suppose.

I’m not talking about where you are physically though, I’m asking where are you right now mentally?

Are you here?

Is your mind present on reading this post?  Or are you in a number of different places at once?

Increasingly it seems people struggle with remaining “present” in their day to day lives.  So you may be reading this while thinking of any number of other things that are going on.

Maybe you are thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, where to go on the weekend, what to wear, what the kids need, when you are going to find time to…

…well, anything really.

The list is often endless.

There are always a million things that need to be done, and thought of, and planned.  And it’s very easy to get overwhelmed in all of the “stuff” that needs to happen.

 

The Myth of Multi-tasking

When the brain is doing a number of different things at once, this is often referred to as multi-tasking.  And for a number of years multi-tasking was being talked about as this great thing.  Multi-tasking was the future of productivity, and companies wanted to hire people who could handle multiple tasks at once.

Well, it turns out multi-tasking isn’t what it was cracked up to be.  In fact, studies show people can’t actually multitask – the human brain just doesn’t work that way.

What appears to be multitasking is actually the brain quickly switching from one task to another and then back again.

And doing this comes with a cost.

A Wikipedia post on multitasking states:

Multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention.

 

We all know this, and it is the reason many places are starting to bring in laws and heavy fines for things like texting/using your phone while driving.

When you are distracted, it’s much easier to make mistakes.  If you’re behind the wheel of a car, the consequences of those mistakes can be significant.  But the inattention and potential for error exists no matter what you are doing.

The Wikipedia post goes on to discuss another form of multi-tasking that it calls “continuous partial attention”.  This involves:

skimming the surface of the incoming data, picking out the relevant details, and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially. That lets you cast a wider net, but it also runs the risk of keeping you from really studying the fish.

 

 

The Need for Connection

I write about relationships, so what does multitasking and being present have to do with anything?

Why does this matter?

I think this is hugely important, because when we talk about relationships we are really talking about connection.

Take a look at this quote from Brene Brown:

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Feeling seen, heard, and valued.  THAT is what we are all looking for.  THAT is what we need.  In relationships, we want to feel like we matter to the other person.

Without connection, a couple is not a “we”.  They are just two individuals who happen to be occupying the same space.  They are there, but they aren’t together.

And connection requires both people to be present.   Physically, emotionally and mentally.  Connection requires the ability to let go of everything else, and live in the moment.

 

When I talk about living in the moment I am not talking about YOLO (you only live once) or some other selfish bullshit like that.  I’m not talking about having a bucket list of things you want to accomplish and then making sure you achieve those things.

I’m talking about taking the moments you have – whatever they are, and experiencing them fully.  Slowing down, letting go of all the noise that is caused by all the “other stuff” in life.  I’m talking about allowing yourself to connect with those moments.  In in those moments telling yourself that at this moment, the experience I am having and potentially sharing with my partner, or my child, or my friend is what truly matters.

 

Broken Connections

I think this ability to live in the moment is something that is sorely lacking today, and I think it’s probably one of the leading causes of failed relationships because it breaks down connection.

Studies on multi-tasking show that attempting to multi-task leads to reduced levels of attention to the primary item and also leads to people missing out on what is right in front of them.

One of the growing issues in North American society today is the rise of mental health issues, with the leading issue being depression and anxiety.  Depression and anxiety

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In Depression people often get stuck in the past, and struggle with letting go of negative events.  We all encounter disappointments and setbacks in our lives, but instead of using them as an opportunity to grow people who struggle with depression will ruminate on them.

Anxious people allow future events (and worse, potential future events) to dominate their thoughts.  As one sufferer describes:

as an anxiety sufferer, my mind is constantly vibrating. Even if I am technically “resting,” my brain is making to-do lists or worrying. Essentially, my brain wants to live in the future. I am much more comfortable doing and acting. I have trouble simply being.

 

Being Present

The past shapes us and allows us to grow; and the future gives us thinks to strive towards and look forward to.

But the only moment we actually have is right now.

So be present.

An inability to be present (whatever the cause) reduces connection and damages relationships.

And it’s pointless.

The past has already happened and we can’t change it.  The future is not guaranteed, and in the current moment the little details of everyday life don’t matter (well, they matter, but they shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the present).

So look, listen, focus and breath.  Appreciate where you are, right now.  Learn to let go, be present, and live this moment fully.

What Does it Mean When “The Love is Gone”?

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Love.

Love is a powerful emotion/feeling, and it can drive us to do incredible (and at times terrible) things.

When people think of “love”, the first thing they think of is usually passion or romance.  Well, sex too – but that’s usually a byproduct of passion.  Either way, it’s often perceived as an intense emotional response.  Butterflies in the stomach, and an overwhelming desire to be with that other person.

Science has shown this “romance” stage of love is just that, a stage.  It has a neurochemical basis, and usually only lasts for more than six months to two years.

When we are younger we often mistake the loss of intense feeling for the loss of love, and use that as an excuse/reason to jump to another “new” relationship where everything is exciting and fresh again.  But eventually most people realize even after the intense feeling has dissipated, strong feelings can remain.  And these new feelings can be even stronger in some ways, because they are a choice and not just a hormonal response.

When we realize this, and still CHOOSE love?  Well, that’s when we have a love that can potentially last.

The thing is, even when we are choosing love and have accepted the feelings aren’t as intense, we still expect there to be feelings.

Love is still love, right?  So shouldn’t we feel something?

We can continue to choose love, but what do we do if the feeling is gone – and there is no sign that it will ever return?

Looking at this another way, if there is only choice but no feeling, do we still have love?

What do we do when we are not in love?

 

What if a Loss of Love is Not About Love?

Personally, I don’t understand “not in love”.  To me love has always been both an emotion and a choice, and this combination allows me to actively love.  To try to show love through my actions, maybe not everyday, but as often as I can.  By showing love, and practicing love I know I won’t allow love to die.

It’s not always that simple though.

In a fantastic article on depression in relationships, John Folk-Williams talks about the impacts depression can have on the ability to “feel” love.  He writes about psychiatrist Peter Kramer, who believes loss of feeling is often a sign of deeper issues:

Kramer often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.

When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.

 

Mental Illness and Relationships

Here are two statistics for you:

  • 50% of marriages fail.
  • 25% of people will directly suffer from a mental illness.

 

At first glance these two statistics appear unrelated.  But I wonder, what would the numbers be if you could look at the marriage statistics for people with a mental illness vs. those without?

I’m not sure, but I suspect the failure rates of marriage for those with a mental illness are considerably higher than the norm; simply because they introduce additional pressures and stresses on the relationship.

Mental illness already has a lot of stigma associated with it, and this is by no means an attempt to pile anything further on it.  Rather, this is an attempt to help share some understanding for people who may be having doubts and challenges in their relationships that maybe, just maybe its not the relationship that’s at fault here.

I realize saying “don’t worry, maybe it’s not your relationship – maybe you’re actually dealing with a mental illness” isn’t exactly going to make anyone feel better.  But it is a possibility; and for those who ARE dealing with a mental illness it may be beneficial to understand that your condition may affect your ability to feel love in ways you may not have considered.

 

Impacts of Anxiety and Depression on Love

The two most common mental illnesses are Depression and Anxiety disorders; and I’ve written in the past about how anxiety disorders can damage feelings of love (for a different account on anxiety’s impacts on love check the article Daniel Smith wrote for CNN, titled Can anxiety kill your ability to love?).

The Folk-Williams article above talks about a symptom of depression called Anhedonia (although anhedonia is thought of primarily as a symptom of depression it is also found in anxiety).

A common misconception about depression is that it’s characterized be people feeling down, sad, or hopeless (for extended periods of time).  This definitely happens, but anhedonia is another characteristic of depression where sufferers often lose interest in things that they used to enjoy – activities, hobbies, spending time with friends, and even sex.

Anhedonia is a state of emotional deadness, where instead of feeling down or sad someone feels nothing.  Anhedonia can cause someone to feel as though the love is dead, or they have fallen out of love.

To those who have never experienced it this seems bizarre, but If you do a simple web search for “anhedonia and love” it’s a bit frightening to see how common this seems to be.

 

An Account of Anhedonia

Folk-Williams describes his own experiences with Anhedonia, and how it can destroy relationships as follows:

there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.

It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners. It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.

For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil. I felt no satisfaction in life.

I believed that the relationship was holding me back, that it had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for. I was sure that I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.

And later he writes:

Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. The depressed partner’s relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.

The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.

Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.

But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.

Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.

 

The Loss of Feeling

When someone needs intensely high levels of stimulation just to feel, it’s somewhat understandable that people will be willing to engage in risky and destructive behaviors.

One of the things Folk-Williams alludes to (but doesn’t address directly) is that this lack of feeling makes actual intimacy almost impossible.  So the type of attachment characteristic of close relationships breaks down, and sufferers often can find no arousal or attachment in their partners.  Everything becomes detached and clinical.  They know they “should” feel something, and they know they once did.  But they don’t, and they can’t change that.

However they can still feel the intense emotions of “new love”, so things like affairs are increasingly likely just as a way to feel.  As is sex in casual relationships or one night stands.  Those things can be felt physically, even though there is still usually little or no emotional connection.  As noted above, people may turn to substance abuse as a way of “coping” with this lack of feeling inside.

When anhedonia isn’t understood, it becomes easy to blame external things.  A sufferer is unhappy because of their job, or their weight, or their relationship.

Happiness and hope is replaced by the lure of fantasy.  A belief that things will be better IF they can only find the right thing.  If they can get the right job, get the right body, or find the right partner.

Spoiler alert here – it doesn’t work.  Finding the perfect partner is fantasy, not reality.  They don’t exist, and the people who try often end up destroying a lot of the things in their lives that are “good” in the pursuit of this fantasy.

 

Mourning Love

I write about relationships, and I write about love.  To me love is a powerful and beautiful thing, and the loss of it is always difficult.

Often love is lost and relationships fail because of little things.  We take each other for granted, we focus on the bad instead of the good, we are hurt and we refuse to let go.  All these little things often add up to growing resentment and the breakdown of love.

And when that happens, it’s tragic.

None of that however compares to the loss of love not because love is actually gone, but because someone has lost the capacity to feel it.

THAT seems incomprehensibly cruel.

Especially when the sufferer doesn’t realize what is happening, and instead of seeing it as the symptom of a problem they interpret the loss of love as the problem itself.

 

I don’t know what anhedonia feels like, and I hope I never do.  From descriptions of it and from reading others accounts of it, it seems like a terrible soul destroying thing.

But like many other aspects of mental illness, it’s something that’s not understood, and not discussed.  And I believe many, many relationships and families are needlessly lost as a result.

So if you have thought “I don’t love you anymore” or heard those words said to you, please stop to consider that maybe there’s something else going on.  Especially if you can’t understand or explain why the feeling is gone.

 

To gain a better understanding of  the struggles sufferers face daily check out the following video:

No one wants to talk about or acknowledge mental illness.  And people definitely don’t want to be labelled as having one.  But when it directly affects 25% of the population, it’s at least something to consider.

When you can’t understand something, you can’t address it.  And things can never improve.  So understanding why feelings of love may be gone can be the first step in the road to rebuilding it.

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.

brokenPlate

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.

The Power of Belief

belief_heading

Belief.

It’s a simple and very powerful concept. Yet it’s also one many people don’t seem to buy into (or “believe”, if you prefer).

Does belief really matter? Can we truly accomplish things simply by believing enough? Or is belief just something people use to delude themselves; a form of false hope?

What is the “truth” behind belief?

For me, I believe belief is one of the most important things we can possibly have. If fact, I feel the core of happiness is being able to believe in all the things around me – my partner, my children, my family, my friends, my dreams, even my job.

Some people talk about love being one of the most powerful forces in the world, others feel faith is. Both of those are founded on belief.

However, belief isn’t some magical thing. As my 9 year old recently put it:

Daddy, believing something won’t make it happen.

If I believe I can fly and jump off a building, I’ll still be dead.

Umm, yeah. I guess it depends on the height of the building, but for the most part he’s right.

Just to be clear, we can’t defy the laws of physics and there are varying degrees of probability in the world. There’s a difference between belief and stupidity.

Belief is really important though. It allows us to imagine things that we haven’t imagined before, and is a requirement for any sort of changes in our lives.

So while simply believing in something doesn’t mean it “will” happen, it does give it a chance.

When You Don’t Believe

The reason belief is so important is because of what it means when we don’t have it. A lack of belief can be seen as doubt. When you doubt, you question things. You question if something is likely, or even possible. Doubt causes people to hesitate, or to remain passive when they should be taking action.

Even worse than doubt is negative belief – a sense that you *can’t* do something. That something is impossible. Or perhaps a sense that although it may be possible, you could never do it.

Doubting something, believing it’s impossible, or believing that it’s impossible for you ensures failure. It causes people to discount the possibility of something without giving it a chance. Or maybe they do give it a chance, but the doubt causes them to sabotage their own efforts, ensuring their own failure.

doubt

Why do people do this? Why don’t people give themselves or their dreams a fair chance?

At its root I think doubt comes down to fear – a fear of failure. We fear failure and we want to avoid the negative feelings that come with it – embarrassment, shame and guilt. So instead, we tell ourselves that something can’t be done, or that “we” can’t do it. After all, if we don’t try then we can’t fail. And if we do decide to try, then telling ourselves this cushions us from disappointment. At some level we *knew* we weren’t going to succeed, so we get the expected result.

We see this all the time with sayings like the following:

expectnothing

I think this line of thinking is so wrong, and runs completely counter to the idea of belief. This thinking involves lowering (or eliminating) expectations on yourself and on those around you. Sorry, I expect more than that out of life – from myself, and from those around me. If you lower expectations, how can you ever achieve anything? Expectations are important, and belief and expectation go hand in hand.

I will acknowledge that expectation opens you up to failure and disappointment, but that’s alright. In fact, it’s necessary. If we don’t allow ourselves to fail, how can we ever learn?

If we don’t suffer disappointment how can we ever grow?

Believe in Yourself

Most of my writing is about relationships, and I truly believe that your most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. To be happy you need to have a sense of purpose. You need goals, and dreams. Simply having goes and dreams isn’t enough though, you need to be willing to act on them. And to do that, you have to believe in yourself.

I read a lot of blogs, and it is clear to me that many people out there don’t believe in themselves. Many people look at the world and see what they can’t do, instead of what they can. Many people seem to believe that they aren’t good enough.

I’m not sure where this comes from, but I suspect a lot of it comes down to what we learn when we are young. I’m a father of two young boys, and I believe as a parent one of the worst things you can do it tells your kids they can’t do something, or try to do too much for our children – doing things for them instead of letting them try. Over time, I believe these sorts of things cause people to believe that they can’t do something. That they aren’t good enough and that they’ll just mess it up.

As parents, we need to let our children try things. We need to be able to let them fail. Our job isn’t to do things for them – that’s not how they learn. Our job is to support them, help them feel good about themselves, and give them the courage to try again.

We need to let them know that we believe in them, and teach them to believe in themselves.

Buying In

Sometimes things can seem hopeless, and it can seem hard to believe. Sometimes all we can ever see is failure, and there can be a sense that there’s no point. After all, why put in any effort if you’re just going to fail anyway.

But I never said belief was easy. Belief takes courage, and a willingness to see the best in things and see what is possible in life.

My son is right, belief is not a magic wand. Simply believing I can fly won’t help me if I decide to jump off a building. However that doesn’t mean I can’t fly. A belief that I CAN fly may give me the motivation that allows me to put in the work and effort to find ways to fly.

Many of the things we take for granted today are things that seemed impossible to prior generations. Flight, computers, cars, electricity. There are countless things that would never have happened if someone simply accepted what was possible. For many of the people who impacted the world, belief is what allowed them to keep going through failure after failure.

Most of us won’t change the world. But we CAN change our worlds. We can impact many people around us – our friends, families, and most importantly ourselves.

So have dreams, set goals, and don’t be afraid to expect more from yourself and those around you. Sure you’ll be disappointed sometimes, but that’s alright.

There are no magic wands in the world. Life is what you make it. And to make it what you want you need to put in effort, and you need to be willing to believe in your dreams.

ActAndBelieve

Living with Anxiety Part 2 – Doubting Love

anxious Love

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

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

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

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

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

Anxiety can make people question love.

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

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

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

Here’s one I found particularly poignant:

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

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

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

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

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

Yet when I’m down I get plagued by recurring thoughts: Is this how I am supposed to be feeling? Do other people feel differently about their partners? I should be feeling more, shouldn’t I? Do I find him attractive? If I don’t find him attractive now, does that mean it is all a lie? Have I tricked myself into feeling this way? If the sex was average, does that mean our sex life is terrible? Maybe we have no physical chemistry? etc etc

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

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

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

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

doubt

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

The “Dance” of Doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breakdown of Intimacy

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

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

Well, what is anxiety?

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

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

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

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

Behaviors impacting Relationships

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

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

Anxiety and Sex

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

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

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

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

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

Talk Openly to Your Partner

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

Try to Make Love Anyway

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

Avoidance

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

Sound advice.

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

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

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

Fighting Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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