When Hope Fails

Feeling Alone

In the past I have talked about how it is natural for passion to wane in long term relationships. There are things couples can do to prevent it, and there are ways couples can try to rebuild passion once it has been lost. In order to rebuild a relationship you need to make it a priority again. But you also have to believe change is possible, and you have to put in effort.

I’m a cheerleader for long term relationships. I believe in them, and believe that as long as people love each other they can get through anything. I believe with a little bit of effort on both parts, each day can be better than the last. Couples can work to better understand each other and build a deep enduring love. I believe forever can be real, and couples can “grow old together” still very much in love.

Belief for me is the easy part, and part of my goal with this site has been a hope that my belief can be infectious and I can inspire others to believe when they are having a hard time doing so on their own.

But I recognize that isn’t the case for everyone. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, and hold onto hope. Sometimes you try focusing on the positive, but a little part of your brain keeps insisting that things will never get better. What if you do truly want things to get better, but you just can’t bring yourself to put in the energy or the effort?

What do you do when hope fails?

If hope has failed, it may be that your brain and heart are telling you your relationship is beyond saving. But what if it’s something else entirely?

If you look up “sense of hopelessness” you will find it is one of the major signs of anxiety and depression. In my last post I talked a little bit about mental illness. What I didn’t talk about was how mental health has a direct impact on relationships.

According to statistics, mental illness will directly impact roughly 20% of people at some point in time in their life (though some stats show this as high as 25%). Relationships involve two people, so according to my math 40%-50% of couples will deal with a mental illness at some point in time, adding an additional layer of challenge to the normal trials and tribulations relationships go through.

Impacts on Relationships

Stats from counselors indicate that more than 80% of couples who come in for counseling show signs of mental illness (predominantly in the form of anxiety or depression). This is not surprising, as the nature of mental illnesses often break down the very characteristics required for a strong, healthy relationship. They can impact a persons ability to feel love and affection, while also making it harder to cope with the regular stresses of a relationship and day to day life. This in turn puts additional stress on the relationship.

When a relationship is struggling and there is the presence of something like depression and/or anxiety, a question that can be asked is “does the mental illness contribute to the relationship issues, or do the relationship issues lead to the mental illness”. Honestly, that’s a valid question. But I would argue that the answer doesn’t really matter. Allow me to explain…

depression vs. Depression

We all have had bad days and days that we feel depressed. When you’re depressed, you’re generally feeling down, or in a funk. You probably feel listless and a bit tired, and you really don’t want to do much. Everyone has days like that, and they are usually triggered by something that has happened.

When I first heard about depression, I thought this is what people were talking about. As a result, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. After all, feeling depressed is a normal thing that everyone experiences. In my mind depressed people just needed to cheer up, and they would feel better soon enough.

The reality of depression isn’t so simple. Depression as an illness (also known as clinical depression or a major depressive episode) is different. It may start the same as the “normal” funks that people go through, and that’s probably a big part of why most people don’t get help for it. I suspect that many sufferers think it’s just something they can wait out. Or they think they are feeling “down” because of something in their life, and if they just changed that thing they would start to feel better. But as time goes by it just deepens and worsens. Clinical depression is only partially understood, but it causes changes in brain chemistry that can make it very difficult for people to get out without help.

In a similar fashion everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, but when anxiety becomes a common part of daily life then anxiety may be a disorder. I recently wrote on the impacts of stress on relationships. People with anxiety disorders are constantly dealing with elevated levels of stress. The symptoms of anxiety disorders are very similar to those of depression, and these extended periods of stress often result in anxiety disorders causing depression.

Trusting Emotions

Who are you? What makes you “you”? Some people talk about the separation between the body and the soul, and the idea is usually that the soul is the essence of what makes you who you are. It’s your thoughts, feelings, emotions and memories. These are what make us who we are, and what makes us human.

That’s a problem with changes to moods and emotions. It’s easy to see these things as “who we are”, or “how we truly feel” about things. But what if we can’t trust them?

One problem about moods, feelings and emotions is that they are affected by our mental state. At some level we know this happens. I suspect everyone would admit that they have had days where they are frustrated and irritable, and as a result inadvertently lashed out at someone (displacing anger and frustration from something else).

With mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, these “bad days” can become the norm. Moods change and emotions change.

Some of the main symptoms are irritability and bouts of anger. Difficulty sleeping (which likely contributes to irritability and emotional volatility). There’s also tiredness and a lack of energy, a feeling of hopelessness or being trapped, and issues dealing with stress.

Impacts on Relationships

Anxiety and Depression can be devastating for the person who is suffering from them. But they also take a considerable toll for both members of a relationship.

For the person who is suffering, the illness can break down feelings of love, and lead them to question whether or not they actually do love their partner. We are taught to trust our feelings. So when the “feeling” isn’t there, it’s easy to conclude that the reason is because the love has broken down. Often the affected person doesn’t understand why the feelings are gone. They may not be able to identify why they don’t feel affection any more. They may want to, and they may mourn the loss. But because of the chemical changes in their brain, they are unable to feel for their partner.

Ironically, although they find it hard to maintain feelings of long term love they are still able to feel the oxytocin fueled feelings of “new love” – which can act as “proof” or validation that something was wrong with the initial relationship. Research on depression shows that someone suffering from depression has an increased probability of having an affair, as a way of trying to fill the feelings of emptiness inside and “feel alive” again.

For the partner who isn’t suffering, it can be difficult to watch the person you love withdraw. There is a sense of walking on eggshells, as you aren’t sure what to do to help. And the relationship often becomes characterized by cycles of withdrawal and anger. It causes immense stress, and often the “healthy” partner ends up falling into a depression themselves.

There are a lot of books on depression and how it impacts people, but for a look at the ways depression can impact relationships I recommend reading Depression Fallout by Anne Sheffield. She has lived both sides of depression, and has some valuable insights into it.

Making Decisions

Earlier I said it didn’t matter whether a relationship is damaged by a mental illness or the whether the depression was caused by relationship issues. This is because most literature on illnesses like depression say that you should never make significant life choices (such as changes in jobs and relationships) while depressed because of the way illnesses can impact feelings of love and closeness.

When feelings and emotions are impaired, making significant decisions is similar to getting behind the wheel of a car while drunk. You may “get by” safely. But you may also do significant damage, to both yourself, your loved ones and your future. It’s important to try to address the illness first.

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can be treated effectively, but unfortunately only around half of the people dealing with a mental illness ever seek help.

If you are having problems in your relationship, and struggling with putting in the effort needed to turn things around because you believe things will never get better, keep in mind that it may not just be an issue with the relationship. Especially if you are having a hard time pinpointing what is “wrong” with the relationship, it may be a sign of something else.

If so, talk to your doctor and tell them exactly how you are feeling. You might just be able to save your relationship, or prevent it from breaking down unnecessarily.

Mental Health Week

mentalhealth_blocks

This week is National Mental Health Week in Canada, and in honor of it I wanted to do my part to raise awareness about Mental Health.

Mental health is something we don’t talk about enough. Kind of like religion, politics and our sex lives, mental health is treated as a taboo topic by most. But it shouldn’t be.

As people we have physical bodies, and at any point in time our physical body can be in different states of health. Usually we take our bodies for granted. They do what we tell them to. They work. It’s only when they stop working correctly (which could be due to injury, disease or just regular wear and tear) that we really think of the “health” of our bodies.

Mental health is similar, and it affects ALL of us. You, me, and all the people we interact with on a day to day basis. Just as your body has a general level of health even when you aren’t suffering an injury, we all have a state of mental health. As described by the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental health is:

It’s a state of well-being in which you realize your own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work and study productively and are able to make a contribution to your family and community.

Just as our bodies are susceptible to illnesses, we are all susceptible to mental illnesses. Today I hope to shed some myths, and provide at least a bit of understanding about the grouping of conditions that are commonly referred to as mental illness.

Mental Health is a sensitive topic, and I’m not a doctor. I’m just a regular guy who wanted to understand mental health a bit better. What is here is based on “my” understanding, but I believe/hope it’s accurate.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

I mentioned above that mental health is treated as a taboo subject. Mental health and illness is very poorly understood, and I think this lack of understanding leads to considerable stigma.

It used to be that when I heard the term mental illness, the first things that came to mind was the word “crazy”, or the idea that someone has “snapped”. I pictured straight-jackets, and people who talk to themselves or go on random shooting sprees. But most mental illness isn’t like that.

What most people don’t understand is that mental illness occurs on a spectrum. It is a generic term used to categorize a number of different issues, such as mood disorders, depression and bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders, eating disorders and even dementia. All of these fall under the umbrella of “Mental Illness”. And like any other disorder or condition, there are varying degrees of severity for each of them.

The main commonality between them is that they are:

Disturbances in cognition and emotional responsiveness resulting in problems in thinking and behavior.

When most people hear about mental illness in the news, they are hearing about the cases that are on the extreme end of the spectrum (crazy with a capital “C”). It’s no wonder people don’t even want to hear the term “mental illness” applied to themselves or someone they love. We don’t understand it.

Hearing the term mental illness used to describe someone you care about and then making the mental jump to “they’re crazy” is like thinking that because someone played “the tree” in a primary school Christmas concert they are destined for a career in Hollywood. Or like saying because I play basketball I’m like Michael Jordan.

Just as Michael Jordan was not an average example of a basketball player, the people who hit the news are by no means representative of mental illness.

It may be more accurate to say that having a mental illness means the person affected likely has some issues with their coping mechanisms, which may or may not be significant in their day to day life.

Most people with mental illnesses are able to live regular lives. I have a few buddies who are “affected” by mental illness. And while they acknowledge that their issues affect them, they are regular people just like anyone else. In fact I hate to even use the term mental illness in reference to them because of the stigma associated with the term.

Some Stats

In order to reduce some stigma about mental illness, I think it’s first important to look at a few statistics (courtesy of the Canadian Mental Health Association):

  • 20% of all Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime
  • Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague
  • Mental illness affects people of all ages, educational and income levels, and cultures
  • Almost ½ of those who suffer have never gone to see a doctor about this problem
  • Stigma or discrimination attached to mental illnesses present a serious barrier to diagnosis, treatment and acceptance in the community
  • Most mental illnesses can be treated effectively

These stats come from the Canadian Mental Health Association, but they are fairly representative of global numbers. Let’s take a look at those stats for a moment.

20% of people are affected directly in their lifetime. Think about that for a moment. That’s 1 in 5 people. How big is your family? How many friends do you have? Chances are someone you know will be affected by a mental illness at some point. And it won’t just be someone you know, but it will be someone close to you.

Most people never realize there is something wrong, and as a result they never see a doctor about it or deal with it appropriately. In many other cases people realize that “something” is wrong, but they attribute it to something else in their life.
In most cases it can be treated, but sadly, most people suffer in silence.

Multiple Sclerosis

Are you familiar with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)? Most people at least know the name, and probably many are familiar with the disease.

Our brain is the engine that powers our bodies, and our body control is largely a result of our brain sending messages to our body. When we want to walk, our brain sends the signals down to our legs telling them to move. We don’t even have to really think about things, we just do them.

MS is a neurological disorder where something has gone wrong with the signals that are sent from the brain to the rest of the body. Science doesn’t understand why MS strikes, but it does understand how it works.

Our brain sends messages to the different parts of our body through our nerves, which are covered in a fatty substance called the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath acts as an insulator, similar to the plastic coating covering wires and cables.

For people with MS the myelin sheath has started to break down resulting in disturbances to the signals being sent from the brain.

multiple-sclerosis-neurological-disorder-2

MS is a difficult disease to diagnose and treat because the symptoms of it can be quite diverse. The symptoms include:

  • Numbness or weakness in limbs, possibly accompanied by tingling or pain
  • Problems or pain with vision
  • Tremors or lack of coordination
  • Problems with speech
  • Fatigue or dizziness

The symptoms depend on which nerves are impacted and the degree of degradation of the myelin sheath, and they aren’t constant. There may be problem periods followed by quiet periods of months or even years (kind of like faulty wiring that occasionally shorts out). But MS is usually a progressive disease, with symptoms worsening over time.

In summary, MS is a disease where brain functioning is working correctly but something is going wrong with the messages being sent to the rest of the body. It comes and goes, and it strikes different people differently.

What is Mental Illness?

In many ways, I see parallels between mental illness and MS. In MS the brains messages are misfiring when they are sent to the body. Mental illness however deals with cognitive and emotional recognition and responsiveness.

Often we think of a separation between the head and the heart. The brain is thought of as your intellectual core (and center of logic and reason); while the heart is seen as the source of feelings and emotions. In reality, all of the things that make us “us” come from the brain – thinking, reasoning, logic, feelings and emotions. The heart? Sorry, it just pumps blood.

The brain allows us to interact with our world, and feelings and emotions are often responses to our experiences. “Mental illness” is a term describing when something has gone wrong with the messages being sent and received by the brain (similar to MS), causing feelings and emotions to not line up with our experiences.

In MS symptoms vary depending on which nerves are impacted. Less is known about mental illness, but there are different types each with different symptoms (though there is some overlap).

Types of mental illness include:

  • Mood disorders – involve changes and disruptions in mood and emotions. Depression and bipolar disorder are the most commonly known examples
  • Anxiety disorders – the most common type, causing people to be overly anxious and afraid of situations or event most people consider normal. There are many different types, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety is different from depression, but often leads to it
  • Schizophrenia – involves losing the ability to know what’s real and what isn’t
  • Eating Disorders – involves a distorted body image along with serious and potentially life threatening behaviors to manage food and weight.
  • Personality Disorders – affects the way a person acts, feels and gets along with others. Can also manifest in impulsive behavior
  • Dementia – involves loss of memory, judgment and reasoning along with changes in mood, behavior and communication. Alzheimer’s is the most common form

MentalHealth

Symptoms of Mental Illness

Although there are different types of mental illnesses, there symptoms tend to be similar. Here are some of the different signs that your mental health may need a bit more care:

Physical

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Significant tiredness, or low energy
  • Rapid weight loss or gain

Emotional

  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling sad or down
  • Feeling trapped
  • Feeling incompetent
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Sex drive changes

Intellectual

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Procrastinating
  • Excessive worrying

Personal well-being

  • Withdrawal from friends, family and activities
  • Excessive busyness
  • Loss of sense of humor

When I look at this list, one of the things that stands out to me is we ALL have these symptoms from time to time. We all have good and bad days, and in our bad days many of those symptoms appear.

It’s only when they are pervasive, generally lasting for at least six months (without at least one month free of symptoms) then they move from just being a “funk” to being a cause for alarm.

One problem is these symptoms generally come on gradually and worsen over time. For a sufferer, there are often understandable reasons for them. “Oh, I’m feeling this way because of X”. Eventually the funk can become a persons “new normal”, but because it’s been a gradual process the person suffering these symptoms may not even see what is happening or how much their moods have changed.

This gradual decline was described to me as follow:

People that I barely knew were noticing that I wasn’t myself, and that told me that I really needed to do something. I truly felt like I could just disappear into a hole and never come out, that really scared me and I couldn’t do that to those around me. (I was lucky enough to still have the mindset to care how this affected them, some people are not.)

You really can’t understand when you’re not there yourself. I don’t even understand myself. On one hand, I feel truly blessed with the great family and friends that I have and it actually pisses me off that I know this and still it doesn’t change how “dark” I feel. It makes me feel very selfish that I have all that I do and I still feel this way. I want to be the person that is happy and loving life, but it’s something I continue to struggle with. I can “fake” it around a lot of people when I feel that I “have” to.

Causes of Mental Illness

One of the big questions is, what causes mental illness? Unfortunately the answer is not known. It seems that it can be caused by a number of different things (and perhaps combinations of them).

There is some evidence of biological or genetic predispositions, and it is something that can also be triggered by injuries, hormonal changes, or environmental factors such as stressful traumatic events or even just extended periods of high stress.

Although the causes aren’t very well understood, it’s important to remember that the existence of a mental illness is not a reflection on a person. It’s not a character defect, or a sign that someone isn’t “strong enough”. Just as an MS patient isn’t responsible for having MS, people dealing with mental illnesses aren’t to blame.

Getting Help

One stat on mental illness that stands out is the fact that only around half of the people dealing with a mental illness ever seek help.

Maybe it’s because the symptoms are things people commonly experience and they think they can just “figure it out” on their own. Maybe they don’t notice how much they have changed due to a gradual decline, or maybe there is a fear or the stigma associated with mental illness. I don’t know.

But the fact remains, most mental illnesses can be treated effectively. There is no reason to suffer in silence.

So if you or someone you know is having a hard time coping, go talk to a doctor. Be honest about what is going on and how you are feeling.

The first step to getting better starts with you.

Coping with Stress in Relationships

stress

Sunday nights are usually family movie night in my household, and this past weekend we watched Angel in the Home (aka Foster).

The movie was sweet, but also dealt with a fairly dark topic. It’s about a couple who have experienced a tragedy in the past, and they are unable to conceive. They decide to foster a child who is wise beyond his years, and in the process of fitting this child into their lives they realize that their relationship has broken down, and they learn to rebuild the love that has been lost. It had some pretty powerful moments, and I think presented an honest look at the breakdown of love.

Watching the movie tied in to some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. Namely the idea that stress (either in the form of a single traumatic event or extended periods of stress) will damage and can potentially destroy relationships.

Stress in Relationships

When I was younger I remember hearing about a local family whose child was killed in an accident, and how the tragedy caused the couple to split apart. I didn’t understand it at the time. There were other children in the family, and in my mind the other children would need their parents even more after the loss. I also thought that as a couple, one of the biggest roles we play is to be there for each other. Couples are supposed to be safe havens for each other, where no matter what the world throws at them, they will always be there for each other.

Naively I thought that a tragedy like that would be a time that the couple would depend upon each other even more, and that somehow it would bring a couple closer together. But all the evidence shows that is not the case.

It doesn’t even have to be a specific tragedy. Even without a specific trigger, extended periods of stress commonly cause relationships to break down. An article on stress in relationships describes this as follows:

When you are stressed you can become less-than-careful with the person you love. You concentrate on your own situation and forget how it affects your partner. Soon you have a vast gulf in understanding, and ultimately this could lead to the breakdown of the relationship.

The Stress Management Society’s relationship experts have seen stress cause divorce. Their advice is to make your relationship a priority.

Only The Strong Survive?

What does it mean when stress causes a relationship to break down? Is that perhaps a reflection on the relationship itself? Maybe it just means the couple wasn’t “meant to be”, or their love wasn’t strong enough to survive.

Any longtime readers know that I don’t believe in “meant to be”. I think life gives us opportunities for things, and it’s up to us to determine what we want to do with those opportunities. We can make the most of them, or we can squander them.

But even for couples with strong “couples skills” that are doing their best at focusing on the relationship, extreme stress can be a killer:

It would nice to think that the stronger the relationship is, the more likely it will survive if one of both partners is suffering from the effects of severe stress, but sadly the reality is very different. A study carried out by Neff, L.A. and Karney in 2009 and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that relationships exposed to high levels of stress over a long period of time faltered, irrespective of how good they were.

Even when each person had good relationship skills, exposure to stress changed their perception of the relationship. Ultimately, this led to a breakdown in communication, anxiety, arguments, and all kinds of other relationship problems.

One important thing to note is that it doesn’t matter what the actual source of the stress is. The stress may be completely external to the relationship, and it is still liable to spill over into the relationship.

In discussing the same 2009 study, Dr. John Grohol states that in times of stress:

In times of stress we are more likely to see the relationship as being negative, not realizing the impact the stress is having in the validity of our evaluation — it colors our perception of the relationship itself. Remove the stress, and people’s positive relationship skills can once again — and usually do — take over.
The take-away for couples is simple — each individual needs to learn to deal with stress in positive ways outside of the relationship (through activities to minimize the buildup of stress in the first place, regular exercise, and other stress-relief activities). No matter how well you function in everyday life, all the skills in the world may go to hell in a hand-basket when stressed out.

The Stress Curve

We all manage stress differently. Some people have a higher tolerance level for stress than others, but no matter where your tolerance level lies we all have a point that it starts to take a toll.
Look at the following “stress chart”:

stress-curve

We may have different thresholds, but no matter where your threshold is there are physiological affects once you have hit it. Exhaustion, irritability, anger, and eventually breakdown.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced this on some scale. Maybe it’s a hard day at work, a struggle with the kids, or even a bad experience while driving. Whatever it is, the stress of the situation has put us near or past our threshold line, and as a result we are irritable.

Who do we take it out on? Interestingly, we can usually “keep it together” when we need to such as at work or in a public setting. Instead it’s at home that our frustrations come out, so the person on the receiving end is often our partner or our children. Maybe they do something to set us off and our response is out of proportion with what they have done. Maybe they don’t even do anything.

Psychologists say we do this at home because it is there that we can let our defenses down. It is our place of safety. But as a result, we are taking out our frustrations on the people we are supposed to love the most.

Stress and Intimacy

One of the side effects of stress is that it breaks down intimacy. It’s important to understand this link, because often a breakdown of intimacy is seen as a sign of issues in the relationship. From the article above:

When life gets tough, stress can cause communication to break down and intimacy levels to suffer. Stress can also affect our libido and, unfortunately, stress and sex drive issues may eventually cause a relationship meltdown, particularly if neither partner is willing to address the issue. So before your relationship hits the buffers due to chronic stress, it is essential that you understand the link between stress and relationship problems.

When one partner is suffering from the effects of extreme stress, a diminished sex drive can be the end result. No two people are the same, but men and women often react differently to stress. Women are more likely to lose their desire to have sex when stressed, but chronic stress is just as likely to affect the male libido, too. And when one partner is continually being given the cold shoulder in bed, it will not be long before the relationship begins to suffer.

Dealing with Stress

Due to the effects of stress on relationship, it seems obvious that in order to preserve the health of a relationship a couple has to pay attention to their levels of stress.

At their core relationships are based on empathy, and stress breaks that down. So when experiencing stress it’s very important not to lose sight of the relationship. It’s very easy to get caught up in how the stress affects you and makes you feel, and lose sight of your partner – their needs and how the stress is affecting them.

Highly stressful situations should be avoided where possible. However it’s not always possible to change stress levels, so it’s also important for a couple to try and develop mechanisms for dealing with stress (both individually and as a couple).

No matter what is happening, it’s important that communication remains part of the relationship. Stressful times and situations often can’t be avoided, so keeping communication strong is the key to surviving difficult times.

Once communication breaks down, the relationship often follows.

Losing the Spark

dimmingflame

I spend my days in the world of business, and increasingly I see parallels between what it takes to succeed in business and what it takes to succeed in long term relationships (and life in general actually).

Two of the central concepts in business are Operations and Projects. Any business has *something* that they do, and the operational side of a business is the day to day tasks that allow the business to function in the here and now. This is the stuff that keeps money coming in, and sometimes you’ll hear this referred to as the things a business needs to do to “keep the lights on”.

A business can’t only worry about today though. They also need to keep their eye on the future and plan where they want to be tomorrow. See, even if they have a great business, markets change. New products appear (potentially reducing interest in existing ones) and new competitors appear with fresh ideas and approaches.

In addition to worrying about today, businesses have at least part of their energy and resources dedicated to ensuring there is a tomorrow. At the very least, they need to monitor the ongoing health of the business. This side of business where there is long term visioning is referred to as projects.

Operations may keep a business running and alive today, but the future still matters. A business needs to grow, or at least ensure that they aren’t becoming obsolete. It can be tough balancing both of these things, but it’s necessary to stay alive.

Those who don’t balance the present and the future tend to fail.

The Operations of Relationships

Think of the progression of a relationship.

The early days of relationships are all about building. You meet, and spend time together learning each other. It’s exciting, and it’s new. When you get together it’s an event. Even if all you do is rent a movie or watch some TV, you still made plans to get together. Think of this as your “business start-up”.

Then the relationship gets to another level, and you move in together or get married (and then move in together). What happens? We are no longer building the relationship, we have already built it. We know each other, and although there is still more to learn the pace at which this happens slows considerably.

We now start worrying about day to day life. Our “planned” time together gets taken up with things like grocery shopping, laundry and dishes. Then maybe we have kids, and for a number of years they become the priority. Life becomes all about feeing and changing the baby. It’s about teaching them, raising them. Helping with homework, and shipping the kids off to various events.

These things are all important, and we have to do them. And hey, maybe we even enjoy doing them. But all the while the energy we were once expending on our partner and our relationship is slowly diminishing.

If you talk to couples who are having problems, one of the biggest issues they face is they get to a point where they feel they have lost “the spark”. When this happens, couples will often say things like “they feel like roommates”, or “they feel taken for granted”.

I think this is the biggest killer of relationship, but what exactly is it that has happened here?

The couple has gotten caught up in “operations”. They have lost sight of the future (the fact that they need to have one). They aren’t monitoring the health of the relationship.

Instead, they are simply living life day to day, doing the things to keep the lights on. They haven’t focused on each other enough and spent enough time growing the relationships – or even just ensuring that they aren’t falling apart.

Part of it is “comfort”. Life gets busy, and when you *know* that the other person will be there it’s easy to let them slide. After all, when all the chores are done and the kids have been put to bed both of you are often tired. But over time this takes a considerable toll.

Some couples wake up one day and realize they no longer know the person sleeping next to them. And chances are both of them have a bit of resentment and a sense of loss for where they once were, and what they have become.

Look at your interactions with your partner. Look at the hours you spend together. How much of it is actually focused on them? How much time are you investing in being a couple? Now look at how much of it is time where you simply happen to be occupying the same space, but you are really focused on the kids, the chores, whatever.

Yes, all the “stuff” of day to day life has to happen. But you need to nurture the relationship too.

Signs of Distress

In long term relationships, I think all couples go through some sort of variation on “losing the spark”. Eventually we realize we have got caught up in running a household and raising a family (the world of operations), and we have lost sight of each other as a couple.

What matters is how far things are gone before we really notice, and what we do about it.

People talk about how communication forms the foundation for any relationship, and that becomes especially true when we recognize problems. People are different, so often one person will be the first to really notice “a problem”.

When this happens the biggest mistake people can make is to do nothing.

From reading books and other blogs, often women are the first to get the sense that something has gone wrong (us guys tend to be oblivious). It’s not always women noticing first, and the relationship may not even be a woman and a man – but let’s assume it is for this example.

She notices *something* has gone wrong by realizing that she isn’t really happy.

Maybe she says something to her partner, but he doesn’t get it. He hears her, but doesn’t understand. He thinks, “I love you, I’m providing for my family and I’m a good parent, I don’t understand what the problem is. I’m being a good partner here.”

He is stuck in the world of operations. Those things are important for keeping the relationship going, but not for keeping it ALIVE.

When she says something another response is to get defensive. Having his partner say “I’m not happy here” become misinterpreted, and in his head it becomes “you aren’t a good partner” causing him to start to withdraw (hey, we are emotional creatures and can be a bit sensitive sometimes).

A worse situation is when she doesn’t say anything at all. Rather, she pretends she’s happy and tries figuring out what is wrong on her own. All the while resentment towards her partner is growing, and he doesn’t even know anything is wrong.

Actually guys may be dumb, but we’re not stupid (mostly). So he has picked up on the fact that something is wrong, but he thinks it’s just a phase that will pass, or he completely misreads the severity of things. After all, they’re a couple and they’re committed to a life together, right?

Hah. Unfortunately life isn’t that simple.

Accepting a Problem

When it comes to relationships people REALLY don’t like to accept the existence of problems, so they deny it for as long as they possibly can. People are stubborn, and our natural response to things is to look for things to blame reasons, and we really don’t like change.

Eventually though, we accept that there’s some kind of problem.

I once read that most couples get to a counselor about 2 years later than they should have, and I believe it.

For the person who “caught on” late, they’re hurt and a little scared, so they do what they can to try and make things better. But by now the relationship is caught up in the resentment that comes with negative momentum, so there is a risk that the partner who noticed things first has withdrawn from the relationship, and ignores the efforts to improve things. They think it feels forced, and not genuine.

The couple is now in a downward spiral that does not have a happy ending unless they can both buy in that they want things to improve. And if they do, they need to realize that yeah, things will seem a bit forced at first – but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Digging Out

A LOT of relationships fail at this point. And a lot more stay together, accepting the “truth” that this is normal and long term relationships are simply doomed to a loss of love. Some are fine with a somewhat happy existence, and others stay together in name only – basically living separate lives.

I think there’s more to life than that. I think your relationship should be a source of joy. You should WANT to spent time with your partner whenever you can. After a long day at work, you should look forward to getting home and seeing their face. You should want to share experiences with them. And no matter how long you have been together, nothing should feel as good as being with your partner, holding each other and knowing you’ll never let each other go.

To get back to that spot, you need to focus on the relationship. Day to day life will always be there, but that can’t be your only interactions. You can’t use that as an excuse to not nurture the relationship.

Like a business that monitors it’s day to day health while having a plan for the future, the relationship HAS to become a priority. You need time focused on each other. You need to not only maintain the relationship, but build it.

Do things together.

I don’t think couples intentionally take each other for granted. Most couples will SAY “of course the relationship is a priority. Of course my partner is a priority”.

But actions speak louder than words.

Think back to my earlier question:

Look at your interactions with your partner. Look at the hours you spend together. How much of it is actually focused on them? How much time are you investing in being a couple?

Now ask yourself how much time you think you should be spending on being a couple. Everything needs some sort of sustenance and maintenance to survive, and relationships are no different in this regard.

If you feel the spark has been lost, rest assured that you aren’t alone. Many, many couples go through the same thing. But as long as there is still a flicker, no matter how faint, you can rebuild a flame.

But it’s up to you to do it. If your relationship is a priority, don’t let that only be in words. Back your words with action, and focus on it again. And this time, don’t let it go.

Learning to Love yourself

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Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.

Over the last few posts I have been examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).

One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.

Over the last few posts I have talked about where my buddy’s lack of self love came from, and then how it affected him in day to day life. He was in a bad place emotionally and mentally, and had a number of negative and self-defeating mindsets.
Hopefully other people in a similar boat can learn from his situation and learn to love themselves either again or for the first time.

Facing the Mirror

One of the hardest parts of learning to love yourself is taking ownership of your issues. It’s very easy to blame other people or situations, and it’s easy to rationalize behavior. And when someone doesn’t love themselves, self-defeating mindsets are frequently the norm. It can be very difficult to turn things around, so I asked my buddy what his secret was.

That is an easy answer in theory, but DAMN difficult to put into practice. Simply put, I had to realize:

  1. there was a problem, and more importantly
  2. *I* was the problem.

Once you realize *you* are the problem, you now have nobody to blame but yourself. All the excuses, all the lies, all the daydreams and fantasies you comfort yourself with, the avoidance and coping mechanisms, all of it no longer works. And that is when you start on the path to recovery.

Hmmm, so no real shortcuts then?

No.

I want to clarify one item, and that is why I didn’t realize *I* was the problem. For me, I have always felt the hyper-active arousal and the anxiety that comes with it, so I thought that this is how I should normally feel and this is how other people feel too. After all, I’ve never felt anything else other than this, so I didn’t have a different state to compare it to. I didn’t know how I should really feel and I didn’t know what normal was, except that this was normal for me. So the connection between my behaviors and my anxiety never occurred to me until I was forced to confront these destructive behaviors and solve the root cause instead of using my coping mechanisms.

Sounds a lot like my buddy with sleep apnea, who is always exhausted but insists he is fine and that he isn’t tired (even while he’s nodding off when he’s supposed to be navigating). His point of reference is so messed up that he doesn’t know what it’s like to not be tired.

Yeah, it’s exactly like that. Being anxious had become my norm, so I didn’t realize how much damage I was doing to myself and the people around me that I cared about.

So your “secret” to getting better was to have all of your coping mechanisms fail? You’re saying you had to hit rock bottom before you would accept that you were your own problem, and it’s not until then that you stopped blaming your issues on others? You know, as secrets go, that kind of sucks.

Originally, I thought that I had lost everything when I got to this point, but that is not correct. That was the effect of what happened, not the cause. Being forced to abandon your comfort zone and forced to deal with reality on your own with no possibility of retreat caused me to confront the problem head on. I could no longer deny the problem; pretend it did not exist, or lie to myself thinking that it was somebody else’s fault. In essence, the coping mechanisms failed and I had to deal with the root cause.

Until this point, I had thought that it was everybody else’s problem rather than mine. This was a very logical conclusion because:

  1. hyper-arousal was normal for me
  2. I was scared of anything new
  3. I was self-centered (Narcissistic)
  4. I had a negative viewpoint of life

To me, I expected others to conform to my wishes and desires without having to conform to theirs. Yes, this is where entitlement came for me. I don’t know exactly where it came in, but eventually, I just had this mindset that others should conform to me instead of the other way around.

Because I was so scared of the real world, I ended up in my own fantasy world which I built up to be a comfort zone from reality. I won’t go into the details, as that’s irrelevant to the topic, but the point that I want to make is that this retreat into a fantasy world is normal for anxiety sufferers. The inability to deal with reality causes this retreat. For me, my retreat was into videogames.

I don’t advocate the use of coping mechanisms as I think they hurt more than help. This includes not only games and fantasies, but smoking and alcohol as well. Both have been shown to reduce anxiety temporarily, but the underlying root issues are still there, and the person hasn’t learned how to deal and confront them. It just prolongs the suffering, as games did for me.

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Changing Mindsets

Once you accept that change is needed, and that it is in fact “you” that needs to change, the question becomes WHAT? What is it that needs to change?

Alright, remember how I said that there’s no secret to getting better? Well that’s not entirely true. Here’s the real secret:

Loving yourself is not about your weight, clothes, fitness level, job, relationship, or anything like that.

Sure, making improvements in all of those areas may help, but at their core those are all external items.

It’s like the saying about putting lipstick on a pig – changing those things may make someone feel better temporarily, but it doesn’t change the underlying issue. The temporary high will fade, and you won’t be any happier.

Real change needs to begin within.

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A lack of self-love if normally accompanied by a number of negative mindsets, and it is those that need to change. Some of the most common are avoidance, all or nothing thinking and rumination (dwelling on the past):

For my buddy Gandalf, learning to love himself was all about changing mindsets.

Once I started seeing a psychologist we worked on three items simultaneously – self-esteem, anxiety, and negativity. Working on all three simultaneously really helped as each one is interlinked and I couldn’t just work on one and not the others.

When I worked on my self-esteem, I had to look at myself with my view, and then from other people’s view. After several sessions, it started to dawn on me that my negativity led to a distorted view of who I was. It also lead to the discovery of “The Critic”, or the little voice in my head that was always telling me that I was no good, or bad, or awful in everything that I tried to do. Once you discover that, you can now start to silence that voice and eventually, eliminate it.

I worked on negativity by writing down the first thought that came into my head about a situation and then examining why I thought like that. These are the automatic thoughts an anxiety suffer has. For example, when I sent an email, I’d expect to receive a reply within 15 minutes, and if I didn’t, I’d get anxious. I found out I had an automatic thought that if I didn’t get an email within 15 minutes, then the other person didn’t like me. What I didn’t realize at first is that this is only the first automatic thought in a series of thoughts that cascade down. I would then think that if that other person didn’t like me, then nobody likes me and that I will never be liked by anybody. This is the “All or nothing” cognitive distortion that anxiety suffers have.

There are others as well, and getting to the heart of them is like peeling the layer off of an onion. To deal with these cognitive distortions, I had to analyze each one and logically determine why it was not true. Once I did this, the automatic thoughts became less frequent and eventually stopped altogether. This also helped with silencing “The Critic” and with my anxiety.

Anxiety was the easiest and most difficult, to deal with. The cure is simple, I just had to face my fears. The problem was *everything* was scary. My psychologist had me expose myself to something I found scary, but not *that* scary. We made a list and evaluated items from 1 to 10 as to how scary it was to me and we started off at the low end of the scale (1 and 2) and then work my way up to the 9s and 10s. Every week I had to go and do at least one of them. The next week, we would talk about why I was scared and if my fears matched reality. It was this talking that helped reduce and eliminate the anxiety, because it lead to the method of logically analyzing and assessing how scared I should be in situations, and the same process used for negativity was used here too as the same automatic thoughts came up again.

There are situations I should still be scared of (like a bear chasing me), but most situations I shouldn’t be (like thinking about being chased by a bear in an upcoming camping trip). The realization that anxiety is all about future items that usually won’t come to pass significant diminished the power anxiety had over me.

One item needed for this is dedication. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to see this through and continuously try to improve every week. I needed to put lots of effort into getting better, which is where hitting rock bottom helped. I knew the problem was me, and only I could make myself better.

I learned strategies to combat my anxiety instead of just coping with it. I needed to get to the root of my anxiety and fight it instead of cope with it by avoiding or controlling it.

Everything else fell into place after learning these simple strategies, like dominoes. The rest became easy, but still took effort. Things like exercising, eating healthy, sleeping for 7 to 8 hours a night, being more assertive, outgoing, and empathic to others was easier to accomplish once the foundation was built.

One last item is that mindfulness really helped quite the thoughts in my head, and it was the last piece of the puzzle. With that, I can now quiet the thoughts in my mind and relax almost on demand, which I thought was impossible just a short time ago.

So there you have it. The “secret” to love yourself you have to start to learn which behaviors and thinking patterns are toxic to you, so that you can recognize them and start to fight back against them. But secret doesn’t mean shortcut, and none of these things are easy. But they ARE worth it. No matter who you are, YOU are worth it.

self love

Life Without Self-Love – Part 2

inner-peace

Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.

Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).

One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.

In my last post I talked about how the breakdown of self-love impacts day to day life. In this post, I want to focus on how it impacts relationships (like my last post, Gandalf’s thoughts and comments are in blue).

Selfish Love

In relationships, we all start out with a selfish approach. There is always something (or multiple things) we are hoping to get out of the relationship, and when looking for a prospective partner we are interested in finding someone who will meet our needs.

Over time though, for the relationship to succeed and/or flourish, it has to stop being about our own needs and wants. Although our partners are separate and distinct from us, their needs and wants have to be just as important as our own. We need to shift from thinking in terms of “me”, to “we”.

When someone doesn’t love themself this mental shift becomes a challenge, and often love continues to be all about you.

It was early in my therapy and 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.

This focus on “me” is described by Daniel Smith (Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety) as follows:

An anxiety sufferer can feel as if he too is imprisoned in his own mind, but with the demonic twist that his mind can think of nothing but itself. Anxious thoughts are radically personal thoughts. Their central concern is what affects you, what threatens you, what you need, you regret, you dread, you fear.

Anxiety is a condition of near-total self-absorption, made only worse by the fact that the sufferer typically realizes that he is being self-absorbed and grieves over his sad inability to see past himself.

Relationship Impacts

For my buddy Gandalf, anxiety and a lack of self-love prevented him from being in any romantic relationships for a long time. He’s now in a much better place now, and is in the first real serious relationship of his life. While talking about relationships I asked if he knew “why” he had never been able to be in a relationship. I think his response speaks volumes on how anxiety and a lack of self-love can damage relationships.

For me, there were several factors that prevented me from getting into a romantic relationship:

  1. Fantasies. I didn’t know what being normal was, and that goes for relationships too. My expectations and reality were very far apart. There was no way that reality could match my fantasy, so I would always be disappointed
  2. Avoidance. I avoided anything that was scary, so I’d avoid talking to people. I couldn’t talk to others, unless it was about my interests, in which you just couldn’t shut me up. This all or nothing type of talking really turns people off of talking to you. I would never ask how the other person is doing. Basically I had no empathy for another person
  3. Expectations. I expected that I had to do nothing in a relationship, so I’d do no work in the relationship. Even if there was a woman that I was interested in, I expected her to do all the work, like introducing herself to me and, well, everything else in the relationship. I expected that she do all the work and that I had to do nothing. This came from the avoidance and learned helplessness behaviors, plus my sense of entitlement
  4. Negativity. Not much to say about this except that a negative perspective is not conducive to building a long term and lasting relationship. Also, the constant doubt and insecurity from the negativity didn’t help either
  5. Empathy. When trying to engage a woman in conversation, there was no emotional connection, or empathy, between myself and the woman. It would be just a complete and total physical attraction and the arousal response would take over.
  6. I was also always scanning the other person for emotional displays, but I would only focus on the ones that affected me and I’d usually place negative meanings to it (e.g. “She just yawned, therefore I must be boring her.”)

The end result is the lady would need to do all the work to start the relationship and keep it going. This is not only unrealistic, but the real question is why (would she)? Why would any lady put the time and effort into a guy who didn’t show affection back? This is where I was and why I never had success in relationships.

Even for friends and family relationships, some of the above played into those relationships too. Except I didn’t have the sexual fantasy, and without that, the other items became bearable enough to suppress my anxiety and actually form a friendship. Even then, it was hard.

I would never show who I really was because I hated, or loathed, myself. So I always changed and became what my friends wanted. It was not so much as showing facets of a diamond but burying the diamond in the ground and showing an amethyst instead.

I so desperately wanted to be accepted, receive affection, and be with others that I would suppress who I truly was. The real fear that I had was that if they saw the real me, they would reject me and I’d lose them. So, yeah, it was mostly fear of rejection and loss, and I felt this all the time.

I recently read that people who suffer from anxiety disorders cannot engage the pre-frontal cortex part of their brain, which is where the higher processing functions are (empathy, emotional regulation, etc.) This makes complete sense to me as this is what I felt.

Being with a friend or lover must feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcoming, and relaxed. When I was suffering from anxiety, I felt threatened, insecure, rejected, and stressed when I was with another person. This was all in my mind, as I was the one who made being with another person like this.

Once I changed my perception of being with people to be non-threatening and reduce my anxiety, then I was able to relax, feel comfortable around people and enjoy their presence.

I’m now thinking that anxiety and the related disorders are the number one killer of relationships. I have no proof, but anxiety is completely counter to the personality qualities needed for a long term stable relationship.

Reduction of Intimacy

One of the ways anxiety damages relationships is through the erosion of intimacy.

I found a great article describing how anxiety damages a person’s sex drive. The article states:

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.

Intimacy is one of the things that defines a relationship, so when sexual issues arise they tend to cause tension in other areas of the relationship. When you combine this with avoidance, you have an issue that can quickly grow out of hand, resulting in a growing dissatisfaction with the relationship.

If the anxious person doesn’t recognize that the sexual issues are a direct result of the anxiety, the anxious mind can read meaning into this that can lead to doubts about the relationship itself.

“I don’t feel attractive or attracted to my partner, what does that mean? Does that mean I don’t love him/her? Does that mean there is something wrong with the relationship?”

The Four Step Dance

My buddy Gandalf didn’t have experience with relationships until after he learned to address his anxiety and love himself, so instead of him I will turn to Daniel Smith to describes this pattern of how anxious thought damages relationships.

He describes this as follows:

  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. Withdrawl. 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 repeats, as the anxiety leads the relationship to continually go through cycles that do more and more damage to the relationships each time.

Healthy Love

My buddy Gandalf had it right when he said:

Being with a friend or lover must feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcoming, and relaxed.

Your relationship should be a safe haven. Sure, you will have your squabbles and your issues – nothing is ever perfect. But if you are in a committed relationship you should know that you will always be there for each other. You should know that your needs and wants in life are important to your partner (as theirs are to you), and that you will always work to get through things together. There is a level of peace and comfort that comes with knowing those things.

Anxiety and a lack of self-love breaks that down. Life becomes living with stress and doubting yourself constantly. Even the strongest of relationships will be challenged by anxiety and a lack of self-love. After all, how can you ever truly let go and love someone else when you don’t even love yourself?

Next up, how my buddy turned his life around and was able to move forward with a healthy sense of self (and in turn be able to build a healthy relationship).

Life Without Self-Love – Part 1

self-acceptance (1)

Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.

Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).

One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.

In my last post I talked about how self-love can break down. Today’s focus is on how it impacts day to day life. It may not be the same for everyone, but I suspect my buddy’s experiences are not uncommon. In this post I’ll introduce different areas, with Gandalf’s insights in blue.

Body Image

One of the biggest ways not loving yourself manifests is in body image. You may be able to build up mechanisms to hide the emotions or deadness that you are feeling inside. But you can never escape yourself.

For people who love themselves, when you look in a mirror you see yourself fairly objectively. Yeah, you may have flaws (we all do), and as you age there may be more grey/wrinkles/sagging skin/whatever then there used to be, but that’s just part of you. For someone who doesn’t love themselves, often when they look in a mirror they don’t see the good. All they see are the flaws, and worse, those flaws are magnified in an unrealistic way.

When I first started therapy, I talked to my psychologist over the phone and I said that I was an obese person and he should expect a fat person when we meet.

To put this into context, I had been exercising for several years, so I was a healthy weight at the time. When we met, he was surprised to see me because he thought I was in good shape, which I was. The problem was that I couldn’t see myself like that because I loathed who I was. That self-loathing not only affects your mental self, but your physical self too.

Now, when I show my girlfriend pictures from when I was really fat, she says, “you don’t look fat at all. You look great”. Part of it is because she loves me, but part is because I really wasn’t that fat, just a bit over weight. She can see me in a more realistic light than I can.

Even now, I’m in better shape and some days I have to fight the thoughts that I’m fat or over weight. But it hasn’t happened since I started doing my mindfulness exercises twice a day.

Similarly I was also camera shy as I thought I’d ruin a picture if I was in it, so I tried to avoid photos. Now, I’ll gladly pose for a picture and be in a photo, either by myself or with others.

A Negative Outlook

One of the main characteristics of people who don’t love themselves is a negative approach to the world, which leads to taking things personally.

We have all been around “negative people” and you can usually tell who they are in a short period of time after meeting them. Negative people often have a negative energy around them that can bring others down.

But not all people are overtly negative. When I met my buddy, I had no idea that he had a negative outlook. He projected a fairly placid exterior, while inside him there was considerable emotional turmoil.

I only looked at the negative side of a situation, and never the good. Because I expected the worst, when there were no negatives I would manufacture one. Gifts always came with a catch, a complement had a hidden meaning that usually was an insult, and anything good that a person did to or for me was explained that they just wanted something from me.

Everything in life was bad, and when something good happened it was a fluke, easily dismissed, or the bad was waiting to happen.

Losing Perspective

In addition to the negative outlook there is a tendency to blow things out of proportion, and turn little things into big issues. Events are misinterpreted through a broken lens, so offense is taken even when none was intended.

My anxiety disorder caused little incidents to become massive life altering events in my mind, and I took every negative action in life as a personal attack.

If the bus started driving away from the stop I arrived, I would think that the bus driver hates me and is laughing at me. If my line at the store is slower than the others, the clerk and customers in front were slowing down the line on purpose just to spite and annoy me.

In my mind the entire universe was out to get me and make my existence miserable every single day.

Avoidance and Blaming

I talked a bit about avoidance in my last post, but it warrants looking at again as it’s one of the key components. Avoidance leads to a refusal to acknowledge and deal the real problems, as it’s easier to blame something else.

Sure, you may not be happy – but it’s because of this, or because of that. If you could only change those things then everything would be better. There is a tendency to look for magic wand solutions to life, or a belief that if you wait things out then problems will magically get better.

When you have anxiety, over time feeling anxious becomes normal and the only thing that changed was the amount of anxiety that I felt. I started to view anything that caused my anxiety to increase as bad. New, changing, or uncomfortable situations caused anxiety, so if I avoided them then my anxiety reduced. In my mind new/change came to be seen as bad.

Any discussion of issues caused my anxiety to rise so I would deflect the conversation to something else instead of the real problem. I came to believe that the events in my life were the problem, and think “If only these events weren’t happening then I wouldn’t be stressed or anxious.” My coping mechanism was to try to avoid a problem (any problem) instead of confronting it.

Anything that I couldn’t avoid, I’d just endure. But I would never take action to reduce my anxiety or improve my situation. I’d just wait, do nothing, and hope it would go away.

Putting in effort either meant something was new or changing, and to me that led to more anxiety. Contributing to my own anxiety was like inflicting pain on myself, and I tried to avoid that at all costs. So I did nothing.

However the real issue was never the event or problem, it was my ability to handle the stress these events caused.

Physiological Impacts and Insomnia

Beyond the negative self-image, there can also be actual physiological effects. People may be more prone to headaches, or constipation. But the most difficult part is hypersensitivity to the world around them. There is a constant state of “alert” which leads the body to be in a constant state of stress, often leading to muscle tension.

Incidentally it is this stress state that often leads to clinical depression, as constant stress can lead to biochemical imbalances.

With my heart racing all the time due to perceived threats, my blood pressure was always elevated. I couldn’t relax even if I wanted to. My mind was always racing, and this led to insomnia as I just couldn’t stop thinking when going to bed. I would keep thinking random thoughts which would lead me to worry and cause my heart to continue racing.

I was so nervous going to bed that my heart was still racing even after going to bed. After about one to two hours, my body would calm down just enough to fall asleep.

The best description that I have is driving a car at 60 km/h then jamming the transmission into Park. That’s what going to bed and trying to sleep was for me.

Weekends were my only reprieve as I was able to sleep until noon, which was 9 to 11 hours of sleep. Every night, sleep was a battle.

Hopelessness

Another common characteristic of people who don’t love themselves is a pervasive sense of hopelessness. This is something often associated with depression, and self-loathing and anxiety commonly lead to depression. But the sense of hopelessness comes first.

I cannot describe the feeling of despair that I woke up to each morning. It was a battle to get out of bed and get to work as I felt to the core of my being that it was totally and completely meaningless to do anything, including work. All personal items and duties seemed equally meaningless. Why clean the house when it would just get dirty again? Why do anything at all in life when in the end, you’re going to die and be forgotten? Yes, I was depressed and only those who have suffered from depression know of the hopelessness and despair that you feel.

Compulsion and Numbing Behaviors

Compulsion and Numbing behaviors are similar in that they both are forms of “escape”. The difference is people turn to compulsions because they provide a positive feeling, or a temporary relief from the sense of hopelessness and self-loathing; while numbing behaviors allow someone to dull the pain, and not feel anything at all.

These behaviors sometimes appear benign or even healthy, such as working out, watching TV or reading books. Or they can be things like turning to alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating or even sex.

Other than drugs, none of these things are inherently bad (yeah, I consider drugs bad – you’re welcome to disagree). But any behaviors are indicative of a problem when they become compulsive.

This one is the most destructive of them all. Life seemed to have no meaning, so when I found something that I thought made me happy, I held on to it like a dog with a bone. For some, it’s gambling, or work (workaholics), but for me, it was video games. I played games as if my life depended on it. To me, video games WERE my life. They gave me meaning, tasks to accomplish, and recognition for completing a game

I didn’t realize that it was a problem, but in hindsight it was. I couldn’t stay away from video games. I would constantly be thinking of games and wishing that I was playing them. It was my entire life, I felt that my existence was validated when playing, and I couldn’t stop.

I mentioned I had a negative self-image. That led to exercise becoming another compulsion for me. When I was exercising compulsively I remember how I’d get when life interrupted it. I would get *mad* and immediately think that I’d get fatter if I missed just one exercise session, as exercise was linked to my self-image, which was negative at the time.

Now, I’m fine with missing a day or two as I know it won’t cause me to get fat.

Making Choices

Anxiety goes hand in hand with avoidance. Avoidance has a number of negative side effects, but one of the ways it manifests itself is in decision making. Decision making becomes HARD. And often, it’s easier just to not make a decision and force someone else to make the decision for you. That way you don’t have to make it, and you aren’t responsible for it if things don’t work out.

In addition, there is a tendency to second guess decisions that you have made and focus on the past. “What if I had just done this or that differently? Maybe then things would be different today.”

Decision making was hard because I was so scared of making the wrong decision that I would freeze mentally and not make a decision. Every decision that I made felt like the fate of the universe was hanging in the balance and that a wrong decision would be the end of the world. The reason for this was that I would ruminate on every wrong decision that I made, and most seemed wrong as I only looked at the negative side, and mentally beat myself up over it.

As you can see, the impacts are wide and varied, but they all add up to an individual with an unhealthy outlook on the world, themselves, and those around them. Next I’ll be looking at how a lack of self-love impacts relationships.

The Breakdown of Self-Love

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Of all the things you can do, loving yourself is perhaps the most important. It is probably THE key to happiness, affecting both personal happiness and happiness in a relationship. Unfortunately we don’t all love ourselves.

Over the next few posts I will be examining a lack of self-love, anxiety and depression with the help of my buddy Gandalf who has been down the rabbit hole of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. He struggled for years with self-love, and found that anxiety was central to his problem (as anxiety disorders break down the very fabric of what is needed for loving both yourself and those around you).

One important note about my buddy’s situation is that at the time he didn’t know he had a problem. For him, this was just how he was, how he behaved and how he viewed the world. It was horribly broken and unhealthy, but it wasn’t until he hit rock bottom and was able to get better that he was able to look back and see how much damage he was doing to both himself and those around him.

Issues with self-love usually originate in childhood. I’m a parent, and I’ll admit that although we usually have the best of intentions we rarely have any idea what we are doing. We make mistakes, and can inadvertently harm the very people we care the most about.

Sometimes it’s not showing children sufficient affection, berating them for their faults or continually comparing them to others (why can’t you be more like…). Sometimes it’s because we don’t love ourselves, and without a strong model of love this issue is perpetuated from parent to child.

Although each person is different, there are often commonalities across situations. My buddy didn’t just struggle with self-love, he hated himself.

Trying to understand this, I asked him if he had any idea where this self-loathing originated. From reading on Attachment Theory, my guess was it had something to do with avoidance and anxiety at these traits are closely linked to chronic unhappiness.

Here was his response:

Yes, I know exactly how my self-loathing occurred, and you are correct that there is a relationship between anxiety, attachment, and avoidance. For me to understand, I had to work backwards as I started at the end of the list and uncovered the different steps along the way. Here is how it happened for me:

Stage 1 – Hyper-active arousal

This is the stress arousal, or fear response, that everybody is born with. In about 20% of all babies, this stress reaction is hyper-sensitive and everything causes a stress, or fear, response.

This is how I started. Even as a baby I was fearful. I don’t have memories of this, so I heard this from my mom. But I was hyper-sensitive to any new or novel stimulation (person, place, toy, etc.)

Stage 2 – Poor attachment

For a child where the entire world is scary, you need a place where you feel safe, loved. Parents provide this through unconditional love, and lots of touching, of all things. Touching calms the stress response, provides comfort to the child, and signals that they have a safe haven to explore from.

Without this “safe haven”, the world remains scary, home and parents provide no comfort, and the child is actually more stressed at home than away. It’s ironic that the environment where a child should feel most safe and secure ends up being where the child feels most stressed and scared.

I was never “loved” as a child, and I can’t recall my parents ever hugging me or comforting me. My dad would sit in front of the TV all evening and my mom would make the meals, and clean the house. They were very hands off and fend for yourself parents. I ended up being the teacher’s pet as that was my only outlet for attention and affection. But this did damage as well, as I ended up linking my self-esteem to my school work.

Stage 3 – Anxiety

From here, everything is now scary and induces a stress response that the child cannot control. Going to school is a daily ordeal of stress and fear. Activities are not fun, sports are difficult as the child cannot coordinate themselves properly as they are paralyzed with fear, and making friends is difficult as you are tongue tied and stumble, or stutter, words in the conversation.

The fear response is triggered from new/novel situations and people, and without a “safe haven” to start from, the child does not learn how to control this reaction. This is now full-blown anxiety.

It didn’t start out that I was scared of everything right away. I tried to make friends, and I tried to be involved in school activities, but without a supportive adult helping you, it’s difficult. At first I tried, but eventually, I stopped trying all the time and that’s when I started to avoid life, which is the next stage.

Stage 4 – Avoidance

Avoidance is when you stop doing things. I would think “If I just avoid doing this activity, then I won’t feel stressed”. The issue is eventually you apply it to everything in life, including life itself.

It becomes a natural response to any situation. You don’t explore, take chances, engage with other people, or do activities as all of these are new (and therefore scary). Just avoiding everything that causes discomfort, stress, annoyance, and anxiety become so easy and was the solution to all of my problems. Or so I thought. What I didn’t realize is that I disengaged from life. I was there, existing, but not really living.

Avoidance is the most common coping mechanism for dealing with things, and becomes part of your personality. But there are others. For me, computers and games became that “safe haven” for me where I felt loved, accepted for who I am, and safe. The problem with coping mechanisms is they prevent you from getting at the root cause of the problem and dealing with it.

Stage 5 – Negative thinking, Narcissism, and Self-Loathing

I have lumped these together as they occurred together for me and are linked.

Negative thinking directly comes from the avoidance coping mechanism. As I avoided people and situations, I started to think that I wasn’t good or that I can’t do it, but what I really was doing was rationalizing why I was avoiding people and situation. If I convinced myself I couldn’t do something, then I wasn’t avoiding it out of fear. I built up this negative persona of myself to protect me from my anxiety and to rationalize my avoidance. However from a mental health perspective, this is horrible.

Narcissism is an ironic effect from anxiety and not one most people think is part of it. Anxiety sufferers become hyper-vigilant to try and avoid any conflict as they don’t know how to deal with it. So they constantly scan the environment, including people, for signs of danger or trouble. This means anxiety sufferers are constantly scanning others for signs of anger/unhappiness/sadness/disappointment and evaluating if this will “hurt or affect me”.

This leads to what one book called “Nice Guy Syndrome”. I would try to please everybody all the time and pretend to be happy so nobody would be upset or angry around me. I did this by being hyper-vigilant to the people around me and trying to please them instead of myself. My thinking was that if I did this nobody would have any cause to be upset or angry at me allowing me to avoid conflict. On the outside, it look altruistic, but the motivation is completely self-centered.

As I avoided what I wanted to do and suppressed myself due to Narcissism, I started to hate myself, and I don’t mean just a part, but my entire core being. I really can’t describe how this self-loathing feels, other than to say that

I felt trapped in a prison that I had both designed and built. The worst part is that I knew I did this to myself, but I didn’t know how to get out of it.

Every time I suppressed myself to accommodate somebody else, I hated myself a bit more, but I didn’t connect this to my anxiety. It just became a coping mechanism for avoiding conflict.

Stage 6 – Behaviours

There are three behaviors that come out of Stage 5: Routines, Passive-Aggressiveness, Learned Helplessness, and Depression.

Routines became a way to minimize new situations in life. After all, if you’ve done something before and it didn’t hurt you, then it’s fine. Like an obsessive compulsive I would ensure that I stuck to my set routine every day as much as possible, and any deviation from my routine was met with anger, resistance, and childlike whining or tantrums.

Passive-aggressiveness was my only way to deal with conflict. I won’t say too much here as the article you wrote sums it up well, but I do want to say is that its roots are in avoidance. Passive-aggressive behavior is the mechanism that anxiety sufferers use to avoid conflict. When an argument can’t be avoided, then I would just avoid communicating to avoid further conflict.

Another part to passive-aggressive behavior is a belief on how other people should treat you. From my routines, I developed very strict and ridged rules on how people should interact and please me, but I never communicated them to other people. Instead of asking for what I wanted I would drop hints, like, “I really enjoy X”, which meant I wanted someone to got get or do X for me. I never clearly stated what I wanted, but if I didn’t get it I would still be upset with someone for a short time and then carry on like nothing happened.

Learned Helplessness became a way of life for me. The more I avoided, the more helpless I became. Eventually, it became my default behavior as I would say, “I can’t do it. Here, you do it.” I actually would not do anything new unless I was with somebody else to be there with me.

Eventually depression set in. The more you suppress, the more you loath yourself, the more I avoided, the more I deferred to others as I thought I was helpless, eventually leads to hopelessness. This hopelessness caused the depression. I saw all my dreams disappearing one by one as I did nothing to pursue them because I was helpless to do anything. Life became meaningless and all I did was go through the motions of my daily routine.

As a kid I had linked my self-worth to my school work. As an adult it was my job. My core self-worth and self-esteem was completely dependent and linked to my academic and career performance. Without being in school or in a meaningful job, my depression deepened as there was nothing to fill the emptiness inside. I was looking for external validation for my existence and self-worth, when it can only come from inside. The end result was a hopelessness and despair that I can’t explain. My life had no meaning, and there was no point to anything.

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Stage 7 – Acceptance

This step means that you have accepted the anxiety as a part of your core being. This is the final stage in the process. I really can’t say much of this stage as I didn’t reach this stage, but I’ve seen it in other people, and the result is that the person stops trying to fight the previous six stages, and gives up. They become set in their ways, and won’t, or can’t change.


I’m not sure I agree that it’s ever too late, but all of these stages led to a chronic unhappiness and a sense of self-loathing. Next I will look at the broken thinking patterns and toxic behaviors that arose from this, and how they impacted his life and relationships.