Dealing with Emotions

Anger

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

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

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

Recently I came across the following quote about anger:

AngerAristotle

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

Emotions and Mental Health

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

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

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

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

Emotions and Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Abuse.

Emotional Abuse

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

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

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

Letting Emotion In

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

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

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

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

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

Misdirected Anger

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

Why?

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

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

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

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The Power of Belief

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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.

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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

Behind the Masks

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Who are you?

By that, I’m referring to the “true” you.

I’ve written previously about the roles that we play, and how they impact us. We all play a number of different roles. Parent, child, sibling, friend, co-worker, lover.

Are all of these things simply roles? Are they acts that we put on, depending on our audience? Or are they components of who we “really are”?

Who are we? Is there actually a “true” you?

Who are You?

The idea of a “true you” has always interested me.

If it exists, when was it formed? Did you have the seeds of this true you when you were an infant? Did it start when you started attending school?

I guess it is the age old nature/nurture debate, but to me it seems clear that if it exists, it is something that formed over time. I suppose there may be some seeds to your personality in your genetic makeup, but your experiences definitely contribute to shaping who you are.

If we can accept that experience at least contributes to the “true you”, then the question becomes:

When (if ever) are you “complete”? When it your identity fully formed?

Did it stop when you became a teenager? When you reached the age of majority?

I definitely changed when I became a parent. And over the last few years I’ve watched my parents’ generation go from being the adults to the seniors, while I have gone from being one of the younger generation to being part of the adult generation.

During this time I have watched children grow into young adults. I have watched people fall in love, marriages fail. People get sick, loved ones die. I have watched great joy, love, anger and sadness.

These things impact you. The experiences change you.

So if I’m constantly changing, who am I? Was the “me” at 20 any more or less valid than the “me” I was at 30? Or 40?

Losing Yourself

We all have many roles we play in our lives, and each of these roles comes with a set of unwritten rules and expectations.

The behavior that is “acceptable” as a student is different from what is acceptable as a child, a friend, a parent, a co-worker, a lover. The list goes on.

Conforming to these acceptable behaviors can be like donning a mask, and sometimes we let the masks slip. For example, I don’t swear often, but have a tendency to in times of frustration or anger. Even still, there’s a part of me that knows that it’s different to swear with my buddies vs. in front of my children. I make that distinction at a subconscious level. Yet I have sworn in front of my children, and in those moments my “parent mask” has slipped.

When it does, is it the “true me” that is coming out?

I don’t think so. It’s a side of me, sure. I don’t believe the true me is someone who goes around swearing all the time. The true me also isn’t someone who never swears. I will occasionally, out of frustration or anger. But I would like to think the true me know which situations are appropriate, and which aren’t.

Sometimes juggling all the roles we play can seem overwhelming. And in doing so, at times it can seem like we have lost sight of ourselves, and we aren’t even sure who we are anymore under all those roles.

I think this sense of losing ourselves happens when we act the way we think people want us to act. People talk about “authenticity” as being true to yourself. And if we aren’t being authentic then the roles we play become just that – roles. We become like actors, trying to put on the appropriate mask for the appropriate setting.

When we do this, we lose sight of who we are.

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Finding Yourself Again

But wait a minute? Didn’t I just say that we all have many roles to play, and there are certain expectations associated with these roles?

Shouldn’t we have to meet those expectations?

This is where the challenge comes in. We do all have roles we play in our lives, but at the same time we should never just be “playing” a role.

Instead, we need to find ways to make that role our own.

Let me explain…

I’m a father, and my dad was my biggest influence for what a father is. After all, he’s what I grew up with. But I’m not the father my dad was, or the father his dad was. I can never be him. I need to define what it being a father means to me, and that’s the father I need to be. But even this isn’t “fixed”.

The father I was to my children when they were babies is different from the father I am to my children now. I learn, adapt, and change.

I’m sure other people look at some of my parenting techniques and see things I’m doing “wrong”. Well, yeah. I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. But hopefully I’m also doing a lot of things right. And most importantly, I’m finding an approach that works for me. It’s fluid.

A harder one is my role as a husband.

Similar to learning to be a parent, I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. Hopefully I’m doing a lot of things right too. The thing is, I’m sure my wife has certain expectations of me. And I likewise have certain expectations of her.

This presents a challenge, because if I do something simply because it’s expected of me then I’m just playing a role or putting on a mask. But at the same time there ARE expectations, and I can’t just pick and choose the parts I want to deal with, or the ones I am comfortable with at a given moment.

As a couple, you need to be clear with each other what your expectations are. No one’s expectations will match completely, and this can be a significant source of conflict in relationships.

Bridging this gap is important to the success of a relationship.

You should never feel like you are playing a role, or doing things simply because they are expected of you. But at the same time, when you are in a relationship you do have responsibilities to the other person.

I think this is where empathy comes in.

For both members of a relationship to feel valued, there must be a belief that both members needs and expectations matter to the other person – even when they don’t match.

Accepting this allows you adjust your expectations somewhat, and fill a role without just playing the role. It allows you to make it your own, and find a way to fill the role that seems natural for you.

It is only when you do this that you are being true to yourself.

When you do this, it’s not just a role. It becomes part of you.

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Embracing Change

Identity can be a difficult thing, and I don’t think there are any “easy” answers to the question of who we are.

But I don’t believe there is a “true you”. Or rather, the true you is always evolving and always changing.

We have countless roles we play in our lives, and each of them shapes us. But at the same time, we don’t have to let them define us.

So who am I?

The true me is both good and bad. It’s full of all sorts of flaws and contradictions. And all of these pieces are all still me.

I’m all sorts of things. I’m a father, a husband, a friend, a co-worker, a son, etc. All of these things are me, and all of them make up my identity. But I am not any single one of these.

And no matter which role I am playing at a given time, all of them are still “me”.

Making Changes

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of basketball. Well I’ll let you in on a little secret – I can’t shoot. I’ve had days that I will hit 10 in a row, but those are rare, and tend to be followed by stretches where I won’t hit at all. If you meet me on a day that I happen to be hitting you may think I’m a good shooter. However if you play with me for long enough, it becomes apparent that I can’t.

Shooting is only part of the game and I would like to think I can get by with some of the other things that I do well (or at least better). But still, it would help my team if I was able to hit shots more consistently.

I have never been coached. As an uncoordinated youth, I started playing late and learned basketball largely through observation, then by trying to recreate what I saw. In the process I came up with a shooting mechanic that “worked for me”. Through the years I’ve recognized that my shot is a weakness in my game, so I try to listen to other people and get pointers when I can. I’ve made some adjustments over the years, but the only consistent thing about my shot is its inconsistency.

Last summer my son was at a basketball camp and there was a “shot doctor” who came in and taught the kids the proper mechanics of shooting. I’ve read books, watched videos etc, but this was the first time I had ever had someone really break down the mechanics of a shot into their components. As he taught the kids, I listened intently.

After the camp, when I came home from work I tried to put what I had learned into practice.

My “old” shot had been internalized. It was reactive, meaning I didn’t have to think about it. And that made it really hard to change. Here’s the thing, when you have YEARS of “bad habits” built up, it becomes really hard to change them.

To make changes you need to really slow down, think about what you are doing, and go back to the basics. It took me a while to get the feel for the “new” shot mechanic, but once I did it was amazing. I was hitting shots at a much higher rate, and more importantly with greater consistency over time.

slow-changes

This improvement had me looking forward to the start of my mens league season, and I believed that this year I would have more confidence in my shooting.

The season started, and guess what – the speed of an actual game is quite a bit different from shooting on your driveway with no defender. I didn’t have time to think about the shot mechanics, and in the pressure of the moment I found myself reverting to my “old” (you can also read that as bad) form.

You see, its one thing to understand what you have to do to change. It’s something entirely different to put it into practice on a regular basis and in a “real life” situation.

Putting in Effort

For me basketball is just a pastime. I love it, but it’s really not that important to my life. So I haven’t put in the hours needed to really internalize the improved mechanics so I can use them in a “real life” situation. I realize that true change takes effort, and that applies to any changes in life.

In a recent post my buddy Gandalf talked about changing his life. As he said:

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.

Learning to Cope

Over our lifetime we develop coping mechanisms for getting by in life. Similar to how I learned to shoot in basketball, we find something that “works for us”, no matter how broken or ineffective these coping mechanisms may be. As long as we are able to get by, that’s good enough for us.

When times are good it’s not a problem. But life isn’t always easy, and times aren’t always good.

How do you react when life gets tough? My buddy’s approach was to run away. Well, not literally. But his avoidance was such that his way of dealing with things was to not deal with them at all. He would withdraw, not make decisions, and retreat into his comfort zone. And it worked for him – kind of. Unfortunately he wasn’t happy. In fact, he was miserable, and he hated himself. For years he blamed his unhappiness on external things. The reality was, his coping mechanisms were broken and they were causing him to spiral further and further down into unhappiness.

Even though his coping mechanisms were at the root of his problems, they were still safe, and they were what he knew.

It’s unfortunate that people seem to need to hit rock bottom before they can get better. But I guess until they do, their coping mechanisms are still “working” for them, no matter how much damage they are doing. It’s only when they fail completely that someone is forced to face themselves, and see the need for change.

It’s only then that someone will WANT change badly enough to make it happen.

The Need For Change

I think maybe rock bottom is needed because until then, people don’t NEED change. They may want it, and they may realize at an intellectual level that it would benefit them. But change is scary.

Until someone has hit rock bottom, they don’t want change badly enough to dedicate themselves to it. So they say they are trying, but their attempts are half-hearted. Because the effort isn’t truly there, the change doesn’t work or is ineffective, so they revert back to their old ways.

Then they can tell themselves “hey, I tried”. But in reality all they ever did was set themselves up for failure.

When you look around, it’s amazing how much effort people actually seem to put into avoiding change. I think it’s due to fear. People fear change, and so even when they know change is needed, they will half-heartedly attempt it. Then when it doesn’t work, they retreat back to the old ways. But giving up on change causes it to fail before it even has a chance. And this failure becomes proof that they didn’t really need to change after all, allowing someone to slip back into the comfort of their broken coping mechanisms.

It’s kind of like when I tried adapting my new basketball shooting mechanic in a game situation. I hadn’t put enough effort in to make the change sustainable, and the stress of a real game caused me to retreat back to my old form.

Baby Steps

My buddy Gandalf had a lot of changes he needed to make. And looking at all those changes was daunting. So to move forward, he had to do it gradually.

With his doctor, he identified different levels of change, and he started with the easy changes and steadily progressed forward. There was a vision of where they wanted to be at the end, and they made a plan to get there.

Big changes are always made up of a number of smaller steps. But even for small changes, the desire and the effort has to be there. There has to be momentum. You have to WANT it, and you have to be willing to work at it.

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Take a look at your coping mechanisms and ask yourself, are they really working? Or are you just “getting by”? If you tell yourself “that’s just the way I am”, guess what – you’re just like my buddy Gandalf used to be. That’s what he told himself. He expected other people to conform to him, after all, *he* couldn’t change.

As a result, he hit what for him was rock bottom. There’s a problem with rock bottom though. Depending on how far you have to fall, sometimes the climb back up is really hard. And sometimes you need to find a new path, because you’ve destroyed your old one in the process.

So ask yourself, are your coping mechanisms actually working? Or are you just getting by?

Change is hard, and it can be scary. But sometimes it’s needed for a happier future.

Learning to Love yourself

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

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

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

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

Facing the Mirror

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

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

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

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

Hmmm, so no real shortcuts then?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Changing Mindsets

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

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

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

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

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

Real change needs to begin within.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life Without Self-Love – Part 2

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

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

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

In my last post I talked about how 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

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

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

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

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

Body Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Negative Outlook

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

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

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

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

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

Losing Perspective

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

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

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

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

Avoidance and Blaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physiological Impacts and Insomnia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopelessness

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

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

Compulsion and Numbing Behaviors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Choices

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

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

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

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