|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on February 18, 2014 at 10:55 AM||comments (0)|
I’ve often counseled that, when worries become intense, one of the best problem solving techniques is to write out your concerns as specifically as possible. Next, spell out concrete actions that are under your control and those that aren’t, such as other people’s moods. It’s advice that I follow. While it’s often hard to get myself to write, it’s marvelously effective once done. For it typically moves me into action and that, in and of itself, is a significant stress reliever.
But life is more than dealing with major problems. There are the little errors, failures, insults and aggravations of life. How does one prevent these annoyances from building up into a funk?
To me a critical approach is to deal with the small issues immediately, before they become bothersome. Preventing the hurt or feelings of failure when they are little goes a long way toward maintaining a good mood. In the long run, it almost like preventing crime by making sure that the streets are well lit and clean—actions that seem to deter more destructive results later on.
I find that the internal language people use plays a significant role in deciding whether the errors, failures, insults and aggravations grow or are pretty much stopped in their tracks. A few days ago a friend shared one of his little gems that I immediately promised to place in my mental first aid kit. After I made an embarrassing error he reassured me with, “Don’t worry, it’s not going on your permanent record.” I stood there surprised and smiling. Of course I could berate myself and ruminate over my error, but no, “It’s not going on my permanent record.” Wow! I can move on. It’s no big thing in the large picture. Such were the sequential thoughts following his remark. I immediately felt better. I kept from getting frustrated with myself.
Mentally healthy people have what psychologist call self-compassion. Put another way, they are kind to themselves. The result of such self-compassion is that they, in turn, are kinder, more generous and tolerant of others—behaviors that provide enormous reciprocal rewards.
Self-compassion is a nice concept, warm and fuzzy. But how is it achieved? Certainly it is fortified with gratitude and quiet pride over personal strengths and accomplishments. But I suspect that it is largely maintained by keeping little human failings from expanding into significant self-doubt. Thus we return to the internal dialog immediately following a personal error, dialog that keep the insults of life from growing into larger worries.
Self-compassion means forgiving yourself for making errors and putting errors into the big picture perspective. The forgiveness is facilitated by your self-statements: “It’s not going on your personal record” is one but so is “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and “It’s not the end of the world” all ways of managing life’s irritations. I suspect if we were to analyze happy people we would find they have a catalog of constructive remarks that keep self-doubt at bay.
In protecting yourself from being overwhelmed by the slings and arrows of life I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories concerning Larry Doby, the first African-American to integrate the American League. Not as famous as Jackie Robinson in the National League, Larry Doby likewise endured tremendous racial abuse. He was asked after he retired whether he ever wished his skin were a different color. Without hesitation he replied, “I thank God that my skin is black. I just wished it were a little thicker.”
Thick skin protecting us from life’s tribulations is something we can all work on. It comes about from constructive thoughts immediately following a problem. I hope you have a lot of them at the ready. I was so pleased to recently add one more—“Don’t Worry. It’s not going on your permanent record.” Indeed I recommend that you make a list of your own and keep it handy.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on February 18, 2014 at 10:50 AM||comments (0)|
My professional career has been schizophrenic in the sense that the first half was spent treating those with pain and suffering, and the second half has focused on happiness. While not immediately apparent, these two fields are surprisingly intertwined.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between pain and happiness is that they are both perceptions. They each may begin as an external incident, a hurtful action for pain, a loving compliment for happiness, but the brain must process each external event. And this is where what is happening in the brain in the form of attitude, expectation, beliefs, etc., plays a significant role in our actual experience, be it pain or happiness. Thus, one man’s pain is another man’s pleasure and vise versa. Our interpretation of what is happening externally is at the crux of whether we are generally happy or miserable.
Now, some may rush to say that physical and psychological pain are strikingly different. In actuality the differences are far less than most realize. To point, studies show that an intense psychological hurt, such as the loss of a loved one, lights up the same areas of the brain as does intense physical pain. If anything, my observations are that psychological distress is more troublesome than physical pain. Many a child would rather endure a quick spanking than the disapproval of a loving parent.
All this is to say that it is necessary, in my opinion, when considering happiness to not only study habits of kindness, gratitude, exercise, etc. –- the positive practices of well being –- but also to study how we handle pain, especially psychological pain.
Let me give one example of many cases I could cite. Most everyone is acquainted with the world famous theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking. Hawking was diagnosed in his early 20’s with a motor neuron disease that left him trapped in a shell of a body. Now 63, he is unable to move any part of his body, is confined to a wheelchair and speaks through a mechanical voice instrument. An interviewer asked what kept his spirits up. He replied, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
It is that interpretation, a philosophical adjustment that is at the heart of what we all, perhaps to a much lesser degree, must make to the painful experiences of life. Hawking made an extraordinarily positive adjustment. How we respond to the challenges of life determines our life’s emotional trajectory.
Consider -- if you were presented with the choice between a life with chronic pain but continued speech and mobility versus the neurological shell of a body experienced by Stephen Hawking, what alternative would you take? As difficult as the former might be, the latter incarceration into the body of a Stephen Hawking and the accompanying psychological adjustment might tip you away from that alternative. And so it is likely that you would choose the alternative of chronic pain versus, in my mind, the more emotionally challenging experience of a completely paralyzed body. The fact that some of you would choose otherwise is again evidence that our pain and happiness are not absolutes but shaped by our individual attitudes and values.
My purpose is not to create uncomfortable scenarios but rather to emphasize that we all face challenges in life. If we choose to believe that we are helpless victims, we are likely to be unhappy. On the other hand, if we control what we can manage in the face of our various losses and hurts, we are more likely to maximize our well being.
You may wish to live a life without pain. But, even if such a wish could be granted, consider that your happiness is more pronounced when contrasted with sadness. Sunshine is better after rain. Health is valued more after illness. And love is, indeed, more intense after its absence. But, of course, we want mostly sunshine, mostly health and our love ones to be with us most, but definitely not all, of the time.
So it is true that we prefer mostly happiness. But that happiness is also dependent upon how we handle the inevitable experiences of pain. To live life to its fullest we must not only practice happiness habits but manage the degree to which pain, psychological and physical, controls us.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on December 16, 2013 at 2:10 PM||comments (0)|
I’m a relatively orderly person whose office sometimes disintegrates into disarray and low levels of dirt. But, after a recent thorough office straightening, I marveled at the degree of pleasure I felt and wondered, with all of the major issues in life bubbling around me, how I could feel such enjoyment over something as simple as cleaning my office. Why is that so? And since it feels so good, why don’t I do it more often?
The reality is that some tasks are low priorities. “A few things out of place won’t hurt.” “Nobody’s going to see it.” “I’ve got other things to do that are more important.” It’s this type of thinking that allows us to procrastinate about a whole series of activities: getting a medical exam, cleaning the car or writing an overdue note. Of course some people like to do these activities, but a large number of us tend to put them off for another day.
On the other hand, some low priority activities jump to the top when an even more onerous task shows up. My office can get a good straightening when my taxes need doing. Others can carry this avoidance to an extreme.
An acquaintance of mine was a prime example. This woman would carefully peruse the want ads each morning (another era) for a much-needed job. But instead of immediately following up on prospective employment, she would circle her preferences in red pen. The following day she would type them out on 3X5 cards and prioritize them. She contacted the employer on the third day, only to find that she was at the end of a line of applicants. When she finally landed a job, she would further exhibit her ambiguity regarding work by frequently being late and getting fired, only to start the circular process once again.
Most of us are not so neurotic, but we avoid doing certain tasks, building up tension the longer the work goes undone. That’s one of the reasons we enjoy completing the task at long last—reducing the tension by knowing that the task is done and believing that it won’t have to be done again for awhile.
Of course, there are other rewards as well. Completing tasks such as straightening the office means that things are back where they belong and I’m ready to work — a clean desk, pens in their cup and books in their place. Why is that important? I suspect it has to do with a feeling of certainty—comfort that I know where things are and can get to them efficiently.
All of this is to say I enjoy having a straightened and clean office. You may feel the same about a kitchen, bedroom, car, lawn or attic. But to get to your desired state can seem Sisyphean—in a lifetime the tasks need to be done time and time again. But I assume Sisyphus also had a choice as he pushed his rock endlessly up the hill. He could, at least, feel a temporary sense of gratification as he reached the top. Why let the pleasure fade? Unlike Sisyphus you don’t have to immediately redo the task. Savor its completion. Sit and admire it. Relish it. Benjamin Franklin noted that happiness comes not from the occasional great joy but the little pleasures of everyday life. It’s the little accomplishments that make up a great deal of the good life.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on November 20, 2013 at 11:05 AM||comments (0)|
One of the important findings emerging from the field of positive psychology is that it takes at least five good acts to offset the damage created by one destructive one. One insult, for example, needs a minimum of five complements to overcome the harm created by one offence. It turns out, however, that the simple act of giving a compliment is not so effortless after all.
You might think that everyone knows how to give a compliment. Such a notion came crashing to the floor on one occasion when I gave the “five to one” recipe to a casual acquaintance. Knowing that I was a psychologist, this fellow stopped me and asked my advice. As a general rule it’s unwise to provide such, “on the run,” pointers, but I succumbed and ill-advisedly gave this man a recommendation.
It seems that his adolescent daughter was disrespectful and unruly—from his vantage point, totally out of control. After listening to him detail her insolence, I encouraged him to begin to focus on whatever morsel of good behavior he could find, compliment it and observe any minute change. One week later he came back, somewhat disgruntled, complaining that my recommendation was worthless. Surprised at the failing of a usually highly successful approach, I asked for an example of what he had done.
“Well,” he began, with much frustration, “I noticed that she was eating nicely and I told her, ‘Well, you’re finally not eating like a pig.’ Stifling a laugh, I asked whether he thought there was anything wrong with his compliment and immediately realized that he was oblivious to its derision. His relationship had deteriorated to the point where he was not only overly focused on his daughter’s faults, but also insensitive to his own contribution to the situation.
Part of the problem, of course, is that we sometimes get out of the habit of complimenting. Big mistake. Compliments help to cement relationships—all relationships, both close and casual. They reward or reinforce those behaviors that please us and codify the gratefulness that we feel. They tell others that we value them and their behaviors.
Compliments are more powerful when we pay attention to what others are saying and especially to their motives and feelings. In doing so we give important attention to what is happening in their life and hence provide them with a feeling of worth.
Another consideration in skillful complimenting is sincerity. Compliments given casually simply don’t have as much clout as those that are sincerely felt. So how is that achieved? A direct way is to put in the time to listen carefully, looking for perhaps the most powerful ingredients to a good compliment—evidence.
Telling someone that they “look nice” is a very nice compliment and one that is likely to have some impact. Telling that same person that they “always look nice” and then providing examples of clothing they have worn is a major step in magnifying the compliment. The more evidence the better.
There are many people who are somewhat immune to compliments, ironically most likely those with poor self-esteem and thus the ones who could benefit the most. For such individuals compliments often roll off them like water off of a duck. The compliment can only penetrate if it has some persuasive quality, and persuasion is more likely when accompanied by evidence.
It may sound a bit complicated to be sincere, attentive and evidence seeking. But such effort has astounding rewards, not just for the recipient but for you as well. Giving compliments is one of those skills that rebounds many fold. You give the compliment, but you’re likely to receive friendship and love in return—not a bad exchange at all.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on October 21, 2013 at 3:15 PM||comments (0)|
A close friend was recently looking at Facebook, a rare behavior for her since she has privacy concerns. But on this occasion she came across an item that caught her attention. It appeared to be written by someone for whom she, much earlier in her life, had great affection. Curious as to whether this was, in fact, her long ago lover, she made some discreet inquiries and amazingly reconnected with this man after 30 years.
Now I rush to say that my friend is not interested in renewing old sparks. She is quite happy as a single woman with a bevy of friends and a very interesting life. But, at the same time, she has kept a stash of love letters, tied with a delicate bow, in her bedside drawer and, at least once a year, tenderly peruses these memories. There are no plans to reunite or even ignite a regular correspondence, just a curiosity as to what life has brought her old love.
I write of my friend’s experience not to encourage searching and reuniting with long ago lovers for that path is as often fraught with disappointment as it is with pleasure. I’m more intrigued with the glow I hear and feel from my happy friend as she recalls a delightful time in her life. And, just as important, how cherished those memories continue to be in her life.
My friend’s experience reminded me of an online video I watched recently by Daniel Kahneman, the only psychologist to have won the Noble prize. He is famous for his creation of a new scientific field called Behavioral Economics and is also prominent in the area of Positive Psychology. One of his contributions is the distinction he draws between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” According to Kahneman we are constantly living through moment-to-moment feelings, which he labels the experiencing self. It is the experiencing self that we turn to when asked if we are happy But if asked if we’re happy with our life, our answer is a reflection of our “remembering self”, which examines our entire life, not simply our momentary or recent disposition.
Our remembering self is particularly interesting because it is profoundly influenced by how a remembered event ends. An example Kahneman uses is of a man who attends a concert and is absolutely enchanted by the music until the very end of the evening when there is a major disturbance and everyone is asked abruptly to leave. When the man remembers the evening, a concert that in terms of enjoyable moments was overwhelmingly positive, he recalls it as an unmitigated disaster. The ending trumps his perceptions and therefore his feeling.
Contrast that example with the experience of my friend. Her long ago relationship was enchanting, like the concert, but ended pleasantly. The parties would have liked it to continue but circumstances beyond their control caused it to end. There was no, and is no, sour taste left to contaminate the lovely experience.
Just as important in maintaining her current feelings, there are additional cues, in the form of the love letters that reignite the warm, loving recollections and feelings. Her remembering self maintains a very positive picture.
Our remembering self is critical to our happiness. It is crucial to our self-esteem and the big picture of how we feel about ourselves. But we should be aware that our remembering self is prone to harmful distortion, especially when things don’t end well such as experiences of rejection or loss. In these situations we are prone to give too much attention to the ending while discounting the positive portion of the experience.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say that my friend’s relationship ended instead with rejection. Personal rejections, in particular, are often filled with hurt and mental distortions such as “I’m not attractive. I’ll never find someone who loves me. Why does this always happen to me?” etc. Such remarks are telling because they frequently differentiate those who are likely to be happy and those who are not so likely. After a period of time, people who are happy construct a story that emphasizes the positive while the unhappy, those who don’t manage so well, are likely to continue to focus upon the negative.
The idea that the remembering self is so integral to our perception of how we judge our life should give us pause and perhaps an opportunity to reconsider whether some of our recollections should be reevaluated. Putting a positive spin on recalled difficult situations is one way to view our life favorably and therefore happily.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on September 24, 2013 at 11:50 AM||comments (0)|
I suspect not many of you recognize the word “alexithymia.” It’s actually a very important word, meaning the inability to express emotions verbally. One psychologist claims it is evident in 80% of men, declaring that men are unable to express their full range of emotions.
I don’t know if 80% is accurate but, whatever the number, I can categorically state that withholding emotions is harmful. A psychologist at the University of Texas, James Pennebaker, has spent his professional life examining this proposition and his research is compelling. Dr. Pennebaker has shown that a wide variety of traumas can leave lasting emotional scars, but those victims who hide their personal pain tend to fare much worse. Interestingly, the damage is not confined to psychological adjustment but affects physical health as well. In a survey of 200 respondents who had experienced at least one childhood trauma, the 65 who kept their histories secret had a higher incidence of a broad range of health problems such as cancer, high blood pressure, headaches and ulcers. The results of this study link the hidden price of silence with harmful affects not only upon the body’s immune system but on more general physical and psychological health.
There is now a large body of evidence that states that if people talk about their problems their health improves and, conversely, not talking about important emotional events is a health risk. Organizations that focus on drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, divorce, and victimization from a wide range of abuse are valuable and effective, in part, because they facilitate talking and sharing.
Not all talking and sharing is valuable, however, nor does everyone with a problem wish to attend a meeting for every problem in his or her life. For most people, this is where friends come into the picture—good friends. Research even shows that the more friends you have the healthier you are. More important, however, is the degree to which you talk to your friends about issues that trouble you.
It is this last point that is critical. The benefit of having many friends disappears in terms of your health, if you have had a trauma and have not spoken about it with your friends. Merely having friends is not enough to protect you unless you use the opportunity to share your upset with them.
For those who hide their emotional distress over a lifetime there is a consequence—most often with feelings of isolation and loneliness. This inner anguish is sometimes buried behind obsessive preoccupation with activities, such as work, that temporarily cover up the emotional pain. But the shame, embarrassment, regret and hurt remain.
In one of the more dramatic examples of the hidden price of silence, Dr. Pennebaker and his colleagues interviewed Holocaust survivors who had not spoken of their ordeal since arrival in the United States many decades earlier. So horrific was their experience that only 30% of those interviewed had ever spoken to anyone. “I’ve tried to forget about it” or “I didn’t want to upset my children” were common reasons for their failure to share.
In a series of two-hour interviews that the researchers found immensely painful, Pennebaker reported that almost all of the Holocaust survivors found the disclosures to have a beneficial effect on both themselves and their families. And in a one-year follow-up, researchers found that the survivors who were least likely to disclose with detail and openness were significantly more likely to see a physician for illness than those who had spoken openly.
What is it that causes the lack of self-disclosure to be harmful and the process of sharing to be beneficial? One much-supported hypothesis is simply that those who hide their distress ruminate over their upset. In addition, their internal stories tend to be incomplete and thus cause continuing pain. Sharing, on the other hand, allows community and perspective to enter into the story while permitting some closure to their distress. Whether this interpretation is accurate or not, there is no question that there is a significant cost to silence and a compelling benefit to sharing your emotions with others.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on September 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM||comments (0)|
I recently came across an exciting exercise that I’m bubbling to tell you about. It was touted in Martin Seligman’s newest book, Flourish. It’s a bit complicated to explain, but if practiced the results are likely to be wonderful. Plus it’s just plain fun.
The neat thing about this exercise is that it’s not simply a remedy for a problem but also an enhancement for those of us who are getting along pretty well. You might remember that the burgeoning field of Positive Psychology is not about remedying a deficit but building on to what may already be good. And that especially applies to relationships—the focus of this particular exercise.
According to researchers, there are four different response styles that people offer when reacting to hearing positive news. Think “I received a promotion” or “My biopsy was benign” or something more common like “I had a great day.” The response to good news typically fall into four categories: Active and constructive, passive and constructive, active and destructive and passive and destructive. The response styles become very clear when we lay them out. Let’s take the one style that is fabulously beneficial to a relationship—active and constructive.
Let’s say that you hear, “I just heard that the project I’ve been working on has been accepted.” An active and constructive response would go like this: “That’s marvelous,” said with excitement and energy. “I’m so proud of you. I knew you could do it. You’ve got such determination. When did you hear? Give me all the details.” The nonverbals are similarly enthusiastic, with genuine smiling, eye contact, laughing and touching.
You may believe that you already respond with an active and constructive response, but let’s contrast that with the other categories that happen all too often. A passive and constructive response might include positive things such as “That’s good news” or “That’s nice, dear,” but said with a flat demeanor. The less than enthusiastic response creates a mismatch between the excitement felt in the speaker’s accomplishment and the passive response. This discrepancy is likely to feel like a let down. It’s the sharing in the emotional high that connects people and it is missing in this style.
The third, and also sadly depleting reply, is the active and destructive response. Here the responder takes a pessimistic view, focusing on the negative. An active and destructive response might go like this: “Oh, I guess that means you’re going to be given another project now” or “You know that they never really appreciate what a hard worker you are.” Again, you can easily imagine how such a response might take the wind out of one’s sail—hardly a way to cement a relationship.
The fourth style is perhaps the most destructive. The researchers title this reply, passive and destructive. Hearing an excited, “My project has been accepted” is met with “What’s for dinner” with no eye contact or any other acknowledgement. You can only imagine how deflating and punishing such a response would feel.
Let’s go back for a moment to detail why the active and constructive style is so beneficial and worth cultivating. When someone tells you good news, they are expressing what they value as well as sharing where they have put their time and energy. Expressing your own excitement in response doesn’t simply acknowledge the news, it says you value them and believe in them—extraordinarily important messages in a relationship.
Here’s the exercise. For the next week, heighten your sensitivity to good news. Be on the look out for things that your spouse, partner, friend(s) say that reveal their sense of accomplishment and pride. Jump on their remark with mutual excitement, in some cases, even exceeding theirs. As always, you’ll improve your habit by recording your effort and noting the response you receive to your work.
I’ve often written that happiness takes work and that a critical pillar to happiness and well being is strong relationships. Well, here’s the work. No matter how often you believe that you already practice healthy replies to good news, take the next week to elevate them to a level that is dynamically active and constructive. I confidently predict that your excitement to good news will be abundantly repaid.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on July 22, 2013 at 1:55 PM||comments (0)|
At the time of this writing, the book Five Love Languages: How to communicate love in a way a spouse will understand by Gary Chapman has been on the best seller’s list an unprecedented 285 weeks, that’s 5 plus years. What is it that makes this self-help book so incredibly popular and enduring?
The fact that it is clearly written and the concept easy to understand is crucial, but most importantly, Chapman has hit upon a psychological truth: We often talk past one another in our conversations, especially with those people that we love. As a result good people and decent relationships often flounder.
But before I expand on the heart of the Five Love Languages and the recommended solutions to dysfunctional and unhappy relationships, let’s take a second to explore the problem Chapman’s addressing.
To begin with, romantic love is a form of insanity. There, I said it! It’s a fairy tale and its crazy—a wonderful crazy to be sure, a feeling like no other, full of joy and ecstasy. The crazy label is not just hype. Recent MRI studies consistently show that the same areas of the brain that evidence insanity also “light up” during the love experience. I am not arguing against this “insanity,” merely pointing out that from a scientific standpoint passionate love is a highly unusual state.
The difficulty begins when the insanity subsides and the work of marriage, or any long-term relationship, begins. To illustrate: Researchers followed 1,761 couples who got married and stayed married over a 15 year period. The results were strong and clear. Newlyweds enjoyed very high levels of happiness that lasted on average about two years, followed by a decline to levels prior to their “insanity.” This finding, published in 2003, has been confirmed by several more recent studies.
A personal take on the above research is illustrated in what a psychologist friend called the “French fry” phenomenon.” His vision was that of a man looking adoringly across a restaurant table watching the love of his life daintily eat a French fry, thinking that no other creature on earth can so delicately place a French fry into her month. To the lover, the action is breathtaking. Advance two years and the same action has lost its magic. Now, as he views the same scene, it seems that her eating is ordinary, perhaps overly slow and maybe even gross. Even more likely, he can hardly remember that he ever reveled in such fantasy.
Of course, when we are in the midst of passionate love we are hypersensitive to the positive features of our lover and blind to their lesser qualities. As time passes we move on to what experts call compassionate love, a less impassioned combination of affection and connection. The reason this happens is that humans are disposed to “hedonic adaptation”—the innate tendency to become habituated to life changes. Stated a bit differently, we are thrilled by positive experiences but, over time, begin to take them for granted.
So how does this relate to the Five Love Languages book? Chapman argues that once we morph beyond the passionate love stage, we tend to return to our more well-established patterns of communicating love. He persuasively argues that we are likely to give love in the manner that we have learned to receive it during our formative years. In other words, we give what we want to receive. Sounds fine until we realize that our individual version of love may be quite different than that of our partner.
To take a classic example: A man may believe that giving his wife a life of economic security is his highest form of love, while the wife may believe that spending quality time with her mate is the best expression of love. If the husband obsessively pursues work while the wife’s expects quality time together eventually there will be a problem. And that is what often happens. Couples very often don’t hear the love that is being expressed and don’t give the love they don’t know is wanted.
What makes the Chapman book so compelling is that it helps husband and wife examine how they would like to receive love. In doing so a conversation can ensue to bring the discrepancies between what is given as love and what is received as love into balance.
The evolution from passionate to compassionate love is not to be discounted as something less—it is simply different and wonderful in it’s own right. But for compassionate love to grow, communication is necessary—something nicely laid out in Gary Chapman’s book. There is a reason it’s been on the best seller’s list for so long.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on July 22, 2013 at 1:50 PM||comments (0)|
Many years ago I carried a little piece of paper stuffed in my wallet on which was written one word—“assertive.” The word was a reminder that I needed to address an absent behavior—speaking up for my needs and wants. It’s not that I was a pansy, with people walking over me. It was more that I walked away from conversations thinking, “I should have said this or that” and often didn’t feel good about the way I’d handled things.
Many years have passed and my own assertiveness skills have become greatly enhanced, but I find that many of my clients have a similar issue. Often accompanying their lack of assertiveness is a lack of self-esteem and a feeling that they are not controlling the world but are being controlled by it.
A dramatic example of this feeling occurred in a woman I treated for severe chronic headaches—so severe that she’d had many teeth removed and multiple operations on her jaw. She also was addicted to narcotic pain medication. By the time I saw her she had been to over a dozen specialists, all to no avail.
Her story is quite interesting and instructive. The patient was very small in stature, barely five feet tall and thin. She spoke in a soft voice and avoided eye contact, an indication of very low self-esteem. This was corroborated by her many self-deprecating remarks and body posture. But, perhaps, most revealing was the story of her relationship with her husband, a very large man, a CEO who travelled internationally and dealt with corporate empires.
Her husband was authoritarian and very traditional in his perception of a strong man. His ran a “tight ship” in his business and expected the same of his wife in her duties as a housewife and mother. Consequently, her children had to be perfect and her floors, as the saying goes, clean enough to eat off. A critical issue in understanding the wife’s condition was knowing that the husband never revealed when he would arrive home at the end of the day or even from trips. As a result his wife was in a constant state of tension, evidenced especially in the muscles in her upper back and skull.
An obvious solution to her headaches was for her to leave her husband and thus her stressful situation. However, the husband did, in fact, love his wife deeply. He had no idea that he was in any way a factor in her tension or headaches. She, too, would not think of leaving her husband for, in her eyes, he was a caring father, a good provider and a loving husband.
To me, the real problem was that the woman was a “pleaser”. She had an extreme lack of self-esteem, was unassertive and avoided conflict at any cost. In her effort to never fail and to maintain an immaculate home absent of any imperfection, she was, in everyday language, a nervous wreck.
Her poor self-esteem fed her fear of her husband’s judgment and made her even more unable to speak up for her own wants and needs. Her inability to assert herself caused her to swallow her husband’s behaviors without communicating the stress that she was undergoing. The combination of her needs to please and to avoid conflict created muscular tension so extreme that she maintained severe headaches for over a decade.
Although this woman is an extreme case, I have found that unassertiveness and poor self-esteem often go hand in hand. Internal dialogs are filled with beliefs that the right to speak up is not as important as others’ needs, that speaking up would be useless or that getting into a conflict is too painful. These and similar thoughts result in the feeling I spoke of earlier, not being in control of one’s life—a quite unhappy feeling.
When my headache client went through therapy, she was able to change some of her self-talk, particularly the appropriateness of speaking up without being aggressive, and she found her bodily tension and her headaches greatly diminished.
You may find the above story interesting but wonder how it relates to well being and happiness. There is a truism in the world of positive psychology that research has abundantly supported. Simply put, our internal dialog and the assumptions we make about ourselves are key to our well being and happiness.
That dialog is at it’s healthiest when filled with self-confidence and self-respect—self-respect built on the belief that our own needs are worthy of expression. Those with self-confidence and the ability to express their own wishes know that they will not get their way all the time. But also know that they can feel better about themselves when they express their own wishes in a fair and balanced fashion.
Sometimes we need a little reminder to practice behaviors that may produce a greater sense of well being and happiness—something as simple as carrying a slip of paper with the word “assertive” written on it.
|Posted by robertpawlicki68 on May 17, 2013 at 3:50 PM||comments (0)|
Were you part of the Powerball lottery mania that recently captured much of America? Many of my friends were, lured by the jaw dropping possibility of winning $500 million, a fabulous sum. Yet with the chance of winning, roughly one divided by infinity, there was virtually no chance of winning. For most, however, the loss of a few dollars was insignificant in their effort to capture a dream, a fantasy.
But then again, what if you had won, would you have become happier? As most of you know from well-publicized research, the answer is uncertain. While there are many stories of enormous benefit there are just as many cases of disastrous loss, even family disintegration and suicide. How can that be? After all money is a pretty good thing. You can buy stuff, all the stuff you ever imagined and you can do the same for the people you love. Sounds pretty good to me. What can be the down side?
Researchers argue that the sudden spike in happiness from winning the lottery is short lived, followed a few months later with a return to the pre-winning levels. Compared at that time with non-lottery winners, lottery winner’s happiness was no different. Of course the comparison examines the whole distribution of people who have won the lottery. Those who are not good at managing money and, perhaps surrounded by less than fair or selfless people, may find themselves beset with new stresses, while those who know enough to work with careful and honest financial planners may find a lottery win a big enhancement to the life.
The experience reminds me of a term used in the rehabilitation world, “pre-morbid condition.” When an individual is tragically injured, the goal of the rehabilitation team is to return the patient to their pre-morbid or pre-injury state, as much as that is possible. But what if the pre-morbid state was miserable? What if the person was psychologically, physically and behaviorally a basket case? Then the rehabilitation team is seriously limited. The joke, “Doc, will I know how to play the piano after this operation?” is funny and silly when the punch line says, “That’s great. I never knew how to play before.” The miracles of medicine cannot produce what you never had in the first place. In another words, the best predictor of long-term health is the level of health prior to the injury and the best predictor of long-term happiness is the pre-existing state for the lottery winner. Yes, it’s true that the sudden spike in happiness may seem fabulous, but your long-term happiness is more contingent upon what your level of happiness is right now.
The above argument is, in no way, meant to persuade you to discontinue your purchase of lottery tickets. I am aware that virtually everyone believes that they know how to manage millions and millions of dollars. But then again, over 90 percent of American drivers believe that they are above average in driving skills. Somehow every last one of us believes that our fantasy is realistic.
However, if you’re in a gambling mood, I like to suggest another gambit. This is one in which I will put up my own reputation up for collateral. Personally, and I say this in a soft whispering tone, my hat pulled low over my eyes, I’ve got a deal for you. A hands-down winner. Guaranteed. It’s like I know the jockey. Take this advice and you’ll be happier. Yes, I’m sure. 100%. Would I steer you wrong?
Here’s the deal. Bet on this trifecta. In this case it means you have to do three things. First, you have to practice being grateful for at least two things, right before you go to bed for three straight weeks. Then you have to pick one day a week during which you do five acts of kindness beyond your usual habit and third, you need to give someone special three sincere compliments every day for three weeks.
I know you’ve heard some of this before. But try it. The three in combination. No, this isn’t a long shot. I tell you it’s a sure thing. Look, if it doesn’t work let me have a call and we’ll work something out, but I can tell you I’ve never seen it miss. As I said, guaranteed to increase your happiness. Perhaps not as exciting as playing the lottery but, if practiced, a much greater likelihood of sustained happiness.
Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. –