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Our Internal Dialog

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on January 15, 2016 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (0)

No matter how intimate our relationships with others, we ultimately reside in a cocoon shared by no one else. Inside that vessel we think continuously and thereby create our moods, attitudes and expectations. So it is not a stretch to say that if we want to gain greater control of our well being, we need turn no further than our internal chatter.

In everyday life, our interpretations of reality make us vulnerable to unhappiness. In our self-talk we overgeneralize, blame others for our problems, focus on the negative and berate ourselves with “shoulds” and “musts” — to mention a few of the most common unhealthy mental habits. Let me expand on each of these.

Overgeneralizing simply means that we take one event and expand it beyond reasonable assumptions. It is a common pattern of those who are anxious, worried, or depressed. “I’ve lost my job. I’m a failure.” “I’m divorced, nobody will ever love me” may seem obvious misperceptions to others but not to the person thinking them. An event happens and we overgeneralize. We create an inappropriate label, a worry or fear. Recall some of your deepest anxieties and you’ll likely remember distortions that you believed at the time. The deeper the fear, the more likely the overgeneralization. However, as Mark Twain remarked, “Ninety-eight percent of what I worried about never happened.”

Blaming others may seem an obvious fault when observed but not so easily recognized when we are guilty of it. Blaming others for our distress means that we inadvertently give up power. If that incorrigible relative gets under our skin and ruins our day, it is he or she who has the power over our emotions, not ourselves. While it may be true that the relative’s behavior is uncouth, despicable, and inconsiderate, your anger is unlikely to alter the behavior and may even facilitate it. Attending to what you can control in the circumstance is virtually always the best strategy.

“I’m a lazy sloth,” may be an overgeneralization but it is also an example of focusing on the negative. My common response to such statements is, “OK, prove it. Keep a diary of your activity, hour by hour, and let’s see whether you really are a sloth.” The most common outcome is that, although the individual may be less productive than he would like, he is hardly a sloth. He has focused on the negative, not seeing the positive. When a more evenhanded perception is established, the problem-solving process can begin. Perceiving oneself as a sloth gets you nowhere. When you find yourself focusing exclusively on the negative, it’s time to seek a more balanced view.

Another common mental distortion is the over use of the words, “should” and “must” as in “I should never make a mistake” or “I must have a perfectly clean house.” While no one likes to make mistakes and a clean house is an admirable goal, it is the use of these words in the extreme that causes untold mental anguish. Many confuse personal likes with “shoulds” and “musts”. It would be nice if everyone liked me but unreasonable to expect it. And while it is nice to have a clean house, it is destructive to obsess about it. It would be wonderful if our children never encountered problems, but it’s decidedly unlikely. It would be nice if others viewed our opinions as always right, but silly to expect so. To expect otherwise, taking the path of “shoulds” and “musts”, leads to emotional distress.

There is truth in the claim that happiness is an attitude or a state of mind. Likewise there is much to be said that our unhappiness is of our own making –- starting with our internal conversation. However, changing thought patterns is not as easy as it appears. We have well rehearsed reasons for exaggerating our fears, blaming others, focusing on the negative and abiding by our “shoulds” and “musts.” Nevertheless, in seeking greater happiness, awareness of these mental distortions is a good place to start.

Let Me Assure You, You've Got an "A"

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on December 19, 2015 at 3:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Clients are often anxious the first time they see a therapist. Many have never seen a mental health professional and are nervous. It’s understandable. To open up personal issues to a stranger can be frightening. To share perceived failings is to make oneself vulnerable –- one of the reasons men are less likely than women to engage in therapy.


Anticipation, expectations and fear are the fuel of anxiety. We all live lives in which we are evaluated. From the everyday experience of what to wear to measures of job performance, we are sensitive to what others are thinking. Of course, for the insecure, even more so.


In an ideal world, receiving feedback should be seen as an opportunity to improve. But reality is different from the ideal. In the real world feedback goes through our personal filter and we examine whether the evaluator is trustworthy, fair, and looking out for our interest, as well as a myriad of similar concerns. Such considerations put us on guard.


In establishing new therapeutic relationships I conscientiously attempt to reduce this initial worry over my evaluation. I know that when anxieties are allayed sessions are more comfortable and productive. My typical approach is to give assurances and also to lessen the evaluation component by addressing the anxiety: “It’s not a problem. You’ve already got an A” is a common comment my clients hear.


I once employed this approach at the beginning of a senior level class I taught in college. The circumstances were special, but the results are worth noting. The class on behavior modification techniques was limited to those who already had knowledge of the subject and had passed an entrance exam. So, in effect, they had been evaluated already. But still, each student had natural concerns about their grade. On the first day of class I assured everyone that they would get an A. I also gave them the questions for their final exam. Again assuring them that no matter how they performed on tests they were guaranteed an A. As classes go, the results were marvelous.


Contrary to what many would predict, attendance was perfect. Class participation was high and deeply engaged. Students expanded beyond the class content. They engaged with each other outside of class to share their thoughts. And they all got A’s.


I don’t assume that giving A’s is a panacea to the many challenges of teaching or is appropriate in most college courses. But I do recommend addressing the anxiety many have in new situations by giving assurances. I am convinced that putting someone at ease is a pathway to opening doors. Perhaps not a great insight, you might say, but one that is often forgotten.


Even more important than directing this approach to others is to direct it towards yourself, a very difficult task. Notice for a moment, the many, many stories you’ve heard of great insights emerging in dreams. It is very likely that such creative thoughts occur, in part, because of the removal of a limiting censor, leaving the mind open to problem solve and wander unfettered into new territory. It is the removal of criticism that is crucial to the process. During these moments the mind is at ease.


In relationships it is acceptance that fosters growth. In relationships it is trust that encourages deep bonding. When you give an A to someone you love, you open up marvelous opportunities. When you give it to yourself it’s even better.

Happiness By Another Measure

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on November 28, 2015 at 3:40 PM Comments comments (0)


We live many lives. Progressing through stages of childhood, adolescence and chapters of adulthood, we experience changes in our behaviors, attitudes and philosophies. Changes that amaze when reflected upon.

TV dramas like “Mad Men,” a period piece of the 1960’s, dramatize some differences within our lifetime: heavy drinking and cigarette smoking, blatant misogynistic behaviors, etc. Of course, not everyone engaged, but such behaviors were common enough to remind us that most of us probably wouldn’t dare live that way today.

I love to listen to people’s life stories, always intrigued by the many turns most of us take. I often rhetorically ask, “Could you ever believe that you would travel such a path?” “Never in a million years,” most say.

I’d have to say the same inquiry applies to happiness. In your youth, what did you think would lead you down the yellow brick road? Here again, the answers reflect astonishment over how life has turned out.

Interestingly, many of the happier lives we lived were not replete with material goods, fame or acknowledgement. Often they were struggling times, periods where goals and purpose were primary. Happiness doesn’t seem to correlate with vast material wealth and power. (Fix your indentation here – it changes.)

A recent newspaper account of Abd Al-Rahman III, an emir and caliph of Cordoba in 10th century Spain, illustrates the latter point. This absolute ruler had virtually everything young people of today often yearn for -- fame, wealth and a variety of sexual partners. As a powerful ruler he could demand any of these things from his dominions and more. And yet, toward the end of his life, he is quoted as saying, “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.” However, he goes on to say, “I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to 14.”

One’s man’s observations are seldom universally true, but Abd Al-rahman III’s musings do raise an interesting question. Are the things we seek the real path to happiness?

Conservative New York Times’ columnist David Brooks recently presented a modern day version of this question. Long known for his political observations and societal insights, Mr. Brooks frequently comments on personal introspection. His latest book, The Road to character, is one such example. In spite of lofty accomplishments, he finds his life somewhat wanting and wrestles with personal questions of identity and purpose. He notes, “I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard” and at another point, “I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness.” These self-deprecations are meant to illustrate his uncertainty that his highly lauded achievements are enough to equate with a fulfilled life. Instead, he evokes historical figures who examined their personal weaknesses and sought to compensate by working for others. These are the people Brooks says he would like to emulate.

Mr. Brooks notes that there are two sets of virtues, “resume’ and eulogy virtues.” He notes that while the resume’ virtues list accomplishments touted in the workplace, it is the eulogy virtues like being loving and generous or having integrity and perseverance that are mentioned at your funeral. Something to think about.

Everyone Should Live a Year in Winnipeg

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on September 19, 2015 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (0)

“Nine months of winter and three months of sloppy skating” is a common adage among residents of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I know because I lived there for three years in my twenties. I found that this description is not actually true because, while the brutal winter does seem to last forever, the short summers can be uncomfortably hot, making something to gripe about year round, if you’re so inclined. Let me quickly add that I loved the people and the culture, if not the weather.

In spite of the weather, or perhaps partly because of it, I look back on those years with fondness because I learned a lot about myself. How you survive a difficult time tells you much. I believe there are two aspects -- how you manage the challenge and what lessons you take from the experience.

In my case the time in Winnipeg were a period of learning and growing. I was a new university teacher and, if truth be told, not a very good one yet. But I was steadfast and able to get my bearings. I closely watched those around me who were successful and attempted to model their behavior. For the first time I realized that success was based more on relationships than knowledge, assuming a reasonable baseline. My focus was more on these relationships than the harsh weather. But permanent residents of Winnipeg seemed quite happy in spite of the weather. You may find it interesting to note that those countries with bleak climates actually have happier populations on the whole than counties closer to the equator. It’s not a perfect correlation but it’s generally true. I know, it’s contrary to intuition, but the data is consistent.

Early experiences often become anchors, a term used in psychology to mean a standard by which we compare. Since that time, I have used Winnipeg’s weather as my anchor and in that light most all weather is absolutely wonderful.

Struggling through adversity is an opportunity to raise your level of gratefulness. When I begin to grouse about inclement weather, I recall how much more extreme and uncomfortable it was in Winnipeg. This mental exercise reduces frustration and heightens gratefulness. Both are aids to happiness and well being, and there is a lesson here beyond this simple example of a harsh climate.

I know of no one who hasn’t suffered adversities -- death of a loved one, a bad relationship, divorce, loneliness, addiction, poverty, severe illness or disability. Virtually all of us have experienced at least one of these hardships. The question is what did we learn from these trials. Instead of merely hiding them in a box, I believe it is wise to reframe them to our advantage. The fact that you survived is itself worth noting. It’s also likely that you dug down to inner strengths that you may not have been aware of at the time. Recall what those strengths were: perseverance, creativity, hard work, methodical planning.

Think about how you grew from the experience. Remember the doubts and fears you experienced. Notice that they may have been much worse than your current ones, yet you got through them. In remembering difficulties in your past, take inspiration from the strengths you found within yourself, put the annoyances of life in perspective against the serious obstacles you’ve overcome. Use your past to meet the challenges of today. When you have an anchor to recall, like the weather in Winnipeg, things can look quite sunny.

Embrace Sadness

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on August 25, 2015 at 11:20 AM Comments comments (0)

As a young man studying psychology, I abhorred Carl Jung, an early icon of psychological thinking. Psychology was taught to me as a science and Jung was more active in the area of armchair analysis than the rigors of systematic empirical research.

Age has its benefits and, hopefully, includes a bit of wisdom. Youth, more prone to black and white thinking, too often “throws out the baby with the bathwater”, missing what is most important. Take Jung’s observations on happiness: “There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Toss out the man and his writings and miss the wisdom.

Science, of course, begins with careful observations and those made by a man I now perceive as a clinical genius deserve scrutiny. Jung was an expression of his day and his work is filled with biases of the Victorian age. But filtering out the astute from the silly is worth the effort.

Far from the academic arena of Jung and science is the recent Disney movie, “Inside Out.” The plot, simple enough: an 11-year-old girl deals with the stresses of her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. What makes the movie interesting is that most of the story takes place inside the girl’s head. In familiar aspects of consciousness Joy, Disgust, Anger, Sadness and Fear, all animated characters, play their roles. Faced with the stresses of new peers, uncertainty, isolation and new landscapes, the emotions battle for dominance in a fashion known to us all. Joy attempts to be the guiding force since the girl has always been a happy person, but her frustrations are fueled by Anger and Fear, even a bit of Disgust. But most importantly, as we all know in facing loss, Sadness plays a major role. This development turns especially relevant when Sadness turns out not to be Joy’s rival but rather her partner and ultimately the most notable and poignant emotion.

Sadness, as a hero, is not often seen in Disney movies or for that matter in many films. But sadness is indeed a real emotion that needs to be recognized as crucial for our humanity and well being. As Jung notes, sadness is necessary if the word happiness is to have any meaning.

Sadness is a vector: that is, it facilitates a multitude of admirable feelings and behaviors such as honor, empathy and kindness. Most importantly, it is by acknowledging sadness that we connect with others and connect with them at a meaningful level.

The sadness we feel over the death of a friend is likely to be accompanied by reminisces of happy times together. In all probability we will take some action that honors our lost friend and share our feelings with others –- behaviors that bring communities together. It may even cause us to contemplate our own mortality and take action to feed our legacy.

Seeing others less fortunate than ourselves we express our sadness with empathy and, in the best of circumstances, take action. Kindness, volunteer work and general charity often have sadness as their starting point.

In Inside Out, the character Sadness ultimately causes the little girl to reveal her innermost thoughts and worries to her parents. When they, too, share their sadness over what they have lost in their move from Minnesota, a core family experience transpires. The character Joy could never have brought the family together the way an honest expression of sadness did.

We need sadness. It’s a fundamental human experience. It makes happiness and joy possible. Embrace it. Reveal it. Share your feelings with close friends and loved ones. It is a major failing to hide our sadness from loved ones.

Sadness has its problems, of course. When allowed to linger without action it can grow into depression. When hopelessness and despair enter the picture, we can get into trouble. But given these cautions, sadness is not to be avoided. Experiencing sadness for a limited time is to be human and, in its own way, is to be treasured.

Accentuate the Positive

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on July 18, 2015 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (0)

If I were to compliment you ten times and insult you once, chances are that next month you’d remember the insult although you may have forgotten the compliments. We are programmed to register negatives more than positives. Negatives are hurtful and they stick. In troubled marriages where criticisms are commonplace, one partner often walks on eggshells, anticipating danger.

Print and electronic media are keenly aware of this sensitivity to negatives. Their first goal is to get our attention, and they know that “another nice day in paradise” won’t draw many readers. We pay attention to the exciting, scandalous, outrageous and terrifying. Consequently, they deluge us with death and destruction.

Historically, it makes sense that we are more sensitive to the negative. From our primitive beginnings, those on alert were more likely to survive the dangers in their surroundings. Better to hear the quiet movements of a predator than to be eaten by it. People who were insensitive probably didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes.

Although there is value in this alertness, it can also cause problems. Careers requiring intense focus on danger exact a penalty of increased levels of anxiety, depression and stress.

Interestingly, recent research shows how most people, not in careers requiring high alertness, adjust to sensitivity to the negative. They simply adapt a generally more optimistic attitude.

The study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that there is a Universal Positivity Bias: that is, a counterpoint to our tendency to accentuate the negative. People in virtually every corner of the world use more positive than negative words. While journalists and others seeking our attention may focus on the negative, the everyday chatter between friends, workers and acquaintances tally more upbeat words like “healthy, marriage, friends, tasty and exciting” than negatives like “idiot or ghastly.”

The results make sense. While negatives do stand out, they do so in the presence of exponentially more everyday little and big positives. Murder and tragedy may temporarily stick in your mind, but good food, family, friends, and happy events consume a much greater portion of our personal conversation.

Having positive experiences isn’t the only reason for greater occurrence of positive words. Researchers posited that greater use of those words is a way of offsetting the negative. “Look for the silver lining” appears to be a sound adage for good mental health and survival.

All of this is to say that we need to be aware of how we are hardwired. Our evolutionary legacy is to be alert to things negative, hostile and dangerous. But fortunately, our evolved brain has also developed a strategy to counter the negative bias -- rationally attending to the positive events around us. Those who are optimistic and grateful for the myriad of life’s good fortune seem to be the ones who benefit the most.

Really Knowing One Another

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on June 20, 2015 at 8:30 AM Comments comments (0)

You probably know a good deal about your spouse and very close friends. If you don’t, you’d be wise to work on it, for the more you share the deeper your relationships.

Resonating with others is crucial to cementing and enhancing relationships, but, even with a superficial level of knowledge, connections can be made.

Here is a simple but dramatic example. Many years ago a young woman was admitted to our multidisciplinary chronic pain unit with severe and debilitating headaches. One day during physical therapy, she fell into a coma like state and was unresponsive. Of course, a physician was immediately called and onto the scene came our physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor. Fortunately this doctor had done the initial evaluation with the patient and knew her history. Two pieces of information are crucial to this story. First the patient was a devoted Elvis Presley fan and had told the doctor. Second, our physician’s avocation was Community Theater where he starred in many productions.

Seeing the patient numb to any normal stimuli, our doctor got down on the floor and began softly singing to the young woman, “Love me tender, love me true, never let me go.” And then repeating the stanza he added, “Come on, come on, sing with me -- Love me tender, love me true, never let me go.” To the relief and surprise of the physical therapist and other staff gathered around, the patient began to emerge from her state, singing softly, opening her eyes and becoming more lucid. A connection was made because of the doctor’s comprehensive evaluation.

Hypnotists excel when they can connect to their subject in some way. A pediatric emergency room doctor and skilled hypnotist at the University of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital was known to sometimes gain control of a screaming child by mimicking the child’s scream. After tuning to the matching tone and volume, he would then control the scream by raising and lowering it, whereupon the child would follow his lead. In a short while, the doctor would bring the screaming to an end. (Do not try this at home; not to be done by amateurs.)

Mahatma Gandhi was a master strategist, not only in sizing up India’s occupiers, the British, but exceedingly clever in gaining the support of the Indian people. Gandhi is usually pictured as a tiny man wearing a loincloth. But when he returned to India from South Africa, where he spent the early part of his life as a lawyer, he was attired in a typical British suit. A suit is unlikely to make a connection with the poor masses of India. However, a loincloth would and did.

These three stories make an important point. When we know details about others and we connect with them in some way, we are more likely to both influence one another and maintain a lasting relationship.

A friend tells a story that illustrates how the amount of time spent with another person doesn’t necessarily correlate with a deep relationship. The story is of a man who played sports with friends regularly for over 20 years and unexpectedly took his own life. Shocked by the tragedy, a friend’s wife asked her husband if anyone saw this coming. “No, not at all,” said the husband. The wife replied, “You were with him for 20 years and considered him a friend. What did you talk about?” “Oh”, said the husband, “you know, this and that, sports, nothing special.” Nothing special, indeed!

For those people you really care about, ask questions and listen. Learn details of their lives. You’ll both be the better for it.  

Loneliness, Not something to passively accept

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on May 18, 2015 at 4:55 PM Comments comments (0)

My father was a gregarious fellow –- a master punster with his word play, followed by a well-timed Bob Newhart pause. In his elder years he would easily amuse people at the mall or in a grocery or hardware store with his charm and wit –- a behavior that might make a teenager wince but always caused me to stand in awe.

Those are among the happy memories of my dad. The unhappy ones have to do with the loneliness he experienced in his old age. He was of the generation that wanted to die in their home, and this was a major factor in his isolation. Attempts to lure him to live with us, 1000 miles away from his home state, were as unsuccessful as they were understandable. Nor was the attraction of assisted living with its many recreational opportunities and panoply of new “victims” for his latest jokes. Dad got his wish and stayed in his home until the end, but he paid a big price -- chronic loneliness despite regular visits from health care workers. The other hours were long and generally empty.

People can be unhappy in a wide variety of manners. But there is one that stands out -- loneliness. Not the occasional bout of feeling lonely but chronic loneliness.

Loneliness is not difficult to detect. Lack of social contact and intimacy brings about emptiness and awareness that we are missing something critical to our well-being. The very rare hermit notwithstanding, we are social animals. Individually we probably would not have survived as a species. But when we came together as families and communities, humankind flourished. Group life is now an element in our gene pool. Like food, when it is undersupplied, we decline.

Of course, everyone is lonely at some time in his or her life. It’s a normal feeling –- after a divorce, a breakup, loss of a loved one or a job, a move to a new city –- any of these can prompt a feeling of isolation. Chronic loneliness is something else entirely. It can be devastating.

I will venture to say that chronic loneliness even contributes to violence –- not the most common outcome for the lonely but still a significant minority worth mentioning. Little attention has been paid to the fact that virtually all of the serial killers in the United State over the last two decades have been isolated and friendless young males. Such a mental environment lends itself to blaming others, intense anger, conspiracy theories, and a need for revenge. Most often the violence is taken out on themselves.

A ghastly consequence of chronic isolation is suicide and suicide in the United States ranks near the top among developed countries. More Americans die by their own hand than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides.

Of course, chronic loneliness doesn’t usually result in such extreme actions, but it is still very damaging. On a physical basis, one affect of chronic loneliness is that it undermines the body’s ability to regulate the circulatory system, thus causing the heart to work harder. It negatively affects sleep, a major element in our health. Behaviorally and psychologically, chronic loneliness is very often a precursor to depression and alcoholism, and recent research lends credence to loneliness as a contributor to dementia.

All of this is to say that chronic loneliness is not something to take lightly. If a person were diagnosed with diabetes, no sensible person would ignore this information. Chronic loneliness is of the same magnitude and should be taken just as seriously.

Psychologist John Cacioppo, an expert on the long-term effects of loneliness, says that chronic loneliness establishes a “slowly unfolding pathophysiological process,” a resulting wear and tear on the body and mind.

For the chronically lonely, solving the problem may be like pushing mud upstream. Resistance may include shyness or excuses pertaining to health issues, finances, etc. Whatever the reasons, the need to overcome loneliness should be paramount. The alternative is very costly. As with my dad, every attempt may not be successful, but it is worth the effort to try very, very hard.

Boundaries: Limits needed for good relationships

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on April 19, 2015 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (0)

I can’t remember the names of my elementary school teachers with the exception of Mrs. G., my sixth grade teacher. I suspect that’s because she had a particular form of punishment for the boys. When a boy misbehaved in Mrs. G’s class, she called him to the front, sat him down on a stool, tied a big pink ribbon in his hair, and encouraged the class to snicker at his mortification.

I was far from the most disruptive young boy in the class, but the embarrassment that Mrs. G so effectively wielded, in even the few times I experienced it, imprinted her name on my memory. Humiliation as a weapon crosses a boundary.

Boundaries play an important role in our feeling of self-worth, confidence and sense of integrity. When a boundary is breeched we feel violated.

A child facing an authority figure or a bully often lacks the power to draw a line. It is one of the most challenging experiences of growing up. As we mature into adulthood the ability to draw boundaries is a necessary skill we must learn. Not every adult possesses this ability. When they don’t, it’s trouble.

I treat those who are emotionally and even physically abused, sometimes requiring contact with legal authorities. I treat those who literally allow themselves to be held hostage, sometimes by an overt threat but, more often, by an underlying belief that prevents them from taking action. Often they believe that they are doing the right thing such as being a good parent, child or spouse, but they rationalize away the abuse heaped upon them, not believing that they have a viable option to do otherwise.

Take the example of a screaming child unwilling to go to the first day of school. An over-soothing parent who gives in to the yelling child may be setting up him or herself for a more troublesome pattern. The child’s anxiety may be temporarily relieved and the screaming may stop when allowed to stay home, but the parent will likely face the screaming again soon. Similar concessions can happen between adults.

Like a screaming child, an adult abusing another has perceived leverage, e.g., loss of love, financial support, etc. When a therapist hears “Yes, but” it is often this reason they give for failing to establish boundaries. Poor self-esteem on the part of the victim may also be a contributing factor. Those with poor self-esteem fear retaliatory criticism if they speak up, and this fear makes them vulnerable to even more abuse.

I have found that the inability to draw boundaries is a common element in a myriad of relationship issues and thus a factor in much anxiety and depression. Adult children can feel abused by their parents, parents may feel abused by their adult children, siblings can feel abused by each other and friends and acquaintances similarly may hurt one another.

Often, people who fail to draw boundaries have not clarified the lines that must be drawn in healthy relationships: disagreeing is OK, yelling and name calling is not; calling in the middle of night is intrusive, during the day is not; complaining about mother endlessly is not acceptable, briefly mentioning frustrations is fine; using abusive language is unacceptable, expressing your feelings is all right.

Drawing boundaries is difficult. It is difficult, in part, because it risks a retaliatory response and therefore takes courage. Standing up for your needs does not always work, but not standing up for your needs virtually ever works out. When individuals repeatedly allow themselves to accept inappropriate behavior from friends or relatives without clearly expressing their displeasure, they pay a significant price.


Posted by robertpawlicki68 on April 19, 2015 at 10:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Last night was delightful –- a spontaneous dinner party with some new friends. Besides liking everyone, I got to thinking about why it was such an exceptional evening. The answer was simple: we all shared stories, interesting and funny.

At one point I had the urge to tell a story, an amusing tale involving an unexpected invitation to dinner, hot dogs and beans, and pet white rats running loose. As I waited my turn, I noticed that I had a "hunger" to speak, to participate and share and, if I didn't, I'd be missing out. There's obviously a pleasure in sharing stories –- smiling, laughing, and learning more about each other. Over my years of teaching I've observed that students believe a class is better when they have participated. From the first time humans sat around a fire, it seems that there has been a need to share and, when stories can't be told, we can have an empty feeling.

Not all sharing is positive. Storytelling can be spoiled by people who don't listen, those who converse only to promote themselves or who have to always be right and, sadly, by some who don't have any stories to tell. But excluding those corruptions, storytelling is an elixir and one I thoroughly enjoy.

Stories bond us to each other. What a delight it is to see longtime friends and jump into the pool of mutual stories. Just as our bodies become conditioned to fearful situations, we also have physical changes when reminded of the pleasant experiences of life. The pleasure center of our brain lights up; it feels as if the heart literally skips a beat with pleasure. People with a greater network of friends live longer. There’s a well-documented thorough body of evidence attesting to this. It's not simply that we have friends to share our distress and troubles, it’s also because we can share our stories of glee.

Storytelling can heal as well. As many of you know, much of my professional life involved treating chronic pain patients. Chronic pain, by its very nature, means that the pain has not healed or been successfully treated by the medical profession –- often producing a sense of hopelessness and despair. Such patients frequently believe that they are alone with an unknown diagnosis. In such an atmosphere, early sessions with groups of chronic pain patients bring a palatable sense of relief as they share their circumstances and ambiguous diagnoses. They are sharing similar stories and thereby reducing their sense of being alone and feeling hopeless. Knowing that you have a difficult issue is a challenge but less so when shared with others. Similarly, it turns out that while it's hard to be poor, its somewhat easier surrounded by others who are struggling, rather than to be poor around those who are wealthy. Sharing woes, not done to excess, makes life just a bit easier.

Truth be told, psychotherapy is, in large part, helping people revise their inner story. Of course each patient comes with a troubling issue, but that problem is typically told in the context of a story. Listening carefully to the patient's narrative reveals their self identity, their view of the world and the manner in which they interact. Arguing against their viewpoint is useless, but reflecting it back and providing alternatives can be constructive. In the best of circumstances patients progress through therapy learning a different story about their issue and often about themselves.

Stories are one reason why we want to be with others –- they show our common love. Many years ago I gathered five sets of my aunts and uncles together for a brief video taping and separately asked each couple the simple question, "How did you meet?" Nervous in front of a camera at the outset, each couple broke into smiles and often competed with each other to tell their story. It was as if a door had been opened and together they walked back into a memory, smiling and laughing as the other spoke and jumping in to add a detail to their shared pictures –- a joyous experience. It should be noted that these were long, mostly successful marriages. Sharing common stories helped them to be so.

Compare the above to a finding detailed in John Gottman's book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Gottman, a leader in his field of research on marital relationships, cites shared memories as one of the foundation stones of a successful marriage. In one poignant example, a husband was unable to remember where the couple had gone on their honeymoon or anything about the event, a significant indicator that the marriage was in serious trouble. Don't despair if you're unable to remember every detail, but if pleasant, shared memories are absent or few, it speaks poorly of your relationship. Relationships are critical to your well-being and stories are cement that helps hold them together.

Now remember that story about the hot dogs and beans and pet white rats? Well, the thing is it was at a job interview and . . .


robert pawlicki