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Playing Well in the Sandbox

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on July 20, 2014 at 4:10 PM Comments comments (0)


"You never pay attention to me. You're just like your father — a cold fish." "Oh yeah, if you weren't such a blabbermouth, maybe I'd be able to get a word in edgewise."

This might be the opening salvo in a marital therapy session. Each side, often filled with venom, responding to each verbal assault with a counter of their own — like a grudge match, each hit filled with emotional baggage designed to do the utmost damage.

If left to its own momentum, this emotional intensity may continue unabated until one or the other explodes in disgust, turning to the therapist for support or relief. At home the same escalation often advances to a slammed door, sullen withdrawal or, in the worse case, physical violence.

The comparison between couples who "argue well" and those that don't is highly predictive of the quality of a marriage. Those relationships that engage in destructive exchanges have a low likelihood of success since many of their actions, such as name-calling, and certainly physical abuse, leave long-term scars. Resentment piled up like dried kindling makes future arguments burn hotter and retards healing. Mental recycling builds layers of blame and ironclad certainty makes reconciliation that much more difficult. The resulting hurt fuels distrust and fear, limiting closeness. Given such conditions it seems surprising that peace can ever be restored.

The techniques used by marital therapists to facilitate healing can be helpful in understanding how to build good relationships and avoid the problems in the first place. The goal, of course, is to learn to “play well in the sandbox” — a metaphor for getting along and even arguing well — something we try to teach our children at early age. We all have differences with those that we care for and it's smart to keep differences from degenerating into heated and destructive arguments.

One of the most effective styles that expert marital therapist John Gottman details is the use humor to interrupt an escalating argument. Such an approach requires both parties to deescalate once an agreed upon signal is expressed. Gottman cites one couple that abbreviates an argument when one or the other puts their tongue between their lips and blows hard making a silly noise. The meta message here is that "Our argument is getting too heated. Let's cool it and get back to it when we're not so agitated." It may sound absurd, and that particular gesture may not be the right one for you, but such a habit has saved many a marriage.

Marital therapists often require each party to patiently listen to the other's perception so closely that they can summarize it to the first person's satisfaction. Often in heated exchanges each party is likely to be gearing up their response, not putting their energy into listening, but preparing to counter instead. Requiring listening, to the point that satisfies the other person, accomplishes two goals; it tells the other that their point of view is actually being heard and secondly it increases the likelihood that the viewpoint is understood not just at the surface, but reaching underlying feelings and motives as well.

A third technique used to keep each party on track, is to disallow past history detours from sabotaging the problem solving efforts. "Oh yeah, you're a slob" doesn't help to resolve a financial dispute. Thus most therapists will regularly set a rule that participants must stick to the primary topic and the therapist will interrupt to maintain on-track exchanges.

Of course this is just a sampling of techniques used by marriage therapists and they are not magic. They sometimes take many, many, many hours of effort. Nevertheless the approaches can teach us something.

First, when arguments have continued and escalated to a damaging level, they are very difficult to resolve. The scars and hurt can be tremendously difficult to overcome in the future. Therefore, make every effort to interrupt an escalating argument before it gets out of hand.

Secondly, listen carefully not just to the other person's argument but see if you can restate it to be sure you understand their feelings and motives.

Third, do your best to stay on topic. If a disagreement can be transformed into problem solving, you're on the right track.

Difference of opinions and arguments are a part of life. Those who know how to get along in spite of those differences are likely to smile a lot more often than those who don't.

A Sure Fire Way to Increase Your Happiness

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on June 19, 2014 at 9:20 AM Comments comments (0)

Cleaning up the trash on a beach or roadside, joining a committee or board of a non profit organization, acting as a child advocate, serving food at a homeless shelter, listening to families at Hospice, being a greeter at a church — the list goes on and on. The areas in which my friends volunteer could fill a page, some tasks requiring skill and talent, others simply time and a good heart.

When you search the literature for behaviors that strongly promote happiness, volunteering jumps out. About a quarter of Americans do just that — volunteer on a regular basis. No wonder. The common refrain “I get so much more than I give” is authentically felt. In just one confirmation, neuroscientist David Linden detailed how the brain’s pleasure center is activated by generous behaviors towards others. But that’s just the beginning. Volunteering benefits physical health and is associated with reduced mortality risk, especially for people age 60 and over. Then there’s the sense of purpose, improved social support, reinforcement of a positive self-image and a greater degree of overall happiness. It’s no wonder that so many people volunteer.

At the heart of volunteering is reaching out to others, but it can do much more. There is a story of a grieving woman who goes to a wise man for advice. It seems that her husband died tragically the previous year and she continued to be deep in mourning. The wise man tells her that he has no magic potions or pills for her grief but that her recovery can come about if she finds someone who is very happy and without any sorrow of their own. He counsels her that she must listen very carefully to what they say if she is to move past her grief.

The woman began her quest in her rural village by going to the top of a nearby hill where the wealthy people lived. However, as soon as she inquired about the happiest person in the household, she was immediately told of the problems and sorrow present. She listened carefully but found nothing that soothed her grief and she continued on to the next house. In each home she found the same. Every home was a mixture of happiness and sorrow or mostly problems. After many homes, however, she noticed that her own sadness began to lessen.

Variations of this story exist in many cultures. Grieving and sorrow are appropriate. They tend to overstay their welcome, however, if kept totally inside. The woman in the story gave to others by listening and they, unknowingly, helped to distract her from her own troubles. Moreover, she began to gain meaning in her life as well as increase her contact with other people. Most everyone feels happier when they are with other people and even more so when they feel a sense of connection.

The story also illustrates two other features embedded in volunteer activity —kindness and perspective — features that contribute mightily to a strong sense of well being. Acts of kindness bolster happiness by activating the brain’s pleasure center mentioned above. It also generates a feeling of accomplishment. There’s the added attraction of fostering reciprocal acts of kindness and certainly gratitude from others — valuable happiness assets.

If that were not enough, most volunteering is provided to others less fortunate and thus likely to stimulate a sense of perspective, awareness that we have much to be grateful for.

There is one other observation I have about my friends who volunteer as a part of their life — they tend to be very happy people.

Your Own Little Study

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on April 19, 2014 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (0)

The world of positive psychology has unleashed an avalanche of surveys and studies examining the happiest people in the world. To me, the results are intriguing but sometimes contradictory. For example, authoritarian countries tend to have very low levels of happiness, but one of the happiest turns out to be the very authoritarian Singapore, a stunning exception.

There are other surprising findings as well; the senior population is, on the whole, surprisingly happy. Disabled people are happier than most people would suspect and while more money makes the very poor happier there is an upper limit where additional income appears to have little additional happiness benefit.

I find these surveys and studies gripping because I am immersed in the study of well being but wonder if most people couldn’t learn a great deal just by systematically examining the people they know. When I look around at my friends and relatives, there definitely are those who seem to generally be very, very happy. And likewise, there are others who are miserable. Interestingly, the unhappy ones are more rare. In our society, Gallop and other pollsters report that roughly 80% of the population professes to be happy most of the time and within that group a smaller percentage, roughly 33%, very happy. That leaves only 20% who are unhappy or very unhappy.

So as you look around, you might have a more difficult time coming up with the unhappy ones. But I believe the effort is worthwhile. Here’s what I’m suggesting: Think of the two happiest people that you know, people that you know well enough to describe their habits, life-style and attitudes. Now think of two others what are quite unhappy. As I say, you may have a harder time listing unhappy people, but I bet at least one will quickly come to mind and with a little more mental searching you may be able to come up with a second. Then detail as much as you can about each of your four people. Write out your observations with particular attention to thinking styles and habits. The exercise, by the way, is likely to be especially enlightening if done in partnership with a spouse or a very close friend.

I did find differences between my two groups: My unhappy people tend to be more moody and much more distrustful of others and institutions. The other thing that jumped out of my very unscientific and extremely limited sample was the frequent blaming of others by my two unhappy acquaintances.

My happy people, on the other hand, are more upbeat, optimistic, more likely to find the silver lining in every cloud and certainly appreciative of their good fortune.

But do your own little study. See if you can find distinguishing habits and attitudes that separate those who are happy and unhappy. We tend to associate with people who share our general economic, racial and even political background so the differences we are likely to observe are those of personality and attitude. That turns out to be fortunate. For it is personality and attitude that are most under our control and therefore the difference where we can gain the most. I wonder what differences you can find and would love to have you share your findings with me.

To some extant my observations confirm my suspicions as to what is important. They also made me think about what lessons I can learn and what I need to do in order to maximize my own happiness. It took me about forty minutes to write it out. It made me think. It was worth the effort.

You Can Handle More Than You Realize

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on March 15, 2014 at 1:35 PM Comments comments (0)

I complimented a friend yesterday on how well she is handling a life threatening illness. Her reply is well worth remembering.

She downplayed her own admirable management of a serious health issue for the last two years and quickly identified a mutual friend who was dealing with something even more severe. In doing so, she reminded me that those who cope well express empathy for others who are in an even more challenging place.

Those who wallow in “Why did this happen to me?” or a “This is so unfair” mentality have a steep mountain to climb. My friend stays away from that trap. Instead, she compares her problems with someone less well off. In doing so she puts her problem in perspective and implicitly expresses gratitude that her situation isn’t any worse than it is.

She also turned the table and complimented me on my handling of a lifetime issue. I realized that, while I questioned my own ability to manage her serious problem, she, in turn, wondered if she could manage mine. How typical of her and, I think, of many of us. When we think of facing serious challenges such as dealing with the loss of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, or a sudden disability, we are terrified. In the abstract we often believe that we are totally incapable of surviving such tragedies. And yet in reality, overwhelmingly, we do.

If you were a clinical psychologist 30 years ago, your focus on a new patient would undoubtedly be exclusively on their problems. Your training would have taught you to look for patterns, family history and factors that influenced their concerns. What would be absent, or at least underemphasized, in your analysis would be the patient’s strengths. That omission is significant. Modern clinicians don’t overlook the strengths that each of us brings to a crisis.

Many of us make the mistake of forgetting that we have a repertoire of mental health coping skills that need to be unearthed when a crisis arises. The problem stems from the fact that we bury certain fears, like the potential loss of a loved one, so deeply that we forget our strengths as well. There is much to be said for living in the present. But not if, in stifling our fears, we fail to remember that we have managed pain before and are capable of handling it again.

If you were to survey 20 people regarding the tragedies suffered during their lives, you would amass an astonishing list: abandonment, physical and psychological abuse, divorce, family alcoholism, and deaths of close relatives and friends. The list would go on and on. Most of these situations leave scars of varying degrees. Yet people survive and learn. The resilience of humans is remarkable. Our survival skills emerge and are mostly enhanced by living through life’s trials.

My recommendation is not to obsess over potential disasters. But do recognize that you bring strengths to problems that you will confront. You have already faced extraordinary difficulties and have survived. Some may have taken time to overcome, but you have. Recognize what you’ve already been through and have confidence that you can manage future challenges. It may not be easy, but with those skills in hand you’ll manage again when the time comes.

It?s Not Going on Your Permanent Record

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on February 18, 2014 at 10:55 AM Comments 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.

Pain and Happiness: Two sides of the same coin

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on February 18, 2014 at 10:50 AM Comments 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.

Completing Those Little Onerous Task

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on December 16, 2013 at 2:10 PM Comments 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.

Well, You're Finally Not Eating Like a Pig

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on November 20, 2013 at 11:05 AM Comments 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.

The Remembering Self

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on October 21, 2013 at 3:15 PM Comments 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.

The Hidden Cost of Silence

Posted by robertpawlicki68 on September 24, 2013 at 11:50 AM Comments 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.