Being Good Enough

I have a Master’s degree in Counseling, and have been working in the mental health field for 6 years.  Before that, I got my Bachelor’s in Psychology; so really, I’ve been a student of the mind for 10!  Yet, I have a great talent for acknowledging my lack of expertise.  I, like so many others suffer from one of the great plagues of the high achieving: Impostor Syndrome.

First described back in the 70’s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD; Impostor Syndrome (or Impostor Phenomenon as they also call it) is a reflexive self-talk pattern that undermines a persons belief in themselves, especially related to something for which they have been trained.

What Gives Me the Right?

In the above linked article, the author identifies a PhD student who, after years of study, began leading therapy groups at a psychiatric hospital.  The student expressed a sentiment that I am very familiar with: Feeling not only like “being thrown into the deep end,” but also “forgetting how to swim.”  With Impostor Syndrome, it is very easy to discount what we know, and focus instead on what we don’t.

I’m not really sure if Impostor Syndrome can really “go away,” but awareness of it can be a great asset.  If I know that I struggle with being seen as an expert, then I can find a shortcut to reminding myself that anyone who has studied something for 10 years is an expert.

Stopping at Good Enough

Impostor Syndrome creates a vacuum of perfectionism that can ultimately leave us paralyzed.  For example, I recently started teaching myself how to draw.  I am by no means perfect, and as I look back at my older work I can see how much I have improved.  That improvement came because I allowed myself to stop working on a drawing when it was “good enough,” because I knew it wasn’t perfect.  In counseling, however, I pour over books and videos; I soak up as much information as I can so that I can be the “best” counselor, rather than one that is “good enough.”

The kicker is this: if I settle for nothing less than “perfection,” I will never be “good enough.”  There is no such thing as perfection, so I am going to have to settle for “good enough.”

Has there been a time in your life that you have struggle with feeling like a fraud or an impostor?  What helps you navigate the feeling?  Leave a comment and we can discuss this further!  If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and a share!

The Subtle Song of Conflict

Conflict: every relationship experiences it.  It’s what happens when two people can’t come to an agreement about an issue.  It’s not something that many couples look forward to, but it provides the most potent opportunity to grow our relationships.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a big fan of John Gottman, marriage expert extraordinaire.  In his research, Dr. Gottman developed the capability to predict divorce with a nearly 94% accuracy based on observing the ways that couples communicate; and he then broke it down into several powerful statistics which then paved the way for a full-fledged methodology for approaching couple counseling that focuses on identifying and adjusting the behaviors that are most likely to lead to divorce.

This post is not just a plug for how awesome the Gottman institute is.  They are, of course; but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  I brought up the statistics and behaviors that are used as cues to predict divorce because I want to talk about the main arena for them to show up: conflict.

The Behaviors

In the research summary linked above it is indicated that the main predictor of satisfaction is the ratio of positive to negative statements.  In a happy, healthy, and ultimately successful relationship this ratio is around 5:1.  While in unhealthy relationships, it hovers around 0.8:1.  So take a look at how you and bae talk to one another.  If you’re really into numbers, keep track of the ratio (it’s okay if you don’t want to…I wouldn’t blame you).  If you can say 5 nice things for every one not-so-nice thing, you’re doing pretty good.

Of course, if it were simply a question of ratios it would be a really easy fix; but humans are not swallows, and relationships are not coconuts.  You can’t just adjust the ratio and expect it to be an easy carry.  Some things are more damaging than others, and there are four coconuts that will throw the ratio off balance to an even more extreme degree.  I’ve mentioned them before, but they are Gottman’s Four Horsemen: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.

Basically, the Four Horsemen are the four behaviors that are most caustic to a relationship.  Criticism, or using a complaint as a vehicle to attack your partner’s character, is usually the opening salvo.  It is usually followed by defensiveness, which is a response in kind that is meant to protect the ego of the one doing it.  These two dance together until contempt, an attitude of disgust or hatred, comes into the equation and ramps up the intensity until one or both partners becomes overwhelmed and begins to shut down the conversation; which is the final horseman of stonewalling.

Corralling the Horsemen

These behaviors have healthy alternatives.  To avoid criticism, start the conversation softly.  One thing that has been shown consistently is that harsh start ups lead discussion astray.  One of Gottman’s findings during his research was that conversations have a tendency to end on the same note that they start on.  I find it helpful to look at conversation like a piece of music.  The tone is written in the way it starts, and it is very rare for a piece of music to change it’s tone permanently.  Mellow songs tend to stay mellow, and heavy songs tend to stay heavy.  There is an occasional section within a song that changes the tone, but it usually goes back.  The same is true for conversations.  So think about how you want the conversation to go before you have it, and approach it gently.

To avoid defensiveness, focus on the complaint being given, and take ownership.  Defensiveness does not resolve a conflict, it simply tells our partners that we are unwilling to move in their direction.  By taking ownership of our part in the complaint, we open the door to resolution rather than slamming it shut.

To correct contempt, it is vital to focus on what we appreciate about our partners.  This is a more long-term adjustment, rather than an in-the-moment fix, but contempt is more long-term issue.  Focusing on what we love and appreciate about our partners inoculates us from hating them.  So nurture your relationship!

And lastly, stonewalling is a consequence of being overwhelmed.  When our stress levels reach a certain point, we lose the ability to process what is going on, and we focus on self-preservation.  So it is important to keep an eye on ourselves and be willing to set boundaries in conflict so that we can do what we need to do in order to maintain a calm approach.

Being aware of the things that are most likely to cause damage to our relationships, as well as tools for correcting them, is vital to the lives of our relationships.  I stress to my couples that everyone does these things, which is why the ratios of 5:1 and 0.8:1 are so important.  I also want to stress to my readers that knowing what they are is no substitute for therapy.  If you need some guidance, call a counselor today!

What are you’re thoughts about the four horsemen?  Have you noticed that you engage in these conflict patterns?  How about the ratio of positive to negative in your relationships?  Share your thoughts in the comments and please like and share if you enjoyed this post!

(This article contains no affiliate links; it’s not sponsored or anything like that.  I just really appreciate the work of the Gottman Institute, and want to do my part to share it!)

Depression is a Dang Liar

Depression is one of those things that is, shall we say “mismanaged” in modern society.  For the uninitiated, depression (and more specifically disordered depression) is a condition characterized by depressed mood, fluctuations in sleep and appetite, and reduced motivation to name the more common symptoms.  There are others, of course.  The most common course of treatment for depression is a daily regimen of antidepressants; medications that can act on either serotonine, norepinephrine, or dopamine receptors in the brain to counteract the symptoms.

But there’s a funny thing about depression, and by funny I mean not funny at all: It lies.

The Liar in Your Mind

What do I mean when I say depression lies?  Well basically, I mean that it poisons your self-talk against you.  Some of the most common non-medical treatments for depression are as follows:

  • Healthy eating
  • Exercise
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Socializing
  • Consistent sleep hygiene
  • Engaging in mentally stimulating activities

Depression tells you that these things aren’t worth doing.  It tells you that you need to stay in bed and sleep, and that cooking is too much work.  It tells you that the only thing that can help you escape is to get drunk or high.  It tells you that no one wants to hear what’s going on in your mind.  It tells you that antidepressants don’t work.  All of these are lies.  Depression wants to survive unimpeded in a sufficiently depressed mind.

Calling it Out

When I am working with clients for depression, I encourage them to call their depression out when it lies to them.  When it says to stay in bed all day, say back “No, I need to stick to my schedule.”  When it says you need to escape, say back “No, the only way out is through.  I need to face this.”  When it tell you that your meds don’t work, tell it that you will need to talk to your doctor before you take it’s advice.

Obviously this is a gross oversimplification.  Just saying to yourself that you aren’t going to let your depression control you isn’t going to get rid of it.  It can help to make it more manageable, however.  I find that having these simple little tricks can be helpful in the thick of a depressive episode.

Of course, getting the benefits of this trick requires us to actually do it.  And depression likes to tell us that it isn’t worth doing.  Do it anyway.  Remember that depression wants to preserve itself, and that its needs run counter to a healthy mind.

What are some of your tricks for managing depression?  Leave a comment!  And as always, like and share!

I have a feeling that I could write several articles about depression.  I may just do it.  Stay tuned and feel free to give me some feedback!

Blog Post! Right!

So Friday was 3 days ago, and I didn’t post anything…

So today, we’re going to steer into the skid a bit and talk about apologizing!  It is a very necessary and powerful skill in relationships.  Unfortunately, it’s also a very easy thing to mess up.  So let’s first look at a sample apology: I missed my deadline.  If you were looking forward to my post, I can imagine you might feel disappointed.  I am sorry, and I will try to stick to my schedule more rigidly moving forward..

What’s in an Apology?

The purpose of an apology is to make amends for something.  The original meaning was “to speak in one’s own defense,” (which is why there is a thing called Apologetics which is a very different thing).  In order to make amends, there are three things that need to happen.

The First Step: Understanding

First, the one apologizing needs to be able to identify the thing that was done.  In my apology above, I clearly stated exactly what I did (or in my case, what I didn’t do): I neglected to post a blog on my scheduled blog post day.  That is a thing that happened, and there is no emotional weight to it.  One can look at my scheduled posting days, see that there was no post last Friday, and say “Oh, Joey didn’t post a blog.”  In another instance, one might say “I didn’t do the dishes last night,” and that can be confirmed; or “I kissed your brother at a party last weekend.” The first part of a good apology is clearly stating only the facts of what happened.

The Second Step: Empathizing

Once the facts have been stated, it is time to connect to the emotional weight.  While in my instance, there may not be a huge emotional impact on everyone reading, but in a more intense instance; say “I kissed your brother at a party,” there is emotion to connect with.  The important thing in this part is empathizing with the impact the aforementioned fact has had.  In my apology, I acknowledged that someone may feel disappointed if they were really excited about reading my posts twice a week.  I connect that to my own experience, because I often feel disappointment when my favorite content creators don’t update regularly.

The Final Step: Correcting

Finally, the last part of an apology is to establish a plan for moving forward.  For me, that means updating on my already established schedule (starting tomorrow), but it may also be shutting down an inappropriate relationship or consenting to an appropriate consequence.  Of course, once the consequence has been accepted it is vital to follow through.  This is how trust is rebuilt.

The Defensiveness Trap

I have spoken about Gottman’s Four Horsemen before, and one that really needs to be corralled in an apology is Defensiveness.  Apologizing is a very vulnerable act; and when we feel vulnerable, we have a reflex to try and protect ourselves.  It is very tempting to justify, rationalize, or even blame our behavior on some external factor (I was busy, I was too tired, I was drunk, it was just locker room talk, whatever the case may be).  But in order to make an appropriate apology, defensiveness needs to be countered by taking ownership and apologizing with this three step model.

So there it is: Joey’s Guide to Apologies.  Made possible by me neglecting my blog.  So again, I apologize for missing my posting window, and I will do my best to stay on top of my schedule from this point forward.  If I am unable to make a post, I will at least let you know.

What do you think about this model of apologizing?  Has there been a time in your life when you tried to apologize and became defensive?  I know I have!  Leave a comment sharing your thoughts.  Also, please like and share this blog if you enjoy reading it!

Fighting and Flighting

A cursory look at social media and the news gives the impression that a lot of people in the United States today are experiencing something that everyone experiences from time to time: anxiety.  Don’t worry, this post isn’t about the election, but it is about that feeling.

What is Anxiety

Anxiety is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s helpful to have a good working definition.  Basically, it is a feeling of unease, nervousness, or worry about something with an uncertain outcome.  Hence, people are anxious about the election because they don’t like the candidates and are uncertain about the potential outcomes, and are very worried about that uncertainty.

What Does Anxiety Do?

Anxiety has a reputation for being something that needs to be avoided, but to do so limits the spectrum of human emotion.  The fact is, anxiety is a very useful tool of the brain and body that is often misunderstood.  When we really dig down into the function of anxiety, it is our brain trying to keep us safe.  It activates the Fight or Flight response, which directs the flow of attention and energy in order to maximize our survivability.  Key word there being survivability.

An Ancient Solution

I often explain anxiety to my clients like this: Imagine it’s 10000 years ago, and you are out hunting.  You’re tracking your prey when suddenly you hear something walking behind you.  Your heart rate goes up, blood moves from your core to your limbs, and your brain starts going a mile a minute coming up with possibilities of what the thing behind you might be, as well as what you can do about it.  That is the function of anxiety.

Alas, we do not live in a world where this is something we need to worry about.  Hunting accidents have more to do with irresponsible use of firearms than being mauled by a tiger, but the brain structure is there.  It is designed to keep us safe from threats, both real and perceived; and it doesn’t work so well in a world where we are, in general, safe.

What to Do With Anxiety

Anxiety is a tricky thing, because ultimately, the best thing to do about it is lean into it.  We feel anxious because our brains tell us that there is something to be concerned about.  So let yourself feel it, and acknowledge what it is that it is telling you to be wary of.  Then, perform some grounding activities to get you back into the real world where you can do something about the issue.

A Note on Anxiety Disorders

In general, this article focuses on normal anxiety; and while understanding the source and function, as well as some coping skills for anxiety is useful even with anxiety disorders, don’t hesitate to talk to a doctor about your anxiety if it is overwhelming and causing you distress or impairment.  If I can make one thing very clear, it is that there is nothing wrong with needing some help managing our stuff.  So get some help.

If you like this article, please like, comment, or share!  And if you want to keep up with my content, you can subscribe to my blog and get updates every Tuesday and Friday!

Listening to Understand

I have tangentially referred to empathy several times in this blog, but I haven’t really established what it is exactly.  It is one of the foundations of the whole counseling profession, so having a working definition for it is, well, foundational.  So what exactly is empathy?  It is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Personally though, I prefer a different definition: the ability to connect your experience to the experience of another.  In other words; when someone tells you something that they are going through, the empathetic response is to consider a time that you went through something similar, identify how you felt, and connect it to what you are hearing in order to understand the other person’s experience.  If that wasn’t super clear because it was a run-on sentence, here is an info-graphic!

empathy

Let’s unpack this step by step.

Listen to Understand

The first step toward empathy is simple: Forget about responding to what the other person is saying.  When we think more about what we are going to say that what the other person is saying, we lose out on truly understanding and depend on making assumptions about what they are saying.  Stepping outside of this is what we in the business call Active Listening, which is listening with the intention of gathering information.  Active listening is an engaged process, and there is enough to be said about it to fill it’s own book, let alone a blog post.  But in a nutshell, focusing on what our conversation partner is saying will do more to make them feel heard than any solution you can come up with halfway through their sentence.

Build Your Understanding

This is a continuation of the active listening process.  Basically, no amount of just listening will tell us everything about what is going on.  It’s important to ask questions, but not just any question.  Open-ended questions tell our conversation partners that we are interested in their thoughts and feelings.  For the uninitiated, an open-ended question is a question that does not have a simple answer.  “What do you think about the color of the sky?” has a more complex answer than “What color is the sky?”

Asking open-ended questions also tells our conversation partner that we are paying enough attention to know what questions to ask.  If you ask “What color is the sky?” when they are talking about how their boss really hurt them, then it is obvious that you aren’t listening.  So ask questions, and build your understanding.

Connect Your Understanding

After you have listened and asked some questions, you may find yourself being reminded of a time in your life when something similar happened to you.  It doesn’t have to be on the same scale, but similar events cause similar feelings.  For example, if your beloved pet was killed by a car, and you are talking to someone whose brother was killed in a car accident than you can relate those two experiences; even though they are very different.  You might avoid mentioning that the reason you can relate to unexpected and traumatic loss is because your dog ran into traffic, but you can still sit in the pain with your conversation partner.

Express Your Understanding

This is a continuation of the connection.  Once you have made a connection inside of yourself, share that understanding.  Being able to both identify and express our understanding is what makes empathy happen.

Correct Your Understanding

Lastly, sometimes your understanding doesn’t connect.  Maybe the emotion you felt when your dog died was the loss of a companion, while your conversation partner is facing a mortality crisis.  This is okay.  If your understanding doesn’t connect with their experience, try again!  So long as you continue to listen with the intent to understand, you can rebuild, reconnect, and re-express your understanding until they know that you get it!

So this is empathy in a nutshell.  Let me know what you think!  I may try to do more info-graphics like this one in the future if enough people like it.  Also, what are your experiences with empathy?  Has there been a time when someone was able to really connect with you by listening and understanding?  How about you connecting with someone else by listening?  Let’s talk about it!

And as always, like and share this if you enjoyed the read!

 

Love’s Evil Twin

Relationships are great.  When you find a person who is willing to stick things out with you for any extended period of time, it can be very validating.  As with anything though, there is a point past which even the most validating relationship can become toxic.  This is called Codependency, and it is a dangerous game.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is relationship pattern that is built on one or both partners enabling the other to engage in unhealthy patterns.  For a good example, look at just about any TV relationship.  The wife works, cleans the house, does the laundry, works out, and makes sure there’s beer in the fridge so that her husband can come home from work, watch the game, make jokes about how fat he is, and complain that the beer in the fridge is warm.  This is codependency in action.  The wife picks up her husbands slack, and the husband takes this as permission to continue slacking.

How is it dangerous?

There are many ways that codependency is dangerous.  The most overt reason is that it prevents the enabled partner from experiencing growth in their own lives.  As long as there is someone around to clean up the mess, there is no reason to learn how to clean it up themselves.

Another way that it can be damaging is that it creates a dependent relationship between the partners (hence codependent).  The enabled partner needs the enabling partner because they are unable to cope on their own, and the enabling partner needs the enabled partner so that they can feel needed.  This creates a cycle of needing that can eventually cut off other supportive social relationships until there is no social support except for the partner.

And lastly, in the above example, the relationship is exceptionally one-sided.  Over time, this arrangement causes resentment to build, which then develops into behaviors of contempt, one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen.  Contempt is a killer of relationships.  Left unchecked, it can easy continue growing until it becomes abusive.

What Can I Do?

If you are in a codependent relationship, either as the enabler or the enabled, get help.  There are many resources for individuals and couples in codependent relationships.  Codependency is much like anything: it grows out of a healthy need.  To feel responsible and needed on the enabling side, or to feel trusting and supported on the enabled side.  There is nothing wrong with these needs, it is simply the expression of those needs.

Learning to express our needs is of great importance, not only in the healing of codependency, but in any area of our lives.  If you feel like you are in, or at risk of getting into a codependent relationship, I would highly encourage you to look into what is drawing you into it.  Talk with a counselor or attend a support group.

What do you all think about codependency?  If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave in the comments.  Please share this article if you found it helpful in any way!

 

Let Me Feel My Feelings!

Good News everyone!  I have decided to start posting twice a week!  So you can expect me to post mental health and wellness type posts on Tuesdays, and relationship type posts on Fridays!

I often hear this phrase yelled in frustration on TV as part of a joke, but that belies the truth of the expression.  It is important to feel your feelings, even when they are uncomfortable.

Avoiding Discomfort

In the US today (and many places around the world), it is very easy to distract ourselves from discomfort.  In my own life, I binge-watched cartoons when my mother passed away; and when I was going through my divorce I spent hours playing video games, drinking Mountain Dew, and eating Oreos by the box.  (Yes, even counselors engage in unhealthy coping habits from time to time; it’s the human condition.)  Much of what I was doing was avoiding the discomfort of feeling alone, abandoned, and depressed.

Discomfort flies in the face of the whole “find your bliss” mindset that most of us are brought up with.  But life is not just one good thing after another.  Just look at all the stuff going on in the celebrity world.  High profile breakups and divorces, contract disputes, and scandals show that there really is no escape from it no matter how wealthy we get.  So what is the point of trying to avoid it?

Embracing Emotions

Okay, so we can agree that avoiding discomfort doesn’t really work, so what does?  It’s more than just not doing that.  It takes “steering into the skid” and really embracing the emotions you’re feeling to process them.  Acknowledge them, give them a name, and listen to what they are trying to tell you.  Because that is what emotions are: your body’s way of trying to tell you to pay attention.

Acknowledging and naming emotions puts their power under our control.  If we are able to say “I feel lonely,” then we are also able to say “I need to talk to someone.”  However, if we just say “I feel bad” without exploring what hurts, then we can’t know what we will need to do about it.  This is part of the reason that I encourage my clients not to use words like “good” or “bad:” they are not descriptive of what is really happening; they are simply judgments.  But that is a post for another day.

Okay, so we have acknowledged and named our feeling.  What now?  Let it tell you what you need.  Frequently, we need someone to know what we are feeling; and this is where the process can fall apart.  Not everyone understands that sometimes it’s not about the nail.  Having someone that you can trust not to help you “fix it” is important.

If It Ain’t Broke…

The main issue with trying to “fix” hurt feelings is that it assumes that something is broken.  Just because we hurt doesn’t mean we’re broken.  So this section goes out to the people who have been given the chance to empathize with someone.  If you can’t roll around in the mud with someone, you don’t get to tell them how to get out of it.  Focus first on understanding where they are coming from.  Whether it’s your partner, your child, or the kid running the register at Wal-Mart; understand where they are before you tell them where they are supposed to be.  But here is a secret: When you see their perspective, there is a very real chance that they know exactly what to do next.  So it may behoove you to let that advice go.

So in short: Feel your feelings.  Give them a name and let them serve their purpose.  Share your feelings with someone you trust; and if someone chooses to share them with you, focus on understanding where they are coming from.

What Is Best In Life?

No, I’m not talking about crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women; I’m talking about life goals.  In other words, developing your own consistent sense of being and meaning.  Be warned, this post is a bit more philosophical than some of my other posts.  Personally, I believe that there is an answer to this question: Congruence.

Walking the Walk

What is congruence?  Well, the mathematicians will tell you that shapes are congruent when they are similar.  A square is congruent with another square, and a circle is congruent with another circle; but a square is incongruent with a circle.  But I’m not here to talk about math.  I was a liberal arts major, so math makes me break out in hives.  I want to talk about personal congruence, which is when the person you claim and be is the same as the person you really are.

Congruence is a central tenet of Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Therapy, which is a counseling theory that prioritizes the counseling relationship above the technique of therapy (this is a gross under-representation of the PCT model.  I would encourage anyone who is interested to look into it.  It’s fascinating stuff!)  In Rogers’ view, there were three core conditions of therapy: Empathy (the ability to connect with the client’s experience), Unconditional Positive Regard (The ability to look beyond a person’s actions, regardless of your perception of their “goodness,” and see them as a person in need of empathy), and Genuineness (or congruence: being aware of and communicating your own perspectives and values.)

Perhaps the easiest way to explain congruence is by exploring its opposite: incongruence.  One example of incongruence is the blogger who says he is going to publish his blog on Friday at noon and doesn’t start it until 1:00 (cough cough).  This is not as defining as say a person who claims to be happily married while at the same time is abusive; but they are under the same umbrella; so hopefully it is easy to see how dangerous incongruence can be.

Instead of focusing on incongruence however, I want to focus this post on being congruent.  What does this require?  Not much, only to live in accordance with your values.  If you say you are going to post every Friday, have your post written on Thursday.  If you value love and support in your marriage, love and support your spouse.

The Challenge

Congruence sounds so nice and so easy, so why don’t people do it?  My money is on the fact that it is not as easy as it sounds.  Consider sexuality: In order for an LGBT person to live congruently, they need to open themselves up to considerable persecution.  Congruence requires a person to live in accordance with their REAL values, not just the one’s that they believe to be “correct.”  Because at the end of the day, you are going to live by your real values regardless of how “wrong” they seem.  So just remember that there is really no such thing as a “good” or “bad” value.  “Correct” and “Wrong” are subjective perspectives.  So the real challenge is to be able to identify your real values, and work on living by those values.  Easier said than done, of course; but if it were easy, everyone would be doing it!

Like I said, this post is a bit more philosophical than some of my others.  But if you like this sort of thing, leave a comment!  I would love to talk with you all about this sort of stuff!  If you have any thoughts on things you would like to see in future posts, leave those in the comments too!  If you liked this post, give it a like and a share!