30/12/2018 WORRYING AND HOW TO STOP
WORRYING AND HOW TO STOP
This is all you’ve ever wanted to know about worrying, but been much too busy thinking about it to think to ask.
The first part of this blog is about helping you understand how it is possible to break into a pattern of endless worrying, cutting short cycle of obsessional thinking. The second section illustrates a technique.
As human beings, we may be able to do things that other animals cannot. We can create finely detailed scenes with our thoughts and transport ourselves to different times, different places and different people. Sometimes our thoughts take us to places that are pleasant and full of wishful hopes or they leave us lingering over warm, delicious or sensual memories. When we do this, we call it daydreaming.
Unfortunately, there is a darker side to our potential for imagination.
Evolution demands we do our best to survive. If there is nothing much going on in the real world around to occupy our thoughts; no threats to love, dignity or to life itself requiring immediate action, we are more likely to focus on our problems than our joys. We can re-run old conversations, trying to undo what we have said or saying what we wish we’d thought of at the time. We can have hurt and angry encounters in our head; negotiating, cursing, pleading or questioning.
Good news looks after itself, while bad and dangerous ideas require constant attention. Lost in our thoughts, we scarcely separate our inner preoccupation from outer reality.
The unpleasant emotions of that come with rumination are in response to the ideas themselves, not to the things we’re worrying about.
Understanding this leads to a very simple and very important truth.
The thought is the problem.
You need to recognise there is great value in labelling the thought as the problem; acknowledging that worrying really is no more than anxious planning, searching for control over an uncertain future or to repair a messy past.
When you are worrying, you are changing nothing, because you’re picturing and trying to change the world outside, but it’s all in your head and your distress is in response to no more than a set of electrical and chemical events locked inside your skull.
So what do you do when you are trapped in the unhappy, recurring and endless rumination over how you have been wronged or how you have done wrong yourself?
If you’re lying in bed at 11 o’clock at night and worrying, unable to sleep and there is an appropriate phone call you can make to change things, then do it. Unfortunately, it’s rare to be able to find this relief, because at that moment, lying in bed, there is usually nothing you can do about the problem.
If there is something and you can do, maybe not immediately, but soon enough, having made your plan, you will probably be able to sleep. Your mind will no longer be circling, searching for a solution, because you have found one.
Unfortunately, with most of the things about which we ruminate and worry, we would have sorted them out long ago, if there were a solution to be found. More often than not, if the damage is done, we can do more harm by trying to undo the past.
So you’re still lying in bed and it’s now 11.30. You’re going over and over the same issues and if you lie there all night, you still won’t have a solution in the morning and you’re angry and anxious about how you will perform tomorrow because your unhappy arousal has kept you awake and you’re sleep deprived.
The fairly obvious conclusion is that if the thought is the problem and there is no real-world solution, either now or tomorrow, you’d be a lot better off if you didn’t have the thought.
This is where a technique for stopping your rumination could be a great help, because the bad anxious or unhappy feelings you have are in response to the words in your head, not past or future events. The problem in the real world has passed on and if it’s irreversible, the thoughts can go on forever.
If the problem can be fixed, the thoughts will stop. If the problem can’t be fixed, then you’ll need to stop the thoughts.
The brain is plastic; if you think long and hard enough about something, you open up a neuronal pathway that increases the likelihood of your thoughts running down that path again and again.
Because the brain is plastic, if you are not thinking the thought, the pathway of thought established in your brain will lose its fine dendritic connections and the line of thinking will tend to become less the default path for your thoughts. Just as wet sand will slide into a groove cut on the beach by running water, once the water stops running, even briefly, the thoughts will not flow so easily either.
If, while you were busy worrying, you heard a car crash outside or someone scream for help, you would stop worrying and set about solving the immediate, real-world problem. Certainly, once the dust and smoke had settled, you would eventually return to your troubled thoughts, but there is a high degree of certainty it would take quite some time for them to resurface and reach their previous intensity. The point being, you cannot fully focus on two things at the same time and even if you are female and perfectly able to multi-task, this is still changing from one topic to another. Multi-tasking is not the same as simul-tasking)
meditation and relaxation are generally recommended as a means to stop worrying. If relaxation works for you, that’s great and you do not need to read further, but for most people relaxation is too passive and it allows the unwanted thoughts to creep back into your mind. Mindfulness is wonderful provided it effectively fills your mind to the exclusion of other thoughts.
So, if meditation works, do it. If relaxation doesn’t work, then you need a more active technique, which depends on the reality that you cannot actively think about two things at the same time. Ideas may drift in and out, but at any moment, only one idea can hold the floor and if you do give it your full attention, other thoughts will be pushed into the background.
When you lie in bed worrying, or going over and over the same thought in your mind while you are driving or doing something relatively mindless, at first you will not really be aware that you are anxiously obsessing. However at some point you will recognise with frustration that you are doing it again, as you have many times before and indeed and you might be making yourself increasingly distressed.
Then you’re ready to stop your thoughts
To manage your worrying or to stop your thoughts, you must first acknowledge there is nothing you can do about it now. Before you do that, you’re trapped, because you’ll still be searching in your head for the solution and there is no peace.
Once you have given up trying to fix the problem, you need to acknowledge a couple of facts to yourself.
You will need to substitute your obsessional thinking with a simple, repetitive ritual. In doing this, you will have to talk to yourself, clearly forming the words to yourself under your breath. It is important that you do actually speak in your mind, committing yourself firmly to the use of sub-vocal words. They should be these words that follow or words of your own, but they must be much the same word every time….a substitute ritual. Sometimes to drown out your rumination, you may need to shout under your breath, the more aggressively the better, because aggression was once the evolutionarily programmed behaviour for seizing control. Your thoughts feel out of control, but they are driven by a primitive anxiety and using aggression to gain control is a primitive manoeuvre to deal with a primitive process.
Once you’ve registered that you are thinking more than you want……..
“Is there anything I can do about this now?”
“No, there’s not”
“The thought is the problem”
“I do not want these thoughts”
“The more I think about something now, the more likely I am to be thinking about it in five minutes time”
“If I could stop myself thinking about this problem for a few minutes, I am less likely to be thinking about in five minutes time”
“I can’t think about two things at the same time”
(now you need to shout under your breath, as loudly and aggressively as you can)
“Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t go……..”(do this over and over again)
(you will settle into a steady rhythm, and your chanting will soften and become quieter)
“Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t go there….……”
(the thought will be briefly blocked, but it will still try to sneak in from the corners of your mind, then you need to change the rhythm and volume of what you are shouting under your breath)
“DON’T go there.. Don’t GO there. Don’t go THERE “ (you get the idea)
(again, this will block out the thought and you will settle back into your steady rhythm)
“Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t go there………”
(after several repetitions of your ritual, at some point your mind will drift away from your chanting, but it will generally not go straight back to your worrying, although inevitably it will, and in a little while you will realise you are back in your hurt, angry bewildered conversation, so you need to restart the process)
“Damn, I’m doing it again”
“Is there anything I can do about this now?”
“No, there’s not”
“Okay, the thought is the problem and I do not want this thought”
“I cannot think about two things at once and if I can stop thinking about it now, I’m less likely to be worrying about it in five minutes
“Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t go there……..”
(and when the thought tries to sneak in once more around the edges, again, it is exactly the same ritual, changing rhythm and emphasis
“DON’T go there.. Don’t GO there. Don’t go THERE………”………once more, you get the idea
This is boring, really, really boring, but it is actually less boring than the endless, circling worry.
So keep repeating this tedious chanting
If you were lying in bed and worrying, you may be surprised to find you have just woken up in the morning. Or if you were trapped in daytime rumination, you may realise you can clear a great deal of space in your head. You can also feel much better discovering you are not a helpless victim of your thoughts and you have a system of control you can call on at any time.
For the umpteenth time, remember ……. the thought is the problem and it can be blocked
A compliment is a gift of love. Never refuse a compliment because it is too precious to waste and it is rude to refuse a gift. Even if you don’t believe the truth of a compliment, thank whoever gave it for his kindness in saying what he did. You may be afraid you are being mocked, or that accepting the compliment adds vanity to your list of imagined faults, but refusing a compliment looks like fishing, or false modesty at best and insulting at worst. However if you are anxious about accepting a compliment, you can always safely say: ‘Thank you, that’s really kind of you to say so!’
You are not saying you actually believe you are pretty or clever, you are simply being polite to the person who has said such nice things.
Compliments are wonderful if you have the courage to believe them but a misery if you don’t. Try telling a girl with an eating disorder how pretty she is and see what sort of a reception you get. Refusing a compliment doesn’t mean you don’t want it, on the contrary it simply means you dare not believe what you would love to believe.
You can never know for sure whether a compliment is really meant and the more you doubt yourself, the more trouble you will have believing it. Unfortunately, if you look fragile and full of doubt, you increase the chance of a compliment being no more than a well-meant remark offered in an attempt to make you feel better. By contrast, if your behaviour signals that you like yourself, you liberate people to be more honest with you. They can see you are robust enough to be shoulder a criticism or to be told that the colour really doesn’t suit you or that they liked your hair better the way it was before. If you look as if you respect yourself, you can trust people more to say what they mean and your intimacy and equality with them will automatically increase.
But you’ll never know for sure if a compliment is meant, but you can be absolutely certain that accepting it with dignity is the right response, whatever the motive of the person offering the compliment.
02/10/2018 BEING YOURSELF
‘Just be yourself’, often teamed with similarly helpful suggestions such as ‘relax’ or ‘don’t worry’, may seem good advice, but most of us don’t actually know who we are, so how to go about being whoever we are can be a bit of a mystery
Obviously this kindly advice comes from someone on your side, who is trying to say: ‘You’re a really competent, nice person and people will like you, so you don’t have to make an extra effort to be super-nice or especially clever.’ Often the person is also saying: ‘I can see you feel vulnerable and you have a bit of a habit of overdoing it, so don’t blow it by trying too hard.’
So, what are the rules? Simple. They’re always the same:
• Try to act with kindness and dignity.
• Treat everybody as if you believe they like you.
It’s really important you appreciate asking you to treat people as if they like you is not suggesting you must believe it, merely suggesting you act as if you believe they do.
There's a big difference. You can't make yourself believe something you don't believe, no matter how much you would like to. People try positive thinking and if this works for you, read no further, you've sorted it. Fortunately, if positive thinking feels a bit hollow, all is not lost. You can act something you don't really feel, given you know the script.
I am suggesting you can assume the behaviour of self liking and this is done by following the above rules, but why would you bother?
We are all at our most attractive with people we know and trust to like us. Behaving towards someone whom you don’t know, as if there were no reason on Earth why he wouldn’t like you, frees you to be suitably open and friendly, kind and dignified and therefore attractive to him and to yourself. I must emphasise this is not saying you act as if you really, really like somebody you’ve just met or couldn’t possibly know, which can be seriously tacky, even if you feel it is just showing how warm you are. It’s simply acting as if you have assumed someone will like you well enough, not that you are new best friends already. Were you able to broadly follow this principle, you might find life so pleasant you won’t need to bother working out who you are.
Having said that, you may still want to have a clearer picture of who you are. I propose the closest you will ever come to knowing who you are is to clearly decide upon your core values. By defining the ethics and principles you hold most dear, you define yourself most clearly.
I plan to look in more detail at the meaning of core and peripheral values as part of your identity.
Long time; no blog!
Alas how easily good intentions are lost when there are so many other things to do. I have been bogged down trying to perfect description of what I call "thought stopping." This is so important because we all tend to ruminate, going over and over things in our mind and I want to try and get this right. So the meantime, while I'm trying to simplify the concept and the practical steps, I shall add some relatively random thoughts. Why not start with some thoughts on feelings?
We all want to feel good. We want to feel relaxed, secure, strong and worthwhile. We want to feel creative and in control, attractive and loved. If we could guarantee feeling this way we’d almost certainly be happy.
This is the way we want to feel, but we know perfectly well that what we want to feel and what we do feel are not always the same thing.
Feelings are strange creatures. Everyone has them and we live with them all day, every day, but sometimes they can have a life of their own. We’ve all felt anxious when we knew there was no need and we’ve all had angry conversations in our heads, bitterly running through a confrontation that never happens. Is there anyone who hasn’t burnt with embarrassment when no one else has even noticed?
You have very little direct control over your feelings, but sometimes they can seem to control you. Unfortunately your biggest influence on them is your capacity to make them worse. It’s painfully easy to dig up an unhappy memory or construct an angry fantasy, dwell on it for a while and make yourself thoroughly miserable. On the other hand, if you decide you want to be happy, you can count your blessings, think of happy times and list all your qualities and achievements, but sometimes that can feel a bit like whistling in the dark. Being positive is a great way to go and much better than wallowing in gloom, but you are not nearly as effective at making yourself feel good as you are at making yourself feel bad.
31/12/2017 CONFIDENCE and SELF CONFIDENCE
It would look as if I plan to only blog once a year, but please be not misled. Now this website has been what I believe is called "optimised" more gems of psychological wisdom are on their way. More than enough said.
I propose the difference between confidence and self-confidence is an important distinction. Confidence is knowing you can do something. You can be confident you can climb a mountain, solve a problem or talk to an audience. Confidence is not available to everyone, because to be truly confident you need to know that you are truly competent. Sure, you can pump yourself up with positive thinking, but if you have to do that, deep inside you don’t truly trust your own capacity. Competence is not hard to assess and not hard to define. You have climbed many mountains. You can either play the piano you can’t. You’ve spoken to an audience before many times without anxiety or major fault, justifying your confidence in public speaking.
Unfortunately, it’s perfectly possible to be highly competent but still lack self-confidence, because self-confidence is something a little different. Self-confidence is theoretically available to everyone, but something so many of us lack. Self-confidence is the ability to take on something about which we are not confident, but knowing that if we fail we are still ultimately worthwhile human beings. It means to be able to believe in your worth as a person to others, not just as a performer, which gives you room to move and room to fail. Self-confidence is the ability to know that you might lose, mess up, stuff it and hate doing so, but not hate yourself. It frees you to play the piano badly.
It is perfectly possible to be both confident and self-confident. Confidence makes it easy to take on a task and self-confidence makes it easier to go a little further than mere confidence can take you.
Confident people can fail and then lose their confidence. A self-confident person can fail, hate failing but never lose his self-confidence because self-confidence does not require success. It simply requires the self-esteem to know that as a human being you are good enough and then and very importantly, to make the right choice of behaviour to manage your loss.
If you can lose and choose your behaviour well, your self-confidence can increase, because there is a reasonable chance you will see the respect others have for a good loser. Self-confidence is recognising that by behaving well in the face of adversity, you can feel as un-bad about yourself as possible and possibly even feel good about yourself; literally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Self-confidence does not include pretending to yourself or to anybody else you don’t care about losing. The art is not losing any more than you have already lost. If you are thrashed at a game of tennis, fifty apologies may help you extract a few reassuringly affectionate responses and protect you from teasing. Alternatively, smashing your racket and declaring the winner was cheating may give you the brief feeling of power that comes with aggression, but whichever way you go, the loss of dignity is far more costly than the loss of the game. On the other hand, equipped with a reasonable level of self-confidence and understanding the rules of the human game perhaps a little better than those of tennis, you might choose to congratulate the victor and offer to buy the beer. Thos won't make you the winner, but you’re not a loser. Don’t forget, it is not in the winner’s interest to treat you as pathetic if he beats you, as to defeat a sporting midget makes his victory the less.
The reality is very few people will want to put you down unless, of course, you give in to your urge to smash your racket. If you apologise too much, you have made yourself little and vulnerable, so only someone who really loves you will tell you to can it.
Self-confidence frees you to lose with outward grace and in so doing you feel as un-bad within yourself as possible, even if you will never enjoy losing or failing. To repeat, your self-confidence means that you know that your worth as a human being both to yourself and to others is not predicated on your success. Of course, you could always choose to never play tennis again, but then you weaken your relationship with other people; an extraordinarily high price to pay to avoid the belittlement of failure.
Not everyone can be confident, because not everyone is competent, but everyone can become self-confident if they understand and follow the principles of An Intelligent Life.
I can't believe how long it is since I last posted. Absolutely no excuse, it's not laziness, so it must be attributed to procrastination, which is very much a topic for psychiatry.
Procrastination. We all do it and it is not really an issue of how long we put something off, but rather the cost. My failing to write a blog might have just cost me millions of readers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties. There is also a chance this is not the case, but I'll never know, so I can fantasise and probably the cost is not all that high.
Procrastination is obviously potentially part of laziness, but they are not synonymous. I guess if you are lazy, you might be less likely to be concerned about your own dilatory behaviour. Most people I see as patients who are troubled by procrastination are anything but lazy.
There are probably three parts to non-lazy procrastination
b. a failure to prioritise
c. an obsessive fear of displeasing people
Clearly the ability to be distracted is in all of us and is probably determined as an individual genetic variation; some are by nature more focused than others and also, of course behaviour is affected by pressure of circumstances. The more intense the needs, fears and pleasures outside the present moment, the more likely you are to be distracted by them and procrastinate over the obligations of the present.
The ability or lack of ability to prioritise is probably the most common cause of procrastination. People fail to assess the individual demands of their world in terms of both their importance to their own best interests and when the time has passed and it is too late. Such people are very aware there is much they should do and are endlessly pricked by their guilt. They have a pile of papers, bills and letters on their desks at which they stare anxiously but never seem to conquer. The most important skill in managing this is to stop trying to deal with the things at the bottom of the pile and work up from the oldest to the newest. It is far more productive to do the latest things first and work your way down through the pile. If you are always taking from the bottom of the pile, that which you have failed to do is probably no longer irrelevant and almost certainly too late. The very burden of guilt slows you down, but the weight of that guilt can be greatly reduced by doing the last things first.
A profound anxiety over displeasing people can be disabling. It often begins with overpromising; buying love and approval with generous offers that are truly meant at the time. Unfortunately, when the drudgery of their execution is addressed, the pleasure of being the wonderful person who offered so much is now lost. The promises and failures and delays accumulate and become millstones, ensuring that nothing is done and the ensuing guilt sabotaging any further effort. A lesser variation on this is seen in people who are always late. They struggle to leave one person before moving onto the next. They never feel safe that they have the full serve of approval from the first person or the fear that person may feel rejected by their leaving, so they are always late in getting to the second. There guilt over being late for the second person makes them stay even longer and so they are even later for third person.
The anxiety over displeasing is part of a poverty of self-esteem and usually needs help by means of psychological therapy. The distractibility and failure to prioritise can be managed by recognising that people things must come before material things. If there is an obligation to a person, a time and date should be set with no possibility of breaking this date, except if the needs of a person closer to you, such as your partner or your child become more pressing. Then you are still honouring the principle of putting people before material, by recognising that intelligent self-interest lies in looking after those whose love and approval can shine the brightest light upon you. It is necessary to remember that is very easy to be Mr Wonderful for someone relatively distant from you, but there will be very much less long-term reward if too much time is given to a charity that should always begin at home.
The worst thing about procrastination is that it doesn't go away. If you had set a date and time and followed it, you might have scarcely thought about the obligation and certainly not with much unpleasant emotion attached. Put it off for six months and you waste so much thinking time and emotional energy.
Rereading this, I guess I must be lazy.
Some people trust too much, others trust not at all. Paradoxically, both extremes have a common origin.
You trust someone when you believe they will do what they say or that they will do what they could be reasonably hoped to do, given the nature of your relationship with that person. You have no relationship with the bus driver, but you trust him to take you to your destination. You might lend money to a dear friend, because you trust him to repay you, whereas you probably wouldn't contemplate lending money to the bus driver. If you do lend money to someone with whom you have little or no relationship, you are trusting too much and you have another agenda. You are giving too much in the hope of both buying love and also of holding someone closer to you than they would normally be by establishing a bond of debt and potential guilt.
People who cannot trust are actually looking for too much trust, so they have much in common with those who trust too much. They are hoping for the certainty of fulfilment that a child should be able to find in a good parent. The less certain you have been of your parents' love, the more you are likely to be either distrustful or over-trusting. The mechanism of this is really quite simple; if you could not trust your mother to be there or your father to be kind, given these are the people you are biologically programmed from whom to expect the most, how could you possibly trust anyone else? The other side of the same coin is searching for a much greater level of love and trust in everyone you find. If you suffered from poor parents and you did not find enough safe love, almost inevitably your self-esteem will be poor. This in turn means you feel you will be less valuable to others and therefore, as they would have less investment in you, they will more readily betray you. The solution is to keep an angry, distrustful distance or to try to drag people closer than is appropriate to the relationship.
Distrustfulness or looking for too much trust both mean you dare not trust unless you have absolute certainty of the trustworthiness of the person with whom you are dealing. Unfortunately, other than the love of a devoted parent, you can never be absolutely certain of everybody in any situation. Unconditional love between adults is a myth. Searching for certainty before you trust means you will be forever suspicious. Often the eternally distrustful person has flipped from once being the over-trusting. You can hear them say 'You can't trust people. Everybody lets you down.' They often add that you can really only trust animals. Most of these people have once given too much but not received their money's worth in love in return.
Difficulty with trust is not limited entirely to people with a poor sense of self-worth. Everybody is more inclined to trust negative than positive. If somebody says he really loves you, there is a tendency to hold back, check, test and wait and see. If he announces he doesn't love you, you will assume immediately this is true. You'll probably take action based on your belief that the rejection is potentially a more reliable indicator of inner feeling than loud declarations of love. Of course, this trusting of the negative before the positive is inevitable from an evolutionary point of view. We are all programmed to survive, so we need to attend to the bad and the dangerous immediately, while we can afford to wait and see if what appears to be safe is truly so.
Trust should be based on what you are seeking, how much you are seeking and from whom. If you are looking for a guarantee of perfect and enduring love from any adult other than the perfect parent, you can trust no one. The other factor that determines how much you should trust is how much you will lose if you do trust and you're let down. The gentleman with the pencil-thin moustache in the loud check suit who promises you a 25% return on your money within three weeks may just look dodgy but in fact be the potential maker of your fortune. You might be missing out on millions, but you'll probably not bother to give him the time of day; the risk is obviously too great. If the nice man next door offers to pick up your 6-year-old daughter from school when your car breaks down, with some anxiety you might accept. If he offered to pick her up after school every day, you would probably thank him and wisely decline, even if in reality you are doing him a great injustice. It's a matter of judgement of risk and reward and always has the potential for getting it very wrong. One day you might be doomed to suffer the most profound regret the afternoon you let him get your daughter from school. The wisest person in the world can never be certain.
You have to make judgements and they can always be wrong. If you have to be absolutely certain, you will never make a decision and you will be paralysed by your lack of trust.
If you meet and fall in love with someone so wonderful he seems too good to be true, until it becomes blindingly obvious he is not true, you should take the risk. If you have read anything of mine before, you will know I believe we react to the threats rejection as if they will kill us. If you will actually die if someone promises you eternal love and then lets you down, stay single. Fortunately, rejection alone will not kill us, although it feels as if it will and we feel as if we going to die if it does happen. We have to balance our fear of the terrible pain that comes with rejection against our fear of the pain of loneliness. A good self-esteem will allow most of us to risk the acute but potentially manageable pain of rejection rather than suffer the slow freezing death of loneliness.
Trust always entails risk. If you trust nobody and take no risks, you will be chronically miserable. If you trust everybody you will get terribly hurt. Careful with the loud check suit and even the nice man next door, because the potential loss is so terrible, but risk the pain of rejection from someone whom you would really want to love. It is easy to say, but worth noting, it only feels as if you will die if you are rejected and if you manage yourself intelligently in your pain, you will live to love again.
07/09/2013 THE PAST
IN THE PAST
A wise and thoughtful person gave me a piece of paper with the following quotation:
'For the past is a shadow grown greater than its substance, and shadows have power to mock and betray us to the end of our days'
Although neither she nor I can find its author, we thought this a graceful way to phrase a painful truth.
So many people say to me 'That happened so long ago ago, I should be over it now.' If only that were true and time healed wounds, I would be unemployed and pleased to be so. Sadly, young brains are soft clay and if handled by clumsy fingers, they leave marks that can stay forever. A newborn rat separated from its mother for an hour, a few weeks later has microscopic differences in its brain; different from a genetically identical animal not so cruelly treated.
Every psychiatrist is familiar with the phenomenon of anxious attachment. We bond to the people in our proximity after birth; usually our parents. That bonding and attachment evolved as vital to survival, as it makes us seek the safety of our parents in the face of danger. Hopefully, our parent or parents form a reciprocal attachment to us, driving them to protect us. The people to whom we bond are our safety, or at least supposed to be. If a parent is unloving or cruel, we are programmed to cling to that very parent for survival. But as danger comes from the parent, an anxiously attached child will cling all the more tightly to the dangerous person because a source of danger is also treated as if it were the source of protection. The frightened child clings harder to the source of its fear. This anxious attachment can continue driving anxious and unhappy behaviour into adult life. The brutalised or neglected child-adult clinging fearfully but also angrily to the partners who endlessly come and go through their life, or the sexually molested girl who returns repeatedly to the parent and may never tell.
Sigmund Freud described the phenomenon of transference, in which we see and respond to new people as if they have the characteristics of people from our past. Sometimes, if you have been well loved, you may automatically expect people to value and treat you well. Bad treatment can drive hostile or distrustful behaviour toward new people whose initial intentions were potentially good, but would-be friends can be made hostile or at least indifferent, reinforcing a conviction of a disappointing world.
Living as we are prone to do in the past, essentially means we are driving down a road, manoeuvring according to our memory of the traffic half an hour ago. Unfortunately, the past cannot be expunged. The worse your background, the more potential it has to shadow you. You might have been genetically lucky and thus less vulnerable to bad experiences, but no young brain can survive too little love.
To manage a bad past, it is not wise to try denying it. You need to be acutely aware of the ease with which you see rejection. You must appreciate that your sense of distrust in everybody is a function of your looking for too much trust, which reflects an unmet need. A background in which you couldn't trust you were safe can send you on a search for someone who is 100% safe; someone who, in your fantasy, might offer the unreachable dream of guaranteed and unconditional love. You will have to learn to recognise and understand your disappointment in finding you will never be perfectly loved in your adult life, not even by your children. Searching for perfect love and believing other people have found it, can only make you feel small and angry.
In 'An Intelligent Life' I repeatedly emphasise the necessity of acting as if you believe people like you and are on your side. You may not win, but you will never lose if you can get your behaviour right toward other people. If you want to feel secure within yourself and lighten that shadow of your background, you must use your intellect to drive the behaviour you know you must choose, even or especially when your past-driven feelings might be screaming at you to run away or attack. If your past has been hard, you will have to try harder than someone from a safely loving family. It is not fair and it is not right, but the capacity of your past to betray you is only in that it can drive alienating behaviour in your present. If you can act as if you like yourself well enough and treat others as if you believe they find you at least acceptable and will probably even like you, you cease to be hostage to your past. But sadly, irrespective of how well you manage your present behaviour, you will still feel the dark shadow at times.
26/04/2013 HARVARDHAPPINESS STUDY
A prospective study conducted by Harvard University over 75 years on a cohort of graduates reached some very simple conclusions. If you want to live for a long time don't smoke and don't drink too much. If you want to be happy, maybe not all you need, but certainly what you need, is love.
Professor George Vaillant, who oversaw much of the study, offered a very simple take-home message:
'The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.'?'
If you want to read about it, try:
So, if the final word is love, the second last is probably how do you get it and how do you keep it? If you cared to read An Intelligent Life, which points out repeatedly that relationships are everything, you might discover some useful ideas. Relationships, intimacy, self-esteem, love and happiness are irreversibly linked.
14/04/2013 WHO AM I?
Who am I?
At some stage or other, we all ponder the nature of our own existence. This may be as part of a pleasurable conversation over a drink, debating the meaning of life, or it may be when we are sad or depressed, when the whole deal can seem pretty pointless.
It's very hard to be really sure of who and what you are. You can look at your reflection in the mirror, but instinctively appreciate this is not all of you. Listening to your own voice in a recording or looking at a video of yourself has a strange appeal, yet can feel slightly strange; almost as if being confronted by a stranger. 'Can that person really be me?'
We look much more closely and critically at photographs of ourselves than we do of others. Of course we are anxiously checking our attractiveness and when we don't look good, it's possibly not a very good picture. But beyond vanity, which is of course anxiety, because why bother to check if you know you look good, we are also looking for some indefinable essence that is ourselves.
I suggest the first step toward self-knowledge is through a consideration of your own moral and ethical standards, which you might think of as the territory of your spirit. Territory is not merely physical, such as your house, car, job or coffee cup. It's not just your place in the queue, but also your sense as to why it is right for you not to be pushed out of your place, or why you yourself should not to jump the queue in front of another person, even if he is smaller or of lesser status. Your ethical values are the things you must defend and the things you must or must not do, otherwise you would feel diminished as a person. Of course your ethics are not the entirety of your identity, but they are who you are beneath your clothes and skin. In the process of self-examination, to know your moral and ethical position brings you closer to understanding who you are, but there is more.
If you have read 'An Intelligent Life' or done no more than dip into some of my earlier blogs, you will see I believe that relationships are everything. I do not believe we should or could live in isolation from others of our species. Your individuality is a qualified thing and your very nature is something judged against the nature of others. You are only pretty or tall or clever or stupid compared to other people. Your being a happy, sad, intelligent or self-doubting person are all elements of who you are, but judged against the natures of others. Certainly other people will make these judgements too, but mostly you will be your own harshest critic.
The way you choose to behave reflects who you are. As a human being you may not have the totally free will you would like to believe, but you still have a great deal of control and you can still make choices. If you are criticised, you have a potential to choose an aggressive denial or adopt a display of massive distress; both responses designed to block further criticism either by inducing fear or guilt in your critic. You can also choose to retreat with dignity if you feel you may be in the wrong or you can signal your willingness to consider what has been said, even if you doubt the validity or fairness of the comment. This is the behaviour others see and it is by this that you will be judged and so determining the way others respond to you. The way you are then treated plays a major part in how you see yourself. On the assumption you do not have a narcissistic or sociopathic personality disorder, I maintain you will never be free of the opinion of others unless perhaps you suffer a psychotic illness or you are so under the influence of drugs, you are unconscious of your surroundings.
What other people see is a more accurate reflection of who you are than your own self estimation. If other people see you as being good and worthy but your self-esteem is low, they are probably better judges of your worth than you are. This is quite obvious if you appreciate that your self-esteem is your estimation of yourself as if you were another person. Your self-esteem is you looking at yourself, but you know so much about yourself. Your knowledge of you extends over a vast span of time from what might have been the sad difficulties of your childhood through to the various failures, stupidities and disappointments of your adult life. Other people do not see these things and what is past need never enter their judgement of you. Your bad recollections will stay forever in your memory; at one time they indeed have been accurate measures of you, but now are merely history.
Past mistakes and shames do not need to play any part in your present identity, especially if you have learnt from the experiences. The trail of things you have done wrong and the memories you have that make you cringe are not you. They do not define you unless they influence your behaviour toward others in the present, causing you to treat them as if they are judging you as harshly as you are judging you. Your fear or anger that you will be rejected or belittled by others for the critical view you hold of yourself can generate defensive behaviour which may be particularly unappealing. Your attempts to compensate for past failures or weaknesses can earn you rejection or belittlement that was never coming until you made that past part of your present behaviour and thus part of who you are.
You are much more likely to be rejected for the things you do because you fear you will be rejected or belittled, than because of any genuine defect or badness present in you and over which you have no control.
If other people seem to like you, value and want to be with you, that is a more accurate picture of you and your value than is your anti-self prejudice. Other people are better judges of your worth to them than you are. You will be vastly happier if you choose to act as if you trust their estimation, rather than respond to your critical inner voice. That inner voice that tells you your worth is low is highly likely to be as wrong as the generalisations of any other prejudice.
You are what you do now, not what you feel now or what you did in the distant past. If most of the time you manage to act within the limits set by your ethics and morality, given these values are judged to be good values by your peers and your culture, your behaviour is who you are. Do that and you can safely consider yourself to be both a worthy and an acceptable person. Then you have freed yourself to be silly, to make jokes that fall flat, to have a bad hair day or to be just plain wrong, but best of all, you make yourself free to speak up, stick your neck out, say what you believe to be true and to take risks in love.
Confession is a time honoured human practice, enshrined in religion and folk-
law. Everyone knows George Washington demolished a cherry tree,
confessed and was not only forgiven but praised for his honesty. By this
process, he became good by confessing to being bad.
In my job, I repeatedly meet people who insist on how bad, deficient and
defective they are. On rare occasions, such people have what is called a
psychotic depression, in which they truly believe in every bone of their bodies
that they are bad or evil, but this really is very rare.
People who insist on their own badness or deficiency do genuinely have the
feeling that they are a long way short of ideal; it is one of the behaviours of
low self esteem. However the belief system is very different from psychotic
depression. People with a poor sense of self worth usually have an
undercurrent of belief in their own value that they don't dare acknowledge
through fear of mockery or being seen as vain, because they don't trust other
people to value them. They are responding to the way they believe others
see them, guarding against the danger of rejection, rather than listening to
their own inner awareness that they really aren't so bad.
People burdened by a sense of doubt will run through a litany of their own
woefulness. If you agree with anything bad or even raise something else that
might be interpreted as weakness or defect, they will hungrily seize upon
anything you say, but usually with accompanying signals of hurt or anger. On
the other hand, if you try to point out a virtue or diminish the severity of their
badness, you will find yourself with somebody who obviously does not like
feeling bad, yet will fight to show you just how bad they are.
This curious paradox is a function of confession. If a little bit of confession is
good, a lot of confession must be a lot better. People overplay the
"I'm telling you how bad I am to show you I'm not so bad" ploy. I call this
remarkably common phenomenon the George Washington Syndrome.
Bizarrely, putting one's self down has become a mechanism of self defence.
By repeatedly insisting how bad they are, they are showing you they are not
so bad. Underneath they may not feel they are so worthless, but they fear
you see them that way and they are trying to minimise your disapproval by
demonstrating that at least they have the virtue of self awareness and self
criticism. They are saying 'Don't think I'm such a fool that I don't know I' a
In common with most human behaviour, this phenomenon has several layers
of motivation. In addition to earning virtue by confessing, it's a way of getting
"I'll criticise me before you do,' so they gain some control over the criticism. If
they don't do their own criticising, you may say something worse. It's also
getting in first in a different way; if I beat myself up, hopefully that will be seen
as punishment enough and no more will follow. By flagellating myself, I can
imaging I'm controlling the severity of punishment. The pain of self
punishment is nothing beside the threat of rejection by another.
It's all about love and control. If I say I'm a bad parent or I'm too fat or I'm
never going to pass my exams, I'm defining my problem and taking control
and so trying to make myself a more lovable person, fishing for reassurance
about my behaviour, intellect or appearance. Of course, I shall refuse the
reassurance I have fished for, often angrily. I get angry, because I do not
believe you really believe what you say when you reassure me, because I
know I've forced it out of you by my confession. My anger is also a test. If I
push you away and reject the gift of your reassurance, but you still come back
with more, perhaps I'll be a little closer to believing it.
Unfortunately this sort of confession never does the job it's designed to do.
There are no words of fished-for reassurance that will ever fill the gap in my
self-esteem. Unfortunately behaviour needs to be changed or more genuine
and courageous self-appraisal undertaken. If I think I am being a bad parent,
I should do something about it and if I think I'll fail or I'm too fat, perhaps I
should study harder or exercise more. Then I might earn a compliment and
much for importantly, there is a better chance I shall believe it to be justified.
Confession should be but part of a process of repair.
Confession can never achieve its goal if it is designed to make another person
responsible for my self-worth and then fix it.
People argue a lot and suffer greatly in the process, so I shall venture into this difficult area
Once our ancestors came down from the trees, staying alive depended on two basic abilities. They needed to keep their place in the herd for protection from predators and they also needed the physical strength to hold their territory, fighting off some pretty stiff competition from their fellow apes. In the 21st century, we don't face so many tigers and our physical survival may be reasonably secure, but our emotional survival is built on the same herding and territorial needs of other animals. Our ancient urge for the safety of the herd drives our profound need for the peace and security of love and belonging. Occasionally our territoriality is expressed in an angry response to losing our parking spot or place in the queue or even our legal rights, but in our daily lives, the part of our territory most likely to be threatened is that which we believe to be true and we hold to be right. Our territory has become much more that of our moral and ethical systems. More than anything else, our truths and values tell us who we are. This is the territory of our identity, individuality and integrity and we will go to great lengths to preserve it.
I propose happiness depends on our ability to stay securely liked and loved while simultaneously marking out and if necessary defending the territory of our beliefs. In short, we need the skills to define our individuality and to get as much of our own way as possible while preserving the warmth of our relationships. We all try to win and there's nothing wrong with that, but there are good and not so good ways to go about it. Even if we do win an argument or get things to go our way, if no one likes us, we won't be all that happy with the outcome. We are not really serving our own interests if people see us as selfish, nasty or aggressive as we pursue our own ends.
Happy, healthy people prefer to respect the territory of others, be it physical space or ethical values, but everybody is competitive, so put two people together and eventually there will be an argument. Then you will need how to assert yourself effectively and that's what this little book is about.
Arguing can be fun when there is no aggression; just healthy competition between people who like and respect each other. Then we call it debating or good conversation. Once anger creeps in, the pleasure disappears.
Anger is an animal's response to territorial threat. Dogs do it and so do we. If you feel you've been belittled or trespassed upon, you'll feel angry, which has the potential to drive aggression or even violence, sometimes turning defence into attack. When this happens, we say somebody is threatened or being defensive.
An argument is bad when someone's anger drives behaviour designed to win, even at the cost of hurting somebody else. The amount of anger in an argument will be decided by three things:
1. The relationship
The nature of the relationship between two people decides the expectations each has of the other. The closer you are, the more a difference will seem like distance. Similarity of attitude is a major factor in a love relationship and difference feels like rejection. The same difference between you and a work colleague should generally provoke less emotion than between you and your lover, although there is still plenty of ferocious bullying at work.
2. The difference
If an argument is over moral or ethical issues and the more you feel the other person's view violates your sense of what is not merely accurate, but proper and right according to your principles, the angrier you are likely to become. A position that appears to debase your moral, political or religious position, will feel like an attack on the essence of who you are. Then you more or less have to argue, because if you don't fight back, you'll feel as if you are nothing.
The emotional security, that is the self-esteem of the individuals who are disagreeing, plays a huge part in deciding how bad an argument will be. Because like attracts like, people with high self-esteem will tend to hang with people with an equally good self-esteem and so their arguments will be less frequent and less angry. When two people have a poor self-esteem, in effect this means a greater ease with which they interpret a difference as a rejection or a putdown. The less you like yourself, the more fights you will have. The more you like yourself, the more tolerant you will be of difference and the easier it is to treat the relationship as being more important than the issue.
Over the next couple of months, I shall enlarge on arguing and the best approaches to something we should all dislike, all do and probably all need to do.
EXPECTATIONS are dangerous things. It's far easier and actually much better to live your life in hope rather than in expectation. The only expectations you should really have are of yourself and even then you need to go easy and learn to be a bit forgiving.
"I have high expectations of myself and high expectations of other people." paraphrases as "I am a controlling pain-in-the-arse who makes myself and everybody else miserable." If you put your high expectations on your children, you risk producing either a depressive or a delinquent. If you expect things of people and they fail, you will be angry; if you hope for something, all that happens is you are disappointed. Both emotions are unpleasant, but at least disappointment does less harm to relationships than anger and so ultimately less harm to yourself.
If your self-esteem is low, there is every chance you have excessively high expectations of yourself. In reality, these are your expectations of other people's expectations of you. There are the standard of intelligence, looks or achievement you believe other people think you should achieve to be accepted by them. In the unlikely event of your ever meeting any of your expectations, you would only set the bar higher, because the achievement or the looks or whatever are not the goal that you are really after, it is a certainty of acceptance. Thus irrespective of how well you do, by pursuing perfection to feel sufficiently good about yourself to feel securely loved, you are on an unending quest.
Perfectionism is another word for high expectations. Unfortunately, it is very easy to look at other people and the less well we know them, the easier it is to see they have achieved as we wish we could. The only conclusion that can possibly spring from this is that we are in some way inferior. The perfectionist is never seriously trying or even hoping to be perfect, simply trying to be good enough to feel safe. When you hear yourself saying of someone "He thinks he's perfect" you couldn't be further from the truth.
The happy truth is that it is not hard to be accepted by other people. We are much more likely to be rejected for the things we do to try to protect themselves against rejection than for simply being who we are. "Why can't I be accepted for myself?" Answer: you can.
Happiness. Ah yes, happiness. The final goal. Something we are all pursuing in our own way, although sometimes when you look at the things people do, one might be excused for wondering just how serious they are about being happy. In practice, everybody is acting perfectly logically within his own truth. People who jump off very high buildings with the thrilling possibility their parachute might not open, or those who choose to half-strangle themselves to improve the quality of their orgasm, are still pursuing something they feel will contribute to happiness. Happiness is everyone's destination of choice, but many roads would seem to lead there.
Clearly excitement plays a big part in happiness, so sex is in there for most of us. Happiness can be extracted from all sorts of achievement; making money, competing physically or intellectually, being awarded a Nobel Prize or merely getting your overdue e-mails answered. These experiences may crystallise into happiness in their doing, but each is insufficient in itself. Happiness requires something else. Happiness needs to be constructed on a foundation of contentment with oneself. While children, like lambs in the spring sunshine, seem to find joy in mere existence, adult happiness must start with an absence of unhappiness.
If you were willing to agree with this, a psychiatrist might be an appropriate person to talk to about happiness. With every person I see in my consulting room, I'm trying to help them toward happiness. To do this they must first find the bedrock of contentment, which is only possible in the presence of a minimum of the three, primary, negative emotions: anxiety, anger and despair. Too great an intrusion by these feelings and the very best and most exciting of experiences only offer the briefest experience of happiness.
Without question, a sad, angry and anxious person can have moments of happiness, provided the reward of the moment is big enough. Thus it's possible for just about anybody to experience happiness for a brief period, but happiness must surely be measured by its duration rather than solely by its intensity. I suspect someone who uses cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine has moments of much greater happiness than a non-user could ever hope to achieve, yet not too many would see drug users as happy people.
To be happy in a lasting way requires you to be happy with yourself. If you're hungry, thirsty, cold or your life is in danger, clearly you're not happy, but we are capable of being unhappy in the absence of any such threat. Assuming there is no obvious physical danger, I propose there are only two things that make us unhappy. Rejection or loss of love being one, belittlement and powerlessness being the other. These fears have their evolutionary origins in survival of the fittest. An animal finding itself alienated from the herd is either killed by others of its kind or expelled to be inevitably eaten by a predator. Our ancestors could not have survived if they hadn't belonged; now it feels as if we are going to die if we are rejected. The sense of panic while speaking in public or the anxiety asking someone attractive for a date have ancient precedents. Our fear of being powerless and put down has its origin in another ancestral necessity for survival. Eating, mating and protecting young required the power to control territory. Today, without the skills for asserting ourselves and preserving our integrity, inevitably we feel small, worthless and resentful.
The absence of unhappiness, which is the first requirement for happiness, needs no more than the opposite of those experiences that make us unhappy. To be happy we require a sense of belonging, love and intimacy, in a setting of dignity and a sense of sufficient control to mark out our own patch as individuals. Once these primary needs are satisfied, leaping off a cliff edge with a parachute is unlikely to be either more or less pleasurable, but risk-taking might become a little less of an emotional obligation.
I feel it is safe to say we all have a capacity for happiness, but we must meet the first requirement, which is to not be unhappy. On this foundation we need only a level of material wealth roughly equal to our peers and a sense of community and intimacy and we can be happy. Once this is established, we can extend our happiness with striving and achievement. Then money can buy more happiness, but only more happiness, not the original article.
29/07/2011 LOVE AND SPONTANEITY
Love is an ever recurring topic in my consulting room. I can't imagine just how many possible variations on the theme I would discuss in a year.
My last blog went a little against conventional wisdom, suggesting you should look for perfection in love. You can have a fine relationship if you have never found those moments of perfection, but if they havn't ever surfaced you may be more prone to restlessness or to wonder what's it all about. Obviously to expect your partner to be perfect is quite different and guarantees disaster; I'm talking of moments of perfection that you find for yourself, those when you can look at her and feel all is right with the world.
Another issue is that of spontaneity. Spontaneity is a lovely idea, but is something of a myth. If you expect the bluebird of happiness to suddenly land on your shoulder, triggering unplanned words and acts of enduring love, you have probably been smoking something illegal. Worse still, if you wait, expecting yourself to produce spontaneous acts of love before you are convinced you are in love, you will wait forever.
Spontaneity is something that needs to be faked. You need to choose when and where to be spontaneous, plan it carefully and execute is artfully. Kissing your partner on the back of the neck or putting your arms around her when she is not expecting your touch needs to be a deliberately chosen act of love, even when at that moment there is not a bluebird in sight. The art lies in faking the spontaneity of love; these are loving acts that consolidate relationships and strengthen feelings of love. Stealing from the well-known playwright of Stratford, fake spontaneity is twice blessed, blessing him that gives and she who receives. This is not faking love and really requires very little effort. It is no violation of your principles, even if the behaviour of the moment is not inevitably the feeling of the moment. This is being perfectly true to yourself; totally different from faking love itself.
If you ever choose to read An Intelligent Life, you will see I propose that what you do is what you are. If you want to feel something, especially something positive, you need to choose the behaviour first in the hope of finding the feeling. If you wait for the feeling before you act, you will do nothing, feel nothing and probably be nothing.
10/07/2011 OCCASIONAL OBSERVATIONS OF A PSYCHIATRIST
I plan to comment on some of the issues that arise during the week in my
Mostly I'm going to talk about dangers, pains and losses; not because I'm irreversibly negative, but these are the issues that occupy people's minds. Good news looks after itself and certainly doesn't need a psychiatrist. Bad news needs more attention, simply because survival of the fittest programs us to look out for danger. Smelling the roses and enjoying them is easiest if you are reasonably sure there are no tigers around.
Unfortunately human thought, misunderstanding and imagination can create tigers where none exist. A psychiatrist's job is to help corrall those tigers through understanding and behavioural change. For this reason I intend to offer the ideas I have put before people which have elicited a response of understanding, that has in turn driven an improvement in emotional functioning. I intend to offer plenty of direct advice, for which I'm willing to take responsibility, so there will be plenty of 'musts' and 'shoulds'
Having said this, my next comment is actually quite positive.
I spend a great deal of my time talking about love. Mostly it's boy girl love, very frequently it's parent and child. It's always about feeling not loved enough, because we are always looking for love and always afraid of its loss. One way or another, relationships are everything.Last week, someone was musing about love and whether she could know if she were really in love. She made the commonly accepted observation that you shouldn't look for perfection if you're looking for love. I think this is a half-truth. I think you should look for perfection. I think perfection is an absolute requirement for love, but I think people tend to misunderstand. Of course you can't look for perfection all the time; no one is going to match exactly your values and needs every hour of every day, but there must be moments of perfection, otherwise you're not in love. There must be those times when you look at your partner and know that he or she is just wonderful; the person you want and with whom you want to be forever. You must have these moments to be truly in love.
To be in love you must find momentary perfection, because those moments keep you in love through the times that aren't quite so great.