A Thousand Feelings a Day

May 20th, 2015

FeelingsAs a therapist, I sometimes find a new phrase to describe some concept of psychology creeping into my vocabulary. My latest is that we have “a thousand feelings a day.” This first came up when I was working with a client on the concept of boundaries in relationship, especially the idea that we can’t protect a loved one from having feelings. I basically said, “You’re partner is already having a thousand feelings a day. Why are you working so hard to prevent them from having one more?”

There’s a natural tendency in relationships to care about the feelings of another. And that’s very much a good thing. We should definitely strive to treat our loved ones with kindness, respect and a consideration for their feelings. The problem arises when we start turning ourselves into a pretzel in response to that caring. The classic example for this is when someone avoids¬†telling a partner that they want something different in the relationship, but they don’t say it because they don’t want their partner to feel guilty, uncomfortable, pressured, not good enough, etc. Let’s say someone wants something different sexually. If they carry on wanting it and not saying anything about that for fear of how it will make their partner feel, little by little, resentment creeps in. So does a sense of inauthenticity. If we’re hiding what we want sexually from our partner, we’re not being fully present during sex. And that leads to a¬†lack of connection. And all because we’re trying to prevent our partner from having a feeling, a feeling he or she has probably already had several times every day for a lifetime.

I also think this concept applies to how we turn ourselves inside out to avoid having certain feelings ourselves. This is, to some degree, what’s behind addictions and other self destructive behavior. Human beings will go to extreme lengths to avoid certain feelings, and yet those very same feelings exist and come up all the time anyway, no matter what we do.¬†It is, essentially, an illusion that we can prevent feelings because we really do have a thousand feelings a day, and probably more, given how many we have at any given moment. We are feeling creatures, and it’s the work of a lifetime to get comfortable with and to learn how to accept, work with and manage those feelings. Try starting with my new mantra – “I already have a thousand feelings a day. What’s one more?”

Self talk and your given name

April 29th, 2015

You may have heard before about the value of talking to yourself. It’s a way to work through feelings, redirect thoughts and find your center. I recently discovered a small but telling twist on this classic self regulation technique, and that is to use your given name when you talk to yourself. Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan Emotion and Self Control Laboratory has done a series of experiments that show how the brain responds more positively¬†to self talk when we use our name. To be clear about what I mean, I’ll give you an example of something I might say to myself entering into a social situation, let’s say a party at the home of a new friend, where I’m going to meet a bunch of people I don’t know. Like many people, those kinds of situations make me a little anxious. Okay, sometimes¬†a lot anxious. If I were to use this new technique, I might say to myself, “Sara, just remember, no one is going to be watching you like a hawk to see if you say something embarrassing. Other people are a little nervous meeting someone new. Sara, you know if you just do a little preparation, just review a couple of normal conversation starters in your mind before you go, you’ll be a lot more comfortable. And Sara, just remember to be curious about the people you’re talking to. If you’re focused on being curious, you’ll be a lot less focused on whether you look or sound nervous.”

Now, I could say the same things to myself without this awkward, pompous sounding third person angle. I sure would feel a lot less silly! But it turns out that once we start using our own name, even in the privacy of our own minds, we switch to a more objective, less emotional stance. The easiest way to understand this is to think about how you can give a friend excellent advice that you might have trouble giving, or following, yourself. When it’s not about you, you see more clearly, you’re less swept away by emotion, and you can see more options.

It turns out this isn’t just a nice idea. Kross and Jason Moser at Michigan State University used functional MRIs of the brain to look at what happens on a neurological level when we make the switch to using our names. It turns out that our brain lights up just like it does when we’re talking to a friend. Sure, we know on an intellectual level that we’re not talking to a friend, but apparently, our brain doesn’t make that distinction. You used a name, so you must be talking to someone else. Think of the millions of times in the course of our¬†lives we’ve used someone else’s name in conversation. When you consider how repetition makes patterns in the brain stronger, then we’ve all got a lifetime of wiring that insists that once we’re using that name, we’re talking to someone else. This is basically a sweet neurological loophole that we can use to our benefit. So go ahead and embrace your inner megalomaniac and refer to yourself in the third person when you do your self talk and see what kind of difference it can make.

Are You Flexible?

January 22nd, 2015

We all know that one way to avoid physical injury is to be reasonably flexible. How many times have you been told by a gym teacher, a physical therapist, a fellow athlete, an athletic friend that you really should be stretching out? My guess is what you¬†haven’t been told is that mental and behavioral flexibility are just as big a part of your mental health as physical flexibility is part of your physical health.

I think what captures this concept best is the old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” If something isn’t working in your life, whether it be a relationship, a job, or something about your health, chances are you’re going to have to make some kind of change to get a different result from what you’re getting now. And you get to that change through mental and behavioral flexibility.

Mental flexibility is the ability to truly consider new information and ideas. One example of this I see a lot is how people are stuck on the belief that the only way they can change careers is to go through all the time, effort and expense of getting a college degree in what they want to do. Sure, that’s one way to do it, but it turns out there are other ways as well. A person could stay in the same painfully stressful and unrewarding career, which is taking an ever increasing toll on their mood and general happiness, because they’re unwilling to look into a different idea of how to change careers. Another example of mental flexibility is considering another’s opinion of how to do something. We may think we’ve come up with the best way to mow the grass, or load the dishwasher, or deal with a two year old’s tantrums, but there might be another idea out there that could work even better, which might make our lives a little, or sometimes even a lot easier. When a person has difficulty with this kind of mental flexibility, they often have tension in their relationships. This is the person who will fight to the death with their partner, or neighbor, or boss, defending their way of doing things. The people in their lives are often frustrated with them and feel that their point of view, and therefore they themselves, are not valued.

Behavioral flexibility tends to spring out of mental flexibility. If you’re willing to consider new information and points of view quite seriously, chances are you’re willing to actually¬†do something new. ¬†Let’s take the example of the tantruming two year old. You may already know that ignoring the tantrum might work. But did you also know that moving toward your child, offering comfort and empathic words might work as well? You’re going to have a better relationship with your two year old, and whole lot less stress, if you have more than one tool in your tool box to resolve tantrums. That’s because what works one day or one time with a child might not work the next. You need options, different things to try. If you stick only to what you read in one book, or to what your mother told you, you miss out on the chance to nip some of those tantrums in the bud.¬†When we respond flexibly, we quite simply run our lives better, and when our lives go better, our mental health is better.

The great enemy of mental and behavioral flexibility is fear. Fear of change, of getting it wrong, fear of risk, fear of rejection. We all have a natural tendency to seek stability and avoid change as a way to stay safe. And our animal brains prize safety above all else. The trouble is, we aren’t just animals. We also have very complex mental and emotional lives. We need things like satisfying, relatively low conflict relationships, non-toxic jobs, adventure, stimulation and self esteem. All of that requires flexibility.

Now, as to how to get it. Here are some questions I encourage you to ask yourself to enhance your flexibility:

1. When someone tells me a different way of doing something, do I really stop and consider it? At least some of the time, do I give it a try, just to see?

2. Do I really try to consider that another person’s opinions, political beliefs or spiritual beliefs might have some merit if I understood them better? Do I ever really take a bit of effort to try to understand them better?

3. Have I really looked into this issue? Whether it be how best to mow the lawn, change careers or deal with the terrible twos, have I read up on it? Gone to a class? Asked a friend or family member their thoughts?

4. Do people often refer to me as stubborn or set in my ways? Sorry, all you folks that take pride in such traits, but I can guarantee there are some problems in your life related to those tendencies and you’re less happy than your more flexible friends and relatives. If you don’t think that’s true, I hazard to say it’s because you’re sticking rigidly to your opinion. Science does not bear you out on this.

5. How often am I in conflict with others? If the answer is “pretty often,” chances are you need to work on your flexibility.

6. Am I really willing to let someone else have their own way even when I don’t agree with what they want to do? Give it a try. You’ll probably find that in most cases, no disaster results.

7. Ask yourself, “How big of a risk,¬†really, is it to try this new thing?” Make a list of what you fear will happen, then put that list on trial. Cross exam it.

8. Are you willing to make a habit of trying new things from time to time? Try giving yourself a challenge to consider or try at least once new thing a week. It can be as simple as trying a new TV show, or a new way to make oatmeal, or a new way to drive to work or as complex as reading an article from a commentator you know doesn’t hold your political beliefs and looking for that tiny grain of truth or little bit of overlap with your own experience or beliefs.

If you look into this idea of flexibility and decide you could use some work on that score, you might want to take a closer look at what you fear and work on how you can become less anxious about those things, or perhaps simply manage the anxiety better. If you make even just a little bit of a habit to challenge yourself to be more flexible, I think you’ll find there’s a pay off.

Observing the holidays

November 25th, 2014

cornucopia2We’re heading into the holiday season, which can include a certain amount of family tension along with family fun. In some families there is, unfortunately, much more of the former than the latter. Far too many people have negative memories of the holidays, of fighting, too much drinking and even violence that lead them to carry the tensions of the past with them into the current festivities. Then there’s the all ¬†family dynamics that come out to play when everybody’s together. I’d like to suggest that one tool that can really help navigate these choppy holiday waters is observation. Read the rest of this entry »

Time and the timer

October 22nd, 2014

Office Clocks Showing Different TimesLike so many people, I often have the feeling that there’s just not enough time in the day to do all things I want and need to do. Recently, I’ve discovered something that has literally created time. No, it’s not a physics breakthrough that allows me to alter the space-time continuum. It’s a timer.¬†My discovery of the timer as my new best friend started when I read an article about the stress of not having enough time. One of the things it suggested was to really pay attention to how much time you spend online. Now, I consider myself pretty moderate in my internet usage. Initially, my thought was, “Hey, I’m not that bad when it comes to computer time.” Then it occurred to me to check out how much time I really was spending, say on my morning online routine of reading the paper, checking email, and surfing random stuff. I got out my handy little smartphone, which has a timer, and started timing it. I was shocked at the results. I was definitely spending more time than I thought. I have suggested that people with ADHD/ADD use a timer to help them focus on and complete tasks in small, manageable chunks. I decided to use a timer in much the same way when it came to my internet usage. I decided, for example, that 30 minutes in the morning was a reasonable time to spend on the internet. I set my phone timer for 30 minutes, and stopped when the alarm went off. Lo and behold, more time! Less rushing! Less stress! Having gotten smug in my success, I tried not using the timer because now I knew what amount of time was the right time. Lo and behold, there was cheating! Forgetting! Having and hour and a half go by and not knowing how it happened! Something about having that little timer go off, having to reach over and punch the button to make it stop, causes me to be mindful about what I’m doing and increases my self control when it comes to ending a session online. Either that or, like Pavlov’s dog, I’ve trained myself to the bell. Either way, I have more time. Do you need more time in your life? Is there something you should put on a timer? TV watching? Time of Facebook? Internet surfing? Play with a timer and see if you get the same magical results I got: Luscious, glorious, sometimes even spacious amounts of time.

Practice Out Loud

August 26th, 2014

I still remember the day I discovered the power of out loud practicing when it comes to assertiveness in difficult conversations. As is so often true, I learned it with the help of a client. I was working with an extraordinarily nice man who was in a very unrewarding, borderline emotionally abusive relationship. He was having great difficulty pulling the trigger on breaking up, which he knew he wanted and needed to do. Something about the idea of having that very difficult conversation, where his girlfriend might be hurt, might cry, might be angry and blaming, had him stopped cold. No matter how many ways we discussed how that conversation might go, what was behind his reluctance in terms of family of origin issues, he just couldn’t get over that final hump and do it. I was wracking my brains, trying to think of something new to try, when it occurred to me to do some good old fashioned psychodrama – acting the scene out in session.¬† Read the rest of this entry »

One Conversation is Seldom Enough

August 6th, 2014

People arguingThere are certain things that I find myself saying as a therapist over and over, and this is one of them: When it comes to resolving the more difficult, emotional and perennial issues in relationships, it’s important to keep in mind that one conversation on the matter is seldom enough. This is the case because, no matter how logical we think we’re being, when it comes to discussing things we really care about, emotions will be involved. And when emotions are involved, logic, listening and creative problem solving tend to get at least partially eclipsed. This means it can take a while to wade through the emotions that come up in the course of such conversations to get at what we really think, feel and want. Read the rest of this entry »

Too good at suffering

July 30th, 2014

Some people are good at suffering. Too good. A person can have a lot of stamina, a perseverance in the face of difficulty and pain that is inspiring, but there can be a troubling flip side to this kind of strength, which is the tendency to put off making needed change. I’ve seen this over and over with regards to relationships and job situations. If you’re quite good at suffering, if you regard persistent difficulty as a normal part of life, you’re likely to stay in the same dysfunctional relationship or job for years. Behind this particular skill is usually a history where the person has grown up with some kind of consistent problem over which they had no control due to being a child. Read the rest of this entry »

Mood management: Turning around the boat

July 21st, 2014

Cruise ShipIf you’ve ever been my client, you’ve probably been subjected to the boat analogy when it comes to managing ¬†moods. Even if you’ve heard it before, it bears repeating because we all need that repetition to get something into our brains in such a way that we have some hope of remembering it when we need it. It goes like this: We all have the ability to affect our moods and feelings. We’re not stuck feeling anxious, depressed, hopeless or scattered. This is the good news, the converse to the bad news that we can’t prevent feelings from occurring. Changing our mood is like turning the boat we’re on in another direction, a more positive direction. So how do we accomplish that? Read the rest of this entry »

Boundaries in relationships – the Bucket Method

July 2nd, 2014

BucketMost of us have been there, in that place where the troubles of a loved one have intruded so much into our lives that we long to stop thinking about it, stop feeling about it, and stop trying to solve it. If this happens to you a lot, you may be one of those people whose empathic nature gets them into trouble. You end up as much or more stressed about the problems in the lives of others as you are about your own struggles. This is a tricky issue because it’s completely natural to care deeply about the people we love and to be invested in how their lives are going. At the same time, going through anxiety, depression, or simply a constant nagging worry on behalf of another isn’t exactly putting you in the best state to be of help to anyone. So how do you find your balance in situations like these? What helps me is the Bucket Method. Read the rest of this entry »