How are you?

helloMany times a day we may walk past an acquaintance and say, “Hi, how are you?” The other person smiles, says, “good and you?” And we likely respond similarly. Are we both always good? That’s a rhetorical question of course. A few years ago I was taking a walk on my way for a cup of coffee. I encountered a parking attendant with whom I was familiar outside of a neighborhood restaurant I frequented. This gentleman and I had a number of engaging conversations in the past and so I asked the predictable, “How are you doing Jacques?” He smiled and said, “I can’t complain.” I smiled back and continued on my walk.

Moments later I had a thought. His answer might suggest two different things. Either Jacques has nothing to complain about or he literally couldn’t allow himself to complain, emphasis on the word, can’t. I wondered which was the case. In a few minutes, coffee now in hand, I reencountered him. I explained to him that I wasn’t sure if he meant all was well or that he was uncomfortable complaining. It took quite awhile to break through his resistance until he finally said, “I don’t share my struggles because no one would be interested.”

I explained to Jacques that when I asked how he was, I did care and truly wanted to know. When we greet one another and robotically inquire as to how we’re doing, without either party answering honestly, it becomes an exercise in inauthenticity. We act as uncaring strangers. We cut ourselves off from human interaction.  We can do much better than that. Jacque’s belief that no one would care is of course false. I did. It may be that many wouldn’t care, but why preclude those who might?

To be true to yourself, you need to be authentic. Without going into details, your answer might sound like, “I’ve had better days.” That opens the door to a genuine interaction. You never know what might evolve from that. But at the least, you’re being honest with yourself. It’s really important to be authentic no matter what you expect from another person.

 

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Living a Fear-Less Life

 

fearFear is a universal experience for virtually all of us. Perhaps there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as the Dalai Lama, but for the rest of us it’s part of life. The goal of living without any fear might be desirable, but somewhat naïve. What we should aim for is to reduce fear to its rightful place. Constant apprehension shouldn’t be a burden that we carry with us, day in and day out — moment in and moment out. So when I use the word fear-less I’m not proposing a life without fear, as that may be a stretch. But I am advocating living with less fear.

 

There are appropriate fears that are a warning signal that we are at risk and there’s something we need to pay attention to. If the road you’re driving on becomes icy, you want to be cautious. But you certainly don’t want to freeze up – as the road beneath you did. If you’re having chest pains it makes sense to seek assistance. If you’ve noticed you’ve gained weight and aren’t exercising, rather than fretting about your health, do something about it. If you’re noticing that your child isn’t thriving and feel afraid that there’s something wrong, seek help. You can choose not to let fear consume you.

 

There are some fears that go unspoken yet are common. One of three people will be eventually be diagnosed with cancer. Do many people feel apprehensive about this? Of course they do. That makes sense, but to carry a sense of dread around with you gets in your way of living well. Fears run a very wide range from apprehension about losing your job to not having enough savings to retire. From not be loved to having your lover leave you. From thinking others don’t like you to worrying about what you say and how you’ll be judged.

 

Changing your relationship with fear

For those who experience such excessive fears, there is a way out. Rather than focusing on the fear, look at your relationship with the worry. Fear, self-doubt and insecurity are not uncommon. But when you take these concerns and elevate them to the bull’s eye of your attention, you’re in trouble. You need to change your relationship with the fear. What do I mean by this curious statement?

 

Some people have a very strong affinity for fear; they actually seek it out. Their thoughts become habituated to looking for and focusing on what distresses them. So their minds develop a fixation as they paradoxically search for what causes them disharmony.When our thoughts perpetually attach to fear, it’s like carrying a lightening rod in a thunderstorm. What we look for we find. Anxiety is the consequence of our thoughts’ addictive relationship with fear.

 

 Fear doesn’t have a grip on you, but you have a grip on fear

The more you resist and try to ward off your fear, the larger it becomes. Think of it in the following way: What we resist we make more formidable. Imagine putting your arms out at full length in front of you as you try to hold back the fear. The irony is we actually embolden fear by trying to ward it off. Fear gets stronger when you resist it. Changing your relationship with fear means welcoming it in. Say to whatever is alarming you, “Come on in and let me have a look at you.” When we do this the fear tends to dissipate. Fear doesn’t have a grip on you, but you have a grip on fear. Loosen the grip. When you can see your relationship with the fear, you don’t have to become the fear.

In my next post I’ll be discussing how the need for certainty and our resistance to uncertainty contributes to our fears and anxiety.

 

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The 5% Rule — Breaking Through the Argument

 

failed communicationargumentEarly in my career as a therapist, I found myself feeling frustrated in my ability to assist a couple with whom I was working. They were tirelessly mired in argument and it was like watching a Ping-Pong ball being knocked back and forth, only no points were being won or lost. This kind of flailing about represents the low point in so many of our relationships. I was searching for a way to help them slow down and listen to each other – to get past their gridlock. In the midst of one session, I reflected for a moment on how I might approach their impasse differently. I’ve learned that when I pause, get out of my own way and set my intention for an insight, it often appears. This was such a moment.

It came in the form of my asking the husband, John, (I’ve changes their names of course to protect their confidentiality) “Can you try to find just a small percentage of what Barbara is saying that you might agree with? Let’s look for just 5% you can acknowledge, and temporarily suspend the 95% you’re sure she’s wrong about.”

I was asking John to go against the grain and act counter-intuitively by neither defending himself nor trying to score a point. I explained to John that he wasn’t pleading guilty or surrendering, the goal was simply to establish a repartee so that they could hear each other. He finally managed to affirm one of his wife’s complaints and took ownership of a particular action.

I noticed that Barbara barely paused, as she was about to go right back into the argument. I raised my hand gently, suggesting to her that she reflect for a moment about how it felt to be at least partially validated. Somewhat begrudgingly she offered, “I appreciate your caring about my feelings and seeing that you did hurt me.” I then asked Barbara to validate some part of John’s issues with her and as she did so, they began to turn the corner. Their energy began to shift. A new technique was born for me—one that I now call “The 5% Rule.”

Even if you disagree with the vast majority of what you are hearing from the other person, you can ordinarily find some small content that you can acknowledge. We typically marginalize if not ignore this part because our automatic default is grounded in the right vs. wrong battle. Out thoughts seek to refute rather than confirm. Even though we say we care about each other we don’t act lovingly.

If we break free from the insane goal of winning an argument and try to find something in what the other person is saying that we might concur with, the results can be astonishing. After all, if you need to “win” that means the other person must “lose.” How do you think that works out in relationships?

Once your partner feels heard and moreover affirmed, he or she may be in a far better position to take in what you have to say. Timing is essential here. You cannot just say, “Yes, but…” That is part of the process of invalidating. Instead, affirm something, pause, and let the conciliatory spirit fill the space that would otherwise be occupied by the noisy back and forth of argumentation. That shift now becomes fertile ground for a meaningful transition and constructive exchange. If you rush to reframe or assert your own position, your affirmation appears disingenuous.

Affirming the 5% in no way means that you have to abandon your position regarding the 95% with which you disagree. You have simply laid the groundwork for the other to take in what you have to say. This process permits us to halt our addiction to being reactive and move toward being responsive. The success of this approach allows both parties to behave with compassion and empathy, cooperating rather than competing. The goal is not to win but to care. You can immediately apply the 5% Rule in your communications with others—whether it’s your intimate partner, a friend or relative or a business relationship.

Once you’ve found that small part of the other’s issues that you can validate, they’ll likely feel heard and may then open to what you have to say. What you want the other person to hear is very important! But you need to set the stage so to speak so they can take it in. From there a healthy communication might emerge. We must interrupt the compulsion to be right and our default to being reactive. When we react in an adversarial way without pausing to reflect we are just as the Ping-Pong ball. Our reactions –by definition — are not well considered or purposeful.

The 5% Rule is just the first of many steps on the road toward attaining excellent interpersonal skills. Developing these tools allow our relationships to prosper. Just as relationship skills and emotional intelligence ought to be core educational requirements, communication mastery should be the bedrock of any life that aspires to happiness, success, and fulfillment. It’s vital that we learn the necessary nuances and skills of communication so that our words may actually be heard.

 

Learn about Mel’s live, interactive online workshop — Mastering your Communication Skills: Breaking Through to the Other Side.

 

mel photo 3Mel Schwartz, LCSW MPhil is a psychotherapist, couples counselor, and author practicing in Westport, CT, Manhattan and globally by Skype. He earned his graduate degree from Columbia University. Mel’s approaches assist people in working through limitations, activating defining moments, and embracing life’s uncertainties. His methods strengthen communication, create resilient relationships, build authentic self-esteem, and enable us to overcome anxiety and depression. Mel has written The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion and the forthcoming The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love(Sounds True, Fall 2017). He’s authored 100+ articles – read by over 1 million readers – for Psychology Today and his blog, Illuminating the Possibilities. Mel works with clients globally via skype. He can be reached at Mel@melschwartz.com 
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Why Acting Strong is Actually Weak

authenticityarmourA troubling theme that I come across in my work as a therapist — and in my observation of people in general — is the belief that we should always act strong and hide our insecurities and fears. The damage perpetrated by this “common wisdom” is incalculable. It decimates true self-esteem and damages our relationships.

Acting strong is acting. When we act or pretend to be different than who we truly are, we abandon our real self by putting on a mask. We do this in an attempt to control what we hope others will think of us. So we manipulate and camouflage our self as we seek the approval of others, or at the least try to avoid their disapproval. This sets up our primary betrayal of our genuine self.

Authentic self-esteem is derived from our relationship with our own self. If we contort our personality to seek recognition or approval from others we’re pursuing what I call other-esteem. This is other-esteem because it doesn’t come from within, but is sought from outside of us. We’re trying to feel better about ourselves by being disingenuous. How do you think that’s going to work out? The more we do this, the further we move from genuine self-esteem. This is the opposite of what we should be doing. We should be embracing our vulnerability.

What do I mean by vulnerable? For me the word vulnerable doesn’t elicit weakness, but openness. Don’t construe vulnerable to mean fragile. As humans we all experience vulnerable feelings like insecurity, doubt and fear. In moderation these are common emotions. But due to our misinformed cultural meta-narrative that demands the appearance of strength we decide to hide these feelings from one another. So we live out our lives falsely thinking that our shortcomings or self-doubts are unique to us. The sad irony is that those same individuals whose opinions we are so worried about are very likely doing the same thing. So the vast majority of people are disempowering themselves, thinking that others are more confident and secure. This tragic myth terribly limits our lives. On another note, the more you can embrace your insecurities, the sooner you’ll move past them. Hiding them cements them into your being whereas allowing them to surface tends to dissipate what you’ve been trying to hide.

Hiding our true self from others makes is what makes us fragile. Being yourself makes you strong. When I encourage this transition people may ask, “but what will they think of me?” How will I be seen? This is a common concern for people who grapple with revealing their genuine self. I’d offer that I want to be seen — as I truly am — as my authentic self. This is the path to a powerful self-esteem.

When we accept our vulnerability we have nothing to hide from others and this in turn makes us genuinely powerful. The key to a resilient self-esteem is found by embracing your vulnerability – your fears and insecurities. In doing so, you liberate yourself from setting up others as your judge, as you have nothing to hide. You must embrace your vulnerability to attain inner strength.

Who is my judge? Why is it more important to us what someone else thinks of us than what we think of ourselves? When we subordinate our self worth by setting up another person as our judge, we perpetuate emotional abuse on ourselves. Other people aren’t your judge so why appoint them that power? Everyone has opinions for sure, but to elevate someone’s opinions to the power of a judgment is both irrational and without merit. What you’re doing is judging yourself and then projecting that power of judgment on to someone else. I’m found of saying that the only person who has the right to literally judge me wears a long black robe and presides in a courthouse.

For relationships to thrive we must experience emotional intimacy. What I mean by this term is a transparent and safe sharing of our feelings. When we obscure feelings that we think will be criticized or scrutinized we block emotional intimacy.

We all just want to be loved, but to be loved you need to be lovable. Most of us struggle in actually being lovable. When you need to act strong you’ve erected a defensive wall that doesn’t allow others in. You become impenetrable and therefore, unlovable. Vulnerability – openness — is most often seen as lovable. In my work with couples and families, when someone expresses their softer vulnerable feelings, others not only listen, they care.

Isn’t it insane that we hide the very qualities that could have us feel validated, affirmed and loved? Embracing rather than hiding from our vulnerability makes us authentic and powerful. It suggests that we accept and value ourselves as we are, without fear of what we think others may think of us. We’ve been clearly playing from the wrong game plan.

My forthcoming book, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love (Fall 2017, Sounds True) will provide more detail on this subject. Please enjoy many other similar posts on this topic found here on this blog.

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Falling In and Out – and Back – in Love

falling in and out of loveThe experience of falling in love is truly a thing of marvel. It’s a remarkable and incomparable feeling. Time seems altered and our senses become fervently alive. Each moment has meaning and intent. This is a peak moment in life. Yet, sadly over time we tend to fall out of love as easily as we fall in love. We may say that we still love one another but we’re not in love. Let’s explore why this occurs and what this phenomenon is that we call love. Read more

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Raising Resilient Children

Resilient ChildAs parents, no matter how devoted and nurturing we may be, our children often struggle with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and a host of other challenges. Some of these disturbances are simply life experiences that they may regrettably have to experience. Our goal is to feel confident that they will overcome these obstacles and that our kids will even grow stronger for that success. To achieve that end, we need to provide them with the skills to be resilient, to bounce back from these assaults on their wellbeing and ultimately to thrive in their lives. We can provide them with the foundation to do so if we rethink our relationship with them. If our best intentions are not producing the expected results, we need to examine our operating beliefs. We may be playing from the wrong game plan.

We’re typically comfortable sharing our strengths, values, and ideals with our offspring. We assume that doing so will enable them to follow our guidance and propel them in the right direction. But the tendency for many parents is to openly share their positive attributes but withhold the personal history of their life’s struggles and upsets. We may say that they don’t want to burden our children with our problems – past or present. Or we simply don’t want to present ourselves in a way that is inconsistent with what we try to model. Ironically, when we share only the good with our children, we deprive them of a realistic expectation and preparation for what likely lies ahead.

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Self Esteem or Other Esteem?

woman-low-self-esteemIn my previous article, Self-Esteem: A Missed Diagnosis, I proposed that a devaluation of one’s self lies at the heart of most psychological and emotional disorders. Let’s now explore more deeply what the term self-esteem denotes and come to appreciate what we mean by it as well as what gets in our way of attaining it.

I have come to believe that the way the term self-esteem is used is actually a misnomer. The first half of the expression, self, would seem to indicate that esteem, the second half of the expression, is derived from one’s self. Yet if we look closer, we find that most people seek a sense of worthiness from that which lies outside of them. For a student, it might come from good grades; for a businessperson or worker, it’s derived from a promotion or a raise; and for most individuals, praise or acknowledgement provide a temporary increase in esteem. Our society generates billions of dollars in revenues from inducing people to seek the quick fix of vanity as a means toward feeling better. Yet none of these actually contribute one iota to self-esteem. Ironically, they may even get in the way.

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Diagnosis Disorder

ADHDdrugsideeffects2I would like to propose a new disorder for the American Psychiatric Association to consider in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: that of confusing a diagnosis with being a real thing unto itself. A recent New York Times article from April 1, 2013, reported that one in every five high school boys and 11% of all children are diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

My contention is that nobody has ADHD, because it doesn’t exist. The acronym ADHD simply describes behaviors and conditions that may correspond with a diagnosis, which we created. As with all diagnoses, when we confuse the description with being an actual entity, we trick ourselves and exacerbate the problem.

A psychiatric diagnosis should be descriptive rather than a statement of an objective reality. It should therefore delineate tendencies of behavior and personality as well as emotional and psychological patterns that a clinician observes, which should thereby facilitate our understanding and treatment. The concept of reification refers to taking an abstract idea and turning it into a real thing. This is precisely what occurs with diagnoses. They take on a life of their own. Referred to as the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, mind creates something – in this case, ADHD – and then denies its own participation in having done so.

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A Radical Reality

To this day, quite possibly the most provocative, if not astounding, discovery of modern science remains relatively obscure to the general public. This is, perhaps, due to how greatly it shatters our myth of reality – and, subsequently, our understanding of how we picture reality operating. This startling new worldview has been too radical for us to feel comfortable truly considering. For if we did, it would compel us to drastically reframe our thinking and our lives. Yet, by doing so, our lives would likely become unburdened and flourish.

For the most part, we have envisioned reality based upon the themes that Sir Isaac Newton postulated back in the seventeenth century. Newton constructed a machine-like model of the world, which is comprised of separate and distinct objects, disconnected from one other, interacting only through cause and effect. This picture of reality, operating as a giant machine, shackles our lives like little else. The depiction is absent any scintilla of meaning or purpose, as we become the cogs in the machine, detached from one other and the universe at large. This image is also devoid of any sense of relatedness, as separation becomes the essence of the Newtonian worldview. This paradigm leaves us humans as strangers in a mechanical universe, whereby isolation is the primary motif. Epidemics of depression are the inevitable result of this scenario. From this filter we experience a vast array of struggle and malaise. Many of our ensuing challenges and conflicts can be derived from this misunderstanding of reality. Yet there is now ample evidence to drastically reconsider how we look at the bigger picture. Read more

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I’ll Be Happy When…

What is the source of happiness? We tend to assume that happiness will come from a future event. It typically depends upon something else happening. The script often reads like this:

I’ll be happy when… I fall in love.

I’ll be happy when… I get married.

I’ll be happy when… we can buy our dream house.

I’ll be happy when… we can furnish the house.

Still, the anticipated happiness is elusive so we tie it to more future events.

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