Change a Word—Change Your Life

 

Many years ago, I’d often fall into a recurring disagreement with my former wife. At bedtime I’d frequently find myself saying, “It’s hot in here.” She’d respond, “No it’s not, it’s cold. ‘’ This led to a frustrating mind-numbing back and forth that went nowhere.  It took me quite some time until I reached a breakthrough by simply saying, “I feel hot.” After all she couldn’t tell me I didn’t feel hot.

By removing the words, it is, I moved from making an objective statement to a subjective statement. This allowed me to shift from a battle over the truth into simply sharing my perception. Of course, that didn’t settle the issue around the thermostat, but nevertheless I felt some relief to get past that argument. I did, however get proactive about throwing the blanket off my side of the bed.

I remembered that exchange and started to focus on the importance of words. We pay very little attention to the words we express and don’t appreciate how profoundly they affect us and impact others.

Over the last 20 some odd years, in my work as a psychotherapist and communications consultant, I’ve devoted my attention to understanding what gets in the way of successful communications. I’ve learned that words matter very much. Our words either set the stage for others to be open and curious about what we say or defensive and reactive to what they hear.

Our words become the foundation of our relationship not only with others but they become a key ingredient in our relationship with ourselves.

 Our thoughts actually script our life experience. These thoughts impact us far more than anything else, more than our closest relationships. But what comprises our thoughts? Words.

When we string words together they become thoughts.  Some words in particular terribly limit us. I’m referring to the to be verbs. We can find them in virtually every sentence we speak. Recall the word is, in the battle over the room temperature?

The to be verbs are:

Are

Am

Is

Was

Be

Been

Being

So why do I see a problem with the to be verbs?  Let’s take a look.

 

Keeping us feeling stuck

Many verbs express movement and action. But the to be verbs have one element in common. They all connote a fixed, unchanging state. The to be verbs are all inert and static.

Think about them. None of these words capture a picture of change or flow. So, if words inform our thoughts and if we employ the to be verbs in virtually every thought, how can we feel anything but stuck? Let’s look at the word am.  “I am worthless,” or “I’m unlovable.”  These beliefs collapse into truths and become unchanging facts.  How can we envision and actualize change if our thoughts get stuck in an unchanging, inert picture of reality?

The to be verbs block new possibilities. They block movement.

 

It’s hard to change

Let’s look at the common refrain, “It’s hard to change.” Most people would agree with this belief. Of course, change will appear challenging when we our thoughts are cemented in words— the to be verbs— that preclude change.

Let’s look at what happens when we make this statement, “It’s hard to change,” without using to be verbs. You might say, “I struggle to change, or “It feels so hard for me to make change.” Or, “I’ve never succeeded in making change.” These statements still appear amenable to change. They speak to subjective perceptions. Change can happen when you shift from making an absolute statement of fact to one of perspective.

 

E -Prime

 The idea of speaking and writing without using to be verbs was introduced by Alfred Korzybsky in his groundbreaking book, Science and Sanity in 1933. He proposed that the to be verbs were relics of an old worldview; Newton’s 17th century mechanism. This classical view of reality depicted a machine-like universe comprised of objects, separate and distinct from one another. They appeared inert and fixed unless outside force was applied. We became these objects. The lack of connectivity seen in Newton’s reality, led to the ideal of objectivity. This construct of objectivity requires standing apart from what you observe; Newton’s theme of separation.

This picture of the universe presented a cold, austere machine-like reality. This looks like a very inhospitable place for humans to exist.  The to be verbs speak the language of the machine-like universe in that fixed objects and objectivity were accorded primacy. These words preclude movement, possibility and potentiality. And so once again, we see ourselves as stuck. This has an Immense and unimaginable impact on us.

At the time of Korzybski’s writing, the radical discoveries of quantum physics turned our notions of reality upside down. We came to learn that reality appeared radically different than what Newton had depicted. This emerging worldview described reality as perpetually flowing and bubbling with possibility, a virtual reality making process, with all parts inseparably connected with one another. Everything flowed as one inseparable whole. From this new worldview change no longer appears hard, it in fact seems inevitable.

The thesis of an objective reality became replaced by a participatory subjective reality. This new worldview looks very warm and friendly to humans, as human participation informs reality and we no longer see ourselves as disconnected objects. To access and benefit from this new vista of reality we need to alter our language since the to be verbs keep us stuck in 17th century reality. Korzybski urged that we speak and write without using to be verbs. He called this E-Prime language— the omission of to be verbs.

 When I became aware of this shift in language I began to utilize it as a transformative communications technique. During my years as a therapist I’ve come to see the remarkable progress many people have made when they learned to limit these verbs, particularly in challenging communications moments. Let’s look at more of the benefits.

 

 To be verbs keeps us stuck in victimhood

Our negative feelings and thoughts about ourselves become inveterate due to our use of to be. These verbs imprint their message on us as they keep us wedded to them. I recall working with a middle-aged woman who constantly insisted that she was stupid. She said, “I am stupid.” I asked, “How did you come to this belief.” She replied, “My dad often said that to me when I was a kid, so I’ve always felt stupid. I ruminated with her, “So maybe you “are” not stupid, but have always simply felt that way?” This exchange opened the door for her to reconsider this aspect of her identity. Is she always felt that way, she could open to changing how she felt. We shifted from objective reality to perceptually constructed truth.

Look at your negative beliefs about yourself. Notice the to be verb— surely, you’ll find it— and restate your belief without to be.

 I facilitated a self-esteem workshop a number of years ago when a man in the group shared his core self-worth problem. “I am nothing, I am empty.” Everyone felt stunned by his candid sharing. I ask him to restate without using the to be verb. He said, “I feel like nothing, I feel empty.” His expression shifted when he said this and he actually allowed himself a bit of a smile. I asked him why and he responded, “If these feelings I have change, then I can change.”

 To be verbs anchor us in feeling inert, powerless and as victims. They speak of objective truths rather than perceptions and feelings.

 

Getting past the fear of making mistakes

When we speak in E-Prime, it enables us to move beyond our fear of making mistakes. When you communicate from your subjective perception—the language of the new quantum worldview—you avoid the pitfall of right vs. wrong. When you say, “I think,” or “I feel,” you invite the other person into your experience.

 During a consulting gig I facilitated with a C-suite executive, she shared a bold and innovative perspective she had about a particular challenge the organization faced. When I asked her why she hadn’t shared this with her colleagues, she told me she felt intimidated about their judgment of her idea. I helped her craft the message by using E-Prime. “I have a thought I’d like to share about our problem…” or, “This may sound a bit out of the box but an approach occurred to me that we never considered before.” If you simply share your thoughts, perspectives or ideas in a subjective manner you move past the fear of mistakes or right vs. wrong.

 

Free from the dread of making a mistake or concern around the judgments of others invites all participants to share their thoughts and perspectives. This leads to generative dialogues as we can share our inner monologues with one another. This serves as a powerful tool for learning as we begin to think together. The art of thinking together and collaborating flourishes with E-Prime. This method applies to corporations, families, relationships, to all communications.

 

Relationships

I’ve witnessed how relationships become challenged and deteriorate when we share criticism of one another in an objective manner. Objective statements require to be verbs. Subjective statements avoid to be verbs.

 Nothing derails a conversation as quickly as, “You are wrong.” To verbalize these words assures that your thoughts and opinions will fall on deaf ears and go nowhere. The moment one utters, “You are wrong,” the other person reacts with defensiveness if not hostility. Shift into E-Prime and say, “I don’t see this the way you do,” or “Help me understand your point, I don’t see this the way you do.” This can open the door to a reasonable communication.

I recollect a particular moment in a couple’s session when a woman said to her husband, “You are so selfish.”  She expressed an objective statement. The air thickened as her husband prepared his defense and verbal assault upon her. I requested a time out and prepped her to share her feelings in E-Prime. Her subjective offering of “You seem so self-centered to me,” allowed her husband to inquire why she saw him that way. A purposeful dialogue ensued.

E-Prime allows us to take ownership of our thoughts and feelings rather than to blame ourselves or others. This opens us to dialogue compassion and empathy as we get past right vs wrong.

When you feel particularly challenged or anticipate a negative reaction to what you’re about to say try using E-Prime. Open your sentence with the words “I feel,” or “I think,” or “I’d like to share a thought or feeling with you.” You don’t need to be fanatical about this. Choosing particular moments to speak without using to be verbs allows you to move past feeling like stuck. It also opens the doorway to generative dialogue. It may feel awkward at first but when you invite in discomfort you grow and advance into new territory. You can hoist the anchor that’s kept you feeling stuck when you selectively choose to speak without to be verbs.

 To be verbs End possibilities. E-Prime opens the doorway to possibilities and shifts us from a stuck state of being into the process of becoming. We can then join in the flow of the universe that the new worldview describes when we unshackle ourselves from the words that imprison us.

Please note that all to be verbs in this article appear italicized for effect. This article was the topic of Mel’s TEDx Beacon Street talk at Fenway Park and was excerpted in part from his new book, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love.

 

 

 

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Breaking the Cycle of Negativity in Your Relationship

Too often, when we encounter challenges and conflict in our primary relationships we tend to spiral down very quickly. When we’re in this down cycle, rather than pausing to assess what’s happening, we tend to fall into a reactive debate around who is right or wrong. As we all know this non-rational instinct is ruinous and sets up a no win scenario. If I need to be right and that makes you wrong, how’s that going to work out? The more sensible goal is to try to turn the tide of the degenerative energy that you’re both experiencing.

In these conflicted downslides that we endure the competitive energy that befalls the couple makes them very antagonistic. To shift back into a healthy, collaborative and supportive experience simply requires a shift of mind. This shift is easy but counterintuitive; we must let go of our reactive impulses and quiet our mind.

If you want to re-enter the energy field of the initial romantic engagement or the caring friendship you once enjoyed, try to selflessly get into the other person’s shoes. Doing this doesn’t mean you’re abandoning your position; it simply means you’re trying to care about and validate the other person. You’re not pleading guilty but acting mindfully. If I try to appreciate and care about my upset partner’s point of view, I’m invoking a shift of energy.

Connecting empathically with your partner is the most powerful thing you can do in those troubling times. Doing so can turn the tide from a competitive—even emotionally or verbally abusive— exchange back into the loving energy field you once experienced. After all, it’s easy to say, “I love you,” but it’s far more important to be able to act lovingly when you’re feeling upset.

Another way of shifting the energy of your relationships is to express positive feelings. Once we’ve defaulted into negativity, it’s natural to get caught in a hostile loop. We succumb to having— and expressing— critical thoughts and feelings about each other. Negativity fills the space between the two of you. There are times in therapy sessions when individuals may share with me positive or appreciative feelings they felt about their partner, even when their relationship is troubled. If I ask, “Did you share that with them?” I rarely hear a yes. It makes no sense to acclimate to negativity and yet avoid sharing something positive.

As silly as it seems, we may feel awkward expressing kind thoughts and feelings. This is because we’ve gotten stuck in the groove of negativity, which only widens the gap. We may be holding back something positive so as not to give the other person a stronger hand— a sign that we’ve retreated to separate battle stations. Set a new intention: when you feel good about the other person, share it. This immediately shifts the energy and sets up a breakthrough potential.

In trying to reset the downward spiral of your relationship cycle, the common expression, “You can’t change another person,” appears plausible. When we are stuck and embattled, each party becomes more defensive. But from a differing perspective, if you alter some aspect of yourself as we’ve been discussing, your partner will be impacted. Change yourself and your partner is immediately impacted. Don’t try to win, try to understand. Find something you may agree with or some positive perception and the avalanche that is overwhelming you both may retreat. This sets up a new possibility for a fundamental shift about how you feel about each other.

This article was excerpted in part from Mel’s book, The Possibility Principle.

 

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Why We Suffer From Anxiety and How We Can Overcome It

In any given year approximately 40 million Americans will suffer from a debilitating encounter with anxiety. Over the course of your lifetime, there’s a 25% chance you’ll experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder. This is such a staggering rate of affliction. It appears we’ve adapted to a new norm—one of mass disquiet. We have become habituated to—and normalized—an epidemic of anxiety.

If 40 million people fell suddenly ill, The Center for Disease Control would be working overtime to find both the cause and the cure. As a culture, we only look superficially into the cause of anxiety and focus more on the treatment—typically management through medication. We need to do much better. As a practicing psychotherapist, I’ve been looking at why we are suffering in this way. It’s time we disrupt our complacency around our victimhood.

Stress is normal in our hurried lives. We can look at stress as a byproduct of our adapting to the challenges that confront us. Stress is the result of our deeper engagement with life that can lead to growth, new learning and productivity. But when stress turns into distress it impedes our ability to live well, to live joyfully. Distress calcifies into anxiety. So, the question is: why do we suffer from this avalanche of anxiety? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Anxiety— at its source— is due to our relationship with our thoughts. In particular these are the thoughts which are perpetually seeking certainty. We want to know what the future will bring, and what the consequences of our decisions will be. But that future is of course unknowable. And so, we become anxious as we try to ward off the unknown. This results in our not being in the flow of life as we try to hold back the future. Ask yourself, “What causes me distress and anxiety?” Does it have something to do with your uncertainty about the future, your fear around decision-making?

I had been working with a middle-aged woman who came to see around her anxiety regarding her future. She had been unhappily married for quite some time and shared that she and her husband had been unsuccessful in marital therapy. They had grown apart, were contentious and had little in common. She felt that her marriage was a drag on her life. Given that she had no children and was financially independent I inquired why she was opting to stay married. She said, “I don’t know who I’d be as a divorced woman.”

There it was. Her fear around the unknown—which offered her possible relief and new possibilities—kept her imprisoned with anxiety. She was actually choosing to stay miserably in the known rather than face the uncertainty of a different path—one that might have brought her joy. The question, “Who would I be?” froze her with fear.

We invite uncertainty into many aspects of our lives. We enjoy watching sports and movies because of the thrill of not knowing. But in our personal lives we become choked by predictability and certainty. Seeking predictability stunts our relationships, our curiosity and our greater engagement with life.

So how did we become so attached to needing to know the future in advance? I track the cause to the great 17th century scientist Isaac Newton. He instructed that if we had sufficient information—in today’s jargon we might call that data—we could reasonably predict the future. This became known as determinism. And we have become addicted to this way of thinking.

Determinism has benefited us in many ways, but at the extreme it’s led to much pathology. We live life as though we were playing a chess match. We sit back and calculate our next move. We might fret over whether our decision will be a “mistake.” We slice and dice and analyze the possible consequences of our decisions and we get frozen. We don’t move forward as this straitjacket of fear blocks our flow of life. If you feel anxious around decision making, you’re likely addicted to seeking predictability.

Here’s the good news! It turns out we’ve been living from the wrong game plan. Over the last hundred years quantum physics has revealed an astonishingly different picture of reality. Unlike Newton’s determinism, reality appears to be thoroughly uncertain and that’s actually good news. It seems that nothing is fixed or inert. The universe appears to be perpetually flowing and bubbling with potentiality, a virtual sea of possibilities.

We too can join into that new worldview. When we learn to reframe our relationship with uncertainty, we invite in new possibilities. Remember that what you resist you make more formidable. Paradoxically if you choose to welcome uncertainty it becomes your ally. When we welcome uncertainty and literally embrace it, we are in movement, joining in the flow of the universe. We are then able to navigate our life as it unfolds, in real time.

Think of it this way: Uncertainty = Possibility. If reality is uncertain and we continue to demand certainty we will dysfunction and anxiety will be the result. To embrace uncertainty, we must change our relationship with our thoughts. Try to notice your thoughts. What are they telling you? If you see your thoughts trying to predict the future, release the thought. It’s just a thought, you don’t need to become that thought. “In the nanosecond before your next thought, you exist in a state of pure potential.”

When you free yourself from the torrent of addictive thoughts seeking certainty, you join in the flow of your life and anxiety retreats. It turns out that the epidemic of anxiety is primarily due to living from an outmoded game plan for life. It’s time to embrace what we’ve been resisting and make uncertainty your ally. Uncertainty can become the wind in the sail of our change process.

 

Transcending Anxiety, Stress and Depression.

A 6 week Live Streaming Online Workshop. Starts Wed. March 7th


 

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Integrating your Intelligence and Intuition to Achieve Wisdom

 Intelligence and intuition are very different ways of knowing. We might think of them in opposing ways. Most people tend to default into operating from one or the other. Generally, men tend to value rational intelligence — notwithstanding that we often act completely insane and non-rationally— while women are inclined more toward the intuitive process.

To see where you stand on this spectrum, just reflect and ask yourself if you start your sentences with “I think” or “I feel?”

Ask yourself whether you more often say, I think” or “I feel.” The answer will tell you if you gravitate toward thinking or feeling, intellect or intuition. Once you identify the part that you’re not in touch with, set your intention to integrate it into your fuller being.

If you’re a thinker, ask yourself, “What do I feel?’ Conversely, if you identify with your feelings, ponder, “What am I thinking?”

Intuition speaks to a way of knowing that is immediate and independent of cognition. It doesn’t require rational analysis. And it runs much deeper and truer than a mere hunch.

Intelligence on the other hand is valued as an expression of logical and rational inquiry. First world cultures tend to value intelligence over intuition. We even developed a standard measure of intelligence; IQ.

But logic and analysis, the tools of rational intellect although valuable in many ways, can wreak destruction if they become the exclusive way of knowing. To grow in our complexity and be more evolved as humans we need both qualities, not merely one. One way of knowing at the expense of the other leaves us terribly incomplete.

When we blend intuition and intellect we can operate seamlessly and powerfully. Our communication opens up on a much more coherent level. This is particularly true between the genders, where we often feel like we’re speaking different languages. When one party speaks in logical language and the other is emotionally expressive, we can anticipate a derailment. A balance of masculine and feminine energy can be achieved by integrating the way of knowing that is foreign to you.

Combine both ways of knowing and you enter into the realm of wisdom

People who are oriented towards feeling may distrust their intellect. Those inclined towards thinking may devalue feelings. By integrating both thinking and feeling we can operate on a much more powerful and seamless level.

When we integrate thinking/feeling we deepen our understanding and appreciation of one another and develop the ability to tap into a lost art: wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to better perceive the unintended consequences of both our actions and inactions.

Being bound to one way of knowing, intelligence or intuition severely limits us. Think of mere intelligence as going through life with binoculars affixed to your eyes. You focus on what you’re looking at but miss the bigger picture. Living solely from intuition deprives us of the wondrous resources of your intelligence. Combine both ways of knowing and you enter into the realm of wisdom.

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Detoxing Your Mind

Many people participate in cleanse programs to eliminate toxins they’ve accumulated over their lifetime. These poisons drain our vitality and denigrate our health. Detoxing has gone mainstream as more and more people seek wellness. As well, a vast number of us work out regularly, tending to our physical wellbeing. But there’s a most important aspect of ourselves that we ignore—the health and vigor of our minds. We need to detox our minds from the false and limited thinking that disrupts our lives and our relationships.

 

What do I mean by the toxins of your mind? Over the course of your life you probably cling to a few primary beliefs about yourself. These beliefs shape the way you know yourself and how you think. They are the filter through which you see. From these beliefs and your personal experiences, you have likely become addicted to certain recurring thoughts that write the script of your life. Regrettably, these thoughts are often self-limiting, denigrating or simply wrong-minded and keep you from living the life you deserve. Habitual thoughts confine you to being a character in your script, rather than being the author of your life narrative. Think of these limiting old thoughts as a straitjacket. Ask yourself what the central theme of your thoughts tells you. They may sound like “I’m not smart enough” or “People don’t respect me,” or “I always make the wrong choices.”

 

Stuck in a Groove

For those of us old enough to remember vinyl records, we might recall that when there was a scratch on the album, the needle would sometimes get stuck in the groove. The same sound or lyrics would keep repeating. In the groove, the tone arm couldn’t find its way into the next groove. This is exactly what happens with our thoughts. They tend to keep reiterating the same messages, time and again. When they do so, they summon old memories and old feelings and thwart our ability to change.

The replay of old thoughts and feelings preclude us from being present. We are simply replicating the past. This is such a wasteful way to live our lives as we move from moment to moment—wanting for change—but not understanding how to achieve it. The continuous repetition of old thoughts and feelings robs us of new experience. As well, it deprives us of bringing new possibilities into our lives. This groove is where fear reigns supreme. Mind detox helps free you from being trapped in the groove.

If I can’t see the thought, I won’t be having a thought  the thought will be having me!

I have been looking at this problem for some time now and have developed a method to help people detox their minds. This process helps us to illuminate the habitual thoughts that trick us into false realities. Learning to observe thought, rather than attaching to and becoming the thought, is where our change process begins. When you are able to see your thought, you are actually thinking! This is where you access your inner wisdom.

The difficulty we encounter in disengaging the thought is due to its automatic nature. Before we have an opportunity to take notice of the thought, we’ve already become the thought. You can learn to train your mind to become more alert and slow down the process, so that we may see the thought more clearly. It’s almost like seeing it coming in slow motion, as if you were a watching sports replay. When you learn to see the thought clamoring for your attention, imagine placing your forefinger vertically in front of your lips and say shhhh to the thought.

 

Slowing it Down

For an analogy let’s look at tennis. Let’s metaphorically equate thought with being the tennis ball. Becoming aware of the thought is like anticipating the arrival of the ball on your side of the net. You see our opponent’s positioning and footwork, their racquet movement and the position of the ball as it advances toward you. By the time your opponent hits the ball and it approaches the net, you’re fully engaged and anticipating its arrival. You’d hardly wait until the ball was inches from you before you began to react. Anticipation and awareness are fundamental in tennis or any sport. And so we train ourselves in this awareness and time slows in a relative sense as we come into this zone of awareness.

The very same thing can be accomplished with thought as we learn to see it in advance of becoming it. In the nanosecond before you merge with your next thought you exist in a pure state of potential. Everything is possible. You don’t need to be confined by your life history but can break free to create the life you choose. But you need to learn to think differently. Detoxing your mind is altogether achievable once you set your intention to do so.

 

Mel’s method for detoxing your mind will be discussed in detail and at length in his new book, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love.   

Detoxing The Mind Programs

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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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