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Blog Short #190: My Summer Reading List: 6 Instructive Books That Make Life Better


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It’s that time of year again. School’s out in most states, and it’s warming up! But that doesn’t mean learning should come to a halt for several months. Learning is great all year round. And it’s fun to choose what you want to learn, which is what summer reading is all about.

Here’s my recommended list of the top six books I’ve read this year. They’re all awesome!

Two of them will enhance your communication skills, one will help you deal with regret, and another will tell you all you need to know about how your memory works and how to protect it. Then there’s a book to make your marriage and relationships hum, and finally, one that will put your ego on red alert and show you how to get around it. If you’re an entrepreneur, business owner, or trying to master a skill, you’ll love that last one.

Let’s get to it!

1. Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

First up is Charles Duhigg’s Supercommunicators, a super-read and one of the most comprehensive books on communication I’ve encountered.

A central premise of the book is that most problematic conversations occur because you aren’t engaging in the same type of conversation as the other person. Duhigg describes three conversation categories that require different types of focus and responses.

Additionally, he describes the neurological workings of the brain when conversing, which gives you some inside information about what parts of the brain are used for different types of conversations and especially what role emotions play.

He emphasizes and teaches you how to listen actively, read body language, use storytelling, show empathy, and recognize what the other person wants from a conversation as you talk to them. That’s really helpful!

He also provides some great strategies for conflict situations. He offers many real-life examples to illustrate the concepts, which makes the information easy to assimilate and relate to.

The best thing is that you can apply the information for interpersonal conversations, work and professional interactions, and written communication. If you read this book, you will undoubtedly improve your communication skills and make better connections with people.

2. Remember by Lisa Genova

Remember by Lisa Genova is an all-in-one treatise on how memory works, how to improve and protect it, and when and why it’s faulty.

If you worry about how good your memory is or have concerns about forgetfulness, you will love this book!

Genova begins with a detailed description of how memories are formed and the four steps necessary to make and store a memory. She then provides an easy-to-understand sketch of the parts of the brain used in memory-making so you can almost visualize the process.

Next, she describes the elements that cause people to remember some things and not others and provides specific, concrete strategies for increasing memory retention. I loved this section!

Finally, Genova discusses how memory changes with aging, why this happens neurologically, and what you can do to slow it down. Most people don’t realize that memory begins to slow much earlier in life than they might think, and preserving it should also begin early. Her strategies are completely doable.

I highly recommend this book so you can begin preserving your memory immediately!

3. Rapport by Emily Alison & Laurence Alison

Rapport is our second book on communication. The authors are both well-known forensic psychologists who participated in developing a “model of rapport” based on over 2,000 law enforcement interviews. Their book is the result of this endeavor and lays out their model.

The book’s theme is that rapport building is the essential activity underlying good communication. You build rapport by making an authentic connection with another person through listening and seeking to understand.

Their model includes four foundations, which they refer to as the HEAR method. HEAR stands for: Honesty – Empathy – Autonomy – Reflection.

Each of these elements is described in detail and illustrated with real-life examples. Most fascinating are some of the author’s interviews with terrorists, where they used these foundational practices to elicit information without being manipulative or using trickery.

In addition to the four foundations, the authors describe four communication styles using animal avatars. These are:

  1. T-Rex
  2. Mouse
  3. Lion
  4. Monkey

They provide full descriptions and show you how to identify which style someone is using in a conversation, giving you insights into how to respond. This schematic is invaluable for increasing receptivity on both sides of a conversation.

The book is fascinating and informative. It offers numerous strategies for building rapport, honing communication skills, and remaining authentic as you engage.

4. The Love Prescription by John Gottman & Julie Gottman

The Love Prescription is the newest book by husband-and-wife team John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Gottman, Ph.D. The title is apt because it outlines a roadmap to improving your marriage (or intimate relationship) with concrete, specific actions based on proven research.

The authors walk you through seven strategies for deepening and maintaining your relationships. The steps are thoroughly elucidated and include examples of research done by them and others in their research lab, “The Love Lab.”

They tell you what to do and how and when to do it. They also tell you what not to do and why.

The fun part is that they use specific couples to illustrate their points and refer to them throughout the book. It’s like an inside peek at a marriage and seeing how a couple navigates precarious issues. The stories have a before-and-after feel, which is most helpful because you can see the strategies in action.

I would read any book by the Gottmans and have read several, but I love the prescriptive nature of this book and was able to apply the strategies quickly myself and see results. If you’re in a relationship or want to be in one, this book is a gem.

5. The Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

I’ll start with an opening statement that pulls you right into the message of this book. The author says:

“Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego.”

From there, he goes on to explain that our egos are mostly concerned with an “unhealthy belief in our own importance” which he describes as “arrogance and self-centered ambition.”

You get the gist! The rest of the book explains the various mechanisms the ego uses to thwart living by your principles, mastering something meaningful, and working to reach goals that reflect your core values.

Holiday says that we go through three stages when seeking to reach a goal or do something of value. These are:

  1. Aspire – feel inspired
  2. Succeed – meet with success
  3. Fail – fail to stay there

He provides numerous real-life examples of people going through these cycles and how some have allowed the ego to thwart their progress, self-destructing in some cases. Then there are others who have successfully circumvented the ego through cultivating humility, rational determination, practice, seeking mastery instead of accolades, and using failures to improve.

Most importantly, this book shows you all the ways you get in your own way when you’re trying to accomplish or achieve something, and it does it so very well.

If you’ve ever read anything by Steven Pressfield (The War of Art), you will love this book. It gives you tools to help you keep your ego in check as you seek to succeed in whatever endeavor you desire. And in the process, make a solid contribution to humanity. I can’t recommend this book more highly!

6. The Power of Regret by Daniel Pink

We live in a culture that promotes optimism and positive thinking, both of which have proven results. However, negative emotions are necessary and have value.

Daniel Pink points out that regret is one of the most powerful negative emotions and an essential one because it helps us survive.

Used correctly, regret is instructive and “makes us better.” It’s a catalyst for change.

Pink takes us through the causes of regret and how we experience it. He identifies four categories of regret:

  1. Foundation regrets
  2. Boldness regrets
  3. Moral regrets
  4. Connection regrets

This categorization helps you understand more clearly what you regret and what areas of your life you need to work on.

Pink then offers strategies to help you deal with and process regrets. This part of the book is extremely beneficial. He takes you through the process of coming to terms with your regrets, making amends if possible, and learning from them. Finally, he tells you how to move forward from them.

The Power of Regret is a must-read book because all of us have regrets, and left unprocessed, regrets can cause long-term suffering. It’s impossible to sail through life without them, but fortunately, we can grow from them, and this book shows you how to do that.

Ta Da!

So there you have my list. I would be most interested in any books you’ve read that you would recommend. Please email me your list! I’m always looking for new books and information, and I’d also like to know what you’d like to hear more about.

That’s all for today!

Stay in the shade!

All my best,

Barbara

 

Blog Short #189: Forget Success, Choose Mastery: Your Guide to Real Achievement


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Success is one of those concepts that’s ambiguous at best and suffocating at worst. Why? Because it assumes there’s an endpoint where achievement rests. You get there, and you’re done. You’ve arrived.

It’s an illusion.

You never arrive because learning and personal evolution continue your whole life. There is no reaching perfection, and there’s no end.

The other problem is that the idea of success becomes intimately tied to your ego. It’s a means of confirming your identity, worth, confidence, and passion. Think Tarzan beating on his chest after some feat of acrobatics on his swinging vine.

A better approach is working toward mastery. Mastery is an ongoing process of learning and deliberate practice. You keep working at something and get better and better at it.

The reward is the work itself and the satisfaction you receive from doing it.

When you seek mastery, your focus moves away from ego gratification to humble persistence and determination.

It’s a paradox: If you truly want to succeed, you must check your ego at the door and dedicate yourself to pursuing mastery.

To do that requires some mindset and habit shifts. Here they are.

1. Embrace being wrong.

To get good at anything, you have to embrace the idea of being wrong.

Why? Because it informs you of what you need to work on. It’s a natural part of the journey toward getting better at something.

Learning is a cyclical process of taking a step forward, a step backward, and trying again. Repeatedly.

Act – Evaluate – Adjust – Act again. Repeat this over and over until you improve, and keep improving.

The problem is that “being wrong” gets all tied up with our sense of self. We’ve got this idea that being right – knowing something – means we’re worthy, and being wrong or not knowing means we aren’t okay. We’re not the best. At worst, we’re losers. And, as the saying goes, everyone loves a winner.

Being wrong or right has nothing to do with who you are. It’s an opportunity to learn something you can apply to your life and your goals.

You’re always okay. Your identity doesn’t rest on what you know or believe. It does rest in part on your values, but core values are different from beliefs. They’re the principles you live by.

2. Seek feedback.

Feedback is a critical component of mastery.

It’s part of the ongoing evaluative process that lets you know how you’re doing and where you need to shift your direction.

It’s not easy to hear feedback, at least not initially, if you haven’t consciously worked at accepting and using it.

Who wants to work hard at something and feel good about it only to have someone else point out things that still need work? It’s tough to take that in, especially if what you’ve created or done is something you’ve worked at and feel proud of. It can really smart!

However, getting feedback from someone who knows more than you do and has more experience can motivate you to improve.

The source is important! You don’t want feedback from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing or doesn’t have your best interest at heart.

Feedback from someone who’s ignorant or envious isn’t worth your time. But when you have the right source, feedback is invaluable and necessary if you want to get better at what you’re pursuing.

3. Find the right mentors.

To master anything, you’ll need teachers who are knowledgeable.

You may have many teachers or one teacher, depending on what you’re trying to master and who is available and willing to mentor you.

Finding the most qualified teachers is crucial because they can only take you as far as they’ve gone themselves.

And since your mentors and teachers will be the primary source of feedback, you want to be particular.

That said, sometimes you get different types of input or help from various teachers rather than a single person, and that’s all right, too, if it fits with what you’re working on.

I’ve found that finding one or two very qualified people to help works best. Too much input from many people is confusing and diffuses your process.

Going with a single teacher or mentor helps you get deeper into your process because you’re single-minded and can put all your energy and drive into learning without constantly second-guessing whether you’re moving in the right direction.

It’s working with a green light instead of a flickering yellow one.

4. Replace passion with quiet determination.

Our culture is obsessed with “finding your passion.”

There’s nothing wrong with pursuing something you’re interested in and excited about. Obviously, you want to work at something that fulfills you or that you have a natural inclination toward.

But passion is fleeting and doesn’t move you toward mastery. It’s the everyday actions, habits, evaluation, repetition, and quiet determination that get the job done.

Passion can get in the way because it’s based on emotions that are easily swayed. It can supply the initial drive, but it can also create a quick nosedive because you haven’t established a rational, well-thought-out system to get you to where you want to go. And when you don’t succeed quickly, you lose your drive.

Entrepreneurs often fall prey to passion, and before they know it, they’re overextended and overwhelmed. They’ve boxed themselves into failure because they didn’t apply careful thought, consider repercussions, and do the necessary research to test their ideas before taking the giant leap.

Mastery involves a mindful, organized process that consistently pays attention to incoming information, testing, feedback, practice, and daily action.

It has little to do with confidence or passion and much more to do with informed, dogged persistence and determination.

Paradoxically, it requires some detachment as you work.

5. Tie your identity to core values, not beliefs.

Beliefs are ideas you think to be true, whereas values are principles you live by, such as honesty, sincerity, integrity, responsibility, etc.

Your beliefs may arise from your values and experience, but they might also be passed down in families and cultures and are adopted without question.

Our egos can get tangled up in our beliefs, which tend toward confirmation bias. Rather than objectively questioning and researching before drawing conclusions, we look for information to back up what we already believe.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have any beliefs. We all have them, and they add meaning to our lives. But question them, particularly when you’re embarking on a goal-directed path.

To master something, you must let go of confirmation bias and keep your mind open. At the same time, you can apply some core principles to your process.

We’ve created some of those on our list thus far. They are:

  1. Consistent, deliberate practice is necessary to succeed.
  2. Feedback is a crucial component of any creative pursuit.
  3. Open-mindedness to learning and making mistakes is critical.
  4. The process is more important than the outcome.
  5. A “Growth Mindset” is necessary for mastery.

By embracing these core values and applying them to getting exceedingly good at something, you will succeed and keep succeeding.

Now, choose something you want to master and apply these principles. Let me know if they work for you!

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

Blog Short #188: 8 Powerful Positive Thinking Hacks for Overcoming Obstacles


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When life throws you wicked curve balls, positive thinking may sound like the last thing you want to pursue. More likely, you want to vent, rant, cry, or make an escape.

And if things are really bad, hearing someone say, “Don’t worry, it’ll all work out!” doesn’t help either. It probably makes you mad.

You know there’s a but coming, right? And here it is:

Positive thinking is not pretending that what you’re experiencing is not happening. It’s also not a means of trying to suppress your negative emotions. It’s an effective method of helping you regulate your emotions as you work through a difficult situation.

Today, I’ve got eight positive thinking hacks you can use to help you get through a trying time and achieve the best possible outcomes.

1. Reframe it.

How you frame a situation in your mind significantly impacts how you will experience and respond to it.

An optimist or positive thinker handles it this way:

  1. Allow yourself some time to work through your negative feelings about the situation, but not for an extended period.
  2. Accept the situation as it is and look for any positive aspects that could be useful.
  3. Create a narrative that includes possible solutions or actions you can take, as well as outcomes that will be beneficial.

A pessimist:

  1. Inflates the negative aspects of the situation by ruminating and catastrophizing.
  2. Resists accepting the situation and gets lost in complaining and venting.
  3. Creates a narrative that includes blaming themselves or someone else, which prevents them from taking action and engaging in problem-solving.

Positive thinking is both an attitude and an approach. You look for the silver linings, but with your eyes open; not like Pollyanna, but also not apocalyptic.

2. Focus on what you can control and what actions you can take now.

Positive thinking requires being realistic while assessing all the options you can use to handle the situation successfully.

Distinguish between what you can and can’t control. Positive thinkers are problem-solvers. They look for actions they can take rather than spend time lamenting about what can’t be done.

Once you’ve reframed the situation and are clear about what you can do, do it. Taking action reduces feelings of helplessness.

If the situation is super overwhelming, then take small single actions and complete them. As you do that, you’ll see what you can do next and keep going. It’s like riding waves: Stay steady on the surfboard, but pivot as the water shifts under you. Eventually, you’ll come ashore.

3. Watch your self-talk.

Self-talk is either a friend or foe, and too often, it’s a foe, especially if you:

  • Tend to criticize yourself against some perfect image you’ve constructed of who you “should” be and
  • Have a strong need for others’ approval.

Positive thinking requires having some faith in your intuitive and perceptual abilities to handle problems that come along. That doesn’t mean you don’t have emotional ups and downs, but it means talking to yourself kindly and encouraging yourself to do your best with what you’ve got to work with.

Setbacks are normal and to be expected, but use them to make corrections when needed without self-recrimination.

You can handle more than you think. We all can. Keep that mantra going in your head, and tell your inner voice to be a cheerleader, not a Debbie Downer.

4. Stay present.

When you feel yourself succumbing to anxiety or overwhelm, use breathing and grounding to help re-establish your emotional equilibrium.

Square breathing is the easiest and quickest way to calm your body and mind.

Inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of four, and exhale to a count of four. Do the whole sequence four times. Be sure to breathe in slowly through your belly. It also helps to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

Grounding is another technique that some people swear by to relieve anxiety.

A simple grounding exercise is called the 333 Rule for Anxiety. You name three things you can see in your immediate environment. Describe them to yourself. Now, name three sounds you can hear as you sit quietly and listen. Last, select three body parts and move them deliberately and slowly.

Using this technique pulls your mind away from fretting and re-centers you.

5. Identify and write down any positive outcomes or features of the current situation.

These are the silver linings we mentioned above. Positive thinkers always include this in their process because it strengthens and maintains a can-do mindset.

You keep your focus on what’s possible, and that creates momentum and energy. You don’t remove painful experiences or emotions, but you’re able to integrate them into movement forward rather than sinking into inertia and depression.

Writing crystallizes and clarifies. It also gives you some emotional space from your feelings.

6. Use humor as a relief valve.

When possible and appropriate, use humor to lighten up your load.

There was a movie called The Lion in Winter about Henry II and his estranged wife. In one scene, Henry and his wife had a horrific knock-down, drag-out fight. After it was over, Henry was lying across the stairs, completely emotionally spent. He looked up, lifted his eyebrows, and said, “Every family has its ups and downs.”

It was so ridiculous and funny because of its absurdity! Humor can be a very effective relief valve for tension.

7. Remind yourself that what’s happening now is time-limited.

When you feel immersed in something, it’s all that exists right now. It can feel endless, but it’s not. Do some future scoping and remind yourself that eventually, you’ll resolve the situation and be out of it.

Time has healing power, and keeping that in mind helps when you’re in a challenging situation.

8. Surround yourself with positive, empathetic people.

The company you keep has a powerful effect on how you feel, act, and perceive what happens around you.

Last week, I explained neural entrainment, which occurs when people click or spend time together. Our brains and bodies mimic each other, which means our emotions are contagious on a neural and biological basis.

The concept of mirror neurons also verifies that the more time you spend with someone, the more you take on their characteristics, language, ideas, and behavior.

Seek out people who are empathetic, supportive, and have a can-do attitude. Not an enabler, but someone who will help keep you straight.

You’ll find it easier to adopt those characteristics when those around you mirror them. The opposite is also true.

If you spend most of your time around pessimistic, negative, or otherwise toxic people, you will be duly affected by them, too.

What About Toxic Positivity?

There is such a thing as toxic positivity, which is different from what we’ve been talking about. Unlike true optimism, toxic positivity involves ignoring and avoiding issues that require attention. It’s like smoking cigarettes daily for years and saying, “No worries—I’ve got a great immune system! Everything will be fine!”

Toxic positivity is glossing over problems and pretending things will turn out well. “I think it, so it must be true.”

This is not optimism or positive thinking – it’s denial, and it’s dangerous.

The best approach is realistic optimism. Some people call it skeptical optimism, but I think realistic optimism is a better option because it means paying attention to what is and then using a positive, energized approach to deal with it.

That’s how to use positive thinking the right way.

If you’re interested in more information about positive thinking and some of the research behind it, I’ve listed several more articles below you might like to read.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week, as always!

All my best,

Barbara

Suggested Reading:

The Power of Positive Thinking by Kendra Cherry, MSEd
How Positive Thinking Builds Your Skills, Boosts Your Health, and Improves Your Work by James Clear

Blog Short #187: How to Make Small Talk if You’re an Introvert


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If you’re an introvert, going to a conference or a party and making small talk with people you don’t know is a form of slow torture.

I had an office mate who used to say she’d rather stab herself in the eye than stand around and try to come up with inane comments to talk to people she didn’t know. That’s a little graphic and intense, but it sometimes feels like that to someone highly introverted.

There are some solutions, however, and even a staunch introvert can get good at talking to people they don’t know.

Let’s begin with why people talk to each other.

The Need to Connect

If you’re an introvert, you understand that when you do talk to someone, you do it because it has meaning for you. You feel a connection with the other person.

For introverts, this usually involves conversing with someone you know well and resonate with. Your conversations have purpose and stimulate you. They add something rather than drain you.

Talking to people you don’t know doesn’t have that same effect, but these conversations can also create a connection and add something. For an introvert, this takes practice and won’t happen overnight.

There are three things to consider when you initiate a conversation with anyone:

1. People enjoy talking about themselves.

You’re probably disagreeing with me right now because you know people who don’t like to talk about themselves, and you’re right. Not everyone does, but overall, if someone has an opportunity to talk about what’s important to them, they will.

2. When someone feels understood, they feel connected.

Being understood can happen in a single interaction. You pass a group of people complaining about the construction on a busy road just before Christmas, and you stop for a second and say, “Yeah, it’s a pain. What were they thinking?” They all nod yes, and one guy gives you a high five. You smile and move along. They felt understood, and for a brief moment, you connected.

Being understood can also occur in a lengthy one-on-one conversation with someone, even if that someone is a person you’ve never met before.

The same dynamic is in play when that happens. You can commiserate or resonate with something important to that person because you understand how they feel. I’ll get to how to make that happen in a minute.

3. Small talk is not about diving into a deep conversation right away.

It’s about getting to know someone, finding some similarities or ways to connect, and getting your feet wet. When you’ve made small talk with someone once, you can deepen the interaction the next time you see them.

Now for strategies.

5 Strategies to Make Conversation with New People

As we discuss these strategies, imagine that you’re at a conference with hundreds of people and will be required to attend mixers with the whole group.

1. Have three questions ready.

This strategy comes from Charles Duhigg’s book Supercommunicators.

He says to jot down the following:

  • What are two topics you would like to discuss?
  • What’s something you’d like to say to show what you’re interested in talking about?
  • What’s a question you will ask to probe the other person’s interests?

In his book, Mr. Duhigg remarked that most often, you never end up using the topics you jotted down, but having them to fall back on helps you feel less anxious. And you might use them!

2. Be curious and ask open-ended questions.

You could ask something like, “What brings you to this conference?” That’s a good opening question. Then, depending on the answer, you can ask more specific questions like this:

You: “What brings you to this conference?”
Them: “I’m here for my job.
You: “What do you do?”
Them: “I’m a software developer.”
You: “Wow, that sounds interesting. Is it something you enjoy, or just a job for you?
Them: “I love it! It’s really stimulating and fun. I get bored easily, and it keeps me engaged.”
You: “I get bored easily too. How did you get started?”

You’ve asked some general questions, but you slipped in some personal ones that go a little deeper and you revealed something personal about yourself. You’re on the way to making a connection.

When you start with questions and show curiosity in your responses, the other person knows you’re listening and is encouraged to reveal more about themselves.

Then you can reciprocate—without taking over the conversation, of course—but create a comfortable volley back and forth.

3. Recognize when someone doesn’t want to engage in small talk, and don’t personalize it.

If you approach someone and introduce yourself, but they look away, fidget, and look down at their phone, they’re letting you know they don’t want to talk.

Don’t take this personally. Many people are uncomfortable with small talk and refuse to engage in it. Sometimes, they’re simply preoccupied with something else.

Anxiety and self-talk can get in the way in these instances, and you can decide that people don’t like you. In most cases, the rejection is not about you. It’s about something having to do with the person you’ve approached. So, move along to someone else.

4. Match the other person’s mood and energy.

This one’s another offering from Mr. Duhigg. He says that matching the other person’s energy level and mood when conversing signals that you want to align with them and make a connection.

For example, suppose you tell someone how excited you are about a new job, and they respond with a small smile and a “That’s nice,” statement. How would you feel? You would probably feel deflated and uncomfortable.

When someone’s talking, take care to make sure your responses match their mood and energy so they feel a connection with you.

5. Use humor.

Unless you’re talking to “Scrooge,” humor is always an icebreaker and a bridge to connect with ease. It puts you on the same side automatically and creates intimacy. When you laugh with someone, you synchronize with them. You click.

Here’s a cool fact: When you click with someone, your brains and bodies synchronize with each other. Here’s a description of that process from Mr. Duhigg:

“When we click with someone, our eyes often start to dilate in tandem; our pulses match; we feel the same emotions and start to complete each other’s sentences within our heads. This is known as neural entrainment, and it feels wonderful.”

I’m sure you’ve had this experience but weren’t aware of the neurological and physiological synchronization that was going on.

This can happen when you feel like someone totally gets you as you talk to each other, or you’re going back and forth about something you both agree on and have a strong interest in, or you’re genuinely laughing and tickled about something.

Sometimes, small talk develops into a deeper conversation when you’re engaged and showing interest in the other person. Other times, it opens the door to more conversations down the road. Both scenarios are fine.

How to End the Conversation

Always excuse yourself in a way that doesn’t leave the other person feeling rejected. Say that you need to go and why. The why doesn’t have to be elaborate. Once you’ve done that, say, “I’ve enjoyed talking and getting to know you.” If there’s the possibility you’ll see them again, you can say, “Hope to see you again.”

Mr. Duhigg recommends that after you announce you need to leave, say, “Let me ask you one more thing before I go,” and then ask. By doing that, you verify your interest in them even though you must end the conversation. This assumes, of course, that you do want to talk to them again.

Challenge Yourself

Now that you have some strategies, make a game of it. Challenge yourself to talk to people you don’t know and get better at it.

Ask the server in a restaurant a few questions about themselves or the cashier in the grocery line. Or say something to someone waiting in the checkout line with you. I’ve made friends with a cashier in Whole Foods and now always go through her line.

The more you practice, the easier it gets and the less discomfort you’ll have at social and work events. You won’t mind it. It might wear you out, but you won’t be anxious, and you’ll make new friends.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

Blog Short #186: How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation


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When you need to have a difficult conversation with someone, what can you do to increase the probability that it will be constructive?

This is a good question to consider, especially when the subject is a hot issue, or you’re afraid it will be poorly received. There are some steps you can take up front that will help reduce the likelihood of emotions getting out of control while also increasing mutual receptivity on everyone’s part, even when you disagree.

Start by prepping yourself before approaching the other person. By doing so, you can get clear on what you need from the conversation and anticipate what could go wrong so you’re ready for that.

From there, we’ll go over how you can structure the conversation.

Your Pre-Conversation Prep

Ask yourself these questions and make some notes so you can refer back to them.

1. What do you hope to accomplish?

In other words, what do you need or want from this conversation?

To answer that you must first clearly define the issue. Is it something practical, like how do we divvy up the household chores with our work schedules? Or maybe it’s an emotional issue, such as feeling disconnected, how you talk to each other, or something related to your kids.

No matter the problem, there’s always an emotional component, and it’s important to know what that is before you start because emotions are where things get complicated.

What feelings do you have about the issue?

After you’ve considered this, write a concise statement that defines the problem and the outcome you want.

A note here: Choose a specific, singular issue. Big global conversations that cover more than one issue easily get out of control. Stick to one thing, and don’t let it evolve into a kitchen sink battle.

2. Why is this issue important? What’s at stake?

On a scale from 1 to 10, how important is the issue to you? How much emotional space is it taking up in your mind? How would a resolution affect and benefit you? How would it benefit the other person? Answer these questions and then list for yourself what you want to say or get across and what solution(s) you have in mind, if any.

3. What are the obstacles you anticipate when talking about this problem?

How much receptivity do you expect from the other person to (1) have this discussion and (2) come to a consensus on how to resolve the problem? What kind of reactions do you foresee, and how will they be expressed? Write these down.

4. What can you do (or both do) to deal with these obstacles?

For this one, get specific. What will you do if the other person becomes angry or attacking? What if there seems to be no interest in negotiating a solution? What if they shut down?

The purpose of this exercise is to think ahead about how you can react to keep the conversation constructive. This is the hardest part of the process.

The Together Prep

Once you’ve thoroughly answered the prep questions and clearly understand what you want to accomplish, approach the other person and let them know you’d like to talk with them.

You might say something like,

“I’d like to talk to you about something, but I’m worried it could be a difficult conversation, and I’d like to make sure we do it in a way that leaves us both feeling good about the outcome. I thought we could do that by setting up some rules to follow so we don’t let things get out of hand. Are you amenable to that?”

If the answer is no, then explore what they’re concerned about or what they would need to make the conversation more palatable and proceed from there. Once you’ve done that, set up some rules together.

Here are some examples of rules you might establish:

  1. No personal attacks, labeling, sarcasm, or hurtful comments.
  2. No blaming or shaming. We’ll both be responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  3. If either of us feels emotionally overwhelmed or too angry to continue, we can take a break and allow each other to recover. But we vow to continue the conversation when we’re both ready.
  4. We can signal that we need a break by raising our hand; the other person must accept that without arguing.

You might come up with other rules or ideas to add, such as when and where you’ll talk or not interrupt each other except to ask questions for clarification, etc.

Add whatever you think will be helpful based on what you know about each other and your previous conversations.

Here’s something that can make things easier.

You Don’t Have to Solve the Issue in One Conversation

If the topic is too volatile, agree to break the discussion into several conversations.

Use the first conversation only to investigate and fully understand each other’s point of view. Don’t try to solve the problem. Don’t even talk about solutions.

Get into the mindset of a curious investigator whose goal is to understand what they’re hearing.

The value of having this kind of conversation first is that it takes the pressure off both of you in several ways:

  • You don’t feel pressured to convince each other of the outcomes you want because you’ve removed that from the discussion.
  • Knowing that going in will help you both keep your emotions in check.
  • You foster mutual understanding and get more insight into what you each need and think about the situation.
  • Doing that creates a connection and gets you both on the same side.

After this first conversation, take a break so you can consider what you’ve learned from each other regarding the issue. Now brainstorm possible win-win solutions. A break can be an hour, a day, or several days. When you’re both ready, come back together and problem-solve.

The Biggest Factor

Staying connected to each other as you proceed is the most critical factor in working through a difficult conversation or issue.

It’s the difference between working as a team so you can find solutions or erecting barriers to put you on opposite sides, leading to mutual frustration and a breakdown of the process.

To stay connected, use the empathetic detective approach, which you can read about here if you haven’t already. It is possible to have diametrically opposing points of view yet maintain respect and consideration for each other.

You must take the time to identify and understand the feelings underneath each other’s assertions and ideas.

Sometimes there are hidden background experiences that are influencing the current situation. It’s good to learn about these. Don’t therapize the other person, but be open to hearing how they’ve arrived at their conclusions and what they feel is at stake in the conversation.

You’ve defined that for yourself while prepping ahead, but you need to understand what the other person wants and needs from the conversation as well. When you successfully do that, you have a much greater chance of finding win-win solutions.

The Timing

Timing is a factor you should consider when choosing when to have a difficult discussion. Too often, people start these kinds of conversations late in the evening when it’s time for bed or in the midst of other stressful events, or because they feel pressure to get something off their chest.

None of those are good ideas. Choose a time when you both can be receptive, free to listen attentively, and are not tired or stressed out.

By all means, don’t have these conversations when drinking any alcohol – not even one drink. Alcohol is an emotional lubricant, and your ability to regulate your emotions decreases as a result.

Remember That . . .

Communicating and problem-solving are skills that take lots of practice to hone and perfect. It feels great when things go well, but don’t be discouraged if they don’t. Review conversations that didn’t go as expected or desired, analyze where things went astray, and try again.

The most essential skill to be successful is to listen with your full attention. If you work at that, all your conversations will improve.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

Blog Short #185: 4 Strategies to Give Your Relationship a Makeover


Photo by courtneyk, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Relationships, whether just starting out or established for years, need nurturing and attention to survive and thrive. No mystery there. The question is, “What kind of nurturing and attention, and where do you get that information?”

Normally, it’s left to your parents and family to pass down to you. And sometimes it is, but not always because no one taught them either. Fortunately, there is some promising research on this subject you can use to help.

Today, I’m going to discuss four practices discovered by Drs. John and Julie Gottman in the course of their extensive research on marriage that you can use right away.

These practices help, regardless of the state of your relationship, and they work for any close relationship, not just marriages.

Strategy #1: Acknowledge “Bids for Connection”

I put this phrase in parentheses because the Gottmans have coined it in their book, The Love Prescription.

Bids for connection are any attempt, small or large, to get your partner to acknowledge and interact with you.

It can be obvious, like, “Can I quickly read you this? You’ve got to hear it!” Or it can be eye contact, a smile, a sigh, or a quick touch. It’s a bid to connect that requires a response. The Gottmans point to three possible responses:

  1. Turning toward, which means acknowledging the bid and reacting positively.
  2. Turning away, which means ignoring or not responding at all.
  3. Turning against, which means responding with irritation or anger to negate the bid and shut it down.

Using our example, you might say, “Sure! Let me hear it!” Or you might not look up but keep doing whatever you’re doing as though you didn’t hear it. Or you could say with irritation, “I’m busy right now! Leave me alone!”

Only the first response will make a connection.

The value of turning toward bids for connection is that they build a store of positive feelings toward each other over time that serves as a backdrop when problems or conflicts arise. The Gottmans call it an “emotional bank account” that keep you from holding grudges or hanging onto negative feelings when you’re upset with each other.

At the other end of the spectrum, if bids for connection are largely ignored or are met with irritation, conflicts are like a match that lights the fire doused with lighter fluid.

The Gottmans’ research found that couples who divorced turned toward their partner’s bids for connections 33 percent of the time as opposed to 86 percent for couples who stayed together.

That’s a pretty significant difference! They also have found that turning toward bids for connection is the single most effective action you can take to enhance your relationship.

Strategy #2: Be Curious

If you’ve been in a relationship for years, you probably think you know most everything about your partner.

Undoubtedly, you know a lot, but people change over time. You know this about yourself; as you get older and have more experiences, your values, aspirations, desires, and even dreams shift.

We’re always a work in progress, and for a relationship to flourish, you need to communicate and share those shifts as they occur.

Being curious and asking the right questions helps you stay abreast of those changes, but they also do something else that’s important:

They allow you to learn more about your partner’s internal world and increase your understanding of each other.

The Gottmans propose that you ask each other “big” open-ended questions like these:

  • How do you think you’ve changed in the last five years?
  • What events in your childhood had the most significant impact on you?
  • If you could start over, what career would you choose, or what would you study in college?
  • What’s your biggest hope for our future?

These questions are exploratory and make you look from the inside out. By sharing this kind of information, imagining, or recollecting, you create intimacy and learn more about each other’s internal workings. You appreciate each other and have more compassion and understanding.

Strategy #3: Show Appreciation

The longer you’re with someone, the easier it is to focus on what bothers you about them. That’s just the way we’re built. We have a negativity bias because our brains are set to scan for problems. It’s part of survival and keeps us from getting into deep trouble.

But it’s a problem in relationships because you can become overly critical. Your perceptions of your partner get skewed by what you don’t like, and you miss out on what you do like.

You have to rewire your brain to scan for the positive. The good news is that this is actually possible on a neurological basis. Brain scans show different parts of the brain operating when processing negative versus positive emotions.

When you focus on the positive, you reinforce neural pathways that keep you moving in that direction. Likewise, if you focus on the negative, you’ll see more of that.

So, when you notice what your partner is doing right more than wrong, you increase your perceptions of what you appreciate about them.

Verbalizing your appreciation by saying thank you for things they do, even small acts, reinforces those perceptions. Besides, don’t you want to do more to please someone when they’ve thanked you for your small acts of kindness? Yes! The same goes for your partner.

Notice as many little things as you can and say something about them. Your partner will want to please you more.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of fault-finding, try abstaining from criticism altogether and verbalizing appreciation as much as you can.

When there’s a problem, approach it by asking for what you need rather than criticizing. For example, if your partner isn’t helping with the kids around dinner time when you’re trying to get the food on the table, don’t berate him, but instead, tell him what you need him to do to help and make sure to thank him when he does it. Model the behavior you want.

Strategy #4: Remember What You Admire

Now that you’re thinking about what you appreciate about your partner, go a step further and think about what you admire about them.

  • What characteristics initially attracted you?
  • What unique things did you admire and love?
  • What qualities—physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, or in any way—do you admire?

I love this exercise because it lifts your focus up instead of down. It’s easy to notice flaws, but when you focus on assets, you begin to see the flaws with more compassion while appreciating what you admire.

If you’ve become estranged from your partner, this exercise may be challenging because you’ve become disillusioned. If that’s the case, try it out anyway and let it stoke your memory of what you once admired. If you’re working on turning toward bids for connection, you’ll eventually be able to remember more of what you appreciate and admire.

Here are two statistics that blew me away when I read the research:

  1. During a conflict, it takes five positive interactions versus one negative interaction “to keep love alive over time.” Negativity has a lot more power to damage a relationship than positivity does to heal that damage. You need your emotional bank account full of positive interactions to weather the storms.
  2. For the rest of the time, when not dealing with conflicts, you need a positive-to-negative ratio of twenty to one. So, you need twenty positive interactions for every negative interaction to keep your relationship viable and flourishing.

That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But, if you’re generally kind, compassionate, and empathetic with each other while avoiding being critical, contemptuous, or sarcastic, then it’s not so hard to do. A good goal is to be each other’s best friend.

What if My Partner Doesn’t Want to Participate?

These practices work best if both partners embrace and practice them. However, one partner can start by making a few shifts.

If you practice responding positively to bids for connection while also showing appreciation and letting up on criticism, your partner may begin responding to you differently. You can build on that until the relationship turns around and you have your partner’s cooperation.

The caveat is that if you’re in a toxic, abusive relationship, these strategies aren’t meant to keep you there. They aren’t a replacement for setting necessary boundaries. Abuse is never to be tolerated.

But if you find your relationship has become stale and you’re cohabiting without feeling connected, or if you’re just starting out and want to ensure your relationship develops well, then these strategies are very potent and useful.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

Additional Reading:
How to Handle Negative Feelings About Your Partner
What’s the Key to a Long-Lasting Relationship

Blog Short #184: How to Become More Self-Disciplined


Photo by baona, Courtesy of iStock Photo

If you’re reading this, you likely want to improve your self-discipline in some or all areas of your life. The hitch is that it’s challenging to accomplish. Some people have mastered it, but for most of us, it’s still a work in progress.

To that end, today, I’ll give you a four-step methodology for working at it and increasing your odds of success.

Let’s start with the right mindset because you need that to succeed.

The Mindset

To get in the right mindset to work on self-discipline, you must have two things: (1) A strong desire and intention to succeed and (2) an awareness of the thoughts and beliefs that challenge that intention.

These four beliefs, in particular, create obstacles.

  1. Self-discipline means giving up something I like to do.
  2. It’s grueling and will be a painful process.
  3. It takes too much energy, and I’m already thin on that.
  4. I’ve tried before and failed. So how’s it going to be different this time?

You may not be aware of these thoughts swirling around in your subconscious, but I’m guessing some if not all of them are there.

Self-discipline sounds like work, and it’s often associated with feelings of deprivation. Even if you start with a positive, energetic approach, you can quickly settle back into this mindset when you don’t have immediate success.

So, the first order of business is to correct those beliefs by replacing them with these:

  1. Self-discipline will increase my happiness as I gain more control over myself.
  2. When done correctly, the process is rewarding with each step and feels good.
  3. I can go slowly and make steady progress without a massive expenditure of energy.
  4. Setbacks are to be expected, but they allow me to learn, reset, and continue.

In other words, as you progress in establishing new habits that give you more self-control, you begin to take pleasure in your accomplishments, and the new habits feel better and more attractive than the old ones. I’ll give you examples as we go through the process.

The 4-Step Process

Self-discipline is accomplished primarily by creating and establishing habits. It is a mindset, but the building blocks are composed of repetitive patterns of behavior that become automated without needing to expend much energy.

The good thing is that habits are very concrete and definable, so you have something you can work with and track.

The four steps that you’ll use with each specific habit are as follows:

  1. Define what it is you want to change.
  2. Identify why and how that will benefit you.
  3. Decide how you will go about it.
  4. Create a plan of action and review.

Step 1: The What

Select an area where you’d like to be more disciplined. This can be very specific, like money management, or a little broader, like regulating your emotions.

Once you’ve chosen something, take an inventory of the habits you use right now that are interfering with your self-discipline.

For example, if you’re working on money management, write down all your habits related to managing or not managing your money. Those might include impulsive buying on Amazon, not balancing your bank account every month, using shopping therapy to lift your mood, freely lending money to friends or family members who don’t pay you back, and rarely tracking your expenses. What habits do you engage in that are causing the problems?

Once you’ve broken down your “what” into the specific habits contributing to the problem, you have a concrete list of habits you can tackle. Now, proceed to the next step.

Step 2: The Why

Don’t skip this step. It’ll help you keep your motivation high.

Make a second list that includes all the possible benefits of becoming self-disciplined in the area you’ve chosen to work on. How will changing the habits you’ve identified help you?

For this list, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What are the benefits of changing each specific habit?
  2. How will I feel when I change these habits? What are the emotional benefits?
  3. What will my future look like when I change these habits, and what if I don’t?

This process might sound a little tedious, but it’s important because you’ll be more successful in working through setbacks when you keep your “why” in full focus. It gives your process meaning and purpose, which keeps you going.

Step 3: The How

Now, it’s time to narrow your list and prioritize the habits you want to change in an order that will bring on the most success.

Using the money management example, you might have these habits listed:

  • Credit card use
  • Impulsive buying
  • Lack of budgeting
  • Not setting boundaries with my friends or family

Take that list and create an alternative list for each of those. This list will likely be more detailed. For example:

  • Gather up all your credit cards and put them away in the back of a drawer out of sight. Use only a debit card or cash to pay bills or make purchases.
  • Set up a spreadsheet and write down everything you bring in and everything you spend over the next month.
  • Tell your friends and family you’re on a new budget and won’t be able to lend them money.
  • Review your spreadsheet at the end of each month to see how your expenditures compare to your income.
  • Make a rule not to buy anything you don’t absolutely need for the first month, and always put three days between your desire to purchase something and buying it.

These are all habits you could create to solve your money management problem. Once you finish one month, you can continue and tweak until the habits are instilled and done automatically.

You can apply this same approach to any area of discipline. For example, you could use it to improve time management or regulate emotions.

The key is to replace the initial sense of deprivation with feelings of confidence and worth as you increase your ability to manage yourself. As you grow your self-control, you begin to take more pleasure in that feeling, outweighing any pleasure you used to derive from your former bad habits.

This part of the process takes time, so you must be patient.

You need to burn out the old desires as you create the new behaviors. It’s a gradual exchange and not exact in timing.

But eventually, you won’t miss the bad habits and you’ll enjoy the benefits of increasing your self-control.

Step 4: Execution Plan & Review

The final step is to map out in time when and under what circumstances you execute the tasks you’ve identified to create your new habits.

As always, it’s best to put things on a calendar, daily list, or whatever system that works best for you that designates a scheduled time to complete the tasks. If you leave it to “I’ll do this once a week,” but don’t schedule when that once will be, you leave it to chance.

It’s also good to set reminders. You can do that on your phone, by emailing yourself messages, or by having an accountability partner. That last one is very effective. Support from another person can be very helpful when changing habits. It’s fun, too, if you and your partner are both working on something and you support each other’s process.

At the very least, review your progress once a week and see where you need to make changes.

Don’t use weekly reviews to beat yourself up. Give yourself credit for any partial success, and then tweak the process for any setbacks to help you overcome them.

Three More Things That Help

Keep these three things in mind as you work through the process:

  1. Mind your self-talk. Be honest with yourself, but not critical. This is really important! Stay positive, even when you have setbacks. It’s essential not to give up.
  2. Develop equipoise, which means maintaining your emotional equilibrium during highs and lows. Your self-talk plays a significant role in this.
  3. Write somewhere in plain view this sentence: “Self-control will ultimately feel more pleasurable than my bad habits. I need to give it enough time.”

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

Blog Short #183: What’s the Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Somone?


Photo by Daniel Balakov, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Today, I’m going to tell you a story about how I learned what’s most important when trying to help someone.

This story came to mind during a conversation I had this weekend with my husband, who is also a psychotherapist. We were talking about various cases and people we’ve worked with, especially people who have such horrendous histories and problems that they’re sometimes difficult to reach. We were wondering if there’s anything more we could have done.

Talking about this brought up an experience I had, which is the story I will tell you today. It pertains to that question, and I think it’ll have meaning for you as it did for me.

It All Began . . .

Early in my career, after finishing graduate school, I got my first job in a community mental health center in a small, rural town in North-Central Florida.

It was early in the 1980s when community mental health was a national initiative, and these centers were popping up all around the country. They offered full mental health services, including outpatient psychotherapy, inpatient crisis intervention, and medication management.

Each center had a complete staff, including social workers, counselors, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and psychiatrists. I was one of many outpatient therapists in this particular center.

I worked mostly in “aftercare,” which involved managing services for people who had been hospitalized for psychiatric issues. One of my responsibilities was making home visits to clients after they were discharged from the hospital and sent home.

Many of the people I visited were significantly impaired – mostly schizophrenic – but were just out there living in trailers or homes without a lot of support. Some lived with relatives, but some spent a good amount of time alone. Others lived in adult foster homes.

These folks came into the mental health center once a month or more to see the psychiatrist and get their meds. Some saw therapists for outpatient counseling, too, but many of them didn’t have the support to be able to come in often, so I went to them.

As you can imagine, I have many memorable experiences, but this one stands out because it taught me something that has stayed with me since then and pertains to the conversation my husband and I had this weekend. Here’s the story.

The Story

I visited a woman weekly for about a year. She lived with her husband in a fairly impoverished trailer park. I’ll call her Mary, and she was in her late 40s.

At first, I would just sit with her as she didn’t want to talk. I was new at this and anxious because I wanted to help but wasn’t sure what I could do that would benefit her. I asked questions to try to connect and check on how she was doing, but she responded minimally and made little eye contact. Visits lasted 45 minutes to an hour and then I would leave but come back the next week.

Over time, she began talking a little more, and I listened and asked more questions, but mostly listened.

This one particular day, I went out, and the carpet in the trailer was sopping wet. I asked what had happened – was there a leak of some sort – and she just smiled.

So I looked at her inquiringly, and she chuckled, which was the first time that had ever happened. Her emotions were usually flat and out of reach.

I asked what she was chuckling about, and she said, “I got carried away with cleaning.” I held back laughing, but she knew I was tickled and started laughing unabashedly. Then she told me the story, which was that she’d stopped taking her medication without telling anyone and had begun thinking that germs and bugs were crawling everywhere.

So, while her husband was at work, she hosed down the house. She boiled pots and pots of water, poured some on her husband’s bed, and had other pots sitting in the closets to steam the bugs away in the walls. She walked me around the house to show me where she’d set up all the pots.

The more she talked, the more she laughed and made eye contact. She was totally lucid that day and knew she’d been delusional when all of this happened. She’d resumed her meds.

I was concerned about what had happened because of possible danger but also amused by how witty and amused she was as she told me about it, which made her laugh more.

The Turning Point

After that day, when I visited Mary, she always met me with a smile and talked easily with me. She looked forward to visits, and I was able to help her keep her medication appointments. I also listened intently to the stories of her life and the many painful experiences she had growing up. We created a bond and connection.

It was one of those experiences where, after weeks of sitting with someone who appears to be absent and unaware of you, they suddenly connect.

What I learned from that experience was that the most important thing I can do to help anyone is to be present, care, listen, and be kind – and to do that consistently. Everything else is extra.

All the psychology, insights, and strategies are helpful and necessary but are secondary to that connection.

Everyone needs to feel heard, understood, and valued first. Without that, the rest is meaningless.

Seeing Mary every week and showing interest by either listening or just sitting with her made her feel less isolated and cared for, enough that she trusted me to tell me what she’d done that day. She didn’t feel alone or ignored, or maybe even devalued, which can happen for people who are diagnosed as “crazy.”

I wasn’t there to fix her or make her psychosis go away but to be a witness to her life and value her as a person. I did help her stay on her meds and get some additional needed services, but the visits became something we both looked forward to.

I’ve never forgotten those visits with Mary and many others after her.

I’ve also remembered that regardless of all the knowledge I can accrue, being present and sharing in someone’s life, struggles, and feelings is the most valuable thing I can offer, and I think that any of us can offer.

Even in the worst situations, when someone feels unreachable, offering genuine kindness and a caring presence has a positive effect, whether visible or not. It’s a way of putting good into the world and honoring each other’s value. It’s the most important thing any of us can do.

What to Take Away

Here’s what I took away from this experience that has stayed with me that I want to impart to you:

  1. Kindness and genuine empathy are more important than any other achievement because they contribute to connection They bring out the best in us and ensure our continued survival as a species.
  2. Everyone needs someone to witness their life. One of the reasons people become psychotic in solitary confinement is because there’s no one to witness their existence and no one to connect with.
  3. Listening without fixing is one of the most potent activities you can engage in. There are times when you can help problem-solve, and that’s valuable, but practice listening without having any agenda other than understanding. If you do only that, you’re helping.
  4. Put something good into the world whether you get a response or not. Every drop of good has power.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

Blog Short #182: Three Defense Mechanisms You Shouldn’t Use and One You Should


Photo by Dilok Klaisataporn, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Part of being self-aware and guarding your mental health is understanding defense mechanisms – specifically, why you use them and how they affect you.

Today, we’ll go through three defense mechanisms you should avoid and one that’s good for you. Let’s get right to it.

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are behaviors and responses to situations that people use to:

  1. Avoid anxiety
  2. Maintain their self-image or self-esteem
  3. Sidestep painful feelings

In general, they’re strategies you use to avoid thinking about or dealing with something that makes you uncomfortable or threatens how you feel about yourself.

Depending on the source you’re citing, there are somewhere between 20 and 30 defense mechanisms. We’re discussing four today that are widely accepted by psychologists.

Knowing how and when you use these four will help you create better coping skills and improve your overall interactions with other people. A side benefit is that you’ll also be able to identify when someone else is using them in a way that negatively impacts you. Let’s start with denial.

Denial

Denial is widespread and has found its way into mainstream conversation. It’s not unusual to hear someone say something like, “He’s in denial” or “She’s living in la la land.”

Denial is an outright rejection of something’s existence. You block something you don’t want to acknowledge because it causes you anxiety, challenges your beliefs, or threatens you in some way.

Denial is a means of protecting yourself from what you think you can’t handle or cope with.

Sometimes, denial is a total rejection of the reality of something, and other times, it’s a way to minimize the effects of a situation.

For example, an alcoholic might completely deny that they have a drinking problem even in the face of evidence. Or they may not deny it but pass it off as not that serious because they can stop any time they want.

Some instances of denial are the outgrowth of repression, another defense mechanism.

Repression is an unconscious process whereby something that occurred or felt is completely repressed and out of conscious memory. It’s different in that there’s nothing to deny because there’s no recognition that something happened.

A story that always comes to mind when I think of repression is about an incident that happened to Stephen King. When he was four, he and a friend were playing near a railroad. He saw his friend run over by the train and killed, yet to this day, he has no memory of what he saw.

An experience like that is so traumatic that the mind represses what seems too horrible to acknowledge and feel.

Repression, along with suppression and denial, are attempts to avoid emotions that are painful. However, denial is a conscious act, whereas repression is unconscious.

Projection

Projection is also an attempt to deny something, but the dynamic is different. It’s a means of transferring something you don’t want to someone else.

A familiar example is a situation in which someone accuses you of behaving in a way that, in actuality, they behave. For instance, you’re late meeting up with your friend for the first time ever, and she tells you, “You’re always late to everything!” The truth is that she’s late to most everything and is known for that, not you.

Your friend denies to herself that she has a problem with punctuality and projects this unwanted issue onto you.

Think of it as a game of hot potato. When you dislike something about yourself and find it unacceptable, you throw it to someone else so you don’t have to feel the heat.

Projection is the source of many arguments because it distorts reality and feels like a personal attack that’s unwarranted.

Projection, like denial, is used to avoid dealing with the anxiety and pain that would come from recognizing something about yourself that threatens your self-esteem or self-image.

Splitting

Splitting is a defense mechanism you’ve likely only heard of if you work in psychology. However, it is widely used and is the basis of all-or-nothing thinking.

Splitting is the practice of seeing things as only good or only bad.

It originates during the toddler years. The 2-year-old sees Mommy as all good when she meets his needs and allows him free rein to explore but as all bad when she tells him “no” or thwarts his desires and drives.

It’s cute at that age, although sometimes exasperating. But it’s not pretty when adults act similarly.

Splitting is the inability to see things in wholeness where both good and bad coexist, along with many shades of grey.

People who have difficulty with this developmental stage ping-pong between the extremes. They play them out in relationships and within themselves.

For example, when your partner is attentive, loving, and affectionate, he’s a good partner. But if he’s temporarily preoccupied and does something to disappoint you, you see only what you don’t like about him.

We all do this occasionally, but the person who consistently engages in splitting operates this way most of the time.

Splitting also applies to your self-image: you see yourself as all good when you’re performing well and all bad when you make mistakes—even just one. There’s no in-between. You can’t see yourself objectively as an evolving person with ups and downs and positive and negative characteristics.

Although this all-or-nothing approach is considered a cognitive distortion, splitting is more than that. It’s a developmental problem that has lingering effects from childhood into adulthood and affects most facets of functioning. It’s the basis of the us-versus-them mentality.

Now for a healthy defense mechanism.

Sublimation

Sublimation is channeling an unwanted and unacceptable impulse into an acceptable activity that provides an outlet for expression.

Here are some examples:

You compete in sports, which allows you to sublimate your aggressive drives into regulated, socially acceptable activity that satisfies those urges.

You have a heated argument with your partner, but instead of yelling and ranting and saying things you can’t take back, you go for a walk to cool off and regain some objectivity, thereby protecting the relationship from harm.

Sometimes, people use the trauma they’ve experienced to write novels and poems or pursue other artistic outlets that allow them to express their emotions and help move through them.

You had a chaotic day at work and are feeling anxious about your job, but once you’re home, you give the kitchen a good cleaning and get everything organized and in place, thereby relieving your anxiety for the night.

You get the idea. You channel the negative into the positive and provide yourself with emotional release and relief.

The only hitch is that sublimation is not a solution to issues that need resolution. Taking a walk to prevent a conversation from going south is a good strategy, but you still need to resolve the problem that started the argument. Your clean kitchen relieves you tonight, and you’ll sleep well, but the issues at work are still there, and you’ll need to attend to them tomorrow.

That’s all right. Sublimation is a wonderful stop-gap and coping mechanism that provides emotional space.

How to Use This Information

Knowing about defense mechanisms can help you develop better coping skills.

Today, you learned about denial, projection, and splitting, which are all defensive methods of avoiding reality. They allow you to skirt around issues and emotions you don’t want to face, but there’s a cost. There’s always a cost when you ignore reality because you’re operating in the dark.

The way to overcome negative defense mechanisms is to consistently watch and increase awareness of when you use them and substitute better coping skills, like sublimation.

  • Observe your behavior.
  • Question your assumptions.
  • Use journaling to review daily situations where you’ve used them and write what you could have done instead.

Letting go of defense mechanisms is an ongoing process and takes time and diligence. They’re habits that have taken a long time to form and will take time to undo, but the benefits are significant. You become happier with yourself and others, and you free up emotional energy to pursue your goals. It’s worth your time.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

Blog Short #181: Are You Stuck in Your History?


Photo by elenaleonova, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Your past, especially those years growing up, has a significant impact on your present. That’s nothing new. The real question is: Is your history still driving your life right now? And, if so, is it a roadblock to your happiness?

That question is sort of angsty but worth pursuing. When someone enters into psychotherapy, that question is front and center.

You might not like that and think that it’s a moot point.

After all, isn’t therapy about blaming your parents for where you are and how you function?

Actually, it’s not. Parents are people and have issues they bring along when they become parents. If you have kids, you likely know that because nothing makes you more aware of your deficits than being a parent. However, your parents and the circumstances of your life growing up are influential factors in how you feel as an adult.

Even if you think you don’t need therapy – which is fine – you can still make use of the information I’m going to go over today to help you remove psychological obstacles that are in the way of your functioning and pursuit of happiness.

Let’s start with the primary goals of therapy.

Three Goals of Psychotherapy

When people start therapy, they usually have a specific concern they want to work on, which is always a good place to start. Yet, as therapy proceeds, there are three factors underlying any particular problem that need exploring. Here they are.

1. Identify and edit personal narratives.

When you wind your way through your early childhood and adolescence, you internalize narratives about who you are.

These narratives are created through your interactions with your parents, primarily during the early years, and expanded to include extended family, teachers, peers, and other adults with whom you interact, such as coaches, friends, friends’ parents, etc., as you move through adolescence. These narratives are composites of strong messages you got from all these sources.

The stronger and more repetitive the messages, the deeper they become internalized and ingrained in your psyche, and the more you identify with them.

For example, if you were the oldest child, you might have been expected to provide caretaking duties for your younger siblings and take on adult responsibilities early on. As an adult, you identify yourself as the person in charge and the caretaker whose primary purpose is managing, solving problems, and caretaking. Those repetitive messages, experiences, and expectations have shaped your identity.

Or, let’s say you grew up hearing the message, “You’ll never amount to much of anything.” If you heard it repeatedly from your parents and extended family, and eventually from your teachers in school as you underperformed, you internalized it and now consciously or subconsciously tell yourself the same thing. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that shows up in your adult behavior. Maybe you dropped out of college, can’t keep a job for long, and sabotage your relationships.

In both the above examples, the messages you received growing up, either directly or indirectly through expectations, discipline, criticism, experiences, and characterizations by your parents, are your narratives now. You repeat them regularly through self-talk, interactions with others, and behavioral patterns that reinforce them.

As an adult, these narratives are well ingrained and automated psychologically and neurologically.

Sorting out and identifying those narratives is the first primary goal of therapy because doing so provides a clear picture of where you are and what needs to change.

The narratives may be positive or negative, but identifying them helps you see where you’re constricted and what needs editing.

2. Identify, express, and regulate emotions.

A second goal of therapy is to widen your awareness of your emotions. You need to attend to how you feel in various situations and circumstances.

If you’ve learned to suppress emotions in your family of origin or because they’re painful and you wish to avoid them, the therapist will teach you how to label them with greater accuracy and understand and accept them.

You will then learn to see them through the lens of mindfulness, which provides some distance from them so you can improve your ability to express and regulate them productively and usefully.

3. Increase reality testing.

The last goal is to increase your ability to become aware of cognitive distortions and learn to question and analyze your thoughts and perceptions.

Your view of yourself and the world is colored by your interpretations of your experiences and the conclusions you draw from them.

No one sees from a 360-degree view. It’s inevitable to distort what you see to some degree.

To lessen that tendency, you need to get in the habit of questioning your thoughts and conclusions to reduce distortion as much as possible. By doing that, you come closer to pinpointing what’s of value, when and how to moderate your behavior, and you increase your self-awareness.

Do You Need Therapy?

Not necessarily. If you think you’re stuck and can’t work through the issues holding you back, then by all means, seek out therapy with someone who will walk you through the steps we’ve outlined above.

You can also work at all three of these goals yourself. Use these exercises to get started.

Identify the narratives.

This exercise is key. Most of us don’t think about creating narratives.

You might ruminate about how you were raised and feel victimized in some cases, and maybe you were. You might blame your parents or circumstances, but you may not have thought about specific narratives you’ve internalized about who you are.

Those narratives are always tinged with a value judgment – either negative or positive.

Start by listing as many of those narratives you can identify and get familiar with the messages you’re repeating to yourself now.

One of three things will happen as you do this:

  1. You’ll agree with and like the narrative and want to keep it.
  2. You’ll agree with and dislike the narrative and want to change it.
  3. You won’t agree with it and will want to discard or replace it.

This exercise will increase your self-awareness of the stories you tell yourself about who you are and make you question them. You get a good look at your self-talk.

People self-talk all day long and often don’t recognize how influential those messages are. It’s a constant feedback loop. You tell yourself something repeatedly, and then that message folds back in on you and influences your behavior to validate the message. It creates a cognitive bias.

Identify your emotions.

This step requires courage if you’ve become skilled at suppressing and avoiding your emotions, especially those that are painful. I’m always telling you that suppression doesn’t work because your emotions go underground and still exert power, which is true.

The more aware you are of your emotions, the more control you have, and the better you can regulate them.

That doesn’t mean you must act on your feelings every time they surface. Sometimes, you put them away until you have time to deal with them because your attention is required for something else at the moment. Sometimes, you release them.

Do this: Ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” as you go through your daily experiences.

Get good at labeling your emotions more accurately. If you don’t know how to do that, download the lists of positive and negative emotions I’ve attached at the bottom. It’s incredible how many there are; being more selective will help you pinpoint how you feel.

The second step is to watch your feelings as they surface, but reserve time to think about how to respond.

That’s an arduous task, but the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes and the better you regulate yourself. Try widening the space between feeling and responding more as you go.

Detect cognitive distortions.

You’ve already engaged in the first step of this activity when working with your narratives. I’ve also attached a handout describing the more common distortions people use to help you identify how you fare in this category. It includes exercises you can practice.

The Best Way to Proceed

You can do all three steps simultaneously, but it is good to be aware of each separately to help you focus on what you need to work on most.

The most important takeaway is that you can change anything about yourself by consistently using the strategies we’ve gone over today. You don’t need to be stuck with old narratives from your history that are keeping you entrapped.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

PositiveFeelingsHandout.pdf
NegativeFeelingsHandout.pdf

CognitiveDistortions.pdf