Sunday, December 26, 2010

Feelings as Facts

A patient recently told me she felt unloved.  She blamed her husband for not doing enough to demonstrate his love for her and said she was having doubts about whether or not to stay in the marriage.  I asked her how long she'd been feeling this way.  "Not long," she told me.  "Maybe a week."  I asked her what had changed about her husband's behavior over the past week.  She was not able to identify a single thing her husband was doing differently than he'd been doing when she did feel loved.

The problem, I concluded, was that she was accepting her feelings as fact.  This is called emotional reasoning and it goes something like this: "I feel unloved; therefore, I must not be getting enough love from my husband."  Another example: "I feel anxious and worried; therefore, something must be wrong."  Yet another example: "I feel sad/depressed; therefore, something must be wrong with or missing in my life."

Now any of these statements might be true.  However, feeling a particular way is not enough evidence for us to draw any conclusions one way or another.  We need more information.

The point is this:  Feelings are not facts.  Emotions are a valuable source of information but they should never be the only source of information.  This is particularly true with those emotions that have been problematic for us in the past.

Here's a personal example.  I used to be very insecure and jealous in romantic relationships.  I became upset when my significant other talked to or even talked about other females.  It didn't take long before this caused problems for me.  I often over-reacted to benign situations.  My suspicions and accusations pushed those I cared about away.  I knew I had to make some changes.

I started to interpret feelings of jealousy as a sign (or a "red flag" of sorts) that I need to take a step back or remove myself from a situation for a few moments.  First, I would acknowledge my feelings of insecurity.  Then I would attempt to determine whether or not they had any basis in reality.  Sometimes that meant calling a trusted friend or family member to explain the situation and get their point of view.  If I determined that I was over-reacting (because of my own insecurities) I did what I needed to do to cope with my emotions without taking my feelings out on my significant other.  If I decided that my significant other had, in fact, done something to warrant my jealousy I worked to identify an appropriate way to address the issue with him.

This took a lot of practice but over time it became second nature.  Eventually I even started to feel more secure in my relationships.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that accepting feelings as facts can create a lot of problems.  To really make good decisions you need a good balance of reason and emotion.  In other words, when your head and your heart are in agreement you know you are on the right path.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Practicing What You Preach

I'm the kind of person who sort of jumps from interest to interest.  For a while I'll devote a lot of time and energy to something.  Then my interest sort of fades and I move on to something else.  It's the same way in my professional life.  I like to learn new modes of therapy.  For a while I become very interested in it.  I read everything I can get my hands on and I incorporate it into my sessions with as many patients as possible.  After a time, something else catches my interest and I move on. 

I don't think there is anything particularly wrong with that way of doing things per se.  However, I believe I would probably better serve my patients by maintaining my enthusiasm for learning new treatments while not completely abandoning the "old" ones. 

I started thinking about this the other day.  I had a patient who could really benefit from mindfulness training.  If you can teach someone to practice mindfulness you can help them learn to better tolerate their emotions, which leads to increased emotional stability.  I dusted off the file labeled "Mindfulness" and pulled out my outline.  (Yes, I'm a dork.  I create outlines so I make sure to cover all the important points).  I hate to admit that I've sort of slacked off in my daily mindfulness practice.  As a result I'd sort of forgotten why I'd been so enthusiastic about it before.  I explained the mindfulness skills to my patient but I was nowhere near as confident as I used to be.  Fortunately, the patient didn't seem to mind.  She was genuinely interested and expressed a willingness to practice mindfulness regularly. 

Explaining mindfulness to my patient reminded me of how much peace it has brought me in my own life.  I need to go back to it, if for no other reason than to be able to confidently share it with those patients who could surely benefit from it.  In other words, if I'm going to "preach" it then I need to practice it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Toxic Relationships

I've often wondered why some are so reluctant to end their relationships with toxic people.  I've had friends who continued to let people back in their lives over and over again even after these people repeatedly turned their backs on them.  When it inevitably happened again they were genuinely surprised and hurt.  I never understood their surprise, as whatever the person had done this time around was completely consistent with his or her past behavior.

Now don't get me wrong.  I believe in giving second chances.  Everyone makes mistakes and in general people deserve to be forgiven.  For me the problem is when the same person repeatedly engages in behaviors that are hurtful to me in some way.  At what point do you say enough is enough?  At what point do you decide that you don't want this person in your life anymore?

Relationships and/or friendships with some people are simply toxic.  The longer you maintain the relationship the more toxicity you allow into your life.  Here are some of the qualities of a toxic relationship:

*Most of the conversations you have with this person end with you feeling unhappy, hurt, angry, put down, guilty, etc.  In other words, the person makes you feel bad more often than he or she makes you feel good.
*The person always seems to want something from you, be it money, a favor, a ride, to borrow something, etc.  Healthy relationships as a rule involve give and take.  In this relationship it's mostly about you giving and the other person taking.
*The person is rarely - if ever- there for you when you need something.
*The person is constantly criticizing you and putting you down.
*The person never expresses happiness for you when something good happens in your life.
*The person is frequently verbally or physically abusive to you.
*The person is always getting angry at you for reasons he or she refuses to share with you.  As a result, he or she often goes weeks without speaking to you because he or she is "mad."  Then, he or she tries to pick up the friendship or relationship right where it left off a few weeks later as if nothing happened.
*The person always seems to be in a crisis that he or she wants you to help fix.

These are just a few examples.  The point is, if you have a friend who resembles the descriptions I gave above you might want to ask yourself if it is healthy for you to maintain a friendship with this person.  There comes a point when the costs of maintaining certain friendships far outweigh the benefits.  When this happens it's probably time to think about ending the relationship.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Admitting You're Wrong

I've often wondered why it's so hard for human beings to admit when we're wrong and to accept constructive criticism from others.  I include myself in this.  I've had to work hard to learn to accept criticism without becoming defensive and still I catch myself wanting to explain it away when someone gives me negative feedback.  There's definitely ego involved.  There are times when we become so attached to our desire to be right that we don't even stop to listen to another person's point of view.  When insisting we are right or denying the validity of criticism we do it so vehemently that it almost seems as though we are fighting to protect our very identities.  And I think in some cases that's exactly what we are doing (or at least what we believe we are doing).

Identity is really only a collection of ideas each person has about him or herself.  Included in these ideas are beliefs about ourselves, beliefs about others, values that we believe we should adhere to, expectations we have of ourselves (and others) and our behaviors, etc.  Some people expect themselves not to make mistakes.  To admit to making a mistake is to admit that they aren't living up to their own expectations, i.e., that they are "not good enough."  Other people believe they should never show weakness to others.  They equate being wrong with being weak.  Thus, even if they know they are wrong they'd never admit it because to do so would make them seem weak and vulnerable.

The inability to accept criticism stems from self doubt.  Confident people accept themselves as they are.  They recognize that they have both strengths and limitations.  They accept that they are human.  Thus, when they are wrong they can admit it because they are, after all, only human.

The irony in this is that people who cannot accept constructive criticism are the very people who could benefit the most from it.  Criticism provides a person with important information about his or her personal weaknesses that he or she would probably not otherwise recognize.  This helps a person to identify areas for personal growth, which is, in my opinion, something we should all be striving for.

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