Sunday, July 31, 2011

Self-intimacy and Self-estrangement

Human beings are social creatures.  Sure, we value our possessions and our achievements but of all the things we value it is our relationships we cherish most.  Meaningful intimate relationships give our lives meaning and bring us happiness like nothing else can.  Unfortunately, problems in our interpersonal relationships can wreak havoc on our lives and bring us untold misery and suffering.

Everyone has had some sort of interpersonal conflict over the course of their lives.  Some of us, however, have more difficulty with intimate relationships than others.  Maybe we have trouble choosing the right people to trust.  Perhaps we keep repeating the same mistakes in our relationships time after time.  How do we get past the barriers that are preventing us from having fulfilling relationships?  Ironically, we have to start with ourselves.

Intimacy occurs in a relationship when two people are able to be fully present with one another.  The ability to be fully present with another person, however, requires the capacity to be fully present with yourself.  In other words, in order to develop intimacy with another person you have to learn to be intimate with yourself.  Self-intimacy means feeling connected to all parts of yourself and the full range of your experiences.  To be self-intimate is to accept all parts of yourself, even those that you dislike or that make you feel uncomfortable, ashamed, or vulnerable. 

Denying certain aspects of yourself or certain segments of your experience results in self-alienation or self estrangement.  Terry Cooper ( describes self-estrangement as the process of "gradually becom[ing] a stranger to ourselves."  The more self-alienated we become, the less attuned we are to our real wants, needs, hopes, and dreams.  It becomes increasingly more difficult for a self-estranged person to find real joy in life.  Over time, life starts to lose meaning.  This is a natural consequence of losing touch with our innermost desires; we no longer have any idea what might bring us a sense of purpose, meaning, or fulfillment.  To be self-alienated is to be perpetually dissatisfied.  You reach a point where you are so far removed from your real self that you no longer know what makes you happy.   

And of course, self-estrangement causes problems in interpersonal relationships.  People who lack self-intimacy find it uncomfortable to establish intimacy with others.  They have denied whatever aspects of themselves they don't like and have hidden them outside of their conscious awareness.  It is far more difficult, however, to hide these aspects from a person who knows us intimately.  So in order to keep these parts hidden we erect barriers to keep people from getting too close.  Or perhaps the disowned parts of ourselves interfere with the development of intimacy.  Take, for example, a woman who is excessively jealous and controlling.  When her boyfriend confronts her about these behaviors she denies that they are a problem and blames her boyfriend for not making her feel more secure.  Or a man might be unwilling to share his feelings with his wife.  When she tries to get him to be more open he gets angry and defensive and accuses her of nagging.

If a person is unable to accept and tolerate a given aspect of himself then he will probably react poorly when someone else exhibits that same quality.  For example, a person who is not comfortable expressing anger might shut down when his partner becomes angry at him.  

The key to developing satisfying intimate relationships with other people is to develop a satisfying intimate relationship with yourself.  As with so many of the important things in life the way to do this is through mindful acceptance.  Accept whatever part of yourself emerges in a given moment; pay attention to it without trying to push it away.  As these moments of mindfulness accumulate you will come to know and love yourself.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


It's impossible for any one person to know and understand himself completely.  Certainly there are different levels of self knowledge but no one ever attains complete knowledge of his or her psyche.  Whenever I start to think I know myself as well as I possibly can something happens to prove otherwise.

I might become really upset about something that doesn't seem like a big deal.  I find myself asking, "Why did I get so upset about that?"  I might really dislike a particular person even though she has never done anything to me.  I'll wonder, "Why don't I like this person?  What is it about her that rubs me the wrong way?"  Maybe I'll feel sad or angry for no identifiable reason.  I'll ask myself, "What's bothering me?  Why am I in such a bad mood?"

It's possible that I won't be able to answer these questions, no matter how long I dig for them.  Some things are so deeply hidden somewhere in our unconscious minds that we'll never unearth them.  And so there is always a part of oneself that remains a mystery, both to you and to everyone else.

If a person remains a mystery to himself then he will never come close to completely knowing and understanding someone else.  Yet we make the mistake all the time of assuming we know everything there is to know about those closest to us.  Most of the time it is a spouse or romantic partner who we believe no longer holds any surprises for us.  After years of being in a committed relationship with the same person, many of us grow bored with the monotony of daily life.  We complain that there is no longer any passion in the relationship.  Life with this partner has become too predictable; there is no longer any excitement.  We might wistfully recall the early days in the relationship when just seeing our partner gave us butterflies.  We can't pinpoint exactly what's missing in the relationship; it just seems like we know everything there is to know about our partner and we've become bored.  This happens all the time; it's one of the more common reasons for relationship dissatisfaction and even divorce. 

In reality, the problem isn't that we know all there is to know about our partners; the problem is that we think we know everything there is to know so we stop being curious.  We assume we know the reasons for their actions (or lack thereof); we believe we know how they feel and what they think.  We're wrong. In fact, a 2009 study by Tsapelas, Aron, and Orbuch ( suggests that believing we know all there is to know about someone actually creates distance in a relationship.  In other words, the more we think we know a person the less we probably do. 

The point is, it's impossible to fully know and understand another person, anymore than we can completely know and understand ourselves.  We are cheating ourselves when we make the assumption that we know everything about someone.  We enrich our lives when we remain curious and continue to ask questions; the result is deeper and more fulfilling relationships.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Right to Feel

A patient came into my office the other day upset because she'd just learned that her ex-husband's father (and her daughter's grandfather) died after a long bout with cancer.  She'd been able to "keep it together" in front of her two year old daughter, she explained; after dropping her daughter off at the babysitter's she burst into tears.  "He was always so nice to me," she said.  "Even after the divorce he hugged me and said, 'We still love you.'"

She went to work and must have seemed distracted because her supervisor pulled her aside and asked her if everything was ok.  When she told her supervisor why she was upset she told her to take the rest of the day off.  She came to see me that afternoon.  She felt guilty about being given the day off.  "Company policy says you get time off for the death of immediate family," she explained.  "He's not my family anymore.  Do I even have the right to feel sad?"

What a question!  Of course I told her she had the right to feel sad -- she did have the right!  But she certainly didn't need my permission, or anyone else's for that matter.  Why?  Because no one can give another person the "right to feel," nor can they take it away. 

If we as a society were to appoint certain people responsible for granting or revoking the right to feel, who would we put in charge of such a task?  What knowledge, skills, or innate qualities would a person need in order to be qualified to render such judgments?  And what criteria would a given individual need to meet in order to earn the right to feel?  Would only certain feelings be permissible or would specific feelings be deemed appropriate for specific situations?

Even if you were able to sort all of this out it wouldn't matter.  Regardless of what restrictions one might attempt to place on emotions (his own or someone else's), most people typically have little control over the feelings they experience.  People are able to exercise control over how they express (or don't express) their feelings, but for most of us we feel (experience) whatever emotions arise, whether we want to or not.  Think about it.  Have you ever felt a certain way (maybe depressed, hurt, or angry) but didn't want to feel that way and wished you felt differently?  Maybe you remember the first time someone broke your heart?  You felt hurt and miserable and would have given anything to just feel better.  Did you stop hurting just because you wanted to?  Probably not.

And that's the thing; our feelings don't really do what we want them to.  Feelings do what feelings do; it's just the way things are.  So to me, it's completely unreasonable for someone to try to tell another person how he should or should not feel.  Yet it happens all the time: "You have no right to be angry!" "There's no reason for you to feel sad; you have everything you could possibly want in life."  Or even, "Cheer up!" 

It's also unreasonable for us to tell ourselves we should or should not feel a certain way.  We probably didn't ask to feel what we're feeling.  Telling ourselves we're wrong for feeling that way just makes us feel guilty, on top of whatever negative thing we're already feeling.  That doesn't mean that we can't recognize when our emotions have been triggered by our own insecurities or when our feelings have no basis in the reality of a particular situation.  By allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is we feel it makes us better able to see where that emotion is coming from.  If the emotion is somewhat misguided we are far more likely to recognize that if we acknowledge it than if we try to suppress it because we believe we "shouldn't" feel that way and feel guilty about it.

The fact is, we all have the right to feel; all we have to do is give ourselves permission to exercise it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Present versus Future

I am only unhappy when I think of where I want to be instead of where I am.  I am only dissatisfied when I consider my current circumstances vis-a-vis my IDEAL circumstances.  My life is good and I'm grateful, especially when I consider all of the people in this country who have been hit hard by the recession or who have lost all of their worldly possessions due to fire, flooding, or tornadoes.  I have so many wonderful things in my life.  I  have a career that I find meaningful and rewarding and that provides me with enough money to live comfortably.  I have a cute little house in a quiet neighborhood.  I have a kind-hearted husband who loves me.  I have been blessed with the opportunity to develop a relationship with my beautiful stepdaughter.  I have an absolutely extraordinary family that I love beyond words.  I have a few very close friends who are loyal and trustworthy.  What more could I possibly want?

When I approach life with this mindset I am completely content.

Ah, but there's always a BUT.  You see, my husband - like so many others in this economy - has been struggling to find work for well over a year now.  He recently started working for a friend who owns his own business.  It doesn't pay very much and it doesn't offer any benefits but at least he's earning some money.  He's been able to give me some money to help out, which I put directly into my savings account (I always plan for the future).  One of the reasons he took the job with his friend instead of accepting another job with a temp agency that paid the same amount was because the job with his friend had flexible work hours.  He'd have some down time at work to search and apply for jobs; he would then have the flexibility to leave work during the day to go to job interviews.

The problem is, the interviews never came.  Periodically, I email him jobs I think would be a good fit for him; he says he applies for all of them but he either doesn't hear back or he gets rejection emails.  It's really discouraging.  I think of all the things we've talked about for our future - getting a bigger house, having a child, going on family vacations - and wonder if they'll ever happen.  What if he doesn't find a good job any time soon?  Does that mean I should forget about wanting a bigger house and a kid?

I start feeling depressed whenever I think about it.  So my dilemma is this: Do I live my life completely in the present and just let the future take care of itself?  If so, HOW do I do that?  I've always been a forward-looking person.  I find it very motivating to have things to work towards (and to look forward to).  Yet, if I don't like what I see when I look towards the future, maybe it's best to stop looking there.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

When You're Stuck -- Attention and Repetition

A big focus in therapy is a patient's beliefs: beliefs about self, about other people, and about the world.  Everyone has beliefs; as humans, it's how we organize and make sense of the world.  Individuals vary in terms of how aware they are of their beliefs.  Whether aware or unaware, an individual's beliefs influence everything that person does, says, thinks, or feels. 

Many of my patients have developed problematic beliefs that are contributing to feelings of depression, anxiety, panic, anger, etc.  A lot of the work in therapy involves identifying those beliefs, recognizing the negative consequences of maintaining them, examining their validity, and ultimately, generating alternative, more balanced beliefs.  This is definitely a process that unfolds over time.  It is not always an easy process and there are a few places where people tend to get stuck.

Sometimes it's in the very beginning; the patient and I are not able to put our fingers on the belief that seems to be driving their symptoms.  (This is probably the least common place people become stuck, at least in my experience).  Other times, people have trouble recognizing when the belief has been activated.  This makes it difficult to see the impact the belief has on the person's emotions (which is what typically builds that person's motivation to change the belief).  Some people get stuck on the belief itself.  They have trouble considering that the belief might not be accurate, even when there is no evidence to support its validity.  

Then, there is one place that almost everyone seems to struggle (in my experience).  They have identified the problematic belief and have recognized its negative impact on their thoughts and feelings.  They have looked at the evidence and have determined that the belief is inaccurate.  They have developed an alternative, more balanced belief.  Now, they say to me, "I know in my mind that [the old belief] isn't true but I still feel like it's true."

The head and the heart are sending two different messages.  What do you do?

In my view, this is actually the most difficult part of the process.  For whatever reason, it seems to take the heart a lot longer to figure out what the head already knows.  Really, I think that emotions tend to operate on habit; when you get used to experiencing a particular emotion your body keeps generating that emotion by sheer force of habit.  The task, then, is to gradually change the body's habitual way of feeling.

This is where attention and repetition come in.  Attention means noticing every time the old belief is activated and recognizing the feeling(s) associated with the belief.  Repetition means that every time you see the old belief activated you say to yourself, "Oh, there's that old belief.  I know it's not true."  You then cognizantly replace that belief with the previously identified alternative belief (even if you have a hard time really feeling like it's true).  Finally, you behave as if you fully belief this alternative belief, even if you still feel like you believe the old belief. 

This requires both patience and diligence, among other things.  Over time, though, if  a person keeps reminding herself that her old belief isn't true and then consciously behaves in a manner consistent with her new belief, she will eventually find that her feelings start to catch on.

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