Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dealing with people you don't like

I try, whenever possible, to keep toxic people out of my life.  I encourage others to do the same.  For me, a rule of thumb is: if the negative things a person brings to your life far outweigh the positive the relationship is toxic. 

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to avoid interactions with toxic people.  The toxic individual in question might be your boss, your child's teacher, a coworker in the cubicle next to yours, your neighbor, etc.  You can - and probably should - limit your interactions with these people.  Still, it is simply not possible to avoid them altogether. 

That's the situation I find myself in now with my husband's ex wife, who is also the mother of his five year old daughter.  This woman is about as toxic as they come!  (I won't get into specific details.  There's no point in trashing her in a public forum.  Neither does it seem particularly appropriate to air the stains on my dirty laundry in such a venue).  My strong preference would be to avoid all dealings with this woman.  While I do keep our contact to a (bare) minimum, there are still times when I have to engage with her (like when I pick up my stepdaughter for our weekend with her because my husband has to work late on Friday nights). 

Interacting with this woman has an emotional and even physical impact on me.  On days I have to meet her to pick up my stepdaughter my chest is so tight with anxiety that it aches from the time I wake up in the morning until the whole ordeal is over.  When I first met her I tried to introduce myself and be friendly.  She was not receptive.  Initially, I thought she would become less hostile over time.  About a year has passed since we first met; things have not changed much.  I have to accept that she might never become less hostile towards me (and my husband). 

The reality is that if my interactions with her are going to become less emotionally distressing for me it's not going to be because she becomes friendlier.  I am going to have to look inside myself to find peace.  But what am I looking for?

I once read that when we don't like a particular individual it is because we dislike the emotions we experience when we are in that person's presence.  Something about the person evokes in us a negative emotional response; we interpret this response to mean that we do not like the individual who triggered it.  Theoretically, however, our emotional reactions to people say more about us than they say about the people who trigger them. 

Cher Huber, noted author and Zen teacher (, goes one step further.  She states that not only do we not like being in the presence of someone we do not like; we do not like ourselves when we are in that person's presence either!

I look to my experience with my husband's ex-wife to see if this fits; it does.  When I'm in her presence I stop being myself.  I become focused on not setting her off.  Suddenly, I feel like I'm eleven years old again, trying to be invisible so as to avoid being targeted by the classroom bully.

Cheri Huber suggests that we can make it easier to be in the presence of a person we dislike by turning our attention inward and remaining focused on liking ourselves.  I've given some thought as to how to go about doing this.  I've decided that the next time I have to interact with my stepdaughter's mother I will be armed with some self-empowering mantras I can repeat to myself throughout the encounter.  I'm hoping this will help me to stay in touch with my "real self."  I also hope it will help me to reach some sort of peace with the situation as it is.  While I have to interact with this woman I DO NOT have to allow it to make me miserable.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

False Self

I've still been thinking a lot about the concept of differentiation.  The idea was advanced by Dr. M. Bowen, who developed a practice model called Family Systems Theory.  I vaguely remember learning about this in college.  I've discovered, though, that different notions strike a chord at different times.  In college, for example, when I was first introduced to Bowen's ideas, I was not particularly impressed by them.  I didn't (and still don't) want to do family therapy so a family systems theory just wasn't that interesting to me.  Fast forward six years.  I am exposed to the same information at a different point in time and I realize it is the link that ties all the other clinical knowledge and skills I've gained over the years together.  It's like a light bulb went off!  Differentiation is most of the therapy process is all about!  When a person comes to me for help, what I'm really trying to do is help that individual develop the skills he needs to increase his level of differentiation!

I know, it's not exactly a revolutionary idea.  It's just that it's all coming together in my mind and I'm excited...

Anyway.  The ultimate goal of a child's psychological development is a healthy adult identity.  If parents meet the child's basic emotional needs during each stage of development the child gains confidence in himself as a person.  He develops a clear, solid sense of who he is and what he stands for.  The child becomes a well-differentiated adult.

If, however, the child's basic emotional needs are not met (for whatever reason), he will not have the inner resources he needs in order to feel sure about who he is as a person.  Instead of becoming a healthy adult, he develops a "false self."

What is a false self?  It's essentially an adopted or borrowed identity that changes depending upon the context.  Having a false self is like wearing a thin shell that provides just enough of an exterior to allow you to blend in with everyone else.  The shell itself is hollow; because of its thin skin and empty interior it is extremely fragile and easily broken.  It needs to fill itself up and become more solid in order to ensure its survival.  It cannot do this alone; it needs other people to fill it with substance and increase its solidity. 

So what does a false self look like?  A person with only a false self constantly changes his attitudes and beliefs to promote a sense of comfort and stability in his relationship or relationships.  He has virtually no idea what he actually believes or values; it's irrelevant.  His primary concern is to prevent conflict in important relationships so that they remain intact.  (After all, he needs these relationships to "fill him up," i.e., to tell him who he is).  His beliefs therefore can and often do change quite rapidly.  A belief is quickly abandoned if it no longer supports and preserves an important relationship.  Beliefs that do seem to support important relationships tend to be rigid and resistant to change, even in the face of irrefutable evidence that the beliefs are unreasonable or even false.

(I once had a roommate who jumped from relationship to relationship.  It baffled me how within a week of ending a purportedly "serious" relationship she was always able to find someone else with whom she quickly became "serious."  Her interests and extracurricular activities changed with each boyfriend.  Each new boyfriend was also accompanied by a new set of "friends."  She did have two or three friendships that did not appear to be dependent upon her romantic relationships; I noticed that these friends frequently expressed concern about her behavior and often tried to encourage her to take a temporary break from dating). 

A person with only a false self is dominated by his emotions.  He has little or no insight into his thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.  He identifies completely with his emotions without ever stopping to consider what assumptions or beliefs might fuel them.  He has difficulty accepting responsibility for how he feels; rather, he blames others for "causing" his emotions.  His feelings are his Truth (with a capital T).  For someone with a false self, his emotions at any given moment are a direct reaction to what is transpiring in his primary interpersonal relationship (or relationships).  Therefore, his emotional stability is completely dependent upon the stability of this (or these) relationship (or relationships).

Everyone has a false self, to one degree or another.  People who are more differentiated, however, also have a true or "solid" self.  The higher a person's level of differentiation the more his true self is in control.  The true self is everything the false self is not.  When the true self is in control, a person's beliefs are guided by his individual goals and values.  His beliefs might change in response to new information; they do not, however, fluctuate in ways that ensure stability in an important relationship (or relationships).  The personal worth of someone with a true self comes from within; it is not dependent upon other people for validation.  When a person operates in "true self mode," he takes responsibility for calming his own emotions instead of expecting others to make him feel better or alleviate his distress.  

To me, mindfulness plays an invaluable role in strengthening our true selves.  The more we learn to observe our emotions without judgment the less reactive we become.  If we can adopt a curious and accepting attitude towards our feelings we can learn to contain them ourselves; this decreases our reliance on others for soothing our negative emotions. 

I think I've written more than enough today.  I'm pretty sure, though, that I have a lot more to say on the subject:-)

Sunday, August 14, 2011


I've been thinking a lot recently about the concept of differentiation.  Differentiation is an outgrowth of normal psychological and emotional development.  It gradually develops throughout childhood and adolescence.  If all goes well, the process culminates in an adult with a well defined sense of self and the capacity for intimate relationships with others.  Different people achieve varying levels of differentiation.  The Bowen Center ( explains the difference between a well-differentiated individual and someone who is poorly differentiated.

A person with a poorly differentiated self needs frequent approval and validation from others in order to feel good about himself and to maintain an inner sense of stability.  Without it, a poorly differentiated person feels unworthy, insignificant, and even empty.  Because he needs others' approval and validation in order to feel stable, a poorly differentiated person tries to control the people in his life, either overtly or covertly.

These are the people you know with "control issues."  They are the ones who cannot tolerate disagreement from others.  They are easily overwhelmed by their emotions and look to external sources (such as alcohol, sex, eating, shopping, etc.) for comfort when they are distressed.  They are those who go along with what "everyone else" says and does and who are not able to stand up for themselves or to speak their minds.  They often have problems in interpersonal relationships because they expect others to meet their emotional needs and feel angry or rejected when they don't.

A well-differentiated person recognizes the importance of interpersonal relationships and acknowledges their influence on his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  He has, however, a clear set of values and goals that guide his decisions.  He experiences strong emotions but is not controlled by them.  He is comfortable accepting or rejecting another's viewpoint based on its merits, not on his desire to influence the other's opinion of him.  He is able to comfort himself when he is upset and copes with negative emotions in ways that are not harmful to himself nor to others.  He is comfortable with himself and so has no anxiety about revealing his true self to other people in the context of an intimate relationship.

So what determines an individual's level of differentiation?  This is one instance where the cliche that all adult problems have their origins in childhood actually applies.  The level of differentiation you achieve depends upon the degree to which your family of origin meets your emotional and psychological needs throughout your childhood, thereby endowing you with the inner resources needed for you to grow and develop as an individual.  Dr. Robert Noone describes this as "the degree to which the emotional unit of the family has been able to allow that individual to grow toward emotional maturity."

The theory is that individuals achieve about the same level of differentiation as their parents and that by the time an individual reaches adulthood, his or her level of differentiation is pretty well established.  It is very difficult - but NOT impossible - to achieve higher levels of differentiation after a person reaches adulthood.

There is actually a scale that measures an individual's level of differentiation.  Here's the link, if you're interested:,%20Development%20and%20initial%20validation.pdf 
It's a PDF file; the scale is on the last page (pg. 12 of 12).  I haven't taken it yet, but I'll share my score as soon as I do.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seeing yourself as others see you

Do you ever wonder how other people perceive you?  It's probably safe to assume that the way others see you is at least a little different than you see yourself (and at times might differ significantly).  You can make inferences about how you come across to others from the verbal and non-verbal messages they send when you interact with them; but short of someone "cluing you in" or asking others for feedback directly, it's very difficult to know with any certainty what you look like to the rest of the world.

Most of us operate under the mistaken assumption that other people see things the same way we do.  This can create a lot of unnecessary conflict.  For example, when someone is rude to us we assume this person intended to be rude.  We then draw our own conclusions about why that person was rude: he doesn't like us, he's rude to everyone and is basically just an asshole overall, the stress of a new promotion is too much for him and he's on the verge of a breakdown, etc.  Any and/or all of these things could be true -- or not.  It could be that the person didn't mean to be rude at all and has no idea he came across that way.

As a rule, I am a big fan of open communication and not jumping to conclusions.  I believe it is always best to check your perceptions before making assumptions about the motivations of others.  Despite this (and I'm sure I am not alone), I still find myself coming across in ways I don't intend.

A couple of years ago, it became apparent to me and to many of my colleagues that my boss did not like me very much.  My initial response to this realization was, "Good.  The feeling is mutual."  Over time - and with a little persuasion from a couple of trusted coworkers - I decided that it really was in my best interest to be on my boss' good side -- or at least not on his bad side.  After all, he was in charge of a lot of decisions that could have a significant impact on me.  The problem was, how did I fix things when I had no idea what I'd done to rub my boss the wrong way?

Fortunately, I had a couple of more experienced colleagues who were sort of like mentors to me.  They explained that my boss thought I was rude and disrespectful because I was always doing something other than paying attention at meetings, I never contributed to group discussions, and I barely seemed to listen when he talked to me.

This came as a complete surprise to me, although I could see how he might interpret my behaviors the way that he did.  See, I'm the type of person who tends to be in "my own little world," especially when  I'm in a large group of people.  I also have a really difficult time paying attention for long periods of time while someone stands at the front of a room and talks.  (It's always been a problem, even in college).  In addition, when I'm focused on something it's hard for me to pull my attention away from it, even when someone like my boss walks into the office to talk to me.

It was never my intention to be disrespectful or dismissive, but that's how I was perceived.  Once I was made aware of how my boss viewed my actions I made a conscious effort to change them.  I went out of my way to contribute to discussions and to participate during meetings.  I also went out of my way to be friendly to him.  And my efforts paid off.  A year later, my boss went to bat for me when the clinic manager at my work site bad mouthed me to a superior.  I was glad to have his support and I told him so.

That's a story with a happy ending but I'm still a work in progress -- we all are.  I recently discovered that my husband thinks I am selfish because I don't like to share or loan things to people.  (On the flip side, I also hate borrowing things from other people.  I don't like having outstanding loans, be it to another person or to the power company).  I understand how not wanting to share with others can be seen as selfish.  Really, though, my discomfort with this stems from anxiety.  Although I realize it's unreasonable, I like to have all things in their proper places.  It really bothers me when something is out of place.  Obviously, if someone else is borrowing something from me that thing can not be in its "proper place."  It just creates a lot of anxiety. 

I got defensive when my husband told me how he perceived my unwillingness to share.  Later, though, I realized that it was important for me to know.  It's important to understand how your behaviors are perceived by others, even if you ultimately decide not to change them; it is an invaluable tool for increasing self-awareness and stimulating self-growth.

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