Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Paradoxes and Contradictions

Some of life's contradictions:

1. True happiness stems from leading an authentic and meaningful life.  Unfortunately, sometimes being authentic - acting in ways that reflect your true nature and core values - leads to suffering or death.  It is not always possible to be happy and live authentically.  Such is the case for martyrs. 

2. Total contentment in life is extremely demotivating.  If a person is completely satisfied with life then he has nothing to strive for; he becomes complacent.  Thus, complete happiness is not necessarily in our best interest.

3. In contrast, dissatisfaction and unhappiness are powerful motivators for growth and positive change. 

4. Actively pursuing happiness tends to have the paradoxical effect of making people unhappy

5. People often cope with their fear of death by withdrawing or pulling back from the fullness of life.  Thus the fear of death sometimes prevents people from really living

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Inner Child

We've probably all heard someone refer to his or her "inner child."  It's another one of those psychology terms that somehow made its way into popular culture.  Carl Jung, a disciple of Freud and one of psychiatry's founding fathers, called it the "wonder child."  According to Jung, the "wonder child" is the part of the psyche with the capacity for awe and a sense of natural wonder; it is curious, creative, and loves to explore. 

The website gives the best definition of inner child I have found so far.  It defines "inner child" as that part of the psyche that retains feelings the way they were experienced in childhood.  When it is healthy, the inner child is naturally innocent, playful, and uninhibited; it has an approach to life that is simple and straightforward.

Today, you might hear clinicians talk about the "wounded inner child."  John Bradshaw ( is one of the best known proponents of "inner child work."  He has authored several books on the subject and apparently appeared on several nationally televised PBS series.  Among other things, he now travels the country conducting "inner child workshops."  According to Bradshaw, an inner child becomes wounded when normal childhood dependency needs are not met during childhood.  Normal development is arrested and dysfunctional childish behavior persists into adulthood.

While some of Bradshaw's work is a little too "touchy feely" for my taste, he does get a lot of things right. 

From birth to adulthood, a child's parents are responsible for meeting all of his or her needs.  This includes physical needs like food and shelter as well as psychological needs like security, intimacy, structure, and - later on - autonomy.  Even the very best parents don't do this perfectly.  Parents are human - they make mistakes.  To further complicate things, very young children cannot speak.  This makes it hard for them to communicate their wants and needs.  Even after they start speaking they may be unable to communicate their wants and needs because children often do not know what they want or need.  So for parents, there is a lot of guesswork.  Sometimes parents guess correctly; sometimes they don't.  Fortunately, a child doesn't need perfect parents to turn out okay.  For healthy development, a child simply needs parents to be "good enough."  (I am not making this up.  If you don't believe me, see Winnicott's ideas on the "good enough mother"). 

Sadly, there are parents who are absolutely nowhere near "good enough."  There are lots of reasons for this.  Some parents fall short due to circumstances beyond their control.  Some parents are neglectful or abusive.  Whatever the reason, if a parent doesn't meet a child's needs during childhood then that child enters adulthood with significant emotional and psychological deficits. 

So in normal psychological development, other people (i.e., parents) fulfill one's psychological and emotional needs.  It is natural, then, for those whose needs have not been met by the time they reach adulthood to look for other people to fulfill them.  To this end, they enter into relationships expecting others to fill the emptiness inside them.  They are uncertain of themselves and look to others for validation and affirmation.  They do not know how to love and appreciate themselves so they rely on others to give them love and appreciatiation.  Inevitably there comes a time when they feel empty, unloved, unworthy, or unappreciated.  They blame those people they'd expected to complete them and are left feeling disappointed or even betrayed.

They may continue their search for someone to meet their emotional needs.  They will never find such a person; no such person exists.  During childhood, our emotional and psychological needs are met by other people (i.e., parents); once adulthood arrives, the time for others to meet these needs has passed.  The window of opportunity closes.  A person must learn to provide for himself whatever needs have not been met by adulthood.

It's definitely harder this way.  It is so much easier to get what we need while we're children.  As adults, it is difficult to give ourselves what we did not get from our parents.  It is difficult, but it's not impossible.  In fact, this is often the work of therapy: learning to meet your own needs, to be your own person, and to love and accept yourself. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Existential Challenges

We hear the term "existential crisis" thrown around in pop psychology fairly often.  According to Urban Dictionary, an existential crisis is a deep, obsessive concern with unanswered questions about the meaning of life and existence.  Existential psychology identifies four "existential challenges."  These "ultimate concerns" are the "givens" of life.  They are the fundamental truths that capture the essence of the human condition.  Our lives are defined by how we respond to these challenges.  A "crisis" occurs when we become overwhelmed by these truths and can no longer cope.

The four "human givens" we must all face are:

1. Death: The curse of human consciousness is an awareness of our eventual death.  We must live while knowing we will die, yet not despair.  We must love others with the knowledge that we will ultimately lose them.  Even long life is a mixed blessing, as we gradually lose everyone who matters most. 

Most of us use denial to cope with the inevitability of death.  We refuse to think about it.  We focus instead on staying healthy and living longer.  As a society, we relegate death to certain places (e.g., hospitals), where we don't have to see it.  Denial becomes less effective as we get older.  At some point, we are forced to confront death, either our own or someone else's. 

2. Meaning:  Most of us are not content to simply exist; we need a purpose in life.  "Why are we here?"  We must each answer this question for ourselves.  Your purpose might be different than mine.  We can choose to spend ourlives however we see fit.  Those who thrive devote their time to things they find meaningful.  They feel fulfilled.  Those who lack purpose find their lives meaningless.  They tend to feel empty and lost.

3. Freedom: We each have the freedom of choice.  We are free to make decisions about our lives and to determine our own paths.  With freedom, however, comes responsibility.  We are responsible for whatever choices we make.  We cannot blame others when we are unhappy.  If we want things to change then we have to change.  Freedom can sometimes feel overwhelming.  It can be tempting to ask others to make decisions for us and to hold them responsible for the outcomes.  This too is a choice - a choice to hand over freedom and to allow others to control our destiny.

4. Isolation: We come into this world alone and that is how we leave it: alone.  We can never completely share an experience with someone else; it is impossible for one person to know exactly how another feels.  And yet, humans are innately social creatures.  We long to connect with others.  Every connection comes with the risk of being abandoned (which is inevitable - see number one).  We are alone and yet we fear being alone.  So we do things that make us feel less alone. 

These four truths really do capture the essence of what it means to be human. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Tips for Dealing with Chronic Complainers

Whiners, gripers, chronic complainers - we try to avoid them lest we get stuck listening to their latest litany of problems.  Unfortunately, we don't always see them coming fast enough to get away.  Or circumstances require that we interact with them for extended periods of time.  Whatever the reason, sometimes we are forced to deal with people like this, no matter how unpleasant we may find their company.

So how do we avoid getting sucked in by their negativity?  How do we keep their antagonistic attitude from bringing us down?  Here are some suggestions:

1. Smile and nod.  This is a tip I picked up during a training I attended a few years back.  The key here is to remain silent.  When a person starts ranting about what's wrong with the world, anything you say in response just adds fuel to the fire.  If you listen quietly without feeding the flames the complainer eventually runs out of steam. 

2. Model better behavior.  In her book "Managing Difficult People," Marilyn Pincus recommends finding three positive things to say during every conversation you have with a complainer.  Not only are you setting an example, accentuating the positive can protect you from becoming infected by the complainer's negative outlook. 

3. Make a pre-emptive strike.  Start a conversation before the complainer has a chance to say anything.  Pick a topic - preferably something neutral -  and start talking.  That way, you get to decide what to talk about.  Just be sure to steer the conversation away from whatever might be bothering the complainer today.

4. Agree and move on.  Agree with the complaint.  "Yeah, that does suck."  Then change the subject.

5. Set firm limits.  Set a limit on how long you're willing to listen.  Give the complainer a few minutes to vent.  Then say something like, "I don't mean to cut you off but I've got a lot of work to do." 

6. Put the ball in their court.  In "Complaining, Teasing, and Other Annoying Behaviors," Robin Kowalski recommends holding complainers accountable for finding their own solutions.  Say something like, "Wow, that does sound tough.  What are you going to do about it?"

7. Remain emotionally detached.  When we are repeatedly exposed to another's complaints we may begin to consider the ways in which our own lives are lacking.  Or we may become frustrated when our attempts to help a chronic complainer ultimately prove futile.  Try to avoid becoming emotionally invested in the chronic complainer's problems.  Remember, they are not your problems; do not take responsibility for them.

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