Danger and disappointment are parts of life: 4 reasons to stop running from them.

Aside

waves of pain. learn to surfWhen something deeply troubles you, how do you manage? Are your thoughts about yourself and your life at these times helpful or do they cause greater harm? Does the experience of pain open the floodgates for an onslaught of negative thoughts to fire away at you, cataloguing all the ways you aren’t good enough, or is it compassionate in its resolve?

If your thoughts are of the negative kind, then it is possible your brain has transformed your experience of pain into one of suffering and misery. How long this suffering persists for is defined and controlled by your own outlook rather than the severity of the event. This is because pain is a natural response to life being difficult or a problem being present, and is therefore inevitable for us all at varying degrees. Suffering, however, can continue long after the initial pain has eased. Some people live their whole lives in a state of ongoing suffering, either for past regrets and hurts they cannot accept, for all the persistent fears they have for their future or for the minor day-to-day stressors of life.

Learning to stop running from pain requires a basic acceptance of it as part of the awareness of a mortal being. This type of life skill is called Radical Acceptance, and it is one of the core components of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, a specific type of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy developed by psychologist, Marsha M. Linehan. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) gets its name from the notion that the mind interprets life by appreciating its polar opposites. The therapy weaves in the dialectic between acceptance and change. So while we work towards changing our lives in a positive direction, we also work on accepting those unfavourable or painful permanent fixtures in our life or history. Embracing this dialectic is critical to our happiness in life, particularly when life has involved persistent and ongoing hardships or trauma.

Consider these 4 reasons why we must stay in the drivers seat rather than become a passenger driven by emotions running out of control.

1. What you run from, you strengthen.

You may eat away your sorrows or drink to deal with a breakup. You may work late to avoid fights at home or hang onto others to avoid your own company. Whatever distraction tactic you use, it’s all escapism with a neat little bow. The fear gives you an intense need to save yourself, to protect yourself from those feelings in any possible way. Enormous pain requires massive defense.

Numbing or running from pain may provide relief in the moment, however it strengthens your fear. And every time you run away, you reinforce the strategy to manage painful emotions. So the very next time you feel this emotion, you go to the lolly jar or packet of chips. Or you arrange a beer at the pub. Or you run to a friend to save you. And you keep going and going with these habits until it becomes an addiction. When you look at this pattern of addiction (to food, alcohol or work), you may start to realise that it’s not simply the taste of the food that drives you to this habit, but the need to escape feeling horrible, distressed or out of control.

The difficult thing about this pattern is that you cannot face an addiction without facing the truth. The food is not the problem. Running away from your pain is the problem. And there is only one answer: abstinence. It’s the only answer for a true alcoholic and the only answer for anyone addicted to escaping pain. You must literally go cold turkey on running away from pain. You need to learn to cope another way.

The study of pain is an interesting one. According to McKay & Fanning in their book Self Esteem, pain comes in waves. Perhaps the best illustration of this is in the pain of grief. With grief, a sense of loss whelms up, a feeling so intense that one cannot imagine an end to it. But then, after a time, a numbness comes, a period of calm and relief. Soon numbness is replaced by another wave of loss. And so it continues: waves of loss, calmness, loss, calmness.

This is the natural cycle of pain. As soon as you reach an overload, your emotions shut off. You literally stop feeling for a little while. These waves continue, with smaller amplitudes and longer rest periods, until the hurt finally eases. Both your body and mind have natural mechanisms that dampen pain for periods so you get a chance to catch your breath. Your emotional pain has exactly the same oscillations. When you face the pain, you’ll notice that soon enough the wave passes. Soon, the worst of it will be over.

2. Rather than self-harm, try self-love.

Self-loathing, self-harm and self-sabotage are all destructive means to cope with emotional pain. They compound your pain by adding another layer of negativity such as guilt or a sense of failure. These are all ways to attack yourself in a desperate attempt to escape pain. But instead of automatically going into attack mode when triggered, there is another option you could try; self love.

Self-love does not have to mean telling yourself how awesome you are each time you catch your reflection (that is, it’s not about being narcissistic or completely self-indulgent). It is about simply finding your middle ground between self-attack and self-obsession. It does not matter who you are or what you believe, we could all learn a thing or two about self-compassion. As the saying goes, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation” -Henry Ward Beecher

3. Whether you caused the pain or someone else did, it’s your job to fix it.

Come with me for a minute. Imagine you are wrongly accused for committing a crime and sent to jail. All attempts to legally challenge this fails. Every day you wake up and face the reality of your situation, being that the law has decided you are guilty and deserve the punishment the crime yields. Every day you wake up in prison, needing to decide how you will get through another day, another year, another decade with this life. Is it right that you are in jail? No. Is it fair? No. Is it your reality? Yes. So what do you do with this life? Do you live each day of your sentence writhe with anger, being highly distressed and agitated with your predicament, or do you work hard on focusing your mental energy on accepting your reality? Who is happier? Who is working on utilising his emotional resources for the things within his control rather than all the things outside of his control?

Essentially, we could all learn a thing or two from the person who works on accepting his reality. This is not about approval. Approval is a very different concept. It is about accepting what cannot be changed so you can focus your skill on what can change to bring about a sense of inner peace and contentment. Life does not exist in terms of absolutes like right and wrong. Reality is reality, and it is all that exists. Avoid adding on all the suffering of the past and future as well. You only have one life to call your own. It is your job to make it a good one. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”– Jon Kabat- Zinn.

4. Even a moment of suffering can be deeply meaningful and a vehicle for greater self-awareness.
Emotional pain cannot kill you. It cannot destroy you, send you crazy or completely take over your life. However, learning how to manage emotional pain takes skill, and if you are someone who feels emotion intensely then you will need to master these skills in order to live a purposeful life. When you stop avoiding what makes you scared, you have a chance of overcoming your fear. This brings with it a chance to be free. What greater feeling exists than the freedom of truly accepting and embracing who you are?

Try these strategies to build your skills of Radical Acceptance in your life:

A. Thought Challenge. Rather than getting caught up in negative thoughts such as ‘It will last forever’ and ‘I can’t stand it’, use coping thoughts such as:
It will pass
– The feeling comes from past hurts, it has nothing to do with my true worth
– I can FEEL bad and still BE good

B. Self Love. It can be as simple as telling yourself you are good enough when someone tries to put you down or buying yourself flowers or a small treat when you’re having a bad day. This strategy involves treating yourself to the same thoughtful acts you would give to a friend when they are down (if we do it for people we love, why can’t we offer ourselves that same level of comfort and consideration?)

C. Grounding Techniques. Grounding techniques teach you to anchor yourself as you ride the wave of emotional pain (sometimes we need to get out of our heads and into our body and the world). This could be via meditation, prayer, yoga, exercising, squeezing clay or mud or slowly tasting food. These strategies don’t solve the problem, but they could stop you from attacking yourself or others in a desperate attempt to escape pain.

D. Accessing Your Higher Self. This strategy helps to remind us that everyone has value and purpose that can be found in large and small things. It involves helping someone else, thanking someone for how they’ve helped you, volunteering or contributing in some small way to a greater cause. It could be making an effort to smile at strangers and seeing how many smiles you get back.

Ultimately, building the circuitry in your brain around coping with pain involves learning how you can get your needs met in other ways. The message is simple: stop running, because you’ll be running forever. Life is hard enough as it is, it does not need to be made harder by an inability to accept your reality, whatever that happens to be right now. By searching for the message in life’s lessons, you are well on your way to healing and growth.

References:

DBT Skills Workbook, by Marsha Linehan

Self Esteem, book by Matthew McKay & Patrick Fanning

Coping Skills worksheet, by Indigo Daya. www.indigodaya.com.

The Complete Buddhism for Mothers, book by Sarah Napthali.

By: Alison Lenehan, psychologist

Thinking there is perfection is your first imperfection (the first of many)

i-can-t-keep-calm-i-m-a-perfectionistHi, my name is Alison and I am a perfectionist. Actually, let me rephrase that. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Take it from me, the road to recovery from perfectionism is a long and difficult one. Why is perfectionism such a problem that warrants recovery and repair? Does this not mean that I’m a high achiever on the healthy pursuit of excellence, destined for greatness?

Well my friends I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but perfectionism does not in any way resemble the healthy pursuit of anything. It is not healthy. Fullstop. It is actually quite harmful. Perfectionism can seem like a positive trait. It can make you seem smarter, more switched on or driven to succeed in life. Yes, often the perfectionist can present this way. But there is another side to perfectionism that is far less enticing, less rewarding and far more damaging.

Let me take you behind the scenes on some of the core beliefs behind this insidious trait. As a perfectionist:
1. You are motivated by the fear of failure or a sense of duty.
2. You feel driven to be number one, but your accomplishments, however great, never really satisfy you.
3. You feel you must earn your self-esteem. You think you must be very ‘special’ or intelligent or successful to be loved and accepted by others.
4. You are TERRIFIED by failure. If you do not achieve an important goal, you feel like a failure as a human being.
5. You think you must always be strong and in control of your emotions. You are reluctant to share vulnerable feelings like sadness, insecurity or anger with others. You believe they would think less of you.

Basically, perfectionism hampers success. It can lead you on a path towards depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis (defined as all the opportunities you have missed out on due to fear of putting anything out there that is imperfect).

These beliefs are incredibly negative and self-deprecating in nature and are inherently different to a healthy mental structure for screening and perceiving information. On the opposite end of the spectrum to perfectionism is the healthy pursuit of excellence, and this is where:
1. You are motivated by enthusiasm and you find the creative process exhilarating.
2. Your efforts give you feelings of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, even if you aren’t always ‘the greatest’.
3. You enjoy a sense of unconditional self-esteem. You do not feel you have to earn love and friendship by impressing people with your intelligence or your success.
4. You are not afraid to fail because you realise that no one can be successful all the time. Although failure is disappointing, you see it as an opportunity for growth and learning.
5. You’re not afraid of being vulnerable or sharing your feelings with people you care about. This makes you feel closer to them.

Brene Brown, a well known author of the bestseller, The Gifts of Imperfection, states that the journey towards letting go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embracing who you are starts with learning how to live a wholehearted life. Courage, compassion and connection, as the ‘gifts’ of imperfection, help you embrace your beautifully imperfect world and help you start to embrace worthiness. But don’t be fooled by these seemingly lofty ideas. The training in the use of these concepts involves practice. The art of repetition many times every single day. Not when you’ve gotten through your to-do list or when you have a spare few minutes (because let’s face it, you’re a perfectionist with a to-do list longer than you’re life span allows), but as a priority.

Here are some examples of how and what to practice.

1. Strive for a healthy outlook on life. Start and end each day with reading, watching or listening to something that inspires you.
2. Practice warmth and kindness towards yourself when you feel inadequate. Remember, imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders we are all in this together.
3. Tell yourself you are good enough just as you are. For example, at the start of your day say to yourself ‘Today, I’m going to believe that showing up is enough”.
4. Focus on forgiveness rather than bitterness. Be the ‘benefit’ finder rather than the ‘fault’ finder.
5. Work on stillness using mindfulness strategies at times when you feel vulnerable or fearful. By practicing mindfulness you will learn to roll with negative feelings so they stop having control over you. Your aim is not to be anxiety free, but to be anxiety aware.
6. Rather than being defensive, work on being open to suggestions. Embrace your flaws and learn to laugh at yourself by making your mistakes humorous and light-hearted.
7. When problems arise, focus on your sphere of influence. What is in your control to change? Move away from chronic worry that circles around in your head for days. Move into problem solving mode as quickly as you can.
8. Realise you can do one thing ‘perfect’ or many things well. Make a choice to let things go in order to increase your growth and learning.

It’s amazing how implementing such basic changes to your thinking and outlook can move you closer towards excellence from perfectionism. And if your perfectionistic brain thinks it’s not going to work so why bother, then I challenge you to challenge this faulty logic that keeps you stuck in ‘black and white’ or rigid thinking. For the richest, most beautiful and pleasing colour in the world my friends is ‘shades of grey’. That’s right. Shades of grey that go between the black and the white. This resembles flexibility and adaptability. By embracing flexibility, you have a chance to enjoy your life for what it is, in all its imperfect glory. In the words of Albert Einstein:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree,
it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

So, I will keep going on my journey and I wish you all the best of luck on yours. Remember, we cannot cross the sea merely by staring at the water. Positive change is no accident. It comes from hard work, perseverance and a little bit of love.

References:

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. 2010.

The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns. 1989.

The Pursuit of Perfect- How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life by T. Ben-Shahar, 2009.

By: Alison Lenehan, Psychologist.

7 Secrets of the Mentally Strong

mental strength image
No one wants to be the toxic one. The draining one who exhausts all of their mental energy analysing the many different ways life has been unlucky or unkind to them. Or all the reasons they have to feel sorry for themselves. Let’s be real though, we have all probably found ourselves there on occasion, ultimately leading us down a path of damaging and self-defeating behaviours. But however strongly entrenched these negative patterns are, or however much we are hurting, we do not have to succumb to the allure of negativity, for overcoming misery and misfortune involves making a choice. An important choice. A choice that can remove the shackles keeping us trapped in a web of repeated failure, chronic guilt and pain. One that can help us foster enormous mental strength and acceptance of the person we are. Or the person we want to be.

Feeling mentally strong is not necessarily an automatic gift bestowed on those who easily see the glass as half full. It is a choice that requires cultivation every day (despite what life decides to throw at us). Cultivating this choice repeatedly time and time again creates a habit. And it takes time, patience and a whole lot of hard work to create a new habit (just think of how hard it is to create a habit around regular exercise, eating well or quitting smoking). The good news? Once the new habit is created, the rest is history and we are well on our way to living the life we want.

So how do we train ourselves to exude a ‘can do’ attitude? Well, let’s be real for a minute. Part of this depends on how determined and committed you are to changing. Try to adopt the following principles and evaluate how they make you feel. Chances are you’ll feel a little better. The important thing is to persist- changing negative thought patterns takes time and causes discomfort initially. But practicing these principles repeatedly is a massive step towards breaking out of the vicious cycle of pessimism and toxicity.

1. Realise that the only one who can make yourself feel good is you. People with good self-worth foster internal validation that functions completely independently from others’ opinions of them (the flipside is where you only value yourself when others do, placing an overemphasis and even desperation on the need to please others and be noticed). As the saying goes, ‘what others think of me is none of my business’. Move away from worrying what others think of you and an unhealthy NEED to be liked. If someone likes you, that’s a bonus. If they don’t, move on because someone else will.

2. Avoid comparing yourself with others (this comes from a place of being unsure of your worth). If you find yourself doing this compulsively, you are probably always coming off second best. And how can you foster a positive self-image when you always tell yourself you aren’t good enough?

3. Stop watching for signs of rejection from others and avoid acting based on a fear of getting hurt. If you are acting with this as a motivator then you are ultimately making some bad and self-destructive choices. Be relaxed and confident in the wonderful person you are with your unique gifts and qualities.
Someone can’t get inside and change your feelings of yourself without you letting them.

4. See that no one has a perfect life and is able to be happy all the time. Therefore, when challenges arise they should be viewed as problems needing solutions. Just focusing on the problem and the pain (or the ‘circle of concern’) drains your energy and you will quickly and easily become overwhelmed (and probably build up the problem to catastrophic proportions in the process). Instead, focus on your ‘circle of influence’, or what you can do to solve the problem. If the problem cannot be solved now (or ever), then choose to focus your energy on working at accepting what cannot be changed, thus freeing up your mental energy to change what you can in your life and not stressing on all those things you can’t. The two mantras of the depressed and anxious are the ‘If Onlys’ relating to all the hurt and regret of bad decisions made in the past and the ‘What If’s’ which are the myriad of negative and catastrophic possibilities for the future. These two mantras will only serve to make you unhappy, negative and ‘stuck’.

5. Recognise that the only one responsible (and to blame) for your choices is you. You are not that vulnerable child anymore and you are not the product of other people’s opinions of you (sure these things could contribute to who you have become up until this point but ultimately the job is yours now and into the future). Take your life into your own hands and try to not blame others for your own choices and mistakes. It takes someone with good self worth to admit they are wrong (when this is justified) and to take steps to acknowledge this and repair the relationship (even when the relationship needing repair is with yourself!). Being free of the pressure to please others allows you to take on what you want to and leave the stuff you don’t (could it be that simple?). In the famous words of Dr Seuss:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

6. Stay true to yourself by not fearing your uniqueness from others. For its this individual difference that makes you, you and not the person next to you. When we were children we could live disinhibited and free to play in whatever way we wanted. Then why can’t we accept all the facets of our character as adults? We all function best when we are slightly outside our comfort zones. So get outside of yours and take some calculated risks. It can be quite liberating when you do!

7. Leave others alone to steer their own lives as they see fit, not as you do. It takes a strong person to accept that others think differently to you and that’s ok. You can agree to disagree without sensing that as a personal threat. Others need to grow and learn from their own experiences just as you have. Let them do that and you will empower them in the process. Do not be the one who is a caretaker for someone because YOU have a need to feel valued (coming back to that unhealthy need for external validation). If you find yourself being the caretaker of another adult be warned: you risk not being appreciated. This comes from a view that your behaviour represents an attempt to control rather than to provide genuine support.

Even though we can’t control the adversities that happen to us in life, we can control what lens we choose to see our lives through. Good decision making starts with understanding how powerful our thought patterns are and how closely they dictate our actions. Positive begets positive. Negative begets negative. Approaching life using the above principles helps to create more positive experiences into our lives. This typifies mental strength. And builds our sense of self-worth.

Every moment is a place we’ve never been. Meet today with expectation, enthusiasm and surprise. It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined!

References

Taming the Black Dog, by Bev Aisbett
All of IT, by Bev Aisbett
7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey

By: Alison Lenehan, Psychologist

Mental health treatment: 7 truths for the journey towards healing

I came across a pretty inspiring book the other day. The book, Beating Bipolar, by Blake Levine, was located during my search to help a client who seemed to be stuck processing her bipolar disorder diagnosis. Recalling his own story of his healing journey, Levine provides an impressive account of how he managed to turn his bipolar diagnosis into strength by guiding others with this illness as a professional life coach.

Bipolar disorder is a condition previously termed ‘manic depression’ because the person experiences periods of depression and periods of mania, with periods of normal mood in between. Mania can involve racing thoughts and speech, irritability and little need for sleep that is not just a fleeting experience. Sometimes the person loses touch with reality and has episodes of psychosis involving hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there) or delusions (for e.g. the person believing he or she has superpowers). The combination of mania and depression can feel like a dangerous and destructive emotional rollercoaster.

Bipolar disorder, and in fact any mental illness, is described by Levine as a disease of choices. You can choose to take one path or another, and there will be many crossroads along the way. Ultimately, you have to choose whether you will stay stuck inside your own world of pain, or whether you are prepared to work towards emotional stability. This is your choice to make and no one can make it for you. As Levine notes, you cannot pop a pill and declare yourself well. Proper healing is not that simple. True, genuine healing is about being selective of how to live your life and adhering to those values.

In the process of exploring, learning and eventually accepting what it means to have a mental health condition, the book asks an individual to answer 7 truths. They are:

1. Accept or reject your illness. Any doctor or psychologist can give a diagnosis and tell you all about it, but you have to be the one to acknowledge it. And that takes an incredible amount of courage. Not for the sake of accepting a ‘label’ but rather in order to seek the correct treatment. By not being invested enough to take on the meaning of the diagnosis, chances are you will become stuck.

2. Accept or reject the work that comes with bipolar disorder (or your diagnosis). Life with a mental health condition can be so challenging that it appears insurmountable and unfair. It is true that maneuvering through substandard mental health units is devastating (and at times traumatising) for most people. However, being able to overcome the setbacks and learn from them, in order to continue to work towards emotional stability (and avoid inpatient mental health units in the process) creates an inner strength that will be able to see you through the lowest points of your life.

3. Accept or reject that you will most likely need medication. For bipolar, medication to tame the mania and lift the depression (and therefore bring increased emotional stability) can be highly effective. However, only if it is used consistently by sticking to the regime over time. Medication must be maintained even when you start to feel better. Finding the right combination takes time, persistence and patience (and close monitoring by your psychiatrist or treating doctor). Weight gain, a common side effect of medication, can throw extra challenges your way, however until emotional stability is achieved, attaining other goals will be futile.

4. Accept or reject that you’ll need therapy and peer support. Levine writes “We share many trials as bipolar individuals, but isolation may be the most profound among them. Feeling alone is a universal experience for people with any mental illness, particularly this one. Not surprisingly, there are many reasons for it. Perhaps you’re too embarrassed about your mood swings and the past damage linked to your illness that you don’t reach out to others. Or maybe you have too many bottled up feelings stemming from other personal baggage to connect easily. Whatever the driving force, working with a mental health professional will help you sort out your issues and learn to connect with people”.

5. Accept or reject that your family’s participation and role in your life and illness might have to be modified to suit your healing. Emotionally stable people have a support network. We all need one, no exceptions. If you have nourishing, strong bonds with your family members, they will play a crucial role in your healing. However, there could also be some family dynamics causing considerable pain and stress and you will be the one to decide whether you can rely on the people in your current network for the long haul. If there are things getting in the way of your connection with them then you will need to find and create a different type of support system. This need is critical for living life in a connected way.

6. Accept or reject that you have to change aspects of your lifestyle. The reality of the situation is this: your mental health condition and any medications you are on do not mix well with drinking and substance abuse. These both cloud your thinking and impair your decision making. If your moods are not regulated yet, they can be lethal. Even having a drink now and then should be discussed with your doctor. Abstinence or moderation combined with a healthy diet, exercise and plenty of sleep are part of living healthy with a mental health condition.

7. Accept or reject that Bipolar (or your diagnosis) isn’t an end; it’s a beginning. The choice is yours. Levine states that the knee jerk reaction to mental illness is to run, particularly if you feel there is nothing to be gained by fighting. But he states that every time we experience pain, we have a chance to see that our struggles in our lives are put here in order to teach us lessons and help us grow. You are stronger than you think, and as long as you have courage, you will face whatever comes your way. The payoff, according to Levine, is to have a life filled with the affirming 4 H’s:
Hope
Health
Happiness
Healing
Whatever your individual journey and constraints, to work towards wellness will allow you to master your illness and your life, and that has to be worth the fight. Staying balanced takes time, patience and unwavering commitment, however hopefully if you are up for the task you too can start the healing journey right now, without wasting another minute, by listening to, exploring and accepting some of these truths. I wish you wellness and great success in your quest for what we are all searching for in life: Hope, Health, Happiness and Healing.

Sources:
Beating Bipolar by Blake Levine
Beyond Blue www.beyondblue.org.au

By: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist

5 Ways to Challenge Your Internal Critic

loving self image
“I can never do anything right” . “I always say the dumbest things”. “Why am I so stupid?”. Have you ever said these things to yourself? If you’re like the rest of us, chances are you have. Often. However, if these thought patterns continue as a form of running commentary all day every day (meaning they are left virtually unattended), they have potentially damaged your sense of self. We get so used to these whisperings that we do not even notice they are there. So they shape our lives.

According to a type of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), our mind is like a master storyteller continuously telling us stories. It is in a constant monologue with us from the second we wake until the second we go to sleep. In fact, even as we sleep our storyteller continues to tell its stories or replay memories (often painful ones). According to this approach, very little of what your ‘storyteller’ (your mind) tells you (via thoughts) is fact where there is a ‘true’ and ‘false’. Rather, the stories are opinions, judgements, criticisms, beliefs, assumptions, and ideals. They are simply a reflection of the way you see the world. And these stories can be changed. So, the mind creates a narrative based on interpretation. Once formed, this narrative is hard to dismantle.

A thought is just a thought. It is neither ‘you’ nor reality. It arises, lingers in consciousness for a relatively short while then fades. It is just a mental event that passes through the mind like clouds or weather patterns passing through the sky. We are always explaining the world to ourselves, and we react emotionally to these explanations rather than to the facts. All the feelings we feel are brought on not by the events in our lives, but rather the interpretation of these events.

We can be drawn into thinking our thoughts are true and they are us and we are them. Once we become them we can fall into ruminative brooding, basically going over and over an event in our minds, all the while pushing our emotional buttons and increasing our stress and anxiety levels, causing overwhelming demoralising feelings.

The ‘blueprint’ for how we treat ourselves was formed when we were children via the emotional availability of our parent or main caregiver . When an infant cries, the emotionally attuned parent attends to the infant. The process that ensues of soothing, reassurance and nurturance are all displays of ‘love’ that, when repeated hundreds of times per day, are critical to that infant’s identity development and sense of self.

So, why is it that the same person with the same ideals can be the nurturing, kind, positive support to their best friend when something goes wrong yet be the harsh, rude and stern internal critic to themself when they face the same type of experience? Do you treat yourself the way you would like others to treat you?

Try these 5 immediate ways to challenge your internal critic as outlined in The Happiness Trap (they’re so simple they may seem unrealistic, but they work):

1. Anytime you feel stressed, anxious or depressed ask yourself ‘what is my mind telling me now?’ Then ask yourself “Is this thought helpful? Does it make me the person I want to be?” If it is unhelpful, practice being more mindful of it using the techniques below.

2. When a distressing thought arises, repeat the thought in your head after inserting this phrase: “I’m having a thought that…”. When you practice this repeatedly you will find some distance being created as if you have ‘stepped back’ from the unpleasant thought.

3. Identify your mind’s favourite demoralising stories then give them names, such as ‘The Loser Story or the I’m Worthless Story. Then, when they pop up say ‘Ah yes, I recognise this familiar story’.

4. When a common self-critical thought comes into your head, defuse its hold on you by singing it to yourself to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Jingle Bells’ or another tune. As you practice this over time you will realise the thought is simply a collection of words, just like the lyrics of a song.

5. Remember, the story is the story. The story is NOT the event. Avoid holding on to these too tightly.

By practicing letting go of disparaging and demoralising thoughts, we are removing the shackles that keep us trapped in the prison of our own minds. Only then can we begin to learn how to observe the same respect for ourselves that we so readily offer others.

As the common Buddhist saying goes: “You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere”.

References and further reading:
The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris.

The Mindful Way Through Depression. Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

By: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology

The Me Me Me Generation

I came across an interesting article the other day in TIME magazine’s May 2013 issue called The Me Me Me Generation: Why Millennials Will Save Us All, written by Joel Stein. This article posited that Millennials (or 20-somethings) are narcissistic, selfish, self-absorbed, entitled and lazy. The author referenced the technology era and social networking as key reasons for this, whereby Millennials are known to exceedingly plaster images such as the ‘selfie’ (self-portrait) all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, followed by hourly checks to see how many ‘likes’ or re-tweets have been received. This level of interest prevents capacity for alternate more productive activities, according to the author.

Statistics from the National Institute of Health data in the US reveal the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder as nearly three times as high for people in their 20’s as for those who are 65 or older. What is this disorder supposedly infecting our young generation? Simply put, people who are narcissistic are described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding. Narcissists may concentrate on unlikely personal outcomes (e.g., fame) and may be convinced that they deserve special treatment. They have a grandiose sense of self-importance, lack empathy for others and have a need for admiration.

So, do Millennials possess some or all of these traits?

As co-author of the book Narcissism Epidemic, Keith Campbell advises there is more to it. With a clinical narcissist, there is a real pathology associated with it whereby the person cannot help himself/herself but strive to gain attention or seek admiration from others in all areas of their life. Campbell advises it interferes with their quality of life considerably by distorting decision-making and destroying relationships.

Fortunately, the article goes on to outline some of the strengths of this generation. The benefits of growing up with technology have led to Millennials being more open minded and more accepting of individual differences. They have been provided more tools to challenge convention in society. Yes, they are optimistic in their goals for personal success. Overinflated? Perhaps. Is this a bad thing? I think not. Young people have more drive to be entrepreneurs and explore their creative talents than ever before. To live by their individual values and to be driven for success has to be commended.

From an evolutionary perspective however, the ‘technology world’ is not the world the human brain was designed for. As noted by a leading psychiatrist, Dr Bruce Perry in his article Applying Principles of Neurodevelopment to Clinical Work with Maltreated and Traumatized Children, in comparison to our ancestors, we live in a relationally impoverished world.

Of the 250 000 years or so our species has been on the planet, we spent 245 000 years living in small trans-generational hunter-gatherer bands of 40-50 individuals, comprising a rich relational mileu. We had a ratio of 4:1 whereby for every child we had four developmentally more mature people who could protect, educate, enrich and nurture the developing child. This is the world our brain is designed for.

In contrast, our modern world involves children spending more time on the internet or watching television and less hours in socio-emotional learning opportunities created by interactions with older children, younger children, aunts, uncles, nephews, grandparents or neighbours. As the XIVth Dalai Lama notes in a verse named The Paradox of Our Age, “We have been all the way to the moon and back but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour”.

Social affiliation and communication amongst groups is essential to our survival in physical presence. With every new face, a new synaptic connection is formed which adds to the hardwiring of the child or young person’s brain. There are many reasons why children are being raised in homes and communities that are impoverished in relationships that contribute to neuropsychiatric problems. The more physically and socially isolated a family becomes, the more vulnerable a child becomes.

Knowing what is socially appropriate, including being empathetic, requires many rich relational experiences. So if Millennials are presenting with narcissistic traits, perhaps it is time we considered what they are doing with their lives when they are not online and let’s use this time to build the number and quality of relationships with individuals of all ages in order to support the healthy development of the brain and avoid this social phenomenon. Let’s work together as a society to support Millennials to be active in their community, volunteer, work, develop closer bonds with extended family members, be active in their local school and seek connections with a rich array of other human beings. With a rich relational mileu, technology can enhance social connectedness, not undermine it.

Oh, and say hi to the neighbours every now and then.

Written by: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology.

3 ways to maintain a bond with your adolescent

Adolescence. Isn’t it fun? Unpredictable mood swings, relentless social networking, peer group enmeshment and defying parents. Or so it seems.

When parents bring their teenager to see a therapist, common issues include the adolescent becoming distant and impossible to talk with, falling behind with schoolwork and increased defiance with rules. With the parent out of the room and the adolescent more noticeably relaxed, we generally start to unpack what is going on.

A common circumstance is finding a once positive and supportive relationship between a parent/s and child has deteriorated into, what sometimes could be described as complete chaos, or a loss of both control and connection with the other in a way necessary to maintain attachment. The bond that once brought them together is now tearing them apart.

So how do relationships deteriorate to this point? And how do we get them back on track?

When a child is born, we discuss the role of dyadic attachment. That is, child cries and mother attends to comfort and soothe. Child is happy and mother steps back and allows child to explore. This ‘dance’ of attachment is vital for a secure bond to occur between parent and child. In adolescent attachment, however, there is another important factor in addition to these two.

First, we need the warmth and nurturing. Every adolescent needs nurturing (even if they might not deserve it!). The second factor is security. Like any child, adolescents need to know where the ‘line in the sand’ is and when they have crossed it. The third factor that is more difficult is the factor of enabling towards greater autonomy. Enabling towards autonomy is the ability to maintain, yet transform, an attachment relationship. At its core it requires a parent to advocate for their child’s increasing independence whilst still remaining as their ‘secure base’ (Diamond and Siqueland 1995).

Warmth and nurturing
+
Security (limits and boundaries)
+
Enabling towards autonomy
=
Adolescent attachment

Psychological autonomy is vital for identity exploration. When a parent shows a high level of separation anxiety, this can at times be constraining for the adolescent. If the adolescent feels constrained, controlled or dominated by a parent, they will seek to express their autonomy in secretive or covert ways from the parent. The distrust and betrayal this causes is very damaging to the ‘web’ of attachment formed around the adolescent.

The adolescent’s brain is developing at rapid rates. Complex neural networks are being laid down in the cortex, and the adolescent’s neurobiological functioning drives him or her to be very motivated to make choices, express preferences and form opinions. The brain therefore requires the appropriate ‘brain food’ for optimal development (Perry 2006). This means lots of practice at active problem solving involving working through a process of defining the problem, determining possible solutions, learning consequences of each particular course of action and enacting a solution that is positive and healthy. It is no longer about parents solving their child’s problem. It is about supporting them to solve it for themselves. These are inherently different processes.

If a parent is not joining this exciting ride of identity development, then unfortunately we have an adolescent attempting to weave their way through their interpersonal world essentially solo. At a time when decisions can so easily be made on impulse, the need for communication to be open, flowing and honest is imperative.

When discussing how to ‘fix’ the adolescent, we eventually come back to this web of attachment and look at how we can repair what has gone so horribly wrong within these three dimensions, with most focus on how to help parents stay connected and in control by supporting their child’s need for growing autonomy in a way that keeps the bond strong.

If parents are available and aware of how to enable their child towards autonomy whilst remaining as the ‘secure base’, the adolescent is more willing to openly communicate without fear of being constrained and the web of attachment continues to weave in such a way to prepare the adolescent for positive decision making in adulthood.

By: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist