Hoarding or Collecting, what is the difference?

Lessons in sorting, throwing and storing.5/7/10 9:52:15 AM -- Wellesley, Massachusetts Gail Steketee recently published a book on hoarding and poses in the home of a hoarder.  Steketee is the Dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University. Photo by Melody Ko  for Boston University Photography

by Lyn  Worsley  (Clinical Psychologist)

Over the past 6 weeks I have had an insight into the sorting, throwing and storing world of a hoarder. We have been getting our house ready to move and downsize, which has meant sorting many items for sale, to throw, to keep and to store.

As I have been doing the multiple tasks of sorting, cleaning and throwing, my brain has been doing mental gymnastics. My brain has been on the trapeze with planning many things. My thought patterns go like something like this;

When I pick up an item I think

“What memories does it hold for me from the past?”, “How has it worn?”, “Is it old fashioned?”, “Is it useful?” and “Do I need this for the future?”.

Now these questions may seem fairly innocuous but for many people they are questions that cannot be answered, and if there is a definite answer there is a consequence, which can seem catastrophic. These people have a Hoarding disorder.

Now “Hoarding” is a term that is thrown around easily for people who just have a lot of stuff, and collect things they value. This is not hoarding it is just collecting. A “Hoarding disorder” refers to a way of thinking that can be repetitive, overwhelming, obsessive, crippling and stifling.

To help us to understand a bit more of what it is like to think like a hoarder, we go back to the simple questions I had when I was packing up my house. The questions bring with them a level of emotional connection as a lot of the things I have collected over the years have value for me. They represent memories of events, people I love, and the significance I had at a certain time of my life. As I look at the things I am reminded of time passing, and changes that have occurred, people I miss and hurts and joys. This means I have an attachment to my things. So for the average person sorting and throwing is actually quite hard. But we do it eventually and let them go.

To make it easier to understand I use the analogy of a flow or direction of thinking that occurs. When I sort and throw things out I have a hierarchy of value. It is a bit like a vertical line, with the most important things at the top and the least important things at the bottom. About half way down the line I can see that the items can be thrown out because I have only room for the things at the top. So my thought process sort out importance and I can make decisions.

But for the person with the hoarding disorder, they think on a horizontal line, as everything is of equal value. They cannot discern which is more important than another. Even to the point of people they love compared to things they have collected. Both have equal value. They have a strong attachment to the things around them as though they are people, which is why they find it difficult to make decisions to throw anything out.

Furthermore, there is a lot of significance of items they collect to them as a person. People with a hoarding disorder will often collect newspapers and junk mail, sometimes putting them into neat piles and in order (alphabetical or date). The theory of this is that the dates and events were significant and the newspaper reminds them of things that happen. If you throw out the newspaper you throw out the memory. So there becomes a fear of losing the memories.

Another aspect is that items can represent the person themselves. Most often people with a hoarding disorder have had some interference with their attachment to their main carer early in their life through trauma, abuse or neglect. This then transfers to them as they get older and they see the things they have as representing themselves in some way. Throwing them out would be like throwing a part of themselves out. So throwing out a newspaper or a cardboard box is like being personally discarded.

Finally there are always the plans and ideas of making, building and creating things. So these plans become all encompassing and the person with the hoarding disorder continues to collect the resources but does not actually sit down to make the item. It may be they see the potential for things and not the steps it will take to get there.

So how do we treat hoarding disorder? This is a good question because to date there doesn’t appear to be any long-term studies, which show the effectiveness of treatment over time. However some of the things we know do not work are

  • Taking over
  • Throwing things out
  • Organising them
  • Making judgemental comments about the things they have “collected”
  • Calling their stuff rubbish

I like to think of helping someone with a Hoarding disorder by getting straight to the core of the difficulties they experience. This may be slower but more effective over time.

The four aspects we have raised are attachment, memories, sense of self and creativity.


If there is some way to make sure that the person with a hoarding disorder feels connected and attached to real people on a regular basis, it will slow the hoarding process down. Church group, local club, volunteer agency etc all help to make a person feel they belong.


Having a place for memories to be seen and discussed. Photo albums, photo walls, collages, journals etc, all serve the purpose of keeping memories alive.

Sense of self:

A sense of self comes when we are in relationship with others. Others mirror who we are and we get a glimpse of us as a person through another’s eyes. Sometimes this can be through a touch, eye to eye contact, a smile or a comment that is caring and loving go a long way to help someone feel valued.


Most often the creativity doesn’t have an outlet so providing opportunities for the creative work to come out. Going to workshops, art classes, studio’s etc can often allow the person to complete a task. Creating to give to another is always a useful way of helping them to let go of things as well.

Being Positive and Resilient. What does it mean?

Positive Psychology and Resilience

Lyn Worsley

Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Resilience Centre

Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Resilience Centre

Clinical Psychologist.

Over the past month I had the pleasure of attending two amazing conferences on the other side of the world. The first one was the Pathways to Resilience conference in Halifax, Canada, and the second one was the International Positive Psychology Association’s fourth World Congress in Orlando Florida, USA.

Both of these conferences focused on measuring what was working, and building on it. The Resilience Centre was well represented as presented the findings of our group programs, Connect-3 and Linked-up which are based on the Resilience Doughnut model. The findings were that clients attending the groups have positive changes in their self-esteem, social skills and personal competence. We were also able to show the positive changes in family functioning as a result of the group programs.

At each of the conferences it was great to be part of a growing movement of looking for strengths and measuring the positive changes. Speakers amplified the study of character strengths and pro social community engagement.

To kick off the congress in the USA, the prominent psychologist, Martin Seligman gave an opening plenary titled Unravelling Learned Helplessness: Fifty years later.” (Learned helplessness is the phenomena observed when someone is exposed to continual uncontrollable situations they become helpless and lose their ability to gain control even after the trauma is removed.)

Seligman discussed the findings from the lab rats data colleagues are currently collecting. He courageously announced new findings based on rat brain studies that suggest that his own theory of learned helplessness is NOT in fact correct.

So here goes ill try and explain it.

It has been found that in a section of the brain, (the Dorsal Raphe Nucleus, DRN) is linked to passivity. When the DRN circuit is inactivated experimentally, rats do not become helpless, even when shocked. When the DRN is activated even without shock the rats become passive. Thus the DRN appears to be both necessary and sufficient for producing the passive behaviours called learned helplessness.

 Now stay with me here, it actually does get interesting!

In the studies they also found there to be another area in the brain (the Ventro medial prefrontal cortex (VMPRC) that can inhibit the DRN in order to block the passive response. Seligman referred to the connection between the DRN and the VMPRC as the HOPE CIRCUIT. This circuit is now the interest and focus of much of the studies in positive psychology.

Basically, if the circuit is blocked, rats will be passive even if they are able to escape. If this circuit is active, the rats persevere even after being shocked. He also noted that the circuit can be strengthened.

Based on this work, Seligman concluded that alleviating catastrophe can’t fix people. Instead it is important to work on building expectations of control and mastery, that is, building the hope circuit. This relates to building prospection, where people are guided by their internal representations of possible future states and are thus drawn into the future, rather looking back at the past. These findings have implications for education and therapy.

So I became very interested at this points because…

 At the Resilience Centre we, as psychologists, practice therapy that builds hope, and focuses on the future possibilities rather than focusing on the problems. We have shown this to be helpful in achieving positive change for out clients, and our measures support this. Our groups are solution focused groups, and during our therapy sessions and in our professional development sessions we often ask ourselves, what is working and how can we build on this to develop control and mastery for our clients. We run solution focused training groups, hot topics where we show clients how to be solution focused in their approach and small groups where we can practice the skills of solution focused thinking. Presently we are working on whole school programs that teach the skills of speaking in a solution-focused way to students and colleagues. These programs are showing increased student engagement, and a more resilient school community.

So I found the findings of these rat studies confirming of why what we are doing at the Resilience Centre actually works.

Finally on a practical front, Selgman noted that there are simple experiments with people that have had dramatic effect. These experiments get people to choose positive words over negative words and say them out loud. He even showed a “wordle” based on the words used by hopeful people on their social media pages. Take a look at it.wordle

This got me thinking about my own face book posts. Are they positive? I might actually go and wordle it myself. What about yours?



How do we prevent Youth Suicide?

If suicide is preventable, how do we prevent youth suicide in our communities?

By Lyn WorsleyLyn Worsley Resilience Doughnut 06

(Clinical Psychologist)

After some tragic recent suicides in the lives of our school children, Michael Carr Greg stated in the SMH on March 27th 2015, “Alertness to Mental Health disorders is the key to preventing youth suicide.”

Certainly knowing what is going on in the minds of the young people themselves and secondly knowing the difference between adolescent mood swings which bring an array of learning and personal growth situations, and suicidal ideation which brings a fear and shut down response to learning and growth is of course a paramount importance.

However the key to the prevention of suicide is to create hope and meaning in the young person life. It is essentially helping them to see there is a reason to live.

Hope is the opposite to fear and the steps and pathways toward hope in any situation involve connecting with others whose belief in you touch the very core of your own significance.

 But if feeling significant is the key, how do you help a young person to feel significant?

A person feels significant when their actions, thoughts and feelings matter to another, and their sense of worth is linked to the ability to make a significant contribution to another person’s sense of worth.


My husband and I volunteer in the city of Sydney with a small group called Hope Street. On a monthly basis, we make sandwiches, and tea and coffee for breakfast for those who have slept on the street the night before. We are there with a team of people, each helping for various reasons. However it struck me as I sat with a young woman this morning, that her sense of worth was nowhere concrete. She had no home in Sydney, she had friends who only had an agenda for taking her into their home, and she didn’t have anything to do with her time that was valued by another.  Time with her was well spent, as her hunger for a warm hug, a kind word and a smile was enough to keep her in the centre for over an hour. But as she left for the day, it was again evident that she didn’t matter to anyone.

 But how do we explain the high level of depression and anxiety that is experience by those who do have families who love them?

 The contrast is obvious however in the minds of the young people themselves, there is the same deep need to feel significant, worthwhile and meaningful to others. Depression has a mind of its own and can overflow the brain with messages of hopelessness and worthlessness, which is why using a strength approach in everyday interactions, is valuable. Teachers, counsellors, parents and family members who use a strength approach are more likely to get to the heart of the problem and challenge the core negative beliefs that do so much damage.

 So how do we use a strength approach in out everyday interactions with our youth?

 Looking for strengths is like having radar on for exceptions to the problems. It means you scan the information from the conversation with the young person for anything that has some level of positive or hope to it. Using the Resilience Doughnut (a model for developing resilience in youth) is a good way to gather strengths, as the doughnut not only helps you to map areas of a person’s life that may have some positive experiences, it also helps to find out where and who the positive connections are. For example asking about extended family may uncover a caring grandmother, or asking about favourite subjects may uncover the interested teacher. Both of these connections would have the potential for hope if they were encouraged.

 Another article addressing the youth suicide crisis noted, “Suicide is preventable. But the school community needs to help prevent it.” Is it realistic that we leave the mental health of our youth with schools and if so, how do we help the school community in preventing suicide?

In schools we have many teachers who are faced with the daunting job of educating our next generation with many aspects of life. Some of these aspects of life in previous generations were the tasks of parents, grandparent’s cousins, aunts and uncles and also the faith communities in which the families existed.

With the increase in working hours, the pressure to have more stuff and to live in areas, which involve incredible mortgages, families, communities and parents have become time poor and detached, fragmented and disempowered in their role in the lives of the young person themselves. The village that raised the child has become disconnected, and the child’s emerging sense of worth is limited to being within the school where they compete for significance with over 1000 other young people.

The result is a generation of youth who have increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, so much so that suicidal ideation is falling into the normal curve of a youth’s development. The stats are frightening when you consider the number of deaths by suicide. At present suicide is the 3rd largest killer in youth between the ages of 15-24.

If we are to give the task of alerting mental disorders to the schools we need to have tools that can do that, but these tools need to be helpful for the child to gain hope, the family to feel empowered and the strengths to be enhanced. That is we need tools that are therapeutic, developmentally appropriate but also give the information that is needed to those who can help.

The Resilience Report (an initiative of the Resilience Centre Australia) is an on-line tool that does just that. It is the first of its kind in the world in that is gives the agency back to the people who are there to build the strengths around the child. The report highlights a child’s strengths, tracks their developing competence and alerts to any changes in mental health. Not only is it useful in schools but also for families, parents, counsellors and coaches, as well as the young people themselves. (www.resiliencereport.com). 

So how do we help schools to prevent suicide?

Actually it isn’t about getting the schools to do the work. It is about all of us being part of the “doughnut” for the young people themselves. It is enabling parents, extended family members, community groups, and workplaces to be valued parts of the young peoples lives. We each have a vital part to play and we each are involved in young people’s lives in some way, whether it is as a small business owner, or an employer, or as an aunt or uncle.

Simply remembering a person’s name, sending them little notes of encouragement when they do an exam, or go for an interview can be enough to make a person begin to feel significant.  Putting another person’s needs before a task to be completed can often have a huge effect on that person.

Helping schools is also about helping the teachers feel significant themselves. Too often we default to school blaming when a young person is mentally unwell. This hands off and finger pointing doesn’t help to build hope in anyone’s life. Furthermore it actually disables the teachers from taking the extra steps to encourage and connect with the young person.

 So how do we help?

  1. Get involved with the young people in your local area. Know their names, say hello and be involved simply by believing in them and showing interest.
  2. Encourage teachers to feel valued in their roles as teachers, as well as caring professionals. Value them and let it be known they are doing a great job.
  3. Listen for what is working in the young person’s life. (Do a quick doughnut check*). Then ask them more about the things that are working.
  4. Help the community, parents, and family members to have more doughnut moments. This involves finding three areas of strength from the Resilience Doughnut and linking them together in some way.  (It has been shown that doughnut moments occur more frequently for those who do not show signs of depression or anxiety).
  5. Make mental HEALTH a priority in our communities. Being aware of what makes a person mentally healthy is of even more worth than recognising when they are not. That is being very aware that building and connecting with positive intentional relationships in strategic ways will encourage healthy development and significance in a young person.

 The Resilience Doughnut is a strength-based model that shows the internal and external factors that build resilience. The simplicity and usefulness of the model has been growing for over 10 years and is widely used by practitioners, researchers and families around the world.  If you want more information about the Resilience doughnut follow the links to the articles on the web page. www.theresiliencedoughnut.com.au.

 Lyn Worsley is the director of The Resilience Centre and the Author of The Resilience Doughnut. She is a senior supervising Clinical Psychologist at the Resilience Centre and well known for her training, research and therapy programs that enhance resilience in all people.


Resilience at Christmas: Living a fast paced life, for what?

by Lyn Worsley

(Clinical Psychologist)

Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Resilience Centre

Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Resilience Centre

It seems much more logical, doesn’t it, that in order to maximize our chances of finding happiness, we should try to do as much as we can, and experience as many things as possible. Got a half-hour to spare? Why not finish that report, make a few more appointments, or answer a couple of emails. Going on holiday? Let’s get a tourist guide to the city and see if we can visit every museum and gallery on the map, we don’t want to miss anything. So if we pack our lives full of activities, achieve everything on our bucket-list, we won’t waste a single, precious moment, and then we’re more likely to find happiness. Aren’t we?

It seems that we’re so focused on “doing” stuff (at work, at home, with the kids, with friends and so on) that we have little time to focus on just being, or living honestly and courageously in the moment.

So you’ll have spotted the paradox here: we keep busy because it leads to more experiences, and we think that more experiences is equivalent to more chances of being happy. But being busy reduces our chances of being happy because we reduce the amount of time we have to reflect and learn, to savour, appreciate, and be in the moment. In other words, we’re living inauthentic lives, which actually prevent us from being happy and enjoying the Christmas period.  

There is some interesting research about this. There was some research done which was based on holiday letters exchanged with friends and family at around Christmas time or the New Year, describing what has been going on over the past 12 months (DeGreeff, Burnett & Cooley, 2009).

What do we say in our holiday letters?

The researchers analyzed these holiday letters for signs of authenticity, for instance reflection on important life events such as births, marriages and deaths.

They came up with 3 different categories:

  1. Authentic,
  2. Inauthentic and
  3. In-between.

So in authentic letters, the letter-writers might talk about what happened during the year, and then discuss the impact on their lives, how it changed them, or how they have grown by the experience.

In an in-between letter, the letter-writers might acknowledge that events had meaning, but then fail to elaborate on what that meaning was.

In the inauthentic letters, the letter-writers might still mention the different life events, but in a more cursory way, for example presenting them in bullet points, like a shopping list, without any detail or explanation.

The stats were:

Authentic letters   32   5%
Inauthentic letters   495   83%

The vast majority was so distracted by the hectic details of daily life that they failed to show any awareness of ‘being’, a sign of authentic happiness in the view of the authors. So it looks as if we’re fooling ourselves into believing we need to do and achieve as much as possible. As a result we get so busy that we can’t appreciate the really important things in life.

So at the end of the article I was left wondering about a number of things:

  1. Can we assume that people are living inauthentic lives based on what they write in a holiday letter or anywhere else? Just because they don’t openly express the meaning and purpose they derive from certain life experiences doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate their true value, or aren’t changed by them in a meaningful way. Perhaps some people are incapable or unwilling to express their authentic selves in writing.
  2. Is there a trend in holiday letter writing, which some people find difficult to go against? For example, perhaps there is an expectation that holiday letters will be light-hearted, optimistic, and cheerful, not full of profound statements about finding the meaning in life.

On the other hand, perhaps if more people did reflect on life-changing experiences in their holiday letters, others might also be encouraged to do the same.

 So what can we learn about how to prepare for Christmas, that may reduce our stress?  

I found this paper raised some very important questions about authenticity, how we achieve it, and how we can act as role models for those around us whether are they friends, colleagues or our children. So when you sit down to write your holiday letter to your friends and family this Christmas, what are you going to write about?

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. (Winston Churchill)

I don’t think he was talking about presents, but rather what we give of ourselves. Our authenticity. The reflections on the year, the time to enjoy stopping and perhaps working out how fast we are going and how we may be able to slow down the pace is an opportunity to focus on what really matters in our lives.

This also gives meaning to the relationships we connect with at Christmas time. We know the reason we are in families, we see there is a greater meaning to the relationships, not the presents or the cooking, or the number of people but perhaps the odd and weird relatives, the strange neighbour in our unit block, the uncle that always drinks too much, the people who are actually family but are not related. They are all the reason for being here, for connecting in meaningful ways. Accepting each other, smiling at each other’s difference and not reacting by feeling we need to tell each other how busy we are!!!

It is about connecting again with people, which builds our resilience.


DeGreeff, B.L., Burnett, A. & Cooley, D. (2009). Communicating and philosophizing about authenticity and unauthenticity in a fast-paced world. Journal of Happiness Studies.

Grenville-Cleve B (2012) Happiness, busyness and Holiday letters in Positive Psychology News Daily

The development of “self”

Lyn Worsley Resilience Doughnut 06 By Lyn Worsley, Clinical Psychologist

Over the past weeks I have been reflecting on how we develop our potential and what defines us as unique individuals.

The Self in psychology refers to the knowledge and sense of who we are as a unique person. It is how we feel comfortable with ourselves and the development of self is how we find our identity. In developing our sense of self, we experiment with copying others, modeling others behaviour, setting standards we want to achieve and discovering what we can do to reach our unique strengths and our unique ways of thinking. We do that with others and they reflect back to us what is good and not so good and we change to accommodate others and ourselves. It is an interactional thing. A relationship with others helps us to become who we are. But the psychological study of self is very interesting because there is a distinction made between who we want to be and who we really are. So those who set too higher standards or very low standards, on themselves can actually hinder their own development or their own potential.

I recently read a great article by Irem Gunay from the Turkish positive psychology association. In the article it discusses how positive psychology puts a great emphasis on encouraging people to realize their potential and be their best. Although this sounds nice and exciting, as one digs deeper it can become difficult to decipher what being your best self exactly means. Setting high goals? Being competent? Achieving outstanding performance? Meeting expectations? Being really good at the things that you do? In all of these cases, excellence is measured with some sort of a reference value, and there lies the danger.

Being our “best selves” does not have to be about setting very high standards for ourselves and criticizing ourselves each time we fall short of the kind of person we think we should be. Nor does it have to be about pretending to be more than who we are and feeling like a fake.

Being our “best selves” incorporates a process of self-discovery, a heightened awareness of the self that makes us realize that we are actually much more than what we normally think we are. But given the ambiguity surrounding the definition of the term, being our best selves can mean different things to different people, and some of these conceptions can be maladaptive

The difference between “the best self” and “the ideal self”, or the person we think we “ought” to be.

According to Tory Higgins, a professor at Columbia University, people have different personal standards or self-guides against which they evaluate themselves. The fundamental purpose of having self-guides is to control and direct one’s behavior. Self-guides are a catalyst for change. They have an important self-regulatory function. They motivate people’s actions, and thereby can help people to develop and expand their capabilities, skills, and capacities.

Although such self-regulatory behavior is typically aimed at self-improvement, we cannot measure up to our internal standards and often fail to attain goals. Therefore the discrepancy between who we think we actually are and our personally relevant self-guides can have important consequences for our emotional well-being. The more we are self-focused, the greater the emotional impact is expected to be.

People often evaluate themselves against an internal “ideal” and “ought” standards. The outcome of these comparisons is what then motivates us to do things.

From the standpoint of the self, the ideal self is a representation of the attributes that we would ideally like to possess. It refers to our wishes, hopes, and aspirations. For instance, one person’s ideal self might involve being more outgoing. It might be being perfect and never making a mistake, or it might be a different body shape, or level of fitness, etc.

From the standpoint of the self, the ought self is a representation of the attributes that we believe we should or ought to possess. It refers to our duties, obligations, and responsibilities. For instance, one person’s ought self might involve being better at meeting deadlines. It might be that we do things to please others and keep them happy, ticking all the boxes.

The significance we attach to each of these self-guides can have important and often negative emotional consequences. Research by Higgins and colleagues suggests that the discrepancy between a person’s current self and ideal self may produce feelings of disappointment, sadness, and dejection. Where as the discrepancy between a person’s current self and ought self may produce feelings of anxiety and agitation.

It is of course bleak to think that we can never attain our ideal and ought selves, and thus we are doomed to feel agitated and depressed. Rather, the danger here lies in holding ourselves to superhuman standards that are almost impossible to attain.

The research on ideal and ought selves has important implications for positive psychology. If we perceive our best selves in terms of ideal and ought standards, our sense of emotional well-being will be contingent upon our success in upholding those standards. Thus when ideal and ought standards play a predominant role in shaping our perceptions of our best selves, trying to be our best selves has the potential to be maladaptive. A more adaptive approach is to distinguish our best selves from how we would ideally like to be and how we feel we ought to be.

Practical ways to find our best selves.

Savoring might be one good way to overcome our tendency to compare ourselves to some sort of a standard, either internal or external, as we define our best selves. Savoring involves being conscious of, and paying attention to our positive experiences through our own volition.

Savoring is not just about enjoying positive events as they occur in the present; it can also incorporate the past and the future. That is, people can feel good by anticipating future positive experiences or by reminiscing about past positive experiences. Basically, savoring is about appreciating and enjoying each and every positive moment of our lives.

Appreciating the best in each moment can also ease the way to appreciating the best in us in each of those moments. In this scheme, our best selves are not future or past versions of us. They do not involve a time frame or a reference value of some kind. We possess them right here and right now.

If we want to realize our potential, we should definitely seek out new possibilities that will help us to develop and expand our capabilities, skills, and capacities. But in doing so we should also be wary about the danger of becoming obsessed with improvement and perfection. Savoring each moment with a self-compassionate attitude is also an important part of realizing our potential since it heightens our inner awareness of all the strengths and virtues we already possess.

Thus, the uncertainty surrounding the definition of best self can do harm and do good, depending on how we understand the concept. Being our best selves does not mean being perfect according to some standard.  Being our best is being more like who we are and feeling our own potential. Understanding this is the gateway to finding a real sense of peace, and Joy.


Bryant, F. B. (1989). A Four‐Factor Model of Perceived Control: Avoiding, Coping, Obtaining, and Savoring. Journal of Personality, 57(4), 773-797.

Bryant, F. (2003). Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI): A scale for measuring beliefs about savoring. Journal of Mental Health, 12(2), 175-196.

Higgins, E. T., Shah, J., & Friedman, R. (1997). Emotional responses to goal attainment: Strength of regulatory focus as moderator. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72, 515-525.

Strauman, T. J., & Higgins, E. T. (1988). Self‐Discrepancies as Predictors of Vulnerability to Distinct Syndromes of Chronic Emotional Distress. Journal of Personality, 56(4), 685-707.

Resilient Grandparents


The Uncharted and difficult terrain of in-laws and grand parenting.

By Lyn WorsleyGrandmother and Girls Baking Cupcakes

Clinical Psychologist

Over the past couple of years I have had a number of couples who see me regarding navigating the relationships with their adult children and son and daughter in-laws and particularly as to the role of grand-parenting.

Here is a typical scenario.

Kelly and Chris recently married. They have been together for over 7 years and appear to get on well with each of the in laws. Chris is the youngest of his three siblings and his parents appear to be at a loss for what to do now that the children have moved out of home. Chris’ mum rings every second day and tries to organise the family get togethers. She would like them to come over on the weekends, however Kelly and Chris want to spend time with their friends, having dinner parties and going out in the city after work.

Over time Kelly has found the requests to come over tedious, and has begun to avoid the phone calls. Chris replies to his mother’s requests by deferring to Kelly. Chris’s mum begins to feel rejected and as a result stops ringing Chris, and instead waits for him to ring her. After 6 months there is little contact and only two calls when Chris needed to borrow something. Chris’s mum begins to feel resentful and hurt and starts to avoid going out to things and avoids talking to any of her children. Both parents begin to feel isolated and angry. The few family get-togethers are tainted with resentment and awkwardness.

This is a very familiar story and one that comes with a lot of grief. What is happening and how do the family move toward a more positive set of interactions and support?

When we look at the relationships of resilient families we can see that there are no perfect interactions and many of them report there is a rocky transition towards the good relationships within the family. The best observation however is that the families who seem to adjust to this transition a more accepting of each others imperfections, are in tune with each others motives and a less reactive to their mess ups.

John and Julie Gottman (Gottman, 1994) in their studies of relationships through the eyes of the positive psychology world, show that there is a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative language in good relationships and they go on to predict how the presence of this ratio leads to good relationships.  But actually, much more than the 5:1 is important.  More generally, John Gottman is widely known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations published in peer-reviewed literature. He notes.

“A relationship is a contract of mutual nurturance. Relationships have to be a rich climate of positivity. For relationships to be strong, the ideal climate is one teeming with positive interactions.”
~ John Gottman, May 2009

This quote is relevant for relationships in general and not just the couple relationship. With the role of grandparents and parents in law, it is important therefore to be proactive with your responses to the younger generation.

  Here are some tips that I frequently help clients to focus on.

Think about how you would like the relationship to be. Try and paint a picture in your mind. Be fairly clear but realistic. So for example consider how do you want them to think about you or talk about you to their friends. What values do you want them to say about you. ‘Kindness, always there for us, strong, independent.”  Keep this picture to yourself, but share the values you have through your actions. (Even if they are not deserving of your kindness).

  1. Keep the focus on what works. Where do you connect easily? When is the relationship smooth and less rocky? These brief moments give you windows into what works and where the positivity is most likely to exist. You can build on these moments.
  2. Instead of grieving the relationship you don’t have, keep an eye on what is good about the one that you do have. Look for opportunities to thank others since gratitude is as good for the giver as for the receiver.
  3. Make it intentional how you move through time together. Those actions are about working towards shared meaning. The rituals of connection are very important. So plan activities where shared meanings can exist. If they don’t show up, do the activities anyway, sending them pictures or messages showing the values of the activity.  For example, Cricket, footy games, picnics.
  4. Avoid emotional blackmail, “it would have been good except you didn’t come” or “I’ve gone to all this trouble just for us” rather use words like. “I’m looking forward to sharing things with you, but I understand if you can’t make it.”
  5. Support each others roles, e.g. role of mother, father, and friend. Let each other be who they are: this is what’s meaningful to them. Do we know our children’s mission? Does the relationship support our separate missions in life? Be aware that your mission in life may not be the same as your adult child.
  6. Build your own strengths and your own life separate from your adult children. You’ll be happier when learning about your own strengths and using them in new ways, according the Seligman (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006).  You also become more interesting to them, and your values are more on show with your interests.
  7. Use those strengths and positive emotions to undo disgust and other negative emotions that come from dealing with others. Positive emotions have many nice outcomes, especially the reversal of negative emotions. (practice gratitude, and find jokes to laugh about, distract with pleasant thoughts)
  8. Barbara Fredrickson’s (Frederickson, 2009) explain how to Practice Active Constructive Responding, the tool for positive and interactive responding to the capitalizations of others. What you say in response to the good news of others is a better predictor of your relationship outcome than how you respond to problems. So consider ways to be excited about the success of your adult children, even if you are not happy with their choices, or you would have liked them to do what you would value.
  9. Finally, don’t give up, Keep giving and sharing for their sake. Your role as a parent never stops, and they will consider how you behave as a guide for their future. You never stop being a parent, because you never stop loving, even when they are hard work. So when you give, make sure it is for their benefit, not to make them feel guilty, or because you want them to like you but rather give what they need. This may be with, time, an understanding smile, a comment that shows you remember their stress and an openness to adapting to their lives as well.


Frederickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers.

Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce: The relationship between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Neew York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Seligman, M. E., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61(8), 774-788. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.61.8.774



The Givers and Takers in our lives:

The Givers and Takers. Are they different types of people, and are the outcomes in business the same?


Lyn Worsley,Clinical Psychologist

What is the differences for those who are successful?

What are the differences for those who are successful?

Researchers have recently discovered that there are three different types of people according to how they give or take from others. This is particularly evident in the business world and transferable to all parts of our lives.

Adam Grant (2013) researched a number of large companies and assessed the culture of people’s giving and taking styles.  He found three styles of giving and taking. He also assessed their success in business as well as in their personal lives.

Firstly he found there were the givers who give more than they take and feel guilty if someone returns a favour. Then there were the takers who were very good at networking with people in order to gain. Thirdly there are those who are the matchers who match what they give by expecting a return or they match what they take by giving back the same amount.

 Givers and takers choices:

Grant’s research revealed that in every successful person there are choices they make when they approach other people. The choices involve thinking about whether they should claim as much value as they can, or whether they contribute value to that person or whether they work out how much is owed for the service that is given. What was interesting is that Grant discovered there was a difference in how successful givers and takers were.  He found that the most successful people in business were the givers and the least successful people were also the givers, leaving the takers and matchers in the middle.

 Differences between successful givers and non-successful givers:

From the results of his first analysis Grant went to work out the differences between the successful givers and the not so successful givers and he found some very interesting results. There was a difference in how the successful givers gave. The successful givers had a style that genuinely sought the benefit of others. They were outward focussed, were excited about another’s success, and did not attribute the success to them-selves. Those who were the unsuccessful givers also looked outward however they gave because they felt obligated. They “should do this” etc. and they gave compulsively. This compulsive giving actually meant that they often gave inappropriately, or gave when it was not really all that helpful. So in essence the successful givers were more appropriate givers.

 Differences with Takers in business.

Grant discovered takers appeared to like to get more than they gave as they enjoyed a bargain. Takers also put their own interest ahead of others needs. Takers appeared to believe the world was a competitive, dog-eat-dog place and felt that to succeed they needed to be better than others. To prove their competence, takers self promote and made sure they got plenty of credit for their efforts. Takers were not cruel or cutthroat, but they were cautious and over protective. The dominant thought was “if I don’t look out for myself first, others will take advantage of me, and no one else will look out for me.”

A number of years ago, I remember distinctly talking to a businessman who said we can be nice and caring in our personal lives, but business is business. He told me that if you want to succeed you have to play the game. At the time it didn’t sit right with me but he appeared to be a very successful businessman, so I assumed that I must be wrong. He certainly told people he was successful and drove a nice car, and lived in a nice house.  A number of years later he poached staff from a reputable service company, rendering them insolvent. He had networked with the staff and led them to believe they would be a better off with him, rather than staying in the service company. Unfortunately a number of staff left their stable jobs, to find they were overworked and underpaid resulting in the severe burnout with two of the staff only 6 months later.

The costs of taking and giving:

If you are a taker, you help others strategically when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you are a giver, you might use a different cost benefit analysis, you help when ever the benefits to others exceeds the personal cost.   Alternatively you may help others without the thought of personal costs at all. Furthermore if you are a giver at work you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills ideas and connections with other people who can benefit from them.

The difference in business and personal lives:

According to a Yale Psychologist Margaret Clark, most people act like givers in close relationships. She notes that in marriage and friendships, we contribute whenever we can without keeping score but in the workplace, give and take becomes more complicated. Professionally, few of us act purely like givers or takers adopting a third style of relating. Matchers operate on the principal or fairness. When they help others they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. If you are a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your business relationships are governed by even exchanges of favours.

You might find that you shift from one reciprocity style to another as you change your work roles. You can act like a taker when you negotiate your salary, a giver when you mentor someone with less experience, and a matcher when you share with a colleague. But the research shows that at work, people develop a primary reciprocity style, which captures how they approach most people most of the time. What is interesting is that this style of relating can play as much a role in the success in business as hard work, talent and luck.

Studies of success:

Grant studied medical students, and found that those with the lowest grades and the highest grades were the givers.  He also researched sales people finding that the least productive salespeople had 25 percent higher giver scores, but so did the most productive salespeople who averaged 50 percent more annual revenue than the takers and matchers. His studies with engineers showed those who were least successful were the givers as they were more concerned about making sure they could help other which prevented them from completing their work on time, completing drawings and missing deadlines.  However, those engineers who were successful had the highest giving scores and were known for their quantity and quality in their work. These conflicting results demanded further analysis and Grant continued to investigate the personalities and motivations behind the givers and takers.

Grant found that there was a myth around givers, that they are nice and altruistic people. He noted that the givers at the top of the success ladder had goals for their own achievement, and they were as ambitious as the takers and matchers however they had a different way of pursuing the goals.

The differences are clearer when the successful giver wins, or achieves success. When takers win, there is usually someone else who loses. Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. So you often see someone who is going well in business for a while and then they collapse. It is likely they are a matcher or a taker rather than a giver in business. These differences are very subtle.

In contrast when successful givers win, people tend to cheer on and support them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. The differences lie in how the giver success creates value instead of just claiming it.  It was also found in the research that those who were successful givers had taken longer to achieve the success than those who were takers, and when they achieved the success they maintained it because they had the supporters with them. So being a giver is not good for the 100 meter dash, but is valuable in a marathon.

Changes in our society of giving and taking:

Grant, as an organisational psychologist noted a number of changes that have occurred in the process of doing his research. He noted that in the 1980’s the percentage of people working in jobs that provided services to others was 50%, and that today, 80% of people are providing service sector work. He surmised that this would cause a shift in the expectations of the people you provide a service too. That is, since they are paying for more services they would expect a greater service (ie. if they are takers, they want more than they pay for and if they are matchers they will want a quality service)

This shift means that to succeed in business you will need to exceed the expectation of the general public.   So for a successful business, you want to have people working for you with a giver style of relating, can see the best interest of others and see the benefit for others outweighs their personal effort. Basically he notes that if we want to do well in business we need to employ people who are givers. However to employ successful givers we too, need to be givers and not takers.  The simple truth of this is that your business needs to work for the clients and serve the clients, and the measure of success for the business should be the gain for the client not the financial turnover.

 It comes all back to you:It is up to us

If you give first, and people are out there seeing the value of your work and come away with feelings of satisfaction and value added, they will hold onto that feeling and either pay it forward or let others know.

If you give in both your work and your personal lives, the success will be slow but will be evident in your life through the close connections you have and the readiness of others to learn from you. After all, when our lives have a positive impact on others, we see our significance and purpose in this world.


Grant, A (2013).  Give and Take: A revolutionary approach to success. Weidenfeld             and Nicolson,  London UK

Clark, M.S. Mills, J. (1993).  The Difference between communal and exchange             relationships: What it is and is not. Personality and Social Psychology             Bulletin 19: (pp 684-691)








The positive effects of Teachers talking to Parents

Parent and Teacher Communication in Schools:

By Lyn Worsley

Clinical Psychologist

This past week I have had the privilege of working along side Dr Ben Furman, a psychiatrist from Finland. We were both presenting at the Strength and Resilience conference in Singapore.

Dr Furman runs the Helsinki Brief Therapy institute, in Finland, and brings a refreshing outlook to the discipline of psychiatry. Of his many books, Dr Furman’s “kids Skills” puts forward the notion that children don’t break rules, they rather “forget” the rules. Children don’t have bad behaviour it is rather they don’t know the skills to have good behaviour. Children don’t need to address their problems rather they need to address the skills needed to solve their problems.

Dr Furman’s refreshing outlook can also be transferred to adults. In Solution-Focussed Therapy, it is a common practice to help clients to learn the skills needed to move them in the direction of their preferred future. Solution Focussed therapy is practiced most successfully when the therapist asks the client about a miracle and together they begin to scale the progress towards the miracle.

What I found most interesting from Dr Furman’s talk was his practical exercise in helping key adults in Children’s lives to communicate.  These key adults are the teachers and parents. He noted that parents and teachers play the blame game when they think something is going wrong with their child. The teachers quickly find fault with the child’s home life, looking for a cause of the behaviour change. The parents quickly find fault with the style of teaching, the type of school, and the teacher’s poor judgement. This “blame storming” sends both the supporting parties into a defensive zone rendering them both unable to support the child to find solutions to the problem.

Using the fingers on both hands, Dr Furman referred to two ways of doing things.

On one hand he had the “Old school” and on the other hand he had the “new School”.

The old school had five points of communicating for the teacher to the parent.

  1. The teacher asks the parent to meet them.
  2. Mention the problem:
  3. Show the consequences of the problem
  4. Warn them of longer term consequences
  5. Threaten with punishment if the problem isn’t addressed.

The new school also had five points

  1. The teacher inquires of the parent as to the most convenient time to meet to discuss the child’s progress
  2. Mention the successes and strengths of the child
  3. Note some new skills that are needed to enhance these strengths
  4. Ask “what helps” at home so far
  5. Collaborate on a plan to help the child build the skills.

The outcome of each of these styles of communicating is profound.

What was most telling is the effect of the teacher-parent interaction on the subsequent parent-child interaction.

In the old school, the parent feels the shame and is more likely to go home and blame the child for their poor behaviour. Perhaps resorting to punishing them, and the child doesn’t learn the skills they need to solve their problem.  The “Blame Storming” continues.

In the new school, the parent goes home and mentions their teacher has noticed the child’s strengths, and that there are a few things they could do to help their strengths to develop further.  In the new school the parent feels more positive, and acknowledged for their part in helping their child to succeed. This communication style has a flow-on effect to the child, often resulting in collaborating with the parent to find a solution.

Asking questions about “what helps” is a great way to elicit a collaborative response from anyone.

Perhaps if we all took this approach when we communicated in our workplaces, as well as our schools and homes we may find we too will learn skills to solve our problems.


Furman Ben (2004) . Kid’s Skills. Playful and practical solution finding with children. published by St Lukes Innovative Resources