What Is Love? (or How Do I Put My Ego Aside To Get What I Really Want?)

Recently a client asked me, “What is love?”  I sat there in silence for many moments, because I really wanted to give him a simple answer.  A concise sentence he could take with him and use. There is no easy answer.  I think if I could come up with a simple answer, I would be very rich.  I also know if a simple answer could be easy to attain, someone way before my time would have thought it up prior to now.

We all can agree love is complex, but we also often confuse things for love that are definitely not love, making things all the more baffling.  We think it is love, when it is really ego. In the past, I was a guest columnist on a website that provides information about dealing with affairs. Readers on the site repeatedly asked questions, “How do I make my partner talk about the affair? How do I make my partner go to counseling?  How do I make my partner realize how much he/she has hurt me?” When I responded “You can’t make anyone do anything,” the plea I often get back is “But I love him/her!” That is actually not love at all, but ego and control.

So, I’m sitting in my office chair and all of this is running through my mind. I’m pretty sure I know what love is not.  The question still remains, “What is love?  I came up with this:  I think love is the willingness to do the hard work necessary every day to affect the best possible outcome, with care and concern for all present.

Love is about what you are willing to give, not about what you think you should get. To be willing to operate under that principle is indeed hard work.  Moreover, having care and concern for the best possible outcome, doesn’t always mean happiness and roses.  Sometimes doing the best thing is not only difficult, but sometimes hard to talk about and even worse, hard to hear.

A major mistake we make in our attempt to build meaningful lasting relationships is operating from the guiding principle; “The success of this relationship depends on how well you meet all my expectations of you.”  It invariably leads to difficulty and resentment at some point, because other people are not us and they never will be.  We can’t even live up to our own expectations of ourselves, so how can we expect more from others?  It’s a waste of time. Focus your energy instead on this simple question: “Am I being the person today I would want to be in a relationship with?”  Ask it often and see what happens.

Mental Health Boot Camp

We don’t pay attention.  Not really.  You probably tend to think you are very aware of your surroundings and what everyone is doing and why, but research and statistics tell a different story.  We really don’t pay attention to a lot going on around us.  There is so much to do and so many people, places and things vying for our attention, we tend to be focused on what we discern is the most important and discard the rest.  More importantly, we really don’t pay attention to ourselves.  There is a lot going on up in our brains, but we ignore most of it.  True a lot of it can be unimportant chatter, like the angry rant of a squirrel, but some of it describes who we are, how we see our reality and most importantly how we confirm and develop that reality around us.

I find most of our problems lie in we don’t listen to ourselves and what the continuous narrative up there is telling us about our lives. I created Mental Health Boot Camp out of a need to connect to a client who wasn’t doing well in therapy.  He said to me one day, “I think I would just rather drive my car into a pole.” His depression was so severe and he was having extreme difficulty in connecting to himself and motivating himself to work on treatment.

 Mental Health Boot Camp is a kind of journaling program used in a new way to help clients.  There is an enormous amount of research to support how the simple act of writing down our thoughts can help us gain a new understanding of ourselves, develop clarity of thought and help us use the thought process we have to overcome life’s obstacles and problems.

Through Mental Health Boot Camp, clients have become able to see themselves in a stronger, more positive light and recognize they have all the skills they need to obtain more peace, happiness and fulfillment in life.  Mental Health Boot Camp just helps provide the direction. The client I mentioned above eventually went on to college, became self sufficient, got into a relationship and…well…became happy.

Mental Health Boot Camp is really a matter of knowing how to direct your energies to their best use.

I’ll Write This Blog Later

I used to be a procrastinator.  More specifically, I used to be an avoider.  I would avoid doing things either I was afraid of facing, unsure of my ability to do the ‘thing’, or worried doing the ‘thing’ would cause more grief than just simply worrying about it not being done. I kicked my procrastination/avoidance problem years ago by realizing I buy more trouble putting things off and thinking they will go away than just doing them and dealing with whatever happens next.

In thinking about writing this blog, I came across this entry written by psychologists who study procrastination for a living: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200507/why-we-procrastinate. The article gives good tips about why procrastination occurs, why it is such a struggle for some people, and what to do to help ourselves.

Ultimately, it seems procrastination is a matter of unconscious avoidance or even rebellion against authority.  It might have started in the family of origin, but as an adult “authority” can unconsciously take all manner of forms.  Even time can become a representation of authority to be avoided or rebelled against.

I think it is interesting the researchers state procrastination is not a matter of time management. It is an issue of unconscious behavior in reaction to a perceived threat to psychological stability.  Moreover, we can put off different responsibilities for different reasons.  It is important to carefully examine what you are putting off and take a hard internal look for the reasons behind the avoidance.

I know for me, one of the behaviors I still struggle with is my writing, even writing this blog.  I know I consciously want to have the blog and my book ideas written, but I struggle with making time to actually do them.  On the surface, it is mysterious to me how I have an urgent need to check Facebook, when I really should spend the time writing.  Upon close internal inspection, I found I wanted to write my ideas, but more importantly, want my words to be acclaimed and sought after by the general public.  That coupled with an underlying fear of no one really caring.

I had to ask myself, “What if I wrote a blog no one ever reads?  What if I write a book no one ever buys? Would I still want to write it?”  When I could get to a “Yes, I would still want to write a blog/book, even if I’m the only person who ever reads it”, I found it easier to keep up with my writing.

There is probably something you routinely put off you wish you didn’t.  It can be fearful to look for the underlying reason you avoid it, but once you’ve faced the internal reason, you may find your ability to deal with the activity increases and your anxiety level in general will go down.

Highly Sensitive People

A while back I reached out to see what mental health topics people would like to read and got an overwhelming response for “highly sensitive people” (or HSP). I have to admit, I didn’t know much about this topic so I had to do some research. I learned that I meet many of the determining factors to consider myself to be highly sensitive. So what does it mean?

Well, for starters, HSP make great friends because they’re compassionate, empathetic, and hyper-vigilant in regards to others’ feelings. They demonstrate superb manners, going out of their way to make sure they’re not inconveniencing anyone. They feel things more deeply than others and have a true appreciation for music and art. They are also really good at being able to comfort others and notice when and where this is needed.

However, HSP are sometimes misunderstood and feel uncomfortable in social situations. It is common to be overwhelmed by intense stimuli such as loud music, lots of people, bright lights, and high activity. This could be a concert, bar, farmer’s market, or sporting event. They often get told not to take things so seriously or personally. HSP are often perfectionists and, therefore, take a long time to make a decision and then beat themselves up over having made the wrong decision. They might be seen as “overly emotional” because they cry more and can have intense reactions to criticism.

Here are some tips on how to cope with some of these aspects:

1. Know your triggers and plan accordingly. If crowds bother you, consider going to events at the beginning or end when there aren’t as many people around. For loud noises, try some earplugs or listening to some soothing music. Smartphones now have apps that provide sleep-friendly noises such as rain, white noise, or storm.

2. Manage emotions. Rate your fear on a scale of 1-10 to see how realistic it is. (1 is “I got nothing” and 10 is “I can take it into court and win the trial with it”.) This trains our brains to think more rationally so we can put things into perspective. Walk yourself through the worst case scenario (knowing that 9 out of 10 times that never plays out) and develop a plan on what you would do if that transpired.

3. Become very familiar with calming techniques. Try a meditation in which you envision yourself in a canoe on a beautiful river. When a worrying thought comes, place it on a leaf coming toward you in the river. Pick it up, read the worry, then put it back in the water and watch it float away. Try a 54321 (written about in a previous blog) or “alphabets on the leg”, in which you write out the alphabet on your knee with your finger. The key is distraction. You want to get your mind off what’s worrying you and put it on something more constructive.

Hope this helps!

Contempt: Every Couples’ Worst Enemy

Of all of the things that couples do that are the most harmful to their relationships, showing contempt towards one another is by far the worst. Contempt can be shown in a lot of ways: rolling your eyes, making an inappropriate noise, belligerence, condescension, saying hurtful or spiteful things or attacking your partner’s character, etc. The most common theme of contempt is disrespect. There is absolutely no room for disrespect in a relationship.

Disrespect and contempt are expressed through conveying a sense of superiority over your partner. Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute says that contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce in a relationship. It is so toxic that it can actually impact a person’s health. The number of contemptuous statements a speaker makes to their partner in a 15-minute period is directly correlated to the number of infectious illnesses the listener will suffer through the following year.

The difficult thing about contempt is that it comes from long-standing negative thought patterns about your partner. It stems from unresolved conflicts: fights and disagreements that you don’t let go once they are finished or that you never fully resolved in the first place. It can sneak up on you, to the point where you hear yourself saying things that you weren’t aware you felt. It can start with something as simple as sarcasm, which many people say is just part of their personality. This is an excuse; a shield. While some people do have a sarcastic sense of humor, there is a difference between sarcastic humor and condescendingly sarcastic remarks to your partner.

So if that’s what contempt looks like, how do you counteract it? It isn’t easy; however, it is necessary in order to have a healthy relationship. The path begins by creating what Gottman calls a culture of fondness and appreciation within your relationship. Start by acknowledging contempt and disrespect when you see them, either from yourself or from your partner. When you find yourself feeling contemptuous, remember what it is that you love about your partner. See your contempt as a failure on your part to recognize and remember the good, admirable and likable qualities they have. Conflict by nature is not unhealthy; what makes it unhealthy is when it comes from a place of disrespect. If you approach your partner from a place of respect and love, they are much more likely to receive what you are saying and be able to respond appropriately. Use “I feel…” and “I want…” rather than “You are…” and “You never…” and similar statements. Every human being is deserving of respect. By expressing contempt within your relationship, you devalue your partner as a human being. Your partner is deserving of the same respect you would give to others and that you would expect to receive yourself.

Basic Tips for Couples

There are an unlimited number of ways that you can be a better partner and have a better relationship. Learning is a lifetime process. Especially in your relationship, learning should be constant. There are, however, some very specific things that you and your partner can do that will increase your relationship satisfaction, as well as help you communicate with one another in a healthier way.

  1. Establish and maintain a 5 to 1 positive to negative interaction ratio. According to Dr. John Gottman, this is essential to having a healthy relationship. Negative interactions are powerful, and inevitable in normal relationships. The best way to counteract the effects of negative interactions is to have as many positive interactions as possible, with a ratio of at least 5 to 1.
  2. Avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and know their antidotes. The toxicity of these “Four Horsemen” as Dr. Gottman calls them cannot be underestimated. Criticism, to which the antidote is complaining without blaming. Contempt, to which the antidote is showing respect and trust. Defensiveness, to which the antidote is taking responsibility for your part in the conflict. Stonewalling, to which the antidote is physiological self-soothing (deep breathing, slowing down your pulse, counting to ten slowly). These four habits are poison in relationships.
  3. Ask. If your feelings are being hurt, if you partner is giving you attitude, if something they’ve said has come across badly, ask them about it. Take it as an opportunity to check in with them, let them know how they are coming across and give them an opportunity to correct it. So many couples let little things evolve into big things because they misinterpreted, assumed or mind-read. Do not do that. Instead, ask your partner, in a kind way, “What’s going on?” Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe it has nothing to do with you or the situation you’re in. People don’t always realize how they come across to those they love, because when we love, we let our guard down and we say things without thinking about their impact. Give your partner an opportunity to explain their thought process, what they are going through, and what you can do to help them. Relationships are give and take; use this as an opportunity to ask your partner what they need from you.
  4. Never stop dating each other. When we first meet our partners, we present the best version of ourselves. Not that we are not authentic, but we tend to only show the things that make us attractive to others. Over time, we discover things about our partners that are less flattering. They do not necessarily make us love them any less; however, as the newness of a relationship wears off, the spark can, too. One way to keep the spark alive is to keep dating each other throughout your relationship. Dinner dates, movies, concerts or anything where the two of you can spend quality time together, without the interference of everyday worries and stress. Time together includes time without the interruptions of children, social media and work which is all helpful in keeping that spark alive.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find out What It Means to Me

I’ve often thought respect is the foundation of a good relationship.  Without respect, the other things we want from our relationships like trust, love, fulfillment and meaning all seem hollower.  Respect is a fertile ground in which trust and love and can grow abundantly.

Recently I found this great article written for school teachers about teaching trust to children.  The article explains respect should not be confused with obedience.  We may obey people we are afraid of, or for some reason defer to their authority.  That does not mean we respect them.  The article also states the best way to teach respect is to be respectful.  I find that very important as when I look around the world, I see many people displaying a sense of entitlement to the respect they “deserve” without acknowledging any responsibility to give respect to others. Here are some great bullet points about how to teach respect to your partner by first being respectful:

Be honest – If you do something wrong, admit it and apologize. Be aware of how your actions affect your partner and take responsibility for the consequences of those actions.

Be positive – Don’t embarrass, insult or make fun of your partner. This is as important when it’s just the two of you as it is in public.  We are programmed by society to shape behavior through criticism.  Just because it is common and everyone does it, doesn’t make it a good idea.

Be trusting – Let your partner make choices and take responsibility. I ask people all the time “what is the definition of trust?” People mistakenly believe trust is a confident belief you have for someone after they’ve proven worthy of it.  WRONG! Trust is about believing and being confident in someone without guarantee.  It’s also about forgiving people when they are truly sorry for having hurt you.

Be a good listener – Listen to your partner’s side of the story before reaching a conclusion.  How often do you interrupt or spend think about what how you are going to respond even before your partner has quit speaking?  Give your partner your full attention. Be aware of how your body language conveys interest and attention. If you are turned away doing something with your hands, I know you are not listening to me really.  Just saying you are doesn’t change reality. Learning to listen is a talent, skill and an art.  You have to practice it to become better at it.  It doesn’t happen without time, attention and energy.

Be polite – Use “please” and “thank you.” Be aware and respectful of your partner’s space. You can create a lot of happiness and contentment in your relationship simply by exercising basic politeness.

Be reliable – Keep promises. Show your partner you mean what you say.

These are basic, simple tips to use in your everyday life.  You can transform your relationship and your life just by practicing these every day.

If You Really Want It, Why Aren’t You Doing It?

I hear it all the time: “I know what I want to do, and I know how to do it…So why am I not just doing it already?” When you find you are procrastinating, feeling stuck, or avoiding making those changes you need to get what you want, here are some tips about what might actually be going on and how to turn it around.

FEAR OF FAILURE: Plain and simple, a lot of us don’t want to set a goal because we don’t want to fail. Losing weight, for example, is a common goal in therapy. We all know that losing weight requires a change in our diet and exercise.
To eat healthy, a lot of people go on a “diet”. That’s like putting a band-aid on a major wound. I suggest learning more about eating healthy, following suit, and considering it your “lifestyle” (permanent, or long-term) instead of a “diet” (temporary, or short-term).

A lot of us fail at exercise because we start our goals too high and then get disappointed when we don’t meet them or we do exercises we don’t like and lose our motivation. All too often we start out saying we’ll go to the gym 5 days a week. If you weren’t exercising at all before this, that’s an unrealistic goal. Start out at two times a week and see how that goes and build up from there. Make sure exercise is something you enjoy (playing volleyball, riding a bike, going for a walk, etc.). Add an exercise partner to increase motivation and accountability.

FEAR OF SUCCESS: This might sound crazy to you at first, but think about it. With success comes a lot of responsibility. Getting that promotion is going to create more work. Having a relationship demands compromises. Any success you can obtain is going to be work. And most of us want to find the easy button when it comes to responsibilities.

What you can do to overcome this obstacle is change the way you’re looking at the success. Instead of viewing it as creating more work, look at it as an opportunity to grow and become stronger. Enjoy the process and envision the end result.

FEAR OF CHANGE: The two most stressful changes a person can experience in a lifetime are marriage and having children. Most of the time (I would hope) folks are making these changes willingly. And still it’s stressful. Being successful in making big life changes takes planning.

Once you have a plan put together, you can make lists with deadlines and schedule the things you need to do in your calendar. Break tasks up so you don’t look at a list of 100 things to do and get overwhelmed. A little organization is all you need to feel more confident about the changes you want to make.

In addition to organization, you need the HOPE and the BELIEF that you can make the change. Correct yourself every time you hear yourself saying “I can’t” or giving excuses as to why it won’t happen. You have to think positive and convince yourself that you can, and will, do it.

Writing A Letter You’ll Never Send

In the age of email, texting, Facebook and Twitter, letter writing in the traditional sense has fallen to the wayside. Writing a letter used to be a major form of communication; long distance phone calls cost a lot of money, whereas a stamp was less than fifty cents. Writing a letter gave you time to think about what you were going to say, how you were going to say it and who you were going to say it to.

Nowadays, its so easy to pick up your smart phone and send a quick text, most of the time knowing that you’ll get a response back in a few moments. But what about the times where there are things you want to say, but don’t feel comfortable saying them? Or when the person you want to say them to is no longer around. How do you get that need to say what you need to say to them out of you?

Writing a journal is an excellent means of getting things out of your mind and off your chest. But sometimes, the things you want to say are directed at someone in particular; for example, an ex partner, a deceased parent, a friend you lost along the way due to too many differences. Some therapists use what we call the Empty Chair Technique, where you air your grievances and feelings, good or bad, to an empty chair where you imagine your particular audience member to be sitting. While often an effective form of therapy, it can feel awkward and unfulfilling to some.

When the Empty Chair Technique isn’t quite your speed, writing a letter that you will never send is another way to unburden your thoughts. Letter writing is private, intimate, and allows you time to think about what you’re going to say before putting it down on paper; or for some, to just let the words flow out of you until you feel purged of the negativity you’ve been carrying around. You can say whatever you want without fearing repercussions or painful exchanges between you and the person you’re writing to. While most therapists will advocate dealing with your problems as directly as possible, sometimes airing your concerns directly to that other person isn’t an option, yet you still feel the need to get those feelings out. In circumstances like this, writing a letter, or even a series of letters can be cathartic and can help give you that sense of unburdening that you may be craving.

Some people choose to burn the letters after they are written, as another form of purging. Some put them away in a box; some keep journals specifically for those letters. Whatever you find works best for you, do that. And in the event that the person you are writing the letter to is someone that you may have an opportunity to approach directly one day, writing them a letter now may help to organize your thoughts and feelings to help you approach them later on.

The Greatest Love of All

I’ve been focusing and concentrating a lot recently about the concept of self-love and how, exactly, does one learn to love oneself?  I challenge clients with this question often and just as frequently the response is, “I don’t know”, or “I don’t love myself and don’t know where I would begin doing so.”

Working on self-love is one of life’s most difficult tasks. Because it is such a difficult concept to understand, it’s why most people give up, dissociate from their lives in significant ways and develop strategies to run from themselves.  People running from the responsibility of self-love has resulted in our being the most in-debt, overweight, addicted, prescription-pill-taking, depressed society that has ever existed on the planet.

Hard? Yes.  Impossible? No.  Worth all the damage we do to ourselves to avoid the responsibility?  Absolutely not.  I have been posting a series of daily reminders on the BHC Assessment & Consulting Facebook page to outline self-loving steps.  You can “like” the Facebook page and follow along here: https://www.facebook.com/drdave0521.

First, you have to realize the work of self-love is a life-long journey.  You will never be finished.  That’s actually good news!  Imagine the longest relationship you will ever have in your life continuing to grow and get better, richer, more meaningful, rather than stagnant and boring.  Who doesn’t want that?

Second, you have to commit to the actions that create love: respect, acceptance, patience, value and consideration.  These may mostly be mental actions, but they are still actions.  You can achieve this by asking yourself, “How can I respect myself today? How can I accept myself today? Etc.”

The longer I live and study the human experience, the more I recognize this work of self-loving can make major headway in solving most of life’s problems.  It can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.  It can help alleviate the effects of trauma.  It can probably even help alleviate the symptoms more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.  At the very least, it can make life more livable.

Love is the greatest gift you can give yourself.