Author Archives: Alison

When is “distancing” beneficial to your relationship, and when is it harmful?

“Romance of Flight” by Mimi Stuart ©

There are times when “distancing” — seeking more space between partners — is the best thing you can do for the relationship, and there are times when it is harmful. Ideally, there is a balance between distance and togetherness, that is, between being self-contained and sharing thoughts and feelings. Too much of either separateness or connection will cause relationship problems.

Usually people who resist distancing are the ones who need to learn to become more self-contained, and those who crave distance would benefit from learning to balance their need for connection with independence.

When too much connection is harmful and distancing is beneficial

In general, people who are needy and eager to pursue connection may have one or more of the following characteristics:

• they need a lot of attention, approval, or validation,

• they express their thoughts and opinions without discretion, either complaining too much or making perpetual observations even if tedious or uninteresting,

• they are afraid to do things alone—e.g., to see friends or family, pursue interests and hobbies, etc., or

• they don’t have control over their emotions, and tend to express too many negative emotions to their partner.

When people focus too much on getting their needs met by another person, the relationship becomes fused, boundaries dissolve, and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. The assumption of people who tend to fuse emotionally is that others are responsible for their own well-being. Such expectations increase pressure, anxiety, and disappointment, because people ultimately cannot provide well-being to another person without diminishing that person’s selfhood and independence.

When two people focus on getting their own needs met and become more independent, their relationship tends to flourish and become more reciprocal.

When is distancing harmful

If you feel hurt, angry, or resentful toward your partner, you might need a little time to calm down (to withdraw or seek distance) to figure out if you need to talk to your partner, let the situation slide, or take some sort of action. Hopefully, you will only need a few minutes to sort it out. In more serious situations you may need more time, or you may even need to talk to someone outside the relationship to get help.

Make sure, however, to avoid distancing when it is motivated by a desire to punish, to manipulate, or to avoid conflict.

• Distancing to punish

Beware of using distancing in a punitive way. If you withdraw to punish your partner, you will only further exacerbate the negative relationship dynamic. Your aim should be to understand and respect each other, not to hurt each other.

• Distancing to manipulate

Beware of distancing as a means to manipulate your partner. Causing your partner to fear abandonment may get your partner’s attention, but it will damage the relationship in the long run. Controlling someone through their emotions creates resentment and prevents open, honest communication.

• Distancing to avoid conflict

If your fear of your partner’s reactions causes you to become distant, you deny yourself the opportunity to develop true intimacy, which requires honesty, trust, and openness. Don’t shy away from expressing your feelings and desires but do so respectfully and be ready to listen and discuss.

In conclusion, appropriate self-containment is an important ingredient of a healthy relationship but it’s important to avoid using distance as a way to hurt or manipulate your partner, to avoid conflict, or to get attention. Learn to balance your emotional independence with candid, caring connection.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Handling Criticism:
“Don’t criticize me. This is the way I’ve always done it!”

"Why Not?" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

If you do anything interesting in life, you are bound to be criticized. It is best to handle criticism without becoming defensive or taking it personally.

Consider the Critic’s Underlying Motivation

When you understand the motivation behind the criticism, it is easier to respond appropriately without becoming defensive. People criticize for various reasons, positive and negative:

1. To help you avoid making a mistake.
2. To connect with you.
3. To share a good idea that may improve on what you are doing.
4. To feel worthwhile.
5. To feel superior because they are jealous or feel inadequate.
6. To find fault because they feel threatened.
7. To vent irritability.

Depending on the motivation, you can handle the criticism differently. For example, if someone wants to share a good idea, it might be worthwhile to engage in a conversation with that person about his or her ideas.

For those who want to connect with you or to feel worthwhile, you don’t need a long discussion on why their criticism is not helpful. A simple “Thanks for your idea” may be adequate, and then change the subject to something of more interest to you.

If someone feels jealous or threatened by you, you can thank the critic and disengage.

You might respond to someone who is simply irritable by asking, “You seem upset. Is there something going one in your life?”

Consider the Criticism

Regardless of the critic’s motivation, the criticism itself might carry some validity. So ask yourself if there is something to be learned by it. Focus only on what is helpful. Disregard the rest. You show confidence when you consider other people’s ideas.

Surprise the critic by thanking him or her for the criticism. If you agree with the criticism, let the critic know how helpful he or she has been. If not, respond honestly with your reasoning. Critical people are often grateful that they are listened to. They may be accustomed to people becoming defensive and ignoring their ideas.

The man who is anybody and who does anything is surely going to be criticized, vilified, and misunderstood. This is part of the penalty for greatness, and every man understands, too, that it is no proof of greatness.

~Elbert Hubbard

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Defensiveness: “What do you mean by that? You’re always attacking me!””

“Stop nagging me about watching the game!”

“Sweetness” Walter Payton by Mimi Stuart ©

While some sacrifices need to be made in any relationship, giving up what you truly enjoy will only lead to resentment. It won’t enhance the passion and vitality between the two of you.

Make sure you find a balance between spending quality time together and pursuing your own passions. Your relationship will flourish if each person supports the other in pursuing their interests, while also making an effort to come together to enjoy each other on a regular basis.

Yet don’t expect you or your partner to behave perfectly. If your partner becomes controlling, be civil while expressing how important your own interests are to you. For example,

“Please don’t ask me to give up something that I truly enjoy. I’d like to watch the game without feeling guilty about it. But I really want to do something with you later when the game’s over.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Related article: “Were you out on the golf course again? I’ve been here alone all afternoon.”

Screen Time
From the Headmaster—Guest Author Jon Maksik

“Think” – Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

GUEST AUTHOR Jon Maksik writes:

I sometimes joke that in a few millennia humans will have evolved into stooped beasts able only to look down at whatever glowing device they hold in one hand. But, how naïve; of course, Apple will trump Darwin and implants will preserve our posture. What though of our ability to distinguish between virtual reality and…well, reality? What of our ability to pay attention to one another and to the world around us?

Alarmist hyperbole? Walk into any restaurant, any sporting event, any school, any place at all where people are gathered, and look around. How many people do you see looking at a screen—or two? How often do you see a family of four eating together when each of them is looking at a phone? How often do you see people sitting next to one another, each on a device and never exchanging a word or a look? Exactly.

This is old news by now, so old that we barely remember the quaint days of yore when we scoffed at people bellowing pressing news into their cellphones: “I’m in the vegetable aisle at the market. Where are you?” As we’ve become increasingly inured to the beeping, pinging, quacking, barking, and ringing that intrude on our lives, we veer from grudging acknowledgement of a problem to celebrating the cleverness of the marketing geniuses who sell us so much of what we so rarely need. What we don’t do is address the problem for what it is: an addiction.

More alarmist hyperbole? Ok. How often do you check your email, texts, and social media? How often without justifying it, without thinking that you might better spend your time in other ways? Do you dare to calculate the number of hours in a day, week, or year that you spend on your devices, “connecting” with other people or, more accurately, their avatars? What is the first thing you do in the morning and the last before you go to sleep? Can you cut back? Can you stop? No, you can’t, but, really, so what? How harmful is this so-called addiction?

We’re beginning to find out, to go beyond the anecdotal and actually find out. Two recent studies provide some answers: We risk brain function; we risk our ability to engage with other people; we risk the ability to pay attention to one thing for very long. We risk our cognitive ability; our emotional equilibrium, and we risk depression. We risk altering or destroying relationships with the people we love because we don’t pay attention them. We risk friendships and, yes, we risk that vague notion of “happiness.”

Have a look at some specific findings.

“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

“Your Smartphone Reduces Your Brainpower, Even If It’s Just Sitting There”

When I showed these articles to a friend of mine, she asked me how I thought parents might best talk to their children about the problem. I think a better question is how adults and children can talk with each other about it. Two parents wielding cellphones and warning children about the dangers of too much screen time is akin to two parents wielding martinis and warning children about drinking. Besides, it is axiomatic that children have robust powers of observation. Even very young children miss little that occurs in their families; adolescents miss next to nothing. We adults aren’t fooling anyone. If it’s true that young people stand to lose the most from “screen addiction,” it’s also true that adult addiction can have an equally profound impact.

So, how do we talk with our children about all of this? We can save time and avoid the, “When I was your age” trope; and we can skip the Luddite vs. techno-savvy argument because we share the same addiction. Given those time-savers, we might consider discussing what’s important in our lives, what’s wonderful about what we share as families, what’s cool and useful about our devices and what isn’t, about what we gain and what we risk losing. Certainly, we might share some persuasive evidence, like that noted in the articles above, but hold the pontificating. This is one of those times when we are enmeshed in the same fast-moving phenomenon and we are no less vulnerable than our children. That’s an advantage, as it turns out, because it allows us to begin a collaborative conversation

And, perhaps vulnerable is a good word to consider. We are, demonstrably, every bit as vulnerable as our children and it’s good for them to see that vulnerability, to understand that this is not about “responsibility” or taking out the trash. We have no other motive than to help one another to live in the world—the real one, the off-screen world, the world of our friends and loved ones. Those are the people with whom we need to connect.

by Jon Maksik, Ph.D., who served as headmaster of the Community School in Sun Valley, Idaho, from 1987 until his retirement in 2006.

Read Jon Maksik’s “The Truth About Success” and other articles.

When texting is no longer reciprocal.
“Does she still like me?”

“Duet” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

It would be a miracle to find another person to whom you’re attracted and who shares the same expectations and attitude toward relationships that you do. One person may feel hurt when his texts aren’t responded to often enough. The other person may feel dejected when she doesn’t get a gift for her birthday. The list of small frustrations that can cause disappointment is endless.

To have a great relationship, these differences are of minor significance. Partners can and should differ as to their preferences in how much to text, as they do in every other aspect of life. Relationships succeed best when both sides accept many of the harmless differences. What is important is communicating your more important desires and wishes in a way that avoids the following:

1. Attacking the other person, which puts him or her on the defensive and closes off productive and meaningful conversation. “You’re so rude! Why do you wait so long to text me back?”

2. Controlling the other person, which is belittling and demeaning and ignores the other person’s point of view. “When I text you, I want you to get right back to me. Do you understand?”

3. Whining about the situation — a childish and needy attitude — , which is used as a means to manipulate the other. “I miss hearing from you. Are you too busy for me?”

4. Silently holding a grudge, which builds up resentment and resolves nothing.

You can manipulate or badger someone into a desired behavior. But when someone’s actions are emotionally coerced, the strength and autonomy of the individual is undermined. The result is resentment in lieu of passion.

It’s much better to entice the other person with your independence and full life. If necessary, express your desires honestly while being mindful of the other person’s feelings and autonomy.

When addressing your frustrations, start the conversation with a sense of self-respect as well as consideration for the other person. Most important are a tone of voice and body language that embody your respect for the other person’s autonomy as well as your own desires.

In summary,

1. Respect yourself and the fact that you have personal needs and desires.

2. Respect the other person’s autonomy and right to have different attitudes and freely make decisions.

3. Express your desires with a positive specific request.

4. Ask the other person what he or she thinks about your request.

For example, “Hey, I really enjoy hearing back from you when I text you. Lately, you haven’t responded very much. Am I texting you too much?”

Or “It seems as though you’ve been pretty busy lately. What’s going on?”

Some people think they need to be aloof and hard-to-get to be attractive. Others wear their emotions on their sleeve. Both can be off-putting. What matters is how you manifest your feelings for someone. You can express your desire as long as you aren’t desperate and needy, on the one hand, or controlling and manipulative, on the other. There is nothing more attractive than someone who can express desire or love while still maintaining a sense of self and having the self-discipline to resist engaging in a mediocre relationship.

“I really think you’re special and enjoy spending time with you. Lately, I get the sense that you are backing off, and would like to know if that’s right.”

Whether this relationship works out or not, it’s important to start relationships with clear and positive communication to to be able to figure out how to reconcile your different expectations. Whether you’ve just been dating for a month or married for 25 years, communicating openly with respect is the way to keep the relationship improving.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


Why saying “no” can be good.

"Gandhi" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Gandhi” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Why do some people agonize over saying no?

Personality Development

Often people cannot say no because they dread disappointing others. As you grow up, you develop different parts of the personality to help you survive and thrive in your given circumstances. To win the love or acceptance you desire or to avoid negative criticism or worse, you end up emphasizing certain traits, such as being responsible, smart, or accommodating. Your “personality” then becomes formed by your primary personality traits.*

Accommodating Personality

Accommodating people learn early on that they thrive best by being agreeable and compliant. Their desire to please others dates back to not wanting to disappoint the people they were dependent on for security and love. When this desire to accommodate becomes excessive, the thought of saying no becomes tinged with a feeling of dread.

As an adult, the fear of saying no is not always reasonable or helpful. But the neural-circuitry developed in your brain in childhood still says, “Don’t disappoint or you’ll have to pay for it.” “If you say no, arguments will ensue, affection will be withdrawn, etc.” Or “If you don’t make her happy, she will be sad and she is too fragile to handle sadness.” That brain circuitry lingers on until you change and replace it.

How to say no, and become more whole

To avoid resentment and depleting your energy, you have to be able to say no to things you don’t have the time or desire to do. When you can be candid about your needs and desires without feeling dread, you will feel more whole and confident. Others will respect and enjoy you more because they will know that no means no, and yes means yes.

1. The first step is to realize that some emotions are habits that are no longer in your best interest.

2. The second step is to practice saying no peacefully, firmly, and confidently, that is, in a neutral, kind way, but without fear or weakness. Tone of voice is more important than the actual words.

3. The third step is to give an honest reason without being overly-apologetic. Don’t sound guilty or embarrassed to say no. And don’t give a litany of excuses. Simple and short is best.

Example:

You just got home from work, exhausted, and your partner asks you to clean the garage.

I might have time this weekend. Right now I’m exhausted and would like to relax and enjoy being home.

Or

I’ve been working a lot. I really don’t like that kind of work. We need to hire someone to do that, or let’s do it together.

Example:

Your boyfriend/girlfriend asks you to drive him/her to the airport when you have other plans.

I’d love to, but I already made plans to play soccer/finish a work project. Sorry.

Example:

Your friend wants you to go out tonight, but you don’t feel like it.

I’d love to see you but I am just not in the mood to go out tonight. Let’s do it another time. Have fun without me.

Example:

An acquaintance wants you to volunteer for some good cause or to donate money.

Sorry I can’t. I have too many other obligations.

Or

That sounds like a great cause, but we have already donated to other organizations and can’t extend ourselves anymore.

Note that there are circumstances where a clear, emphatic No without any explanation is appropriate, as for example, when there is a threat to you or those close to you, such as in dangerous or peer-pressure situations.

Once people who have trouble saying no realize how easy it is, they will no longer agonize about it. Moreover, people have more respect for those whose desire to please is reasonable and moderate, rather than extreme and self-defeating. When people know that you can say no, they will truly appreciate it when you say yes.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

*See Dr. Hal Stone and Dr. Sidra Stone’s Theory of Selves.

Read “Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: ‘If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.’”

Read “Setting Boundaries.”

Read “Too Responsible to Enjoy.”