Category Archives: Relationship Skills

Intimacy:
“I want more intimacy, validation, and to feel closer to you.”

"Marilyn Silver Screen" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Marilyn Silver Screen” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Some people claim they want more intimacy, but what they seem to really want is total agreement and constant validation, which are antithetical to intimacy. Long-term, passionate intimacy requires that two people have a strong enough sense of self that they can have differing opinions without expecting all-encompassing closeness and validation from each other.

Intimacy based on accommodation

People often find it uncomfortable to deal with their partner’s insecurities. It is easier to simply appease them, agree with them, and validate them. So they often validate their partner simply to accommodate the partner’s fears and insecurities. It is often really their own anxiety that they cannot tolerate when their partner is under stress.

For example, you may choose to respond by nodding agreeably when you don’t agree rather than saying, “I think you could have handled this differently.” As a result of hiding your true thoughts, the result is a deadening of the soul, resentment, and a loss of passion within the relationship.

Codependence

Validating your partner can temporarily improve your partner’s mood and functioning. However, it often creates long-term problems, such as increased codependency. Each partner feels increasingly burdened by an obligation to ease the other person’s anxiety. When couples become codependent, they are increasingly vulnerable to the other partner’s manipulation. They also become anxious about saying and doing the right thing in order to get a positive reaction.

Intimacy based on candor

True intimacy evolves when you don’t manipulate your partner to validate you. When you don’t need your partner to accommodate your insecurities, it’s easier to show parts of yourself to your partner that he or she may not agree with or validate. The benefit is that your partner then truly sees you without feeling an obligation to shore up your insecurities.

This requires a certain discipline, confidence, and courage to look at yourself objectively and to accept your partner’s authentic response.

While it’s nice to be validated by others, you are more likely to get true validation when you are not trying to attain it. When you’re willing to accept a person’s honest response, then you can meet that person on a deeper, truly intimate level. Ironically, less push for validation means greater intimacy and the possibility of a long-term passionate relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Intimacy vs. Agreement: ‘I better not disagree with his point of view, or he’ll get upset.’”

Anger: “I have a right to be angry.”

"Kej" from the Mayan Collection by Mimi Stuart ©       Live the Life you Desire

“Kej” from the Mayan Calendar Collection by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

Anger as a signal

When you feel anger rising in your belly, your subconscious is generally warning you to pay attention and perhaps to take action in order to avoid potential pain or loss.

Anger can be a powerful emotion. In threatening circumstances, it can be effectively channeled to help defend yourself or others, to command action or to set and maintain boundaries. In many circumstances, however, showing raw anger prevents understanding and perpetuates suffering — yours and others.

Beneath the anger

When you view anger as a signal, then the most effective response is to pause and reflect before taking action. Assessing the emotion and thoughts underlying the anger is generally the best way to plan how to rectify the situation or avoid further injustice.

Often it is helpful to figure out specifically what is underlying the anger. Generally, anger is triggered by fear of immediate loss, pain, or future damage, or by the recognition of an injustice. For example, you might fear being physically or emotionally hurt, or being abandoned or losing someone you love. You might fear financial insecurity or being ridiculed. Anger is also triggered when you see others hurt or treated unfairly.

The other individual

To be most effective, first consider the perspective of the other individual(s) involved even if you don’t agree with their perspective. You can communicate much more effectively if you can find common ground and if you use a solicitous tone of voice and effective choice of words.

For example,

“Perhaps you meant to help…”

“I imagine this promotion means a lot to you…”

“I know economic times are rough…”

“You seem to have a lot going on in your life…”

How to communicate anger effectively

The best communication occurs when people show their vulnerability while remaining self-possessed, in other words, if they don’t give in to the underlying vulnerability and they don’t go ballistic. So, don’t attack, cry, beg or whine. Stay neutral, find common ground, and state your case or make your point.

Here are some examples of bad vs. better communication:

Bad: “How dare you talk to me like that!”

Better: “I know you’re upset, but I feel pushed away when you talk to me like that. Would you explain what you want without raising your voice so much.”

Bad: “How selfish of you not to call until the last minute!”

Better: “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, but when I didn’t hear from you, I was disappointed and decided to make other plans rather than be angry with you.”

In summary, when you feel anger, don’t become reactive, but do the following:

1. Understand what is motivating your anger, so you can be clear about what you want.

2. Find common ground to keep lines of communication open.

3. Express the feelings of fear or sadness that cause your anger without becoming overwhelmed by fear or sadness.

4. Maintain a calm demeanor, that is, maintain your self-respect and self-control.

5. Make a request, not a demand of the other person, if appropriate.

In certain life-endangering circumstances, however, using the full power of your anger could just be the most effective way to prevent harm.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Random Thoughts from So What I Really Meant

"Wisdom of Laughter" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Wisdom of Laughter” — Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Passion

Passion is the feeling of exhilaration in the face of mystery. It arises from the heat generated by the intermingling of two people pursuing their own individual passions. So if partners sacrifice their own personal passions, interests, and friends for the sake of their relationship, that relationship will probably lose its passion.

Jealousy

A jealous partner may have experienced abandonment in his or her life and be easily triggered. Getting angry won’t help the situation. Be considerate and reassuring, but don’t start constricting your life to pander to the jealous partner’s fears, if they are unreasonable. Tell the jealous person that the suspicions are hurtful and are causing you to feel defensive and suggest focusing on his or her positive desires instead.

Feeling controlled

Those who are susceptible to being controlled need to stop fearing the other person’s reactions. That doesn’t mean becoming confrontational. You simply cannot let the fear of another person’s anger dictate your willingness to stand up for your values and needs. Calm, candid, honest communication is best to avoid developing a relationship based on fear and resentment.

Perfectionism

There is no reason you can’t have both the desire to excel and the ability to accept and enjoy the moment, which may be less than perfect. Laughter is much better for your health and your relationships than the anxiety of having to control for the perfect outcome. You rarely hear about the perfect dinner party, but an over-spiced, smoke-filled, ridiculously-problematic dinner tale gets a lot of mileage in laughter-filled stories long after the smoke clears.

Stress

Focus primarily on difficulties you can do something about. Taking control requires taking positive steps to deal with challenges, not ignoring the problems, suppressing the stress, or allowing yourself to be consumed by stress.

Taking control includes prioritizing situations in your life, changing your situation, and changing your perspective, and, just as important, relieving the mounting tension in healthy ways such as exercising, relaxing with friends or family, and developing a sense of humor. In cases where you cannot take physical action, you can take action by consciously changing your attitude and the way you think about the situation.

Difficult times

Feelings of fear and worry are important signals meant to get our attention in times of danger. Once we are alerted to difficulties, however, we need to harness fear and worry in favor of our personal power. The most useful powers in times of difficulty include courage, love, and clear thinking.

Experiencing vulnerability, including fear and sadness, is a crucial part of being able to feel empathy and love. However, we should not allow feelings and vulnerability to take over and engulf us in panic. Worry and anxiety are contagious and paralyzing. It is the power of our capabilities, our thinking, our courage, and our optimism that can best handle the inevitable difficulties of life.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Watch “Pursuing your passions in relationship.”

Watch “How to Deal with Controlling People.”

The Path to Managing your Empathy.

“Enlightenment” – Dalai Lama by Mimi Stuart ©

Empathy can be a wonderful trait if you can choose wisely when to be empathetic and to what degree.

When Empathy is Helpful

The ability to sense, imagine, and feel what someone else is feeling allows us to tune into other people’s emotions and to know when someone who is suffering can use some help. That help might involve showing sympathy and warmth, or it might involve making a plan and taking action. Someone whose family member has passed away probably needs warmth, understanding and sympathy, whereas someone who has lost a job or is sick may need help brainstorming job opportunities or help arranging a doctor’s appointment. Communities facing hardship such as hunger or unemployment may need people with money or logistical support.

When practical action or critical thinking is needed, too much empathy can get in the way. (See “Can you have too much empathy?”) If empathy tends to overwhelm you, it is wise to learn how to tune down your empathetic responses in situations where you need to be quick thinking, practical, or ready to take action. People can learn to moderate their immediate responses through awareness and practice.

How People Develop Empathy

We all develop specific traits and response mechanisms as a result of our own specific life experience. Some individuals are the responsible ones, others are funny, accommodating, bossy, or empathetic, etc. People who are very empathetic have often experienced an environment where a keen sensitivity to others’ suffering helped them avoid potential insecurity or danger. Examples include having a volatile or depressed parent that needed appeasing. Empathetic people develop a fine sense in detecting the emotional state of others as well as a strong drive to soothe another’s needs and emotional suffering.

Every personality trait has a good and a bad side. It generally becomes harmful when a person’s tendencies become too strongly ingrained and responses become automatic and impulsive.

Generally in adulthood, we find out how our personality traits may be making life difficult for us or those around us. Someone who is overly empathetic, for instance, may become overwhelmed by sadness or despair for the hardships of others to the point where their life becomes pure anguish. Another danger for the empathetic person is being manipulated by narcissistic or self-serving individuals. Imagine someone who sulks or dramatizes feeling hurt in order to exploit the empathetic person’s desire to ease their suffering. The use of guilt or exaggerated suffering to manipulate another person is a form of emotional fusion, which ultimately leads to misery.

Developing Choice

Often the understanding that empathy can be harmful in certain cases is enough to give you permission to tune down your empathy. When you realize that empathy is not always helpful to others, you will no longer feel driven to dwell on the suffering of others. The goal is not to stop being who you are, but to develop awareness and see all of the choices you have in a given situation.

First, decide whether others will benefit from your empathy, more practical help, or indifference. Sometimes a show of warmth and sympathy is much needed and will be appreciated, but in some situations injecting too much heart-felt emotion can exacerbate the situation, distracting from practical and constructive strategies.

Second, beware of individuals who try to exploit you by calling you “uncaring,” or “cold,” the very labels that are most likely to bother you. They are trying to manipulate you. Beware also of those who want you to suffer when they are suffering. True friends may benefit from your empathy, but they will not want you to suffer.

Third, find a friend who is balanced, that is, not overly empathetic but not unempathetic, to consult when you are unsure of your reactions.

Fourth, when you need to tune down empathetic tendencies, change your focus by using the rational part of your brain. Read, plan, or figure out what specific action you can take. It is difficult to be overwhelmed by emotion when you focus on the specifics, What, Where, When and How. Just try doing a complex math equation to prove the point.

Therapy and Practice

Most people are able to intentionally adapt and adjust their personality depending on any given situation. For example, someone who is generally light-hearted and funny can regulate those traits during a serious business meeting. Military officers can modulate their tendency to use their authority when dealing with family or friends.

Problems only tend to arise when people have trouble tuning down their primary personality traits when it’s appropriate to do so. If you have trouble tuning down your empathy when you want to, “Voice Dialogue” or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” can help you learn and practice controlling the amount of empathy you experience and show.

In Voice Dialogue, you learn to access different parts of yourself at will, and thereby develop a stronger “Aware Ego,” which allows you to have better control over your automatic tendencies and behavior. Any particular “self” or personality trait has a whole conglomeration of thoughts, feelings, and physical and behavioral aspects.

A therapist can guide you to embody different parts of yourself at will, and have you practice turning up and down the volume, so to speak, of any particular personality trait. For example, you would embody your empathetic self to 80% and then tune that down to 20%, and then do the same thing with a contrasting trait, such as the action-oriented rational part of yourself. You also learn to mix different parts of yourself, for example, the moderately firm parent with the mildly empathetic parent—a great mix if you want a child to take you seriously without hating you.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) rarely involves actual embodiment of behavior but rather focuses on learning to become aware of your reactions and behavioral patterns. The therapist helps you find effective strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with your ineffective or harmful behavior and thinking.

In essence, both therapies help you to become more sharply aware of your own tendencies and their impact on yourself and others. Dramatic practice then rewires your brain and provides you with the ability to choose how to respond to the world around you, in order to be truly more helpful and lead a more satisfying life.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Contempt:
“You’re always scowling at me!”

"Forlorn Heart" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Contempt breaks the heart, because it implies that one person considers the other as undeserving of respect. Studies have shown that people who make sour facial expressions when their spouses talk are likely to be separated within four years. The dissolution of the relationship may take longer, but contempt will steadily and painfully eat away at a relationship, even when there are a few good times in between. In an atmosphere of contempt, partners find it difficult to remember any positive qualities about each other. So the vicious cycle of disdain and hurt gets worse and more irreversible with time.

It is crucial to break this cycle before it gets a stranglehold on the relationship. If your partner talks down to you, express your desire and need to be treated with love and respect. Be firm, but compassionate enough to be listened to. Try saying something like, “You may not be aware of this or mean anything by it, but you look as though you dislike me. Your facial expression makes me feel defensive and bad. I would love it if you could look at me with love and kindness.”

If your partner doesn’t get it, show him or her the research on relationships and contempt. Get any of John Gottman’s books, such as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” that show the mathematical research on the effects of contempt on a relationship. Tell your partner that life is too short to spend time together if both of you are not willing to try to bring the best of yourselves to the relationship.

While you can’t control another person, you do have control over what kind of behavior you are willing to accept, and whom you spend time with. If your partner knows that you have the desire and courage to leave an unsatisfactory relationship you will retain power over your own life. If you’re determined not to let contemptuous behavior slide, your partner will be hard pressed to continue to treat you poorly. If the behavior continues despite your ongoing efforts, the only solution may be to limit or end the relationship before heartache and misery overwhelm you.

A loving relationship based on respect requires a sense of self-respect on your part. People who exude self-respect by stopping or withdrawing from others who talk down to them are more attractive than those who accept contempt. Expecting respect can be a more powerful aphrodisiac than unconditional acceptance. But it has to be backed up by the courage to remove yourself from an unhealthy relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

John Gottman’s website.

Read “Criticism and Contempt.”

Can you have too much empathy?

“Crescendo” by Mimi Stuart ©

Can you have too much empathy?

Empathy is often considered to be the source of good behavior. The literal meaning of empathy is “the ability to share another person’s feelings.” Our culture highly values empathy and assumes you cannot have too much of it. However, when you experience other people’s feelings too strongly, you can run into big problems. Paul Bloom’s book “Against Empathy” shows how empathy can often prevent a person from making sound decisions in a crisis:

“Unmitigated communion makes you suffer when faced with those who are suffering, which imposes costs on yourself and makes you less effective at helping.”

Compassion, Kindness, Empathy

There is a subtle but important distinction between compassion, kindness, and empathy. Compassion is the concern for the suffering of others, which is different from actually feeling or experiencing the suffering of others. Kindness means being friendly, generous, and considerate of others. Kindness creates positive other-oriented feelings and makes other people feel better, which results in positive health effects all around. Compassion and kindness promote pro-social motivation and behavior, and are not likely to get in the way of good decision-making and helpful action.

Empathy, on the other hand, often comes at a great cost. As Walt Whitman quipped: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Becoming the wounded person creates distress for both the empathetic person and the suffering one, while also causing negative health outcomes for all. Moreover, too much empathy for a distressed person’s feelings often overwhelms the empathetic person and clouds clear thinking.


Do people in distress benefit from empathy?

Would you want a therapist to feel depressed or anxious when dealing with a patient who is depressed or anxious? Therapy would be impossible if therapists couldn’t put aside some of their empathy. Would you want a doctor to be overwhelmed with grief when dealing with the grief-stricken family members of a sick or dying patient? Would you want a pilot to feel the fear of the passengers in an emergency situation while airborne? Would you want a fireman to feel your loss while your life and property are burning or at risk? Clearly not. You want them to do their job calmly, quickly, and rationally, free of distracting emotions.

Empathy causes feelings of distress, which can incapacitate the empathetic person and obstruct objective thinking and effective action. Therefore, you can have more positive impact on others and on your own wellbeing when you do not experience too much empathy, albeit some empathy is helpful in making a person aware that others are suffering. People can be more effective helping distressed people when they are NOT experiencing strong feelings. The suffering person benefits more from people whose strength and decision-making are not hindered by feelings of distress.

A therapist should try to understand a client’s feelings, but without matching or absorbing those feelings. It is more important to be engaged by a client’s challenges and to think creatively about possible tools, options and solutions for improving the client’s life. In a medical emergency, you would want a trauma surgeon to stop the bleeding and assess the situation quickly without pausing to feel the patient’s pain. Pilots should focus on what actions are needed while remaining emotionally separated from their passengers in order to best serve them.

How does empathy affect relationships?

Too much empathy in a relationship leads to emotional fusion, which is quite destructive to the individuals involved. If your partner feels your anger or panic to the extent that you do, that will exacerbate the situation. If, instead, your partner remains emotionally separate, objective, calm and compassionate, then he or she can be a rock for you and help you gain perspective and insight into your situation. You can get better support and advice from someone who does not freak out or become upset when you are suffering and need support. Someone who remains cool and calm in difficult times can better guide and counsel you through emotional turmoil.

Similarly, parents who demonstrate too much empathy will overreact when their children are hurt or upset. A parent’s anxiety is infectious and will only increase the fearfulness and distress of the child. If the parent habitually overreacts to the child’s distress, either by panic or extreme coaxing or placating, the child may very well become an anxious, insecure individual. Children need to sense from their parents’ demeanor that everything will be fine. Often they learn resiliency and faith in the future from the parent’s calm, solution-oriented demeanor in stressful situations.

If you want to be effective at alleviating someone’s suffering, it is best to be compassionate and kind while remaining calm and emotionally separate enough to use your reason.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Reference: “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. 2016.