Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Secret is Acceptance

Remember the book "The Secret"? Take a look at the movie trailer, the website, the Vinny Verelli sketch, and the Saturday Night Live spoof and you can get a "Cliff's Notes"-like understanding of it's basic tenets.

Most of us have a healthy skepticism of statements that are universal and absolute. Anything that promises to deliver "the most powerful law in the universe" seems suspect. When ideas are taken to an extreme, they often begin to lose relevance and power and become stereotypes.

"The Secret" takes some good basic ideas and stretches them to the point of seeming magical and even absurd at times. If ancient philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders really knew the path "to unlimited happiness, love, health and prosperity", why would they keep it a secret?

While thoughts and beliefs can be very powerful and it is certainly important to take responsibility for our own behavior when appropriate, we must also acknowledge the impact of heredity, circumstances and environment. The notion that we are the sole creators of our lives and we are 100% responsible for everything that happens to us can be quite blaming and discouraging to those facing the most difficult of life challenges.

Experience shows that we can sometimes change aspects our own reality through challenging our perspectives, but the value of acceptance must also be recognized. Acceptance is acknowledgement without judgment of things that cannot be changed or that are better left unchanged. Acceptance also means taking personal responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings as well as the choices you make in your life. It can be a very difficult state to achieve, but one of the most satisfying for those who master it. It can also be the only healthy option available to some individuals.  

It can be a very seductive thing to blame others for thier misfortunes. It would mean that the world is just, we have total control over our lives, can avoid all danger, overcome any obstacle, and realize our wildest dreams if we just get our minds right. What a wonderful world that would be! However, we can see the negative effects of self-blame or "victim blaming" when we look at survivors of crime or social problems like poverty and discrimination. Excessive shame and guilt rarely help people live more productive and satisfying lives and it often prevents people from seeking out the help they need to do so.

So if you decide to read "The Secret" or watch the movie, I hope you will take from it what seems useful to you, but that you will resist the temptation to see it as a panacea or use it as an excuse to blame yourself or others for their problems. For more information about mental health concerns, please visit my website

Friday, October 1, 2010

Destructive Relationships

Why do some of us keep finding ourselves in destructive relationships over and over again?  The reasons are many and vary from person to person.  Do any of these reasons ring true for you?

Learned dysfunction
Most people learn how to be in relationships from the people they grew up with and if you had destructive role models, there is a chance you might find yourself in a similar situation as an adult.  Sometimes people wind up repeating a cycle they witnessed or experienced as youngsters. Other times, in an effort to avoid repeating mistakes, they swing like a pendulum to the opposite extreme (which can be equally destructive).  Fortunately, behavior that is learned can also be unlearned.

Fear of being alone 
Many people have an underlying dread of growing old alone and some even fear spending more than a few hours on their own.  People who are comfortable with being alone for extended periods of time are generally good company to themselves, can tolerate silence, entertain themselves, structure their own time, and find purpose in solitary activities.

Some people just haven't had a lot of experience being alone.  If you haven't been alone much in your life, its going to take some getting used to.  Like anything new, it just takes a little practice and time to adjust and feel comfortable.  In order to learn to tolerate and even enjoy solitude, you must be willing to tolerate through any initial discomfort and experiment with healthy ways of coping while you adjust.

Some people have never really had a chance to learn to live independently.  Have your parents continued to take good care of you even into adulthood or did you go right from your parents home into another type of caregiving relationship?

Other people did master their independence at one point, but then they gradually came to rely on another person to fill their basic needs.  They start to forget their earlier independence and co-construct a life together that feels difficult to manage alone.  As a couple, have you accumulated too many responsibilities and obligations to effectively handle on your own?  Would you face financial ruin without the other person?

Do you think you just need to try harder to make your relationship work?  Do you tend to ask yourself how you caused the destruction in your relationship?  You may keep trying to be a better and better friend, daughter, son, sibling, roommate or partner, but you never quite get it right because the relationship remains destructive.  Remember, only 50% of the relationship is up to you and that is the only part you have control over.

Believing you can change them
Change is something people must do for themselves.  You can advocate for change and support people in their change process, but you ultimately cannot change them.  You can, however, change your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior.  You ultimately choose whether to stay in the relationship, leave, ask for change or accept things the way they are.

Believing deep down, they really love you
Do you find yourself saying you know they love you and that is the reason you persevere in the relationship despite its destructiveness?  Many people in destructive relationships believe the other person must love them even though they have very little objective evidence to support their belief.  But, love is a behavior and not just a feeling. Look at the way a person treats you and not just how you think they feel about you or what you believe their intent is.  Make a two column list of loving and unloving behavior and pay close attention to what you see there.

Reminiscing and dreaming
When you think about your relationship, are you focusing more on the way things used to be and hoping they can be that way again?  Or perhaps you are fantasizing about how things could be in the future if everything went your way.  Think about your partner’s current behavior.  Is it primarily loving or unloving?

Hurts so good
People often want what they can’t have, even if it is bad for them.  They may be drawn in by a challenge or long to "join a club that wouldn't have me as a member".  Sometimes people overvalue things that are "hard to get".  Or you may just be very accustomed to destructive relationship patterns and they feel familiar and comfortable to you, although intellectually they are not what you would say you would want for yourself.

Missing the signs
For many of the reasons listed above, we often fail to recognize or even ignore the red flags that tell us the relationship is destructive.  Friends, family and colleagues may be telling us their concerns about the relationship, but we do not heed their warnings.  Its only in hindsight that we discover they were seeing something we weren't ready to see.

If you or someone you love is struggling with relationship issues, it may be helpful to consult with a professional. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.

Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Love Experiment

Have you found yourself at the end of your rope in your relationship?  Perhaps you are feeling very dissatisfied, but your partner doesn't seem willing to make a change.  Or maybe, things have changed for periods of time, but they inevitably drift back to the way they were.  If this rings true, feelings of resentment may have been building in you over time, resulting in anger or apathy toward your partner.

Friends and family may have given you advice to ask more assertively for a change, tough it out or just leave.  You may have tried couples therapy in an unsuccessful effort to get your partner on board.  You know you can't endure it much longer the way it is and asking over and over again for change hasn't helped, but you're not quite ready yet to throw in the towel on your relationship.  There may be another option.  Instead of just waiting around for your partner to change, you can conduct a love experiment.

Just like a scientist, you can conduct an experiment to gather important data that will help guide you along the appropriate path.  Experiments have subjects, variables and procedures and the results are used to support or weaken theories.  In a love experiment, you are the scientist and your partner is the subject.  Your theory that you want to support or disprove might involve whether your relationship is worth continuing or whether it can change for the better.

In an experiment, the dependent variable is what the scientist measures and the independent variable is what the scientist deliberately varies during the experiment. In your love experiment, you will be varying your own behavior and then "measuring" your partner's behavior in order to support or weaken your theory.

Since it is understood that we cannot change others, the love experiment involves changing yourself to see what impact your new behavior has on your relationship.  The procedures include increasing behaviors that have been shown by marriage and family researchers to be conducive to strong, healthy relationships and avoiding behaviors that are correlated with relationship failure.  Behavior to increase includes:
  • Active listening - inviting your partner to share their thoughts with you and showing them you are truly hearing what they have to say.
  • Assertive communication - expressing your own needs and preferences in a way that honors the other person's position
  • Validation of your partners feelings - not necessarily agreeing, but acknowledging their point of view
  • Expressing appreciation and respect for your partner - making sure your genuine positive feedback outweighs your negative feedback.
  • Taking responsibility for your own feelings and behavior, being proactive, and admitting when you're wrong.
  • Accepting influence from your partner - compromising, negotiating, being fair, sharing major decisions.
  • Trust building - being open, dependable, reliable, and consistent
Behavior to avoid includes:
  • Harsh criticism - saying things that attack your partner's character, implying that you're right and they're wrong
  • Expressing contempt - insulting, belittling or abusing your partner
  • Defensiveness - making excuses, preemptive attacks, blaming or discounting
  • Withdrawing - ignoring, leaving, changing the subject, avoiding
  • Lying or other betrayals
  • Angry confrontation or threatening words/behavior
You will need to introduce the independent variable (being the very best spouse you can be) consistently and for a long enough time that you can get a reliable measure.  It has been said that it takes about a month to make a behavior a  habit, so be prepared for a long haul.  You may start to notice a change in your own relationship satisfaction, and if you're lucky, you may also notice a change in your partner's behavior toward you.  If after putting in your very best effort you notice no difference in the way you feel, at least you have gathered some important additional information toward your relationship theory that may help guide you toward your next steps.

If you or someone you love is struggling with relationship issues, it may be helpful to consult with a professional. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.

Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

ADHD: Resources for Adults and Children

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a pervasive pattern since childhood of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that creates significant distress and/or impairment in two or more domains (such as at school, home, work, or in social interactions) and often persists into adulthood.

An important aspect of managing ADHD or any other disorder is understanding the condition and how it uniquely affects the individual. Even young children can benefit from an age appropriate understanding of their diagnosis.

Each individual and the context in which they live is different, so symptom expression, level of distress, and impact on functioning varies from person to person. It makes sense then, that there is no cookie cutter approach to living well with ADHD. I know that can be frustrating for clients to hear as they hope that once a diagnosis is made, there will be a quick path to improvement. Instead, there is usually a period of trial and error where different strategies are tried and modified with effective techniques being retained and ineffective ones being discarded. New techniques are often needed throughout the lifespan as the individual and their context changes. What might have worked in high school may not be enough in college or in the workplace.

A good way to develop an understanding of
ADHD is by reading books (or listening to audiobooks) and doing some online research. There are a number of books out there that are written for adults and children with ADHD to help them understand the condition and learn new ways to cope with the symptoms. There are also some informative scholarly books, but they may not be easy to read for people with shorter attention spans. Finally, there are a number of excellent websites addressing ADHD for both children and adults. The following is a list of books and websites that I have personally reviewed and can recommend to clients.

Books for Adults

This is one of my favorite books for adults with ADHD because when they read it, they often come back with tears in their eyes saying they finally understand why they behave the way they do and they don't have to blame themselves so much anymore. Fortunately the author continues to update it every so often which help keeps it fresh and relevant.

This is an old classic that really needs to be updated, but is still highly recommended as a resource. Its written for adults, but covers the disorder throughout the lifespan. These authors have a newer book called Delivered from Distraction that focuses on adult ADHD, but I have not read it yet and cannot comment on it.

I like to recommend this book to women because it talks about the unique ways our gender and context may impact the expression of symptoms and its effects on functioning. Most people diagnosed with ADHD are male, so much of our knowledge of this disorder is based on the male experience. This book focuses on the female experience of ADHD.

Books for Teens and Tweens

This book quotes the experiences of boys and girls of all ages diagnosed with ADHD. The children interviewed are quite exceptional which gives the book an upbeat and hopeful feel. I got the impression these kids would be great role models. The children discuss their difficulties and suggest ways to overcome them. There is also a lot of good science in this book written in a way that young people with ADHD can comprehend it. I would recommend that both the child and the parent read it.

This is a really cute book that would be engaging to traditional girls age 12 -18. It is pretty girly, so tomboys might not relate. It is also slightly slanted toward the Inattentive Type of ADHD, so primarily Hyperactive-Impulsive girls may not get as much out of it. Even though its cute, it does have a lot of hard science in it written in a way that can be understood by youngsters. It also offers advice for ways to cope with and overcome challenges particular to ADHD.

For More Scholarly Reading

This informative book includes interviews for children and adults with norms by which to compare results.

Barkley, R. A., Murphy, K. R., & Fischer, M. ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says.
Dr. Barkley shows that most adults do not grow out of the disorder as previously thought, and that the symptoms often look different in adulthood than they do in childhood.

This one needs updating, but it is still quite informative and includes checklists for aiding in diagnosis.


Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), a non-profit organization serving individuals with AD/HD and their families, has an excellent web site full of facts and resources. They also have a nice publication called Attention Magazine which is published six times per year and is available to members.

The Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) is an international organization that provides information, resources and networking to adults with ADHD and professionals. They also have a quarterly publication called FOCUS. They offer a video called Adult ADHD: Regaining Focus that can be viewed from a link from their site and gives a basic overview of the disorder.

If you suspect you or your child has ADHD, it may be helpful to consult with a psychologist or psychiatrist to see whether an evaluation is warranted. You can find local psychologists via the American Psychological Association psychologist locator and psychiatrists through contacting the American Psychiatric Association Answer Center at 1-888-35-PSYCH.

Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding ADHD and other mental health conditions.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Men and Emotions

Emotions are important to optimal life functioning, but many men in our society tend to be at a disadvantage when it comes to recognizing, understanding and managing them.  Fortunately, it is possible increase one's understanding of emotions and learn to manage them more effectively.

What are emotions?
Emotions are a response to stimuli involving:
· Body reactions or physiology
· thoughts or interpretations
· behavior or actions

Researchers have identified a number of primary human emotions from which all others are derived such as joy, acceptance, fear, submission, sadness, disgust or contempt, anger, and anticipation.

Why are emotions so important?
Emotions provide important information about one's self, others, and the environment.  The ability to identify, understand, use and manage emotions has been called emotional intelligence.  Better emotional intelligence has been linked to:
· better health
· better relationships
· increased self awareness
· access to a wider range of information
· better adaptability to change

Higher emotional intelligence is correlated to increased intimacy in relationships.  The sharing of emotions increases closeness, which is especially important in marriage. A recent major study of 5,010 couples found the single most important factor in a wife’s happy marriage is her husband's emotional engagement with her.  In addition, women's sexual interest is often closely related to their relationship with their partners.  It has been said that "the important sex organ [for women] is between the ears.” A survey by Sanford Braver, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, showed that 2 of 3 divorces are initiated by women and the top reason women gave for a divorce was "losing a sense of closeness."

Emotional Intelligence is also important for parenting.  Children learn most lessons about emotions from their parents including the ability to:
· control impulses
· delay gratification
· motivate themselves
· read other people's social cues
· soothe themselves and cope with life's ups and downs

There appear to be a number of health benefits correlated with higher emotional intelligence.  Research has shown unhealthy management of emotions such as anger and anxiety can lead to a host of problems such as:
· substance abuse
· aggressive or thrill-seeking behaviors
· other mental health problems
· heart disease
· immune system problems

If emotions are so important, why are they so hard for some men to grasp?
There’s actually a word for low emotional intelligence:  alexithymia, literally meaning "lack of words for emotions".  Researchers have found that a mild-to-moderate form of alexithymia is widespread in our society, especially among men, who often seem to lack conscious awareness of their emotions.

1. Emotions are a very abstract concept.  You cannot hold an emotion in your hand and examine it.
2. Emotions get a bad rap – being emotional is seen as “out of control”, weak, or vulnerable.
3. Men’s brains are "wired" differently than women’s brains.

Emotions in Men vs. Women
The amygdala plays a key role in both emotional reactions and emotional memories. Research has shown that the female amygdala tends to be more efficient in processing information.  This may be why women seem to recall more emotional memories more quickly, and their memories tend to be richer and more intense.

Women have a stronger connection between the hemispheres of the brain (called the corpus callosum).  The left side of the brain is considered the logical side while the right is seen as the emotional side.  Women have been shown in research to use more of both hemispheres when they talk, while men primarily use their left.

Men may be more sensitive to emotional arousal and thus avoid emotional stimuli.  Researchers have found higher levels of stress hormone in men's bloodstreams when exposed to emotional stimuli and it takes much longer for their blood pressure and immune system to return to normal than with women.

Men have more testosterone than women, which may work against emotional intelligence.  A study demonstrated that the higher a baby's level of fetal testosterone, the less eye contact the child makes at age 1 and the smaller his or her vocabulary is at 18 months.  By age 4, children who had the highest testosterone levels in the womb, had the lowest scores on tests of social skills (Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D).

Our cultural expectations may suppress emotional intelligence in men.  Boys are generally discouraged from experiencing or talking about their emotions.  Traditional cultures tend to teach men to stifle their feelings - especially if those feelings are tender or vulnerable.

Where do emotions come from?
We used to think that emotions were no more than reflexes or automatic responses - no more than a cascade of chemicals in the brain.  But we started to discover that people experience different emotions in similar situations and that some cultural groups experience emotions that are quite distinct from other cultures.  Now we realize that physiology plus beliefs and perspectives make up emotions.  Our beliefs and perspectives come from our teachings, experiences and the influences of others.

Thoughts lead to feelings

Event → Thought → Feeling 

Feelings aren’t facts, so they can be neither right nor wrong.  They are subjective like tastes.  However, emotions can be adaptive or maladaptive.  Because our feelings are determined by our beliefs and perspectives rather than facts, we can sometimes be misguided by them.

Emotions are adaptive when:
· They motivate behavior and help us respond appropriately.
· They help us make good decisions.
· They help us remember things we need or want to remember.
· They warn us of trouble or alert us to new opportunities

Emotions are maladaptive when:
· They are too intense
· They last too long
· We are unable to manage or cope with them.
· We react impulsively or destructively based on them.

We Defend Against Powerful Emotions.
Emotions can be very powerful – even overwhelming.  Sometimes our emotions are so overwhelming or so “unacceptable” that we need to protect ourselves from them.  This can be a positive thing in moderation.

Here are some examples of emotional defenses:
1. Denial – refusing to acknowledge an emotion or problem.
2. Identification – assuming the qualities of someone else you admire.
3. Compensation – making up for a perceived weakness in one area by excelling in another area.
4. Rationalization – finding excuses for actions or feelings.
5. Projection – putting your own faults onto another person.
6. Daydreaming – fantasizing to escape an unpleasant reality.
7. Displacement – taking out emotions on something other than the source (kicking the dog).
8. Reaction Formation – behaving in a manner opposite of the way you are feeling
9. Regression – reverting to immature behavior to express emotions.
10. Sublimation – directing energy into a useful rather than an unacceptable goal.

How can men become more emotionally intelligent?
Awareness is key:
  • Notice the cues that you may be experiencing an emotion and practice identifying the feeling
  • Keep a journal of the day’s events and try to identify the emotions you may have felt
  • Create a list of feelings, write down times in life when these feelings were likely experienced and notice what happens inside you as you remember these events.
  • Listen to emotional music or look at emotional pictures and notice what happens inside you.
  • Talk to other people about emotions.  Listen to what they have to say.  Pay attention to their body language and actions.  Ask them what they are feeling and how it affects them.
  • Increase your emotional vocabulary
  • Ask yourself what’s under your anger.
Talk more about your emotions:
  • Choose the right place and time
  • Start with someone trusted and safe
  • Listen!
  • Validate - this does not mean agreeing, its more like acknowledging
  • Take a risk – confront your fears
  • Be assertive
  • Use your emotional vocabulary 
Teach your sons about emotions:
  • Be a good emotional role model for your child
  • Be aware of your child's emotions and recognize them as opportunities for intimacy and teaching
  • Listen and validate your child's feelings
  • Help your child use words to label their feelings
  • Set limits and explore strategies to solve problems
Practice good emotional management.  It has been said we have a "half minute window" to stop and think before reacting impulsively to our emotions.  During that half minute, engage in the following steps:

Step I:  Recognize your feelings and identify the thoughts that lead to them
Step II:  Explore alternative perspectives and explanations
Step III:  Explore possible responses and put them into action

If you are having difficulty managing your emotions and it is causing you distress or interfering with your functioning, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you learn to  identify and cope with your feelings more effectively. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dealing with Guilt and Shame

Guilt is an emotion that involves self-blame or a sense of responsibility for a regretted thought or action. Like any other emotion, guilt is not necessarily based on facts. True guilt is what we feel when the facts of the situation justify the level of responsibility and regret we experience. Perceived guilt is what we feel when we take responsibility for something we really had no control over or when we misinterpret the consequences of our actions. Guilt can be a helpful emotion when it is justified. It motivates us to learn from our mistakes and make a change when warranted.

Shame is different from guilt. It is a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy about aspects of ourselves or in our basic nature. A good way to differentiate guilt and shame is this; we feel guilty for what we do and we feel ashamed of who we are. Shame is fear-based and drives us to want to hide or protect ourselves from scrutiny. It is hardly ever a helpful or motivating emotion.

Responses to Guilt and Shame

As with any other emotion, its not necessarily the feeling itself that is problematic. Rather, it is our response that can have unwanted consequences. Some unhelpful reactions to shame and guilt include:
  • Defensiveness, attacking or striking out
  • Relentless pursuit of power or perfection
  • Blaming others
  • Being overly nice or self-sacrificing
  • Withdrawing or hiding
Is my Guilt Justified?

How do you know whether or not your feelings of guilt are based on fact and are in proportion to the regretted act?
1. Evaluate your level of responsibility for what happened:
  • If a friend came to me with this situation, would I blame them for what happened?
  • Did I really have control over the situation?
  • Did I understand the potential consequences of my action?
  • Am I looking at this with hindsight bias?
  • Was my action the lesser of two evils?
2. Evaluate the seriousness of the consequences:
  • If a friend was responsible, how serious would I consider it?
  • If someone did it to me, how serious would it be to me?
  • How important will this experience be five years from now?
  • Can any harm that occurred be corrected?
Coping with Guilt

1. Tell Somebody
Shame makes us want to hide our thoughts and feelings. Keeping shameful secrets only allows them to grow because our imagination runs wild and unchecked by outside information. We may be able to hide our shame from others, but the painful thoughts and feelings remain inside us doing their work.

Expressing fears, either privately or to someone who is trusted and understanding, decreases their power and may allow them to be "let go". There is a long history of using self-disclosure to find relief from feelings of guilt and shame. Consider the practice of confession in some religious faiths. The transgressor acknowledges their wrongful acts to a spiritual leader or to their Higher Power and is absolved. Researchers have discovered there are even health benefits to certain kinds of self-disclosure.

2. Apologize
Apology holds great power. A sincere, well-executed apology has the potential to help heal wounds; both for the person who feels guilty as well as for those who were wronged. Conversely, a shallow or poorly communicated apology can re-traumatize the people who were hurt and intensify feelings of guilt in the responsible party. The following are guidelines for making a meaningful apology:
  • Don't apologize unless you really mean it
  • Say that you are sorry and explain why - be specific
  • Take responsibility for your actions
  • Recognize the feelings of the one you wronged
  • Offer to make amends
  • Don’t expect forgiveness
  • Allow the one you wronged to be upset
3. Make Right the Wrongs
Sometimes opportunities exist to actually fix what was broken. Most of the time; however, what was done cannot be undone and making amends becomes a symbolic act showing a sincere willingness to make things right. It is amazing how doing something kind and selfless can contribute toward self-absolution and help heal hurt feelings. The power of penance has been recognized throughout history in many forums. For example, the ninth step toward recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous is making direct amends to those who were wronged.

4. Forgive Yourself
We tend to be our own worst critics which makes self-forgiveness something that is easier said than done. It involves an attitude of openness, self-acceptance, letting go of anger, and a belief in one's own worth and goodness. Self-forgiveness is not abdicating responsibility. It is seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than as personal failure.

If you are dealing with feelings of guilt and shame and having trouble coping, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can provide a safe place to disclose and explore your fears. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.
Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Compulsive Lying

Why do some people lie over and over again, sometimes even about seemingly inconsequential things?  A good assessment may be needed first to rule out substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors as well as conditions that impact reality testing that may be causing or contributing to the lying.  When it truly turns out that someone is simply just doing a lot of lying, it may be most helpful to think about it behaviorally rather than making interpretations about what the lying might mean about the person.

Sometimes the lying is instrumental – the person is getting something out of it (real or imagined) like:
  • Avoiding or delaying conflict or discomfort (such as being punished, having someone angry at you, or having to do something you don’t want to do)
  • Being able to do something you believe others would object to
  • Getting someone to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do
  • Image preservation/enhancement or attention (even negative attention)
In the case of instrumental lying, one can try to modify the contingencies (rewards and punishments) such that the lying is no longer paying off for them or such that honesty is even more rewarding for them.

Motivation for change may be built by helping the person who is lying to differentiate the short-term results from the longer-term consequences.  In this way they may begin to see that lying creates more problems than it solves in the long run.  It may also help them to understand the importance of trust in building and maintaining relationships and how to cultivate it.

Sometimes the person has been lying for so long that it is automatic or a habit (like nail biting) and they aren't even aware they are doing it.  In that case they need to learn to recognize the behavior and then correct it – even if it is after the fact at first.  This means going back and saying, “I’m sorry, that was a lie.  Here is the truth”.

If you or someone you love has a bad habit of lying, it may be helpful to meet with a trained mental health professional like a psychologist to assist in defining the problem and exploring solutions. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Coping with Setbacks & Disappointment

When you are working toward a positive change in your life, setbacks such as loss, failure and rejection can make you feel discouraged, frustrated, anxious and sad. Too much of this can lead to self-doubt, depression, and getting completely off track. It is important to understand that setbacks and disappointments are unavoidable and and perhaps even a necessary part of life. If you look at setbacks as bumps in the road rather than roadblocks, you'll persist toward your goal and you may eventually succeed.

Setbacks are Unavoidable
If we were to chart the change process, it would almost never look like a straight line between two points. Instead, it would tend to look more like a mountain with high points and valleys on the way to the peak.

  • Setbacks are part of the natural process of change and may make change more resilient and lasting.
  • Your overall chance of encountering a setback is high.
  • You are most likely to encounter a setback in the first few months after making a change.
Setbacks are Opportunities for Learning
Consider a child learning to walk. Every child's first steps are clumsy and tentative and most will fall down many, many times before mastering the skill. Every time the child falls down, she learns some important information about gravity, body mechanics, and navigating different surfaces. She also learns that falling down is not so bad and can be tolerated. She may get good at walking on flat surfaces, but she will probably fall again when she tries her skills with hills, slick floors, and uneven terrain. Fortunately, despite the scrapes and bruises, most of us persist and eventually become master walkers who rarely fall down.

Navigating Setbacks
After experiencing a few setbacks, you may discover a pattern to your behavior. By paying attention to your setbacks, you can learn to identify the warning signs that a setback is around the corner and take action to minimize the damage. Some examples of warning signs include:
  • Multiple or overwhelming life stressors
  • Major life changes
  • Unpleasant emotions such as boredom, apathy or irritability
  • Feeling overconfident, excessive risk taking, or setting unrealistic goals
  • Avoidance or refusing to acknowledge or deal with problems; ignoring warning signs and triggers
  • Stopping medical treatment, counseling or medications on one’s own or against professional advice
  • Isolating self or refusing to ask for help when needed
  • Exposing yourself to people, places and things that trigger old habits
  • Not taking care of self; changes in eating and sleeping patterns, personal hygiene, or energy levels
  • Lack of routine and structure in life
  • Engaging in obsessive behaviors like working too much, gambling, sexual excess, abusing substances, overeating or over-exercising
Coping with a Setback
Anticipate that you will experience setbacks and plan on how you will deal with them. Don’t give up; instead practice damage control. It's natural to feel disappointed, but it isn't helpful to feel discouraged or devastated. Give yourself some time to deal with the problem and try to look at the big picture. Don’t lay blame, take personal responsibility and ask yourself what you can do to get back on track.
If you are dealing with a setback or disappointment and having trouble getting back on track, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you take stock of your situation, cope with your feelings, and generate ideas for getting back on track and staying on track. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.
Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Managing Stress

Stress is nothing more than your response to a perceived threat. I emphasize the word "perceived" because stress is caused by our interpretation of events rather than the event itself. We know this because what is stressful to one person may not be stressful at all to another person. Stress can arise from something good (eustress) or something bad (distress) and sometimes the cause of our stress is unknown.

Holmes and Rahe developed a rating system for common stressors. Reviewing this list, you can see that even welcomed life events like a wedding or birth of a child can cause a significant amount of stress.

How do you know when you are under stress?

Everyone responds to stress differently, but there are some common symptoms human beings share. The signs of stress can be divided into four categories:
  • Physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate and respiration, perspiration, digestive sensations, and muscle tension
  • Cognitive signs (or changes in the way we think) such as catastrophizing, worrying, racing thoughts, preoccupations, difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness
  • Affective (emotional) changes such as nervousness, hoplessness, moodiness, irritability and even anger
  • Behavioral responses such as avoidance, neglect of self-care, increasing bad habits, and social withdrawal
Is stress bad?

Stress is not always bad. The stress response is adaptive or helpful in immediate, short-term, situations because its our body’s preparation for fight or flight. We perform better in these situations when under a little stress. Bodily functions essential to responding to danger, such as circulation of blood and oxygen to large muscles, hightened senses, and release of sugar for energy, are increased. Functions such as digestion and sexual response are diminished because they are not needed when responding to danger.

But what if there is no real danger or the threat is long-term or something we can't fight or flee from? Today's daily stressors don't typically involve life threatening situations requiring a full blown stress response, yet our bodies still respond in the same old way. The human stress response is adapted for the short-term so chronic or prolonged stress can be dangerous to our health. Chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system, headaches, insomnia, digestive trouble and acne, memory and concentration problems, mood disturbances, high blood pressure and increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
Stress Relief

There is no one solution to handling stress. Everyone is different, so we each need to choose stress relievers that work best for us and practice them. Here are some suggestions:
Identify your triggers
Keep a log of stressful situations to help you identify patterns in your perception of stressful events, the circumstances surrounding them, your reactions to them, and the consequences of your reactions. It might look something like this:
Date Situation Thoughts Physical Feelings Actions Consequences

Learn to modify your thoughts and behavior
  • Think positively and focus on your good qualities and accomplishments
  • Be assertive and learn to express your feelings and set boundaries
  • Recognize and accept your limitations - ask for help
  • Set priorities and develop realistic goals
  • Manage your time wisely, plan ahead, and avoid procrastination
  • Resist comparing yourself to others and avoid unnecessary competition
  • Take care of yourself - diet, exercise, sleep and relaxation are important
Practice relaxation

Find ways to relax that work for you and make time for them. Some helpful relaxation techniques include deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, autogenics, biofeedback, meditation, massage, aromatherapy, yoga or other forms of exercise, and socializing. Some of these techniques you can learn on your own and you probably already do naturally. Some are best learned with the asstance of a therapist or self-help workbook. A few of my favorite self-help guides are listed in the Required Reading column on the right hand side of this blog.
When is it time to ask for help?
The following are some indicators it may be time for you to seek help to manage your stress:
  • you feel trapped, very distressed, or hopeless and don't know where to turn
  • you worry excessively and can't concentrate on things you need to do
  • stress is negatively impacting your health, your job, your relationships, or your general life functioning
If you are experiencing any of these things as a result of stress, it may be time to consult a professional. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. If you have health insurance, you can find out who is in your network by visiting their website or calling the behavioral health number on the back of your card.
Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Road Map for Life

Goal setting is like making a road map for reaching your potential – you may know where you want to go, but do you know how to get there? When you're going somewhere new, it's easy to get lost along the way.

Many of us find ourselves being pulled along wherever life takes us. There is nothing wrong with that if you like where life is taking you. But if life is pulling you in so many different directions that you wind up feeling stuck, fragmented or searching for meaning, it may be time to take inventory of what is important to you and be more intentional about pursuing your goals.

The process of systematically setting goals helps us visualize where we want to go and identify landmarks along the way. It also helps us build motivation, increase endurance and decide where to invest time and energy. Most of all, the process of goal setting helps us stay on track and increases the odds for success. Research has shown that effective goal setters are less stressed and anxious, function and concentrate better, and are happier, more self-confident, and safisfied.

Make it Meaningful

There are many different types of goals, but whatever we choose for ourselves should be personally important and meaningful. People who pursue goals solely to please others or just because they think they "should", typically begin to lose motivation when things get difficult.

In my practice, I regularly meet students who went to college because they felt this was what they were "supposed to" do or their parents insisted upon it. If these students never find their own reasons for pursuing higher education, they end up dropping out, under-performing, or switching from major to major extending their time in school and racking up debt. Its okay to consider a goal based on the suggestion of others, but somewhere along the way you must identify your own reasons for persisting.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Our goals should involve things that are under our control. Have you ever met someone who had a goal to get married by a certain age? That goal is difficult to accomplish because it takes two people working together. The kinds of goals that tend to be under our individual control involve attainment of knowledge, increasing skills, and changing behavior.

When you've decided on a goal, make sure its specific and measurable. Abstract and general goals are harder to follow. For example, I often use Google Maps to find my way to a new destination. I like to zoom in close so I can see the roads and intersections. Sometimes I even use the satellite view so I can see the actual building and what side of the street its on. The more detail I get, the more likely I am going to get there on time and with my good humor intact. Setting effective goals requires a high level of detail as well. Use dates, times and amounts wherever possible to make it easier to see your progress and get back on track when setbacks occur. Be sure to write it all down so you can return to it and make adjustments when neccesary. Writing down your goals also creates a sense of committment which increases your chances for success.

When setting a goal, planning ahead is essential. Ask yourself what you already have and what you will need to achieve your goal. Arrange for these things to be readily available to you. Make a list of your current knowledge and skills and identify resources for acquiring what is missing. This helps you determine whether your goals are reasonable and achievable.

Reward Yourself

Focus on the positive. Your goals should result in something good or desirable rather than merely allowing you to avoid something unpleasant. Most human beings prefer to work for rewards rather than to avoid pain. Setting subgoals or objectives will give you more opportunities to feel rewarded and build toward your ultimate goal. Be careful about relying too much on finite rewards like money or recognition though, because they tend to lose their value as you achieve them.

Overcoming Obstacles

Setting yourself up for success means anticipating difficulties and preparing for them as much as possible. Ask yourself, "What is likely to stand in my way?" Some obstacles cannot be predicted, so flexibility and creativity are needed to persevere. While many obstacles are external to us, some come from inside us such as fear of failure or even fear of success!

If you are having trouble getting started on your goals or you've gotten stuck along the way, getting input from an objective, trusted other can be a big help. Spouses, partners and friends may be convenient, but they have their own agendas for you and may not be as objective as you'd like. A spiritual advisor, instructor, mentor, coach, or even a mental health professional like a psychologist can assist you in looking at your goals with "fresh eyes" and expanding your options. Mindtools has a nice webpage addressing Personal Goal Setting that is a good place to get started.

Please feel free to visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.