Power vs. Empathy

More and more lately, I have an impression that the results of parliamentary elections across the world partly reflect the percentage of population who admire power/money and individuals who have power/money. The desire for power and admiration for those who have power is one of human biological instincts, and is often in conflict with the instinct of empathy.

For a long time I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that most people on Earth seem to ignore blatant lies, abuse, corruption and lack of ethics in their leaders, and continue to follow them and vote them back into power even when they have better options. I was raised in a family that rejected and condemned greed and violence, and, on top of that, in a socialist country that (at least theoretically, within the school system) promoted solidarity, fairness, equal rights and equal respect for everybody, regardless of how they are born, the type of work they do, or how much power and money they have. The importance of those values was obvious to me even as a child, and it’s still difficult to comprehend how many people don’t seem to share them, especially in light of all the violence and injustice throughout human history.

Then that system fell apart, and people voted in a political party that showed itself amazingly greedy, corrupt and blatantly criminal. But people kept voting them in. With each electoral victory, the governing party showed itself even more shamelessly corrupt and shady. Still people voted them in. Said party is good in manipulating nationalistic feelings (and, perhaps more importantly, undeserved social benefits) and is heavily promoted by corrupt religious leaders, so I kept hoping that people were mostly badly informed and manipulated to vote for them, and if they were only better informed, they would vote differently.

Yet I can see all over the world that, even when corruption and lack of ethics become blatantly obvious, it doesn’t seem to matter enough. Too many people still not just vote for, but admire and find various justifications for criminal leaders, as long as they show enough confidence and hunger for power (or as long as people perceive them as members of their “tribe”). No “red flags”, no obvious lies, arrogance, violence and lack of compassion is enough to deter a significant number of people. I found this difficult to even acknowledge, let alone accept as reality.

Yet we can see the urge to seek/follow power already in children’s playgrounds and schools, where a fair number of children either seek power, or follow and suck up to popular kids and bullies, just because they have some external power.  Seems that many adults are not so different after all.

Whether we seek advantage over others, or just increased security and protection, this attitude brings with it the need to disdain more kind and warm human emotions, including empathy (emotions often associated with femininity; thus misogyny, too) and to blame victims rather than violators, often with ridiculous excuses and blatant hypocrisy.

The only explanation that makes sense is that there are many people whose instinct to seek power is stronger than their instinct of empathy, whether it is inborn or culturally enhanced. Those people are likely to seek and follow power, even if they suffer merciless exploitation by the powerful people they follow. They might create and believe justifications even for lies and abuse they themselves are exposed to (and even more if it’s somebody else rather than themselves who is abused and hurt) and may feel visceral discomfort and threat if their values or the power they follow are threatened. This is also reflected in cults and often individual relationships.

 

The need for safety and ideology of justifying selfishness

Worse, it’s not only the need for power itself, but the need for safety in power/following power that makes people follow predators. The need for safety is perhaps an even stronger instinct, or at least more common than the need for power.  It can feel like a perfect justification, consciously or unconsciously, to disregard empathy and human concern.

Speaking of cults, it seems that the ideology of justifying greed and lack of solidarity is becoming just as extremist as communism was, and might create just as much damage, perhaps more insidiously. Since nature hates imbalance and strives towards balance, every extremist ideology sooner or later collapses – but usually not before it reaches its peak and creates enough damage that people are forced to abandoned cherished beliefs.

Tribal instincts, greed and selfishness are powerful urges, some of the basic biological instincts, and people will easily embrace and enjoy any ideology that enables justifying them, especially if their parents and their culture keep telling them it’s not only OK but actually ethical.

Many, if not most, power-seeking people dismiss compassion as weakness (which can even become a part of the culture, such as USA conservative ideology with its laughable claims that solidarity makes people lazy and dependent). Of course, just like everything on this Earth, compassion and solidarity can also be used in unhealthy and extreme ways (and sometimes, yes, the other person can try to exploit it), but that is easily prevented with some sense of balance. In its healthy essence, compassion is a crucial strength of humanity. It enabled humanity to survive through many hundreds of thousands of dangerous years. It is the primary force that, ever so slowly, keeps making the world a better place. It also shows mental strength.

 

Complex thinking and balance vs. oversimplifying

Perhaps the key problem of humanity, through centuries as well as today, is that instinct to seek power doesn’t require work. It also enables one to feel “above” others, which is tempting especially for people who didn’t get enough love and reassurance by their early families (i.e. most of us). Paired with the need for safety and tribal instincts, it requires even less work – it can be a strong automatic response.

Empathy and solidarity, on the other hand, require work, self-restraint, self-questioning and some sacrifice. It requires you to put some parts of your own interests aside, identify with another person and see them as equally human and worthy. It requires you to recognize long-term consequences of selfishness, not just on the individual, but on the global scale. Empathy also brings pain and sadness, often sense of helplessness in face of others’ suffering. Many people habitually avoid painful emotions, and that can include empathy. Yet the key to inner strength is to be able to feel such emotions.

You can recognize how people’s lives are influenced by their upbringing, environment, and others around them, while also recognizing one’s own responsibility. You can help people while preserving your own boundaries. You can give them some wind in the back rather than be a crutch. You can be fiercely self-reliant, and yet recognize the importance of empathy and solidarity. That requires wisdom and complex thinking. Yet simplified thinking is way easier and often more emotionally rewarding.

 

Cultural and environmental influences

My current impression is that the percentage of people who instinctively follow power is about 25-40%, depending of country and culture, and in some societies, especially undeveloped ones where people feel less safe, it might be higher. I also notice that rational intelligence and exposure to information in adulthood don’t seem to influence those numbers much. This is because the problem is on the level of values, which is much deeper than individual beliefs or lack of information.

Good news is that family upbringing and cultural influence can dramatically reduce that percentage, but the culture needs to be developed enough to recognize the value of empathy and solidarity, not just in words, but in deed. Usually, the more people feel unsafe, whether realistically or because of an unhealthy family history, the bigger the need to follow somebody powerful.

The feeling of lack of safety might be growing with increasing automation, just like the industrial revolution in 18th century brought along temporary loss in hand-production employment and social unrest. Just like unemployment benefits serve to avoid social unrest and diminish crime today, I believe sooner or later guaranteed minimum income (GMI) will have to become a widespread practice to offset the effects of automation. In the meantime, though, the quality of social and political life will probably decrease – as it’s already happening – as more people turn to powerful predators in futile hope to be safer. 

 

How can you help?

You can’t do much for already formed adults, except to provide a different perspective when possible, which might hopefully sway those people who are somewhere in the middle between empathy and urge for power (make sure that such a different perspective is not expressed in oversimplified, prejudiced ways). You can donate to NGOs which promote education, science and human rights. You can encourage people to feel safer or to find ways to make themselves safer.

It’s particularly important to find and work against faults and hypocrisy within your own tribe; the groups you belong to whether by birth or by choice. Common sense and research show that people are much more likely to value and consider criticism and arguments from somebody belonging to their own tribe than from somebody from a different tribe. So if you want to make a positive change, you need to first work on making your own group better and more ethical; call out exaggerations, hypocrisy and prejudice in their thinking and provide a different point of view.

Men need to work on improving men, women on improving women, conservatives with conservatives, liberals with liberals, tea lovers with tea lovers… you get my point. Few people have the integrity to do so, though, and more often than not, tribalism encourages extremism. Extremism from one side encourages extremism from the other. The more you can help your own group become more moderate and more balanced, the easier it is to promote its values.

As many of our basic feelings, including the feeling of lack of safety, stem from our primary families, my hope lies in the fact that more and more young parents are aware of children’s emotional needs and child development stages, and so they are more likely to give their children the essential feeling of safety. Something similar, I believe, was the result of the invention of the contraceptive pill: it enabled parents to love their children more and give them more, because people who could plan for children could be better emotionally and otherwise prepared. This enabled the new generations to create (slightly) more tolerant and compassionate societies. (Truly, I think the inventors of The Pill should have gotten a Nobel Peace Prize.) Sadly, there are many groups lately that try to promote unwanted births by reducing education about and access to birth control. Let’s hope reason will eventually prevail.

In the end, educating parents and promoting mature parenthood is probably the most important way to increase global empathy. Children learn through what they experience, especially by their parents.

Last but not least, do not forget do be an example of what people can be when they have healthy compassion together with healthy boundaries. In the world we live in, such people are beacons of light.

An advice for women who want to be taken seriously

American society seems to be more divided than ever, and one of those divisions is between women seeking to be respected and macho “meninist” backlash. The whole society is steeped in two seemingly opposing, but similarly traditional influences upon women; one is religious pressure on women to be compliant and traditionally feminine; the other are ever-present mass-media models of girly and sexy behavior. Lately I notice those models are changing slowly, which is a good sign.

Yet it often surprises me how women in American-made videos, even those made by anonymous Youtube users, seem focused on their appearance, from over-the-top makeup to high-pitched or throaty voices that often sound childish or simply unnatural. Also their non-verbal language too often seems focused on how they look or how much sex-appeal they project, rather than the meaning of what they are saying, or projecting their own personality. The whole impression makes it sometimes difficult to look beyond the facade and see an actual individual.

Just like boys and men often “buy into” models of toxic masculinity, girls and women often “buy into” models of toxic femininity. This might feel natural for people who grew up surrounded with such models, but for those who grew up in a more moderate environment, it all seems very fake and lacking personality. I dare say it would influence subconsciously even people who are used to this.

In most of Europe, it’s normal for adult women to talk in voices about an octave lower than American women, and to project much less sexy and much more “utilitarian” behavior. (Lately, there are plenty of young girls imitating American female models from mass media, complete with “voice burn”,  but they usually grow out of it by age of 25 or so.) I’m not saying this by itself is enough to eradicate patriarchate, but it certainly encourages a more balanced relationship between genders.

Realistically, how easy is it to take seriously someone who sounds like they are 12 or even 5 years old, especially if they seem overly focused on their looks on top of that? I would like to believe it’s only common on television and in movies, but those few times I visited America it seemed that most women were following such role models. It was quite common to hear a 50+ ys old woman sounding more like a 5 ys old, at least from the perspective of a different culture.

Toxic femininity is not so often talked about compared to toxic masculinity, probably because it’s less threatening and less likely to have harmful consequences for others. Yet it has subtler but pervasive consequences for the women who follow that model (and, by extension, women in general). In theory, people should respect you and see you as a person no matter how you look and sound. In reality, people will form instinctive biases based on your looks and behavior, and if you seem focused on a shallow self-image, people will form a shallow perspective of you, too.

So my advice for women is: sure, use some makeup, but not so much that it makes you look like a plastic doll. When you talk, project your personality and your message into your speech, not the desire to be attractive (or even the need to appear overly confident, which can also come across as fake). Try to develop a deeper voice pitch, it instantly makes you sound more adult and more genuine. Michelle Obama is a good example, and she is widely respected and perceived as a complete person (at least among everybody who doesn’t harbor visceral hatred towards what she represents). To take an example from mass media, compare the voice and behavior of Catniss Everdeen in “Hunger Games” movies to the voices of Capitol women. Who is more likely to be perceived as a genuine person?

Focus on projecting who you are. Let go of the image you think society expects from you. If you are deeply steeped into such a role, you might first work on connecting to your real self, discovering who you truly are. This can make your life happier and more balanced on many levels.

Academic and emotional intelligence: correlated or not?

Quite a few times we are surprised when some obviously intelligent people make mess in their own or other people’s lives with their lack of emotional awareness, lack of empathy or by surrendering to unhealthy emotions. It feels natural to expect intelligent people to also be able to understand the complexity of human emotions and relationships, but this is not always true.

Well-used rational intelligence usually includes love for learning, questioning things and ideas, long-term and global thinking, and seeing different perspectives. Ideally, all of that also contributes to increased understanding of human psychology and relationships. In that sense, rational and emotional intelligence are somewhat correlated and can be developed simultaneously. But it doesn’t always happen.

 

Empathy and upbringing

Empathy, the ability to easily imagine how other people might feel, is in the core of emotional intelligence; through empathy we can learn how our words and actions influence other people and how to find balance between ourselves and others. However, human ability to empathize varies from one individual to another; just like other human abilities, our genetic potential and our environments combine to create vast differences.

Some people have less genetic potential for empathy, but sometimes ethical upbringing can make up for it; or some such people can also lack aggressive and dominant urges; or their intellectual development may enable them to rationally understand complex, long-term consequences of their behavior. Therefore even less empathetic people can be ethical in their actions. Ethics does not always mean they would be able to deal with their own emotions in healthy ways, or to anticipate what other people expect of them, but at least good intentions are there. Some of those people find an external set of moral rules – such as religion – and may stick to it in a rather rigid way. The worst situation is innate low potential for emotional intelligence combined with toxic environment.

Some children might be born with more potential for empathy, but their environment can discourage its development; children can have toxic, violent role models, or they can experience so much violence and manipulation that their natural empathy gives way to defensive anger, spite or bitterness. Based on their experience, they might feel that empathy is dangerous; it can make them vulnerable, manipulable, more likely to feel guilt or experience disappointment. They might react to their pasts rather than their present.

 

Self-awareness

Empathy by itself is not enough to warrant emotional intelligence; without certain internal modifiers, empathy can easily turn into lack of personal boundaries and sometimes lack of forethought and understanding long-term causes and consequences. Something more is needed; perhaps a healthy self-image which resists manipulation, observational abilities, seeing under the surface, experience and perhaps some intuition. While empathy is focused on others, emotional intelligence is also based on self-awareness; being able to understand our own complex emotions.

For children to learn about their own emotions, they first have to accept and embrace them. This is not difficult in a supportive, balanced environment.  However, if a family is unhealthy or abusive, children can experience more pain than they can handle. If those children have strong potential for rational intelligence, or if they experience that rational approach helps them diminish or avoid pain, they might learn to use rational thinking as a refuge from painful emotions. While this is certainly not the worst defense they might choose, avoiding emotions means less skill in understanding them; whether their own emotions or somebody else’s.

All is not lost in such a case; getting in touch with one’s emotions is a skill that can be learned. Just like many other skills, it’s easier to learn it in childhood than later in life. Still, it can be done and it can greatly improve your life.

 

“What does this mean for me?”

In practice, you might want to pay conscious attention to notice expressions of emotional intelligence (or lack of it) independently of expressions of logical intelligence. Be aware that emotional intelligence will be much more significant in your relationship with someone than high IQ. You probably don’t want your partner, friend or coworker to be stupid and irrational – but make sure that they are not emotionally stunted, either.

Just published: Emotional Maturity Workbooks series

I’m happy to announce another project finished: 6 short e-books in “Emotional Maturity Workbooks” series. I won’t put exclamation marks here because they would probably just misrepresent what I want to express, but I definitely feel that one big step is done.

After I published my first book on Amazon, I noticed, based on reviews of some other books I looked at, that many reviewers didn’t seem to have much time to read or simply preferred to be finished with a book quickly, so they were praising short books basically for being short.  As a book lover, who wants a good book to last and last, I was confused at first, but not everybody has to be like me, I guess. So I thought it might be a good idea to make something for these people: short and focused on very specific topics.

I chose 6 topics: anger, jealousy, fear, shame and guilt, parenting and falling out of love. The idea was to give a theoretical overview of often hidden emotional patterns which many people never learn about, followed with 5 or 6 exercises focused on reaching the subconscious mind and working with it. It took me close to 2 1/2 years – 2 years longer than I expected – but then, there was a lot of other unexpected work in the meantime, including moving house, starting a new garden and orchard, and many house renovation projects. Anyway, that’s all done and now the workbooks are done, too.

Here is a short excerpt from “Resolve Jealousy Workbook”, just because I like it:

If you are jealous, you might have an exaggerated, idealized mental image of your partner. You might expect your partner to be “pure”, devoted, unconditionally loving and accepting … in other words, to behave as a perfect parent. This is another indication of bonds created in childhood.

“If you idolize your partner as a parent replacement, every deviation from your expectations might trigger fear, confusion and defensive anger. You might feel that your partner owes you undivided attention. You might feel dependent of your partner’s love, focus and devotion, just like you felt dependent of your parents as a child. You might believe that you deeply love your partner and that a break-up would mean losing your sense of meaning of life.

“The truth, however, may be that you do not love your partner as who they are. You are in love with the idealized image in your mind. Unintentionally, you are willing to sacrifice the personality, independence and self-esteem of your partner to that black and white, infantile image. The strength of your emotions might make you believe that you have the right to do so.”

Out of the 6 workbooks, I decided to make one free to download and share, and I chose “Resolve Anger Workbook”.  So, download it, spread it around, share it with friends, enemies, whoever you like. The links to this and other workbooks are:

Resolve Anger Workbook (free, also available as free download on Smashwords, not yet on Amazon, but I hope soon I can make it free there, too)

Resolve Jealousy Workbook (Amazon and Smashwords)

Resolve Fear Workbook (Amazon and Smashwords)

Resolve Shame And Guilt Workbook (Amazon and Smashwords)

How to Fall Out of Love Workbook (Amazon and Smashwords)

Mature Parenting Workbook (Amazon and Smashwords)

If you get one or more of the books on Amazon or Smashwords, I would very much appreciate if you’d leave a review, even if just a sentence or two. Reviews are essential for a book to gain credibility, and therefore hopefully success. Thanks and enjoy the books!

Is it OK to stay in touch with an ex?

Sometimes people ask me if it’s OK for them or their partner to be in contact with an ex after starting a new relationship. If you have been reading my posts and articles for a while, you will know that I avoid categorical judgments about “right” and “wrong”,  except when it comes to abuse and malicious crime. I believe in judging each situation individually and in seeing different perspectives. However, there are some thoughts I will offer on this topic:

I know people who have stayed in long term friendly contact with ex partners and spouses, without it having any bad influence on a new relationship. However, I think that intense emotions, especially when long lasting such as infatuation and love, create neurological paths in our brains, similarly to habits. A habit once learned can easily be re-learned, especially when coupled with hopes, dreams and memories. There are plenty of stories about couples who reunited after decades of separation.

The key question, IMO, is if a relationship came to its “natural ending”, or was it interrupted and left unfinished? If it ended after a long time of drifting apart, cooling down, loss of illusions and perhaps disappointment, people usually feel that the story is truly over and they can focus on a new relationship without looking back.

However, if a relationship ended abruptly, if there is a feeling that things were somehow left unfinished, especially if two people were separated by external circumstances, then old hopes, dreams and illusions can wake up rather easily. It’s easy to idealize one’s past, even if it was everything but ideal. In such a case, I wouldn’t recommend to stay in touch (or to initiate contact) with an ex, especially if the new relationship is happy and healthy.

 

Emotional logic

A quote from a client I was working with recently:

“I don’t value myself, so if a girl falls in love with me, I automatically respect her less.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Practically a whole novel is contained in this one sentence (as well as some admirable awareness and honesty).

Emotional logic influences our behavior vastly stronger than any rational knowledge. In fact, more often than not, people use their rational minds to justify their emotional urges. Too bad that emotional logic is often based on our childhood impressions in combination with our instincts and hormones. It makes perfect sense in a certain simplified way, but it narrows things down to a very limited, exaggerated and generalized perspective. Then it branches out, coloring our impressions and conclusions about our new experiences.

Some more examples:

“I associate love with violence – so if somebody offers me love and attention, I become irritated and push them away, sometimes by verbal violence, even if I love them. Partly because I’m frightened, partly perhaps because aggression is allowed in close relationships, in my frame of mind.”

“My girlfriend was controlling and manipulative – but no matter how much I disliked it, that’s what made me feel safe and able to relax and let go of my own need for control. It’s like I felt somebody had to control things, so better her than me, because I didn’t feel competent enough.”

“My mother used to tell me about my alcoholic father, “You are the only one who can solve this!” However, I didn’t dare even try to help father, because I felt I would have failed and thus taken away my mother’s hope. Now, as adult, I feel blocked when encountering problems – I’m afraid if I try, I will find out how much I don’t know – and I’m supposed to know it.”

“As a child, I needed to believe that I was the cause of my parents’ fights – otherwise I would have felt even less important. I wanted at least something going on around me, some emotions expressed, even if unpleasant. Now I find that I feel somehow comfortable and even in a weird way comforted within relationship chaos and emotional pain.”

There are some common rules to emotional logic:

  • small children trust their caretakers and identify with them
  • children try to preserve important relationships, often at the cost of their own individuality and self-image
  • children tend to take blame and responsibility for what they cannot understand
  • to protect themselves from painful emotions, children create defense mechanisms (such as anger, avoidance, obsession, manipulation and countless possible others)
  • these patterns became filters for subsequent experiences
  • in problem situations, our brains tend to resort to whatever behavior seemed to work best in childhood.

These basic rules, interacting with individual experiences and circumstances, often create convoluted yet still rather predictable consequences, not unlike fractals created by mathematical equations.  That’s why exploring our deepest imprints together feels like science and art in the same time.

 

Falling in love with “bad guys” (and girls)

A significant number of men encourage each other to believe that women want dominant men who will overpower them and show them their place. It is true that women are often biologically attracted to confident, even dominant men. The instinctive, usually unconscious hope behind this attraction is that such a man can be a safe place, perhaps even protection from the danger in the world (wild animals  if you like prehistorical terms; enemy warriors if you like medieval terms. As for the modern world, there is still enough stupidity, aggression and ignorance going around that a safe place to relax is more than welcome).

The reality is usually quite the opposite and quickly sobering: dominance as a biological and character trait (regardless of gender) is logically accompanied by a desire for dominance and power. To justify such urges, a dominant person often ends up perceiving other people (especially people who don’t fight for dominance) as less valuable, less respectable – less people. Overconfidence and empathy don’t go well together – to be overconfident, you usually need to disregard opinions and feelings of other people – that is, you cannot include their perspectives into your experience – you cannot use much empathy.

This doesn’t exclude their families – quite the opposite, the families might bear the brunt of it, because most people express their worst sides in a safe environment such as a family provides. Thus a woman who chooses a dominant man will usually find that she has to protect herself from the very person she hoped to feel safe with.

Once a dominant person develops such psychological patterns, it’s very unlikely that they would be motivated to change and control their own urges for power as well as excuses they create for seeking power.  After all, dominance often results in emotional pleasure as well as practical and social benefits. Few people are strong enough to give all those benefits up in the name of “abstract” ethical ideals such as responsibility.

On the other hand, many women complain that men prefer “bitches” and so they encourage each other to play games with men. When men are attracted to unhealthy (selfish or aggressive) women, there is also a biological aspect to it – it’s a human instinct to look for a desirable and “high value” partner. So if somebody acts in ways our primitive brains can interpret like they value themselves, even if this means arrogance, criticism and emotional unavailability, our “reptile” brains might say: “Hey! A high-status potential mate! Go for it!” It’s in our biological nature to value confidence over competence – just look at the political scene in pretty much every country.

However, our environment has the decisive influence over which of our instincts will we follow. I’ve already written a lot about how our families influence our emotional patterns in intimate relationships. If we were raised by ethical, compassionate parents, this will be normal to us and we will look for similar partners. In such a case, an instinctive attraction to dominance or arrogance will often be overridden by a healthy family model. The problem is, most people are still unhealthy or immature in some ways, so most children receive immature models on top of immature biological instincts.

The good news is, with dedicated work on self-improvement you can undo such programming and train yourself to notice real quality in potential partners. A pleasant little exercise: instead of fantasizing about somebody who doesn’t treat you well, start fantasizing about a relationship which is everything you want. Get your brain used to the idea.  But do not imagine such a good relationship with the same person, or any specific person. Create the space in your mind to allow somebody new.

Put your important values and needs first. It’s fine (and often necessary) to make a compromise about secondary  values, but as soon as you start compromising your important values, you catch yourself in a web from which you might have trouble freeing yourself. You feel you betrayed yourself, you trust and appreciate yourself less – and you feel strangely bonded to the relationship: once you invested so much effort into it, it can feel difficult to give it all up and start anew.
If you hope that the other person will appreciate your sacrifice … well, they will probably notice and feel good about it, but few people are able to control their own primitive urge to exploit those who allow their boundaries to be overstepped. So they will ask for more and more, step by step, until you feel like a puppet on a string. In the same time, they appreciate you less and less because you show that you don’t value yourself enough.

So do you need to become cold, dismissive and insensitive to attract a partner? No – you can show that you value yourself without betraying your integrity and becoming bitter and cynical. Being honest, clear and consistent about your values and boundaries is a clear sign of a healthy self-esteem. This is something you cannot fake. If you want a healthy relationship, you cannot say “These are my boundaries”, and then proceed to compromise them. You truly have to be willing to let people go if they are not compatible with your values. You also need to behave like that in the rest of your life and relationships, not just towards a (potential) partner.

You don’t have to hate or despise the other person to recognize he or she is not right for you and say good-bye. Many people stay in relationships because of their partners’ good qualities, while hoping that the bad ones would somehow change. It would be simple if people were all good or all bad, wouldn’t it? You need to value yourself enough to decide that some good qualities are not worth staying, if you are not happy with a certain person as who they are now.

One way or another, you will never be able to change a “bad guy/girl”. You are not the cause of the problem, so you cannot be the solution. The sooner you accept this and make your own values and boundaries more important than a relationship, the better a life you can create for yourself. This might require some work on improving your self-esteem (which will probably be rewarding in many other ways).

Should you choose a “nice guy/girl” then? If you listen to people and read online discussions, you might get the idea that people fall either into a “jerk” or a “doormat” category and there is nothing to choose from in between. Often people who compromise their values and lack self-esteem are labeled as “nice”, although they are not healthy either. The healthiest (and most attractive) people are those who are both confident and true to themselves, as well as reasonably kind and compassionate.

You might say it’s not easy to find such a person. This is true. Between selfish biological instincts, chaotic upbringing and deeply unhealthy society, few people manage to find that kind of internal balance. Yet, perhaps you might have trouble recognizing true confidence and strength, as it’s usually not so flamboyant and superficially charismatic as overconfidence (arrogance). Perhaps drop some of your more shallow criteria and look beyond the surface for people you can truly respect. In the same time, work on becoming a strong and internally balanced person yourself. Perhaps you can turn yourself into a person your dream partner dreams of.

Difficult decisions

Many times, resolving immature emotions, internal conflicts, and toxic beliefs can make  difficult decisions much easier. You might recognize, for example, that your partner is not your child and it’s not your responsibility to make them happy. Or you might resolve toxic emotional bonds which made you fall in love with an incompatible person.

Sometimes, however, even if your emotions are adult and appropriate, life can make you face a decision that is painful in some way no matter what you choose. Some situations you cannot control and you can find yourself with divided loyalties, or trying to choose between your own and your children’s happiness, for example. Perhaps no matter what you choose, you are going to lose something or someone.

If there was a simple answer, a fool-proof guide in such situations, there would be no reason to call them difficult decisions. Those are the choices that reality makes painful, not your own beliefs and emotional patterns. Sometimes it’s about societal rules you cannot change, disease and old age, or financial circumstances, rather than “right” and “wrong” choices.

The advice I can give that could make such decisions at least a bit easier is: make the choice which reflects more of your integrity, more of the kind of person you want to be. You might not be able to avoid pain, but at least that pain will be “cleaner”. Pain fades away with years, but a sense of “cleanliness” stays. Years and decades into future, when you remember your choice, you will have less to criticize yourself about and any happiness you built in the meantime will be less tarnished by guilt. Even the regret you might feel for what you missed will be “cleaner”. There might be other chances for happiness, but not so many chances, perhaps, to choose integrity.

Once I was chatting with a guy about what defines an asshole, and he said, “If your actions create more problems for other people than they benefit you, you are an asshole.” This is rather oversimplified, of course, but it’s worth considering when making an important decision.

Make sure, though, that what you call integrity truly comes from your healthy values, rather than standards imposed by your family, society or religion. Are the problems and pain you might cause other people to experience real or imaginary, inevitable or possible to solve? Make sure that you are not under influence of toxic, unrealistic guilt (or anger) from childhood. You should be able to do that if you are familiar with your inner world.

Communication styles: directing and informing

Amongst many other details when it comes to relationships and communication, it’s useful to be aware of the difference between two basic ways to express a wish or a request: directing and informing.

Directing style expresses a wish, a request or a demand directly: “Shut the window”, or more gently: “Shut the window, please”, “Would you mind shutting the window?”, or even, “Maybe you could shut the window?” Regardless of all the added courtesies and mollification, the request is still clear and unambiguous.

Informing style is descriptive and indirect; it gives information in which a suggestion or a wish is implied as a possibility, for example: “It’s too noisy in here with the window open!” Informing people prefer to motivate than to express expectations.

Needless to say, the difference between these two communication styles can often cause misunderstanding and frustration. An “informant” might ask, “Would you like an ice-cream?” when it’s actually they who would like an ice-cream. “Directing” people might not understand the embedded wish, so if they say, “No”, the possibility of compromise might be lost. “Informing” people then might hear “No” as a refusal of their own wish, rather than a statement of personal preference by a “directing” person.

People who use directing style might simply not notice when a request is expressed in an informing way, which might make the other person feel ignored or dismissed. If they do recognize the embedded request, “directing” people might perceive it as manipulative, passive-aggressive or even victimy. They prefer to have clarity: first, is it a request? Second: what kind of request it is? Third, how important it is? They can find informing style way too … uninformative.

“Informing” people, on the other hand, might perceive directing style as bossy, especially if used without “please” or “would you”. They might feel that such a style gives more importance to a request than to people, which is what they wish to avoid. This is not how “directing” people perceive it; for them, it’s all about clarity.

Another example of communication used by “informing” people might be “Did you… ?” instead of “Would you… ?” For example, “Did you pack a bottle of juice?” instead of “Would you pack a bottle of juice?” A “directing” person might again be frustrated with the implication of unexpressed expectation.

I remember a conversation quite a long time ago, when a friend of mine said she preferred to imply a wish indirectly, so if other people wanted to refuse it, they wouldn’t have to say “No” directly, which might feel uncomfortable to some. I replied that I preferred to know if there was a wish at all, instead of wondering what was implied. A “directing” person might not recognize that the ambiguity is meant as courtesy and might even perceive it as lack of integrity. This is one of the reasons why, when working with couples, we repeatedly warn people: “Presume good intentions!

On the other hand, “informing” people can sometimes misunderstand a simple information as an embedded request, even when there is no request. This is understandable – if we use a certain communication style, we expect other people to use it too. This can be frustrating for such people if they feel they cannot fulfill the request or even understand it. If such a person is a man receiving an information from a woman (for example, when a woman just needs to vent her emotions), confusion and frustration can be even more pronounced, considering that men often have an urge to “fix women’s problems” (I’m not sure how it works with homosexual couples!) The person who gave the information might then be confused and frustrated that the information was understood as an indirect request when it wasn’t meant to be.

There is no “good” or “bad” here (although personally I definitely prefer clarity!). It’s important to recognize and appreciate these two communication styles, instead of blaming other people for using a different one than you. All by itself, this little difference probably doesn’t mean much if a relationship is good, but it can act like “fuel on the fire” if a relationship is already in a mess.

The key to parenting

The job of parents, in my opinion, is not to make a child happy. The key to parenting is to teach children how to create happiness in spite of problems and challenges. This can be done through personal example, as well as emotionally and intellectually supporting the children when they face problems.

Too many parents try to protect their children from problems and frustration. On the other hand, problems and frustration are motivating. They push children into developing their resources. You can only help children to find long-term happiness if you do not insist that they should be happy all of the time.

As with all life advice, use your common sense when making decisions. Don’t exaggerate. Find balance. Listen to your gut. And relax. Even if you were a perfect parent, it wouldn’t be good for your child.