Monthly Archives: December 2014

49 ways to keep your New Year resolutions

This will be an elephant-sized post, but bear with me – I hope to give you plenty of useful ideas by the end of it.

At the start of every year, millions if not billions of people make lists of things they want to change so that their lives would be better, and promise themselves they will stick to those changes. Within a week, most of those people have broken their promise. Before the month is out, almost everybody does. If you have managed to keep your resolution till the end of the year, congratulations – and why are you even reading this? Please comment and share your advice!

Two basic types of resolutions are:
1) developing new habits (exercise, relaxation, meditation, communication skills, any desired and productive action)
2) getting rid of old habits (destructive or unhealthy habits such as smoking, overeating, alcohol or any other addiction; any activity that we spend too much time on; unhealthy communication habits and similar)

Many people would say that it’s only the matter of persistence and strength of will to stick to those decisions. I think the situation is much more complex than that! Do you know people who criticize others for not being able to lose weight, for example, but in the same time they are not able to stop smoking, playing video games, watching TV or internet porn, feeding their cat or just about anything else? Some people are even addicted to communicating to other people. Everybody has at least some sort of unwanted habit that is difficult to reduce or give up. So let’s explore some factors that might feed your unhealthy habits:

1) Difficult emotions. A huge number of people resort to their old addictions in times of emotional stress. Addictions are commonly used to distract us from emotions: fear, guilt, sadness, anger, shame, feeling inadequate… Many of those emotions – as well as the addictions that help suppressing them – are created in childhood or adolescence. When we work with addictions, we first focus on finding and resolving those emotions, and finding ways to replace them with more comforting ones. This often greatly reduces chronic stress.

2) Sometimes addictions are used to artificially create or enhance pleasant emotions. Heroin addicts might say that they feel deeply loved when they are under influence of heroin. Alcohol addicts might crave cheerfulness and social openness that alcohol evokes in them. In that case, it’s useful to explore what can you do to encourage desired emotional states in healthier ways – and if there are any emotional obstacles to that.

3) Biological instincts. Anger, laziness and overeating are some examples of (partly) biologically motivated behavior. Our bodies are stuck in Stone Age and want us to fight for power, eat at least a bit more than we need and conserve energy whenever we can (sometimes at the expense of others). Individual genetic differences can make some of those urges stronger in some people than others.

4) Metabolic differences. People react differently to each addictive substance. Some people will just shrug alcohol or certain drugs off, while others’ brains react with instant intense craving. Some people can eat a few spoonfuls of a desert and leave the rest on the plate, while others’ palates sense sugar and immediately ring bells for food frenzy. It’s not just about willpower – our metabolic responses are different from person to person.

5) Neurological differences. Perhaps you are more sensitive to stress, for example, or your brain is more easily distracted, or you are an extroverted person who wants to learn an introverted habit?… Biological diversity is huge, and Mother Nature is known to be experiment-prone. Some results of such genetic experiments can be quite subtle, but enough to encourage an unwanted habit.

6) Social pressure. Perhaps smoking or coffee are your way to initiate communication with other people? Or will your circle of friends mock you if you want to live a healthier lifestyle? Perhaps you are a part of a group that shares an unhealthy habit? In such cases, giving up a habit might mean losing important connections with people. Young men are in bigger danger in this context, because neglecting one’s own body is often considered “masculine” in some inarticulate circles.

7) Bonds to other people. Similar to previous entry, but less conscious, subtler and more instinctive. Such bonds are usually created in our early families. Did your parents smoke? For you, it might become an unconscious way to either feel closer to them, or to tap into their perceived power, or to imitate their ways of coping with stress. In the mind of a small child, the parents’ way is the right way. A part of you might still be unconsciously afraid to let go of such a bond.

8) Neurological paths created by repetition. Any behavior we repeat – even patterns of thinking and feeling, let alone physical behavior – encourages the brain to strengthen the connections between the neurological circles responsible. If we repeat certain behaviors for years, such neurological paths are so strong that we fall into such behavior without thinking, almost like robots. This can only be changed by persistently defying such urges and practicing new habits.

9) Big industries. For decades now, food industry is dedicated to creating foods that will trigger addictions and addictive behavior. This includes many products labeled as healthy and natural. It’s often difficult to avoid all of those products – and any of those can send you spiraling back into addiction. Same goes for alcohol and tobacco manufacturers – and many other industries are doing their best to induce automated responses and exploit your physiological and psychological mechanisms.

10) Resistance to change. Some people fear change – for example, fear attention, or success, or envy of other people. Others are just so used to a certain image of themselves, that they might unconsciously strive to preserve it. One way to prepare for a change might be to imagine it often enough.

So when you are trying to change a habit, you are probably fighting all of those factors, as well as some I might not have mentioned. Decisions and willpower are not enough! You need to be well prepared. First, explore the emotional background and do whatever you can to heal it. Then, choose the advice from the following list that works best for you.

I’ve divided the suggestions into 3 groups: general advice; ideas how to resist unhealthy urges; ideas how to motivate yourself to stick to a new habit. You might find that one day you respond well to one of them, while other days some other of these ideas might be more motivating. I suggest to create a little reminder for yourself with the ideas you like most. Read it often, perhaps print it and keep it in your pocket, as unhealthy urges can be intense and distracting and you might find yourself forgetting these ideas in spite of your best intentions, if you don’t have a written reminder handy.

Let’s dive in!

 

A) General suggestions:

1. Make the goal reasonable in the long term.  Don’t expect yourself to run 5 km the first day, or to lose 1 kg a week (or even half a kg a week), or to stop using social networks altogether. Consider what would be your “maintenance” habits; what can you imagine doing for the rest of your life? Create an exercise or diet plan that you can stick to for years without too much stress; plan to use social media or play video games for about an hour in the evening, instead of starting in the morning and continuing during the day.

2. List all the ways, big or small, achieving your goal will make your life better. List physical, social, emotional, financial and any other benefit you can think of. As often as possible, spend some time imagining each of these benefits.

3. List all the unwanted consequences of not achieving your goal, as above. Spend some time reflecting on them.

4. Prepare for temptation and crisis moments. Do you expect to be stressed at a certain day? Sometimes just mentally preparing ourselves for predictable stress can prevent feeling overwhelmed and falling back to old stress-reducing habits. Sometimes we fall back to old habits just because we don’t have a ready idea what else to do. Make a list of what can you do to relax if a day is particularly stressful, especially if unexpected stress happens. Maybe you can call a friend and complain your heart out (first make sure that the friend wants to listen!) Maybe you can put on some music that makes you feel good and perhaps dance to it. Maybe you can plan to make a soothing tea (I recently discovered I like tea with a little milk much better than plain tea) or fruit juice (freshly squeezed, not those chemical cocktails they sell as fruit juice in supermarkets) instead of cookies or cigarettes.

5. Notice when your brain starts making excuses. “Just a bit more today, and tomorrow I stop!” or “Just a little bit, it won’t hurt me so much!” “It says low-carb on the label, it means it’s allowed!”… Make a list of excuses you commonly use and learn to be aware that it’s your brain playing tricks on you. Your brain will make excuses. It’s an excuse-making machine. Your brain works in silence, creating more and more excuses to mess up with your brain. Be smarter than your brain.

6. When you feel tempted to cheat, remind yourself that the future is an endless stream of todays. If you give in to temptation today, you will likely give in tomorrow, too. You will probably be tempted to decide something like, “This little bit doesn’t count”. It’s like saying, “These few seconds of putting my head into the jaws of a crocodile do not count.” It catches up with you sooner or later.

7. Perhaps schedule “cheating days”, let’s say a day a week when you are allowed to relax a bit. Note: this does not apply if you are trying to give up an addictive habit! Even if your habit is not addictive, be careful with this advice; do not allow the cheating day to undo the benefits of your previous efforts.

8. Pretend that your life, or something you really want, depends of your next decision. Many times this is true, but it’s so far away in the future that our now-focused brain just isn’t motivated enough. Imagine as intensely as you can that what you do right now is detrimental for your happiness.

9. Don’t fight frustration. Don’t think you shouldn’t feel it. Acknowledge it, but don’t identify with it. Remind yourself that frustration means the desired change is in process. Frustration is your body trying to go back to the old automatism.

10. Find role models – at least one, preferably several, people, who already act the way you want to act. Imagine their point of view: what motivates them, how do they think and feel in this context, how do they resist temptation. Perhaps you can ask them directly about it, but it’s not necessary if your imagination is good enough. Even a cat can be a good role model if your goal is to learn to relax (or to ignore other people’s opinions).

11. Ask a spiritual entity of your choice for help. Even if you are not overly spiritual, this might help you tap into subconscious resources you don’t normally use.

12. Think about how your life will be different in 10-20 years if you keep your resolution, and how will it look like in the same time frame if you go back to old habits. A bigger picture can often make the consequences much more obvious than short-term perspective.

13. An useful mantra is: “I choose long-term happiness over short-term fun.”

14. If you can, spend some time after you wake up relaxing in bed and building up your motivation to keep your resolution in the day that follows. Motivation likes to dissipate over time, it’s important to renew it regularly.

15. If you fail, start again. Everybody fails at some point. That doesn’t have to determine the rest of your life.

16. Find motivating books or articles and read them often. Make a little compilation of your favorite paragraphs and use them to motivate yourself.

17. Think about your present efforts as a favor to your future self.

18. Think about what would be your advice if a friend was in a similar situation as you are. Imagine friends encouraging you – or ask for direct encouragement.

19. Make your goal into a sequence of small goals. Reward yourself when you achieve each of them. Make sure that the reward is not something that undermines your efforts.

20. Include your goal-focused activities in your daily schedule. If you don’t, you might find yourself doing all kinds of other things until you are too tired or it’s too late – and then it’s much easier to fall back to old habits. Prevent this by good planning.

21. Keep a diary of your efforts. Sometimes the embarrassment of writing down a failure can be motivating enough to prevent that failure.

 

B) Resolving unwanted habits

22. Addictive behavior is often automated –  people find themselves, for example, reaching for a cigarette without even consciously thinking about it. If you notice automated behavior, freeze in place. Make a pause. Breathe deeply. Feel your feelings and thoughts. Remind yourself of all these ways to motivate yourself. Distract yourself from the addictive urges in any way you can think of. It is important to break the automatic sequence of behavior.

23. Mentally associate your object of addiction or addictive behavior with very unpleasant things. This is what those photos of cancerous lungs on cigarette packages are trying to achieve. If you are addicted to sweets, immediately after looking at sweets, imagine fat, disease, weakness, discomfort in tight clothes… whatever feels repulsive to you. If you crave sweets, but find cigarettes disgusting, imagine a cookie as if it was a sweet cigarette. And the other way around. The goal is to achieve the state in which seeing or thinking of the object of your addiction is immediately followed by a repulsive image. If you make unpleasant associations strong enough to counter pleasant expectations, it will be much easier to resist temptation. You can even think of completely unrelated disgusting things – roadkill, manure, vomit… – anything that causes revulsion.

24. Think about what feelings do you hope to achieve through unwanted behavior. Imagine that you already feel that way. Perhaps create a little visualization or fantasy that helps you feel relaxed, loved, safe, acceptable – or whatever your toxic habit artificially provided. Make the feelings as strong as you can.

25. Remind yourself that your craving gives you a false hope of feeling good. Do you really feel as good as expected when you give in to craving? It’s often only a shadow of the feeling you really hope for.

26. Make a list of other activities that make you feel good and plan some time for them each day. If you already feel happy, you will have less reason to resort to addictive substances to make you feel good.

27. Remind yourself that giving in to craving doesn’t mean that craving would go away – it would probably become even stronger.

28. Consider that if you give in to craving, the relief will be short-term – but the unpleasant consequences will last much longer.

29. Remind yourself of withdrawal symptoms you would have to suffer all over again if you give in to temptation.

30. Remind yourself that your body is still in Stone Age and its cravings are not necessarily healthy. Many people give in to cravings because they think: “If my body needs this so much, it cannot be that bad!” It is that bad. Your body did not evolve to respond adequately to all the challenges of modern civilization.

31. Focus on your body. Notice the parts of your body where you feel craving – and notice also the parts of your body that feel better when you act in healthy ways, the parts that “want” to be clean and healthy. Focus at the latter rather than the former.

32. Remove all the triggers in your environment that remind you of the habit you want to stop. Put all the food in cabinets or fridge, out of sight. Throw cigarettes away. Avoid even looking at commercials. Ask friends and family to stop offering you such things.

33. Find healthier substitutes. If your addiction includes ingesting something – processed food, alcohol, cigarettes – try carbonated water (unsweetened – perhaps with some fresh fruit juice) or chewing gum, for example. Some people find that electronic cigarettes can help with reducing cigarette addiction. Of course, you’ll need to give up that habit eventually, too.

34. Think about how happy and proud of yourself you will feel tomorrow if you resist temptation today.

35. Or, think about regret and unpleasant feeling of toxic residue next morning, if you give in to temptation today.

36. If you feel you have to give in to craving, postpone it for 15 mins. After that, another 15 mins. And so on, as long as you possibly can. The idea of 15 mins is easier to agree to than the idea of an eternity without your addictive substance of choice. Perhaps you’ll even find out that the craving subsides after that time. If not, at least you will probably end up “straying” less often than you normally would.

37. Imagine that you’ve already ingested your addictive substance and you don’t feel the need any more. Even better, imagine that you ingested so much it already makes you feel sick. The better your imagination, the better your results.

38. If you have a child, or plan to, consider what role model do you want to be. Many people are more motivated by their children’s benefit than their own. If you are a woman, you might imagine for a moment that you are pregnant. If you wouldn’t want to harm your unborn child with addictive substances, would you want to harm your own body?

39. Some people feel compelled to eat up any food remains so that they wouldn’t be thrown away (another instinct from Stone Age). Tell yourself, “My body is not a garbage bag!” Freeze extra food or donate it.

 

C) Developing desired habits

40. Prepare everything necessary to start (for example, exercising, writing, learning a language), but without an obligation to start immediately. Once everything is ready, your brain will probably find it easier to start.

41. Make just a little effort, without commitment to continue for a long time. One exercise, a few sentences… often after the initial resistance is overcome, we can relax into the activity we started and continue for quite a while longer than we expected.

42. Remember how you feel about activities you like and imagine to spread that enthusiasm and enjoyment into the new activity you are currently practicing. Even a little enthusiasm is better than nothing.

43. Consider that everything you do today, means less work tomorrow.

44. If you are motivated by deadlines, imagine that you have a deadline – and it’s awfully close. If you want to develop a habit of cleaning your house, imagine that you have guests coming over in a few hours, for example. (Speaking from experience here!)

45. Imagine the pleasure of a job well done.

46. Make a conscious effort to develop a pleasant feeling inside while you are working on a new habit. This way, it can be associated with a good feeling rather than frustration or boredom.

47. Note any discomfort or resistance. Consider that it’s probably exaggerated.

48. Note that relaxation and fun is not so relaxing and fun if there is work waiting for you. Use relaxing activities as a reward for a job well done – and then you can enjoy them much more.

49. Don’t expect to be perfect from the start in your new activity. People often procrastinate if they are afraid of failure. Give yourself a permission to make mistakes.

Here we are. You might need to experiment a while to find out what works best for you. Sometimes the suggestions that felt flat yesterday will feel spot on today. Read your reminder often – but don’t allow it to become a mindless routine. Knowing doesn’t automatically mean applying that knowledge! Everything we repeat often, becomes a routine, so when reading your reminder over and over again, put some conscious effort to get emotionally involved into it.

Good luck! If this helps you keep your resolution, come back and share what helped most!

Just a small everyday confusion

We had a young construction worker over these days, who did some stuff around our house. A couple of days back, my partner and I made a trip to the town to get some supplies. Soon after we came back, the construction guy came and asked me in a hushed tone if my partner was angry. (Spoiler: he wasn’t.) I thought he said “hungry” instead of “angry”,  so I said: “I’m not sure… but I certainly am!”

I could see his eyes getting big, so I checked quickly and we clarified it easily. Years back, I probably would have dismissed it as unimportant or would have been too shy to ask. I imagine many arguments start over similar kind of misunderstanding, when people don’t notice or don’t react to non-verbal communication. Wise of our construction guy to check if his presumption was right, too!

Soon your family will probably gather for Christmas holidays and you’ll have much more free time to communicate than in most other days. Pay attention to small details. Happy holidays!

Lessons from the past

Working with some young clients lately got me thinking about myself in the same age, when I just arrived to a big city to study. More and more often these days, I see those memories as if looking at somebody else rather than identifying with my younger self and seeing things through her eyes. In my mind, I see a little bookworm who is finally starting a relatively independent life after years of longing for it, bright eyes full of hopes and dreams, and I think: Boy, I was green. I was greener than spring in Ireland. There is no word to adequately describe that shade of green except maybe fluorescent. Just a little bit more, and I could have ended up as 50 shades of green.

Growing up in a relatively small community and meeting a limited number of people, I did experience some bullying and injustice, but still within certain limits. Most of it could have been explained as either temporary egotism of childhood or misguided projections of adults with toxic backgrounds. I also spent more time with books than people.  At every meal break in my school, I would run into the school library to drift off in fantasy. After school, I would often go to the town library. Occasionally, the library cleaner had to brush dust off of me. While all that reading helped develop my thinking and awareness of my feelings, it certainly didn’t prepare me for the real world. In the books, there is always some pain and injustice, sure, but it’s usually temporary and relatively swiftly overcome (Game of Thrones wasn’t published yet). Lead characters are usually decent people, and the others are more like a blur.

By age of 18, I have already read quite a few popular psychology and self-help books, and was convinced that “any aggression is a cry for help” and that if I’m nice to others, others will be nice to me, sooner or later. I had a lot to learn.

So there I was, joyful about my new-found freedom and eager to start new friendships and perhaps get a part-time job. There was no internet yet, no forums or social networks to give me some idea of what to expect. I wanted to give the whole world a chance. Whoever approached me in the streets or in a city park (reading, of course) I would give them a chance. (After all, all the stray encounters in books are followed by interesting developments!) If they would act a bit weird, I would give an internal shrug and think “I guess they have some reason for it.” Well, they did, but not in the way I imagined.

I couldn’t really imagine people seeing me as an object rather than a person. In the small community I grew up in, most people either knew me, or vaguely expected I might be either related to or at least friendly to somebody they knew. With the anonymity of a big city, some people unleash their inner beast. Welcome to the world of sexual predators.

When online discussions come to the topic of sexual harassment and rape, many people lash out angrily at anybody who suggests teaching young girls reasonable caution. They say, “Girls shouldn’t have to learn to be cautious, men should learn to see them as people and control themselves!” I agree with all my heart. But at age of 18-19, what I desperately needed was somebody to teach me how the world is, not how the world should be.

Those men who approached me perceived my friendliness as a signal that I knew and agreed to what they expected. Most of them couldn’t possibly imagine somebody as naive as I was. Not a week after I arrived to the city, I was chatting with a guy who appeared friendly enough. After a while, he asked me, “Would you want us to spend time together here and there?” I thought he meant to have a coffee together, so I said, “Sure, why not?” He put his arm around my waist. I moved it away. He said, “But you just agreed to…” I said, “I didn’t agree with that!” His jaw dropped: “Well, what did you think I meant?” My jaw dropped.

Some days later I was in the car of a guy who invited me to make a trip to the nearby mountain. On the top of the mountain, he tried to kiss me. I refused. On the way back, he swerved to a forest path and threw himself at me. I scrambled for the door, managed to open it and ran away into the forest. It was dark by then. I ran, hid behind trees, then walked until I found a small restaurant and asked some people to drive me back to the city. The guy phoned me next day (yes, I gave him my phone number before chaos ensued. Yes, I was naive. We already established that.) and claimed that he thought I would like it. I told him not to call me ever again. Of course he called. He gave up after a while.

Next episode (yes, there was a next episode. I know, I know.) was with a guy who offered me a part time job. It sounded interesting enough, so I agreed that he would drive me to his supposed shop where I would be working. He drove in silence. Somehow, I felt something was off. I still have no idea what did I sense – smell? Posture? Expression? – but my heart started pounding. My body was screaming, “Get out of here!” At the next red traffic light, I opened the door and left without a word. He didn’t seem surprised. He barely looked back. I trusted my instincts, finally. How many girls didn’t? Or were too polite to leave?

Luckily, I never stumbled upon somebody truly aggressive, or a stalker. Perhaps even such people were shocked into inaction by my naivety. People I met those days weren’t overly skillful in manipulating, either; by the time I met some such people, I was slightly less naive. Anyway, I stopped responding to men approaching me in the park. That was easier said than done. Slowly, I stopped going to the park altogether.

If I could go back in time and give advice to my younger self, I would tell her: “Listen to your instincts. They are not there for decoration only. They have a purpose. You are in a jungle, even if it’s grey rather than green. Observe carefully. Open your eyes and ears wide. And don’t sit in the car with strangers.”

I still generally trust people. It turns out well most of the time. But I’m much more discerning now and my criteria are way higher. I was lucky enough to come out of those experiences unharmed. But how many girls (and boys) weren’t so lucky?

Some people say that teaching girls to care for their safety means blaming the victim. I don’t understand such black and white attitude. If you said to a child, “Don’t sit in the car with strangers” and the child was kidnapped anyway, would you blame the child or the kidnappers? Teenagers might have more developed brains and more experience than small children, but they are not nearly experienced enough. They cannot easily imagine all kinds of different people out there. Even adult people can never be totally prepared for anything that might happen. Teach your children about finding balance between caution and freedom. And yes, teach boys to see girls as people, too. There are too many toxic models that teach them the opposite.

What would you advise to your younger self if you could write a letter to your past? Share in the comments!

Therapy with clients from healthy families

While more than 90% of people’s emotional problems appear to stem from childhood (or are at least enhanced by early family), from time to time it’s an interesting experience to work with people who come from healthy, caring and rather mature families. (Some people who claim so might be in denial, of course, but during therapy that usually becomes clear through their non-verbal communication or some of our diagnostic strategies). I hesitate to claim that there are definite patterns, or a kind of “box” for this group of people. Yet I noticed a few interesting similarities in some of these cases.

The key might be that children from healthy families might grow up relatively unprepared for a much less healthy environment in the rest of society. Even if they probably have some problems and conflicts with their peers in school or neighbors, the parents would still be the ones to primarily shape their expectations of people in general. Children of healthy parents might expect most other people to also be reasonable, consistent and honest – and the rest of the world might be greatly disappointing. In this way, even the best parents might create some problems for their children. This article goes into detail about how to avoid this trap by providing your children with adequate challenges.

It’s not uncommon for such people, even as adults, to start taking  too much responsibility for problems they have with other people, sometimes to the point of becoming very insecure of their own feelings or character. This happens because they expect new people in their lives to be as reasonable as their parents were, and it might be difficult to imagine or understand that many other people have emotional issues that defy any reasoning. Interestingly, such self-blame and inappropriate responsibility are also a normal early reaction of almost all young children in unhealthy families, while they still trust their parents to be right, until they grow old enough to know differently.  It’s almost like sooner or later we all have to go through such confusion and conflict, until we learn enough about both ourselves and others.

Let’s say we have two people in an intimate relationship, Jack and Jill. Jill comes from a healthy, balanced background. Jack comes from an angry, manipulative, blaming family. Jack, of course, has some great qualities too, which Jill is initially attracted to. Jack might have good intentions and try to be a good partner. But eventually, Jack’s dark side comes out: suppressed childish emotions, perhaps jealousy, anger, blame, unreasonable requests, controlling attitude. Sooner or later, Jack will feel safe enough to express towards Jill whatever was left unsaid or unfinished in his relationship with parents; this is one of the most common pattern in intimate relationships.  If Jack is looking for a substitute parent in Jill, he might soon start taking Jill for granted, or switch between neediness and disinterest – it’s quite natural for a child to take a parent for granted, so Jack, who is emotionally still rather childish, will continue such pattern instead of working on mutual adult responsibility.

Jack might expect Jill to be a perfect “parent”: to be forgiving, understanding, responsible and generous – while allowing Jack to essentially be a child; to do what he wants without restrictions and conditions. This is an extreme situation, and all kinds of varieties are possible. Also, this kind of conflict is often present in couples who both come from immature families, too. I never said it was simple!

Such behavior will create confusion and inner conflict in Jill: why would Jack do and say such things if he didn’t have a good reason? He is basically a good person, I know that, I must have provoked such reaction somehow. Perhaps if I explain my thoughts and feelings to Jack, perhaps if I try a bit harder, we’ll come to an understanding, just as I always managed to do with my parents!

But Jack doesn’t understand, doesn’t accept other perspectives, refuses to go to therapy, because Jack’s emotions are not caused by Jill; Jill is just a trigger. Jill can break her back bending over backwards to accommodate Jack, she can drain her heart and soul trying to make peace and be responsible, but Jack won’t change. Jack is essentially stuck in his childhood; a lot of the time he reacts to people from his past rather than Jill. Words and reason cannot reach such deeply ingrained emotions, almost instincts by now.

Unless Jack starts to show honest, consistent awareness and responsibility to deal with his past and communicate like an adult, Jill will have to leave if she wants to stay sane and find happiness. Luckily for Jill, it’s usually an easier decision for somebody from a healthy background, than if Jill also grew up in an immature family. If Jill was from an immature family, she would react with her own childish issues to Jack’s childish issues and they would spend an eternity (or what feels like eternity) tormenting, blaming and obsessing about each other, hoping that the other one would change in the way their own parents never did.

A healthy person (Jill in this example) can often relatively easily update his/her expectations of the world, learn a lot about people from this experience and move on wiser and stronger.  If Jill also has a big emotional baggage, then disentangling will take more work, but it can be done with proper motivation and perseverance.

If you consider yourself a good parent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your children’s lives will be all sunshine and flowers. Perhaps they might need therapy because you were such a good parent! Life gets us sooner or later, there are always advantages and disadvantages in every situation. It’s interesting for me to notice  how similar relationship problems can sometimes have completely different origins – how a basically healthy person can sometimes get stuck in the same kind of problems that are normally common for less healthy people. Maybe this can help some confused people understand what is going on in their lives.

 

Note: initially I wrote this post to be strictly gender neutral, but quite a few people told me that made it difficult to read. So I wrote about Jack and Jill based on some people who came to me for therapy. I hereby declare that I’m well aware that it could have been the other way around (or any other variation) just as easily. Let’s not get into pointless arguments.

Stray thoughts about spirituality

From time to time, I meet people who proudly proclaim that they don’t want to be around anyone who is not “spiritual enough”. Recently that got me thinking: but what does it mean? For some people, it might mean following a certain religion, or any religion. For some, it might mean believing in angels, or praying, or meditating (which way?), or feeling certain emotions when doing these or other things. Or it might mean following specific criteria of behaviors and rituals, for example “conquering the ego” (which is a story for itself, which I’ll probably write about later). But more than anything, it seems to mean believing in the same things as our subject believes.

Many such people reject those who don’t talk “positively” enough, or who talk more about science, politics and other worldly things rather than spiritual beliefs and experiences. I still remember an e-mail that came years ago as a reaction to one of my articles, in which a woman was accusing me of being “very irresponsible”. Why? Because I briefly mentioned something about Earth being overpopulated.
Now, think about this for a moment. In spite of all the people cheating and downright fighting each other for resources, in spite of pollution and global warming, in spite of so many endangered resources including drinking water… she is concerned about people writing about overpopulation. Too bad weird emoticons don’t look professional, this sentence just begs for one. I presume some cult or religious beliefs were behind this.

I’ve even met a few people who didn’t want to do anything with me based on my Zodiac sign only. Last time that person didn’t ever even meet me, it was one of the questions she asked in a brief telephone conversation. That (besides feeling irritated and rather sad) got me thinking about the weird ways we discriminate against each other. Indeed, it seems like “spirituality” is sometimes one of the ways we reject and superficially judge others around us.

Now, I’m trying to avoid being sweepingly judgmental myself. I do know why spirituality can be so important to people. I was involved in some New Age groups in my late teens and early twenties, and while I came out of them disappointed in many ways, I still thoroughly miss the idealism and optimism of that time, the sense of purpose, meaning, hope, believing in safety in the midst of chaos. I wish I could still so firmly believe that everything will be OK with the world, that universe cares about me personally and that if I wish for something strongly enough, I will receive it.

Actually, I could still believe such things based on my life only. There have been many moments in my life, big and small, when I’ve felt strangely lucky – from finding my lost wallet in the middle of Malaysia with all my money and passport intact, to certain job and career opportunities opening up just when I needed them, to creating a great life partnership with a completely unexpected person. Still, I think of so many people that deserve to be just as lucky, but life just keeps slapping them around. Or all the people with great talents, great hearts and minds, who are ignored based on their skin color, religion or country of origin (or simply because they are not extroverted and authoritative enough). Being aware of this makes my hope dwindle and I can’t make myself believe in idealistic things just because they sound nice. Does this make me not spiritual? It’s easy to say that I should believe in greater good in spite of “details” I see around me, that I should see the bigger picture… but, strangely enough, it’s compassion with people who suffer that makes me feel disappointed in spiritual aspects of life sometimes. I’m sorry if I sound pessimistic even if I try not to be. Here is a cute photo to cheer things up:

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Back to spirituality: many people  feel almost offended if certain ideas, music, art … make them feel uplifted  –  and when they share those experiences with others, the reaction is lukewarm to nonexistent. In context of spirituality, it’s easy to dismiss others as not spiritual enough if they don’t share your emotions.  Yet, just because someone doesn’t feel the same emotions as you when you, for example, pray, or listen to spiritual music etc., doesn’t mean they don’t feel them at all. Those other people can feel uplifted, touched, deeply inspired, when doing or experiencing something that would leave you cold. So who is right? Who is more spiritual? The truth is, we all share the same emotional potential, the difference is often only in what triggers those feelings.

 

The reason I lately avoid believing anything too firmly is that I want to avoid the trap of oversimplifying. The older I am, the more I’m aware of how incredibly complex our world and our brains are. Religious and New age beliefs are usually black and white, generalized. Even if they may feel great, they are still greatly oversimplified – and oversimplifying is a very dangerous habit of our brains; its consequences include prejudice, generalization and all kinds of excuses for immature or destructive behavior. Yet oversimplified thoughts and “words of wisdom” are often the most popular. That’s understandable – our brains prefer to keep things simple, just to be able to cope with the world.

In the work that we do, many people experience spiritual feelings at some point. This makes me feel good and gives me hope. Still, it would be premature and rather arrogant to claim to know the truth. I want to keep my mind open. Even the best ideas in the world can – and are – twisted, distorted and manipulated. I don’t want to contribute to this in any way.

 

For me, spirituality primarily means being honest with oneself. Avoiding to act out of integrity even if we can think of several excuses. Being responsible for our feelings, actions and even thoughts, even if it’s much more pleasurable to be impulsive. Some people can find me “not spiritual enough” because I don’t talk much about light and energies or spiritual guides or angels – or, indeed, because I’m not the right Zodiac sign. But I can only believe in what I find within myself – I cannot claim to know the truth about the rest of the universe.

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Wish it were so simple!

Hello world!

Welcome! My name is Kosjenka. I’m a special education teacher and a  psychotherapist. I am fascinated with human behavior, especially self-sabotage and its origins. For me it’s a kind of detective work. Do you notice that you act childish when angry, afraid or in love? Or do you notice other people acting childish from time to time? There are good explanations for all of that – and they are not in present time, although many people can’t imagine differently.

I like recognizing – and resolving – patterns: what kind of behavior people repeat and why; how we sabotage what we believe we want; why some people keep falling in love with wrong types of characters… While many parts of our behavior are based in biological instincts, I find that our early family influences us even more, in much more subtle ways. If you are confused with your own self – or others – sometimes, I hope to help you find some of the answers. Perhaps I can help you make friends with some monsters, too.

I’ve written quite a few articles on my web-site, the book “Emotional Maturity in Everyday Life” (available as e-book and paperback) and more e-books are in progress. I started this blog as a more interactive way to explore topics for new articles, an ongoing commentary of new discoveries and ideas, as well as the place to publish all of those stray thoughts that are just too short to make an article out of them. Or, indeed, anything I want to write in a more relaxed tone rather than carefully professional. I hope this blog will be interesting and helpful to you! Comments are welcome, presuming that they contribute to a constructive discussion.