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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How Self-Compassion Can Make You Happier and Healthier

This week, I was interviewed by psychotherapist Jacqueline Stone from Sydney, Australia for her Wise Stress Mastery blog.  The topic was self-compassion. We spoke about how a mindset shift to self-compassion can be a turning point in therapy. Why do we struggle so much to treat ourselves with the same kindness and forgiveness that we extend to everybody else? 
A lack of self-compassion begins when you internalize the experience of feeling  unworthy or unlovable  Because of trauma or difficult relationships with childhood caretakers, you get stuck in the belief "I am not enough."  You believe that you are not good enough, thin enough, smart enough, attractive enough, emotionally stable enough, and so on. This type of negative belief paradoxically gives you some hope for an end to the pain.  If "I" am the problem, then there is hope for a different outcome if "I" could only change.  The problem is that this belief sets you up for failure when you attempt to change entrenched negative behaviors (like casual sex, overeating, drinking too much etc.).  The things you are trying to change are often behaviors, even if unhealthy,  that you also rely on to protect yourself from feelings of helplessness and emotional distress. For example, if you overeat to comfort yourself when you feel depressed, it will be difficult to give up overeating without having another way of dealing with depression. 

Lasting change takes more than willpower, but also being willing to experience uncomfortable feelings and finding healthier ways to tolerate and cope with them. You may need the unhealthy behaviors until you can learn healthier ways of comforting yourself or managing distress. When you don't succeed in acting healthier and taking better care of yourself, you may  begin to blame yourself for that as well, thereby compounding your own misery.
The way out of this Catch-22 is to learn and practice self-compassion, even if it feels awkward at first, you consider it wimpy, or you don't think you deserve it. 

Dr Stone noted that
"...during my years in this field I witnessed a recurring phenomenon. I kept noticing that self-compassion heralded a turning point for people dealing with stress and related challenges. I kept witnessing that when people were truly able to ease up on themselves and treat themselves as kindly as they treated those dear to them, the positive gains they made were striking."
In my Psychology Today article Why self-compassion helps you meet life’s challenges, I explain  why self-compassion works better than negative ways of motivating yourself.
  • It helps you realize how you overestimate your control over and sole responsibility for unhealthy patterns and negative outcomes. 
  • It helps you understand that ‘your feelings are not you’ and that just because you think something negative (like "I'm a loser") doesn’t mean the thought is true
  • It gives you a perspective based on "common humanity" or the sense that everyone is human and you don't have to be perfect
  • It helps you connect with unmet or unacknowledged needs that may conflict with your stated goals and block your progress
  • It helps you realize that failure is not final and that you can get up and start again
In the interview with Dr Stone, I also discuss some practical strategies to develop greater self-compassion. Click here to listen to the conversation.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Six Things Happy Couples Do Differently

Maintaining a happy, loving relationship  is hard work, especially when you are also juggling a busy career or parenting.  It is easy for even well-matched couples to fall into negative cycles or neglect to prioritize your relationship.  Misunderstanding each other, fighting over the small stuff, or taking your relationship for granted are common negative patterns that can erode relationship happiness.  Learn what research and clinical wisdom tell us about happy couples.  By adopting these patterns, you can prevent or end negative cycles and deepen your long-term connection with your partner.

Listen   -  Unhappy couples get into cycles of criticize/defend or nag/withdraw that end up derailing communication.  Nobody feels heard and understood, so there is no buildup of goodwill.  Happy couples are more present with each other and make an effort to listen and take each other’s needs seriously.

Create Intimacy - Unhappy couples are more likely to operate like roommates.  The whole focus is on errands and running the household.  The sense of being attractive and desirable to your partner gets lost.  Or unhappy couples may communicate mostly by fighting and arguing.  By contrast, happy couples prioritize emotional and physical intimacy, creating a positive self-reinforcing cycle.

Repair Fights - Unhappy couples don’t resolve conflict.  Arguments turn into hostile interactions or the silent treatment that goes on for days.  By contrast, happy couples reach out to each other after fighting to show they still care, even if the issue isn’t fully resolved.

Act Courteously - Unhappy couples don’t exhibit courtesy and sensitivity in the way they treat each other.  By contrast, happy couples don’t fight so dirty.  They communicate a basic respect and warmth for each other in lots of small ways each day.  They may hug goodbye, bring each other coffee or call to say they miss each other.

Have a Sense of Partnership - Unhappy couples don’t consider how their decisions are going to affect their partner, or they may hide important information from their partner to avoid a fight. This creates problems with trust. Happy couples act like partners.  They put the relationship and family first most of the time, even if they have to sacrifice some things they may enjoy as an individual.

Support Each Other’s Happiness - Unhappy couples don’t focus on making their partner happy or may be convinced that she will be unhappy no matter what they do.  Happy couples actively think about their partner’s happiness. The act thoughtfully, celebrate their partner’s successes, and they willingly to do extra work to help their partner move ahead.

If you are in an unhappy relationship, you may not be aware of your negative patterns or that there are things you can do to facilitate rapid improvement.  Couples Therapy can help you lessen negative behaviors and increase positive interactions that create loving feelings.

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