Leo Tolstoy is credited as saying, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” This seems perfect evidence that resistance to change abounds. Often it is thought of as occurring when the change is unwanted. Volumes have been written about dealing with resistance to change in the workplace. Employees are often viewed as being resistant to change. But that isn’t what this post is about. Industrial and Organizational (IO) Psychology deals with that. This post is about the resistance to change that exists even when the change is wanted and viewed as beneficial.
Studies indicate even when faced with the possibility of death from heart disease, addiction, and other life threatening maladies, the percentage that makes significant change is small. Therapists’ offices are full of clients who know what to do to create positive change in their life, yet do not. There are scores more people who are unhappy in their lives, know what might make them happier, and yet refuse to act. This begs the question, why? And what can we do about it?
There is, of course, a fear of change. This is well established. People fear the unknown. This can inhibit making major changes, like leaving an unfulfilling job, marriage, or other relationship. This is normal and expected. Yet even when one knows the change will be beneficial and there are no apparent downsides, change is slow to engage in, or more detrimentally, never comes.
There are a number of reasons for this. As I wrote in, “Why Don’t You Want to Feel Better?”, sometimes the suffering offers a reward. The suffering may also provide a meaning or purpose for one’s life. Either of these may keep the individual from changing.
Shaul Oreg discussed found four sources related to personality that affect resistance to change: “routine seeking, emotional reaction to imposed change, short-term focus, and cognitive rigidity” (2003). Additionally, and possibly related to some of these personality factors, is that “Perceptions have a significant and profound role and influence in any change process, particularly when it comes to creating resistance to change” Mdletye, et.al. (2014).
In addition to these perception, personality, and attitude factors, there is a more biological explanation. Neuroscience purports that the brain is wired to resist change. Humans are wired to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. Change is uncomfortable. As a result, the brain naturally resists change. Beyond this, the brain is wired to conserve energy. Change, because of the need to focus more vigilantly and not simply function on “auto-pilot”, requires more energy. As a result, change is resisted.
As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Staying the same is a comfortable choice, even when change is necessary. As a result people can become comfortable in their misery. The situation may even seem hopeless. But it isn’t.
Understanding why one resists change can alter the approach to making positive changes. Although the brain’s default is to conserve energy and resist change, one can take control of their thoughts and challenge the reasoning the brain is providing for not changing. For example, if one wants to exercise more, but finds excuses everyday not to, one can recognize these excuses are the brain’s default and not give them any credence. One can then replace these thoughts with healthier, more accurate, and rational thoughts which encourage the change.
Similarly, initial perceptions can be challenged and changed. Many have an initial negative reaction to the idea of change. This is often one’s default. Teaching oneself to focus on the positives of change can alter the initially negative perception. There are always positives present, but they are not always easy to see. As the brain has default functioning that works against an individual, there are biases that can work for the positive. For example, cognitive dissonance (the idea one cannot hold two conflicting beliefs) can work for the positive. When forced to change the mind will look for reasons this is the best course if the change can be accepted and applied.
Acceptance is another popular topic in psychology. When one can learn to accept circumstances, as I’ve written many times (What Recovering Alcoholics can Teach Us About Happiness, Let Go, Be Happy, Overcoming Unnecessary Suffering, Acceptance: It Isn’t What You Think) one will be happier, specifically when nothing can be done about the situation. Acceptance of change can contribute to a more positive perception, and embracing forced change.
Recent studies have indicated there are ways to improve willpower, which can be of crucial importance to beginning and sustaining change. There are several studies that demonstrate self-control can be enhanced through thinking exercises. These include meditation or prayer, focusing on closely held personal values, and envisioning someone like you persevering (Huston, 2015). Additionally, one can use self-talk to redefine who she is. When people make a healthier choice part of whom they are, they are more successful in the behavioral change (Eyal, 2015). For example, if you want to quit smoking, you identify as someone who doesn’t smoke. A final suggestion is that one can reassure oneself of his ability to control himself. Those who believe they have better than average self-control perform with more self-control than those who do not (Weissman, 2015).
In conclusion, we naturally resist change. It seems to be in our biology and our nature. Just understanding this can lead to changes in perception and the ability to challenge the forces that keep one stuck. It takes effort. It takes awareness. But change can be embraced.
Copyright William Berry, 2016
Eyal, N; 2015; None for me, thanks; Psychology Today; October, 2015; p.22.
Huston, M; 2015; The Edge of Restraint; Psychology Today, October 2015; p.11
Mdletye, M.A; Coetzee, J; Ukpere, W.I; 2014; The Reality of Resistance to Change Behaviour at the Department of Correctional Services of South Africa; Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, MCSER Publishing, Rome-Italy, Vol 5 No 3; March 2014
Oreg, S; 2003; Resistance to Change: Developing an Individual Differences Measure; Journal of Applied Psychology, 2003, Vol. 88, No. 4, pg 690.
Shaw; G.G. quote retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/change?page=1 on October 22nd, 2016.
Starecheski, L; 2014; Why Saying is Believing: The Science of Self Talk; Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/10/07/353292408/why-saying-is-believing-the-science-of-self-talk on 2/2/16.
Tolstoy, L. quote retrieved from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/change?page=1 on October 22nd, 2016.
Weissman, E; 2015; The power is yours; Psychology Today; October, 2015; p.18.
Personality has long been a debated topic in psychology. It became a discipline of psychology during the 1930’s. Recently there have been several pop-culture references about whether personality is stable or can be changed. The first I came across was a video by Jason Silva called, “Are we who we think we are?”. He discusses a theory by the sociologist / philosopher Charles Cooley. Silva comes to the conclusion that our personalities are not fixed, as many believe they are, but instead are more fluid.
The second pop-culture reference I came upon was an episode of the NPR podcast, “Invisibilia”. In an episode from season 2 called, “The Myth of Personality”, the hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel explore whether personality consists of set characteristics or traits, or is more subject to change than our culture typically likes to believe. It is an excellent episode and worth a listen.
During the show they interview Dr. Mischel, the creator of the famed, “marshmallow test”. He presents an idea of personality that transcends the two dominant ideas: that we have a set of character traits that determine behavior; or that the situation is the strongest determinate of behavior. In his theory, he adds a third component, our mind, and the power that lies within. I’ll expound upon this later in this post.
In previous posts I have referenced an excellent TED Talk by Julian Baggini, “Is there a real you?” which offers the possibility you can create yourself at any moment. As I’ve said in previous posts, we tend to operate out of conditioned responses and from ideas of who we think we are, but we are not destined to behave in these preexisting ways.
In the excellent book “Buddha’s Brain”, Rick Hanson presents the neural scientific evidence that there is no central place in the brain where a constant personality exists (p.208-214). The idea, in this area of the book, is to overcome the ego, the sense one has to have his or her way, and to be less attached to ideas of self and what this self needs. That section of the book has the aim of acting in a wiser fashion.
Much of my inspiration for this topic came out of a discussion I had with my colleague Yakira Chu. Recently I’ve been focused on being a kinder person, (I’ve been known for sarcasm). When discussing this with her, she suggested I might be behaving as my representative (her description of being more one’s best self, with the goal of making a good impression). She insinuated this is disingenuous; not one’s true self. But is it?
There are a multitude of personality tests that promise to enlighten one to who he or she is, and why he or she behaves the way he or she does. I use them when I believe they will be beneficial. Some psychologists, however, believe personality tests are no better than astrology (Annie Murphy Hall). This culture likes its information neatly categorized, generally in black and white. Stable personality traits exist or they don’t. Behavior is defined by circumstances or by traits. Things are rarely black and white.
Dr. Mischel was one of the first Personality Psychologists to discuss the power of the mind in changing behavior. In the Invisibilia interview, he discusses how the scientific community focused on the wrong aspect of the results of his experiment. He points out how some of the children, when taught to use mind tricks, were able to delay their gratification. Dr. Mischel proposed that there were three aspects to personality (40-42:06 minutes). The first two are what has been discussed, personality traits, and environmental / situational factors. The third, which he puts in between, is the human mind. He describes the mind as containing the beliefs, expectations, and other aspects that affect perception. Because perception can be changed, Mischel posits that people are fundamentally flexible. He reports, “What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings to not be the victims of their biographies” (42:17-42:26), and, “to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.” (42:30- 42:40).
It becomes simple, when thought of the following way. There are certain character traits each human has, which are part biology (temperament) and part learned as we grow and are taught how to behave in society. There are environmental influences that can lead one to behaving in a way he generally wouldn’t consider himself to be (for example, in Milgram’s famous obedience study). And then there is the mind, a powerful, but often underutilized mechanism that can change the way one views a situation and thereby affects behavior. As I’ve written previously (The empowering moment, Think Buddha, be a Buddha) every moment is an opportunity to take control of your mind and choose whom you will be. Personality Psychology supports this idea, and with Mischel’s misunderstood contribution, has for quite some time.
People are much more complex than a personality test can show. Everyone has the capacity, "be a Buddha one minute and a jackass three minutes later." (Warner, p.41). One is not either “nice”, or “mean” permanently. You have the capacity for both, and a choice you may not have been aware of. It takes energy and awareness to realize the choice to be whom you choose. But, as the science of psychology continues to demonstrate, it is possible. You can either continue to be who you are, or you can overcome the aspects of yourself you do not like by changing the way you view yourself and the world. It is a road full of setbacks and difficulties. But the goal is progress, not perfection.
Copyright William Berry, 2016
Baggini, J; 2011; TED Talk; Is there a real you?; Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_baggini_is_there_a_real_you?language=en on July 9th, 2016.
Chu, Y; 2016; personal communication.
Hall, A.M.; 2016; Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?; Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/25/483108905/personality-tests-are-popular-but-do-they-capture-the-real-you on July 9th, 2016.
Hanson, R; 2009; Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom; New Harbinger Publications; Oakland, CA.
McAdams, D; 1997; Chapter 1: A conceptual history of personality psychology; retrieved from: http://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/docs/publications/1361790886490a40cb3b389.pdf on July 9th, 2016.
Miller, L; Spiegal, A. (hosts); June 24th, 2016; Invisibilia; The myth of personality; retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/482836315/the-personality-myth on July 9th, 2016.
Silva, J; 2016; Are we who we think we are? Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7g3IdyOjMU on July 9th, 2016.
Warner, B; 2016; Don't Be A Jerk; New World Library; Novato, CA.
There is a movement in psychology, positive psychology more accurately, toward radical acceptance, focusing on gratitude, and resonating with the positive. And with good reason: it works. People are improving their quality of life as a result of these techniques. It begins with acceptance, which probably isn’t what you think.
New theories of therapy have been developed with acceptance as the main focus. An example of this is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Training, (instead of therapy, to avoid the stigma). ACT helps train mindfulness: an awareness of the present moment without judgment. The individual is then better able to tolerate negative thoughts and feelings (although the judgment “negative” is removed in mindfulness). Finally, the individual behaves according to his/her values. This type of intervention has been empirically tested for depression, certain anxiety disorders including OCD, in coping with delusions and hallucinations in those that have psychotic disorders, and with those looking to handle work day stress more effectively (SAMHSA).
Acceptance has been a key to happiness since Buddhism was born. The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism (of The Four Noble Truths) is that “desire (or craving) is the root of all suffering”. This is interpreted as wanting reality to be anything but what it is; in other words, a lack of acceptance.
Acceptance has been a cornerstone of the 12 Step treatment for alcoholism since the first “Alcoholics Anonymous” book was written in 1939. Doctor Paul Ohliger wrote a passage on how acceptance leads to being happier and sober. By the third edition the passage was famously known in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous as page 449. In only my second post for Psychology Today I discuss its benefit for everyone.
Often when I discuss acceptance with students or clients, a common argument is put forth: “Acceptance is no good. It is passive and accepting things as they are is giving up. It is resignation to something unpalatable.” But that is not the real meaning of acceptance. There is no better explanation than Jon Kabat-Zinn’s in, “Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness”: “Acceptance doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is- especially when you don’t like it-and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.” (p.407). In other words, desiring the world to be something it is not at the moment is stopped and ruminating thoughts about how things “should be” are put aside. Then change what can be changed.
Acceptance helps reduce what people experience as negative. That is only half of the solution to improving one’s quality of life, however. It has been purported that it takes five positive experiences to counter one negative (Gottman,) or, more generally, your brain responds to positive events like Teflon and to negative ones like Velcro (Hanson, Mendius). So, the new goal is to allow the positive to resonate, to be prolonged, not in a desperate grasping fashion, but instead through mindfulness and allowing it to permeate one’s attention. This helps counter the balance, and swing experience to the positive.
People often do not notice how much positive is in their lives. As such, a movement in the psychology of happiness is to look for what one is grateful for. In his outstanding TEDx Talk, Shawn Achor includes this as one of the five parts of the experiment that raised subjects’ level of happiness in a 21-day study (finding three different things daily you are grateful for). In “The Mindful Way Through Depression” a suggestion is made to note things you enjoy while going through your day. In his excellent TED Talk, “Want to be happy? Be grateful”, David Steindl-Rast suggests we simply need to stop, look, and then go in order to see all of what we have been missing that we have to be grateful for. This all relates to slowing down and resonating with enjoyable moments, rather than running from one thing to the next.
There might be things hampering you from doing the suggestions in this post. In a post called, “Why Don’t You Want To Feel Better” I point to the reasons people do not act on the information that is out there to feel better. I focus on defense mechanisms, how change is strenuous work and often staying the same is easier (even if painful) and how some create the meaning of their life from suffering. One might want to refer there if having difficulty implementing the changes suggested above.
For some, the word grateful might be off-putting. I actually prefer the word appreciate. It is easily substituted. For a minute think about what you appreciate. Slow your life down, and appreciate all that you have. Even in the worst scenarios there can be appreciation. A shower. A sunset. The taste of your favorite food. Good conversation. Love of family. That feeling when you first lay down in bed after an exhausting day. The list is inexhaustible. But, as David Steindl-Rast among others purport, we simply do not slow down enough to appreciate. We are running from our problems, and running from ourselves. That is not working. Studies show slowing down, being mindful, and experiencing and expressing appreciation will work. By doing it and focusing on it, neuroscience demonstrates new neural connections are made and strengthened. This makes it more likely to occur in the future. As neuropsychologists are fond of saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Over time, you’ll find yourself happier, calmer, and experiencing more joy. It’s science.
Copyright William Berry; 2015.
Achor, S; 2011; TEDx Talk: The Happy Secret to Better Work; retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work
Gottman, J; 1999; The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy; p.35; W.W. Norton & Co; New York, NY.
Hanson, R; Mendius, R; 2007; Buddha’s Brain: The New Neuroscience and the Path of Awakening; Inquiring Mind; p.4; Retrieved from: http://www.wisebrain.org/BuddhasBrainArticle.pdf
Hanson, R; 2009; Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom; New Harbinger Publications; Oakland, CA.
Kabat-Zinn, J; 2005; Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness; Hyperion Publishers, New York, N.Y.
SAMHSA; 2014; Retrieved from: http://www.nrepp.samhsa.gov/ViewIntervention.aspx?id=191
Steindl-Rast, D; 2013; TED Talk: Want to be happy? Be grateful; Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_steindl_rast_want_to_be_happy_be_grateful?language=en
Williams, M; Teasdale, J; Segal, Z; Kabat-Zinn, J; 2007; The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness; The Guilford Press; New York, NY.
There is a great deal of information available about depression. But when someone lives with somebody with depression, it can be painfully difficult. Anti-depressants are the number one prescribed medication in this country; but they are not a panacea. Many with depression continue to suffer, or at least have periods of symptomatology. This in turn affects those that love them.
When the person with depression is one of your children or a partner, this can be especially difficult. Many parents feel it is their place to rescue even their adult children from problems. It is difficult to feel helpless, which is often the case when you live with a depressed individual. It may not be healthy to feel it is one’s duty to rescue a partner, and certainly not to take responsibility for his or her feelings, this often happens in relationships.
When it is a male’s partner who is depressed, feeling helpless is especially common. Generally, men are fixers. When they hear a problem, their reaction is to fix it. As depression is not so easily fixed, the result is feelings of helplessness and frustration. This can complicate the helping process.
Difficulties abound when living with a depressed partner. Because of symptoms like apathy, a partner’s needs may not be met. Each partner in a relationship makes attempts to feel love from their partner. These attempts may be thwarted by apathy from the depressive, leaving the partner feeling disconnected. Anhedonia can also contribute to a lack of sex drive, which can further complicate this problem. The end result is a partner feeling his or her relationship needs are not important.
Not only might the parent or partner feel helpless in regard to alleviating the depression, he might feel as if he is a contributor. In fact, the depressed individual might believe their loved one is a contributor as a result of distorted thinking. But even when that is not the case, the parent or partner may experience an internal battle on what to say or not to say. In the case in the previous paragraph, a partner may not express his or her feelings of neglect, fearing they will contribute to the depressed mood of the other. This can further both issues: feeling neglected and feeling like a contributor to the depression.
So what is someone living with a depressed person to do? The answer isn’t as simple as many like to believe, because depression manifests differently in different people. According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are nine possible criteria that contribute to a diagnosis of depression, of which five must be met, for the majority of the time: Depressed mood. Markedly diminished pleasure in almost all activities. Significant weight loss or weight gain when not dieting, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day. Insomnia or hypersomnia. Psychomotor agitation or retardation. Fatigue or loss of energy. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness. Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation, suicide attempt or specific plan for suicide. (Other criteria must also be met for a specific diagnosis) These criteria can lead to a multitude of other symptoms, including lack of sex drive, angry outbursts, irritability, social / personal withdrawal, and more. People experience different symptoms of depression. As such, one person’s depression might appear much different than another’s.
Many who live with a depressed person struggle with whether they are being supportive or enabling. Some believe “tough love” is what is needed. Being supportive and loving may appear to allow the depressed individual to remain stagnant. Pushing too much can lead to conflict and further withdrawal.
It may seem like it is a hopeless situation. Still, there are still several things that can be done: Research depression, and what might be helpful. There are a number of things that are helpful for depression: exercise, meditation, 20 minutes of unblocked sunlight daily, medication, dietary changes, as well as a number of natural remedies. More than just suggesting what can help, the loved one can engage in the new behavior.
Take care of yourself. Whenever someone is dealing with a loved one that has mental illness, it is imperative to engage in or continue self-care. It is possible to balance your needs with your partner’s. Exercise. Do enjoyable things whether your loved one will do it with you or not. Do not allow the depression to darken the entire universe you live in.
Be supportive. Cognitive distortions as well as the lethargy involved in depression lead to negative perceptions and irritability. It is often difficult not to be affected by this, especially if there is anger directed at you. However, it is important to follow the second of the Four Agreements (Ruiz, 1997); don’t take anything personally. It is important to remember that much of what is being directed at you is a result of depression and resulting distortions in perception and thinking. The ability to look at situations in a detached and objective way is at the heart of much of Eastern thought and psychological growth. Abraham Maslow, who formulated a theory based on a hierarchy of needs, notes it as part of self-actualization. Beck and Ellis (who worked with depressed patients and developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy, respectively) promote it as a strategy for psychological health. Eastern thought looks at compassionate detachment as an enlightened trait to be strove for. Compassionate detachment is being able to empathize and feel compassion for another, while not getting drawn into their perception of reality. You do what you can, without attaching expectation to it.
Being supportive also includes, in moderation, gently pushing your loved one to do what is good for him or her. This includes invitations to join in activities, and attempts to get the depressed person involved in exercise or some of the above suggestions demonstrated to help with depression.
Listen. Being heard can be incredibly curative. Communication is how we connect. For many with depression, the feelings of isolation can be deafening. The ability to listen and not offer a quick fix can be of tremendous benefit.
Be love. This may be difficult, and sound corny, but, if you are following the suggestions above, you are already being love. Abraham Maslow suggested most people seek therapy as a result of deficiency in their love and belonging needs (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, p.276). Mood disorders (of which depression and its more chronic form, dysthymia, are a part) are the most common psychiatric diagnosis. If Maslow is correct, love maybe at least part of the solution. As I wrote in “Love’s tug of war”, putting real love first is difficult due to our own ego needs. But the ability to do so can be incredibly rewarding. In fact, you can use this to move toward your own self-actualization or enlightenment, as it is a vital part of each. Love should be the default strategy when you don’t know what else to do.
Copyright: William Berry 2014
American Psychiatric Association; 2013; The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Feist, J., Feist, G., & Roberts, T.; 2013; Theories of Personality
Ruiz, Miguel; 1997; The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom.
In his book, “Be Here Now”, Ram Dass indicates we seek the secrets of the east, or mysticism, yet they are not hidden. They’ve been in plain view forever. Yet people continue to search, as if the answers are hidden. The same could be said of the secrets to happiness (one might actually contend they are one and the same). Even when the road to peace and happiness has been paved in front of them through research and experiments, people continue to suffer. Ram Dass says clearly, “The secret is a secret to you because of where your head is at” (1971). The goal of this post is to help you understand the obstacles to change, and to alter where your head is.
Studies show there are many behavioral strategies that lead to more enjoyment in life, more peace, more happiness, more well being. Exercise is demonstrated to release chemicals in the brain that contribute to confidence, a sense of well being, and even euphoria (not to mention the physiological health benefits) yet many remain sedentary. Meditation has been proven as effective as antidepressants for staving off relapse of depression, creating a calm and peace in life, and combating stress but few meditate. Focusing on the positive in life, through living in gratitude and journaling positive events, as well as sitting with the positive feeling, is indicated to increase levels of happiness in studies. (Achor, 2011; Hansen, 2009). Yet many, who have enough food, who live a relatively financially comfortable life, who have survival needs met, who are physically healthy or reasonably so, suffer psychologically.
So why do so many continue to suffer, when the answers are apparent? Both Tony Robbins and Henry Cloud, Ph.D. are credited with the quote, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” According to this theory, people aren’t doing what will lead to more happiness and peace because they aren’t in enough pain. This is a plausible explanation.
Contributing to the detraction of pain as a motivator to change is the possibility complaining about one’s lot in life is better than actually doing something to change it. I’ve been confronted many times by clients, students, or friends who believe there is nothing that can be done about their particular problem. Every option is impossible because of their beliefs about the change. So, rather than having to actually make change, they simply sit with their suffering and feel powerless. Perhaps the real reason is the suffering isn’t sufficient enough to motivate change. Or perhaps there is a profit from the suffering.
In psychological terms a payoff coming from a distressful problem is called secondary gains. Many people who have psychological distress (or physical illness) get attention, support, more love, or other reinforcers that make change less attractive. These secondary gains are often not perceived as worth the cost, yet their significance may be minimized. Perhaps, potentially on an unconscious level, these gains significantly buffer the pain, tipping the scales to choosing to remain the same rather than change.
Other obstacles to change are the defense mechanisms. As I’ve written in many previous posts (see “Are you overusing your psychological tools”, “How psychology can help or hinder enlightenment”, “I’m full of it” and most recently “The big lie” for examples) defense mechanisms attempt to protect one from things that are threatening. Change is threatening. Often someone seeking psychological help, “deeply fears any shift in the way in which he currently handles his inner world and the world around him.” (Donnell, M, 2011;). As such, defense mechanisms may inhibit one’s ability to change, despite a conscious desire to do so.
Another theory might be that people create meaning from their suffering. This, in actuality and if perceived objectively, is more positive than negative. Humans want a meaningful life. Although existentialists posit meaning is created (and not inherent in life), having meaning makes one’s life more momentous. If suffering allows one to have meaning, then the solution to end suffering would be to find a more palatable meaning. Another option is to continue to suffer but find solace in the meaning derived from it. Viktor Frankl, in his seminal book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” describes a man whose wife’s death led to much suffering for him. Frankl asked the bereaved what would have happened if he had perished first? The man discussed how much his wife would have suffered had the situation been reversed. As such, his suffering now had meaning, and therefore he developed a better psychological position.
As I’ve written in “Overcoming unnecessary suffering”, and my last post, “You're unimportant; But it doesn't mean you can't be happy” being mindful and taking an existential view is a solution to suffering. Although the posts address two separate problems (creating suffering unconsciously, and perceiving thinking as more important than it is, respectively) the solutions are similar: mindfulness, insight, meditation, challenging thinking, and viewing things through a more distant objective frame of mind to overcome suffering. When these are combined with exercise and an improved diet, less suffering and more positive moods are bound to occur. Of course this takes effort. Perhaps the suffering you experience isn’t great enough to motivate such work. Or perchance you aren’t able to see the true cost of the pain you’re in due to defense mechanisms or the secondary gains. If you won’t change, at least embrace your suffering.
Copyright William Berry, 2014
Achor, Shawn; The Happy Secret to Better Work; TEDx Talk, retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work
Dass, Ram; 1971; Be Here Now; p.103.
Donnell, Michael; 2011; The Role of Analytic Love in Therapeutic Action: A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the California School of Integral Studies; p.18
Frankl, Viktor; 2006; Man’s search for meaning;
Hansen, Rick; 2009; Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.
It isn’t common you’ll find a therapist and a psychology professor compose an article about how much he, and everyone else, lies to himself or herself. It would seem contrary to “the helping profession”. It is a well established and research supported theory in therapy. Yet the majority continue to go through life pretending it isn’t so, and believing their perceptions unreservedly.
Freud was the first to identify defense mechanisms, demonstrating the power of the unconscious. Defense mechanisms arise automatically to protect the ego from information it finds too unsettling. Recent research using brain stimulation supports Freud’s idea of repression and of wish fulfillment. In one interesting case a gentleman with damage to the right hemisphere had “repressed” the unpleasant information about the damage. However, when the brain was stimulated, the repression succeeded and he remembered. Moreover, when asked about how he knew the doctor his answers were more in line with wish-fulfillment (drinking or a colleague) (Feist, J; Feist, G; Roberts, T; 2013). Other studies using fMRI’s has confirmed that areas of the brain associated with repression are activated when human subjects are either asked to purposefully forget something, or when the material is conflict laden (Schmeing, J., Kehyayan, A., Kessler, H.; 2013).
Carl G. Jung followed Freud and developed his theory of the Shadow. He identified the Shadow as unconscious energy that an individual is afraid to face because it is inconsistent with his / her idea of self. This repressed energy is then projected onto the world (generally viewing the world as more negative and evil) or into dreams (where a person who is the same sex as the dreamer commits criminal or evil acts). Proponents of Object Relations Theory believe that most perceptions of others are actually internal aspects of oneself. This means one rarely actually perceives the other person as he or she is, but more as a combination of who we are and who they are. William James stated well over a century ago, “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”
Of course, these theories are all psychodynamic, and the field of psychotherapy has moved away from them and toward more empirically based therapies. One of, if not the most, empirically based theories is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Even with this evidenced-based theory, a central theme is cognitive distortions. Put simply, an individual does not see the world accurately as a result of distortions in their perception. Although this theory is officially applicable only to those experiencing a disorder, it seems commonplace enough that most people experience distortions in thinking at some point.
Another area of psychology that focuses on how humans lie to themselves is memory. Much research has been devoted to memory; it indicates that memory is malleable. Studies focus on subjects “memory” of a list of words, and with astounding reliability, subjects can be “tricked” into believing they remember a word or picture that was not in the original list. Other studies of memorable events (such as September 11, 2001) demonstrate that subjects put great faith in their memory of the event years later (such as where they were and what they were doing). However, their memory does not agree with their taped recount of events shortly after it happened. These types of studies repeatedly demonstrate that memory is often inaccurate, despite the faith people put in it. (Coon D; Mitterer J; 2013).
There are many more examples of how we lie to ourselves, make promises we don’t keep, and otherwise deny the reality we are faced with. Not all lies, defense mechanisms, or projections are bad. But if one seeks a more authentic life, and to create herself as she chooses rather than as she was conditioned to be, then overcoming at least some of the faulty perceptions of reality one hosts is necessary.
If you are at all convinced now that you lie to yourself with alarming regularity, (and you should be because the evidence is astounding) then hopefully you are wondering what to do about it. First, it will take a great deal of energy not to lie to yourself; in fact, lying to yourself is the easier path. If you are willing to expend the energy, then the goal is to take control of your thinking. The majority of our responses, to one another, to oneself, to situations that arise, are automatic. We have been conditioned by our experiences. We respond without much conscious thought persistently.
The first step will be to question one’s thinking, to look for the underlying motives, to evaluate the thoughts that arise automatically. I wrote about questioning your thinking in “The Truth Will Not Set You Free”. It would be contraindicated to take control of all thought all the time in our busy world. One would not function well. A Chinese proverb states, “He who deliberates fully before taking a step will spend his entire life on one leg.” But one can add conscious deliberation into his life. Through mindfulness, which is simply being aware of one’s thoughts and choosing a response in a more deliberate manner, one can stop fooling himself. (I’ve written about creating and becoming your ideal self in Authentic Personal Growth and That’s Just How I am). One of the best ways to create mindfulness is through meditation.
Meditation and mindfulness are not nearly as esoteric as they are believed to be. The benefits also abound beyond the ability to be mindful of your thoughts. To begin practicing mindfulness is simple; simply ask yourself several times a day what you are thinking. If the thinking seems against what you are trying to accomplish (for example if you are trying to let go of frustration you feel at someone but are instead thinking of all the irritating things he’s done lately) stop the thinking and focus on your breathing. As your thoughts drift away from your conscious control (meaning the thoughts are leading you more than you lead them) remember to come back to your breathing. Continue to focus on breathing, rather than thinking. Focus more completely on a task you might be engaged in, such as driving, doing the dishes, or whatever else you might be doing. And again, when the thoughts drift back from your control, return to the breathing. This is mindfulness, and mindfulness is meditation.
There are some excellent readings for meditation and mindfulness. I highly recommend “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. A second choice, though slightly more extreme, is, “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Of course there are also many other worthy titles. For those who want to get started right away, I suggest checking out this webpage which offers a 20 minute meditation.
Coon D; Mitterer J; 2013; Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior with Concept Maps and Reviews, 13th Edition; pg
Feist, J; Feist, G; Roberts, T; 2013; Theories of Personality; pg58.
Schmeing, J; Kehyayan, A., Kessler, H., et.al. 2013, Can the Neural Basis of Repression Be Studied in the MRI Scanner? New Insights from Two Free Association Paradigms; PLOS one; retrieved from: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0062358
“What we call normal in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it ordinarily.” This quote is by Abraham Maslow, the theorist who gave us the idea of the hierarchy of needs (once your basic needs are met you begin to seek higher needs) and the idea of self-actualization.
Maslow’s point is that being normal, being average, although normally perceived as okay, is pathology. Pathology can be defined as disease or sickness. The dictionary’s definition of psychopathology is “The study of the origin, development, and manifestations of mental or behavioral disorders,” or “the manifestation of a mental or behavioral disorder.” Most people would be offended if someone were to say that they were average. Yet, by definition, most are. Average in psychological terms is a huge category, encompassing the majority of the population. Those that are not average are outliers. Outliers are the small percentage at either end of the bell curve. They are either well below average, or well above. Average in this sense doesn’t have much to do with not being an individual. You can be an individual yet fall well within the average.
So now that we are all feeling insulted, let’s discuss what Maslow was saying and why it is so important. Maslow’s contention was that ultimate goal of humans is to self-actualize, to become all they can in a lifelong process of self-improvement. He also contended that all humans have this potential. But before that can happen, other needs which are positioned below self actualization must be met. These include physiological needs, needs for safety, needs for love and belonging, and the need for esteem. Once these needs are met, the individual can look toward self actualization. Not striving toward being all you can be is your pathology. He is using this bold statement to get your attention and to encourage you to take action.
It can be assumed most people in this country (particularly if you are reading this article online) have the lower needs met. Most have enough food, water, and shelter. Most do not feel constant threats to their safety. And, hopefully, we feel loved and a sense of belonging. So with these needs met, we can move toward feeling esteemed. This need encompasses self confidence, feeling competent, and believing at least some others hold you in high esteem. Again, it seems reasonable that many readers have these needs met as well. This is not to say you feel this way all of the time. There may always be flare-ups of self doubt. But it is understood that generally, most of the time, you feel confident in yourself and your abilities. So, with all of these important needs met, why aren’t more people becoming self actualized?
The answer is simple: we become complacent with these lower, but important needs. Then, instead of working toward self-actualization people become consumers: keeping up with the Joneses, being the first on our block to have the newest gadget, over-indulging in “entertainment needs” (movies, television, trips) and otherwise trying to fill the yearning for a higher purpose with purchases, rather than self-improvement.
Perhaps what is keeping the majority of people from self actualizing is that they are misinterpreting their yearning for self-actualization as a need for more of something else: More love, more things, more fun. Therefore the solution is to cease filling the void with things, and instead, focus on you, and what you can be. What are you doing that is creative? What are you doing to exercise your mind? What are you doing to make the planet (and your fellow humans) better? What are you doing to be happier with you, rather than your possessions? Answer these questions and the movement toward self-actualization begins.
If you still have trouble getting started or maintaining progress, it is possible that there are unconscious forces that lie within you that are keeping you stagnated. One suggestion is to enter therapy so you can discover these blocks, remove them, and get back on track. Making the unconscious more conscious is one of the most beneficial aspects of therapy. So often today we view therapy simply as a place to vent or get some direction with other life problems. But at its best, therapy is geared toward insight, toward understanding yourself, and to becoming self-actualized. Good luck on your journey.
It seems the more experience I gain in the field of psychotherapy, the more clients I interact with, the more I live my own life, the more I believe the attempt to inappropriately control events is at the core of unhappiness. The use of control is paradoxical: we believe taking control will bring us security and happiness, yet in many cases it causes unhappiness, anxiety, and malaise. In this article I will explain this premise, and support my observations with some findings regarding happiness.
I am often confronted with clients who have addiction problems, depression, marital issues, anxiety, and anger issues. It is my contention that these difficulties have a common thread: control.
Let’s start with depression. I have several clients who hold onto their pessimistic attitudes and beliefs. They are holding on to this style of living, as uncovered in therapy, as a security blanket against disappointment. In other words, they believe if they keep a pessimistic attitude, they are less likely to be disappointed. I purport that this is an attempt to control what is inevitable. Disappointment is a part of life. Being let down, disappointed, or hurt is part of the human existence. Granted, these people have experienced either an inordinate amount of these negative emotions, or they have been hypersensitive to events which were less than positive. But their current malady has as much to do with an attempt to prevent future hurt as much as with the scarring of the past hurt. And I contend this is an inappropriate attempt to control.
It is often easy to see how anger can be a result of wanting to control, and increasing the emotional reaction when control is impeded. Using children as an example, when you tell your child to do something, and they do not, or they talk back, or they ignore you, it is common to become angry. It is relatively clear how this is related to control: in this case the desire to control your child’s behavior. It is also reasonable to understand how it may escalate when this desire to control is obstructed.
This is not to say all anger comes from issues surrounding control. Anger often is a result of fear or hurt feelings in addition to thwarted attempts to control. And although this could be related to control, or the reaction to a lack of control, this is not the forum for that.
Another example of how anger relates to control is when driving and stuck in traffic. One may become frustrated with the inability to get where they need to be in the timeframe they expected. The situation has become out of their control. They may try to exercise control by switching lanes, trying to cut in front of others, or by leaving the highway and trying an alternate route. This can further complicate the issue. The bottom line here is that the inability to control the situation, the feeling control has been taken by extenuating circumstances, has led to the feeling of frustration and anger.
There are often many contributors to marital issues. Difficulty with losing or feeling one has no control is occasionally one of the problems. Some couple’s presenting for therapy do so as a result of arguments. These arguments sometimes stem from issues surrounding not behaving in a fashion that is consistent with the other’s expectations. And, as you can probably ascertain by now, this again relates to control, or the lack thereof. One partner wants something handled in this way. The other disagrees, either outwardly, or by not altering behavior. Arguments escalate or avoidance occurs. All are a result of wanting to have your way in the situation, and not getting it, or having the other try to take it away.
Addiction is often characterized by a loss of control. This loss of control is in regard to a substance or behavior that initially brings relief or pleasure. The actual substance use often starts as an attempt to control feelings. Many people who end up addicted begin substance use in an attempt to manage (or control) feelings and moods. They do not like what they are experiencing, and want it altered. For example, perhaps they had a rough day at work, and want to relax. The use the substance to alter their mood, hence taking control of a mood they otherwise felt was being controlled by external events (whatever contributed to the bad day). This theory can be applied to any such negative mood state. Eventually, they come to over rely on the substance, and eventually, the substance dictates the mood. This is true of other problems as well, and a vicious and self-feeding cycle can begin. But at least one part of the core of it is a desire to control.
Next lets address anxiety. Although anxiety is a general term, we can also call it being worrisome. When and why do people worry? Generally, we worry about the future, whether distant or near. An example would be worrying about your child being out with friends. This may seem like a normal situation to worry about. After all, you do not know what your child may be doing, or may be concerned with their decision making skills (rightly so, as teens have been known to make poor decisions). In psychology it is believed every behavior or action has a reward. In the case of worrying, the reward is to foresee a problem and take action. But often the worrying continues when no action is possible. Worry is often an attempt to control, or a wish to control, what is uncontrollable. When worrying, or anxiety, serves the purpose of aiding preparation, it is a worthy pursuit. But once what can be done is done, worrying is ineffective. These feeling then stem from a desire to control an outcome, and the anxiety about not knowing the outcome; or more simply stated, not being in control.
This is also true in dating, and other common life events. For example, when one meets someone they are interested in, many people start wondering about the experience. What do they think of me? There are these positives, and these negatives, will it work out? Is this someone I see myself with in the future? What about the obstacles, can they be overcome? Is this my soul mate, my other half? All of these questions, that can be common to those beginning a relationship, are an attempt to know the unknowable and thereby control the outcome. Rather than relaxing and letting things unfold, which leaves one somewhat vulnerable, we humans try to figure things out, often in futile attempts to know the future, and gain control.
I believe, in the brief format provided, I have adequately demonstrated how control, either the desire to have it, or the loss or removal of it, is involved in the above issues. I will now discuss some of the effective ways to address and minimize its affect. I will start with how those in addiction recovery combat it. Of course, I believe much of what is applicable to addiction treatment and recovery will be effective with depression, anxiety, anger, or the other issues discussed.
In addiction treatment, which has been my primary area of expertise for years, people entering recovery are often told the virtues of “acceptance,” (please see page 449 of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition for further explanation) “letting go and letting God” and “live and let live.” These saying are all geared at helping the substance dependent individual practice letting go of control, allowing things to happen, and not fretting about the future. The goal of the 12 steps of addiction recovery is “Spiritual Awakening.”
As long as we are on the spiritual, lets discuss religion and faith. In several articles I have read some keys to happiness were discussed. These articles, which varied in some respects, had a common theme: faith. According to these articles, those that have faith, faith that things happen for a reason, faith that things will work out as they are supposed to, faith that a higher power is acting on their behalf, are happier than those who do not share these beliefs. Although other keys to happiness are discussed in these articles as well, I do not believe that the role of faith should be minimized. If you believe things will work out, there is no need to worry, or hold onto depression or a pessimistic view to protect you. If you believe things are as they are supposed to be and that in the end there is a good end product to be had from seemingly negative events, you will be happier. Faith cannot be minimized.
However, faith does not necessarily require belief in God. Faith can simply be the belief that you will benefit from this in the end. This may be through personal growth, a life lesson, or simply a nudge in the right direction by your unconscious. Even the most vehement atheist might be able to accept that the unconscious is a power that influences behavior. And if that atheist can believe their unconscious is helping by pushing in a positive direction, then the faith necessary for happiness can be found.
The power of letting go of control is evident through the recent movement in psychology to incorporate Eastern thought and beliefs. From Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for certain mental health issues, to the recent well written book “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” Eastern thought has been slowly but effectively adopted and often proven effective by the psychological profession. This is nothing new. I recently completed reading a book written in the 1970’s with a similar theme that was again geared at psychotherapy. All of this writing and use of Eastern thought for improving mental health seems indicative of its benefit.
Although Eastern thought does not explicitly discuss faith as in Western religion, there is a letting go of control that is incorporated into its thought. The main theme of the aforementioned books are accepting things as they are, and returning to the present moment. There is a sense of understanding humility, that there are powers greater than you at work in the natural flow of the universe, that things will unfold in a natural order.
My favorite thought in Buddhism is the second noble truth. Loosely translated, it amounts to desire being the root of all suffering. It means when one wants things to be different than they are, when one attaches themselves to good feelings and attempts to avoid bad feelings, when one attempts to control their life to exclude everything they do not like, suffering occurs. The way to happiness is through non-attachment, letting go of expectations, being in the present, not making judgments, and simply accepting life as it presents itself. This is a tall order for sure. Even wanting to be this way defeats the point (there is again desire to be other than you are). But striving toward it by simply reminding yourself occasionally that the present is what it is, that everything doesn’t have to conform to your desires, can bring happiness.
I believe I have presented a thoughtful argument that inappropriate attempts to control are a root cause for discontent. I also believe I have offered some practical thought for how to combat it, and to bring more (not complete) happiness to life.
There are a myriad of possible answers about why relationships become dysfunctional. This article will focus on one: the tendency for a male to become a child in the relationship and his female partner to take a motherly role. This is a fairly common phenomenon, yet few people understand how it might occur. When I told a few people I was working on an article discussing this, they reacted as if this is a very common phenomenon that most people are aware of. Yet many couples continue to fall into this trap. One person said it is common sense yet people aren’t conscious of it when it happens to in their relationship until the roles are established.
The male (in a heterosexual relationship) becoming a child can happen in a multitude of ways. First, let’s look at role models. Research has demonstrated that there are general differences in caregiving to a child. For a child the role model of responsibility is the mother. Mothers tend to engage in more of the day to day caregiving activities and responsibilities of the child. Doctor appointments, extra curricular activities, checking of homework, assigning responsibility, these are often the mother’s role. Fathers are much more associated with play. In fact, many fathers even make responsibilities into play. I often turn getting ready the mornings I take my son to school into a race against the clock. In this process the male child learns that men are associated with play and women with responsibility.
A second aspect which is still true but may be fading in this generation is that many men are taught that the expression of certain emotions are unmanly. Many young men are taught that they should keep their feelings in and deal with them in some undetermined, unexpressed, internal fashion. It is as if keeping them in will somehow result in the feelings magically being resolved. This may be effective for some feelings, but in general this notion can be harmful. In regard to relationships it can be very detrimental.
The man matures and now enters a relationship. While in the courting stage his playfulness and childlike charm is attractive and endearing. As the relationship progresses there may be signs and attempts to curtail some of the playful behavior. Once marriage occurs there is often a more of a shift for the man to be more responsible and “grown-up”.
For many men in a marriage the wife can start to become a mother figure. She may encourage less playing (hanging out with friends, heavy drinking, etcetera) and behaving in a more grown up fashion. I have often heard quotes like this from married male clients discussing problems in their relationship, “before we got married she had fun too. She and I would go to a club together, she would drink and we would dance. Now she wants no part of it.” This mothering behavior often becomes even more pronounced after children are born.
Another aspect that affects the relationship and is related is the tendency for men to feel slighted when a child comes along. Most men have difficulty admitting this but it seems to be a hard deny fact for many men. When you combine this feeling of being slighted with their training to “man-up” and not allow these self centered feelings to become an issue, you have a recipe for relationship disaster. Many men will never voice their feeling, will actually try to stifle it themselves, and then will find themselves looking to fill their void for attention elsewhere. Much of this might be unconscious, and neither party may be aware of what is happening, or where these unhealthy motivations may be coming from.
I want to be clear these are not blaming statements and are simply meant to describe roles that a married couple might fall into. The goal is not to put blame on either party (men for not growing up, or women for becoming motherly) but just to help both parties understand learned roles that might be negatively impacting their relationship.
Recognizing the root of these behaviors is not enough. Hopefully understanding can lead to responding to your partner differently, and breaking out of the habits these roles dictate. People do not have to accept these roles, and can become aware of them and alter them before they cause damage to the relationship. Men may be inclined to be more playful, and women to be more motherly, but with knowledge of the roots of these motivations, the partners can have improved understanding, compassion, and dialogue.