Improving Relationships Through Vulnerability

A universal and very human struggle is how we can feel less alone and more connected to others.  Attachment is hardwired into our brains.  Like it or not, we are all social creatures in need of connection.  It's a basic need for survival, dating back to when we are newborns and are so utterly dependent on another human being to continue life.

In a now famous lecture on TED.com, Dr. Brene Brown spoke about the important concept of worthiness.  The fear that we are unworthy, she says, keeps us from fully connecting to others in our lives, and keeps us isolated and afraid.   Dr. Brown's research shows that people with a sense of worthiness believe they deserve love and belonging, have self-compassion, and possess the amazing courage to be imperfect.  People who have a strong sense of worthiness are also willing to take more interpersonal risks - they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in relationships while being comfortable with the idea that there are no guarantees and certainties in relationships.  They allow themselves to be seen and known by others while embracing their imperfections.

As a society, we are obsessed with perfection.  This also means obsession with appearing not-vulnerable.

 Perfection can mean an unhealthy preoccupation with trying to make all the uncertainties in life certain - a futile quest.  When we realize that we are indeed vulnerable human beings, we tend to try to numb this often scary feeling - by acquiring material goods and overspending, turning to food and drugs, avoiding responsibility and blaming others (just to name a few examples).

Dr. Brown says we all have an immense fear of disconnection from others; she calls this the definition of shame.  This fear is part of being human.  She suggests that in order to improve relationships and have that real connection, we could consider making ourselves vulnerable:

- To let ourselves be seen by others as we truly are

- To love with our whole hearts even though there's no guarantee

Practice gratitude and joy in everyday life

- Embrace the belief that we are enough, that we are worthy of love

connection.jpg

The power of vulnerability - what a concept!

Dr. Brown's full lecture is available here.

Staying Sane During The Holidays - Part II

I ran across this fantastic column in the Huffington Post and felt like I needed to share it here.  The author is Laura Munson, who has also written a book and a column in the

New York Times.  In the spirit of the holiday season and taking care of oneself during this hurried time, consider this an opportunity to stop, breathe, and re-prioritize your life.  For more tips on staying sane during the holidays, please also see my previous blog entry.

Check out this great column by clicking on the link below:

Why I'm Not Micromanaging Christmas This Year

by Laura Munson

christmas+dogs.jpg

Gratitude - It's Good For You

It's that time of the year when things are getting busy.  Thanksgiving is about one month away, and before we know it, the holidays and new year will be upon us.  This is a hectic time.  It's easy to lose touch with self-care and we may take pause less often.  What better way to give ourselves a break, especially with Thanksgiving approaching, than by acknowledging what we're grateful for.  As it turns out, practicing regular gratitude helps boost our physical, social, and psychological well-being.  More important, being grateful appears to be one of the major keys to happiness.

What makes gratitude so transformative?  First, it brings us back to the present moment by teaching us to value something we have, as opposed to fretting about something we don't have.  It allows us to notice the positives in our lives more mindfully, and move away from taking things for granted.  Second, gratitude is a wonderful antidote to toxic, negative emotions.  Try feeling resentful or envious while also feeling grateful - it won't work.  Third, gratitude gives us perspective during negative life events or stressful times.  It helps us take a step back and re-evaluate.  And finally, by recognizing what has been given and provided to us by others, we can learn to see ourselves in a more positive light.

So how can we cultivate this important virtue of gratitude?  Here are three simple tips:

1.  Keep a gratitude journal.  Every night, jot down 3 things you are grateful for.  This is like counting your blessings consciously and mindfully.

2.  Accept lessons learned, even hard ones, with gratitude.

3.  Make "thank you" a daily part of your vocabulary.  Besides using it consciously with strangers (such as the bagger at the grocery store), also make it a point to sit down with a loved one and tell them why you appreciate them.  It will do you both good.

Gratitude is an important part of emotional health and can also be one of the many techniques learned in counseling or psychotherapy.  

To read more about the gratitude research that inspired this posting, visit Dr. Emmons' article at

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good/

thanksgiving.png

Negativity: Talking Back To Your Internal Chatterbox

Thousands of thoughts run through our head every day. 

Just consider your own internal dialogues all day long – about your own actions, about others’ behaviors, about the world as a whole, about what has happened in the past, about what is yet to happen.  The way we talk to ourselves can be positive, negative, or neutral.  Or even a mix of all of those.  Self-talk is often a mostly automatic and even unconscious process.  These dialogues can turn very unpleasant – such as beating yourself up in the face of perceived “failure”.

self+talk.png

Needless to say, the way we talk to ourselves can give rise to many different emotions. For example, if you tell yourself that if you don’t do well on tomorrow’s presentation at work, then you’ll never get promoted.  Or if you feel like a conversation with a friend felt awkward and you find yourself wondering if they now think less of you.  Both of these examples of self-talk can result in feelings of anxiety or hopelessness.  The key about making self-talk more constructive is learning to be more gentle and compassionate in the ways we talk to ourselves.

Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapists work with their clients to change negative self-talk into more rational responses.  The goal is that if we can start recognizing our own automatic negative thoughts and then turn them around, we can feel better about ourselves and the world around us.  Much research has been done to back this up as an effective form of therapy, especially for anxiety and depressive disorders. 

There are different categories of negative self-talk, and if you work with a cognitive or cognitive-behavioral therapist, you will get to know them intimately.  Below are some examples of negative self-talk (also called “cognitive distortions”) and more gentle alternatives.  Note that these are simple examples for illustrative purposes.

1. Should statements:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
  • Better:  I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

2 .  Disqualifying the positive:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
  • Better:  There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

3. Emotional reasoning:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I don't feel good right now, so it feels like I can't handle anything.
  • Better:  I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know I can.

4.  Catastrophizing: 

  • Negative Self-Talk:  If I don't do well on this work presentation, my boss will think poorly of me, I'll never get that promotion, and eventually I'll be jobless and homeless.
  • Better:  Nobody's perfect.  I'll do my best on the presentation and know that less than perfect is not the end of the world.

If negative self-talk is ingrained in the way you think, and is regularly

impacting your mood and relationships, you might consider working with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.  Also look for a future installment on this blog about how to foster more self-compassion. 

Great Expectations and What's Love Got To Do With It




Romantic relationships are one of the most frequently discussed concerns in counseling.  Lots of people would agree that it is at least as hard to maintain a relationship as it is finding that special someone. 

What constitutes a healthy relationship?  Mutual respect, trust, and support are basic building blocks.  Honesty and safety, both physical and emotional, must be a given, not a privilege to be earned.  Open communication and willingness to negotiate keep relationships steady.  In addition, we all deserve to be respected by our partner as a unique individual, while acknowledging that we can make conscious choices to mutually make positive changes in our behaviors and attitudes towards our partner.

There are clear warning signs that a relationship is in trouble and that something fundamental needs to change.  Possessiveness and controlling behaviors, as well as threats or use of violence are obviously huge red flags.  Less easy to detect are unfair and unrealistic expectations that may slowly seep into a relationship once the initial romance wears off.  These expectations can be of your partner, yourself, or the relationship as a whole.  Some examples of common unrealistic expectations in relationships are:

  • Expecting that he/she will change.
  • Hoping that he/she will never change.
  • Assuming that your partner thinks and reacts as you do.
  • Assuming that your partner knows your wants and needs.
  • Expecting that he/she has the same priorities, goals, and interests as you.
  • Believing that the relationship will fulfill all of your social, intellectual, and personal needs.
  • Giving up other interests, activities, and friends.
  • Seeking improved self-esteem through the relationship.
  • Feeling incomplete without a relationship.
  • Expecting that each new relationship is "the one."
  • Expecting that he/she will never make mistakes.
  • Viewing conflict as a threat to the relationship and to be avoided at all costs.
  • Working hard to get the relationship started, but exerting little effort to keep it going.
  • Trying to be what he/she wants, rather than being yourself.
  • Not understanding that feelings of love and passion change with time, as do your priorities and expectations.

Most people recognize themselves somewhere in these expectations.  Individuals who succeed in relationships are able to recognize and work on unrealistic expectations of oneself and others.

Finally - what many forget is that within a relationship, you also have to be accountable to yourself.  This means that being part of a healthy relationship is taking care of yourself.  This can be deduced from several of the above bullet points.  By being yourself – from the beginning, keeping your own life balanced, and not losing yourself in the relationship, you plant seeds of stability and health within a healthy partnership. 

If you are struggling with finding or maintaining a healthy relationship, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services.