01 Apr

Mindfulness In Our Relationships

Imagine someone picking up a book, perhaps one of the great classics, but they cannot read. All they see is black squiggly lines on white pages. This book is meaningless for this person. Because it is meaningless it has no value and can easily be discarded.

Now imagine a highly skilled reader picking up that book. That same book now has a wide range of qualities that it didn’t have for the first person.

There are characters and events that generate a complex and fascinating world of images and meaning and will probably generate a wide range of emotional responses that did not and could not exist for the first person.

In this way it has become something much more, something very different, and something of much greater value. If we think of our experiences of our self, of others, and of the world we live in as a book, people generally seem to be very poor readers.

The information they are able to access is very limited, and therefore has little meaning and value. Let me be clear about what I am saying. Most people, if asked, would of course be able to identify what they are thinking about, how they are feeling, what they are looking at, etc.

But oddly enough, it is only when someone actually asks us what is going on in our mind that we tend to really notice.

Herein lies the problem.

Only rarely do we actually become aware of where our mind is at. So this otherwise reasonably accessible level of understanding is typically restricted from our awareness.

And it is restricted primarily only because we generally don’t pay attention to it. As a result, a great deal of potential learning opportunities go unrecognized by us.

This potentially valuable information, as a source of knowing about our self, is generally not accessed and thus not utilized by the average person.

As I have discussed in previous articles relationships, there are two fundamental and critical relationships we need to pay attention to: The relationship we have with our self, and the relationship we have with others and the outside world.

Most people don’t pay attention to either, and, I would argue, don’t even know how to pay attention. In many ways, we have as much understanding of our self and the world out there, as does someone who has a book in their hands but doesn’t know how to read.

If we really want to know about either of these relationships, we have to learn to be mindful. Learning how to pay attention properly is crucial to understanding our self and others.

This idea will be discussed and expanded in other articles released around the subject of mindfulness.

19 May

Understanding Narcissists (Part I)

Have you ever felt frustrated at your inability to solve relationship problems in your life? Do you try talking to your spouse and no matter how hard you try it not only doesn’t seem to help your relationship, it often makes matters worse? Are you continually frustrated by the disturbing actions of those around you and feel a constant stress in your life?

This  two-part article examines one of the fundamental reasons why we not only suffer, but continue to suffer without being able to do anything about it in spite of our best efforts.  This first part of the article examines how this happens, and why it is so fundamentally difficult to deal with.

In Stendhal‘s novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), there is a classic narcissist in the character of Mathilde. Says Prince Korasoff to Julien Sorel, the protagonist, with respect to his beloved girl:

“She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so doesn’t know you.  During the two or three little outbursts of passion she has allowed herself in your favor, she has, by a great effort of imagination, seen in you the hero of her dreams, and not yourself as you really are.”(Page 401, 1953 Penguin Edition, trans. Margaret R.B. Shaw).

To understand the nature of this particular difficulty, let us consider the “Myth of Narcissus” (Ovid) which goes briefly like this.

Narcissus was an exceptionally beautiful young boy who attracted and enjoyed the attention of many nymphs, yet scorned and refused each of them.  The gods grew tired of  this behaviour and cursed him. They wanted him to know what it felt like to love, and never be loved in return.  As punishment, they made it so there was only one whom he would love, someone who was not real, and could never love him back.

Accordingly, one day while out enjoying the sunshine, Narcissus came upon a pool of water. As he gazed into this pool he caught a glimpse of his own reflection which he mistook as a beautiful water spirit, and became immediately enamoured.  So captivated was he by this reflection that he ignored everything and everyone, and eventually, when all his efforts to attract the attention of this reflection failed and he realized he could never have what he so desperately wanted, he killed himself.

As commonly interpreted,  this myth is seen as providing a warning against positive self-absorption in which a person is so enamoured and absorbed by his or her wonderful self, they are incapable of appreciating or caring for others.

But there is a more basic problem here, one that I wonder how much we all suffer from to some degree, and it is not about the perception of one’s self as being more beautiful or better than others.

Specifically, failing to recognize  his own reflection and instead perceiving it as something completely independent of him, Narcissus tried to develop a relationship with another characterized by an almost complete loss of awareness of, and understanding of  his own self.  Being confused about his own perceptions, Narcissus not only didn’t realize it, but couldn’t realize it and there was no to break the illusion.

So here is the question: “When we are with other people, how clearly do we see them for who they are?”   How much do we confuse “our” perceptions of the other person, as being who they really are, and don’t even realize we are doing this?  How confused are we not only in terms of how much of ourself we are seeing in others, but how much we are simultaneously failing to recognize the other for they truly are?

Most importantly, what is the effect of doing this in terms of how it impacts on our relationships?

The second part of this article looks more closely at how this confusion plays itself out in real life.

31 Aug

Understanding Narcissists (Part II)

In the previous article (Understanding Narcissists (Part I), I began to identify a problem exemplified by the “Myth of Narcissus”. This myth portrays a scenario where a beautiful young boy is mesmerized by his own image staring as longingly and lovingly back at him, as he is at it.   Being unable to recognize the reflection as himself, he  tries so desperately to form a relationship with his own image that it costs him his life.

Narcissistic relationships with others occur under two conditions.

The first is when we fail to appreciate that our way of seeing them is precisely that – our view of them.  In other words, we fail to appreciate the fact  that “who they are” is inextricably connected  to “our interpretation of them”.

The second condition arises when we subsequently demand of the other (one way or the other) that they become more like us.

When we  look at others and unconsciously see them as a reflection of our self, we do not (and cannot) view them as individuals in their own right.  Rather, we unconsciously expect and anticipate they will see things the way we see them, hold similar views, notice similar things, have similar preferences and so on.

As described by Alice Miller (1981) “we experience them not as the center of their own activity but as a part of ourselves….. as objects that we expect will reflect and support our wishes and desires”.

Within these type of relationships, when we are with others who give us what we want, which is to say they agree with what we say, believe what we believe and support the same values we identify with, then our relationship proceeds smoothly.

As Miller continues to say however,  “if the object does not behave as we expect or wish, we may at times be immeasurably disappointed or offended, almost as if an arm ceased to obey us or a function we take for granted (such as memory) lets us down.  This sudden loss of control may also lead to an intense narcissistic rage.”

There are many, like Narcissus, who can easily fall in love with someone or something as long as that person helps support the image of that person as strong, caring intelligent, valuable, and so on.  In fact, such individuals will over-extend themselves precisely in order to foster an image of  being generous and kind and understanding,  and will highly reward those who support this perception.

But they absolutely cannot tolerate those who disagree with them, or those who asked to be treated as separate individuals with their own wishes and needs. Narcissists are the nicest people you can imagine if they can have things their way.   But they become incensed and indignant with those who do not act in accordance with their wishes and no amount of reasoning with them will soothe their wounded pride.

“Successful” narcissists have learned how to effectively manipulate and control people and can appear, at least to the casual observer, to be a remarkably likable, agreeable, and friendly individual.  “Unsuccessful” narcissists are not so skilled at getting nourishment from others and tend to have a much smaller circle of friends and acquaintances.  Even in this simpler arrangement, struggles and conflict are fairly common as the awkward efforts to please others and the limited capacity to know how to respond appropriately to the needs and wishes of others creates repeating frustrations for everyone.

31 Jan

The Struggle to Love

My experiences with those couples and individuals I see in my practice and in my daily life suggests most individuals in relationships are not operating in a manner conducive to promoting their own or another’s spiritual growth.

Within the definition of love I have been using, most relationships are not loving.

More accurately, what most people are identifying as love seems to be directed primarily at providing comfort and security. Even if both individuals are reasonably content with this, it is the crucial step beyond that which I have been trying to define and which seems to be so consistently lacking. Why, if I am correct in my observations, do our relationships not offer us more?

My simple explanation for this is because the representation of love as an action directed towards spiritual growth was not, and is not provided or encouraged in most families.  Because it wasn’t modeled for us as we were growing up, and it certainly wasn’t offered within the educational system, we don’t do it now because we don’t know how to do it.

Yet surprisingly, this does not hold true for everybody. It seems to be that case as some people get older they start looking for something more out of their life; something that gives it a greater meaning and sense of value. Some individuals seem to intuitively grasp that what they are attempting to achieve is the means to nurturing their “self”; to assist in their own emotional and psychological growth and development.

If they are in a relationship in which this type of loving can be established between the partners then the possibilities are endless. But what if one partner is seeking this and the other is unable to reciprocate? What if one partner is asking for more from the relationship and the other either does not understand, or fundamentally cannot offer what the other is seeking?

Because of our general lack of understanding of what this form of loving even looks like, the type of relationships struggles which flows from this difficulty are very difficult to identify and to resolve.

The next article, “When Love Fails”  looks more closely at this issue.

09 Nov

Lies and Uncertainties

Trust versus mistrust. Perhaps this capacity is the greatest factor in determining whether someone can truly enjoy their life and love, or whether they spend it in survival mode and fear.  Almost assuredly if we are to be happy we have to be able to trust another, and trust our self.  This article considers this distinction in more detail.

One of the frequent complaints I hear from patients in my practice concerns their difficulty in trusting people.  When this issue arises my first question to myself is directed at the possibility that there is something I am saying or doing which may be triggering this issue at this time.

Following my own inquiry, I then ask the patient to explore this issue in more detail and eventually inquire with them directly about my own actions.  If there is something amiss between us then we have an opportunity to work this out until hopefully, it is resolved.

Typically however, the complaint being expressed by that person is in reference to the “masks”  people wear or the “games people play”.   I think it is generally true, that in order to function in our complicated world, that people do this.  For some it is simply part of being human in a complex world, while others really are two-faced and manipulative.

Generally my own experience of such behaviours is not one of alarm or disgust but rather an acceptance that this is what we do.  For many others however, the varying roles adopted by others seems almost overwhelming, generating such discomfort in the person that they cope by either withdrawing or becoming confrontive and challenging with the other who is seen as being false.

What I typically wonder about is whether these sensitive individuals have developed those fear responses because they have learned form their experiences early in life that people they should have been able to trust were not actually trustworthy? Did they find, perhaps in their family of origin, that parents said one thing but did another? Was it because the child was made the scapegoat for the parents frustrations with each other, or might there even have been emotional, psychological or sexual abuse involved in the name of love?  Even if the parents were fairly straightforward and reliable, what about teachers, family relatives, clergy, or others in authority positions that may have betrayed trust?

The complaints of these patients have profound implications for their day to day interactions with others, and in terms of their own self.

Obviously if one does not feel sure about another, about their motivations or intentions, it is impossible to relax. Always the doubts are swirling and questions being raised – “What does he mean by that”?, “What does she want from me”?, and so on.

There is no room for trust, and a limited or distorted ability to experience or give pleasure in being with someone.

As for the person them self, the constant inability to relax means a chronically heightened level of stress and anxiety creating a wearing on their body.  There is an overuse and draining of their energy supplies all being funnelled towards one particular goal of trying to read between the lines and assess if they are safe or not.

From this place of fear and doubt there is little we can learn from others that is positive and helpful.

When our psychic energies are primarily and singularly directed towards to checking the motivations of others there is little energy available to be directed towards our psychological growth and development.

Across time it means the separation between our chronological age and psychological age widens disproportionately – we get older but no wiser.  In effect we become increasingly immature.

As I have presented in other articles, this failure to grow is a primary source of suffering, often reflected in depression, anxiety, and relationship conflict.  It is a very unfortunate price to pay due to the sins of others, and it is a horrible and sad way to waste a life.

31 Aug

Losing Touch With My Reality

I often see adults in my practice who cannot tell me what they are experiencing. Inquiring into the nature of their depression, anxiety, or stress is like asking them to close their eyes, stick their hand into a bag and tell me what they think is there. Their answers often sound like guesses. Or, they might say they are sad but smile and chuckle as they describe their thoughts and feelings. Others seem to have a relatively good idea of what is going on, but are too afraid or embarrassed to say. As a psychologist, I am very curious as to what may have happened in the lives of these individuals to create such uncertainty and/or discomfort in being able to talk about themselves. This article looks at one of those possibilities.

The other day I was ordering lunch at a food stall at the Market on Granville Island when a father, mother, and young girl of about 5 years of age arrived. I was initially quite touched at the apparent care and love this father seemed to be showing her. He would kiss the top of her head, rest his hands gently on her shoulders and seemed tuned in, and devoted.

In front of the girl at eye level were five of the biggest and tastiest looking pizzas she may have ever seen. For about ten seconds she scanned them back and forth then pointed to the cheese pizza and turned to look up at her father’s face. The natural response I might have expected from him would have been to inquire if she was hungry, or maybe what she thought of the pizzas, or at least some question relating to her experiences and what she was trying to convey to him.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, he reminded her she had just finished eating something or other and calmly said to her, “You’re not hungry are you”. He was not asking if she was hungry, he was telling her she was not.

I don’t know if he was right, but there seemed to be considerable room for doubt for that. He knew full well she was either hungry or at least interested in tasting the pizza, but he wanted to move on, or perhaps didn’t want to spend the money. So rather than finding out what was she was trying to convey to him, talking to her, and working it out one way or the other, he chose to unilaterally define her reality for her. This seemed oddly contradictory with his other caring actions towards her.

I watched to see what would happen. Would she simply agree because she actually was not hungry, would she complain and fuss, would she turn to her mother for support (the mother who remained silent throughout)? I tried to put myself in her shoes.

On the one hand there is her daddy, who I assume she must have loved and trusted (in her five year old way), who was not only telling her she was not hungry, but asking her to confirm this to him. And then there was her own experience, apparently telling her something quite different.

What a dilemma! My daddy is telling me I am not hungry. But these pizzas look so good. If I am not hungry then why am I standing here looking at these. Maybe this isn’t hunger I am feeling. Should I quickly agree to please him or do I tell him I want to taste it because it looks so good. Listen to my experiences, listen to my daddy.

She turned away from him and continued to look at the pizzas for a few moments. He repeated to her again she wasn’t hungry. She nodded her head in agreement, turned away from the pizza, and they moved on.

Rather than being clear and direct with his daughter, the father manipulated her into accepting his own wishes and created some doubt for her with regards to the meaning of her own experience.  Rather than using this opportunity to help her become more familiar with her experiences and learning how to communicate them to others, he confused her.

I am not suggesting that this one pizza incident would lead to psychological complication for this little girl.  But if it is her father and/or mother’s general inclination to either override their child’s experiences, or fail to help her articulate those experiences, then that  will almost certainly have an adverse effect later in her life.

The sad part is that this incident didn’t happen because he didn’t care for her. I don’t doubt he was responding to her in a manner he believed was thoughtful and caring. Rather, I believe it happened because he didn’t know any better.

The idea that we as parents have a responsibility to help our children learn how to interpret and become familiar with their inner experiences in an age-appropriate manner is essentially foreign to us. We generally seem willing and capable of teaching them what they need to know to be safe and familiarizing them with social rules and regulations.

Additionally, we are typically willing to have them taught within a fairly standard educational system where they will learn to read, write, think logically etc.. But in many, many ways, we fail miserably at helping them become familiar with themselves, with learning how to identify with and utilize their own experiences.

It is not because we don’t care. Instead, it seems as though the essential idea of familiarizing our children with their interior, with their thoughts, feelings, wishes, hopes, fears, fantasies, etc., has no meaning, no intrinsic value or purpose for us.

This is not so surprising.  Most of us weren’t taught this as children by our parents, or by the educational system.   So really,  how could we know any better?

The more I see how much we all suffer because of this type of social ignorance and confusion the more I am convinced it is the root of many of our social ills. This is a topic I will write continue to write more about and hope that in some small way it helps to not only clarify the nature of this problem, but also provide some solutions for addressing it.

15 Apr

The Golden Rule

As a child I was often told “it is better to give than to receive.” I always understood this message in terms of giving gifts to others rather than getting them, and the implication was that somehow in doing so, I would be a better person for doing it. While I could hear what I was being told, I could never quite understand why or how this might be true. It took me a long time to really grasp the crucial significance in this message.

In many, many different ways and at many different levels, my uniqueness, my individuality, the very experience I call “my” self, has been, and continues to be, significantly connected to others’ experiences of me. When others treated me as valuable, I was likely to see myself as having value. When I am loved by others I will probably feel lovable.

Similarly, I am likely to feel disturbed and defensive when others are angry or critical of me, and embarrassed or ashamed when others point out things I have done that hurt them. It is a strange and painful paradox that much of who “I” am, the types of experiences I am having and how I define those experiences, exists by virtue of the quality of my relationships I have had and am having with others.

We are not impacted equally by everyone. Rather, the size of that effect is typically related to the depth of our personal relationship. Those who have meant the most to me are the same ones whose actions and responses have had the greatest effect on how I define myself. Those who I “love” have a greater impact on my sense of self than those I “like” and so on down the line.

So it is vitally important that I should ask myself this question; “How am I treating the significant others in my life (especially the ones I love)?” because they are so crucially important in how I feel and think about myself. If I want to feel good about myself, and much of that experience arises within my significant relationships, then how conscious am I about what I am doing to the people I care most about? And it is precisely here where the giving and receiving part comes in to play.

I can either give, which is to act in loving and caring ways toward others, or I can wait, and perhaps even demand/expect to be loved and cared for (RECEIVE). I can choose to engage in particular actions with intention, or I can passively hope that something positive will happen for me in my relationships.

In giving, I am taking responsibility for myself, my actions, and my relationships. While I can never accurately predict the outcome of such actions I am at least steering the ship in the direction I want it to move in.

When I wait to be cared for and loved, everything is reversed. I become the passenger in the boat. I have almost no say in what is going to come my way and since others will eventually tire of giving with such poor return they will get frustrated. Conflict, struggle, and disappointment is virtually guaranteed.

From my perspective, this giving and receiving distinction reflects a critical distinction between love as an action and love as a feeling (see my articles “Love As An Act of Will”). As I see it, this is the crucial message in the Golden Rule “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You”. At one level it can be seen as a form of compassionate guidance in how to treat others. But at another level it instructs and encourages us to “do”, rather than be “done to”.

As with all profound teachings, there are many levels of meaning. So too with the lesson about giving and receiving, for when we understand that it is in the act of giving that we receive, then it offers so much more than advice about gift giving.

03 Apr

What’s the Bottom Line?

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Sooner or later we will ask ourself a question such as , “What am I doing here?’, or “What is my life about” or the big one “Who am I”. Are we trying to make as much money as possible, find security, be happy, just get by? Understand that we are quite capable of living each day of our life working hard, accomplishing things, expending huge amounts of energy and yet have no real idea why we are doing it. But if we have never reflected on our life and our motivations then what exactly is guiding our life from day to day? Read More

13 Mar

Why Are We Fighting When I Am Right?

If a relationship that promotes and encourages our emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth is healthy, then one that engenders conflict, distrust, and fear, must surely be unhealthy. It is unhealthy precisely because the openness, security, and safety that is crucial in order for us to grow and flourish does not exist. Instead we live in a state of constant worry, anger, and turmoil that preoccupies our attention and focuses it into protecting ourselves from further harm.

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07 Dec

Yes, But Do You Really Love Me?

Couples come to my office for many, many reasons. There are a bewildering array of issues and complaints that have become the focus of their difficulties and inevitably, at least when I meet them, they have run out of options and workable solutions for those difficulties.

When it comes to my understanding of the fundamental nature of problems encountered by couples, there is one primary and repeating theme I tend to see more than others.  Most generally, this theme is expressed in the complaint of one of the partners (occasionally both) , that the other just does not understand them.

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