How Do You Deal With Your Problems?

Throughout my schooling years, I was a horrible procrastinator. I would leave everything to the last minute, sometimes even having to take a day off high school to finish an assignment that was meant to be due that day.

Once I got to university, I couldn’t do this anymore, as the due date remained the same whether I went to classes or not. So I would instead consume a lot of energy drinks the night before an assignment was due and generally do the majority of the assignment in an anxious, tense and sleep-deprived state, printing it out and submitting it 20 minutes before the deadline.

Exams were the same. I’d miss classes, not pay attention when I was there, and then try to cram an entire semester’s contents into the last 4 days before an exam. I would lock myself in my room and study up to 12 hours a day, only leaving for toilet breaks and something to eat until I was utterly exhausted. Luckily, I have a knack for remembering vast amounts of information in short periods of time, so I always passed, but it wasn’t easy or fun.

I sometimes tried to start early but never found this effective, as the negative consequences seemed far away. So eventually, I figured I would follow the mantra, “if you leave everything to the last minute, it only takes a minute”. This mantra actually helped me fit a lot of things into my life by being more efficient, but it did have its limitations.

Once I got to my Doctorate of Clinical Psychology degree at Monash University, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to do a 70,000-word thesis that was meant to take 3.5 years to do. How could I possibly cram something so big, especially when it consisted of making a research proposal, ethics application, recruiting participants, conducting a clinical trial, collating all the results, running data analysis and writing up the thesis and journal articles? It turns out I couldn’t.

The thesis ended up taking me 4 years to complete, and there wasn’t too much of it that I enjoyed. Moreover, it required a direct challenge of my usual defence mechanisms, which was no easy feat, especially because I didn’t know what they were. I knew that I had always procrastinated with my studies, but I was never entirely sure why.

What Are Your Defence Mechanisms?

Fortunately, a fun test over at personalityassessor.com on coping styles’ titled ‘How Do You Deal?’ helped me identify which defence mechanisms I typically used. So if you are interested in knowing what yours are, I definitely recommend taking it.

It is a bit time-consuming as there are 2 parts and over 200 questions, but I like this questionnaire so much because it is tough to fudge the test to get desirable results. This is because the survey doesn’t have face validity, and therefore doesn’t appear to measure how much someone engages in a particular defence mechanism. Two examples of questions are:

“I am bothered by stomach acid several times per week” or

“It is annoying to listen to a lecturer who cannot seem to make up his mind as to what he really believes”.

I’m not sure which defence mechanisms these questions are tapping into or if the correct answer is true or false. However, previous research has shown that specific patterns of responses on the questionnaire are quite good at identifying people who regularly use 10 common defence mechanisms, including repression, displacement, denial, regression, projection, reaction formation, intellectualisation, rationalisation, isolation and doubt. My results were astonishing to me.

My Defence Mechanisms

I first took the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire in February 2013. I had just finished a year-long practical internship at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and I found supporting individuals with cancer really rewarding and meaningful, but also quite challenging as I had lost a dear friend to cancer when I was 21. In addition, I wanted to finish my thesis by July but was falling way behind, and I was also a month away from getting married and moving in with my then fiancé. So I had many big changes coming up, and I was both stressed and scared about how everything would go.

Here are my February 2013 results, alongside the descriptions of these defence mechanisms given by the personality assessor website:

1. Denial — 94th percentile — extremely high

Denial is a defense mechanism where people avoid thinking about problems, or even pretend like their problems don’t exist. For example, someone might deny that they have a drug problem. Or someone might deny that they’re currently having conflict in their romantic relationship.

Since denial can be subconscious, people who use denial might honestly believe that their problems don’t exist!

2. Isolation — 91st percentile — extremely high

Isolation is a defense mechanism where people compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings so that their thoughts don’t affect their feelings.

Isolation differs from denial. Using denial, a person with a drug problem might refuse to even see that they have a drug problem. Using isolation, a person with a drug problem would acknowledge they have a problem, but would not let the fact they have a problem affect their feelings. If intellectualization is all about staying in your head to avoid your heart, isolation is about keeping your head and your heart separate.

3. Displacement — 81st percentile — very high

Displacement occurs when we “take out” our frustrations on someone/something else. For example, imagine that you hate your boss. It might have dire consequences if you expressed your hate toward your boss. So, if you displaced those feelings, you might go home and yell at your family.

This is different than projection. In projection, we don’t see our own feelings — we see them in other people (e.g., I am not angry, my boss is). In displacement, however, we still “own” our feelings (e.g., I am angry) but we “take out” those feelings on the wrong target (e.g., angry at boss, but kick dog instead of boss).

4. Regression — 73rd percentile — high

Regression is a defense mechanism where people essentially start acting or thinking like a child. The idea is that when life feels too overwhelming or our problems feel too big, that we regress to an earlier, easier time when other people (our parents) used to take care of us. As such, regression can include:

* desiring for other people to take care of your problems for you

* acting dependent on other people

* acting like a child (e.g., temper tantrums)

* refusing to take responsibility for your actions

5. Doubt — 72nd percentile — high

The defense mechanism of doubt occurs when people doubt their senses or thought processes when they encounter problems. For example, imagine a good friend tells you they don’t really like you. You might utilize the defense mechanism of doubt by thinking “I must have misunderstood what they meant.”

Doubt is kind of like a mixture of denial, intellectualization, and rationalization. Doubt lets us deny that our problems are real (or avoid making big decisions we’re afraid of) by questioning our ability to accurately see the world and make good decisions. In contrast to denial, when people use doubt, they are aware of their problems on some level.

6. Rationalization — 68th percentile — high

Rationalization is when people excuse their actions with usually irrational false explanations. For example, if someone binges and eats an entire large pizza, they might think “Well, the food was going to waste anyway! I might as well have eaten it.”

Rationalization is kind of like a mixture of denial and intellectualization. Essentially, rationalization allows people to “explain away” their problems (usually bad habits, personal flaws, etc.) with a superficially valid explanation. The biggest difference between rationalization and intellectualization is that intellectualization is used to avoid feelings, whereas rationalization is used to avoid seeing our own personal flaws.

7. Intellectualisation — 64th percentile — high

Intellectualization occurs when people avoid painful feelings by thinking oftentimes inappropriate impersonal thoughts. For example, if someone’s pet dies, they might think, “Pets die every day. Why should I be upset?”

Basically, the idea is that people who use intellectualization minimize their problems — or at least their feelings — and avoid the pain in their hearts by staying lodged solidly in their heads.

8. Projection — 47th percentile — about average

Projection occurs when we project our own thoughts and feelings onto other people. For example, you might really hate your boss. If you used the defense mechanism of projection, you might be unaware of your own feelings toward your boss, but instead think your boss hated you. This defense mechanism would allow you to deny your feelings and, in turn, believe that any conflict between you and your boss is your boss’s fault (not yours).

Projection basically lets us believe that are problems aren’t really ours — they’re someone else’s!

9. Repression — 37th percentile — low

Repression occurs when people push down or block-out memories or desires that they feel are threatening. For example, someone might repress painful childhood memories and try to not think about them. As another example, someone might repress their attraction to a friend that they fear wouldn’t reciprocate their interest.

Repression is similar to denial, but slightly different. Denial is about convincing yourself that your problems don’t exist. Repression is about blocking out part of yourself — memories or desires, usually — perhaps to avoid creating a problem!

10. Reaction formation — 15th percentile — very low

Reaction formation is a fascinating defense mechanism where we do the opposite of what we really want to do. For example, imagine you are very attracted to another person. If, for some reason that attraction is a problem (e.g., you are married, they are married, etc.), you might start to feel the opposite toward them — you may think they are disgusting and/or actively dislike them.

Reaction formation allows you to avoid your problems — and also creates a buffer to ensure you avoid your problems. In the example above, you’re not merely repressing your attraction toward the other person — you’re actually feeling negative feelings toward them. These negative feelings will ensure the attraction doesn’t resurface.

Seeing that my marriage ended up being far worse than I had predicted, I maybe should have paid attention to these results a bit more, especially my denial and doubt scores.

It did help with the writing up of my thesis. I stopped trying to avoid the problem, started coming into the lab from 9 am — 5 pm every weekday regardless of how I felt and began making some real and consistent progress without cramming for the first time in my life. I finished a full draft of my thesis by September 2013, started working as a Psychologist in private practice shortly after that, and submitted the final copy of my thesis for examination in February 2014.

Have My Defence Mechanisms Improved?

I retook the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire at the end of April 2017. I now live a life that is much more consistent with the experiences I want to have rather than what society says that I should be doing. I believe that I am a lot happier and in the best place that I have ever been psychologically. But have my defence mechanisms actually changed?

Defence Mechanisms 2013 2017
Denial 94th percentile 75th percentile
Isolation 91st percentile 92nd percentile
Displacement 81st percentile 77th percentile
Regression  73rd percentile 68th percentile
Doubt 72nd percentile 64th percentile
Rationalisation 68th percentile 53rd percentile
Intellectualisation 64th percentile 18th percentile
Projection 47th percentile 56th percentile
Repression 37th percentile 20th percentile
Reaction formation 15th percentile 9th percentile

As you can see, eight of my results had improved, with denial dropping 19 percentile points and losing its position as my most used defence mechanism. This is great, as I am now more aware of my issues and can actually do something about them.

My most noticeable improvement was my reduction in intellectualising things, but I also repress things much less than I used to, rationalise my actions less, and doubt myself less too. This means that I am now turning into what I feel and need more, not just remaining in my head. By understanding and accepting my emotions rather than avoiding them or explaining them away, it really does make it easier to know what action I need to take. Regular journaling, mindfulness and therapy have definitely helped me to create these changes. So has being more honest and authentic with others.

The two defence mechanism scores that have increased are projection and isolation. The increase in projection isn’t helpful, as this means I could be externalising some problems rather than taking responsibility for my role in creating them. The high isolation score isn’t so bad, though, as separating my head and heart is something that I have worked on to make sure that I am making decisions in line with my values and not my fears going forward. If this never changes, that will be fine by me.

Can We Change How We Deal With Problems?

It’s not possible to completely avoid engaging in defence mechanisms. We all have different coping methods, and many of these coping styles are developed in childhood and modelled on what everyone else in our family did.

However, some defence mechanisms are more helpful than others, and they can change in time with deliberate practice. Head researcher of the Grant longitudinal study, George Vaillant, has separated defence mechanisms into immature, intermediate and mature defences. Acting out, projection, passive-aggressive behaviour, and denial are considered immature. Reaction formation, repression and displacement are intermediate defences. Mature defences include:

  1. humour: seeing the funny side of things,
  2. sublimation: channelling difficult emotions into something prosocial and constructive,
  3. anticipation: planning for upcoming situations that might be challenging,
  4. suppression: not reacting to your feelings or letting them show if this would interfere with you achieving your goals, and
  5. altruism: deriving pleasure from helping others.

A 2013 study by Malone and colleagues found that men who used more mature defence mechanisms between 47 and 63 years of age had better health between 70 and 80. This was mostly because the people who regularly engaged in more mature defence mechanisms had better social support and stronger interpersonal connections than individuals who used immature defence mechanisms (Malone et al., 2013).

If you want to build up healthier coping strategies, understanding which defences you currently use is a great place to start. The best way to do this apart from taking the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire is consulting with a therapist, especially a psychologist or a psychiatrist trained in psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy. Friends and family might be able to point out some potential defence mechanisms that you use, but I think it is better to get this feedback from professionally trained and impartial. They can then help you replace these defences with more mature and adaptive coping strategies to have more supportive relationships and better long-term health and well-being.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What if You Could Change Your Attachment Style?

In my top 40 recommended psychology books, I put the 2012 title, ‘Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love’ by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller in there; thanks to its Amazon.com star rating of 4.6/5.

Attachment styles research is an area that I’ve been fascinated in since I first learnt about it in year 11 psychology class. If you are interested in learning more about it, I recommend checking the book out, as our attachment styles tend to have a much more significant impact on how we are in intimate relationships than most people are aware of.

What Are Attachment Styles?

Attachment styles are initially developed in the context of our relationship with our primary caregiver growing up. This is usually the mother, but it can be the father, guardian, or potentially even a nanny in other cases.

Almost all children can usually be categorised as having one of four attachment styles based on how they respond to the strange situation test, initially designed and researched by Mary Ainsworth in 1969. They can be considered to have a secure attachment, an ambivalent insecure attachment, an avoidance insecure attachment, or a disorganised attachment.

In the strange situation procedure, an infant between the ages of 9 and 18 months is placed in a room with some toys for 21 minutes and is observed playing through a two-way mirror while the primary caregiver and a stranger enter and leave the room. Ainsworth used this situation to recreate what may happen in a normal infant’s life to observe their typical reactions.

The strange situation procedure went as follows:

  1. The primary caregiver and infant enter the room.
  2. The infant explores the room while the caregiver watches but doesn’t play with the infant.
  3. A stranger enters and talks with the caregiver, then approaches the infant. Caregiver leaves while this occurs without saying goodbye.
  4. The stranger tries to engage with the infant.
  5. The primary caregiver then returns and greets and comforts the infant. Stranger leaves.
  6. The caregiver leaves again, and the infant is alone.
  7. The stranger comes back in and tries to interact with the infant.
  8. The primary caregiver then comes back in, greets and picks up the infant, and the stranger leaves.

What is worth looking at during this process is how the infant interacts with the new environment and toys in the room, how they associate with the stranger, and how the infant reacts to when the primary caregiver leaves the room (departures) and comes back in to greet or soothe the infant (reunions). These responses are very predictive of what attachment style the infant has and what attachment style the primary caregiver may have.

Attachment styles are not set in stone, and they can change over time, but like most things I write about, gaining an awareness of your own attachment style is a crucial first step before you try to look at how you can improve it.

A Secure Attachment

Infants securely attached to their primary caregiver will be willing to explore a new room when they enter it. They will turn around and check-in with their parent from time to time as they are their “secure base”. They may even come back if they are starting to feel too scared or overwhelmed, as their parents are their “safe haven” and help them calm down emotionally and physically when they are distressed. Once they feel calm and safe again, which may be very quickly, they will then go back out and explore once more.

The secure infant will engage with the stranger when the primary caregiver is there but might be warier when alone with the stranger and could become upset when the parent leaves, but can calm themselves down after a little bit. However, they are thrilled to see their primary caregiver once they return and will be responsive to their communication and interactions.

Essentially, a secure child feels that their primary caregiver will meet their needs appropriately and responsively, and they learn to turn to them when they need it and do things by themselves when they do not. It is the ideal attachment style for learning, developing skills, and forming and establishing healthy, long-term relationships.

In intimate relationships, being securely attached is ideal. It means that you enjoy being close and intimate with your partner when they are there and are happy to do your own thing when they are not. You feel comfortable opening up to them or talking to them about your feelings or concerns, and feel comfortable helping your partner out with their issues too. As a result, relationships seem relatively natural to you, and you are more likely to have a happy, long-term relationship.

An Anxious/Ambivalent Insecure Attachment

Infants who are anxious or resistant are usually this way due to unpredictably responsive caregiving, where sometimes their caregiver is too full-on, sometimes they are appropriately responsive, and other times they are not responsive. As a result of these inconsistencies, the infant usually amplifies their emotional needs to try and get them met on a more regular basis.

Anxiously attached infants are distressed even before the separation in the strange situation procedure, do not like to explore the area or interact with the stranger, show resentment for being left alone and are quite clingy and unable to calm down or be comforted easily once the parent returns.

In intimate relationships, being anxiously attached is tough. It means that you love being close with your partner but find it quite difficult to be apart, often fearing that they don’t care or that they will stop loving you or will be unfaithful towards you when they are not around. As a result, you tend to become preoccupied with fears of abandonment, especially in times of high stress. You may inadvertently push your partners away by making them feel like they don’t have enough independence or that you don’t trust them enough.

An Avoidance Insecure Attachment

Infants who have this style will try to ignore or avoid the primary caregiver in a strange situation. They outwardly show little emotion during departures and reunions with the caregiver, and they will also not explore too much regardless of who is in the room.

Ignoring or turning away from the primary caregiver is actually a mask for internal distress. Heart rate and other physiological responses are similar to that of the anxiously attached infants upon the separation from their primary caregiver. It seems to be that these infants want to be comforted when distressed, but over time try to suppress their emotional needs because their parents are not attuned or responsive to their distress or able to meet their needs in ways that would help them. As a result, they try to pull away, keep to themselves, and show the world they don’t have any needs.

As an adult, having an avoidant attachment is also tricky for intimate relationships. It means that you are likely to value independence and freedom a lot and tend to feel smothered or trapped if you spend too much time with your partner. As a result, you will push partners away, especially if they are demanding or needy. You are also likely to not share enough of your own emotional needs or desires with your partner and may resent them for expressing these things to you.

Two avoidantly attached individuals may seem like they could have a good relationship together. Still, often there is “not enough glue to keep them together”, and they fade further apart from each other over time.

A Disorganised Attachment

There is a fourth attachment style known as fearful or disorganised. This was later identified by one of Ainsworth’s graduate students, Mary Main. The infant flips between signs that they are overwhelmed with a “flooded attachment system” and desperation strategies. This is often a consequence of significant trauma, as the infant has not established a reliable coping mechanism. For example, they want to be close to their primary caregiver, but they are also terrified of being close to them.

Adults with a disorganised attachment who have been through a complicated relationship with their parents or guardians will find it tough to initiate and maintain a healthy and happy intimate relationship when they are older. They will often vacillate between feeling trapped and smothered and wanting freedom one minute and then worrying about how they would ever cope if they lost their partner the next. Their behaviour and strong emotional reactions can confuse both an individual with a disorganised attachment and the people they date.

But How Do I Find Out What Attachment Style I Have?

If you aren’t too sure what attachment style you have based on the descriptions above or from reflecting on your experience as a child or in intimate relationships, you can also take a free online test to find out. I have taken the test titled “Your Actual and Ideal Attachment Styles” at personalityassessor.com on three occasions now. The first time was on the 22nd of October 2014, back when I was still married, the 12th of April 2017, when I had just bought an apartment, and the 12th of August 2018, 4 days before I was about to leave everyone in my life in Australia to move to Vanuatu for 2 years.

Can Attachment Styles Change Over Time?

These are the results from the three attachment style surveys that I took, followed by the description included in my 2018 results at the personality assessor website:

Attachment Anxiety:

  • 2014 = 13th percentile — very low
  • 2017 = 3rd percentile — extremely low
  • 2018 = 2nd percentile — extremely low

You are currently extremely low in attachment anxiety. People extremely low in attachment anxiety tend to desire extremely low levels of closeness in their relationships, and also experience extremely low concerns about rejection and abandonment.

You’ve decreased a lot in Attachment Anxiety over time.

The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Anxiety have been extremely consistent over time.

You indicated that you would like to stay the same with respect to attachment anxiety. Researchers believe that most people want to decrease at least a little bit in attachment anxiety.

Attachment Avoidance:

  • 2014 = 89th percentile — extremely high
  • 2017 = 47th percentile — about average
  • 2018 = 52nd percentile — about average

You are currently about average in attachment avoidance. People about average in attachment avoidance tend to desire about average levels of independence in their relationships, and they tend to experience about average levels of comfort with depending on romantic partners and opening up to them.

You’ve decreased an extreme amount in Attachment Avoidance over time.

The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Avoidance have been consistent over time.

You indicated that you would like to decrease with respect to attachment avoidance. Researchers believe that most people want to become a little less avoidant.

My Attachment Style

Based on the 2014 finding, I had an avoidant attachment style. That makes a lot of sense to me and is how I have typically been in most relationships. I was also a pretty quiet and anxious child growing up and kept to myself a lot even though I really valued and craved for a solid relationship where it was possible to feel connected and have a sense of belonging without losing my sense of self in the relationship. I’ve always struggled to show this to the other person, however, and often got accused of not caring enough in the relationships that I have been in.

While I can definitely see my part in the unhealthy relationships I have been in; I also have tended to get involved with females who exhibited an anxious attachment, which only worsened the issue. If things go well in an avoidant/anxious relationship, which they usually do at the start, the quality of the relationship can feel great. Both of you are getting your relational needs met (maybe for the first time), and it is exciting and fun and nice. Once one person becomes distressed is when the problems begin, however, and they often do.

Before 2015 had a big tendency to shut down emotionally whenever I was overwhelmed or distressed, focus on getting through what I needed to do practically, and minimise my emotional needs. It was classic avoidance attachment behaviour. However, this pulling away causes distress in someone with an anxious attachment, and they would then amplify their emotional needs in response to the greater perceived distance in the relationship. For example, they may have feared abandonment and protested that I didn’t care or needed to give them more so that they would feel secure. I would then feel more overwhelmed and trapped and pull away further to calm myself down. An anxiously attached person would feel even more insecure and distressed and try to protest further. This vicious cycle often played out and escalated, maybe with brief interludes, until the relationship ended, usually in a not so pleasant way.

Based on my 2017 and 2018 findings, it says that I would now be considered to have a secure attachment style:

Your prototypical attachment style is secure. Securely attached individuals enjoy being close with others, and form new friendships easily. They usually desire moderate levels of involvement in their close relationships.

This is good to see because I still feel more avoidant in my attachment than I would like to be. Still, my avoidance is now considered average, and my anxiety is extremely low. Comparatively speaking, I am still much more avoidant than anxious regarding relationships but securely attached overall. I hope that if I keep working on it, I can continue to bring my avoidance down further in the future.

How Do We Improve Our Attachment Style?

Occasional conflict is inevitable in any relationship. However, being in a relationship with someone with a secure attachment will help you get through difficulties in life and your relationship, no matter your age or attachment style.

  • If you have a secure attachment, it is likely to be pretty easy for you to have a happy relationship.
  • If you have an avoidant attachment, a secure partner can give you the space you need when you need it without getting annoyed at you or demanding more.
  • If you are anxious, a secure partner can sit with your distress and hear you out until you have calmed down and met your emotional needs.
  • If you are disorganised, a secure partner will also try to help you work through and make sense of whatever you are feeling and give you what you need, whether that is more space, a calming presence or greater closeness.

In time, a relationship with someone who is securely attached can help you become securely attached.

If you have had similar difficulties in multiple romantic relationships, think that you may be avoidant or anxious in your attachment style, or are securely attached but are in a romantic relationship with someone who you feel may be avoidant or anxiously attached, I hope that this information has been helpful to you.

An understanding of your own and others’ attachment styles really could stop you from falling into the same relationship traps and give you a much better chance to have a long, happy and healthy relationship from now on.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The 5 Lessons I Discovered From Being Kind

On January 1st, 2018 we kickstarted our Deliberately Better movement.

Along with other passionate and driven allied health professionals, we aimed to highlight the various ways that people can choose to act if they wish to scientifically improve their health and well-being.

In January, we aimed to engage in a random act of kindness each day.

This was a fun experiment, and I tried to make a video of my acts of kindness every second day, which I was mostly successful with:

  • On day 4, I supported a friend on a hang gliding expedition

  • On day 6, I spent some quality time with my dad and played a round of golf with him

  • On day 8, I donated some spare change to the Royal Children’s Hospital

  • On day 12, I bought a copy of the big issue to support a rough sleeper
  • On day 14, we left a big tip at a restaurant that stayed open for us

  • On day 16, I donated plasma to the red cross blood bank

  • On day 18, I topped up some stranger’s parking meters

  • On day 20, I donated some clothes to charity
  • On day 22, I supported an organisation that was trying to raise money to protect a wilderness area in Tasmania
  • On day 24, I proofread a book that my friend had written and wanted to publish
  • On day 28, I went and played a beach volleyball tournament with my sister.

  • On day 30, I handed out bottles of water to people who were homeless around Melbourne.

Even though it was weird to film and promote the acts of kindness that I engaged in, the month really did teach me a few valuable lessons. These are:

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  1. Trying to be kind to others feels good

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2. Viewing or hearing about others acts of kindness feels great

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3. Hearing about or seeing others acts of kindness encourages people to be kinder too

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4. Trying to be kind to others can improve social anxiety

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5. Trying to be kind to others can enhance energy levels and physical health

To assess changes in how I felt from the beginning to the end of the month of kindness, I completed the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS), as developed by Watson, Clark and Tellegen (1988). This scale has two 10-item scales; one for positive affect and one for negative affect.

If you would like to assess your levels, please answer from 1 to 5 on the following questions for how much you have felt this way recently:

1 = very slightly or not at all

2 = a little

3 = moderately

4 = quite a bit

5 = extremely

Positive affect items:

_______ active

_______ alert

_______ attentive

_______ determined

_______ enthusiastic

_______ excited

_______ inspired

_______ interested

_______ proud

_______ strong

Negative affect items:

_______ afraid

_______ scared

_______ nervous

_______ jittery

_______ hostile

_______ guilty

_______ ashamed

_______ upset

_______ distressed

If you want to compare your scores to previous norms, first add up your totals for your positive affect and negative affect.

A 1989 study of 815 Detroit adults by Quinn found an average for positive affect of 36.0. For negative affect, the average was 18.2 (Quinn, 1989).

In 1993, an unpublished study by Wilkinson found an average of 33.5 for positive affect in 114 adult men and 33.9 in 115 adult women. For negative affect, it was 14.2 for the men and 15.5 for the women (Wilkinson, 1993).

What I find interesting about these findings is that US adults report both higher positive and higher negative affect, indicating that they may be more expressive (and more aware) of their emotions than Australians.

My score for positive affect before the kindness challenge was a 32, which was below the norms for both Australian and US adults. Given that I was feeling exhausted by the end of 2017, this makes sense to me. Extraverts are more likely to experience higher levels of positive affect also, and I would consider myself more of an ambivert.

After a month of kindness, this score had shot up to 41, which was more than one standard deviation higher than the norm for Australian men, and much higher than the average for US adults too.

My negative affect was less impacted by my acts of kindness, however, with my score remaining at 16 at both the start and the end of the month. I was slightly less irritable by the end of the month, but I was also a little bit more afraid, and this could have been due to the videos that I was putting up.

Either way, I seem to experience slightly more negative emotions than the average 1993 Australian, and somewhat less than the average 1989 individual from Detroit.

My experiment with being kinder didn’t solve all of my problems, but it did help me to take a few risks, challenge myself, put myself out there more, grow as a result, and hopefully put a few smiles on some people’s faces. That is enough for me, for now.

2018 DELIBERATELY BETTER AGENDA:


* In February, we gave up or cut down on something that was having a negative impact on our quality of life.
* In March, we focused on our diets and looked at what were the most effective ways to lose weight or get into the best shape of your life.
* In April, we looked into the different habits of high performers and how they improve their skills and become as effective as they are at what they do.
* In May, we’ll be looking at how to hijack your hormones and get in control of your sleep, metabolism and energy.
* In June, we’ll be checking out the latest and greatest developments in health and wellness literature, and passing on the top tips from the fields of medicine, psychology, neuroscience, behavioural economics, fitness and nutrition.
* In July, we’ll be exploring the benefits of minimalism, looking at ways to develop and stick to a budget, how to financially plan for the future, how to cut back on spending, how to create passive income streams, and the top tips for investing in or trading on the stock market.
* In August, we’ll be getting into the gym and out onto the track to explore how to bulk up, shred down, get ripped and be the most physically capable than you have ever been in your life.
* In September, we’ll be looking at the latest trends in health technology, and exploring the various options that you have if you want to improve your psychological and physical well-being.
* In October, we’ll be focusing on how to stress less, and sharing the latest tips to calm down quickly if you are distressed and want to live a more relaxed lifestyle in general.
* In November, We’ll be trying something new, and looking at the multitude of benefits that novelty can play in our lives.
* Last, but not least, in December, we’ll be taking stock of the year, reviewing what worked and what didn’t, and cultivating gratitude for all of the fantastic things in our lives.

Thanks,

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Can You Improve Your Sleep By Going to a Sleep Retreat?

Just the other week, I was featured in the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun on sleep retreats. It was weird because I had been planning on running some sleep retreats but hadn’t yet. Stranger still, I hadn’t told anyone about my idea yet, and it was the first article that I have been mentioned in that I am aware of without being interviewed or asked for permission first.

In the article, the first recommended retreat was Golden Door in the Hunter Valley, NSW. From what others had told me about it, it is generally known as a well-being retreat rather than a sleep retreat.

An excellent Sleep Physician that I work with at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre, Dr David Cunnington, did inform me that he often goes up there on weekends to be a guest speaker on sleep difficulties and how to improve them. He asked if I wanted to accompany him one time. I willingly obliged.

We flew up to Newcastle on Friday the 18th of May just after midday, drove an hour from the airport to the Hunter Valley, and settled into our rooms just before 4 pm. It was a charming private villa, with my own balcony with a view, a long couch to relax on, a nice big bathtub to relax in, and my own king bed to sleep in. And that was just the room.

The main building where the reception was consisted of a huge golden door opening up to steps and a waterfall running through the building. A chef was on-site to prepare healthy meals for everyone for breakfast, lunch and dinner (no red meat or processed carbs, no caffeine and no alcohol). Not to mention a day spa offering five pages of treatments, an indoor pool for deep water running or lap swimming, an outdoor pool for relaxing, a steam room and spa, a yoga studio, indoor basketball court, a huge gym, two tennis courts and even a table tennis table.

I wanted to get to it all but remembered that this was a perfect opportunity to switch off, relax, and unwind. So instead of participating in the afternoon activities on Friday, I decided to run myself a hot bath, listen to an audiobook, and rest until dinner time.

Golden door seemed to attract an eclectic mix of people, from stressed executives, burned-out executive assistants, and people needing a career, family or relationship break or change. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and most obliged with wearing their name tags across the weekend, making it easier to approach and ask people what brought them to Golden Door and what they were hoping to get out of it.

The staff were fantastic too, often mingling with the guests at meal times and participating in as many activities as possible. After dinner, at about 7 pm, those interested went for a leisurely walk and stopped to lie back and stare up at the stars. Living in the heart of Melbourne, this is an opportunity that I don’t often get, and I relished just looking up without feeling like I had to rush off and do something else.

After the walk, we headed back to our private villas, where I continued to try to stay away from bright screens. Instead, I did 10 minutes of meditation, listened to an audiobook while relaxing on the couch, and went off to bed once I felt sleepy.

On Saturday morning, I was awoken by a knock on the door, and a doorbell ringing at 6 am. If you don’t want this, you can put a do not disturb sign on the outside of the door, but it is to help people get up for the 6:30 am tai chi session up on meditation hill. I didn’t want my sleep to be over yet, but I managed to get dressed and strolled up the hill just as the sun rose across the Hunter Valley.

With 360 degree views of the valley, Meditation Hill is probably the most picturesque part of the Golden Door retreat (it’s all pretty nice, though). I’d never done tai chi before, but it wasn’t too bad, especially with the hot air balloons taking off for their flights from the valley below.

Following that, it was straight to the pool for some deep water running. I thought it would be some light aqua aerobics for oldies, but it was much more intense. Then there was breakfast and a 10km hike. Followed by tennis after lunch, and table tennis after that. Way more exercise than I expected to do, but I didn’t regret it. I then headed off to yin yoga, another activity I’d never tried before. I may have fallen asleep a little bit during this, but power naps are healthy for you.

A 50-minute deep tissue massage was next at the Elysium day spa. A bit pricey at $140, but it felt amazing after all of the activity I’d done, especially my calves. These treatments are optional, but quite a few guests seemed to be getting them.

David’s talk on sleep was after dinner. Then it was off to bed again. My second night of sleep was longer but not quite as deep as the first one.

When I compare it to how I slept two nights before the retreat and two nights after it, I can see that a wellness retreat really can improve your sleep on the nights you are there. This is because it gives you so many things that can help you to have a good night’s sleep, including:

  • Lots of physical activity during the day but not too late at night
  • A vast amount of morning sunlight helps entrain your circadian rhythms and wake you up for the day. This can also help you to fall asleep earlier that night.
  • Healthy food.
  • No caffeine.
  • No alcohol.
  • Plenty of activities to relax and unwind.
  • More time in nature with beautiful scenery and less time indoors looking at bright screens.
  • Opportunities for engaging conversation with friendly and welcoming people that are also wanting to improve their health.

It doesn’t offer clear guidelines or individual recommendations around sleep or how to keep improving it once you go home. For example, a 6 am wake-up call is perfect for some to help them not spend too long in bed. For others, it could cause anticipatory anxiety or lead to them putting too much pressure on themselves to get to sleep early the night before.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Are You Living the Life That You Want?

In 2016, I decided to take on the challenge of accountability. As a Clinical Psychologist, being accountable was all about evidence-based living — engaging as much as possible in thinking patterns and behaviours that have been shown to lead to a happier, more satisfying, higher quality of life.

The following were the five key areas that I highlighted in my ‘Do You Want to Be Deliberately Better?’ Article:

1. Tuning in rather than tuning out

2. Turning towards my values rather than away from my fears

3. Maintaining an ideal work/life balance

4. Writing things down rather than keeping things in

5. Developing a growth rather than a fixed mindset

I made this declaration public as I was aware that people’s desire to remain consistent meant that I would be more willing to follow through on these targets and achieve these goals. All of them were based on solid research and were expected to have a positive flow-on effect for my long-term psychological well-being in 2017 and beyond.

While I did make some progress in being more accountable to myself, especially with numbers 2, 4 and 5, I continued to struggle with numbers 1 and 3.

Part of the problem was that I’ve always wanted to be able to do everything, and I struggle at times to prioritise and separate what is essential to me from what is critical to others. The other part of the problem is that I was working too hard, not saying no to what I didn’t want to do enough, and not leaving adequate time for leisure and socialising or even personal growth, creativity and health.

I was often extraordinarily drained and fatigued by the end of the workweek. I would spend most of the weekend recovering and trying to catch up on chores and paperwork to avoid falling even further behind with administrative duties than I already was. I was also financially in debt even though I was working full-time, and I was stressed out.

Mainly, I didn’t have enough time or space to reflect on where I was or what I needed, and when I did, I still didn’t make the necessary changes to ensure that my life was consistent with how I wanted it to be.

It’s not just me

What seemed to help me a lot was reading the thought-provoking self-help book ‘Take time for your life’ by Cheryl Richardson. She highlights the seven common obstacles that people seem to face in living their best lives. These are:

  1. They generally have difficulty putting themselves first

  2. Their schedule does not reflect their priorities

  3. They feel drained by certain people or things

  4. They feel trapped for monetary reasons

  5. They are living on adrenalin

  6. They don’t have a supportive community in their life

  7. Their spiritual well-being comes last

I don’t know about everyone else, but I could check yes to all of these items except for number 6. I wasn’t spending as much time as I wanted with friends, but I felt well supported by them all when I did. As for the rest, I wondered, “How does she know me so well?” but then I realised how many people there are out there that must be falling into similar traps.

My aim for 2017 was to take time for my life.

Here’s how I’ve gone towards creating my ideal lifestyle so far:

  • I have moved into a fantastic apartment in the city where I am within easy access by bike, foot or public transport to all of my work, sport and leisure commitments.
  • I have begun regularly using the swimming pool, spa, sauna, and gym part of this unique apartment complex. As the gym here is excellent, I have saved by cancelling my external gym membership.
  • I have sold my car to avoid having to pay $70 a week for a car spot, not to mention the registration fees, car insurance, petrol, parking fees, fines, and depreciation in the car’s value. This also has the added benefits of never getting stuck in peak hour traffic and more walking and bike riding to get to places, which reduces the amount of time I need to set aside for these activities elsewhere.
  • I have started listening to audiobooks more whenever I am walking around the city by myself. This has resulted in me getting outdoors more, reading less inside, and opened up more time for other personal growth, leisure and social activities.
  • I have finished working at Mill Park and moved into the city for all of my workdays. This means that I can get up later in the morning on workdays and ride or walk or catch public transport to work no matter where I am.
  • I have cut down the days I see clients from 5 to 4, with Mondays now dedicated to maintenance, administration, health, creativity, and well-being. Because of this reduced workload, I am less stressed and more energetic. I am currently up to date with all of my administrative duties, paperwork, and continued professional development for the first time in 3 years.
  • This has also helped me enjoy my weekends more, as instead of playing catch-up on things, I can socialise and relax and plan various adventures that I may not have had the time or energy to do in the past.
  • Even though I am working one day less per week, by buying less stuff and reducing my expenses, I am no longer in any financial debt and am saving towards buying a place of my own.
  • I have now donated plasma and platelets through the Red Cross Blood Bank three times. This can be done every two weeks and takes about 45 minutes, and really can make a huge difference for those who have leukaemia and certain autoimmune diseases.
  • I have found a new General Practitioner, Nutritionist and Dentist to ensure that my physical health is going well and made the necessary appointments to assess or fix up any of the issues that have become apparent.
  • I have had a DEXA scan to assess my bone density, lean muscle mass and fat. I will be having another one of these in 3 months to monitor my progress and ensure that I remain in the healthy range for a male my age.
  • I have resumed monthly sessions with my Psychologist to ensure that my mental health and clinical practice are as optimal as possible.
  • I have signed up for a year membership with the meditation app Calm, which will help me to continue strengthening my meditation practice. I will aim to practice this for at least 10 minutes per day to make sure that I keep trying to tune in rather than tune out.
  • I have also booked in for a 10-day Vissapana meditation retreat in April and a 12-day P&O cruise at the end of July. Both of these getaways involve switching off from all technology for the duration of my stay. They will provide me with plenty of time for rest, relaxation and reflection, essential elements for tuning in and developing greater insight.

No Regrets?

Now that I’ve shared the changes that I’ve started to make towards my ideal lifestyle, I want to ask you this:

If you only have one life to live, and that life is yours, what changes do you need to make now to ensure you don’t accumulate any more regrets in the future?

In her viral blog post and subsequent book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, palliative nurse Bronnie Ware listed the top five regrets that the dying people she cared for typically had. These were:

  1. They wished they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.

  2. They wish they hadn’t worked so hard.

  3. They wish they’d had the courage to express their feelings.

  4. They wish they’d made a bigger effort to stay in touch with their friends.

  5. They wish they had let themselves be happier.

Remember, we tend to regret the things that we don’t do much more than those we do. So be brave, give it a go, and see what happens. If you’re not sure what you want or how to figure it out, booking in for a session with a Psychologist could definitely help!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Is It Possible to Change Your Personality?

One of the benefits of being so interested in psychology is that I have performed nearly every psychology test on myself since beginning my Clinical Psychology Doctorate in 2010. This has undoubtedly given me many insights into myself, but it has also given me the skills and knowledge to help others find out a lot about themselves.

If you want to learn more about yourself, a great place to start is a personality assessment, which I have already recommended in an earlier article.

The best free test out there, in my opinion, is the IPIP-NEO, as it can be accessed and completed for free online (see the website personality assessor if you are interested). It then scores up your responses and compares them to other individuals from your gender and country to give you a percentile score on the five personality factors (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience) as well as six facets of each of these factors. In total, for answering 120 questions across 10–15 minutes, you are given a comparison to others on 35 different variables. I doubt that a test out there gives you as much interesting information for as little time and effort.

My Personality Assessment Results From 2011–2017

I’ve now completed the IPIP-NEO Assessment five times since 2011. To look at how personality can change over time, I’ve decided to share my results with you from 2011, 2014 and 2017, with the description of each factor and facet written underneath it paraphrased from the reports found at personality assessor.

The Factor or Facet will be presented first, followed by a series of …, followed by the 2011 percentile score results, which are not in brackets or parentheses, the 2014 results, which are surrounded by [ ], and the 2017 results, which are encapsulated by { }.

Extraversion…………… 78 — [58] — {48}

I have become less extroverted over time and am now about average in extraversion. Extraverts are sociable, like to take risks and feel lots of positive emotions.

The six facets of extraversion are:

Friendliness…………… 56 — [67] — {58}

I’m about average in my desire to be around other people and show an interest in their lives.

This hasn’t changed much over 6 years. I also tend to value quality time more than the quantity of time when spending time with friends.

Gregariousness……… 72 — [84] — {42}

I’m much less gregarious than I used to be and am now about average in flocking toward other people and being talkative and sociable around them.

I am much more comfortable having downtime by myself or with one or two people these days, rather than going out to clubs or big parties or festivals.

Assertiveness………… 54 — [22] — {13}

I’m much less assertive (based on how it is defined here) than I used to be with others, and there is now a very low chance that I’ll take charge and lead others.

I am now a firm believer in helping others to find the right path for themselves rather than trying to tell them what to do or where to go.

I actually feel like I can say no to others and speak up about what I feel and need. Still, these elements are probably reflected better in my score changes on the dutifulness and morality facets below.

Activity Level………… 94 — [54] — {79}

I prefer very high levels of activity, such as being on the go and staying busy.

This dropped in 2014 but has been picking up again lately. I could have potentially overdone it in the past, as I was often tired. I am now trying to find the right balance between doing things and just being and activity and rest.

Excitement-Seeking… 66 — [78] — {87}

I like to seek very high levels of thrills.

This has continued to increase over time, indicating that there may not be enough excitement in my life at present.

Cheerfulness………… 76 — [54] — {54}

I experience about average levels of happiness, joy, and other positive emotions.

This has dropped since 2011 but has stayed consistent since 2014. I don’t think I have ever been that outwardly expressive with my emotions. Still, I tend to experience a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions in 2017 than I ever have in my past.

Agreeableness…………… 68 — [53] — {89}

I am very high in agreeableness, and much more so than I was in 2014. Highly agreeable people tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people.

The six facets of agreeableness are:

Trust……………… 92 — [80] — {89}

I’m very high in believing that other people are generally good and not out to harm others.

This dropped a bit in 2014 due to the people I was spending time with but has been increasing again recently with the more open, honest, and positive people I am now closest to.

Morality………… 11 — [18] — {65}

Sticking to the rules and treating everyone fairly is of a much higher value to me than it used to be.

I am now much more honest with others regarding what I think, what I need and how I feel. I was much more guarded in the past, especially with things that I thought other people might not like or understand.

Altruism………… 57 — [71] — {85}

I am very high in wanting to be good to other people, including helping them when they need it.

This has continued to increase over time, which is great to see. Some psychologists talk about getting compassion fatigue, but cutting my clinical days down to 4 days per week helps me give my all to each session I have.

Cooperation…… 80 — [64] — {99}

There are extremely high chances that I’ll try to get along with other people.

This dropped in 2014 due to the interpersonal conflicts that I was having in my life but has increased dramatically since then.

Modesty………… 45 — [35] — {71}

I am now much more humble than I was in the past.

One of my supervisors told me that he thought I was arrogant during my placement at the end of 2012. I think I was actually trying to overcompensate for the low internal self-belief that I often had. Modest people don’t like to brag or show off because those behaviours can be harmful to relationships.

Sympathy………… 73 — [84] — {84}

I have very high levels of sympathy for other people, including caring about them and wanting what’s best for them.

This improved from 2011 but has stayed consistent since 2014.

Conscientiousness…………… 65 — [73] — {70}

I am slightly higher in conscientiousness than I was in 2011. Highly conscientious people are diligent, hard-working, and responsible.

The six facets of conscientiousness are:

Self-Efficacy………… 67 [62] {62}

When I need to do something, I can get it done and do it well.

This has stayed relatively consistent over the years.

Orderliness……… 18 — [80] — {80}

I prefer very high levels of cleanliness and order in my environment.

It wasn’t that I didn’t prefer this in 2011 and before that, but that I really struggled to stay organised with everything. Doing a Doctoral degree definitely helped with this, as did having a very organised partner in 2014 and reading the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen.

Dutifulness……… 78 — [60] — {27}

I’m low in sticking to my word, keeping my promises, and upholding my obligations.

As bad as this description makes it sound, I am actually happy that I do fewer things out of a sense of duty or obligations these days. I am now more likely to tune in and figure out if something is consistent with my values and my best long-term interests before committing to something or just saying yes and later regretting it. It means that resentment is less likely to build up for me because I am doing what I want much more than I am doing things because I “should” be doing them.

Achievement-Striving… 76 — [52] — {88}

I have a very high desire to work hard and get ahead.

After my Doctorate finished at the beginning of 2014, I felt burnt out from studying and was happy just finding a job and working as a Clinical Psychologist in private practice. However, this has changed again since then, and I am now focused on making a difference where I can, not just in my working role.

Self-Discipline………. 36 — [61] — {49}

I have about average self-discipline , which is getting to work quickly, staying focused, and avoiding distractions or procrastination.

This has improved a little, which is good, but sometimes I try to do too much in a day or at once, leading to a lowered score in 2017. By being realistic with myself, prioritising tasks and putting less important things off until later should help me increase this over the next three years.

Cautiousness……… 92 — [94] — {89}

The odds are extremely low that I’ll jump into things without really thinking them through.

This hasn’t changed much over the years, and I continue to spend high amounts of time planning what to do. I probably would benefit by being a bit more spontaneous at times with less important things and getting into more productive action as soon as I know what the right path is for me to take.

Neuroticism…………… 21 — [26] — {29}

I am low in neuroticism, but less so than I was in 2011. This means that I experience low levels of negative emotions, like anger, fear, and stress.

The six facets of neuroticism are:

Anxiety…………… 45 — [59] — {25}

Compared with other people, I have very low stress, fears, and worries about the future.

This was worse in 2014 due to interpersonal conflicts and has improved substantially with regular psychological therapy, better relationships and ongoing self-improvement.

Anger………………… 1 — [3] — {7}

My levels of anger and irritability are extremely low.

I am actually happy that this had increased a little, as I often didn’t allow myself to feel angry when I was younger. I tended to be passive-aggressive or non-compliant, especially with authority figures, without ever fully realising why. Tuning into my anger more helped me identify when a goal of mine was being blocked and has supported me to stand up for myself in more productive and less destructive ways.

Depression……… 30 — [19] — {10}

Compared with other people, I now feel extremely low amounts of sadness and like myself to a high degree.

This has continued to improve over the years’ thanks to much psychological therapy, better relationships and ongoing self-improvement.

Self-Consciousness… 58 — [47] — {71}

I like to draw very low levels of attention to myself and feel high amounts of unease when interacting with others socially (especially strangers).

This had decreased in 2014 when I felt a bit socially isolated, but it increased again in 2017. One of the reasons this may have occurred is that I share much more about myself than I used to, hoping that it will help others do the same. It is scary to do this at times, but sharing more genuine things with others can give people a greater sense of connection and belonging.

Immoderation…… 28 — [35] — {46}

I have average self-control when it comes to resisting temptations; there are about average chances that I’ll give in to my desires and binge (on shopping, eating, drinking, or whatever my vices are).

The increase in this score over the last 6 years may be because I have more disposable income, or that I give myself permission to indulge and enjoy things more than I used to or highlight the fact that behavioural change is hard. I used not to care if I ate poorly, for example, but now that I try to eat healthily, I am more aware of how challenging this can be, especially when tired or stressed.

Vulnerability…… 28 — [29] — {45}

The chances that I’ll be overwhelmed by difficult circumstances are about average.

I think this increased in 2017 because I am now more aware of my emotional experiences and needs and tend to be in denial less about the impact of significant events on my life. We all have a threshold for how much of something is good for us, and learning my limits with certain things has been a valuable lesson over the past 12 months.

Openness to experience…… 82 — [89] — {93}

I am extremely high in openness to experience, and increasingly so over the past six years. Openness is a broad, diffuse personality dimension with many seemingly different facets. In general, highly open people like various new experiences, whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or cultural.

The six facets of openness are:

Imagination………… 39 — [26] — {15}

I have very low imagination and therefore tend not to use it too much to escape reality or daydream.

This has continued to decrease over time. I tend to stick more to the facts of a situation and how I can improve it than wistfully imagine that it will fix itself or that I will win the lottery.

Artistic Interests…… 69 — [69] — {69}

I have high openness for art, music, culture and other aesthetic experiences.

This has been consistent over the years, especially my love of music, movies, good TV shows and reading.

Emotionality……… 65 — [94] — {89}

My attunement to my own and others’ emotions are very high. Whereas cheerfulness and excitement seeking (facets of extraversion) capture my propensity to feel positive emotions and neuroticism capture my propensity to feel negative emotions, emotionality refers to my overall openness to/desire to truly feel emotions.

I am glad to see that this has improved from 2011 and remains very high in 2017.

Adventurousness…… 78 — [90] — {90}

I prefer very high amounts of variety and new experiences in my life and have a very high openness to new experiences.

This has increased over the years and comes out in my love of travel, learning new things, and taking on new challenges.

Intellect…………… 79 — [95] — {90}

My desire to play with ideas, reflect on philosophical concepts, and have deep discussions is very high.

My high openness to intellectual experiences has increased since 2011. It means that I like to read widely and am willing to have interesting conversations with anyone about anything, even if they disagree with my viewpoint on things. Learning about different cultures and their different expectations and belief systems is especially interesting to me.

Liberalism………… 87 — [70] — {97}

My political liberalism is extremely high, and my political conservatism is extremely low. I desire progressive change.

I believe that our schools, legal system and political arena all need to change to help us to thrive more going forward into the future. My level of liberalism decreased in 2014 when I was trying to live a more conventional life but has gone way up since then as I am now living more authentically and seeing the benefits. I now fully believe that everyone should be free to live the right life for themselves as long as it doesn’t harm others.

But Can Personality Actually Change?

Some people say that “you can’t teach a dog new tricks”. If you believe this, then you would expect my personality to stay reasonably consistent even over a six-year period, especially seeing that I went from the age of 25 to 31 during this time period. This could explain why Neuroticism and Conscientiousness and the facets of Friendliness, Trust, Self-efficacy, Cautiousness, Anger and Artistic Expression all changed by less than 10 percentile points from 2011 to 2017.

Buddhists take the opposite approach and say that “the self is a myth” and “there is no self”. This could explain why Extraversion and the facets Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Morality, Orderliness and Dutifulness all changed by at least 30 and up to 62 percentile points in only six years.

However, the reality is somewhere between, with 1 factor and 12 facets changing between 10 and 19 percentile points and 1 factor and 7 facets switching between 20 and 29 percentile points. Thus, some level of change is much more common than either extreme change or no change at all.

For most things that haven’t changed, I’m pretty happy with where they are at. Of course, I’d love to be less cautious at times and maybe slightly more friendly. Still, some negatives may come alongside any positive changes in these areas (such as being too impulsive or reckless or not having enough downtime to recharge and unwind).

For the things that have changed a lot, this has been through a combination of the experiences that I have been through, the things that I have learnt, and the work I have put in. Becoming more orderly was definitely not easy, but the benefits this has on my stress and anxiety levels have made up for the effort I have put in.

What I recommend:

If you have been trying to change something for a long time and haven’t been able to, maybe it is worth seeing if you can accept and embrace this quality about yourself, or if you can at least see some of the positives that come with it. Introverted people, for example, might benefit from reading the book ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. It talks about the positive qualities that generally come from being more introspective and sensitive than your extroverted peers or co-workers.

If there are things about yourself that you would like to improve, seek out people who seem to do these things well, and learn from them what you can. If you don’t have anyone in your life who represents these qualities, a book, Youtube and many other online resources are now available to help give you the skills, knowledge, motivation, perseverance and ongoing support that is required for successful long-term change. If you don’t have the level of support you currently need, a referral to see a psychologist could definitely help.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Can Our Key Character Strengths Change Over Time?

I have previously written about how happiness can be sought and fostered by discovering our natural character strengths and virtues.

The current article intends to see if these strengths remain consistent over time or if you can actively change them.

Is our character set in stone, or are we malleable enough to shape our strengths into something different if we want to?

Let’s find out…

My Top Character Strengths

I have taken the VIA Character Strengths survey four times now. The two earliest times were using the authentic happiness website in January 2011 and March 2012, and the last two used the VIA character website in December 2013 and 2017.

I will present my 2017 results from 24th through to 1st, with the description from the authentic happiness website and the core virtue from the VIA character website. I will then display my previous survey rankings under each description:

24: Self-Regulation and Self-Control

You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 23rd, 2012: 10th, 2013: 21st. Average score = 19.5. Overall rank = 21st

I think it is pointless to try to control my emotions, as accepting them and trying to understand them has been much more fruitful for me than trying to control them. However, trying to control my appetite is a different story, and I still struggle to eat as healthily as I would ideally like to.

23: Spirituality, Sense of Purpose and Faith

You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme. Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 22nd, 2012: 24th, 2013: 13th. Average score = 20.5. Overall rank = 23rd

I find meaning and purpose in connecting with and helping others and challenging myself to learn and grow, and these things are much more tangible and important to me than an overall sense of spirituality and faith. Nevertheless, I still believe that having a sense of meaning and purpose is a crucial element of well-being and health and should be explored in detail and sought out when it is not present.

22: Bravery and Valour

You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 24th, 2012: 22nd, 2013: 14th. Average score = 20.5. Overall rank = 23rd

I wish that this was more of a strength for me, but it is something that I struggle with. I admire others who are consistently courageous, and I continue to aspire towards it myself.

21: Teamwork, Citizenship and Loyalty

You excel as a member of a group. You are a loyal and dedicated teammate, you always do your share, and you work hard for the success of your group.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 10th, 2012: 4th, 2013: 10th. Average score = 11.25. Overall rank = 10th

I have played competitive sports since the age of five, and I am always happy to do what is needed to help the team win. This has become less important over the past four years as I have focused more on being driven by intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors in my life.

20: Zest, Enthusiasm and Energy

Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 17th, 2012: 21st, 2013: 22nd. Average score = 20. Overall rank = 22nd

This was never a strong point for me, but it did drop in the context of a difficult relationship and has only improved slightly since it ended. I would love it if this were a greater strength for me, but low energy has unfortunately been a long-term issue.

19: Humility and Modesty

You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 20th, 2012: 16th, 2013: 6th. Average score = 15.25. Overall rank = 19th

When I was younger, I struggled to be modest due to insecurities. This improved as I sought therapy and felt much more comfortable with myself. I do not wish to seek the spotlight at present, but I believe that I have psychological skills and knowledge that can be useful to others.

18: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness

You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 11th, 2012: 19th, 2013: 19th. Average score = 16.75. Overall rank = 20th

I wish that this was higher, as optimists tend to take more risks in life and experience better health in general. My pessimism regarding things running smoothly means that I am unlikely ever to miss a flight, which is a good thing, I guess. It also means that I am unlikely to overexpose myself to excessive financial risk.

17: Prudence, Caution and Discretion

You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 21st, 2012: 6th, 2013: 16th. Average score = 15. Overall rank = 18th

My IPIP-NEO personality assessment results actually show cautiousness levels in the top 10% of the population, but I don’t see it as a personal strength. I wish that I could take more risks in life and not be held back by my fears and doubts as much as I am. I’ve put my foot in my mouth at times but still want to be able to share whatever is on my mind.

16: Leadership

You excel at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 6th, 2012: 1st, 2013: 12th. Average score = 8.75. Overall rank = 5th

This used to be much more important to me than it is now, especially in 2012 when it was ranked first. I feel much more comfortable helping others to lead these days and doing what I can to help other people live the life they want rather than trying to tell them what they need to do.

15: Humour and Playfulness

You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 8th, 2012: 23rd, 2013: 5th. Average score = 12.75. Overall rank = 15th

I love stand up comedy and have always wished that I was more playful than I have typically been. I believe that humour is a healthy and mature defence mechanism and hope to foster more of this going forward.

14: Forgiveness and Mercy

You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.

Core Virtue: Temperance

2011: 2nd, 2012: 15th, 2013: 8th. Average score = 9.75. Overall rank = 7th

This seems to yo-yo. I do want to forgive those who have erred and have done wrong towards me, as I understand the benefits of this type of forgiveness. I struggle with trying to forgive or show mercy to people who consistently cause harm to others and seem to feel no remorse for their actions.

13: Social intelligence

You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 4th, 2012: 14th, 2013: 7th. Average score = 9.5. Overall rank = 6th

This was a key strength initially and something that I still aim to do as a clinical psychologist. However, I have tried to live a more genuine and authentic life with equitable relationships outside of work rather than just trying to fit in with others and go along with what they want to do.

12: Perspective Wisdom

Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 12th, 2012: 11th, 2013: 9th. Average score = 11. Overall rank = 9th

This has remained fairly consistent. I do not consider it a key strength, but I hope that the more I learn and the more experience I have, the more others will consider me wise when it comes to the big issues of life and how to manage them successfully.

11: Gratitude

You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 7th, 2012: 17th, 2013: 18th. Average score = 13.25. Overall rank = 17th

Gratitude is a handy skill to build and can help offset our natural inclination to look at what is going wrong in our lives. I wish this could be a little bit higher, and I am glad that it has improved from my 2012 and 2013 scores.

10: Perseverance, Industry and Diligence

You work hard to finish what you start. No matter the project, you “get it out the door” in timely fashion. You do not get distracted when you work, and you take satisfaction in completing tasks.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 19th, 2012: 12th, 2013: 2nd. Average score = 10.75. Overall rank = 8th

After reading the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen, I now see the benefits of being orderly and organised and the difference this can make in our lives. By working smarter and not harder, I have found a better balance recently and have begun putting less pressure on myself to be industrious.

9: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

Core Virtue: Transcendence

2011: 18th, 2012: 9th, 2013: 15th. Average score = 12.75. Overall rank = 15th

I try to appreciate the natural beauty of life and love visiting national parks and going hiking. Some of my favourite places include Wilsons Promontory and The Grampians in Australia and Yosemite National Park in the US. I would also love to visit Macchu Picchu and Everest Base Camp at some point in the future. I also enjoy watching the NBA and the Olympics and admire the effort athletes put towards reaching excellence.

8: Honesty, Authentic and Genuineness

You are an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way. You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a “real” person.

Core Virtue: Courage

2011: 15th, 2012: 7th, 2013: 3rd. Average score = 8.25. Overall rank = 4th

This is something that I value a lot. I strongly believe that more genuine and authentic people tend to live happier and more fulfilling lives. I’m surprised to see that it has dropped since 2013, but it feels like a key character strength.

7: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality

Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 5th, 2012: 13, 2013: 23rd. Average score = 12. Overall rank = 12th

While growing up, this was quite important to me, but it took a back seat when I tried to get married and buy a house in the suburbs. Following this break-up, I moved into the city and loved the lifestyle I had living in an apartment. I strongly advocate doing what is right for you rather than just going along with familial or societal pressures.

6: Capacity to Love and Be Loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 14th, 2012: 18th, 2013: 11th. Average score = 12.25. Overall rank = 13th

This has become more important over time. I had an avoidant attachment in the past and would keep my emotional needs to myself and try to be what other people needed me to be instead. I would then leave once I realised that my needs were not being met. Over the past two years, I have become better at tuning in to what I need and expressing these needs and feelings to others rather than keeping them to myself, which has increased my capacity for love.

5: Kindness and Generosity

You are kind and generous to others, and you are never too busy to do a favor. You enjoy doing good deeds for others, even if you do not know them well.

Core Virtue: Humanity

2011: 13th, 2012: 3rd, 2013: 1st. Average score = 5.5. Overall rank = 2nd

It’s nice to see that this has increased from the first survey in 2011. I enjoy helping and being kind to others, and it is one of the reasons I love my job as a clinical psychologist. It has been a key character strength for me since 2012.

4: Fairness, Equity and Justice

Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.

Core Virtue: Justice

2011: 3rd, 2012: 2nd, 2013: 4th. Average score = 3.25. Overall rank = 1st

This is the only character strength ranked in the top 5 in all of my surveys! Being a middle child influenced my focus on fairness and equality growing up, as I always felt my older brother could do more than me, and my younger sister never had to do anything. I remember creating rules to make sure things were as fair as possible and have continued to stand up for people who are not given equal treatment or legal rights since then.

3: Curiosity and Interest in the World

You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 9th, 2012: 20th, 2013: 17th. Average score = 12.25. Overall rank = 13th

This has never been a key character strength for me until 2017. Over the past few years, I have become less concerned with my personal issues and much more interested in making a lasting difference on a larger scale.

2: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness

Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 1st, 2012: 5th, 2013: 24th. Average score = 8. Overall rank = 3rd

I find the results of this strength fascinating. It’s been a key strength of mine, showing up in the top 5 in 2011, 2012 and 2017. However, in December 2013, it somehow sunk to 24th out of 24. I had been married for 9 months at the time, and it was going much worse than I could have ever imagined. At the time, I did not want to weigh the evidence fairly or change my mind. However, once I did, I knew that getting a divorce was hard but the right thing to do. Since then, my judgment has bounced back from 24th to 2nd.

1: Love of Learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Core Virtue: Wisdom

2011: 16th, 2012: 8th, 2013: 20th. Average score = 11.25. Overall rank = 10th

This has never been a key character strength until the latest results. I completed the first three surveys during my Doctorate studies, where I was told what I needed to study. Since then, I have been able to read and learn whatever I would like, and the autonomy and freedom of choice about what I learn now makes it so much more enjoyable. My thirst for new knowledge feels insatiable!

Can Our Key Strengths Change

Looking at all of the above results does indicate that our strengths can change over time. My overall findings put fairness 1st, kindness 2nd, judgment 3rd, honesty 4th and leadership 5th. Leadership is no longer a critical strength for me, even though it was 1st back in 2012. Curiosity and love of learning are much more recent developments, and they are both new strengths that I really enjoy putting into action regularly.

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2017 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

  1. Wisdom — 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 12th. Average score = 5
  2. Humanity — 5th, 6th, 13th. Average score = 8
  3. Justice — 4th, 16th, 21st. Average score = 13.67
  4. Courage — 8th, 10th, 20th, 22nd. Average score = 15
  5. Transcendence — 9th, 11th, 15th, 18th, 23rd. Average score = 15.2
  6. Temperance = 14th, 17th, 19th, 24th. Average score = 18.5

Over time, the changes in my strengths indicate that I have become wiser, which is nice to see. Of course, I’d like the courage scores to be higher, but otherwise, it seems pretty consistent with my core values.

Does It Matter Which Strengths We Have?

On one level, no. What is most important is that we are aware of our individual key strengths and that we can put these character strengths into action as often as possible.

Seeing that our strengths can change over time, it is worth looking at if some character strengths predict a higher level of well-being than others. In the excellent book ‘Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life’, Dr Todd Kashdan (2009) found that curiosity was one of the five strengths most highly associated with:

  • meaning
  • engagement
  • pleasure
  • satisfaction in one’s work, and
  • happiness in life.

In research conducted by Seligman and Peterson (2004), the only strengths rated higher than curiosity for being substantially related to satisfaction in life were hope, zest and gratitude. The other strength in the top 5 was the capacity to love and be loved.

If You Would Like to Find Out Your Strengths and Virtues

The best way to identify your strengths is to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths at the VIA character website.

The website will rank your 24 strengths from first to last. These rankings indicate your key character strengths, but it is also essential to determine if your top 5 strengths “feel right” to you. If they do, keep them as is. If a lower-ranked strength feels more right than any of the ones listed in your top 5, replace it with the one that shouldn’t be there, and write down your new top 5.

Once you know your strengths and virtues, The book ‘Authentic Happiness’ by Martin Seligman goes into more detail about how to best utilise your key character strengths to find authentic happiness.

The basic premise is to assess how often you are putting your strengths into action daily or weekly. If you are not doing it enough, set some goals towards implementing these strengths more.

I wish you the best of luck on your path of discovery!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Life Traps Do You Consistently Fall Into?

Do you want to reinvent your life?

In my top 20 psychology books countdown, I put the book Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko (1994) at #10 on my countdown.

It is a self-help version of Schema Therapy, which Jeffrey Young also developed. The best part of Schema Therapy is the in-depth questionnaires that help people identify and overcome their common life traps, both in therapy and outside of it. Life traps are self-defeating ways of perceiving, feeling about and interacting with oneself, others and the world.

If you want to get a sense of what your life traps may be, Reinventing your life is an excellent place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you want a more in-depth analysis, however, then go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy. They will have more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can result in 18 schemas or life traps. You might be able to access some of these questionnaires online. Still, only psychologists have the scoring and interpretation skills required to give you the answers and direction you need going forward.

My Life-traps

I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) twice now. The first time was at the beginning of 2014 when I was stuck in the middle of a complicated relationship while also trying to complete the last part of my Doctoral thesis and play basketball at a semi-professional level. The second time was in April 2017, where I am now in a Clinical Psychology job that I love. I have also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level and now play with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which is way more fun. I want to share these results with you to show you that:

  1. context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others, and
  2. personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships, and the world can change.

When looking at the results, a 100% score would mean that I have answered every item for that life-trap a 6, which means that they describe me perfectly. The higher the % score, the more likely I will frequently fall into this life trap.

YSQ-L3
2014 Results 2017 Results
Schemas or life-trap Schema or life-traps
1. Subjugation – 75% 1. Self-sacrifice – 60.78%
2. Dependence – 64.44% 2. Punitiveness (self) – 57.14%
3. Self-sacrifice – 61.76% 3. Emotional Deprivation – 51.85%
4. Approval seeking – 54.76% 4. Unrelenting Standards – 48.96%
5. Punitiveness (self) – 51.19% 5. Approval Seeking – 48.81%
6. Unrelenting standards – 48.96% 6. Subjugation – 48.33%
7. Insufficient self-control – 46.67% 7. Negativity – 43.94%
8. Emotional inhibition – 46.30% 8. Mistrust – 41.18%
9. Emotional deprivation – 42.59% 9. Dependence – 41.11%
10. Abandonment – 41.18% 10. Emotional Inhibition – 40.74%

What’s Improved?

Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life trap in 2017 than in 2014. For example, the average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas, in 2017, it was 48.28%.

I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, but only five in 2017, which means I am much less enmeshed with these unhelpful ways of looking at myself, others and the world than what I used to be. I still:

  • ‘have a lot of trouble demanding that my rights be respected and that my feelings be taken into account,’
  • ‘feel guilty when I let other people down or disappoint them,’
  • ‘find it very difficult to ask others to take care of my needs,’
  • ‘try hard to fit in,’ and
  • think ‘If I don’t do the job, I should suffer the consequences,’

but in general, I tend to think more constructively regardless of the situation that I am in.

Here is Young’s description of the schemas that I have improved in:

SUBJUGATION: Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced — usually to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment. The two major forms of subjugation are:

1. Subjugation of Needs: Suppression of one’s preferences, decisions, and desires.

2. Subjugation of Emotions: Suppression of emotional expression, especially anger.

Subjugation usually involves the perception that one’s own desires, opinions, and feelings are not valid or important to others. Frequently presents as excessive compliance, combined with hypersensitivity to feeling trapped. Generally leads to a build up of anger, manifested in maladaptive symptoms (e.g., passive-aggressive behavior, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).

DEPENDENCE / INCOMPETENCE: Belief that one is unable to handle one’s everyday responsibilities in a competent manner, without considerable help from others (e.g., take care of oneself, solve daily problems, exercise good judgment, tackle new tasks, make good decisions). Often presents as helplessness.

INSUFFICIENT SELF-CONTROL / SELF-DISCIPLINE: Pervasive difficulty or refusal to exercise sufficient self-control and frustration tolerance to achieve one’s personal goals, or to restrain the excessive expression of one’s emotions and impulses. In its milder form, patient presents with an exaggerated emphasis on discomfort-avoidance: avoiding pain, conflict, confrontation, responsibility, or overexertion — -at the expense of personal fulfillment, commitment, or integrity.

ABANDONMENT / INSTABILITY: The perceived instability or unreliability of those available for support and connection. Involves the sense that significant others will not be able to continue providing emotional support, connection, strength, or practical protection because they are emotionally unstable and unpredictable (e.g., angry outbursts), unreliable, or erratically present; because they will die imminently; or because they will abandon the patient in favor of someone better.

APPROVAL-SEEKING / RECOGNITION-SEEKING: Excessive emphasis on gaining approval, recognition, or attention from other people, or fitting in, at the expense of developing a secure and true sense of self. One’s sense of esteem is dependent primarily on the reactions of others rather than on one’s own natural inclinations. Sometimes includes an overemphasis on status, appearance, social acceptance, money, or achievement — as means of gaining approval, admiration, or attention (not primarily for power or control). Frequently results in major life decisions that are inauthentic or unsatisfying; or in hypersensitivity to rejection.

EMOTIONAL INHIBITION: The excessive inhibition of spontaneous action, feeling, or communication — usually to avoid disapproval by others, feelings of shame, or losing control of one’s impulses. The most common areas of inhibition involve: (a) inhibition of anger & aggression; (b) inhibition of positive impulses (e.g., joy, affection, sexual excitement, play); © difficulty expressing vulnerability or communicating freely about one’s feelings, needs, etc.; or (d) excessive emphasis on rationality while disregarding emotions.

SELF-SACRIFICE: Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations, at the expense of one’s own gratification. The most common reasons are: to prevent causing pain to others; to avoid guilt from feeling selfish; or to maintain the connection with others perceived as needy . Often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Sometimes leads to a sense that one’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment of those who are taken care of. (Overlaps with concept of codependency.)

I developed the most with subjugation and dependence/incompetence, my top 2 ranked life traps in 2014. This means that I am now much less likely to put my emotions and needs entirely aside for others. I am also much less likely to feel overwhelmed by everyday life, which means I am now less dependent on others for practical advice or support with day-to-day responsibilities.

I also improved regarding my self-control, my fears of abandonment, my need for approval from others, my desire to inhibit what I am feeling and (to a lesser degree) my inclination to self-sacrifice and put others first.

What’s Gotten Worse?

Here is Young’s description of the schemas that have worsened for me from 2014 to 2017:

PUNITIVENESS: The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with those people (including oneself) who do not meet one’s expectations or standards. Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself or others, because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with feelings.

EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION: Expectation that one’s desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others. The three major forms of deprivation are:

Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.

Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from others.

Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.

MISTRUST / ABUSE: The expectation that others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate, or take advantage. Usually involves the perception that the harm is intentional or the result of unjustified and extreme negligence. May include the sense that one always ends up being cheated relative to others or “getting the short end of the stick.”

NEGATIVITY / PESSIMISM: A pervasive, lifelong focus on the negative aspects of life (pain, death, loss, disappointment, conflict, guilt, resentment, unsolved problems, potential mistakes, betrayal, things that could go wrong, etc.) while minimizing or neglecting the positive or optimistic aspects. Usually includes an exaggerated expectation — in a wide range of work, financial, or interpersonal situations — that things will eventually go seriously wrong, or that aspects of one’s life that seem to be going well will ultimately fall apart. Usually involves an inordinate fear of making mistakes that might lead to: financial collapse, loss, humiliation, or being trapped in a bad situation. Because potential negative outcomes are exaggerated, these patients are frequently characterized by chronic worry, vigilance, complaining, or indecision.

When I was younger, I always trusted others and never trusted myself. I now realise that I am not as bad or incapable as I once thought and that there are some pretty mean people out there who are willing to take whatever they can from others without feeling bad for the pain that it causes.

What Hasn’t Changed?

The one life trap that remained precisely where it was in 2014 was unrelenting standards/hypercriticalness. Young defined this schema as:

UNRELENTING STANDARDS / HYPERCRITICALNESS: The underlying belief that one must strive to meet very high internalized standards of behavior and performance, usually to avoid criticism. Typically results in feelings of pressure or difficulty slowing down; and in hypercriticalness toward oneself and others. Must involve significant impairment in: pleasure, relaxation, health, self-esteem, sense of accomplishment, or satisfying relationships. Unrelenting standards typically present as:

perfectionism, inordinate attention to detail, or an underestimate of how good one’s own performance is relative to the norm;

rigid rules and “shoulds” in many areas of life, including unrealistically high moral, ethical, cultural, or religious precepts; or

preoccupation with time and efficiency, so that more can be accomplished.

Because my scores, in general, have decreased, unrelenting standards had jumped from my 6th highest life trap in 2014 to my 4th in 2017. This means I am still too critical of myself and often force myself to be productive and useful even when I am tired and don’t feel like doing much.

How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?

The first step to changing anything is awareness. If you are not aware that you are falling into any traps, it means that you either don’t have any, or you are so enmeshed in your experience that you cannot see them.

Once you have an awareness of your traps, the next step is to understand them and why they occur for you. Most life traps originate in childhood typically, which is why most psychologists and psychiatrists will ask about your upbringing and your relationship with your parents in particular.

Life traps are actually considered to be adaptive ways of coping with a maladaptive environment. This means that they were probably quite useful in the particular family dynamic that you had, or you wouldn’t have developed them in the first place. For example, my family often called me a martyr when I was younger because it didn’t matter what I wanted. In reality, it was just much more comfortable to let everyone else decide and take charge.

However, once you move out of the family home, these coping methods are generally ineffective. They tend to become maladaptive ways of interacting with yourself, others or the world. The three ways we can keep life traps going are by surrendering and acting as if they were right, trying to escape from them by staying away from all situations that could test whether they are true or not, and counterattacking or going to the other extreme.

An awareness of these life traps, when they are triggered, and how you respond to them can, therefore, help you determine a more adaptive way to react in these situations so that you can meet your emotional needs healthily.

If you have been trying with therapy for a long time but don’t think you are getting anywhere, please seek a Psychologist with experience in Schema Therapy. It has taught me much more about my own personal traps than anything else that I have done before and really does give me a sense of what my most significant challenges are going forward. I’ve made a lot of progress so far, but there is still a long way to go, and that is okay. I know that I will continue to improve with acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection, and perseverance, and I am confident that you can too!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Please note: There are another 6 schemas or life traps that I haven’t given you Young’s definitions for. This is because they weren’t in either of my 2014 and 2017 top 10 and were scored at under 30% each time. If you think you might have any of the following life traps, do contact me, and I’ll be happy to share their definitions with you:

  • Defectiveness / Shame
  • Social Isolation / Alienation
  • Vulnerability to harm or illness
  • Enmeshment / undeveloped self
  • Failure to Achieve
  • Entitlement / Grandiosity

The 10 Best Laws of Power

A fascinating book that I read towards the end of 2017 was ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ by Robert Greene.

Since the book was first released in 1998, it has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and has influenced many successful people, from Will Smith to Kanye West, Jay-Z and 50 Cent, who later co-wrote a New York Times’ bestseller with Greene.

It is also the most highly requested book in U.S. prisons due to the synthesis of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and other famous writers’ key prescriptions for effectively managing power struggles in difficult environments.

Some of the 48 laws do seem contradictory, and others seem a little repetitive. Still, there are some truly great bits of advice for effectively managing situations where power may play a role. This might be a corporate environment, a difficult but smaller workplace, a large social group, to really anywhere where there is a power imbalance between people or a formal or informal hierarchy.

Here are my 10 favourite laws, including a description of each law from the following website. The parts that I especially like are bolded. Enjoy!

Law 4: Always Say Less than Necessary

When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control… Powerful people impress by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.

Like the Danish proverb that says, “deep rivers move with silent majesty, shallow brooks are noisy”, law 4 reminds me only to say things that I believe will be of value. It also helps me stay within my circle of competence and not give advice on things that I do not know much about.

Law 9: Win through your Actions, Never through Argument

Any momentary triumph you think gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion. It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.

A parent who smokes but tells their children not to is unlikely to be successful at persuading their children because “actions speak louder than words”. The better option is not to smoke or quit if you want to set a good example. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Law 13: When Asking for Help, Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude

If you need to turn to an ally for help, do not bother to remind him of your past assistance and good deeds. He will find a way to ignore you. Instead, uncover something in your request, or in your alliance with him, that will benefit him, and emphasise it… He will respond enthusiastically when he sees something to be gained for himself.

As sad as this may appear, most people are self-motivated and want to do the right thing if it makes them look good. For example, a hybrid car such as a Toyota Prius sells well because it is known as a hybrid car. It screams out, “I care about the environment,” in a way that the Toyota Camry Hybrid does not because the hybrid version of the Camry looks almost identical to the regular Camry. The 2014 sales in the US of each car highlights this point: Prius = 194,000; Toyota Camry Hybrid = 39,500; Toyota Camry (non-hybrid) = 428,600. Figure out how what you want will benefit the other person or help them look good before you ask for a favour, and you are much more likely to get them on board.

Law 18: Do Not Build Fortresses to Protect Yourself — Isolation is Dangerous

The world is dangerous and enemies are everywhere — everyone has to protect themselves. A fortress seems the safest. But isolation exposes you to more dangers than it protects you from — it cuts you off from valuable information, it makes you conspicuous and an easy target. Better to circulate among people, find allies, mingle.

Many people that I see try to protect themselves at the cost of a real sense of connection and belonging with others. This law helps by reminding me of the dangers and costs of not opening up to honest people you can trust.

Law 23:Concentrate Your Forces

Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point. You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another — intensity defeats extensiveness every time.

This reminds me of the saying, “jack of all trades; master of none”. If you want to make progress in anything, it is important to prioritise and put your energy into the activities and thought patterns that will give you the best results. Law 23 also helps me to build upon my strengths rather than worrying too much about my weaknesses.

Law 25:Re-Create Yourself

Do not accept the roles that society foists on you. Re-create yourself by forging a new identity, one that commands attention and never bores the audience. Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define it for you.

I often encourage my clients to clarify their most important values and see how these differ from what their family, friends, culture, or society may want. The idea of working hard and not enjoying life until retirement is not a role that I want to accept, even though this is considered normal in many respects by society. It’s much better to create and live a sustainable life for myself, whatever that may look like. Then it won’t matter if and when I retire, especially if I keep loving what I do for work.

Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness

If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it. Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution. Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness. Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honours the timid.

Law 28 reminds me not to doubt myself once I have settled on a course of action and fully commit myself to it for a set period of time instead of remaining uncertain or indecisive. Once a decision is made, it is much better to give it 100% until the next decision needs to be made. Uncertainty only leads to more stress and anxiety and less satisfaction in the long run.

Law 29: Plan All the Way to the End

The ending is everything. Plan all the way to it, taking into account all the possible consequences, obstacles, and twists of fortune that might reverse your hard work… By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.

This reminds me of the benefits of thinking into the future and clarifying how I would want my life to look. For example, if I had a 50th birthday and someone close to me stood up and spoke about the person I had been for the past 18 years, what would I want to hear them say? Based on my response to this, it is then important to see if my 1-, 5- or 10-year plan is helping me to head in that direction. If not, more planning and some big changes may be required, as long as my plans are flexible enough to change as I continue to grow with time.

Law 35: Master the Art of Timing

Never be in a hurry — hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time. Always (be) patient, as if you know that everything will come to you eventually. Become a detective of the right moment; sniff out the spirit of the times, the trends that will carry you to power. Learn to stand back when the time is not yet ripe, and to strike fiercely when it has reached fruition.

Patience is a massively underrated value, especially in today’s society. How often do you see people multitasking or telling you how busy they are? I know I sometimes do. But slowing things down and really making sure that my attention is 100% on what is most important in any given moment is a great recipe for long-term happiness and well-being. While it is important to “strike while the iron is hot”, I think it is also important not to be too reactive and make sure that the decisions you make are really consistent with your values and long-term plans. Knowing how to say no to the wrong things in life is also a crucial element of success.

Law 45: Preach the Need for Change, but Never Reform too much at Once

Everyone understands the need for change in the abstract, but on the day-to-day level people are creatures of habit. Too much innovation is traumatic, and will lead to revolt. If you are new to a position of power, or an outsider trying to build a power base, make a show of respecting the old way of doing things. If change is necessary, make it a gentle improvement on the past.

Trying to change my eating habits has taught me this law better than anything else recently. As soon as I try to be too restrictive, I rebel against any prescriptions. Long-term sustainable changes are again much better than short-term dramatic changes. The 20-minute walk that you manage to do is better than the 10km run you do not, so start small and try to build up slowly. If you can do this, changes are much more likely to stick.

If you want to see the remaining 38 laws, please click here or purchase the book. Some of the laws seem pretty ruthless, but pretending that they don’t exist in power dynamics is much more dangerous than learning how they work.

I also recommend checking out my dealing with toxic people article for more information on successfully managing and surviving difficult interactions.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

10 Things You Need to Know About Adverse Childhood Experiences

1. There are 10 categories of experience that are considered to have adverse consequences on the later development of children

These include:

  • Abuse:
  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Neglect:
  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Household Dysfunction:
  • Domestic Violence
  • Substance Abuse
  • Mental Illness
  • Parental Separation/Divorce
  • Crime

2. It is possible to determine your own Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score

The ACE score is a measure that has been designed to measure the cumulative nature of childhood distress.

If you are interested in finding out your ACE score, please answer the following questionnaire from acestudy.org:

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:

1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often

  • Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or
  • Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 _____________

2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often

  • Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or
  • Ever strike you that you had marks or were injured?

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 _____________

3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever

  • Touch or fondle you, or have you sexually touch their body? or
  • Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 ____________

4. Did you often or very often feel that…

  • No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or
  • Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 ___________

5. Did you often or very often feel that…

  • You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or
  • Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 ___________

6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 ___________

7. Was your mother or stepmother:

  • Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or
  • Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or
  • Ever repeatedly hit at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 ___________

8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?

Yes? No? If yes, enter 1 ___________

9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

Yes? No? If yes enter 1 ___________

10. Did a household member go to prison?

Yes? No? If yes enter 1 __________

Now add up your “Yes” answers: __________ This is your ACE Score.

3. Adverse childhood experiences are common

Of the 17,337 individuals surveyed, here is the prevalence of each possible adverse experience, from most to least, represented as a percentage:

  • Physical abuse towards the child — 28.3%
  • Substance abuse in the household — 26.9%
  • Parental separation/divorce — 23.3%
  • Sexual abuse toward the child — 20.7%
  • Mental Illness in the household — 19.4%
  • Emotional neglect towards the child — 14.8%
  • Domestic violence in the household — 12.7%
  • Emotional abuse towards the child — 10.6%
  • Physical neglect towards the child — 9.9%
  • Imprisoned household member — 4.7%

This graph from acestoohigh.com presents these percentages visually:

4. It is more common to have an adverse childhood experience than not to have any

As shown in the graph from cdc.gov, 64% of the population surveyed experienced at least one adverse childhood experience(ACE), with the majority of those reporting at least one ACE reporting multiple ACEs.

Beyond the ACEs study, at least one in four children will suffer from physical, emotional or sexual abuse at some point during their childhoods, with one-in-seven children experiencing abuse or neglect in the past 12 months (Finklehor, Turner, Shattuck & Hamby, 2015).

5. Adverse childhood experiences are linked with a higher risk of many things in later life

This includes:

  • Alcohol abuse and dependence
  • Early smoking initiation and current smoking status
  • Illicit drug use
  • IV drug abuse
  • Obesity
  • Suicide attempts
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Hallucinations
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicide attempts
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Teen or unintended pregnancies
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Improper brain development
  • Impaired learning ability and general cognitive difficulties
  • Attention and memory difficulties
  • Visual and/or motor impairment
  • Lower language development
  • Impaired social and emotional skills
  • Poorer quality of life

Another long-term study indicated that approximately 80% of young adults who had previously been abused qualified for at least one psychiatric diagnosis at 21 (Silverman, Reinherz & Gianconia, 1996). Neglected or abused children are also 59% more likely to be arrested during childhood, 28% more likely to engage in criminal behaviour as adults, and 30% more likely to engage in violent crime as an adult (Widom & Maxfield, 2001).

The graph below from vetoviolence.cdc.gov shows the increased risk of many conditions in individuals who have previously had adverse childhood experiences:

As you can see, there is a higher risk of experiencing these difficulties for individuals with ACEs. However, the prevalence rate is NOT 100% for any of the factors. The importance of this should not be understated…

Individuals who have had negative experiences during their childhood can still grow and flourish as adults and can also be more resilient due to learning how to overcome significant challenges when they are younger.

A major longitudinal study even found that what goes right during childhood is often more important than what goes wrong. Having even one safe, stable and nurturing figure in a child’s life can reduce the later risk of psychological and physical health problems (Vaillant, 2015).

6. Adverse childhood experiences are linked with a higher risk of later disease and early mortality

This includes:

  • High Blood Pressure
  • High Cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Ischemic Heart Disease (IHD)
  • Liver Disease
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
  • Lung Cancer
  • Death Before Age 65

As you can see in the table below from acestoohigh.com, individuals with an ACE score of 4 or more are at a significantly higher risk of developing later physical health conditions:

Abuse and neglect during childhood can also negatively impact the ability of individuals to efficiently establish and maintain healthy romantic adult relationships (Colman & Widom, 2004). As relationship warmth and social connection are vital protective factors for long-term health and happiness, many of these more significant risks could at least be partially explained by the higher risk of interpersonal conflict, disconnection and isolation.

7. The more adverse childhood experiences one has, the more significant likelihood they have of experiencing difficulties with their mental and physical health and overall well-being later in life

A “dose-response reaction” exists with most risk factors and following conditions, in that the more adverse childhood experiences one has, the higher their risk is for adverse outcomes later in life, as shown in the above graphic from cdc.gov.

8. It is possible to conceptualise how these adverse childhood experiences lead to an early death

The ACE Pyramid from cdc.gov suggests that adverse childhood experiences contribute to premature death via four intermediate processes that develop in a sequential nature:

9. Reducing adverse experiences of childhood will significantly improve public health and reduce the burden that these issues have on individuals and the society

Childhood abuse and neglect are not just damaging to the individual. They also place a substantial financial strain on society, with an estimated total lifetime economic burden of approximately $124 billion (2010 dollars) in the US in 2008 (Fang, Brown, Florence & Mercy, 2012). This is similar to the financial burden of other public health issues, such as diabetes and stroke.

The main reasons for the increased economic burden are lost productivity, followed by increased medical costs, special education, child welfare and criminal justice costs (Fang, Brown, Florence & Mercy, 2012).

Even though it may be expensive to develop and implement programs that aim to prevent child neglect and abuse, the benefits of these programs, if valid, are very likely to outweigh the costs in the long run.

10. We need to do something to address and lower the prevalence of ACEs in future generations

Creating safe, stable and nurturing environments (SSNREs) is the key to positively impacting reducing ACEs from now on.

The five best practices to do this is shown in the graph below:

The US Centers For Disease Control (CDC) also suggests:

  • Greater treatment for mental illness and substance abuse
  • More high-quality child care, and
  • More financial support for low-income families.

Conclusion

Please help to get this information out there to as many people as possible. Also, if you found something of value in this article, please share it or pass it onto whoever else may benefit too!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist