Shame and Guilt: Which One is Helpful, and How Can We Effectively Manage These Difficult Emotions?

What are shame and guilt?

In the fascinating and comprehensive book ‘Shame and Guilt’ by June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, they describe shame and guilt as universal human emotions that are functionally important at both an individual and a relationship level.

Features shared by shame and guilt (Tangney & Dearing, 2002):

Shame and guilt are both very private and personal emotions, in that they are predominantly internal experiences that are more difficult to observe or measure than a lot of the other universal emotions, such as anger, sadness or joy.

Yet they are also social emotions, in that our experience of these emotions develops during some of our earliest interpersonal skills with our family and those closest to us.

Both shame and guilt can be classed as “moral” emotions, in that our experience of them can hopefully propel us to act more morally.

They are both closely linked with how we see ourselves about others, and they continue to profoundly influence our behaviour in interpersonal situations throughout our lives, especially in contexts involving perceived transgressions, mistakes or moral failures.

Shame and guilt both involve becoming self-conscious following a personal transgression and evaluating our behaviour about our perceived self, familial and societal norms. Based on this evaluation and what we internally attribute the violation to, we then render judgment of our behaviour and potentially internal sanctions towards ourselves if we deem the behaviour to be morally or socially unacceptable.

Although Philosophers and Psychoanalysts have been theorising about shame and guilt for over a century, it is only really since the late 1980s that Psychologists have begun to systematically research and examine the nature of shame and guilt and the implications that these emotions and experiences have. As well as being difficult to directly observe, many people tend not to have a clear understanding of the differences between shame and guilt.

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Features where shame and guilt differ (Tangney & Dearing, 2002):
  1. Focus of evaluation
    • With shame, the focus of evaluation is on the global self (e.g., “I am horrible!“)
    • With guilt, the focus of evaluation is on the specific behaviour (e.g., “What I did was horrible!“)
  2. Degree of distress
    • With shame, the degree of distress is generally much higher than it is with guilt, with greater pain being experienced
    • With guilt, the degree of distress is generally much lower than it is with shame, with less pain being experienced
  3. Phenomenological experience
    • With shame, people tend to shrink and feel worthless, powerless and small
    • With guilt, people tend to feel tense, remorseful, and regretful
  4. Operation of “self.”
    • With shame, the self-becomes split into an “observing self” and an “observer self.”
    • With guilt, a unified self-remains intact
  5. Impact on “self.”
    • With shame, the self becomes impaired by a global devaluation (because of the focus of evaluation on the global self)
    • With guilt, the self is unimpaired by a global devaluation (because the focus of evaluation is on the specific behaviour)
  6. Concern vis-a-vis the “other.”
    • With shame, one becomes concerned with an internalized others’ evaluation of the self
    • With guilt, one becomes concerned with the effect that their specific behaviour has had on others
  7. Counterfactual processes
    • With shame, one tries to mentally undo the undesirable aspects of the self that have become apparent through denial, defensiveness, blaming others or aggression
    • With guilt, one tries to mentally undo the undesirable aspects of their behaviour through being moral, caring, socially responsible and constructive
  8. Motivational features
    • With shame, the desire is to hide, escape, or strike back
    • With guilt, the desire is to confess, apologize, or repair

 

How to measure Shame and Guilt

Before I explain the research findings on shame and guilt in further detail, I challenge you to take the TOSCA (Test of Self-Conscious Affect) – Version 3 to determine if you are more prone to shame, guilt or blaming others across various work and social situations.

When I took it, it was interesting to see that my results were:

I seldom blame others.”

I use guilt self-talk an average amount.”

and

I use shame self-talk an average amount.”

It was nice to see that I do not blame others when I realise that I have made a mistake and that I am often accountable and responsible for my actions. However, it does seem that I tend to punish myself too much following a transgression, especially when it comes to killing a small animal while driving or having a dog run away when I was supposed to be looking after it while my friend was on vacation. But what do these findings mean for real life?

The TOSCA has been used widely in studies on shame and guilt since 1989 and defines guilt as a more adaptive response to a situation where the focus is on the desire to repair or right the specific wrong that has been caused. Shame is seen as a less adaptive response where the attention is on a global negative self-evaluation without any reparation generally being taken.

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Research Findings on Shame and Guilt

Research findings using the TOSCA have found that “Shame and guilt have important and quite different implications for interpersonal relationships.” Based on their 12 years of research, Tangney and Dearing (2002) have found that:

Individuals who are prone to shame:

  • Are more likely to shift the blame to others for adverse events through humiliating others, bullying, and violence.
  • Are more likely to experience bitterness, resentment and a seething kind of anger and hostility towards others and the world. They are also inclined to express their anger in aggressive and non-constructive ways, particularly in close interpersonal relationships. The shame-anger dynamic may help explain what occurs in many domestic violence incidents.
  • Are less likely to be empathetic, as the global self-focus of shame impedes sensitivity and impairs the connection with others.
  • Are more likely to be vulnerable to a range of psychological difficulties through internalising the shame, including depression, low self-worth, self-loathing, eating disorders, and addiction.
  • Are more likely to be suspended from high school, use illicit drugs, engage in unsafe sex practices, abuse their spouses and attempt suicide (when individuals were first assessed in fifth-grade and then followed up on years later).

Individuals who are prone to guilt:

  • Are more likely to understand, empathise and connect with others.
  • Are more likely to accept responsibility for their transgressions.
  • Are less likely to be angry, hostile and aggressive. When individuals do experience anger, they are more likely to express what they feel in a direct, assertive and constructive way.
  • Are less likely to experience psychopathology, as long as the guilt is “shame-free.”
  • Are more likely to apply to college, engage in community service, begin drinking alcohol at a later age, and use birth control (when individuals were first assessed in fifth-grade and then followed up on years later). They were also less likely to try heroin, driving while intoxicated, and be arrested or convicted of a crime.

Is guilt always a helpful emotion?

No. Two maladaptive forms of guilt (Kim, Thibodeau & Jorgensen, 2011) have since been found to be correlated with depressive symptoms to a similar degree to what shame is. These are contextual- maladaptive guilt, which involves an “exaggerated responsibility for uncontrollable events,” and generalised guilt, which involves “free-floating guilt that is unrelated to any specific context” (Kim, Thibodeau & Jorgensen, 2011). This excessive or inappropriate guilt would not be helpful to experience on a regular basis.

 

What Can We Do?

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A. Manage guilt effectively

With guilt, the steps for dealing with the emotion are pretty straightforward:

  1. Has a transgression occurred where you have not lived up to your own (or an internalised other’s) moral standards?
  2. Can you make up for this transgression in any way?
    • By taking responsibility for your action?
    • By fixing the mistake or cleaning up the mess?
    • By genuinely apologising and showing remorse for your actions?
    • By understanding and empathising with the person if they have been hurt?
  3. How can you learn from the mistake so that you are less likely to repeat the same transgression again in the future?
  4. What plan can you put in place so that you are less likely to repeat the same transgression again in the future?

If you are feeling guilty for having a particular thought, please try to understand that we cannot control what ideas will pop into our consciousness. What we can control is how we interpret or respond to the ideas that do arise. Considering that we have at least 10,000 thoughts a day, it is implausible that all of these thoughts are going to be positive, happy, kind, pro-social thoughts.

If it is just a thought, no transgression has occurred, and there is no need to feel guilty, no matter how antisocial, nasty, blasphemous or taboo these thoughts may seem. We can never be charged in a court of law for impure thoughts, and we do not need to put ourselves on trial either. Even psychologically healthy people have weird or unsettling thoughts, as evidenced by this list of common intrusive thoughts (Purdon & Clark, 1992). It is our actions that define our character and how we are seen by others, not our thoughts, so the above steps only need to be worked through when our efforts do not live up to the person that we would like to be.

Once these steps have been worked through, there are no additional benefits that can be achieved by continuing to feel guilty, punishing yourself for your transgression, or not forgiving yourself for your actions. Everyone makes mistakes. What is important is that we utilise guilt as an indicator that we have not been living consistently with our most important values, and then practice these steps so that we can do something about it and have a plan to get back on track.

If you continue to feel guilty after this, try to accept how you are feeling and make room for the emotional experience. Then try to change your focus to whatever is most important to you in the present moment. This could be the sport or computer game that you are playing or connecting with others if you are out socialising. By asking yourself “What’s Most Important Right Now?” it becomes a lot easier to get out of a cycle of ruminating about what you have done and feeling guilty for it.

B. Encourage parents, teachers, bosses, managers, coaches, and mentors to help others to learn from their behavioural mistakes so that they can improve and maintain a positive sense of self, rather than criticising who they are or shaming them for doing something wrong

We must educate people in these roles about the differences between shame and guilt, and let them know that even if using shame seems to be effective in changing behaviour in the short-term, it can have devastating long-term consequences. This is both regarding their relationship and the mental health and behaviour of the person who has been shamed.

Shaming children is especially dangerous and tends to show them that their love, worth and approval is conditional. As a result of being shamed, children will eventually give up, become rebellious, try to be perfect, or subjugate their own needs and try to please others to maintain their fragile sense of being loveable, good enough or worthy.

Once people become knowledgeable about focusing on the specific behaviour rather than the person as a whole, it can enhance their sensitivity and effectiveness in all relationships.

C. Develop a Growth Mindset

I have previously spoken about mindsets, as researched by Carol Dweck, in my accountability post. One thing I really noticed when examining the difference between shame and guilt is the similarities between shame and a fixed mindset, and guilt and a growth mindset. Watch the quick 3-minute video below on mindsets to see if you can look at the similarities:

Both guilt and a growth mindset are focused on improving following setbacks, rather than remaining stuck, giving up or blaming someone else for your shortcomings. Research indicates that a growth mindset can be cultivated over time. The similarities between guilt and a growth mindset suggest that it is also possible to change from being more shame-prone to being more guilt-prone. As you become more guilt-prone, you will begin to learn from your experiences and continue to grow without being held back by the transgressions that you have made in the past.

D.  Embrace your imperfections, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and share your feelings of shame with those that have earned the right to hear your story

In “The Gifts of Imperfection’, Brene Brown defines shame as the following:

“shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Brene has found that shame needs the three ingredients of secrecy, silence, and judgment for it to grow and spiral out of control in our lives. She also believes that we all experience shame to some degree and that even though we are afraid to talk about what we are ashamed of, it is actually by talking about our shame that we are least likely to be controlled by it.

“If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear and vulnerability” — Brene Brown

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How to become more Shame Resilient (Brown, 2010):

  1. Understand shame.
  2. Recognise what triggers shame for you, both externally (e.g., other people’s critical messages) and internally (e.g., your own unrealistic expectations).
  3. Check to see if these criticisms or expectations are realistic or accurate.
  4. Realise that being imperfect does not mean the same as being inadequate or unworthy of love.
  5. Reach out to people who have earned the right to hear your shame experiences.
  6. Talk about what makes you feel ashamed and whatever else you may be feeling about the experience.
  7. Ask for the type of support that you need from them. This could be some kind words or reassurance. It could be something that they can do for you (even if it is just turn up and listen). It could be some hand holding, back rubbing, or a hug. Or it could be some quality time, something to cheer you up, or a fun outing to help you to change focus and move on.

Once our previously shameful experiences are out in the open, we begin to own our story and realise that we are loveable and worthy, just the way we are. Although it is easier to experience this if our closest relationships provide us with unconditional acceptance, love, and belonging, we really only need one person that we can open to for shame to reduce and improve. If there is no one in your life that you would feel comfortable talking to about your shame, then a Psychologist that you feel safe with can definitely help.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Money and Happiness: How to spend for optimal benefits

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Not all the best things in life are free

I was on holidays in Queenstown, New Zealand earlier this year, and was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was. I was also amazed by how many experiences were on offer for people visiting or living there…

On my first day in Queenstown, I walked into the town and immediately saw brochures for the speedboats, canyon swings, skydiving, mountain biking, snowboarding and heli-skiing in several shop windows.

I began hiking up a mountain, and suddenly someone whirred by me through the trees on a zip line travelling at 70km/h. It looked scary, but also exhilarating.

Further up the hill, I came across a luge track where families and friends were roaring down the mountain in their carts, smiling and laughing and generally having a great time while taking in the breathtaking views. I saw people bungee jumping from a platform off the side of the mountain, and just above that were people paragliding down to the valley floor.

I don’t recall seeing many unhappy faces that day, and most people were fully engaged in the moment and what they were doing, something that is crucial for optimal well-being.

All of these activities, apart from hiking and taking in the scenery, did come at a considerable cost, however. Including the several days of skiing that I did afterwards at the surrounding Alpine Resorts.

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If I had taken more money with me on that trip to New Zealand, I would have been able to experience a more extensive array of potentially fun activities. As long as I did enjoy these activities, I do believe that they would have contributed to a higher level of happiness. But…

Can money ever buy us happiness?

Anyone who says that money can’t buy us happiness is looking at it too simplistically. I’ve seen too many clients that are financially stressed to know that a significant gift of money at their time of need would be a massive assistance to them. It would reduce their stress and hopefully increase their level of financial security, happiness and overall well-being. Right?

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By looking at past lottery winners, we are able to see that winning a large sum of money does immediately increase happiness. However, 12 months later the lottery winner has already typically returned back to their pre-win levels of joy, and are sometimes feeling even worse.

Furthermore, even people who have up to 10 million dollars of net worth often don’t feel financially secure, and still believe that if they had more money, then they would feel more secure, happier and more able to buy all of the things that they wanted.

It seems that it almost doesn’t matter how much money we have. Most people will continue to feel financially insecure and typically strive to make more money than they have currently. But is this the best way?

Another interesting study found that beyond a certain amount of money (approximately $70,000 annually), an increase in salary does not typically lead to any greater overall emotional or physical well-being. It seems that we do need to have enough money to look after our basic needs (food, shelter, water, safety etc.) and have a little bit of leisure or fun. However, making more money than this doesn’t seem to hold the answer to happiness, especially if we spend it in the ways that the majority of people do…

Why does more money not equal more happiness?

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I believe that the traps of Materialism and Capitalism are to blame, especially in Western culture. We are taught that working hard, making lots of money, and buying lots of stuff is the secret to happiness and success. This equation is just a myth however, and it is required for consumerism to flourish. Consumerism prioritises the short-term functioning and growth of a society above individual functioning or what is best over a long-term basis. It drives us to believe that we need stuff in order to be happy, and this is often at the expense of things that we really do need in our lives to flourish.

So what can we do about it?

In the excellent book “Stuffocation” by James Wallman, he makes the case that, as a direct result of our consumer lifestyle, we are now inundated with too much stuff, which is complicating our lives and stressing us out. This stress is now offsetting any of the benefits that come from the stuff that we buy. So should we throw everything out?

Wallman does explore Minimalism as a possible solution to our Stuffocation but doesn’t believe that it is the antidote, because it is purely defined by what materialism isn’t – real freedom can only come from doing what is right for us, not doing the opposite of what is wrong – it is too confining.

We could all just quit our jobs too, and stop making money, but the financial debt would catch up to us pretty quickly unless we somehow learned to become entirely self-sufficient and live off the land. Some people and communities are able to do this, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

Working less may definitely help, and Sweden has recently led the way with this by shortening their work days down to 6 hours. Many people complain about being time poor, and reducing how much time we spend at work would increase the amount of time available for people to use in whichever way they find most meaningful. This could be time with family, friends, engaging in exercise or hobbies, or taking some more time out to reflect and relax. We could cut down through improving productivity or efficiency (books like the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey or ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen could help) or cut down our commitments. Our productivity does decline dramatically if we are doing more than 9 hours of work per day or more than 48 hours per week, so this should be a useful guide for what is the maximum amount of hours that we should work for optimal happiness.

Once you have the extra time, it’s still about making sure that you spend your money in ways that will give you the biggest bang for your buck…

How to spend money in ways that can increase happiness

(1) buy more experiences and less material objects – Wallman believes that Experientialism is the true antidote to Materialism and Consumerism. We need to invest money on experiences, and not on stuff. We need to be able to engage in these experiences. They also need to be things that are accessible or that we can afford to do on a regular basis if it is going to have a large impact on our overall well-being. If you have to invest in stuff, buy stuff that will make life easier for you, so that you can have more of the experiences that you would like, and less of the experiences that you don’t.

(2) make sure that you are buying things for the right reason – A car or even a ride on lawnmower can be a way to make things easier or to have an enjoyable experience, or it can just be more stuff. We need to determine why we are wanting to buy something, and if it is about impressing others (showing our status) rather than for our own enjoyment, it probably won’t lead to long-lasting happiness.

(3) buy more frequent and smaller pleasures, rather than less frequent and larger ones – People are relatively insensitive to the price of an object, and if we buy less expensive things, we get a similar pay-off or reward (in happiness terms) for a much smaller cost. The less expensive things we buy, the less that we need to work and save, and the less credit card debt that we’ll have. With the Australian Securities and Investment Commission stating that Australians owe nearly $32 billion in credit card debt, or over $4,300 each, this is advice that a lot of us could take on.

(4) avoid credit card debt and overpriced insurance – Have you ever noticed that all of the big buildings in cities tend to belong to either banks or insurance companies. There is a reason for this. They prey on our cognitive biases and utilise effective marketing strategies to get us to buy things now and pay them for it later. The average Australian is paying over $725 of interest annually on the $4,300 that they owe on their credit card at an interest rate between 15 and 20%.  If we pay only the minimum repayments, whether it is a credit card or a home loan, it will take a long time to actually pay it off and cost you a lot more money in interest. So spending more to reduce our interest, or getting a debit card rather than a credit card will help us to not waste money for nothing in return except for immediate gratification. With extended warranties and no excess insurance, we will have to pay a premium for “peace of mind”, so it’s important to work out if that peace is worth the extra cost for you. Insurance works like the lottery – we always think “what if it happened to me?” and forget about the actual probability of these events occurring.

(5) delay gratification by booking ahead – With more expensive experiences, the further we can plan these in advance the better it is for us, because not only do we get the experience, but also the anticipation and excitement leading up to it to. So the next time you want to be spontaneous and book a concert ticket or holiday, book it for 6 months in advance, and thank me for the increased happiness later.

(6) use your money to give to or help out others – There was a study where they gave individuals $20 and half of them were asked to spend it on themselves and the other half were asked to give it away. They then tracked the happiness of these groups over a period of time. Whilst the happiness levels were similar between the two groups immediately after the event, the happiness levels of the group who gave the money away were significantly higher only two weeks later. Giving to others really does make a difference, both to them as well as to you. This is a nice message to keep in mind with Christmas around the corner.

If you are interested in other ways to increase happiness through spending, please check out the fascinating article titled ‘If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right’ by Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson.

Dr Damon Ashworth
Clinical Psychologist

How High is Your Physical Intelligence?

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Physical intelligence is concerned with how different elements of our environment interact with our senses to influence or distort our perceptions, judgments, and emotions, which then affect our behaviours.

In her excellent book ‘Sensation’, Thalma Lobel has neatly summarised all of the important findings that have accumulated so far in the emerging field of physical intelligence, or ’embodied cognition’.

Like emotional intelligence, physical intelligence appears to be something that can be developed and improved over time. It firstly requires an understanding of the biases inherent in the interaction between our sensory-motor experiences and the physical environment. It then needs an excellent present moment awareness of these biases so that our judgment and actions are adaptive rather than reactive.

Let’s have a look at how high your physical intelligence is and quick ways that you could improve it:

1. Temperature

Q: Should you offer someone a warm or a cold drink when you first meet them if you are trying to make a good first impression?

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In 2008, Williams and Bargh recruited 41 students at Yale and had the experimenter ask half of them to hold a hot cup of coffee for them on the way to the laboratory so that they could ask them a few questions and write down the responses on a clipboard. The other participants were asked to hold an iced coffee for comparison. They then went to the lab and were all given the same description of a fictitious person and asked to rate this person on a list of additional traits that weren’t included in the report. Participants who held the hot cup of coffee, even for a few seconds, rated the fictitious person as significantly more generous and caring than those who held the ice coffee, even though the participants were not even aware that the cup holding was part of the experiment.

Subsequent studies have supported this finding in showing that giving someone a physically warm drink contributes to them perceiving you or others to be emotionally warmer, which would usually lead to a better first impression.

Q: Can being treated ‘coldly’ by others lead to a room actually feeling colder?

Interestingly, our perception of temperature can change depending on how we are treated or what we are thinking about. When we are treated kindly by others, room temperature is typically reported to be higher than it actually is. Conversely, even thinking of an incident of social exclusion led to the same room being perceived as 2.6 degrees cooler than a group that was asked to consider of an occurrence of social inclusion (21.4 degrees vs 24 degrees). The way to mitigate this and the feeling of pain that someone experiences following social exclusion? A warm object or drink.

2. Weight

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Q: Do secrets physically weigh us down?

In 2003, Profitt and colleagues discovered that when we are carrying a heavy weight, we perceive a hill to be steeper and the distance of something to be further than if we are unencumbered by any weight. Seems pretty straightforward, seeing that carrying a heavy backpack would require more effort, and our brain wouldn’t want us to take it as far so that it could conserve energy.

Interestingly, Slepian and colleagues took this a step further in 2012 and found that carrying or thinking about a big secret can lead to similar findings as carrying something heavier. By instructing participants to think about a meaningful personal secret, they too perceived a hill to be steeper, and overshot a target with a beanbag (because they perceived the target to be further away), in comparison to a control group that was instructed to think about something trivial. So yes, secrets can literally weigh us down and make us feel like everything requires more energy and effort, especially physical tasks like climbing the stairs with groceries or helping someone to move house.

If we want to reduce the physical burden that secrets have on us, we need to express them and get them “off our shoulders”. Research shows that writing about traumatic experiences or sharing things that we are ashamed of with others that we trust (or a professional such as a psychologist) really does unburden us and make us feel lighter and better going forward.

3. Texture

Q: If your opening a new office or business, do you get the trendy but hard chairs or the traditional but soft chairs?

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The texture of materials matter. Soft or fluffy texture often helps people to relax more, be more flexible and feel more comfortable, whereas hard, rough or uncomfortable textures lead people to feel more tense, rigid or uptight.

Wooden, plastic or metal chairs may look great in a new restaurant, but may not be so good if it leads to the waiting staff being interpreted as less friendly. Even if the soft and comfy chairs are more expensive, the long-term benefits are likely to be worth it, especially with all of the internet reviews these days. It may just be the difference between a 4-star and a 5-star review.

There are situations where you may want to be ‘hard’, such as a lawyer who needs to be assertive and firm to negotiate a tough deal. If that’s the case, bring out the impressively looking but terribly uncomfortable chairs. Also, turn up the air-conditioning, and offer them a glass of icy cold water (see #1).

4. Colour

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Q: Can the colour of a team’s uniform impact how many fouls referees call in a game of sport?

Unfortunately, yes. In a 1988 study, Frank and Gilovich presented two identical videos of a football game to both college football fans and professional referees. In one video, the primary team wore a white uniform, and in the other video, the primary team wore a black uniform. The videos were otherwise identical. Both the fans and the refs were asked to comment on how aggressively the teams were playing and how many penalties they would award. The results were staggering, with the black team receiving significantly more fouls and being perceived as more aggressive by refs and fans alike, even though the only difference was the colour of the uniform.

Q: What colour is best to wear to a job interview then?

The colour that probably makes the most significant statement, particularly in the area of power and dominance, is red. It’s why Tiger Woods always used to wear red shirts on the final day of competition back when he was on top of the world and winning all of his majors. The colour red has been studied thoroughly and has been shown to significantly diminish performance and motivation in others when they see it.

Red is also the colour that politicians wear when they want to appear strong and powerful. Research findings have linked red with a perception of higher status and success in males, and a higher attractiveness in females. Keep an eye out for the tie colour the next time you see a male politician in the media. When they want to seem kind and caring, they tend to wear baby blue, and on Election Day or when they want to display conviction or strength, it will be red.

So if it’s a business or leadership or management interview, red or black is likely to be the best colour to wear. If it’s a role in a helping profession where a softer side is more desired, light blue or white may be better for an interview.

5. Cleanliness

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Q: Who is more likely to lie – someone who is about to shower, or someone who has just finished?

If you want to find out the truth from someone, don’t ask them straight after a shower. The person being questioned will find it much easier to stretch the truth when they are feeling clean, as they have a “clean conscience”. Just after a workout and before a shower they may feel sweaty, dirty or ‘unclean’, and therefore will find it less easy to tell a fib. Go for a run or to the gym or play sport together, and then ask away.

Q: What about willingness to help others – someone who has just washed their hands, or someone who hasn’t?

In 2006, Zhong and Liljenquist instructed student participants to recall an unethical deed in writing. Half of the group were told to use an antiseptic wipe to clean their hands after typing their act on a computer, whereas the other group were not given the option to wash their hands. They were all then asked to volunteer by participating in another student’s research project without receiving any compensation. An extra 33 percent of participants in the no cleansing group agreed to volunteer for the additional study than in the group who cleaned their hands with the wipe (74% compared to 41%).

Follow-up studies also found a higher tolerance of other dubious acts, including cheating, following any actions that led to people feeling cleaner. The more that an individual feels that their physical slate is clean, the greater room they have to accommodate for things that feel morally dirty.

6. Posture and Confidence

Q: How can our physical space be utilised to feel more confident or powerful?

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If you want to feel more confident, try power posing. Stand over a table with both of your hands pressed down for one minute, or lean back in a chair with your legs up and hands back behind your head. Both have been shown to increase testosterone, which can lead to greater feelings of power, confidence and assertiveness.

Be careful of how you hold yourself in your space too. Arms crossed, shoulders hunched or head lowered indicate less confidence or friendliness, whereas standing up straight with an open posture and appropriate eye contact often represents someone who is welcoming and comfortable in their own space.

7. Physical Space and Creativity

Q: What are some easy ways to become more creative?

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  • Get a box, and put it next to you while you are brainstorming ideas. It will help you think more abstractly by “thinking outside the box” on a physical level.
  • Do everything with your opposite hand. You will be forced to pay more attention, and it will make you think about things differently.
  • Engage in your morning routine backwards.
  • Get out into nature, or look at a picture of nature.
  • Keep a cluttered or semi-cluttered desk. An environment that is too clean actually stifles creativity.
  • Work in an environment of approximately 70 decibels. This is the same volume that you would typically find in a local coffee shop, which is why some writers prefer to do their work there (I previously thought that they just wanted to look trendy).
  • If you want to come up with opposing ideas, or reasons why you shouldn’t do something, place the left-hand up high in the air, and say “on the one hand…”, then raise the right hand and lower the left hand and say “then on the other.” It may seem silly, but doing this physically actually does help us to think of more opposing points.

How it Works?

Physical intelligence, or embodied cognition, is all about how metaphors and abstract concepts are grounded in and related to our physical experiences.  We first learn how to interact with our world on a non-verbal, physical and sensory level before we develop an understanding on a verbal level of language and metaphor, which continues to become more developed and nuanced as we age. The language skills that we accumulate are built on top of and utilise our previous sensory and physical experiences and are therefore closely interlinked. It is why the same areas of the brain will light up in neuroimaging studies when we see the sentence “I had a rough day” as when we are touching a rough object. A different and unrelated area will light up when we see the sentence “I had a bad day” as to when we are touching a rough object, even though the two sentences (bad vs rough) have similar meanings.

Although some metaphors might now seem outdated, if they are things that most people had learned at some point when they were younger, they can be used to our advantage, depending on what we want to achieve.

Whether you want to be warmer, more trustworthy, flexible, powerful, confident or creative, we can utilise our physical intelligence to change our feelings, perceptions, and behaviours, and influence how others perceive us and react to us too.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Positive Psychology – The Secret to Optimal Well-being

For many years, Psychology, following in the footsteps of Medicine, was preoccupied with the alleviation of suffering. A worthy objective, but the treatments were focused on how to reduce depression or anxiety, not how to increase happiness. Does not feeling bad equate to the same thing as feeling good? If someone is no longer feeling sad, will they suddenly feel happy? Perhaps, but not necessarily.

This is where Positive Psychology came in…

Martin Seligman sometimes referred to as the father of Positive Psychology has written three major self-help books titled ‘Learned Optimism’, ‘Authentic Happiness’ and ‘Flourish’.

Seligman was initially interested in studying depression and ran some experiments at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s to develop a theory of learned helplessness. Initially, the dogs were given electric shocks at random intervals and were not given an opportunity to stop the shocks or escape the situation. After a while, even when the dogs were provided with a chance to stop or escape the shocks, he found that they would not do anything about it. The relevance to people with depression is that an individual in an aversive environment who learns that they are unable to change their outcome will continue to hold this belief even in situations where this isn’t the case. They won’t improve their situation, because they don’t think it will make a difference anyway. But what if it does?

‘Learned Optimism’ was seen as the antidote to learned helplessness, and focused on changing people’s outlooks and teaching them resiliency, so that they could better distinguish between things that can be changed and things that can’t be. By putting their energy into what they can do instead of blaming themselves for things that are out of their control, people start to develop a more internal rather than external locus of control. They then become more motivated to develop the knowledge and learn the skills to make the changes that they desire in their life. Regardless of what has happened in the past, having a slightly optimistic outlook on life has been shown to lead to better emotional and physical health, and helps people to persevere through the bad times, look after their health and put their best long-term interests first. Research has even shown that it can lead to a better survival rate following a heart attack.

In ‘Authentic Happiness’ Martin Seligman extended on these ideas and said that happiness was not just a matter of genes or good luck but could be sought out and created. The way to do this is through discovering our natural character strengths and virtues and trying to put these into action as much as possible.

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If you are interested in discovering what your natural character strengths are:

1. Please go to http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu and fill out the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.

2. Your Strengths will be ranked from first to last. Determine if your top 5 strengths are your key character strengths or virtues – you will know if the responses “feel right” to you. If a lower ranked item seems to be a better fit for you than any of your top 5, write down your new top 5.

3. Ask yourself, how much do you currently put these strengths into practice? In what ways do you apply them or live by them? If the love of learning or creativity are your highest ranked strengths, do any changes need to be made in your life so that you can experience these more (e.g. study a new course or take on another creative pursuit)?

4. If changes need to be made, set yourself some SMART (S – specific, M – measurable, A – attainable, R – realistic, T – timely) goals for how these virtues can be put into action. If these are your key character strengths and virtues, it is likely to lead to a higher overall sense of emotional well-being.

 

In ‘Flourish’, Seligman proposed that there are only five elements that are crucial for optimal psychological well-being, or for someone to flourish. He called this his PERMA model of well-being:

P – positive emotions – We all need love, joy, hope, compassion, gratitude, awe and excitement in our lives. What activities frequently bring about these emotions for you? Can they be sought out or can you engage in these activities on a more regular basis?

E – engagement – Sometimes referred to as ‘flow’, engagement is the state when we are no longer in our heads or consumed with worries but are completely immersed in whatever it is that we are doing. Through reading the book, ‘Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it became apparent to me that these engagement experiences can never be directly created but the conditions for them can. Typically, this can be achieved with activities that require some skill and are also challenging, but not overwhelming. For me, it is often when I am playing sport, in session with a client, or engaging in a creative pursuit. However, it is different for everyone and doesn’t always happen each time you do an activity. It is what athletes refer to when they are “in the zone” or what M. Scott Peck referred to when he spoke about how his best-selling book ‘The Road Less Traveled’ seemed to write itself. Mindfulness training, apart from all of its other benefits on stress, pain and prevention of depression relapse, can also lead to a higher likelihood of full engagement with a situation.

R – relationships that are positive – Whether we are extroverted or introverted, humans are still social creatures who seek to be understood and accepted for who we are, and have a sense of belonging with others. We also like to share experiences, as you will notice with any child who waits for their parents to look and see what they are doing before they engage in an action. It was the moral of the story in “Into the Wild”, the 2007 movie starring Emile Hirsch, where the main character wrote, “Happiness only real when shared”. But negative relationships also cause a lot of pain so the secret may be in how to seek out and foster the right connections (e.g. friends, partners), as well as how to improve the ones that we already have or may not be able to choose (e.g. family, bosses). If you are having problems with this area of your life, the book ‘The Relationship Cure’ by John Gottman is an excellent place to start, as is seeking out a trained relationship therapist.

M – meaning – It was Friedrich Nietzsche who first said: “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Viktor Frankl determined that this was also the case in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, where he found that purpose was required to withstand the daily atrocities that he faced each day as a Jewish prisoner of a German concentration camp during World War II. Frankl, a Psychiatrist, believed so much about the importance of meaning that he developed a treatment called Logotherapy, which focused on helping others to find meaning and dedicated the second half of his book towards this goal, as well as the psychotherapy that he engaged in for the rest of his career. There may or may not be a universal meaning of life, depending on your beliefs, but it is crucial for each individual to determine what is important to them. Where possible, it is then essential to try to live your life in that way, as long as it doesn’t break the laws of your society or cause harm to others. Values clarification exercises can assist with this.

A – achievement – People like to achieve things, to succeed, to win, for its own sake. It is why there are so many cheats for video games (and why they are built into them in the first place), as well as corruption in the corporate world and drug cheats in athletic competition. Many people will do what they can to win. Achievement can be winning something, but can also be gaining knowledge, building skills, or completing a task. By having three achievable goals each day, it would go along way towards improved well-being.

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There are other ways to improve each of the above aspects of well-being, and I will introduce these in future articles. For now, please check out the TED talks by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi if you would like to learn more:

Psychology is about more than the alleviation of suffering. It is about helping people to understand, grow, develop mastery and self-efficacy, and live the best life that they can!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

7 Life Lessons That We Can Learn From Hollywood Movies

I was recently reading a book titled ‘Writing Screenplays that Sell’ by Michael Hauge and was fascinated to see how psychologically informed screenwriters need to be to create engaging stories with meaningful plots and entertaining characters.

Although Hollywood sometimes gets bad press for promoting materialistic and unrealistic goals for the audience, I do believe that some valuable life lessons can be learnt from dissecting the common elements of screenplays that result in successful movies.

Here are eight insights that I believe are important:

#1 – Be the hero of your story

Every movie has a hero that we identify with and develop empathy for. Screenwriters do this deliberately because we are likely to care more about the story and become involved in the movie if it focuses on one character and their perspective and challenges more than the other characters.

In real life, the person whose perspective we are able to most tune into is ourselves, and we feel the emotional impact of our experiences whether we like it or not (even though a lot of people try to tune these out). It, therefore, makes a lot of sense to ensure that we are the hero of our own life.

Unless you believe in reincarnation, it is generally accepted that we only have one life. Once we become adults, no one else is entirely responsible for the direction that our life goes in except for us. We are the screenwriters, directors and the main character in our story – unless we give that power up to somebody else. This is a scary thought, but also a potentially liberating one.

Although there are limitations to our abilities and dreams and it is essential to have realistic expectations, there are too many people that I see that put up roadblocks and barriers where they don’t need to be.

So if we are free to do what we want with our lives, and responsible for how they turn out, what do we want to do? Live the life that someone else wants or expects of us, or follow our dreams and hopefully achieve our goals.

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#2 – Challenge yourself if you would like to grow

Screenwriters are taught that a movie should start slowly, and build pace as the film progresses through increasing the magnitude and difficulty of challenges that the hero faces until the climax of the film. A resolution is then typically achieved, and all of the loose ends are tied up before the movie concludes with the hero being a much better person than they were at the beginning of the film. It is from overcoming bigger and bigger adversity throughout the film that the hero develops and grows. Without challenges or difficulties to master, this growth and character development would not be possible, and people would find the movie dull or boring.

In real life, I see a lot of clients who want a life free of challenge. They strive for a life of inner peace without stress or anxiety and believe that this can be achieved by consistently remaining in their comfort zone. In their comfort zone, they do the same thing each day, don’t take any risks and generally feel okay. A lot of them will tell you that something is missing, however.

We need to push beyond what feels comfortable to grow, and with this comes a certain amount of stress and anxiety. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can be a good indication that you are sufficiently challenging yourself so long as you are not feeling completely overwhelmed. Just remember to start small with tasks that feel a little scary but are also achievable, and as you build up confidence move onto more significant challenges. As long as the challenges are consistent with changes that you would like to bring about in your life, you will feel more energetic and alive than you ever could by remaining in your comfort zone. Even if you don’t succeed.

The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

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#3 – Conflict leads to more intense emotional experiences

Screenwriters are taught to create conflict in every scene where possible, usually by having two characters in the scene who have different views and objectives. This is because conflict creates emotional involvement far more than general exposition ever could, leading to a more engaged audience.

In real life, especially in relationships, this isn’t always a good thing. We might feel a more significant attraction or more intense emotional experience with someone who is actually opposed to us in what they want. I see it all the time when individuals who are anxiously attached (like being close to their partner and worry when they are apart) end up in relationships with individuals who are avoidantly attached (like their independence and autonomy and then feel trapped and smothered if they are too close). Each time it leads to an emotional rollercoaster ride, with lots of conflicts, big ups and downs, and greater emotional involvement. It keeps both parties occupied and interested, but will do more harm than good in the end.

Finding someone who wants the same things that we do may be less exciting initially, but can also lead to greater satisfaction and well-being in the long run. Be aware of the emotional trap, and use your head as well as your heart when determining if a relationship is suitable for you.

#4 – Have clearly defined goals

All heroes will have the primary goal or external motivation that they will pursue throughout the film. Screenwriters are encouraged to make this evident to the audience so that they will cheer on the hero as they make their journey through their challenges in pursuit of their goal. In a horror movie, it may be to escape from or kill the bad guy. In a heist movie, it may be to steal the money and get away with it. In a romantic comedy, it is to win the affection of the love interest. In a coming of age story it is to learn something, and in a sports movie, it is to win.

In real life, it is essential to think of the big picture at times, and ask yourself where you would like to be in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 years from now? How would you want to be spending your days? Whether it is owning a business, buying a house, getting married, having children or running a marathon, these external, observable goals help keep us motivated and focused on our destination, or where we would like to see ourselves in the future. Once these goals have been achieved, they can be ticked off the list. It then becomes vital to elicit and develop further goals to pursue.

Believe big. The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success. Remember this too! Big ideas and big plans and often easier – certainly no more difficult – than small ideas and small plans.” — David Schwartz

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#5 – Understand why you want to achieve these goals – clarify your values

It may not always be explicitly stated, but a hero in a movie will still have an internal motivation or reason why they are pursuing a goal, otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth them overcoming all of the obstacles that they face to achieve the goal at the end of the movie.

Two people may want to buy a house or run a marathon, but their reasons for doing so could be completely different. One home-buyer may want security and a place to call home, whereas the other person is wanting to make their parents and family proud of them (to gain love, approval or acceptance). One marathon runner may decide to enter the race to become healthier and lose weight, whereas another may do it to spend more time with their friend or partner that loves running (for greater connection or intimacy).

Values, unlike goals, can never be ticked off the list, but are guiding principles that can either be followed or not from moment to moment or day to day. If honesty is an essential value to you, you can be honest whenever you tell the truth, and dishonest whenever you lie. By living honestly, you will be feeling more fulfilled, and by being dishonest, you will likely feel dissatisfied or guilty. Firstly clarify which values are most important to you, and then set short, medium and long-term goals that are consistent with the guiding principles that you choose. 

To be truly rich, regardless of his fortune or lack of it, a man must live by his own values. If those values are not personally meaningful, then no amount of money gained can hide the emptiness of life without them.” — John Paul Getty

#6 – Have mentors that can help you to achieve your goals

Screenwriters call these characters reflections, and they are there to help the hero to learn and grow along with their journey towards their ultimate goal. This is Robin Williams to Matt Damon in ‘Good Will Hunting’, Mr Miyagi to Daniel-son in ‘The Karate Kid’, and Morgan Freeman in most movies (‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘The Dark Knight’). They usually don’t have a big character arc themselves, because they are already evolved in the areas that the hero is trying to improve. This is how they can know what the right thing to do is and help guide the hero on their path.

In real life, it is important to have mentors or people that have done what you would like to do, that you can turn to for help when you get stuck, have questions, or need advice. By seeking support through individuals who are more knowledgeable and experienced in the areas that you are hoping to build skills, it is possible to learn from their insights and mistakes without having to repeat them yourself, leading to a more effective learning and growth process. If they are able to be honest and direct in their feedback of your strengths and weaknesses, they can also help you to see the real you and guide you towards what is right, authentic and true, even if you don’t exactly want to hear it. Mentors can be friends or relatives, or can even be paid for or hired too. It is why people have psychologists, personal trainers and life coaches. It is also why I obtain regular external supervision so that I can keep improving towards becoming the best psychologist that I can be.

The way for you to be happy and successful, to get more of the things you really want in life, is to study and emulate those who have already done what you want to do and achieved the results you want to achieve.” — Brian Tracy. 

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#7 – It is our actions that define who we become

In his book ‘Story’, Robert McKee, a famous screenwriter, says that the hero’s character is truly revealed not in the scenes when everything is relaxed and calm, but in the choices that they make when the going gets tough and they are under pressure. The greater the pressure, the more revealing the scene is of the hero’s essential nature. Notice it is not their intentions, or things that they may speak about doing earlier in the film, but what they actually do when it really counts.

How will you react in the most significant moments in your life? With courage and persistence in spite of fear or challenge, or with avoidance, excuses or procrastination? With compassion, generosity and respect, or criticalness, selfishness and contempt? Will you talk about all of the great things you want to do or the things that you could have been, or focus on what you can still do and get out there and do it? It doesn’t just have to be big moments either.

Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great” –Orison Swett Marden

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

The Need to Belong

Historically

Before the industrial revolution, humans lived in small groups that they were born into and had minimal interaction outside these groups for the duration of their lives.

Because humans were not great at surviving in the wild, we used our frontal lobes, communication skills and opposable thumbs to work together to build villages and castles that helped protect us from the outside elements, predators and other groups.

Humans realised that by bonding and working together, we were safer, more secure and less vulnerable than what we were alone. But for the group to work, specific rules or social mores needed to be created and followed, and everyone had to contribute or play their role if they wanted to benefit from the increased resources and protection that the group provided.

People who didn’t fit in or do their bit were at risk of being kicked out of the group, where they would have to fend for themselves or face the world on their own. This typically led to an early and untimely death at the hands of dehydration, starvation, extreme weather, predatory animals or other humans.

Based on the above story, it makes a lot of sense why evolution favoured fitting in and getting along with others over being authentic and true to ourselves. A potentially hefty price to pay, especially if you were very different from what the group wanted you to be, but definitely worth it if it was a matter of life or death.

 

Fast forward to the 21st century

We suddenly live in a much more mobile world, where it is possible to meet and interact with more people in a single afternoon than our ancestors may have encountered in their entire lifetime.

Groups and social hierarchies still exist, and in many ways are much more complicated than they have ever been. They are also more fluid, however, and people are now able to change their position in the hierarchy or even leave their group entirely or move to another country and start over again if they don’t get the benefits that they would like from them.

Being excluded from groups or rejected by others is generally no longer a matter of life or death either, especially once we become adults. So why does it still feel that way?

Since the industrial revolution, technology and society have changed so rapidly in the modern and post-modern world in comparison to how things were in the past that it has been impossible for evolution to keep up. The amount of information in the world used to double about every century. Some now say it is every thirteen months, and IBM said it could one day be as quick as every 12 hours. We are therefore still genetically programmed to fit in, rather than be our authentic selves, even when it isn’t in our best long-term interests.

We obey authority, even when it means causing harm to an innocent other (the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment):

We take on the roles that are given to us, and can become cruel and inhumane in the process (the infamous Robert Zimbardo prison experiment):

We also conform to the opinions of everyone else in the group, even when it is reasonably apparent that they are all wrong…

 

The Pressure to Conform

In the 1950s, Solomon Asch did a series of experiments looking at the power of social conformity. He brought male participants into the lab, and asked them to be part of “a simple perceptual experiment”. They were first instructed to look at a series of three different sized straight black lines on a card – a short line (A), a long line (B), and a medium length line (C).

He then randomly presented one of these three lines on cards for 18 trials and asked the participant as well as seven other individuals which line was shown – A, B or C.

Unbeknownst to the participant, the other seven individuals in the room who responded before him were confederates, or actors that were part of the experiment. For the first two trials, the confederates all gave the obviously correct answer, as would the participant, but on the third trial, and 11 out of the subsequent 15 trials, the confederates all gave the same incorrect answer.

How the participant answered on these incorrect trials indicated how much they had been affected by the influence of social conformity. Disturbingly, up to 75% of participants gave the same incorrect answer on at least one trial, with the majority experiencing a distortion of judgment over time, where they assumed that their perception must be wrong and the majority’s perception right. This was in sharp contrast to the results in the control group, where there was no pressure to conform, and the error rate was less than 1%, indicating that it was easy to determine which line was which.

Even with easy decisions, it is possible to begin to doubt ourselves quickly if what we believe goes against the opinions of the majority. We may also start to question our own perception and experiences. It’s, therefore, no wonder that so many people give up on what they may individually know or believe in so that they can fit in with the group. This doesn’t make it right, however. If who we are or what we think is different to the majority, what is the best thing to do?

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The Possible Solutions

#1 – Be true to yourself, never be afraid to say anything and always stand up for what you believe in.

While this may seem like the obvious solution, it does appear to be too idealistic and too simplistic. Speaking up, especially to the wrong type of authority figure (boss, teacher, parent, government official), puts us at risk of being punished or ostracised from the group each time we do it. Fortunately, we have the right to protest and say most things that we want to here in Australia, but each group still has its rules and social mores, and not following them can lead to exclusion and isolation. Sometimes speaking up is preferable, but it always comes with considerable risk and potentially significant consequences or emotional pain. What is important is that we try to reflect on things when we have time and try to make up our minds for ourselves on the issues that we care about. By doing this, we can hopefully remain secure and sure about what we believe in, and share our opinions in appropriate and safe settings.

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#2 – Don’t worry about the group and just live the life that makes you happy by yourself. 

As long as we have a place to live and an income for food and water and leisure activities, we might be able to get by okay with shutting most people out. This is definitely the path that some people take after they have gone through significant traumatic events, especially in the context of relationships. Maybe the pain of the social exclusion would lessen if it was self-imposed too, and some jobs require very little interaction with others.

In reality, though, we are social creatures, and being so isolated from others would likely take its toll over time. It’s why solitary confinement is used as a form of punishment and as a deterrent in prisons. There is also the endless amounts of research out there showing the beneficial aspects of social support for optimal physical and emotional health, especially after a traumatic physical or psychological event. Being around people that care about us and that we can talk to and share our thoughts and feelings with does seem to be required on some level.

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#3 – Find the right group where you are able to be as close to your authentic self as possible and are not only accepted by the group but loved and appreciated for this. 

The beauty of our flexible society and the world these days is that we can move if needed, change jobs, let go of old friends and partners if they are not right for us, and seek out new ones that are a better fit. But what should we look for in our friends? How do we know if the group is right for us? How do we figure out if it is likely to have a positive impact on our physical and emotional well-being in the long run?

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In her book ‘Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships’, Amy Banks suggests seeking out people who CARE. With these individuals, you feel:

C – calm. You feel safe and secure being around them, sharing yourself with them and opening up to them.

A – accepted. You feel like they wholeheartedly accept you for who you really are, and you feel the same way with them. You may not always agree with everything that the other person does, but you still appreciate them for who they are.

R – resonant. You get each other. You are able to see how the other person thinks and feels, and can accurately reflect that back to them. You feel that you connect, click and are on the same wavelength.

E – energised. You feel energetic, motivated and maybe even inspired around each other. It is the opposite of a draining relationship.

If you currently don’t feel calm, accepted, resonant or energised with anyone, I highly recommend reading the book, as it suggests some strategies to help rewire your brain to make these types of relationships possible in time.

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Otto Rank, a one-time disciple of Freud, believed that “life is an ongoing struggle between the desire for autonomy and the desire for union“. Both are important, and how much you choose to give up one for the other needs to be considered and determined at various points throughout our lives.

Although some sacrifices do seem necessary, I’d like to hope that these days we are much closer to being able to have the capacity to be both our authentic selves and to truly connect with others. We just need to learn how to know ourselves and seek out the right people and groups to spend time with.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Dealing With Toxic People

What is a “toxic” person?

Sometimes in life, we come across people who defy our natural belief systems about how people “should be”. While we assume that most people follow the golden rule of “treat others the way that you would like to be treated”, there are definitely some individuals who are not guided by this principle and regularly break this rule.

These people may be considered “toxic” because their behaviours leave a trail of destruction behind them wherever they go. This is usually in the form of other people who are left feeling distressed, confused, isolated, trapped, depressed, angry, afraid, guilty, grieving, and potentially traumatised about how they have been treated. And that’s not to mention the financial, social, occupational or legal consequences that can arise from an interaction, encounter or a relationship with a toxic person.

A toxic person has no real concern for anyone apart from themselves, except for how other people could help or hinder them from being able to get what they want, physically or emotionally. The three main ways that they will try to emotionally manipulate others into doing what they would like are through a sense of fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG).

Anytime that you notice that FOG is being used against you to try and get you to do something you don’t want to do, look out. A loving person will encourage us to be the best that we can be. A toxic person will instead help us to be what they need us to be, which may be very different to what is actually in our best interests.

Worse still, toxic people will typically:

(a) not admit to having done anything wrong, even when presented with the facts,

(b) honestly believe that they haven’t done anything wrong or haven’t intended to do so, and instead blame you or someone else for how they felt or what they did, and

(c) try to convince others of their innocence too, even if this involves a real stretching of the truth or outright lying.

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Unfortunately, many of the clients that I see have been affected by toxic people, including:
  • The boss, who dangles the promise of pay raises and promotions over their employees to motivate them to reach a goal, and then once that goal is achieved takes the deal off the table
  • The boss, who forces his workers, often vulnerable immigrants on working visas, to work for less money than the minimum wage or to be on call and work overtime without any extra pay or time in lieu
  • The alcoholic father, who verbally and physically beats his wife and children
  • The competitive father, who is afraid of his children surpassing him and therefore won’t give them any praise or actively minimises their accomplishments
  • The narcissistic father, who views his children as an extension of himself and thus tries to live out his unfulfilled potential through them, often in regards to school, sports, and career
  • The narcissistic mother, who makes her children lie about their school grades or lie about where they live, who they are or what they do so that she looks better to her friends and family
  • The self-centred mother, who is afraid of her children no longer need her and therefore does whatever she can to prevent them from becoming independent. This might be doing all of the chores for them, to nitpicking and criticising their choices in jobs, partners and anything else that could reduce the amount of influence or power that she has over them
  • The abusive mother, who locks her children away in a room by themselves and beats or neglects them further whenever they do not comply with her wishes
  • The cheating girlfriend, who compulsively lies about her own behaviour and then is jealous of their partner talking to a girl and questions their fidelity and faithfulness
  • The hypocritical boyfriend, who disappears for days on end on drug binges, and then calls and messages his partner every five minutes when he knows that she is out having fun with her friends
  • The ex-partner, who earns a lot of money and still refuses to pay any child support or see the children so that they can get back at or hurt the other parent for leaving them
  • The self-centred friend, who consistently demands assistance with the ongoing crises they have in their life, and then is nowhere to be seen when their friends are in need of support

I have seen or heard about all of these traits in individuals through both my personal and professional life and this is barely scratching the surface. There are many other stories that I have heard that are even more severe, and it really is disheartening to think that there are people out there who are capable of committing such horrible acts on a regular basis without ever questioning their behaviour or feeling guilt.

Even though I have a better rational understanding of why this behaviour occurs through studying Psychology for the past 11 years, it still doesn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. I don’t get how someone can hurt the person that “they are meant to love” (societal expectations) and “say that they love” (individual expectations) when their behaviours are precisely the opposite.

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The reasons why someone might treat others in a harmful way include:
  1. They are psychologically very unwell and need to be properly treated and/or medicated. Consisting of the Axis I disorders, this includes severe Major Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Eating Disorders, Substance Abuse Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, or Schizophrenia. Although these individuals can engage in toxic behaviours, if the symptoms of the psychological disorder are successfully managed or treated, the toxic behaviour is likely to significantly improve.
  2. They have a personality disorder and could improve their symptoms with appropriate treatment and management. Consisting of the Axis II disorders, including Borderline Personality Disorder (PD), Obsessive Compulsive PD, Antisocial PD, Avoidant PD, Dependent PD, Histrionic PD and Narcissistic PD. Research suggests that some of the symptoms of personality disorders can also be managed through treatment, such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) for Borderline PD. However, personality disorders are generally lifelong conditions that impact the individual across several different areas of their functioning, including their interpersonal effectiveness skills. Therefore the likelihood of toxic behaviour increases, especially with Narcissistic and Antisocial PDs.
  3. They are a Psychopath or a Deviant and are therefore unlikely to change, even with treatment. Sometimes known as ‘The Dark Triad’, Machiavellians, Narcissists and Psychopaths all share the common trait of lacking empathy for their victims or anyone that they take advantage of to get what they want. There is little evidence that treatment is ever successful with Psychopaths and people who are Sexual Deviants (e.g. serial offending Pedophiles), and sometimes the best thing that society can do is to lock up these individual’s in a maximum security prison to minimise the harm that they can inflict upon others. However, many Narcissists and Machiavellians (who believe that the ends justify the means) are unlikely to be arrested or incarcerated for their behaviours and are therefore most likely to be the toxic people that inflict the most damage on others without any remorse for what they do.

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How to Successfully Manage Toxic People

The following information borrows heavily from the non-PD toolbox at the website Out of the FOG. It is a website that I recommend for client’s when they are living with and/or having to deal with someone who is consistently acting in a toxic way towards them.

What NOT to do when dealing with toxic people:

  • Abuse Amnesia – Do not try to forget or suppress previous episodes of abuse or boundary violations that have been perpetrated by the toxic person.
  • Amateur Diagnosis – If you believe that the toxic person has a psychiatric diagnosis or personality disorder, do not share this information with them in the hope that this will improve the situation and/or the relationship.
  • Avoidance – Do not withdraw from other relationships to reduce their risk of exposure to the toxic person and the potential criticism and rejection that comes with this. Avoiding other people will only further isolate you from your support and positive relationships, which you will need if you have to regularly deal with a toxic person.
  • Circular Conversations – Do not engage in repetitive, cyclical arguments with toxic people that cover the same issues endlessly without any resolution. You are unlikely to get a different resolution using the same strategy that hasn’t worked in the past.
  • Denial – Do not try to deny that a toxic person is engaging in certain behaviours or that these behaviours are not having severe adverse consequences if they are. It will still be damaging you even if you are typically strong and resilient. It is essential to allow yourself to accept what is happening and how you feel so that you are more likely to do something about it.
  • Enabling – Do not try to absorb the abusive behaviour of the toxic person without challenging it or consistently enforcing personal boundaries. This will only “enable” them to continue the behaviour without any fear of repercussions.
  • Fix-It Syndrome – Do not try to take responsibility or compensate for the toxic person’s behaviours. Do not try to clean up their messes or fix the problems created by their actions. They need to be responsible for what they do if they are to learn from it.
  • Fleas – Do not try to imitate or emulate the toxic person’s behaviour or stoop to their level. This is tempting, but it is much better to act consistently with your values than “catch fleas” and act in a toxic way too. You will not have as much practice as them in doing what they do, and will often then get criticised by the toxic person and be told that you are the one with all of the problems if you try.
  • Lack of Boundaries –  Do not allow the toxic person to break the guidelines and limits for acceptable behaviour that you have set. They must be made clear and consistently reinforced, or the toxic person will usually keep pushing and escalating the situation until they get what they want from you without having to change their behaviour.
  • Imposed Isolation – Do not allow yourself to become isolated and cut off from your family and friends and other supports, even if the toxic person is trying to intimidate you or coerce you into doing this.
  • JADE – Do not try to justify, argue, defend or explain or it is likely to end in a circular conversation.
  • Learned Helplessness – Do not believe that you have no control over a situation. A toxic person will sometimes want you to think this, but there are always options and supports available if you wish to leave a situation or relationship involving a toxic person.
  • Obedience –  Do not just blindly follow what you are being told to do by a toxic person because you think it will lead to less confrontation. Decide if what they are asking from you is really in your best long-term interests, and delay giving an answer straight away so that you can have the time and space to think about it properly.
  • Rescuer Syndrome – Do not try to rescue the toxic person or compensate for their behavioural issues. The toxic person will only change when they are ready to, with the additional assistance of recommended treatments by qualified professionals.
  • Self-Doubt – Although it is difficult, try not to let what the toxic person says to you impact how you see yourself, your mental health or your moral compass. Believe in yourself, seek support, and query other friends or family about any doubts you have.

Although many people have tried these strategies, sometimes over and over again, they have been shown to be less effective than the strategies that are recommended.

What TO DO when dealing with toxic people:

  • The 3 “C’s” Rule – Do repeat this mantra when thinking about the toxic person and their behaviours: “I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, and I can’t control it.”
  • The 51% Rule – Do consider your own needs just a little more than the toxic person (at least 51%) if you would like to be able to effectively help them.
  • The 50% Rule – Do realise that any relationship is about the dynamic between two people. Therefore, if we focus on our part in the relationship (the 50% of the relationship that we are responsible for), it can positively change the overall dynamic. Often much more than focusing on what the toxic person does (which is the 50% that is out of our control, and therefore not our responsibility).
  • Boundaries – Do set clear and consistent guidelines and limits (that are reasonable and safe) for acceptable behaviour with toxic people. Let them know how you will respond if they cross these boundaries and consistently reinforce these consequences when they do so.
  • Clean Up Rule – Do allow the toxic person to clean up their own messes and deal with the external consequences of their actions. You are only responsible for cleaning up your own messes, not theirs.
  • Emotional Intelligence – Do work on effectively understanding, recognising and regulating your own emotions, and develop empathy and social skills in dealing with the toxic person’s feelings without fixing their problems for them.
  • Get Support – Do find supportive people who are likely to be able to empathise with you and understand what you are going through. If they have an understanding of mental illness, personality disorders and toxic people, it will be more likely that they will be able to give you the support you need.
  • Journaling – Do write down whatever it is that you are thinking and feeling about the toxic person and your relationship or troubles with them. If you can do this without censoring yourself, taking a break or worrying about what you are writing, then it can be even more therapeutic. If you can keep this in a safe place, do so, otherwise delete it or dispose of it in a way that it is unlikely to be seen by the toxic person.
  • Make Good Choices – Do devote your energy focusing on what steps you can take that will help and that is under your control. This can reduce stress a lot.
  • Medium Chill – Do try to disengage through distraction, relaxation, meditation and other arousal reducing strategies if direct contact with the toxic person or their behaviours is unavoidable.
  • My Stuff/Your Stuff – Do clearly define and remind yourself what is your concern (“my stuff”) and what is actually the toxic person’s concern (“your stuff”), regardless of what they say to you.
  • No Contact – Do think about going “No Contact”, and cutting off all forms correspondence and contact with a toxic person if they are consistently not respecting your boundaries or being deterred by your other consequences. No one deserves to be abused, and this cannot take place if there is no communication.
  • Personal Safety – Do keep a list of actions that you can follow to prevent situations from escalating into verbal, emotional or physical abuse. This should be put in place as soon as any form of violence is likely to happen. First try to stop the conversation, secondly, try to leave the room or the area, and thirdly call the police.
  • Put Children First – Do make decisions based on what is in the best interests of the children. Their needs and especially their safety and protection from abuse must come first.
  • Therapy – Do seek help if you are struggling to protect yourself or emotionally detach from the toxic people in your life, or if you want to learn more about yourself or build up other skills and capacities in your life (assertiveness, self-esteem, compassion etc.).
  • Work on Yourself – Do allocate time, energy and focus for yourself so that you can restore a good sense of balance with work, leisure, personal growth and socialising regardless of what the toxic person does.

If you are interested in reading more about this, I recommend checking out the Out of the FOG website or reading the book ‘Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You’ by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

What Are the Secrets to Long-term Happiness, Health and Wellbeing?

Recently I’ve begun taking an interest in a field called public health. The World Health Organisation has defined public health as:

“The art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society” — Acheson, 1988

As time has gone on, there have been some studies that have helped public health to become less of an art and more of a science.

My favourite two public health studies are:

  1. The Longevity Project (also known as ‘The Terman Study’)
  2. The Harvard Study of Adult Development (also known as ‘The Grant Study’)

What makes these studies exceptional is their duration (80+ years) and the willingness of their participants to continue to be regularly assessed throughout their entire lives. Called prospective longitudinal studies, they both give us a rare chance to actually see which factors contribute to later illness or long-term health and well-being.

I aim to share these groundbreaking findings with you.

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The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” — Isaac Asimov

 

1. The Longevity Project

Over 1,500 of the most promising and brightest boys and girls were initially recruited in 1921 by the Psychologist Lewis Terman. He died in 1956, but the study continued for decades afterwards. All participants were born around the year 1910 and were studied for over 80 years to figure out who would live the longest and why.

Although each of the children was considered to be potentially gifted at the time, not all of them lived long and happy lives. Fortunately, the extensive data of these subjects has been intensely assessed and analysed for over twenty years at The University of California, Riverside.

The significant findings of the study have been summarised in the 2011 book “The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long-Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study” by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. I listened to this audiobook recently, and was quite surprised with some of their key results:

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The 10 TRUTHS of Longevity:
  1. It is important to live honestly
    • “A key part of one of the healthy paths is called ‘The High Road.’ Such an individual has good friends, meaningful work and a happy, responsible marriage. The thoughtful planning and perseverance that such people invest in their careers and relationships promote long life naturally and automatically, even when challenges arise.”
  2. Do NOT send your children to school at an earlier age than their peers
    • “Starting formal schooling at a very early age turned out not to be a great idea for most. Children need unstructured play time, and they need to get along with their peers; starting out young seemed to alienate them.”
  3. Illness is NOT random
    • “Those that live longer are often healthier throughout their years and (managed to) avoid serious ailments altogether.”
    • “Those who are healthier tend to be happier, and those who are happier tend to be healthier.”
    • “It’s never too late to choose a healthier path. The first step is to throw away the lists and stop worrying about worrying.”
    • “Thinking of making changes as taking ‘steps’ is a grand strategy, You can’t change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps, can eventually create that path to longer life.”
  4. Good marriages lead to better health, especially for men
    • “Marriage is only health-promoting for men who are well-suited to marriage and have a good marriage. For others, it is more complicated.”
    • “Women who stayed single, were widowed or got divorced often thrived more than women who were married to troublesome husbands.”
    • “Men who stayed divorced were at really high risk for premature mortality.”
  5. Divorce during childhood predicts early death in adulthood
    • “The single strongest social predictor is parental divorce, as it often pushes the child into many unhealthy directions, including heavier drinking and smoking, less education, lower career achievements and a greater risk of later divorce themselves.”pexels-photo-541518
  6. Follow the long-term recommendations that are right for you
    • “The long-lived did not find the secret to health in broccoli, medical tests, vitamins or jogging. Rather they were individuals with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living. Their personalities, career trajectories and social lives proved highly relevant to their long-term health, often in ways we did not expect.”
    • “You need to make changes that will be sustainable in the long term. We say, if you don’t like jogging, don’t jog! Instead, begin doing things that you really enjoy and can keep up, like a walk at lunchtime with a friend or vigorous gardening.”
    • “The usual piecemeal suggestions of relax, eat vegetables, lose weight and get married are lifesaving for some, but neither effective or economical for many.”
    • “Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways. When we recognise the long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns in ourselves, we can begin to maximise the healthy patterns.”
  7. Conscientiousness is the most critical personality factor for longevity
    • “Conscientiousness is very important. Unconscientious boys, even bright ones, are more likely to grow up to have poor marriages, to smoke more, to drink more, achieve less education, be relatively unsuccessful at work, and die younger.”
    • “Conscientious people stay healthier and live longer for three reasons:
      1. They do more things to protect their health.
      2. They are biologically predisposed to be healthier, and
      3. They tend to end up in healthier situations and relationships.”
  8. Working hard can be useful for you
    • “Those who worked the hardest often lived the longest…especially if they were involved in meaningful careers and were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”
    • “It was clear that working hard to overcome adversity or biting off more than you can chew—and then chewing it—does not generally pose a health risk. Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive is exactly what those heading to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn’t shy away from hard work; the exact opposite seemed true.”
  9. Resilience is protective for health
    •  “Depending on the circumstances, a traumatic event such as parental divorce could actually contribute to a longer life, if the child learned to be resilient.”
    • “Resilience is important, and can be achieved via a sense of personal accomplishment, strength of character and maturity.”
    • “Combat veterans are less likely to live long lives, but surprisingly the psychological stress of war itself is not necessarily a major health threat. Rather, it is a cascade of unhealthy patterns that sometimes follows. Those who find meaning in a traumatic experience and are able to reestablish a sense of security about the world are usually the ones who return to a healthy pathway.”
  10. Human connection is important
    • “Having pets can improve well-being, but they do not help people live longer, and are not a substitute for friends.”
    • “People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being.”
    • “The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others.”
    • “It is important to be well-integrated into your community.”
    • “Connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.”
    • “The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become — healthy or unhealthy.”

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2. The Harvard Study of Adult Development

The study began in 1938, and the goal of this longitudinal prospective study was to identify predictors of healthy ageing in real time. For 79 years, it has examined the lives of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-1944 until their death, including eventual US President John F. Kennedy. It has also incorporated many of their offspring as well as 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths who grew up in Boston between the years of 1940 to 1945.

Earlier this year, I listened to the 2012 audiobook by George Vaillant, titled “Triumphs of Experience.” He was the previous director of the study.

The primary research findings include:
  1. “Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.”
    • Alcoholism precedes marital difficulties and is the leading cause of divorce, with 57% of the divorces being traced to alcoholism.
    • Alcoholism can also lead to the later development of depression and neurosis.
    • Alcoholism is the most significant predictor of early death alongside cigarette smoking.
  2. “Above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t matter”
    • There is no significant difference in income earned by men with an IQ of 110-115 when compared with men who have an IQ higher than 150.
  3. “Ageing liberals have more sex.”
    • While political ideology has no significant impact on life satisfaction overall, the most liberal men continue to have an active sex life into their 80s, whereas conservative men are more likely to cease having sex by the age of 68.
  4. “For good or ill, the effects of childhood last a long time.”
    • A warm childhood relationship with the mother predicts greater financial earning later in life ($87,000 more in comparison to males who had uncaring mothers), greater effectiveness at work later in life, and a three times lower risk of dementia in old age.
    • A warm childhood relationship with the father predicts lower rates of anxiety and pessimism during adulthood, increased life satisfaction later in life, reduced difficulties in letting others get close and greater enjoyment of vacations throughout life.
  5. “It is not any one thing for good or ill—social advantage, abusive parents, physical weakness—that determines the way children adapt to life, but the quality of their total experience.”
    • This essentially means that what goes right during childhood tends to matter much more than what goes wrong.
    • If bad things happen, as long as they are outweighed by the good, you are more than likely to still turn out okay.
    • “Bleak childhoods were not always associated with bleak marriages.”
    • “Restorative marriages and maturing [psychological] defences” are “the soil out of which resilience and post-traumatic growth emerge.”
  6. “People really can change, and people really can grow. Childhood need be neither destiny nor doom.”
  7. Even the death of a parent was relatively unimportant predictively by the time the men were fifty; by the time they were eighty, men who had lost parents when young were as mentally and physically healthy as men whose parents had lovingly watched them graduate from high school.
  8. Prudence, forethought, willpower, and perseverance in junior high school were the best predictors of vocational success at age fifty.”
  9. “All of the fifty-five Best Outcomes had gotten married relatively early and stayed married for most of their adult lives. Proportionately three times as many of the Best Adjusted men enjoyed lifelong happy marriages as the Worst.” 
    • The effect of marriage was even starker for the inner-city men of the Glueck Study: “two-thirds of the never-married were in the bottom fifth in overall social relations, 57 percent were in the bottom fifth in income, and 71 percent were classified by the Study raters as mentally ill.”
    • “It turned out that happy marriages after eighty were not associated either with warm childhoods or with mature defences in early adulthood—that is, you don’t have to start out ‘all grown up’ to end up solidly married.”
  10. “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” or in other words – “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
    • Spouses mutual dependence on each other was associated with happy and healthy marriages. At age eighty-five, 76% of the men still alive said that their marriages were happy.
    • “The majority of the men who flourished found love before thirty, and that was why they flourished.”

For more information, see the latest director of the study Robert Waldinger talk about the key findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. His TED talk has over 16 million views at this time of publication:

I hope that you find these highly significant findings as fascinating as I do. They really do highlight the benefits of investing in ambitious public health studies such as these two.

They also give us the best scientifically supported indicators yet of the paths that you want to go down or the changes that you need to make if you’re going to live a happy, healthy and long-life.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

Do You Love​ Your Loved Ones in the Ways They Want to be Loved?

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Where do we go wrong?

One of the saddest things I see time and time again in my work as a Clinical Psychologist is partners who both love each other and try their best to show this to each other, and yet neither of them feel loved and appreciated.

The same thing also happens frequently within families, either between parents and their children or between siblings.

In the excellent book, ‘Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well’ by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, they highlight nicely why this often occurs:

Firstly, we are aware of our thoughts, feelings and intentions behind whatever actions we do. The other person is not. All they can see is what we say, how we say it, and our behaviour or body language. Our body language has been shown to influence approximately 55% of how others interpret and find meaning in what we are saying to them, with 38% being how we say it, and only 7% what we actually say (Mehrabian,1971). Worse still, these non-verbal cues are generally out of our awareness, meaning we don’t see what they see either.

Secondly, we are not able to fully control how our message will be taken in and interpreted by the other person, no matter how precisely we choose our words or actions. This is because how someone understands what we say is based on their past experiences, core beliefs about others or our role (partner, sibling, parent or child), and their expectations and assumptions of what we are like or how we should be. This creates particular biases before we have even opened our mouth, and affects how they are impacted by what we do and say.

Lastly, if we make a mistake or an error or upset someone, we will usually attribute it to the context or situational factors rather than seeing it as something to do with our character (e.g. “I didn’t wash the dishes because I was running late for work”). Conversely, When others make a mistake or upset us, we often attribute it to a personality characteristic or an unchangeable flaw (e.g. “you didn’t wash the dishes because you are lazy and disrespectful”). What happens next is that we usually criticise their character, which they rightly become defensive over, and they try to explain the context, which we tell them is just an excuse. When our character is being criticised, the opposite happens, and we wonder how they can be so cruel and unforgiving (making further judgments about their character and personality). It’s no wonder that relationships are so tricky!

What can we do?

1. Develop Active Listening Skills

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Rather than assume the intent of others based on how they made us feel, it is much better to try and understand their perspective first and show this understanding through the skills of active listening, including:

  • clarifying: asking for more information on what they were talking about
    • “what did you mean by…?”,
    • “can you elaborate further on …?”
  • paraphrasing: repeating back what was said to you in another way
    • them: “it’s like 100 degrees outside!”
    • you: “it’s so hot!”
  • reflecting: showing that you understand how they felt
    • them: “I had nothing to do all weekend!”
    • you: “you must have been bored!”
  • summarising: especially if someone has been speaking for a few minutes on a topic
    • them: multiple stories about the various things that have gone wrong for them recently
    • you: “sounds like you’ve had a rough week!”

Some people will get annoyed if you don’t fully understand them or what they are feeling in the moment, but even this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the other person and to get better attuned with how they think and feel going forward. Most people will appreciate the effort.

2. Follow the Three Principles of Humanistic Psychology

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Carl Rogers was a Humanistic Psychologist who believed that only three elements were essential for promoting growth and well-being in others. These were:

  • Unconditional Positive Regard: No matter what the other person does or doesn’t do, it is essential to separate the person from their actions, and continue to see the person positively. As a parent or a partner, it is more than okay to not accept or tolerate certain behaviours, but we need to show that we are unhappy with the behaviour rather than who they are. If it is someone that we love, our love for them should not diminish, because we can still see that they are a good person who sometimes does the wrong thing. If they can feel this, it will help them learn right from wrong going forward, rather than feeling like they have to be a certain way to be loved.
  • Empathic Attunement: It is important to really try to see the world in the way that the other person does, and understand how they view the particular situation and feel about it. If we can show this to them in a way that they feel it, they will know that we get it and will develop greater trust in opening up to us about other things going forward. They will also feel less alone and isolated and will be more responsive if we then suggest potential ways to help them out of a predicament. Without understanding first, any advice that is given usually falls flat and is not taken on at best, or is seen as uncaring and interfering at worst.
  • Congruency: It is essential to make sure that what we are expressing is consistent with how we feel (in a way that is appropriate to the other person or audience). Obviously, a parent who is upset at something that has happened in their life may not want to burden a child with their problems. However, it still better to say “Mummy is a little upset but she is going to be okay” rather than “nothing, everything is fine” when a child asks “what’s wrong mummy?” because they have accurately picked up on how you are feeling. Telling them something that is not congruent with how you feel will only confuse them and potentially make them doubt their perception and judgment going forward. The more congruent we are, the more trustworthy we are to others, and the less they have to worry about resentment building up or things being kept from them.

3. Practice Effective Communication

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As part of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), Marsha Linehan teaches interpersonal effectiveness skills. She says that if we want to get an objective met when communicating, try the following four steps:

D – Describe the situation, and stick to facts, not judgments

(e.g.”When you are 30 minutes late”, not “When you are rude and don’t care!”).

E – Explain how you feel

(Emotions – e.g. “I feel hurt and upset!”. Not opinions – e.g. “I feel like you don’t care at all!”)

A – Ask for what you need or would prefer

(Behaviours – e.g. “I would prefer that if you are late next time that you either try to leave a bit earlier or text or call to let me know that you are running late”. Not feelings – e.g. “I would prefer if you actually cared about and loved me like you say you do”).

R – Reinforce the potential benefits to them, you and the relationship if they could do what you have asked

(e.g. “Then you won’t need to rush as much, you’ll be safer on the road getting here, I won’t worry as much, we won’t end up fighting, and we’ll be able to enjoy a great night out together!”).

You might be sceptical, but it really can work, and it does become more comfortable with practice.

4. Avoid the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

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John Gottman, the legendary relationship researcher, claims that he can successfully predict with a 91% accuracy which couples will get divorced in the future after observing them for only five minutes. He says that if you want to avoid a later break-up (the apocalypse), it is essential to prevent the following four things (the four horsemen) that can significantly erode the goodwill of a relationship over time. These are:

  • Criticism: While it is essential to be able to make a complaint about a specific behaviour in a relationship (e.g. “you left the toilet seat up again”), a criticism about who the person is will never be helpful (e.g. “you’re such a slob!”).
  • Contempt: This includes anything that communicates disgust, resentment or looking down upon the other. This may be spoken through hostile humour such as sarcasm, cynicism or name-calling, or displayed through behaviours such as eye rolling, sneering or mocking laughter with the head tilted back. Building a culture of mutual respect and appreciation is the antidote to this.
  • Defensiveness: This is usually in response to criticisms or contempt, and each partner then feels that they are right and the other is wrong and the argument becomes about who is going to win. When each partner is trying to win an argument and blame the other, it is the relationship that suffers in the end. It’s much better to take responsibility for your part, and then work towards what will be best for both of you going forward.
  • Stonewalling: Eventually, after escalating conflict, one partner tries to tune out the other partner, disengaging from the communication or the relationship emotionally while remaining physically present. This is done more by males than females and is a way to calm themselves down when they are feeling emotionally overwhelmed and flooded. The result on the other partner is escalating distress, much like a baby who is suddenly cut off from being able to interact with their mother in the Stillface Experiment:

Letting your partner know that you are overwhelmed and need a 20-minute break but that you will definitely be back and will be happy to continue the discussion once you are feeling calmer is a much more effective way than just shutting off or shutting out the other person. It also leads to both of you feeling more in control and less distressed.

5. Find Out Their Primary and Secondary Love Languages

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Often people will express their love to others in the way that they would most want, rather than showing their love in the way that their partner, child, parent or sibling would want.

For example, a lot of fathers will try to show their love to their children by working hard, making lots of money, and providing financial security and stability for their future. What the child often wants is just to spend some time with their dad, playing at the park, kicking the football or playing video games together.

The most confusing scenario to me (that seems to happen way more than it should) is males, who are usually more visual than females, sending explicit pictures of themselves to their female partners because they would really like to receive a graphic image from their partner. They, therefore, assume that their partner would want the same. Meanwhile, their female partners, who are usually more sentimental than males, may actually prefer some flowers or a lovely card with a thoughtful handwritten message, but men don’t seem to understand this, because it’s typically not something that they would ever want to receive. Therefore they don’t see the point. Big mistake! Just ask Kevin James:

This is where understanding the five love languages, written about by Gary Chapman in various books, becomes very handy.

The first step, when trying to show someone that you care, is to figure out which love languages seem to mean the most to them. There is a questionnaire on the website http://www.5lovelanguages.com that you could ask the other person to complete if you are unsure what they value most and want to understand them better.

The next step is to disregard what you would want from them, and do what you think will make them the happiest, based on their love language preferences:

  • Words of Affirmation:
    • DO: Give them compliments, encouraging words, written cards or letters
    • DON’T: Give them undue criticism or emotionally harsh words
  • Quality Time:
    • DO: Give them your undivided attention, have one-on-one conversations without interruptions, do things together, take trips together, sit and talk
    • DON’T: Spend too much time with friends or groups (even if it’s together), neglect them or have long gaps of time between catch-ups and check-ins
  • Gifts:
    • DO: Give gifts, give time, remember special occasions, give small tokens of appreciation or love – show that you have put in the effort or thought in choosing
    • DON’T: Forget special events or anniversaries, or buy meaningless, generic or thoughtless gifts that show that you haven’t put in time or effort in choosing
  • Acts of Service:
    • DO: Assist with chores, make a checklist together, tick something off their to-do-list, fix something, ask “How can I help?” or “What can I do?”
    • DON’T: Overcommit to tasks that you won’t be able to complete, forget to follow through on something you have promised to do, fail to help.
  • Physical Touch:
    • DO: Sit close, hug, touch
    • DON’T: Withhold affection or threaten to do so, neglect, physically hit or abuse

 

By loving those that we love in the way that they want to be loved, there is a much higher chance that we will also feel loved and appreciated too, and the quality of our relationships is likely to improve immensely. Seeing that relationship warmth is the number one predictor of long-term health and happiness, making a few small changes in how we listen to, talk to and care for others could go a long way to improving the overall quality of our lives.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

The 10 Things You Need to Know About The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

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 hit you so hard 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 touch their body in a sexual way? 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:

ace9.png

4. It is more common to have an adverse childhood experience than to not 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 the age of 21 (Silverman, Reinherz & Gianconia, 1996). Neglected or abused children are also 59% more likely to be arrested during their 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:

ACE- Behavior and Health Effects

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 as a result of 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, and 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:

iowahealthcon

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

lasting-affects-all

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.

economic-toll.png

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 having a positive impact on reducing ACEs going forward.

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

CDC Recommendations 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

CAN-1465_Oil-Spill-Graphic

Please help to get this information out there to as many people as possible. 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