Angry Boys Become Angry Men: The Constraints and Consequences of Idealising Hyper-Masculinity

The messages that we deliver to boys about what it means to be a man can have a powerful impact on who they become

I recently watched a fascinating documentary on Netflix titled ‘The Mask You Live In’ about the American masculine ideal and the consequences of teaching boys not to value emotions, sensitivity, connection, caring, and empathy.

Although the data throughout the documentary is related to American males, the messages that they refer to at the beginning of the film are all things that I remember hearing growing up in Australia:

  • “Man up!”
  • “Be a man!”
  • “Don’t be a mamma’s boy!”
  • “Stop being weak.”
  • “You’ve got to be tough!”
  • “You’ve got to be strong!”
  • “Stop crying!”
  • “Boys, do not cry!”
  • “Don’t be a pussy!”
  • “Grow some balls!”
  • “Don’t let anybody disrespect you!”

The constraints of idealising hyper-masculinity

“Our boys are born with empathy just as our girls are, and yet we socialize that sensitivity, emotion, and empathy out of them.” — Jennifer Siebel Newsom

In ‘The Mask You Live In’, they explain that there are typically more similarities between boys and girls than differences. For example, more males fall on the masculine end of the masculine-feminine spectrum, and more females are feminine. However, there is approximately a 90% overlap between the two populations if you assess 50,000 boys and 50,000 girls, with a normal distribution for males and females. Given this, a large percentage of children identify as girls that are more masculine than some boys, and a similarly large percentage of children who identify as boys that are more feminine than some girls. Yet if you looked in toy stores, or on the TV, or even in playgrounds or schoolyards, you’d never realise this.

Males and females begin with minor biological differences at birth due to having an XX or an XY chromosome. These differences do widen further once children reach puberty. The gender roles that we now perceive to be normal are still much more socially created than biologically predetermined. Thanks to the media, the entertainment industry and marketing, we now see hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity as the ideal.

If you don’t believe me, pay attention to the first answer that pops into your head when you read these questions:

  1. What are girls favourite colours?
  2. What are boys favourite colours?
  3. What toys do girls play with?
  4. What toys do boys play with?

If you instinctively thought 1. pink and purple, 2. blue and red, 3. dolls, make-up and ponies, and 4. cars, balls, and action figures, then you have proved my point. Most children do not fit into these categories naturally. Instead, they are socialised into these roles as they grow and are encouraged by their parents, TV, or peers.

If boys are generally 90% similar to girls and yet socialised to disavow anything that resembles femininity, how whole or authentic can they indeed grow up to be? Of course, we all want our children to succeed in life, but can this even be done without feeling pain, vulnerability, sadness, and fear of knowing how to deal with these emotions when they arise efficiently? Indeed it has to be damaging to continue encouraging boys to switch off from themselves at such a young age and to externalise their emotional pain by lashing out at others if they feel vulnerable, insecure, disrespected, or under threat.

The consequences of idealising hyper-masculinity

Based on the research presented in ‘The Mask You Live In’, the effects are:

1. Bullying:

  • 1-in-4 boys are bullied at school.
  • Only 30% of bullied boys notify adults because it is considered “weak” to get help or tell someone else.

2. Drinking and Drugs:

  • By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking.
  • 1-in-4 boys binge drink.
  • The average boy tries drugs at age 13.
  • Boys often use drinking and drugs to treat loneliness.
  • Also, under the influence is often the only time they can be emotional and connect with their friends and tell them how much they love them.

9.3% of Australian males aged 16 to 54 meet the criteria for substance use disorder in the past 12 months. One-in-three (35.4%) males experience a substance use disorder in their lifetime. The highest rate of substance abuse is in males under 24 years of age (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).

3. Suicide

  • Every day, three or more boys in the U.S. commit suicide.
  • For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death.
  • For 10–14-year-olds, the suicide rate for males is three times that of females.
  • By 15–19 years of age, the suicide rate for males increases to five times that of females.

Five out of the nearly seven people who die of suicide in Australia each day are males, equating to 1,885 male deaths by suicide in 2013. For the 15–19 age group, 34.8% of all male deaths are from suicide, with each suicide likely to profoundly impact at least another six people for the rest of their lives (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013; 2015).

4. Mental Health

  • Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health difficulties seek help.
  • Boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

5.3% of Australian males over 15 experienced depression in the past 12 months. One in eight males experiences a mood disorder in their lifetime. For anxiety, 10.8% of Australian males are likely to have experienced it to a clinically significant amount in the past 12 months, with one in five experiencing an anxiety condition in their lifetime (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007).

5. Academic Performance

  • Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school.
  • Boys are less likely to go to College.
  • Boys are two times more likely to be in special education.
  • Boys are two times more likely to be suspended and four times more likely to be expelled.

6. Violence

  • Every nine seconds, a woman is beaten or assaulted in the U.S.
  • One-in-six boys suffer abuse sexually.
  • A gun kills more than three people every hour.
  • That’s over 30,000 lives annually.
  • 90% of homicide perpetrators are male.
  • Almost 50% are under 25 years of age.
  • Mass homicides (where four or more people die) occur on average every two weeks.
  • Males commit 94% of mass homicides.
  • The youngest mass shooter was 11.
  • The rate of mass shootings has tripled since 2011.
  • There has been almost one school shooting per week since the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Girl’s in the US have the same access to guns, so why are males committing nearly all mass shootings?

The documentary suggests that it is because men are taught to externalise their emotional pain. If a girl feels sad or scared, they are usually trained to look within to identify what it is, put a label to it, and express how they feel to someone else (without acting on it). They then decide what (if anything) needs to be done to feel better in time. A boy’s sadness or fear is either dismissed or criticised. The boy is then left on their own to deal with these overwhelming sensations that they struggle to name. Most boys are not taught to be introspective, tune into what they feel, or be self-aware. They are trained to bottle it up, deny what they feel, or distract themselves by keeping busy. The one emotion that often isn’t discouraged in boys, especially in the media, is anger and violence. So in time, boys begin to learn that if they feel inadequate, it must be the fault of someone else who was disrespecting them. In a world void of communicating how they feel, the easy way for boys to get this respect and be heard is through violence.

The Solution

Research by John Gottman in his 2002 book ‘The Relationship Cure’ supports an emotion-coaching (“I understand. Let me help you!“) environment as best for assisting boys. It helps them to develop more prosperous and more connected relationships when they are older. An emotion-coaching environment can also encourage boys to turn towards adults more frequently because they learn how helpful guidance from empathically attuned adults can be when trying to cope with overwhelming feelings.

We need to create an environment where:

  • it is okay for boys to feel scared or sad or embarrassed or vulnerable or ashamed
  • it is okay for boys to share or express how they feel without having to act it out
  • boys are encouraged to learn and identify what is going on for them internally and to develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence
  • boys are encouraged to seek help and support if they are struggling, whether this is from their peers, family, teachers, coaches, mentors or a psychologist or counsellor
  • we try to understand what boys are going through emotionally instead of dismissing their feelings (“You’ll get over it!“) or disapproving of them (“Don’t feel that way!“), and
  • it is not seen as a sign of weakness to be emotional or seek help when things are challenging, as this can help boys develop long-term resiliency.

As they say at the end of ‘The Mask You Live In’:

Everyone deserves to feel whole, and each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.

Take the challenge. Exert your influence. We all have a role to play in creating a healthier culture.

If you are a male and want to understand your emotions better, change your behaviours, or feel whole, an appointment with a psychologist could help.

For more information, please check out Man Therapy or The Representation Project.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Do Clients Find Most Helpful About Therapy?

When clients first begin their therapy journey, they often ask to be taught specific skills to help them achieve their particular goals.

Clients believe that if they can be taught these skills, they will overcome their difficulties or the problems that led to them entering therapy. They will then have no subsequent complications or need for additional treatment in the future.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a short-term treatment that clients can easily understand. CBT is based on the premise that all difficulties arise from unhelpful cognitions (beliefs, expectations, assumptions, rules and thoughts) and unhelpful behaviours. Therefore, CBT aims to help clients see that their cognitions and behaviours are unhelpful and tries to teach them skills that can help them replace these unhelpful cognitions and behaviours with more helpful ones. If this is achieved, the assumption is that clients will change and therefore improve.

I believe that if a client can have more helpful cognitions and behaviours, they will have significantly improved psychological health and overall well-being. I’m just not sure if I agree that the process required to get to this outcome is the same as what many CBT clinicians would believe. For example, focus on distorted cognitions has been negatively correlated with overall outcomes in cognitive therapy for depression studies (Castonguay, Goldfield, Wiser, Raue, & Hayes, 1996).

What leads to improvements in treatment?

The article “What Leads to Optimal Outcomes in Therapy?” answers this question in detail and shows that the outcome is dependent upon (Hubble & Miller, 2004):

  • The life circumstances of the client, their resources and readiness to change (40% of overall outcome variance)
  • The therapeutic relationship (30% of total outcome variance)
  • The expectations about the treatment and therapy (15% of global outcome variance)
  • The specific model of therapy (15% of overall outcome variance)

For cognitive therapy for depression, both therapeutic alliance and the emotional involvement of the patient predicted the reductions in symptom severity across the treatment (Castonguay et al., 1996). Many therapists are now aware of these findings, but clients are generally not.

What do clients view to be the most valuable elements of therapy once they have improved?

By the end of treatment, especially if it is a successful outcome, clients tend to have a much different outlook on what they think are the most valuable aspects of therapy compared to what they were looking for at the beginning of their treatment.

Irvin Yalom’s excellent and informative book ‘The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy’ goes into detail about a study he conducted with his colleagues that examined the most important therapeutic factors, as identified by 20 successful long-term group therapy clients. They gave each client 60 cards, which consisted of five items across each of the 12 categories of therapeutic factors, and asked them to sort them regarding how valuable these items were across their treatment.

The 12 categories, from least helpful to most helpful, were:

12. Identification: trying to be like others

11. Guidance: being given advice or suggestions about what to do

10. Family reenactment: developing a greater understanding of earlier family experiences

9. Altruism: seeing the benefits of helping others

8. Installation of hope: knowing that others with similar problems have improved

7. Universality: realising that others have similar experiences and problems

6. Existential factors: recognising that pain, isolation, injustice and death are part of life

5. Interpersonal output: learning about how to relate to and get along with others

4. Self-understanding: learning more about thoughts, feelings, the self, and their origins

3. Cohesiveness: being understood, accepted and connected with a sense of belonging

2. Catharsis: expressing feelings and getting things out in the open

1. Interpersonal input: learning more about our impression and impact on others

The clients were unaware of the different categories and only rated each of the 60 individual items concerning how helpful it had been.

When looking at these categories, giving advice or suggestions about what to do is often not found to be a beneficial element of the therapy process, even though this is precisely what most of the clients are initially looking for. Instead, it is far more critical to develop a more in-depth knowledge of themselves, their inner world, and how they relate to and are perceived by others in interpersonal situations.

The top 10 items that the clients rated as most helpful were (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005):

10. Feeling more trustful of groups and of other people.

9. Seeing that others could reveal embarrassing things and take other risks and benefit from it helped me to do the same.

8. Learning how I come across to others.

7. Learning that I must take ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance and support I get from others.

6. Expressing negative and/or positive feelings toward another member.

5. The group’s teaching me about the type of impression I make on others.

4. Learning how to express my feelings.

3. Other members honestly telling me what they think of me.

2. Being able to say what is bothering me instead of holding it in.

1. Discovering and accepting previously unknown or unacceptable parts of myself.

All 20 clients had been in therapy an average of 16 months and had finished or were about to complete their treatment. These items were about group therapy, so the most critical factors for change in individual treatment may be different. However, even with individual treatment, Yalom believes that the relationship heals in the end.

For more information, feel free to check out Chapter 4 in ‘The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy’ by Irvin Yalom and Molyn Leszcz (2005) or any of the other studies out there that look into the outcomes or therapeutic factors involved in change across psychological treatment.

Suppose you have ever wanted to discover and learn more about yourself, accept yourself more, express yourself better or develop more trust in others. In that case, longer-term psychological therapy may be just what you need!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

How Have Intimate Relationships Changed Over the Years, and Where Does It Leave Us Now?

I just finished reading the book ‘Modern Romance: An Investigation’ by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg and was pleasantly surprised to see such a well-researched book written predominantly by a Stand-up Comedian (with a helping hand from a Sociologist).

For those of you who don’t know Aziz, his stand-up shows typically consist of interesting observations about relationships, as does his new series ‘Master of None’.

Considering that I liked his stand-up and show, I was intrigued to see his book about relationships in my local bookstore. Here’s what his research found:

How Has Dating Changed?

1. Distance

Back in 1932, a Sociologist named James Bossard examined 5000 consecutive marriage licences in the city of Philidelphia, USA, and looked into how close the partners had lived to each other before they married. Here’s what he found:

  • Same address — 12.64%
  • Same block — 4.54%
  • 1 to 2 blocks — 6.08%
  • 2 to 4 blocks — 7.3%
  • 4 to 10 blocks — 10.16%
  • 10 to 20 blocks — 9.62%
  • 20+ blocks — 17.8%
  • Different cities — 17.8%

More than half of Philidelphia in the 1930s married someone who lived in a ten-block radius to them. More than one-in-six didn’t even cross the road to find their marriage partner.

Other Sociologists looked to see if this pattern remained in smaller towns and found that it did whenever suitable marriage partners were available. For example, John Ellsworth Jr., who examined marriage patterns in a Connecticut town of less than 4,000 called Simsbury, declared:

“People will go as far as they have to to find a mate, but no farther.”

While this quote may still be somewhat applicable in modern times, it does seem that we are much more likely to date people of different origins, cultures and addresses to us, rather than settling down with someone who lived on the same street.

2. Places

Where we meet our romantic partners is much different too. Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld’s survey ‘How Couples Meet and Stay Together’ asked over 3,000 American adults of all ages when and how they met their spouse or romantic partner. Because the age of the respondents differed, it made it possible to see the changes between 1940 and 2010. Here’s what he found:

  • In 1940, the most common way couples met was through family (approximately 25%). The second was meeting through friends (21%), followed by meeting in church (13%), and being neighbours (12%).
  • In 1950, meeting via friends had become the most popular method to meet someone (approximately 26%). Meeting through family was still popular (24%) and was a clear second. Meeting in a bar or a restaurant (14%) was becoming more popular, and meeting at work (12%) or being neighbours (12%) was now more popular than meeting at church (10%).
  • In 1970, meeting through friends was the preferred method to find a partner (approximately 31%). Matching through family (20%) was challenged by meeting at a bar or restaurant (18%). Meeting at work was fourth (15%), followed by neighbours, church and college.
  • In 1990, meeting through friends was just below 40%, finding your partner at work was now second (20%), followed by meeting at a bar or a restaurant (18%). Meeting through family and being neighbours had declined as ways to find a partner. Instead, more people were meeting in college, presumably because more people were also going to college and studying longer. Some early adopters were starting to date online too, but this was still the least favourite method of meeting potential partners.
  • Fast forward to 2010, and meeting through friends was still the most common way couples met, but it was under 30% for the first time since 1960. Meeting at a bar or restaurant fought with meeting online for the 2nd most popular method, with both around 20%. Meeting online was already the most popular option for same-sex partners in 2005 and was up to about 70% by 2010. Meeting at work, meeting through family, being neighbours and finding dates through the church was now much less popular as ways to meet someone, and even meeting at college was beginning to decline. All thanks to the rise of the internet!

In a separate study looking at how Americans met their spouses between 2005 and 2012, Psychologist John Cacioppo found that more than one-in-three married couples met online (34.95%), which was more than work (14.09%), friends (12.4%) and a bar or club (5.68%) combined. So all of the recent advances in technology, especially the internet and smartphones, really has changed the dating scene dramatically, including how we meet, who we meet, how many potential partners we can meet, and even how we communicate with each other.

3. Communication Methods

The first text ever was by a British engineer called Neil Papworth in 1992. It’s crazy to think how much this form of communication has grown in only 24 years. In 2007, text messages began to outnumber phone calls made in the US each month, and in 2010 the world sent approximately 200,000 texts each minute. Since 2010, the number of people owning smartphones has dramatically increased in the USA. It rose from 17% in 2010 to 58% in 2014. 83% of 18- to 29-year-olds already owned a smartphone in 2014. With greater smartphone use comes an increasing use in apps such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber, which further increases instant messages sent.

Calling vs Texting vs Face-to-Face?

First Dates

Seeing that text messages have been a more popular way of communicating since 2007, does this mean that it is now okay to text someone to ask them out on a first date?

  • In 2010, only 10% of adults under 30 used texts to ask someone out for the first time.
  • By 2013, a survey found that this number had increased to 32%, with face-to-face still leading the way with 37%, a phone call less popular at 23%, and e-mails virtually non-existent at 1%.
  • For adults over 30, this same survey found that a phone call (52%) was the most likely method of communication when asking someone out on a date, followed by face-to-face (28%), text messages (8%) and e-mail (7%).

Older females tended to appreciate phone calls in the focus groups that Aziz and Eric ran about whether to phone or text. They saw them as a sign of confidence and helped separate the person from other potential suitors. It also helped them feel more safe and comfortable going out on a date with someone they may not know very well.

Younger females seemed just as afraid to receive phone calls as younger males were in making them. They preferred not having to respond on the spot and having time to think of a witty or genuine reply or not even reply at all if they weren’t interested, and texting provided them with these options.

Breaking Up

What about breaking up — can this too be done via text without seeing the reaction of the heart that you are potentially breaking? It sure sounds more comfortable, but is it socially acceptable?

  • In a 2014 survey of 2,712 18- to 30-year-olds, 73% said they would be upset if their date broke up with them via text, social media or email.
  • In this same survey, out of those who had ended a relationship in the previous 12 months, 25% had used text, 20% had used social media, 18% had split face-to-face, 15% had broken up through a phone call, and 11% had used email.

With texting, those who had used this method to break up said that they did so because it was “less awkward” and easier to be “more honest.” I still think it is wrong to end a long relationship over text, no matter how much easier it may be. Even though the majority of young adults still agree with me, their actions say the opposite. It’s only a matter of time before their attitudes begin to change in regards to this too.

Texting Guidelines for Dating:

1. Do not just say “hey”, “hi”, “what’s up?”, “what’s going on?”

  • Generic messages like this tend to be a real turn-off for some people, especially females who receive many texts like this from several different guys. It is much better to ask a specific question about them or something that refers to the last time you spoke.

2. Do not just engage in endless banter that never leads to a real-world catch-up.

  • Endless banter gets boring eventually, and older women, in particular, have less patience for constant text exchanges.

3. Do not just ask someone if they want to “hang out sometime?”

  • It’s confusing whether hanging out is a date or just friends, and it may never lead to an actual date. So instead, invite them out to a particular event, or ask them to meet you at a specific time and place.

4. Do try to proofread your text messages for correct grammar and spelling.

  • Incorrect spelling is often a major turn off, as is shortening words or using text slang. Determine the audience first, but stick to “tonight” rather than “2nite” if unsure.

5. Do use a bit of playfulness and humour, but with caution.

  • Make sure that you have a similar sense of humour before engaging in anything too risky or crude, and remember that it can be challenging to pick up on tone in text messages.

6. Follow the other basic rules around texting:

  • Please wait a while to text back instead of doing it right away, especially early in the dating process. Waiting a bit implies that you have a busy life and builds suspense, increasing the emotional intensity and attraction in the person who has to wait.
  • If you have already sent a text, do not send another message to the same person until you hear back from them unless it is an absolute emergency.
  • Write a similar amount in your texts to what the other person does. If you increase it slightly, they should too if they like you due to our tendency to reciprocate. If they do not, this may mean that they are not aware of the cultural norms around texting, or they are just not that into you.
  • If you are not interested, others will tell you to be upfront and honest with them, but most people actually either pretend to be busy or stop texting back.

4. Expectations

When choosing a partner, it seems that our expectations of what the other person needs to provide us have continued to increase over the past 50 years:

  • Before the 1960s, most people were happy enough with settling for a “companionate” or good-enough marriage. People didn’t spend forever looking for passion and love (even though this may have developed over time). Many people saw passionate love as too volatile or irrational to use as the basis for whether or not they should marry someone.
  • When looking for a prospective husband back in 1939, men with a dependable character, emotional stability, maturity and a pleasing disposition were all more highly sought after by women than men they felt mutual attraction and love towards.
  • By the early 1960s, 76% of women were willing to marry a man they didn’t love.

“Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship.” — Esther Perel.

  • When looking for a prospective wife in 1939, men also highly valued emotional stability, maturity, a dependable character and pleasing disposition, and interestingly also appreciated ambition and industriousness over mutual love and attraction.
  • By the early 1960s, however, only 35% of men admitted that they were willing to marry a woman that they didn’t love. Men already had more legal rights and financial freedom and weren’t looked down upon for moving out of the house and enjoying single life before getting married.
  • By the 1980s, things had changed, with 86% of men and 91% of women in the US saying they needed romantic love to marry someone.
  • In 2008, mutual love and attraction were rated #1 for men and women looking for a prospective partner.

No longer do people settle for companionship or what is good enough. We also want passion and the perfect life partner who completes us, gives us belonging and identity, mystery and awe, and makes us happy. Some people even declare that they are looking for their soul mate and refuse to settle for anything less.

This search for the perfect partner seems to take a lot of emotional investment, trial and error, potential heartbreak, and much stress and indecision. However, if we find our soul mate, the potential pay-off should theoretically be much higher than for an old-fashioned “companionate” marriage. However, with more possible options and higher expectations, how can we know if we have found the one to marry?

5. Marriages

At what age do we get married?

From 1950 until about 1968, the average age of first marriages in the US was about 20 for females and 23 for males. In the mid-1970s, this age rapidly increased until it briefly stagnated at about 24 for women and 27 for men between 1999 and 2004. It then began to rise again to about 27 for females and 29 for males in 2014. In bigger cities, such as New York, it is over 30 for both males and females.

After how long do we tend to get married?

Before the 1960s, the average couple wed after just six months, according to Stephanie Coontz, author of ‘Marriage, A History’. However, the dating period and the engagement period tend to be much longer these days, with some couples even choosing to live together in a de-facto relationship without ever marrying.

Do we even need to get married anymore?

Before the 1960s, getting married, buying a house, and moving out were the first significant steps that signified the transition to adulthood. Single women rarely lived alone, and many families discouraged their daughters from moving into shared housing with other working girls. Their parents were heavily involved in their decisions, even who they dated, and typically always knew about their whereabouts.

Women of previous generations would sometimes get married to get out of the house and get their first taste of adulthood and freedom. However, once married, they were not always more free to do what they wanted. Instead, they had to depend on their husbands for legal and financial purposes whilst being fully responsible for looking after the house and the children.

Although things still aren’t fully equal with men and women, with women typically earning less and having to do more housework and child-rearing, they now have equal legal rights regarding property and divorce. Alongside the greater acceptance of various lifestyle choices, including moving out without getting married, marriage is now a choice rather than a necessity for many women.

6. Choices

Thanks to the advances in technology, we now have more potential options available to us at the click of a mouse or swipe of a button than we have ever had before.

Thanks to the greater rights and freedom provided to most women in the Australian culture, we also have a new developmental period between adolescence and adulthood called emerging adulthood (ages 18–29). It is a phase where people can go to university, start a career, travel, move around a bit, and have some fun and relationship experiences before settling down and getting married.

During emerging adulthood, we end up greatly expanding our pool of potential romantic partners. Once you include online dating and other apps for meeting people, the number of possible partners grows exponentially, especially in bigger cities like Melbourne.

But does having more choices make it easier to find “the one”?

Research on the paradox of choice would suggest not. As I’ve already mentioned in a previous post, Barry Schwartz, a Psychologist, describes an experiment at a supermarket where they offered 24 different samples of jelly (jam) to customers on day one and six jellies on day two. The day with only six options outsold the day with 24 possibilities by ten times the amount.

Too many options lead to indecision and paralysis and higher discontent after a decision. So before you are searching for a partner, especially if it is online, make sure that you have a sense of what is truly important to you and what is not, and try to limit your search to these options. Then if you find someone who seems to be alright, give them a real chance before moving onto the next one. You’re likely to be more satisfied on a long-term basis if you do.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

My Top 5 Psychology TED Talks

In order of fewest views to most, I will present my favourite TED talks, along with a brief description of what they are about, why I think they are great and where you can find out more information about these concepts if you are interested. Enjoy!

5. The Surprising Science of Happiness by Dan Gilbert (13 million views)

Summary: Human beings are the only animals that can simulate experience and imagine what something will be like before we do it. This capacity to visualise future experiences is a helpful tool to have. It is one of the main reasons humans have been able to make all of the advances that we have since the industrial revolution. However, our experience simulator has its limitations and is often not accurate due to what is known as an impact bias.

An impact bias is the tendency to overestimate the impact that a future event will have on our emotional life and overall happiness levels. The most striking example, which I’ve previously mentioned in another article, is that 12 months after becoming a paraplegic or 12 months after winning the lottery, an individual’s level of happiness is usually the same as before the event took place. It is the same with weight loss, moving houses, relationship break-ups and infidelity, and getting a promotion at work. Whether it is a positive or negative event, they will consistently have less impact, less intensity and lesser duration than what people will expect them to have.

When things work out the way we want them to, this is known as Natural Happiness, and most people understand why someone is happy. It makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is Synthetic Happiness, which is the happiness that is created by our “psychological immune system” when we don’t get what we want. Research has shown that even though other people respond to examples of Synthetic Happiness with a “yeah right!” response when they hear about it, it is every bit as enduring as Natural Happiness.

What I liked about it: Even when things don’t go as planned or we don’t end up getting what we want, most of the time, our “psychological immune system” will step into action and help us feel pleased not despite, but because of what has occurred. While most of us might picture ourselves being miserable if things don’t work out, the truth is that we will generally be okay, so don’t spend too much time fretting over all of the bad things that may occur in the future. Humans are amazingly resilient, even in the face of the worst possible outcomes.

On the positive side, we should also try not to sacrifice too much good stuff (fun, leisure, play, excitement, adventure) in the here and now for that eventual pay-off that is likely to be less rewarding and less enduring than you imagine. It is much better to create the type of life that we want now than always putting it off until a later date (after I finish studying; after I get married; after I retire; after I lose weight etc.).

If you’d like to learn more: Read the book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ by Dan Gilbert.

4. The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (14 million views)

Summary: Our society, especially in the West, tends to value being social and outgoing, or being an extrovert, above all else. An extrovert is someone who craves large amounts of stimulation, both environmentally and socially, to feel lively and capable. On the other hand, introverts tend to feel most comfortable, switched on, energised, and creative when they are in low-key or isolated environments.

The key to maximising everyone’s talents is finding the best level of stimulation for each individual. However, we design our schools and workplaces and social settings to allow the extrovert to thrive. These designs only further disadvantage the introvert and diminish their performance, confidence and level of well-being. Introverts often feel different from mainstream society or ashamed of who they are, but between a third and a half of all individuals are introverted. It’s just that they are often quieter and tend to get lost in the crowd.

What if, instead of forcing introverts to thrive in an extroverted world, we could instead diversify things to appeal to everyone’s strengths. What if each student and worker could study and perform in the environment that best suited them? Introverts often have talents and abilities in the areas where extroverts are the weakest, so accepting, encouraging, and celebrating the strengths of introverts and extroverts would help society flourish better as a whole.

What I liked about it: Growing up, I always knew that I became overstimulated and struggled to perform at my best in loud, busy environments. I hated going out to clubs on the weekend and tended to enjoy smaller gatherings to large crowds or festivals. I even found large lectures much more challenging to concentrate on than a small tutorial or studying at home by myself. Some of my favourite pastimes include spending a big chunk of time by myself relaxing, reflecting or reading a book. I love excitement and adventure too, which makes me more of an ambivert, but I need my quiet times to recharge and keep functioning at my best. Accepting myself for who I am and working with my strengths is much better than forcing myself to be like someone else that society values the most.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain.

3. The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown (24 million views)

Summary: Brené Brown is a social worker who has studied human connection, imperfection, shame, fear and vulnerability. She believes that human connection is why we are here on this planet, and it is what gives us meaning and purpose in life. She says that what prevents us from connecting with others truly is shame and fear and that to connect, empathise, belong and love, we need to be seen, which takes extreme courage and vulnerability. It is possible to be worthy of love, connection and belonging without being perfect. We need to be compassionate towards ourselves and believe that we are worthy. While it may seem appealing to not be afraid before we act, it is actually through leaning into the discomfort, embracing vulnerability, and being willing to take emotional risks that we will find the most rewarding experiences and connections.

What I liked about it: Not only does Brené Brown talk about vulnerability, but she also leads by example by opening up about her struggles with vulnerability. She shows that life isn’t about waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we act upon something or try something out, as seductive as infallibility may be. If we don’t take risks or be vulnerable, we sacrifice the quality of our relationships, and we miss out on opportunities that we may never be able to get again. But, on the other hand, when we are vulnerable, we don’t waste our precious time or turn our backs on our potential strengths. Instead, we manage to connect with others and contribute in a way that is uniquely ours.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the book ‘The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are’. Even better is the book ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’ by Brené Brown.

2. Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are by Amy Cuddy (33 million views)

Summary: It has been known for quite a while that our body language impacts how others perceive us and how successful our interactions with others are. Amy Cuddy has researched our nonverbal behaviour further and shows that this can also affect our thoughts, feelings, hormone levels and subsequent behaviour. For example, holding any two of the five “power poses” shown in the talk for only 60 seconds each can increase testosterone levels and feelings of power while reducing cortisol levels and stress. It may even change how you perform if done before important meetings, speeches, exams, job interviews, or other stressful occasions. Like Amy says, power posing allows us to “fake it until we become it!”

What I liked about it: The concept of power posing brings about all types of possibilities for helping people with anything that they usually lack confidence in or feel a high degree of stress doing. If only 2 minutes of power posing can increase their likelihood of success, then it should be taught everywhere, from homes to schools to workplaces. In the last chapter of Amy Cuddy’s book ‘Presence’ she includes some examples of people (and even horses) that have successfully applied power posing in their lives.

The Imposter Syndrome is another critical issue that Amy touches on during her talk, and it is an experience that a lot of us (between 60–70%) have at one point or another in our life. I know that I did when I first made the state Volleyball team as a junior and when I first started studying for my Doctoral Psychology degree. The Imposter Syndrome is where people feel like they are a fraud or shouldn’t be in the position they are in because they “don’t deserve it” or that “somebody has made a mistake”. They worry that although they have been able to convince people so far of their capabilities, it is just a matter of time before others catch them out for the imposter they are. Realising how common this is and that in time it can go away would provide hope to anyone watching who is going through a similar experience.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the book ‘Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges’ by Amy Cuddy.

1. Do Schools Kill Creativity? by Sir Ken Robinson (38 million views)

Summary: Our current education system is outdated and fails to adequately prepare today’s children for the uncertainty and unprecedented growth that is likely to occur in the future.

The current hierarchical structure of subjects tends to place maths and languages at the top, followed by the humanities and arts. Furthermore, art and music are considered higher than drama and dance, even within the arts.

Somehow as we go up in school levels, the creative pursuits are pushed aside, devalued and even stigmatised instead of the more serious subjects that are supposed to ready us for the workplace. But schools are still preparing us for the needs of industrialism, not for the rapidly evolving society where we are not even aware of what is ahead of us in five years, let alone what the world will be like in 2065.

Wouldn’t it be better to help each child to utilise their creativity in figuring out where they are most “in their element” and encourage them to pursue a career that is consistent with both their strengths (what they are good at) and their passions (what they enjoy)?

What I liked about it: Considering that we’ll never exactly know what we are preparing students for, teaching them to be curious, creative, innovative, flexible and resilient should be at the top of the list of the skills to help develop in children. If we can do this, then no matter what takes place in the future, today’s children will be in the best position to adapt, grow and evolve.

We should also let go of seeing intelligence so narrowly and know that it is diverse, dynamic and distinct. We should start looking for and nurturing each child’s unique capacities instead of trying to force them into becoming A+ Maths and English students. Ken uses the example of Gillian Lynne, who her school diagnosed at eight years of age as having a learning disorder similar to ADHD. Nowadays, she would likely be put on Ritalin to help reduce her restlessness and remain focused in class, but luckily the specialist that she saw noticed her need to move and dance to music and told her mother to enrol her in a dance school instead. Gillian did this, began to flourish, and went on to choreograph “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”, entertaining millions and making millions in the process.

If you’d like to learn more: Read the books ‘The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’ and ‘Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life’ by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica.

Feel free to comment about which ones you liked the best or if there are other TED talks that you would have included in your list.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Personality Assessments – The Way to Figure Out Who We Are

There are many different assessments tools that Psychologists can use to help you answer the big question — “Who am I?”

I will introduce these to you now so that you can determine if you’d like to give any of them a try:

#1 — Psychiatric Assessment

Many Psychologists will take a clinical history during the first session, which is usually the assessment phase of therapy. They may typically start with your presenting issue or the reason that you came to treatment. Next, they will ask when this issue began and if you’ve experienced similar or other problems in the past. Next, they will ask about other current psychological, emotional or physical symptoms that you may be struggling with. They will then see if you’ve had previous treatment before, how you found it (helpful or unhelpful and why), and if you are on any medication or suffering from any medical condition. They will then briefly go into your family history, occupational and educational history, ask about your interests and hobbies, and the main supports and relationships in your life. The assessment phase typically ends with clarification of treatment goals and a collaboratively decided upon plan to help you address your presenting problem and achieve your treatment goals. This process may occur in only one session or spread out over multiple sessions to collect a more in-depth history. Psychologists are likely to revisit these issues at various points during the subsequent treatment. However, the information obtained during this assessment is usually enough for Psychologists to get a good sense of who you are, what you struggle with, and what treatment may help you achieve your goals, address your concerns, and improve your quality of life.

#2 — Self-Report Personality Assessment

There are three self-report questionnaire-based personality assessments that Psychologists may give to you in session if it is essential to be thorough and accurate in determining who you are, what you struggle with, and what your diagnosis might be (if you have one). These are the 567-item Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), the 344-item Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI), or the 175-item Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI-III). These Personality Assessments have good psychometric properties, meaning that they are reliable, valid, and useful. They also have questions to determine if you are lying or portraying yourself in an unrealistically positive or negative way. However, they are time-consuming to fill out and score up, so it is essential to determine if it is worth the cost for the extra accuracy that it may bring in helping you figure out who you are.

Another self-report questionnaire that can be given in session to determine what you are struggling with is the Young Schema Questionnaire, but this is likely to be only used if you are undergoing Schema Therapy. This is a longer-term type of therapy recommended for clients who haven’t benefited as much as they would like from traditional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

There are also free personality assessments that anyone can access on the Internet. My personal favourite and one that I recommend as a homework task for clients who want to find out more about themselves is the IPIP-NEO, based on the five-factor (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism & Openness to Experience) personality model. There is a short-form (120-item) and a long-form (300-item) version, but I usually recommend the short-form, as it produces similar findings. I like the IPIP-NEO the most because it gives you a percentile score on 30 different facets of personality and compares how you see yourself to how other people of the same age from the same country and of the same gender see themselves. I then typically get clients to bring and share their responses if they would like to, which provides me with a much higher understanding of who they are, how they see themselves, and why they may struggle with the things they do. It is much better and more comfortable to accept the client for who they are and help bring out the best in them through treatment rather than force them to change into something that maybe doesn’t suit their natural temperament or personality style. It also helps me overcome any cognitive biases that I have to empathise with the clients I see more accurately.

I have also sometimes recommended the Meyers-Briggs Type Inventory, and this can be good for determining what career may be suitable for you. However, I don’t find it useful because it categorises everyone into 16 personality types, which isn’t much more than the 12 different star signs. I have a similar issue with the DISC personality assessment (4 types) often used in business settings or the Enneagram of Personality (9 types). However, other people swear by their accuracy and usefulness in helping us understand who we are and why we do what we do, so please feel free to check them out and see for yourself if you are interested.

#3 — Projective Personality Assessment

The two primary projective tests psychologists use include the Rorschach Inkblot Test and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). These tests aim to clarify further what may be happening in someone’s subconscious or beyond their awareness by assessing how they interpret vague or ambiguous inkblots or pictures. Because they are deliberately ambiguous, it is thought that what the individual says is actually their subconscious processes being projected onto the images. There are structured ways for these tests to be administered and scored so that the interpretations become more valid and accurate. However, the descriptions are still subjective, and the same client responses may be interpreted in different ways by different Psychologists or even by the same Psychologist depending on who the client is. I, therefore, believe that projective tests can be useful, but only alongside other clinical information or forms of assessment so that the therapist can determine a complete picture of the client. Other creative forms of expression, including drawing, painting, writing, sculpture, music, dance, and even dream interpretation and analysis, are other projective tools that a therapist can utilise within or outside of therapy. The interpretation of these forms of expression is even more subjective than projective tests. Still, it can provide a nice window into who we are if we are willing to free-associate and delve deeper into figuring out the potential meaning inherent in what we think about and do.

To summarise, a Psychologist can definitely help you figure out who you are and why you do things, and they are provided with a lot of training to do so. Friends and family can give us useful feedback, but remember that even Psychologists aren’t allowed to assess or treat their friends or family because they are likely to be too biased in their work. There are some great books out there on Personality and the free tests on the Internet that have been mentioned above. The more specific, thorough and scientifically validated the personality assessment is, the better, more accurate, and more useful it is likely to be, but this can be both time consuming and costly. The IPIP-NEO is a great place to start if you are merely curious but not willing to spend any money just yet.

Once we have figured out who we are, it is time to move onto the next big question — “What is important to me, and what do I want to do?”

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist