I know you are, but what am I?

When did “I’m good at Math.” turn into “I’m a genius. You’re stupid.” 

When did “I think he likes me!” turn into “I’m hot. Everybody wants me.

When did “Oh, my butt looks so cute in these pants.” turn into “You wish you had my body, bitch.

 

Society has done an amazing job of conditioning us to hear confidence as cockiness. Positive “I” statements as narcissistic. It’s frightful that a healthy self concept can be skewed so negatively. But it happens and the lower the self esteem of the other person, the worse it is. 

In the behavioral neuroscience courses I’ve taken, many of us struggled with understanding sensation vs. perception. The take away from all those lectures was that perception isn’t necessarily reality. It may not have anything to do with what actually happened. The example in class was of an experiment where people listened to a piece of classical music and then reported their mood afterward. Same stimulus, but many different perceptions. People reacted to the same piece of music differently – some fell asleep, some were crying tears of joy, some became angry, others sad and so on.

Much like the classical music, the positive “I” statement also goes through that auditory pathway into the sections of our higher brain that gives the statement meaning. The meaning comes from our own experiences and core beliefs. How we perceive the words may have nothing to do with the words themselves or the person they came out of.

There’s a Greek expression my father used to say – He who has fleas feels itchy. Essentially, if someone has something in their mind (fleas), their reaction is going to reflect that (itchy). Itchy is their state of being. So, if you make a statement of self esteem and the person you say it to has a low self concept or suffers from cognitive distortions, their filter is going to assign a negative meaning to it. It will become evidence that they aren’t good enough. They will mind read you and assume you think you’re superior to them. They might even call you names and tell you they want nothing to do with you. Being around you doesn’t make them feel good because they don’t like the mirror you have become for them.  Nothing you do or say is going to change that. In the end, they need to take a hard look at their own reflection instead of flipping it back onto you.

You are absolutely allowed to acknowledge your accomplishments and take pride in your traits. We are all little works in progress. The more support we give each other, the more likely it will inspire growth and self love. I look to people who make positive “I” statements and feel inspired. In my head I hear “I should try that” or “Oh, that makes me want to write again” or “I wonder how I would look with that hair cut.” But I wasn’t always like that…

Between the ages of 19 and 22, I suffered from dysthymia or what is now called Persistent Depressive Disorder. It’s a chronic low grade depression that casts what feels like a shadow over every area in your life. My self esteem was almost non-existent and my thoughts were extremely negative. I walked around with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. I definitely perceived everything and everyone through that filter. I had a close friend who was gorgeous. She had body confidence for days, could talk to just about anyone and got the attention of boys/men wherever we went. Being in her company made me acutely aware of all the things I felt I wasn’t. I would get upset or border on crying many times we would go out. I would tell her things like, “You just want everyone. Let me have someone too.” She would look shocked, tell me I was also beautiful and could have whomever I wanted, but I felt like she was just telling me these things out of pity. I perceived the tone of her voice as patronizing. I would ask her why she was talking to me like I was some kind of loser. She would give me this look of confusion mixed with annoyance, which made me scared she would stop being my friend. I would apologize profusely and then compliment her repeatedly. I perceived her as being annoyed with me all the time. It got to the point that I felt so self-conscious being around her that I decided to stop talking to her. I didn’t return her calls. I didn’t make any effort to reach out to her. I needed to relieve myself from the anxiety and lowness I felt when I was around her. None of this was her fault. She did nothing but be herself; a self that I couldn’t be. My depression and distorted negative thoughts convinced me I had no business being around her. In one of the last voicemails she left me, she was semi crying and asking what happened; how it hurt her to not know what she did to make me disappear. It’s really sad and messed up. As I look back on that period in my life, it makes me see recent experiences with former friends in a different light. It’s easier to forgive when you’ve been in their place. It’s easier to have compassion when you know what level of lowness their words and actions toward you came from.

These experiences helped me see how far I have come from that dark time in my life and taught me to be more compassionate for that suffering when I see it and experience it in others. If I could say anything to that friend now it would be, I’m sorry. I had a lot of issues and you were a good friend to me despite it all. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I hope you can forgive me.

And to those former friends who treated me in kind, I forgive you too.

 

 

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Using Your Whole Brain to Avoid Drama

A few months back, my sister and I were chatting about how she had learned to cope with her kids’ misbehavior and meltdowns. Unlike the old school European tactics of our parents, she had discovered a way that built a level of self awareness in her children even some adults lack. This magical teaching tool is No-Drama Discipline (image above) written by two of psychology’s leading experts in parenting.

I decided I wanted to read this book not because I am or will be a parent anytime soon nor because it is required reading for my grad school endeavors. What appealed to me about it was gaining another level of understanding the way in which our brains react to emotional situations. While it may be geared toward parents trying not to psychologically scar their children in the process of raising them, its tools can be applied to almost any relational conflict in life.

The WHOLE brain…

The authors speak of the brain in two parts – an upstairs and a downstairs. This rather simple separation makes sense in terms of our reactions. Think of your upstairs brain as your rational, intellectual side that likes to problem solve and think through things before it reacts. It’s the part that has had many millennia of trial and error to evolve into the task master that it is. The downstairs brain is your primitive, reptilian side that reacts immediately and strongly to things that stimulate it. It’s governed by emotional reflexes and, if left to its own devices, would have kept us from ever becoming “human.” The whole-brain approach these experts describe is getting the upstairs and downstairs to work together in order to build a positive sense of self, accountability and resilience, delayed gratification and a host of other mindful things in children.

Adults can have trouble integrating their upstairs and downstairs brains too. We have ALL been there; a situation where reason flies out the window and we would sooner punch a wall than ask questions. That’s the downstairs brain running the show. This reactivity is noted by the authors as being a plea for help or a sign that a child doesn’t know how to process and express the BIG feelings that have overwhelmed him or her in that moment. Adults, too, can have trouble articulating BIG feelings, especially if there is a level of vulnerability involved. What it boils down to is if you punch that wall, will you still be loved? If you are at your lowest, will people still be there for you? If you are your worst self, can you still be lovable? The answers to these questions are in the following steps.

Step 1 – The Connection Cycle

In dealing with relational conflict, the authors emphasize tuning in to the mind beneath the behavior (77).  This is focusing not on what the person has done or said, but on the underlying why. This is sometimes easier said than done; however in the initial moments of the behavior’s aftermath, connecting with the other person begins to communicate a sense of comfort. The connection cycle begins with a physical touch, followed by validating where the other person is emotionally, listening to what they have to say and then reflecting on it. This first step demonstrates that you know the person may be in a bad way at the moment, but you are there and willing to understand them. This approach teaches our kids how to love through good times and bad, as well as promotes the secure attachment vital for their healthy, future adult relationships. Cue the word adult..

Step 2 – A little Redirection

Connection is very much about being in the present moment. While you can’t bend time to undo the offending or upsetting behavior, the “moment” doesn’t have to define the other person, the relationship or life as you both know it. With connection established, you now have a firm grip on why the downstairs brain ran amok. In order to get the upstairs brain on board to resolve the situation, the authors refer to a series of strategies in redirection. I’ve chosen the ones that best apply to adult conflict.

Reduce words – Do not nag, lecture or harp on what happened, since the why behind the behavior is known. Do not do this days, weeks or months after the conflict either. People tune out or conversely, ruminate on the negative. No one feels good in the end.

Describe, don’t preach – I’ve placed this after the above because it relates to what you say. Just describe what you observe. Take all the emotional language, assumptions and judgement out of it. If anything, ask them to help you understand what happened.

Embrace emotions -You want to make sure they know it’s okay to feel BIG emotions, but they are not a license to ACT. This is done through setting boundaries i.e. the standards of behavior that are okay and not okay, while also maintaining connection and being empathetic (97).

Emphasize the positive – Give your focus and attention to behavior you want to see repeated. Statements like “I love it when you…” or “It makes me so happy when we…” open up a dialogue that redirects from the negative thing that happened.

Creatively approach the situation – Humor and playfulness are just as fun in adulthood as they are in childhood. While some situations may be serious, there are still ways of poking fun at ourselves (e.g. Wow, I was being a crazy pants back there!) or at the circumstances (e.g. I feel like this Emoji face right now…and then doing it).

The last strategy of redirection involves teaching mindfulness. One important tool is the do-over defined as a second chance at handling a situation, which is meant to build a child’s empathy and mindfulness. Ask questions like, What could you have done differently? What will you do next time? Ask yourself those same questions.

Mindfulness is the most honest resolution to any relational conflict.

Reading this book allowed me to understand the why behind the demise of a close friendship. It also helped me to have a difficult conversation with someone I cared for deeply with more presence and understanding than if I let my hurt feelings do the talking. Moreover, it paints conflict resolution as a warm and nurturing experience; something I never experienced growing up, but I can now model for my present and future relationships. This book is LIFE!

 

To order a copy: https://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/034554806X

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Instabullies – The Social Evolution of Bullying

I recently saw a news program from the UK about “Dancing Man” that drew attention to cyber-bullying. This man was an overweight, average guy dancing in a club who was photographed and heckled by a group of people (mixed gender) via social media. There is a before picture of him happily dancing and an after photo, where he realized what the group has done and looks ashamed. A group of women in the States caught site of this post and banded together to undo the damage, by hosting a dance party for “Dancing Man.” At the end of the day, the cyber-bullies gave him the opportunity to meet a ton of famous and beautiful women in parties all over the trendiest clubs of Los Angeles; something I doubt they do on a regular basis. The “Dancing Man” is a rare exception to the norm. Most people who are victims of this type of bullying do not have the world come to their rescue. Some may not even be aware that they have been bullied. I’m coining the term “instabullies” as the popular social media site Instagram has become a playground for both insidious and overt bullying. And don’t think for a second that your bullies are just preteens and young adults. The age range creeps well into middle adulthood.

The bullies’ post that body shamed “Dancing Man”

Most of us have an image of what a bully is in mind, either from the media or our own elementary through high school experiences. Outside of getting one’s ass kicked, there are other forms of bullying. Relational aggression is the worst kind of bullying. It’s below the belt, hits you where you are weakest and can have far reaching psychological repercussions. Its hallmark is social manipulation achieved with a number of tactics that include group exclusion, spreading rumors, public embarrassment, breaking confidences, backstabbing and getting others to dislike another person. Popularity (i.e. sociometric status) is a huge determining factor in bullying. Research indicates that relational aggression is more effective for maintaining the popularity status of a group among other groups, as well specific relationship and status dynamics inside a group. Now this seems to apply to the younger, school age population, but bare in mind that group membership and status present themselves at all stages in life. Take, for example, the workplace. Its social organization can mirror high school quite a bit – cliques form of so called popular people who go to happy hours, events and other activities together and only together. The rest of the population either wants to join them, despises them and could care less about their exclusiveness or both despises and wants to join them. It relates back to self esteem – the higher it is, the less sociometric status factors into feelings of one’s worth. Relational aggression is sometimes referred to as the Mean Girls Phenomenon borrowing from the film title that put this form of bullying on the map for millennials. While the mention of Girls may make it seem that it is gender specific, both men and women engage in this form of aggression as we saw with “Dancing Man.” However, it is true that women have a tendency toward the use of relational over physical aggression.

There are many reasons for the above; some obvious and some not. The obvious ones are jealousy, feelings of insecurity and need for control/power. The not so obvious – boredom and social modeling. The former just blows my mind considering how many other activities one could “busy” themselves with over ridiculing others. The latter I have been witness to and fully agree. Just the other day I watched a grown adult take a photo of a morbidly obese woman sitting across from her on the subway and then tell her daughter how she was going to do something funny. Her furious typing indicated to me she was either posting the image with commentary somewhere or sending it via text/chat to her contact(s). That little girl observing this behavior is absolutely likely to copy it if major interventions in school or in her community do not intercede to prevent the cycle from continuing. Recall what I noted earlier about the age range for cyber bullying starting at preteen all the way into middle age – that’s at least two if not three generations all engaging in the same social offense. What does that say about the future of our society?

I often think about how bullying evolved in our human history. When did it become necessary to intimidate and abuse others through physical and psychological means? According to an article on the origins of bullying in Scientific America, it seems to be a universal feature in human society; “…a species-typical human behavior that has little to do with the cultures people live in. Bullying, it seems is part of our normal behavioral repertoire, it is part of the human condition.” (Sherrow) Preliminary research indicates that universal behaviors often have deep evolutionary origins, even stemming from our previous human ancestors – primates. Behavioral studies of animals, including primates, indicate that they engage in bullying. This behavioral pattern was assessed by determining if the behavior was meant to intimidate another. Frequent use of intimidation and aggression to manipulate the behaviors of others and to acquire resources was seen in the female baboon population. In chimps, the author noted that his studies of adolescent males strongly indicated a pattern of bullying as the smaller adolescent chimp attempted to enter the adult male hierarchy. So, essentially we’ve been tearing each other down before we evolved into upright Homo Sapiens, but for a good reason – survival.

Female baboon flipping her lip as a display of aggression…with a little one looking on

The primordial behavior we inherited from our primate cousins has changed dramatically thanks to natural selection. It was modified by our ability to mentalize i.e. our awareness of ourselves and others’ mental states that guide our actions. If you better understand the desires and feelings of others, you have a more effective gateway into manipulating them. Think about any country with a history of coercion and conformity. Bullying is a daily occurrence to maintain social order and control. It’s not the culture that created the bullying. Instead it supports and promotes the use of this behavior pattern. Indeed, bullying can be employed in many different ways and for a variety of outcomes across societies, ages and genders. And with technology making it so much easier to engage in this behavior, bullying could evolve even further into a pastime no different than Candy Crush. Yes, it’s in our DNA; however, it doesn’t have to become our default. A little empathy goes a long way. I’m cautiously optimistic…cautiously.

 

MORE INFORMATION:

US Department of Health & Human Services:

http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/

Sources:

Bullying and social identity: The effects of group norms and distinctiveness threat on attitudes towards bullying. British Journal of Developmental Psychology (2004)

Sherrow, Hogan “The Origins of Bullying” Scientific America December 15, 2011

 

 

YELP me

Def: To utter a short, sharp bark or cry (i.e. to review)

Addendum/Update 10/18/12   It was reported on news-radio this morning that YELP is going to crack down on companies creating fake reviews to market themselves. There will be a “CONSUMER AWARENESS” label on the profiles of the businesses that have done that to let potential clients/patrons that they are guilty of this offense.

Never underestimate the power of a review.

Positive or negative, someone’s assessment of you can and will have an impact on how other people perceive you. The internet is an infinite source of information, posted by all walks of life and intelligence. For this reason, I always take what I read with a grain of salt because I understand that not everything that is published on the world wide web is absolute, unbiased TRUTH. In the field of social psychology, attitudes are an important factor in the evaluation of a particular thing. Our attitudes influence our beliefs and often, our behavior. We form our attitudes in a variety of ways. Personal experience, observation of others’ experiences, social expectations and societal codes of conduct all help to shape attitudes. Another important factor is conditioning, a process of behavioral modification where a person is made to associate a desired behavior with a totally unrelated stimulus. Example: Any commercial ad that shows a subject in an idealized state resulting from the shampoo they used, the drink they are holding or the perfume they are wearing, etc. This is classical conditioning at work and most of us are not conscious to the fact that the ads have worked in this way. Operant conditioning is a little more obvious. A behavior is associated with either a reward or a punishment. The reward, as in getting a bonus for working longer hours, increases a behavior while the punishment, like being asked to leave a restaurant to smoke your cigarette, is said to decrease the behavior.

Keeping in mind that other people’s experiences can form attitudes and thus, influence belief and behavior, you can understand how a review functions on a larger scale. As soon as it is published people will read it, comment on it, re-post or email it to their sites and contacts, tell their friends via social networking sites, “like” and “favorite” until the information has taken on another life altogether. One extremely popular and useful site for reviews is a place known as YELP, where ANYONE can review just about ANYTHING – from spas , to restaurants, schools and even the Department of Motor Vehicles. All you need is an email address to make or break someone’s career. Many businesses have started to realize just how much of an affect these reviews are having on their sales. As a result, some have started providing incentives for positive client reviews and discounts or complimentary services for negative ones. I have seen firsthand how a devastatingly negative review of a colleague led to the comping of the treatment provided and a gift card to use towards a future purchase down the line. Weeks later the same client wrote a second review thanking the establishment for taking such good care of the situation and noting that they would be back with friends soon. In this way, the business did not lose face or future client $$; however the downside is that my colleague’s professional reputation was negatively affected. Any future clientele that come across this review could potentially choose not to book their appointment with this therapist for fear of the experience happening to them. Case in point, I received a booking request recently based on the review another client of mine had posted, singing my praises. This new client’s positive attitude was influenced by another person’s experience of my skills and work.

Here are my thoughts: Before you rush to express your positive or negative experience via the internet, take a minute to assess the gravity of your words. If something truly feels relevant enough to be shared in this manner, I absolutely agree on posting the information. After all, I too YELP; however we all have to possess some level of accountability. For instance, if I am having a bad day and the barista behind the counter at the coffee shop messes up my drink order, that doesn’t mean it was done on purpose or that he/she is an idiot. Also, if I am just getting over a cold, the massage I am receiving may actually make me feel worse the next day. That isn’t the therapists fault; I should have said something. And speaking of sharing important information, an esthetician had a client who never wrote on her intake form that she had a heat sensitivity a.k.a allergy. After the wax treatment, the client claimed that the wax had scalded her. The esthetician, obviously concerned, addressed the client who then admitted her allergy. After pointing out that she never mentioned this to her before or during the treatment, the client proclaimed, “Well, it’s not like you asked me?” Again, accountability applies here. Very few people are truly “psychic” so if you know you have a problem, say something. If you sense a little attitude in what I am saying, perhaps it will influence you to be a little more scrupulous when sharing your TRUTH with others.