Emotional Blackmail or Real Call for Help? When your partner threatens to commit suicide.

“Come back. I’ll kill myself if you don’t.”

Emilia was very distressed when she arrived at my office. She had moved in with her boyfriend recently, and after their first ever argument, she had suggested she would take a break and spend a few days at a friend’s place. He threatened to jump off the building’s roof if she was to leave him. They had then spent the rest of the evening and night discussing and patching up things. She was shaking when she narrated the event, and was wondering how strong was her partner’s love that he would want to do this if she left.

The media and our culture reinforce that we must believe in Romantic Love, promoting the idea that we cannot live without the other as natural and desirable. Our culture elevates this to the apex of any expression of true love and emotional achievement. How many times have we heard or said things like “How could I live without you?”.

This feeling is natural in the early stages of a relationship when we fall head over heels in love with our new partner. Nature has wired us that way, it is a necessary step in ensuring we survive by reproducing. That feeling implies a high, a surge of passion that is so powerful that indeed for a while, we feel we can’t live without the other, and we express it. We’re addicted. But the media and culture get it wrong, when they try to convince us that this is the only way to be in love and that such feeling must endure and is sustained….forever. In reality, the stage of love intoxication lasts only anywhere between 2 months and 2 years.

After that, we go through many stages of love, until stability is reached or we leave the relationship instead. But whatever the point in a relationship, there is a difference between saying “I can’t live without you” and “I’ll kill myself if you leave me”.

The first sentence is stating that we’re intoxicated by the other, and hence the statement is naturally very emphatic. This stage will pass. The second statement implies that if we exercise our free will (to leave or stay), then we control our partner’s destiny (to kill oneself or not) and they, in return, need to use coercion to impose their desire for togetherness upon us.

This second statement is not love. It is an attempt by one partner to control the other, because things are not going their way in the relationship, by making them responsible for one’s feelings and behaviors. It is emotional abuse.

This form of control may stem out of mental illness, such as your partner being borderline, bipolar or very severely depressed. If your partner is ill, s/he might have every intent to follow through with that threat, in which case you need to take it seriously and immediately call a doctor, mental health practitioner or the emergency services. These partners are using this form of control out of necessity, like a desperate cry for help.

But more often this kind of control is not caused by a momentary romantic love high or by mental illness. It is a particular strategy for coercing you to do as is demanded of you or to scare you out of a personal choice. The person’s decision to live or die becomes conditional on your response. It generally happens when the coercive partner fears or hunches that you might leave the relationship. It is a manipulation of your care or feelings of love and a pressure meant to provoke fear. You would then give in to the coercive partner’s demands to avoid a tragedy. Over time, the coercive partner will repeat the threats because they have learned that the manipulation worked.

If you are thus threatened, you might go through stages of fear, feelings of responsibility, anger, resentment, grief, guilt, and exhaustion. It might traumatize you. All those symptoms are identical to those felt by battered partners in an abusive relationship.

There is only one way to handle a partner who threatens to kill themselves if you leave them: stick to your boundaries and decisions. If you intend to severe the relationship, do it, regardless of what they might say.

If your partner is mentally ill, do the same, but call emergency or other services as well.

Sticking to one’s limits does not imply callousness, it means delivering your message in assertive yet respectful ways and using a behavior that matches your words.

One might feel guilty about doing this. But we need to remember that a personal choice remains a personal decision, even if it concerns choosing to live or die. They make the decision, not you. A partner’s choice to use suicide threats, that is to be abusive, is their choice, their strategy, not yours. As such, you need to let them be responsible and accountable for their choices.

The threat of suicide is one of the most violent psychological aggression one can be subjected to. It can traumatize. Unless the threatening partner is ill, it implies that this person does not respect you enough to care about your feelings and does not know how to handle relationships healthily. They will keep on using this same threat over, and over again. Do you want this?

Here are some tips for asserting your boundaries:

Do not argue nor fight. Once your partner uses words such words as “you make me want to die”, do not protest nor rationalize. This includes confronting them and saying things like “you are manipulating me”. Do not get embroiled in a power struggle. Only warn that you must take the threat seriously and call for help. Then please, do it.

Do not give into the threat, and stand firm. Instead, take precautions. Call emergency services, suicide watch services, friends and family of your partner, ask them to keep an eye on him/her, warn them of impending crisis. But do not stay nor yield to emotional blackmail.

State your boundaries and decisions, while expressing your care and concern for the person. Then call for help and walk away.

Get over your feelings of responsibility. You are not responsible for anyone’s choices and decisions, unless for yourself and for your young children. What an adult person does or not is not dependant on you. If you give in to blackmail tactics you are reinforcing the blackmailing behaviour. You will remain hostage of your partner’s behavior.

If the person threatens to self harm or to kill themselves over the phone. Hung up and switch off the phone. Possibly tell them first that you will not yield to threat. Then call for help. Notify police or a relative.

We broke up: now what?

Leaving a relationship is difficult and may be one of the most emotionally painful experiences you will live. If you decided to be the ‘quitter’, you may think that this is easier because you are prepared and you have already mentally adjusted. The person being left, your partner, is likely to have more difficulties handling the breakup, as s/he is not fully prepared mentally and emotionally. S/he may have missed the cues, and is taken by surprise. However, leaving is not easy for either side. Each role brings its own issues. In any case, the break up will affect many areas of your life as you pick up the pieces and deal with the disappointment of a broken experience.

A break up affects people at many levels: emotional, social, psychological and material. No matter who breaks the relationship, the partner with the most economic power will “win”, i.e., will suffer the least damage at least in the social and economic realms.  The aftermath of the breakup may result in resentment, retaliation, and anger from your partner and your own anger.  Then there will be material demands such as dividing property, finding a new place to live, deciding on child custody, working with lawyers, and setting new boundaries with your ex partner. This whole process may take weeks or months and even years, as you adjust and rebuild your life and create new beginnings.

You may be hurting right now, even if you are the one who decided to break it off. The pain tells you that you need to heal and learn from this experience. Yet, many of us seem to rush into a new committed relationship before we have had time to take stock about what went wrong and why the relationship ended.

Although we are all different people, breakups follow similar patterns. Moreover, all crises, as they end, follow a similar pattern!

The following may help you make sense of the feelings and situations you may experience with the end of a relationship and other various crises. It is a road map to what to expect over time, until we can say that we have recovered and became wiser about the experience. These feelings and attitudes may happen in succession,  a cycle, or concurrently.

Denial comes first, no matter if we are the one who leaves or the one left behind.  Denial is a wonderful mechanism that allows us to only feel as much pain as we can handle in a given moment. Denial prevents us getting overwhelmed. As we adjust we come back to realities and over time accept what is. Denial subsides gently over weeks, months, or sometimes years.

Acceptance that the relationship has ended breaks denial.  It involves asking honest questions about what caused the separation. If you are the one leaving, part of that work is already done, yet if the separation results in a flare up of destructive emotions involving anger and retaliation, there will be denial as you are experiencing the outcome of your partner’s wrath… and the consequences of enacting your own.

Fear.  We don’t know what comes next as the fabric of our life disintegrates and we have now an empty slate, where we are free to recreate, alone, whatever future we want for ourselves, not knowing whether we have the courage to move on and meet the unknown.

We now slowly start adapting to new circumstances. Some of us are now single parents and must become self-supporting. We have an empty slate. This can be paralyzing.  Unless we can identify and face our fears, the main one being fear of an unknown future, we are likely to experience all of them, unprepared.

The next feeling we experience it of loneliness. Some habits must be altered as you are now totally alone and no longer including another person in what you do. You need to transmute loneliness to aloneness, a state where you are comfortable being on your own and with yourself.

Let’s look at friendship. We may need the presence of friends more than ever when we separate, yet separation and divorce may be threatening to friends as they feel they may have to side, or the separation forces them to question their own relationship. You must be aware that some social relationships will end with the breakup. This may be a time to assess who around you understands the emotional pain you feel and your new status, without rejecting you.

Guilt and rejection are natural feelings during a separation and generally the person who breaks it off feels guilt for hurting the other, while the other feels rejected. Those feelings last as long as the “separation honeymoon”. During that stage everyone tries to behave. Then, within generally three months of the separation, anger is expressed, and the outcomes may be devastating. But, anger is necessary in the process of letting go.

Whether you are the one who leaves, or the one left behind, we brought a lot of our past in that relationship, and the past often determines the present course of events.

Anger can be the most explosive step, and still is absolutely necessary.  Many people discover a brand-new side to themselves and experience rage to an extent they never thought possible. The rage is generally directed at the ex-partner and their property. Rage, if handled properly, is an excellent means to distance yourself emotionally from your ex-partner. In some cases, this emotion becomes extreme, as it also always involves vindictiveness and bitterness. Besides physical harm, an extremely destructive form of expressing anger consists in using the children as a vehicle. If you need to hit below the belt, do not use the children. It is they who will suffer most. Also, remember that if anger could not be expressed in the course of the relationship, it will erupt as you separate and divorce because buried feelings are now allowed to surface.

Grief is the most emotionally draining part of a crisis, yet it is critical to the recovery process. It combines sadness and despair, and may come out as a continuous self talk about the situation, feeling drained, emotional numbness, loss of reality, depression, sleeplessness, significant weight loss, rapid mood changes, and developing illness. A particular note: suicide ideations are common in approximately 75% of persons experiencing grief.

Letting go is another step that happens progressively. It is important to stop investing emotionally in a dead relationship, as this is an investment without chance of return. It is best to invest in your personal growth and fully disentangle. Adopting a no-contact policy for a while and removing mementos are good policy while you still feel fragile. It doesn’t have to be forever.

Then come self-worth. Some relationships that end in separation were destructive to one or both partners’ self-esteem and their sense of self-identity. Self-esteem is often at its lowest when the love relationship ends. To improve self-worth, you must come to terms with the various feelings experienced during a breakup. A separation can become an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. But to do this, you must make a decision to change.

After all this,  there is a period of transition. You want to understand why the relationship ended, perform a kind of autopsy.  This allows you to work on yourself and built different relationships in the future. During that stage, if you do the job, you will understand the various influences  of your family of origins, your social circle, how your own habits and patterns contributed to shaping the relationship. Now is an opportunity to work it all out.  This transition, if well handled, will prepare you to become free to be yourself.  Here are some of the qualities you might work at:

Trust. Build a basic level of trust in yourself as you adjust to singlehood. Too often, we think we cannot trust anyone from the opposite sex anymore after a separation. Loving means to risk being vulnerable again and risking being hurt again. It does not mean that you have to withhold your trust.

Openness. Stop pretending to be someone you are not and to be feeling what you’re not.  It is time to take off the mask and drop the shield. Wearing a mask cannot be sustained over time, as it consumes too much emotional energy and prevents intimate connections. Be yourself, at least with your (new) mate and friends.  Keep the veneer for work and social, non-intimate relationships.

Love. A relationship forces us to ask what love means to us. Often we think that a relationship fails because we are not lovable enough, when in fact it was our partner’s definition of love that was, maybe, not appropriate for us. Learn to love yourself first and foremost, so that you can give love and receive love.

As children, we ought have received unconditional love from our parents. When this was denied to us we turn to our partners and we’re bound to be disappointed because the only unconditional love we can get as adults is the love and unconditional regard we give ourselves.

After a relationship end, we may find another relationship very quickly. It seems that this new relationship has everything which lacked in the previous one. It is not necessarily so. What has happened instead is that we are becoming who we want to be and we are taking back our power and taking responsibility for what we feel as we become clearer about what we want.

Too many people believe that rushing to a new committed, long-term, relationship is going to make them feel ok again. This will not work out. The healthy way to look at those new relationships post-separation is as “rebound.” They are transitional and designed to make you feel whole again. They fulfill the  purpose of making us feel better about ourselves and emphasize passion and romantic love. Yet, be aware that they are built during a needy time in our life. Ensure that your new partner is aware of this. Also learn the skill of healthy termination.

Sex. Conventional wisdom has it that being single guarantees lots of free sex. The other side of the coin is that having a partner ensures stable and safe satisfaction of sexual desires.   People may fall into extremes after a separation: that of no sex at all because of the pain, or that of near compulsive sex, – one night stands – by beaming anger, loneliness, self-doubts to their sex drive. What matters is to find how the emotional aspect of your relationships supports your sexual relationship and whether you can respect your partner and share similar moral value systems about what you consider appropriate sexual behavio

About being single.

There are a few more hurdles that you need to overcome before you can say that you have handled your separation successfully and that you have rebuilt a life to your liking, such as learning to live alone and become once again an independent person. It has drawbacks, especially for women. Single women do not fare well economically compared to single men and couples.  It is also a stage in which you may become stuck for fear of being hurt again if you haven’t done your homework. Look at the benefits: now you have the freedom of choice. As you look backward and take stock, you have come out stronger and more emotionally resilient. You know more about yourself. You have worked through many feelings and experiences. You are free to choose to remain single or try another relationship!

A special word about children. Children of divorce go through the same process described in this article and need to rebuild too. As they follow your example, they will adjust more quickly as a result and grow emotionally resilient. Also, research points to single parents becoming more responsive to the needs of their children, because of what they have learned during separation and divorce.

Stress: Handling it with a compartmentalized life

Life is like a sailing ship. A ship that is sea-worthy has a number of separate compartments. When in stormy weather, one compartment might get damaged but will not cause the boat to sink. When the bottom compartments take water, the second and top decks keep the ship afloat. If the second level also goes, the top decks still keep the structure afloat. Only when water invades all levels of the vessel, does the ship sink.

This image applies wonderfully to your life: you are the captain of the boat. As you identify the compartments that make up your daily activities and your life, and ensure that each is balanced or at least minimally catered for, they keep your life afloat. They absorb the stress of any one damaged area.

While areas may overlap for some people, the lower deck usually comprises work, major undertakings and projects (such as education, purchasing a home and more), partner and social circle. The middle level’s compartments are partner, children, house, family, friends and community, pets, holidays or leisure time and learning something new. The upper deck includes diet, health, physical exercise, spirituality and time alone, indoor and outdoor hobbies.

If one or more of the lower and middle level compartments or even whole levels get flooded, it is then another area that might help you shed some of the stress. For instance, you could rely on family and friends when you have work-related problems or a severe dispute with your partner.

The upper deck is critical. Looking after your health and turning to your all-consuming hobbies such as music will allow you to get some respite away from one stressful area. That stress would be absorbed by another compartment, even if only momentarily.

Try this simple exercise: review the areas of your life; the list given above is an example. Draw a boat, such as the one below. The size of a compartment reflects the amount of resources you dedicate to them. The number of compartments you choose will reveal the areas of your life. Maybe you have a particular area that is not reflected in the drawing below: just add it! boat 1

Ask yourself how much time you dedicate to each compartment, and how well you cater for each area. Fill in details for each compartment. Perhaps you have multiple hobbies or sports activities.

Remember that it is the energy and time you invest in the upper deck areas that will keep you going if your lower and middle levels get flooded and while you take steps to pump that water out. This ability to draw on various resources is what ultimately helps you keep your balance during times of stress and perhaps crisis. If you find that you have too little compartments, now might be a good time to think about what you want to create.

Adapted and expanded from Powell, 2009, The Mental Health Handbook.

Stress Busters on the Go – When Time is Scarce

We all know it: the remedies for stress busting are a regular exercise, well-being or self-care routine, any activity you could practice a few hours a week. The issue is that we need find the time to free our timetable and attend training. Further, it is unlikely that an hour at the gym or in a yoga class will offer enough relaxation to offset a day or a week of stressful activities. The benefits of any routine will only last so long.

The following are some rapid exercises that you can practice on the go. They take only a few seconds, 3 to 20 seconds to be exact. They are highly effective. All you need to do is remember them, and use them as often as you need them.

You can practice several times a day if need be. You can do them before a difficult meeting or other challenging situation, and as you progress through your busy day, when you feel you want to give yourself a breather. They keep you grounded, alert, focused throughout the day, every day. They give you a micro-break and integrate seamlessly with your various activities. You will find that you feel less restless toward the evening, and racing thoughts won’t keep you awake all night.

These short exercises act as a swift pattern-interrupt, a kind of switch-on/switch-off button that prevents stress from increasing further. They take your focus off a trigger. They allow you to perform a quick ‘mental reset,’ as you would do at home with your internet WiFi router when it doesn’t pickup signals. The principle is the same.

• Intentional Listening.
As you engage in your usual activities, identity the faintest sound around you. It could be a clock on the wall or the engine of a car in the street. There are many sounds, so please, select the faintest one. Listen, while you are still doing what it is that you do. A few seconds are enough. You have somewhat split your focus between your present activity and that sound. Neurologically, it is restful.

• Diversions.
Ever found yourself in a tense situation? You might be arguing on the phone with a client, or being stuck in traffic, and you’d rather have it done and over with. Then focus on what it is that you are touching now. Is it a pen? The wheel of your car, your seat? For a few seconds, focus on the feel of that object. Again, as you focus your attention on your current activity, give your brain the means to rest, by tapping into your sense of touch. The brain responds well to touch: it is an immediate prompt to get back to reality, by sensing what is material and tangible. It is grounding, and hence relaxing.

• Notice the breath.
Simply notice how you breathe. Is it choppy? Uneven? Or is it slow and steady? If your exhale is shorter or jerkier than your inhale, you are in stress. If your exhale far exceeds the length of your inhale, you won’t be alert. Decide that your next three breaths are going to have an inhale that is as long as the exhale. This would take 10 to 15 seconds at the most. This is all you need to do. If you are extremely tense, then make sure your exhale is slightly longer that your in-breath.

• Acuppress.
Sitting at your desk and tired or stressed? Using the table as support for your elbow, use the supported hand’s thumb and middle finger to gently touch and perhaps slightly press the inner corner of your eyes, on each side of the nose, right under the eyebrows. You can also place your index between your eyebrows, and pace your breath (see above). There are nerve endings in that corner of the eyes. Touching or squeezing them provokes a parasympathetic (relaxing) response in the brain and then the body. Slow down your breath (see above) as you do this exercise.

• UnSloutch.
Stress expresses itself in our posture, as much as bad posture adds to stress. Whether you are walking or sitting, bring your shoulders up toward the sky, roll them back and down, and immediately get your shoulder blades close together. This will open your chest forward. Tension builds in the upper part of the shoulders and the neck. This leads to eye fatigue and migraine, among other things. Bringing the shoulder blades together in the sequence described, is a powerful counterbalance to tension buildup in that area.

• Intention.
Take a few seconds to observe what you do right here, right now. What do you see? How is the ambient temperature? What do you hear? Can you feel your heartbeat? Is anything happening within your body? Can you describe the color of the nearest object to your left? Now go back to your routine.

• Water and touch.
Next time you use the sink, listen to the water flowing from the tap. In an office or home environment, it is the closest we have to the sounds of nature: the sounds of water are intensely relaxing when you focus on them.

Resources:
Block, S. (2005). Come to Your Senses: Demystifying the Mind-Body Connection. Atria Books
Ortner, N. (2013).The Tapping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living. Hay House
Rosen, R., Yee, R. (2012) Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama. Shambala Publications

Emotional Resilience – Coping with adversity

Some call it ‘mental toughness’, others will talk about ‘emotional resilience’.  These words describe our capacity to face adversity and to cope with stress, and our ability to bounce back to our usual state of balance after some severe or emotionally challenging events.

“What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger” said Nietzsche.

In other words, each time we experience a stressful event and  we successfully go back to a state of balance , our tolerance, or resilience threshold,  shifts  upward, toward  strength and increased ability to cope with difficult events in the future.

It also means that we develop our ability to handle greater complexity: what seemed insurmountable yesterday was lived through, and hence an experience will become more manageable, though still painful, tomorrow. We’ve learned something from the experience, from its context and intensity, and we’ve shown ability to adapt, learn and grow.

Resilience is dynamic, and built over time; it is not something we are born with. It defines our ability to  positively adapt to  and recover from circumstances   such as deprivation, trauma, loss, threats, illness, accidents, and so on. It allows us to show and build life skills competences.

Some of us get caught in a loop and experience delays in adapting to and growing out of a crisis.  For instance, if a negative circumstance is far too overwhelming for our current capabilities, psychological distress involving grief,  fear, rage, frustration and other emotions,  or mental injury, can occur.  This results in symptoms such as victimization, overwhelm, fatigue, substance abuse, and mental health problems in the form of depression, post traumatic disorders, phobias, anxieties, obsessive-compulsive disorders, etc.

This in turn marks the difference between survivors, who grow out of challenges and transform a situation into one of personal growth and development,   and persons who sustain mental injury and may take longer, to adapt and grow out of their challenge.

Everyone has a different threshold of resilience overall, and resilience levels differ in any one person according to the type of crisis they meet. This in lay terms distinguishes between who is ‘weak’ and who is ‘strong’ and how a person is very ‘strong’ in one situation and ‘weak’ in another.

Since we all react differently to an identical trauma, these words do not account for the severity of circumstances a person must live through. While all of us will experience the loss of a loved one at least once in our life, not all of us experience accidents, tragedies, abuse, natural disasters or war.  Our age too makes a difference. 2/3 of children who  sustain trauma in early childhood may  have all kinds of issues later in life such as social maladjustment and violence* , while an adult may suffer from depression only or simply rebound quickly.

Resilience is also affected by our moods and our physical health at the time of the crisis, and by the length of exposure to the event.

Finally, resilience is not about ‘toughening up’, ‘bearing it like a man’, or ‘chin up, stiff lips’. It requires acknowledging feelings, grief, anger, pain, and  allowing those to be ‘felt’ as opposed to boxed in and ignored or controlled.

Building up/recovering your natural resilience

Your personality traits and your environment are major factors in your ability to deal with stressful situations. This makes it important for you to know what situations you can easily cope with, and the ones you have problems handling.

Support groups, associations of psychologists and other professionals all recommend the following, to implement as a priority, in any order:

  • Commit to recovery from the situation and make it your priority for a while.
  • Delay making life decisions (change of job or  residence, separation or marriage etc, until you feel your emotional stability has returned, whether this takes days, weeks or months after the event)
  • Spend time developing, improving, maintaining relationship with partner, kids, family members, friends and other acquaintances. The closer and more meaningful your relationships are, the better your ability to cope when distressed or stressed.
  • Talk about your feelings with people who are close to you. Let some steam off in safe settings. Vent it out, in safety. You may find that people around you have lived similar circumstances and they can guide you and support you as they share your burden.
  • Gain understanding, seek knowledge about the situation. This helps you view the crisis not as an unbearable problem, but as a situation you can act upon decisively, because you know the facts.  It also helps reduce fear, which tends to exaggerate as stress levels rise.
  • Accept that circumstances sometimes can’t be changed; in this case, walk out of the situation if you can, or develop your other coping skills if you can’t.
  • As you come out and recover from the event, develop a set of recovery goals (e.g., spending time with close friends) and carry them out, slowly. Delay making big decisions.
  • Improve your physical health, with nutritional choices, physical exercise, relaxation, and enough sleep. These steps will ease the stress you are under.
  • Implement a daily routine and stick to it – show the world that you are stating that life goes on as usual, regardless of whatever scare comes your way.
  • Develop a hobby, an interest which can absorb you, something you enjoy doing.
  • Help others, volunteer to help.  Being a support to others is documented to increase ability to cope with difficulties. It makes you feel more capable.
  • Look at learning from the past, review how you handled the events, as this becomes an opportunity for self discovery and acceptance, and will help you develop confidence in your ability to handle future events.
  • Keep a long-term perspective on the events; see them in the broader context of your life, and life span.
  • Cultivate hopefulness and optimism. Visualize what positive outcome you expect further down the line. As the saying goes, ‘there’s light at the end of the tunnel’
  • Wonder what the meaning of your life is, in this situation and in your future.
  • Call for professional assistance, medical doctors for medication, and therapists for counselling and psychological support, pastoral counsel for spiritual support.

 

If you wish to discuss some troublesome event and find ways to move forward, please contact me to schedule your obligation free, 30 minute consultation.

Sources and Resources:
An excellent book is “Man’s Search for Meaning “by Viktor Frankl, the father of Logotherapy. Various printed and online resources are available on topics such as trauma, PTSD, depression, OCD, etc, with coping tips and strategies.

 *see online references on the work of Emmy E. Werner, Developmental Psychologist

Transforming Our Internal Universe – Part 2 : The Feedback Loop

This post revisits the  topic  of my previous blog, Transforming Our Internal Universe on changing our brains and how we can release encoded memories and break old habits in order to rewire our minds for greater performance and overall enjoyment of life.

To summarize, in order to change, grow and develop ourselves, we need to demonstrate a will greater than our circumstances and then adopt new habits by initially breaking old ones. Being provided with instant feedback from the responses of our environment as we act and do things greatly assists our personal understanding of the consequences of our actions, for example, as a child when you first touched fire, the feedback was immediate: a burn.

Similar principles apply in more sophisticated forms later in life: as we apply a method of relating to others, at work or at home, their reactions teach us how to adapt our responses to various persons, for the best possible outcome in our communication. The same applies to our work and living habits: a certain way of doing things, such as handling our pile of documents on our desk or setting up a schedule of appointment for the week, may be efficient in which case the outcome (feedback) is immediate and positive: the way we organized ourselves saved us time and effort while fostering a sense of achievement. This type of feedback is self -reinforcing: the more we do of the same, the more we reinforce a habitual way of doing things.

At times, the feedback is less successful or can even be disastrous. If our communication is not well received or not understood, it potentially leads to tense moments when interacting with others. The way we keep organizing our desk leads to the loss of needed documents, generally at the very time they are needed, or we keep our schedule in such way that we miss an appointment.

This type of feedback, after it happens a number of times and doesn’t lead to a desired outcome, tells us that it is time to change the way we are handling things.

We seek to create new behaviors and ways to do things to create the outcome we desire. Accordingly we look for positive feedback. This in turn reinforces our idea that we can adopt this new strategy and it gives us the motivation to pursue it and refine it.

Change requires first that we become aware that something is not working and not serving us. It then requires that the discomfort is great enough for us to want to take steps to get back to a state of satisfaction. It then requires intent. The matter moves from “ something’s wrong “ to “what” to change to “how “ to change it.
The question “how” happens often as we are feeling the full impact of discomfort, stress or even distress about our current condition or issue. It is generally at that stage that we start educating ourselves through self-help or various educational books or any methods on the topic relevant to our issue. Because we are exploring brand new ways to do things, the question now moves from “can I change it” to “how can I change it”, as we become more aware of the issue and grasp ways to solve the issue.

At that point, intent and will power come into play. We consider will as the ability to choose a course and stick to it, no matter what. A simple example would be the decision to stop smoking or lose weight. With will, we believe we can quit cold turkey, or stick to a low calorie diet for the weeks or months it takes to reach ideal weight. We build up our resolve through positive words, creation of a plan, enlisting friends’ support, and many other devices.

“Sticking to it” is the key. This method works for many but not all. Along the way, a cigarette will be smoked and a chocolate cake will be eaten. This may lead to a sense of failure, with the thoughts “ I am weak”, “I can’t do it”. Some will then give up and return to smoking and high calorie diets, while others will persist and give another try at “sticking to it”. The issue becomes that as ‘failures’ pile up, we become much less motivated to give it another try. What can we do then, except for giving up?

There is another approach to using our will and intent: it involves being realistic and expecting failures along the way, and in doing so, we can make the failures more manageable. This requires being aware that what has been wired into our brain for months if not years (e.g., a smoking habit) can not be undone through a statement “just like that, I can will” (please see my previous blog: Transforming Our Internal Universe) for information about how we create and keep habits not only at the thought level, but also how our whole body sets a “normal” threshold of arousal through our biological systems’ operations and creation of chemical cocktail releases, as well as wiring of our neural pathways).

In essence, all our behaviors are not simply the result of habits and mental processes. We have to take into account that we have neurologically wired ourselves to maintain those habits and that not only mental, but also physiological process within our bodies must be taken into account. If behavior and bodily responses are changed, it can re-align thoughts and emotions that are repetitive and habitual, and all those in turn lead us to repeat behaviors of which we are no longer aware, because we are on auto-pilot.

So how to achieve change? It will not happen merely by discounting the strength of our wiring and implementing a new behavior through will alone and which we stack upon old wiring. If this were the case, we would end up with competing drives. Instead, we have to undo the current wiring of our synapses in order to create new wiring, along a new path and then make that path habitual so that associated chemical releases in our bodies change too, until we have developed strong mental connections that lead to a new habit of doing, thinking and feeling.

The key to the will element is to stick to a realistic expectation as we go and in our decision to use a number of tools to reach this goal, one tool being REPETITION of a desired new behavior or pattern of thinking and its associated emotions. Some other tools are: developing awareness of our current wiring, and learning simple techniques to develop such awareness, so we can catch ourselves in the moment and undo the wiring while also implementing, right here, right now, an alternative response. Finally, we need awareness to observe the feedback and draw lessons from it.

If the feedback seems to be the outcome we seek, then we have a new path to pursue by reinforcing our wiring build-up and fostering new cocktails of chemical releases in our bodies. If the outcome is not what we sought, we can seek a brand new path or a slightly different one so we can tweak the responses, or feedback we get.

It is a slow process, made of trials and errors, and hence exercising will is not to “quit smoking” (this is our goal) but to stick to steps that allow us to build our will, and as we become more proficient, leading us toward our goal.

In doing this, we consistently align body and mind and observe our emotions, to foster change, because our being is congruent, without pulls and pushes from one part of ourselves against the other. This ‘consistent’ observation of self and alignment is not a difficult technique to learn and takes no time to implement. It consists in replacing outdated and no longer useful thoughts with new ones. Once such method as been applied to one area of your life, it becomes ‘wired’ too, as memory, thought and behavior, and also as body sensations and physiological and chemical processes, and finally as emotions. You can then draw on this knowledge, where you whole self is ‘aligned’ to now tackle other aspects of yourself that you want to improve, using this same technique over and over again.

In essence, we learn to notice and analyze the feedback we get before and as we change, apply some techniques to develop greater awareness of the various processes going on in our bodies as beacons and compass, do the same with learning to accurately define our emotions, use tools to defuse our thoughts as they relate to what we want to change, learn to operate in the now, moment by moment, and rest our chattering mind and in doing this using our intent or will to REPEAT a new pattern, which in turn creates new neural pathways in our minds.

Those tools and techniques will be the topic of my next blog.

Link to Wired Article on line:
http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/06/ff_feedbackloop/

How do I help and support my friend when I see them in a bad relationship?

You know that your friend’s partner is bad influence and that s/he is not the type of person you would want to mingle with if s/he wasn’t your friend’s dearest. You have also noticed that your friend is no longer his or her usual self and has progressively become more despondent, has lost those wonderful qualities that made you like them and want their friendship in the first place. They are getting somewhat depressed and lifeless, and you know that it has nothing to do with the job or with health concerns. You’ve heard him or her make statements about how their bf or gf has odd behaviors, ones that are both puzzling and painful to them. These comments have increased overtime and are becoming more desperate . Does she tell you that she has to tell him hour by hour where she goes? Does he tell you about sudden mood shifts that make him walk on eggshells?

Sometimes you meet for coffee or lunch, and they spend the whole outing dissecting what their partner does, and they seem to be running in a loop, caught in the same thoughts, trying to understand what is going on? You feel they are stuck in some kind of obsessive monologue, which they can’t escape.

Your thought is “it’s time to tell him or her to get the hell out of this relationship”, but you don’t do it.   You know your friend might challenge what you say, they might even get so angry and pained by your words, that you might lose their friendship. They need you to listen to them, not give unrequited advice, and besides, should you get involved, without risking to impose your thoughts upon them, and be perceived as judgmental or controlling?

Here’s a map to navigate a possibly explosive situation: getting involved and sharing your concerns without being too abrupt about it. Give your friend the gift of your (clearer) observations about their current state of well-being, and about their partner, without appearing to tell them what to do.

First, ask yourself what is your motive in ‘helping’. Is the partner a real asshole who is hurting your friend, or are you trying to get rid of competition?

If you conclude that your motive is clear, and you can impeccably articulate that your friend truly is no longer the wholesome self they once were, that their relationship is not enhancing them nor allowing them tap a new potential, but instead is dulling and distressing them to the point that they are at the most miserable and vulnerable you have known them to ever be, then you are probably right in wanting to help them steer away from a destructive path.

Please understand that blurting out the obvious truth is more destructive than helpful. Your friend got in a relationship for various reasons, but mainly for what s/he thought to be love. They had a dream. We all want our dreams to hold true. As the reality was somewhat different, your friend worked hard to keep the dream alive, very hard indeed. The investment was and remains huge and they want to see it through.  In the process of expanding energy in kindling their relationship, they have become accustomed to ‘different’ ways of interacting. Some of these ways arouse various strong feelings, some good, elation and bliss, others bad, sadness and loss. This different way of interacting, for them, has become, over a period of months or years, a new normal situation. Your friend is not only accustomed to it, expecting it, even if hurtful beyond belief, s/he now craves it and is no longer detached from it.   And here you are, wondering how this happened. Time did it, through progressive adaptation.

It happened because your friend’s brain and whole being strove for consistency. So s/he adapted to bizarre circumstances, slowly, step by step, and now they can’t see the forest for the tree, which you do, for the simple fact that you are removed from the situation: you are not bogged in the quicksand. But they are.

How do you now realign your friend’s fogged lenses back to the reality of their situation?

As stated above, your blurting out why the partner is a d**** won’t work.  What you can do, when your friend tells you about their partner’s bad behavior, is to not jump and say “yes I know and this is…..”, but instead suggest to him or her an alternative example of more reasonable and loving behaviors.  You could also say “what??? Tell me more…” then refer them to an online resource about relationships you just happen to have read. Do this, every time your friend narrates a new incident, mention having heard/read about something similar. Cite the story as you perhaps read it or heard it from a media source or from a third party, and suggest the online link you have read.

Nothing more. I repeat, nothing more. Whatever awakening they come to, they must always walk that walk on their own. Only provide sign posts. Give them some information, but never your opinion.

Meanwhile, remain neutral. Show your feeling of sympathy for their angst. However, if their obsessive talk about their partner is spoiling your meeting with them, direct them to talk about some fun things and simply point out to them that this time is about you two, not about the partner.

Here are some resources:

If the discussion centers on those first moments when they met their partner and some uneasy feelings about it, they can check this site: http://www.dateconsciously.com/free-stuff/quizzes/red-flags-checklist/

If you and your friend are discussing current behaviors and patterns, these sites might help: http://voices.yahoo.com/20-relationship-red-flags-8885539.html?cat=2

http://www.caring-unlimited.org/what-is-domestic-violence/for-victims-and-survivors/is-my-relationship-abusive

If you are now discussing the partner’s unsettling personality traits, this site might help:

https://psychopathyawareness.wordpress.com/tag/red-flags-youre-dating-a-sociopath/

And if you believe that a threshold of spiraling abuse, possibly leading to violence is about to be crossed, suggest this:

http://cmhc.utexas.edu/dv_redflags.html

http://www.theredflagcampaign.org/index.php/dating-violence/red-flags-for-abusive-relationships/

All those sources are in the popular domain. They are conversational and high level, in the dating advice rubrics of any magazine. Some are published by advocacy organizations.

If you strongly believe that your friend is currently in a relationship involving a cycle of abuse and dynamics of violence, it is no longer appropriate to be soft spoken about it. Rather than say “leave”, say,” here’s the contact of… a crisis advocate, organization, etc, perhaps you could call them and have them assess your situation”, or “Do you want me to call them for you?” If you believe that crisis is imminent, then forget about all of  the above, and tell them “get out, leave, run” and be the one to call 911 or if you have to, drive them to safety.

Good luck.