Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The role of Emotions

Turn towards emotions rather than away from them

In the end, we cannot avoid emotions, we can only experience them. Trying to suppress emotions may feel like a good short-term solution but is often unhelpful in the long term. If feelings are there, then they are there. Trying to suppress them usually leads them to “slip out sideways” at a certain point. Also, we never get to have information or evidence that challenges the prediction of what would happen if we didn’t use avoidance (e.g. we might learn the emotions are not as overwhelming as we had imagined them to be). Emotions have a purpose and help to organize us in some ways. For instance, if we feel fear we prepare ourselves to escape a threat. If we are sad often it is because we have been wounded and need to heal. Anger might help prepare us for a challenge or obstacle we need to overcome. Attempting to resist or avoid unwanted feelings may actually intensify and perpetuate distress, rather than help resolve it. Experiencing a feeling can help to let go of it. Rather than trying to push them away, allow yourself to feel your feelings. You will likely realize that while emotions can be very unpleasant: a) they are tolerable and b) they subside. Consider this as well: people often avoid emotions and mistakenly believe that by doing so they are exercising greater “control” over them. But in fact, the opposite is true. We have control over our emotions when we make a conscious choice to allow ourselves to experience them. It is the difference between dipping your toe in the water to see if the temperature is ok vs. being pushed into the pool unexpectedly.

Lee M. Stillerman, PhD


Thursday, January 16, 2014

The dangers of being a "people pleaser"

The Parable of the Old Man, The Boy, and The Donkey


There was an old man, a boy and a donkey. They were going to town and the boy was riding the donkey, with the old man walking alongside.

As they rambled along, they passed some old women sitting in the shade. One of the women called out, ''Shame on you, a great lump of a boy, riding while your old father is walking."

The man and boy decided that maybe the critics were right so they changed positions.

Later they ambled by a group of mothers watching their young children play by the river. One cried out in protest, "How could you make your little boy walk in the hot sun while you ride!"

The two travelers decided that maybe they both should walk.

Next they met some young men out for a stroll.

"How stupid you are to walk when you have a perfectly good donkey to ride!" one yelled derisively.

So both father and son clambered onto the donkey, deciding they both should ride.

They were soon settled and underway again. They next encountered some children who were on their way home from school.

One girl shouted, "How mean to put such a load on a poor little animal."

The old man and the boy saw no alternative. Maybe the critics were right. They now struggled to carry the donkey.

As they crossed a bridge, they lost their grip on the confused animal and he fell to his death in the river.

And the moral, of course, is that if you try to please everyone you will never know what to do, it will be hard to get anywhere, you will please no-one, not even yourself, and you will probably lose everything.

Lee M. Stillerman, PhD

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Stinkin' Thinkin' - The 10 Most Common Cognitive Distortions

Stinkin' Thinkin'

Our thoughts impact our feelings and behaviors. In other words, our feelings (and behaviors) are not caused by people or events or situations but rather by how we interpret those things. It is the meaning we ascribe to them; it is what we tell ourselves that contributes to our distress. Often what we tell ourselves is not only negative and self-defeating, but irrational. For instance, where is written that we “must” get good grades, that significant others “must” accept and approve of us? Likewise, many situations are highly unpleasant but very few things are “awful” or “terrible.” We need not accept every automatic thought that pops into our heads. Rather, we can identify, evaluate, and even reframe thoughts. We can look for alternative perspectives that are more positive, realistic, and rational. The goal is not to “believe” a different thought. The goal is to become more flexible in our thinking. If, for instance, you fail a math test, it does not logically follow that you are not cut out for the rigors of college life and that you are doomed to never succeed in life. All it means is you failed one test in one class. It doesn’t define you, and while it would have been preferable to have performed better, it’s not a catastrophe that you didn’t. Pay attention to your self-talk. It is often helpful to track your thoughts and to become more aware of how they contribute to negative feelings and unhealthy behaviors.

Our thoughts are often distorted

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

  1. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

  1. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

  1. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

  1. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.

*   Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don't bother to check it out.

*   The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.

  1. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow's imperfections). This is also called the "binocular trick."

  1. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

  1. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn'ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "oughts" are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

  1. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: "I'm a loser." When someone else's behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, "He's a damn louse." Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

  2. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

Lee M. Stillerman, PhD

Monday, January 13, 2014

Learn about how to let your needs and preferences be known to others

Assertive Communication


Read the following definitions and reflect on your own behavior. Which of these definitions comes closest to describing you? On one end of the continuum is passive behavior, and on the other end is aggressive behavior. Assertive behavior is right smack dab in the middle of the two.

Assertive Behavior includes standing up for your rights without infringing on the rights of others. Assertion involves expressing beliefs, feelings and preferences in a way which is direct, honest, appropriate and shows a high degree of respect for yourself and for others.

Passive Behavior is when someone gives up their own rights and (directly or indirectly) defers to the rights of another person. Passive behavior includes violating your own rights through inaction or by failing to express your thoughts, feelings or desires.

Aggressive Behavior is when someone stands up for their own rights without regard for others. Aggression is self-expression which demands, attacks or humiliates other people, generally in a way which shows lack of respect for others.

A fourth type of behavior exists, known as Passive-Aggressive behavior. Passive-Aggressive Behavior occurs when someone acts out aggressive impulses in an indirect way. When people act passive-aggressively, they attempt to get what they need or want indirectly or manipulatively. Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect attempt to control or punish others.

So what keeps us from communicating assertively? Most people report that what makes it hard to be assertive is a fear of hurting another person's feelings, and perhaps risking rejection by that person. Before you decide to act assertively in a given situation, you have to decide if you can live with the consequences. Although assertive behavior usually will result in a positive response, some people might react negatively to it. For example, if your boss is completely unreasonable and is known to go ballistic if anyone dares question his orders, even non-aggressive, respectful, assertive behavior might set him off and you could lose your job. If that's your situation, then you may decide you can't afford to be assertive, and learn other stress management techniques.

Where else might non-assertive behavior come from? Many of us are taught that we should always please and/or defer to others, that it is not nice to consider our own needs above those of others, or that we shouldn't "make waves", that if someone says or does something that we don't like, we should just be quiet and try to stay away from that person in the future. Cultures vary in how acceptable it is to communicate directly. Some find assertive communication uncomfortable due to cultural norms, gender norms, or social norms.

Here are some specific things people might tell themselves that holds them back from getting their needs met in relationships. Often times our self-talk has an irrational component to it. As such, you will also find accompanying alternative perspectives.

"If I assert myself and people do become angry with me, I will be devastated. It will be awful."

•Even if others do become angry and unpleasant, I can handle it without falling apart. 

•I don’t have to feel responsible for the person’s anger. It may be he/she who has a problem. 

•I don’t have to be vulnerable to other people’s moods.

"Although I prefer others to be straightforward with me, I’m afraid that if I am open with others and say “no” I will hurt them."

•Other people may or may not feel hurt.

•If I prefer to be dealt with directly, it is quite likely others will too.

"If my assertion hurts others, I am responsible for their feelings."

•Even if others are hurt by my assertive behavior, I can let them know I care for them while also being direct about what I need or want. I am not responsible for anyone’s’ feelings but my own.

"It is wrong and selfish to turn down legitimate requests. Others will think I’m terrible and won’t like me."

•Even legitimate requests can be refused assertively.

•It is OK to consider my own needs, sometimes before those of others.

•I can’t please all of the people all of the time.

“At all costs, I must avoid making statements and asking questions that might make me look ignorant or stupid."

•It's okay to lack information or make a mistake, I’m human.

"Do not act superior to other people."

•You have as much right as other people to show your abilities and to take pride in yourself. 

•It is healthy to own both your strengths and limitations in life.

•Everyone’s opinion is just that - an opinion.

Thankfully, assertive behavior is a skill that can be learned and maintained with practice. One hint is to use "I" language instead of "you" language. For example, "When you __(behavior)__ , I feel / think ___________ ; So, I would like __(new behavior)__ .“ Also, remember to maintain direct eye contact, speak clearly and audibly, and use facial expressions and gestures to add emphasis to your words. Finally, if you're planning to try assertive behavior, remember that other people are used to you behaving in a certain way, and may be thrown for a loop or thoroughly confused when you change your communication style. Why not tell the other person up front what you're trying to do? You might say something like, "I need to tell you something and I'd like you to hear me out before you comment. I've noticed lately that after we've been working on a project together, I find myself feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. I've been thinking about it and I've realized that I often go along with your ideas, without insisting on considering some of my ideas as well, because I'm afraid of upsetting you. From now on I'm going to try something different. When I start to get those frustrated feelings, I'm going to ask that we stop before making a final decision and be sure we have considered all the options. I know that will be a change for you, but I really think it's fair and I know I'll do a better job and feel better about myself if I can tell you about my ideas." How can anyone argue with that statement?

Lee M. Stillerman, PhD

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Learn about the psychological benefits of HUMOR

Psychological Benefits of Humor

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” - E.B. White


Victor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., was an Austrian born Psychiatrist who survived, in remarkable fashion, the absolute horror of being a prisoner in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Frankl, in his renowned Man's Search for Meaning (1946) wrote, "Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.” Frankl continued, “The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent"

Norman Cousins was, among other things, a famous writer and editor. Cousins story speaks to the incredible power of laughter. In his celebrated work An Anatomy of an Illness, Cousin’s chronicles how he used humor, specifically Marx Brothers films, to battle back from his own debilitating illness and the depression he suffered as a result has been widely publicized. He writes, "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."

Patch Adams, trained as a medical doctor and a clown, and his efforts to use laughter to promote healing have been widely publicized as well as countless others who have extolled the virtues of using humor as a coping mechanism. Some theories, such as the Incongruity Theory of Humor, posit that Humor results from the contrast between two inconsistent ideas. We have the perception that a thing will turn out a certain way and we laugh when the actual outcome is something different altogether. We laugh at things that surprise us because they seem out of place. 

The Superiority Theory of Humor purports that humor is nothing more than the unexpected positive emotions we experience when we feel a sense of eminence over others. The Superiority Theory is captured in the following Mel Brooks quote, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.

”Freud (1960), in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious: Humor is employed as a substitute means of expressing aggressive impulses that would otherwise be socially restricted.From a psychoanalytic perspective, humor is seen as a way to cathartically release built-up psychic tensions.Since the superego represses id oriented aggressive drives, one must have a more socially accepted means of letting go of this energy. In this way, the individual uses language or behavior that is humorous in nature to act out these aggressions, thus providing the individual with a sense of relief in a manner that is acceptable both to superego and to society.

Finally, the Benign Violation theory of HUMOR, Peter McGraw, PhD, University of Colorado Boulder, suggests that humor appreciation results from simultaneously perceiving something as a ‘violation’ and as benign. Benign meaning that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview, violation refers to one's personal dignity (e.g. falling down the stairs), linguistic norms (e.g. puns, unusual accents), or social or moral norms (e.g. a dirty joke). In other words, for something to be funny, three conditions must be met: 1. there must be a violation of the norm. 2. the violation must be perceived to be benign. 3. both these perceptions must occur simultaneously. Funniness can be predicted based on: 1.How committed a person is to the norm being violated (A dirty joke violates social or moral norms but won’t get a laugh if the person listening is offended, puns violate linguistic norms, but only cerebral types and grammarians care enough about the violation to chuckle etc.). 2. Psychological distance from the perceived violation (falling down the stairs is funny, but probably not if you’re the one falling).

Recent research by Rod Martin, Ph.D.,University of Western Ontario, asserts that sense of humor is multidimensional, potentially having both adaptive and maladaptive properties:

Positive (adaptive) humor styles

Affiliative: someone who attempts to be funny in an effort to amuse others, sometimes to enhance relationships and possibly as a way of bringing levity to a situation.

Self-enhancing: someone who uses humor as a lens through which life is filtered, someone who can laugh at life even when it is hard. 

Negative (maladaptive) humor styles

Aggressive: using humor in a mean way, without regard for the impact that it might have on others feelings, as might be the case when one is sarcastic or engages in such behaviors as teasing or putting others down.

Self-defeating: when one uses humor at their own expense, one who teases or puts themselves down in an effort to amuse others. 

Literature suggests that one’s ability to use their humor to facilitate coping may depend on which type of humor style they demonstrate, adaptive or maladaptive.

Sense of humor has been shown to moderate depression, anxiety, and stress, and using humor to cope has been associated with less loneliness, less irritability, and higher self-esteem. In one study undergraduate students who scored high on a coping humor scale appraised a stressful exam as less stressful and more of a positive challenge than those who scored lower on the humor scale. In another study students were given a series of tasks that had the effect of causing them to focus intently on their own mortality. Following the exercise, most participants indicated an increase in mood disturbance, reporting more depression, tension, and anger. The exception to this was a group who scored high on a measure assessing perspective-taking humor.

It has been noted in the literature as well that humor is closely associated with optimal physical health. There is fairly consistent evidence that humor is associated with: increased pain tolerance, enhances recovery from illness, lower stress hormones, enhanced immune system functioning, and lower blood pressure. In one study, requests for pain medication in the days following orthopedic surgery were significantly fewer as were dosage levels needed in patients given the opportunity to watch funny films of their choosing during recovery.

Try and be able to see that there are funny situations all around us. Create and share jokes. Most healing humor arises spontaneously out of situations. If I was able to give a directive, it would be to try and both initiate and appreciate humor with people you interact with. But the big picture is to, in a sense, develop a "comic vision"--a way of perceiving the world that allows us to be receptive to the humor around and within us. Heightened receptivity to humor can stimulate our ability to be increasingly interactive with, and even proactive toward, the world around us.

Lee M. Stillerman, PhD