Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the year ahead and about the future in general?

If your thoughts are somewhat bleak when you think about the future, this can lead to depression!

Some very interesting research has recently been published on the subject of the link between how we think about the future (known as prospection) and our mood states (Roepke and Seligman, 2015). Up to now there has been a generally accepted view that a pessimistic view of the future is a pointer for someone who is depressed – that depression causes a person to have negative expectations about the future.

However, it seems that it may also be the other way around – that if we harbour overly pessimistic views and expectations of our future, this could cause us to become (more) depressed!

So why is this new finding important?

Well, the good news is that if our thoughts influence our moods (and they do, according to Cognitive-Behavioural theory and Therapy (CBT), we can change these moods by altering our thinking! The implication of this is that our emotions are under our own control (to a certain degree).

How can prospection affect our emotions and possibly lead to depression?

These researchers have identified three ways this happens:

  1. Telling ourselves different scenarios about possible futures. If you think about your future, do you foresee good or bad things occurring? Are there more positive predictions than negative ones, or vice versa?
  2. Judging your possible future life in either a positive or a negative way. You might say, for example, that you predict that you either have a number of positive options which could enable you to have a bright future or you believe that you have few options for the future and that you will inevitably have nothing much to look forward to.
  3. Harbouring either positive or negative beliefs about the future. These would include beliefs or thoughts about a personal future, but also about the future of the country and the planet as a whole).

 

In my next post I will discuss ways in which our patterns of prospective thinking can be altered to become more positive and optimistic.

 

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If you are feeling anxious, stressed or depressed for now apparent reason…..

perhaps you are “catching” these emotions from other people near to you!

A case example: Susan comes to see me in my psychology practice because she is about to write her final exams and is concerned that she is so “stressed out” that she fears that she will go blank when she is faced with her exam paper and will do badly as a result.

When I explore the factors that may be adding to her stress levels it turns out that she is in a small class at college, where her class-mates talk about themselves about how stressed they all are. They also commiserate with each other about how difficult the work is and how “impossible” it will be to do well in the exams.

In this way the stress levels of the group tend to increase as the exam date looms nearer and nearer.

Case 2: Tony is in his early twenties. He reports that he suffers from debilitating social anxiety which affects both his ability to interact socially and to find a fulfilling job. has grown up in a household where his father has always worried about everything. Tony’s father has conveyed the unconscious message to his children from the time they were small that the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place and that other people are generally not to be trusted. Tony comes to see me because he wants to become less anxious and more comfortable in social settings.

Case 3: Mary comes to see me because she is feeling “down” and unmotivated – that she has lost her enthusiasm for life. She is a homemaker and has many friends and hobbies but of late she has lost enthusiasm for the things she previously enjoyed. Her husband has been retired for a year and her children have left home. She reports that her husband tends to sit around the house all day, eating, drinking and watching TV. He tends to be demanding and would talk at length about how bad “things” had become.

 

Most clients who come to see me for counselling and psychotherapy tend to believe that their unpleasant psychological states are due to something they are feeling, doing or not doing – that they are the source of their problem (this is not the case with most couples I see, who usually blame each other, initially at any rate, for the problems in their relationship). I have often found though, on closer examination, that the social environment can play a big role in the our emotions states. Psychologists and social psychology researchers put this down to our ability to empathize with others. Those of us who are high in emotional empathy tend to “pick up” the emotions of others easily and will thus be more likely to be affected by the negative of other people. This influence is especially strong when there is a close emotional bond and a close and lengthy proximity with a stressed, anxious or depressed person or group.   Psychologists call this phenomenon “transference”.

This tendency to “catch” feelings from others and from our environment isn’t always a bad thing of course. We can also be affected by joy and happiness! 

In a following post I will suggest ways of counteracting the negative effects of this unconscious “force”.

 

 

 

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The end of an affair: Can you save your marriage?

Example:

John and Melissa have been married for 25 years. They have a 22 year old daughter, Ella, who is studying at university and still lives at home. John and Melissa have had a checkered relationship – there are memories of both good and bad times. Their communication has not been good of late and they have somehow lost their intimate connection. John found himself drawn to someone he met at his local golf club. They became emotionally close and began to spend a great deal of time messaging one another and meeting when the opportunity arose. Melissa discovered the messages when she inadvertently looked at his cellphone. She was extremely upset and demanded that he end the “affair”. A few weeks later the couple made an appointment for marital counselling.

In the first session John stated that he wanted to save the marriage. Melissa, on the other hand, was ambivalent at best. However, she did agree to give couple counselling a try.

 

Why is recovery from an infidelity so difficult for couples?

Crucially, trust has been broken – the spouse who has been cheated on experiences hurt, rage and disillusionment. She or he invariably experiences heightened emotional sensitivity, and craves empathy and support from their partner, but because this is needed from the person who has inflicted the hurt, there is simultaneous rejection and anger. These mixed messages are difficult to interpret from the point of view of the “erring” spouse, who is often confused about how to respond.  

For the “perpetrator” on the other hand, it seems incredibly difficult to make progress in healing the relationship due to the incessant questioning, and accusations from the “wounded” spouse and the (often) perceived lack of acknowledgement for efforts made by their partner to mend the relationship. There is often a sense of being “trapped” and constrained by the suspicious spouse as there is the perception that all their movements and communications with others are monitored and controlled.

I do explain to couples at the start of counselling that the process is likely to be slow, long and harrowing and will require considerable staying power and determination to stay the course. In my experience coming back from infidelity (whether physical or simply emotional) is extremely hard for most couples. As one of my couples told me the other day – it is critical to the process to find a non-judgemental, experienced therapist to “hold” and guide the couple through this emotionally fraught process, where patience and understanding is key.

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Relationships: Are you deciding on a mate for the happy ever after?

Then make sure that you are fully acquainted with his or her shadow side!

I see many unhappy individuals and couples on my psychology practice. Many have been in committed relationships for quite some time and communication and goodwill has broken down in the relationship to the extend that they may be on the verge of splitting up. Other people present at the beginning of a relationship, however, when they are trying to decide whether or not to take their relationship onto another level and/or to get married.

During the course of my couple counselling with people in distress, I invariably ask for the history of the relationship to date and I ask what characteristics attracted the partners to each other. Often clients recount how they were totally attracted to a prospective partner because of certain traits that they noticed in the other person, such as their sense of adventure, their sense of humour or the depth of their spirituality. Because of the mutual attraction to the perceived sterling qualities of the the partner, the relationship takes off and quickly becomes mutually satisfying and the individuals begin to develop strong bonds and feeling towards one another.

However at some stage it is likely that the partner’s more undesirably traits may begin to manifest. For example, a partner may become aware that their significant other may be lazy and untidy and disinclined to get off the couch over weekends. This type of situation can, of course, be brought into therapy in order to attempt to find a solution that would suit both parties. However, when it is discovered that a prospective spouse displays a trait or characteristic that is totally abhorrent to their partner because of his/her particular value system or firmly held goals, it is often difficult for the affected partner to let go of the relationship, even though they often know, in their heart of hearts, that long-term happiness and relationship satisfaction is highly unlikely due to a fundamental, non-negotiable, incompatibility.

So the take home message is – make sure that you know your partner very well before you commit for the long term. And ask yourself – can I live with all of his/her various traits, habits and hang-ups happily forever….?

 

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Do you want to change a behaviour, or establish a new habit?

To be successful, understand what motivates you!

In my practice I often help individuals and couples identify the behaviours that keep them stuck in unhappy or less than optimal lives and relationships. That is the (relatively) easy part! How to achieve long-lasting change is always the major challenge!

Motivation is always a complex and difficult issue and numerous self-help books have been written on the subject.

I have recently become aware of a potentially very useful book entitled ” Better than before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday lives” by a researcher named Gretchen Rubin. She has also researched the topic of happiness and has detailed her findings in a book named “The Happiness Project”. I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to increase the happiness in their lives (isn’t this everybody?!). It is well researched and provides a great deal of food for thought and practical guidance.

However, getting back to behaviour and habit change….

Ms Rubin found that motivation isn’t a “one size fits all” dynamic, but that individuals are motivated according to four broad styles – Upholder, Obliger, Questioner and Rebel. These styles differ according to what essentially drives a person’s motivation to change. Upholders tend to be driven to meet intrinsic as well as external expectations (in terms of their own standards as well as wishing to conform to the standards of significant others/laws/institutions).

Obligers, on the other hand, tend to respond mainly to the expectations of others but struggle to be self-motivated. Questioners are those who will not accept any call for behaviour change until they have questioned extensively the rationale for change.  Rebels resist all expectations for change, and as such present a real challenge for psychologists and coaches alike.

‘Ms Rubin concludes that it is important to identify a person’s predominant motivation pattern in order to  maximise the chances of successful behaviour change.

So what category fits you best? 

 

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Couples: What initially attracted you to your partner?

And were these reasons the right ones (for the long-term)?

In my couple counselling and mediation practice I invariably ask couples what initially attracted them to each other.

I am often struck by their responses when I consider these against the backdrop of their current relationship and the problems that they are currently experiencing.

Why is this?

I note often that the aspects of the partner that initially attracted their mate becomes a major bone of contention in their ongoing relationship and that in many cases individuals get married for the same reason as they get divorced! For example, an easy-going, devil-may-care lover may turn into a spouse who is criticized for being irresponsible and “flighty”, a generous and fun-loving individual may later be seen by their spouse as lacking financial self-discipline and someone who fails to consider the long-term security of the family.

It has been said that we are often attracted to personal characteristics in our partner that we, ourselves, lack. So a tidy, conscientious individual may be attracted to someone who is untidy and unreliable – the attraction of opposites. This may work fine in the early stages of a relationship when sexual attraction is strong, but I have found, when listening to my couples’ narratives about the development of their relationship, that when they settle down into domestic life and children enter the picture, these initial differences can become hugely divisive. These types of differences often become major issues and the cause of repetitive, ongoing arguments that rarely get adequately resolved. Relationships become seriously strained in many cases and couples find that their communication becomes strained and intimacy invariably suffers as a result.

Are you aware of couples that you know who are experiencing this type of dynamic or perhaps it is alive and well in your own relationship? If so, what can be done?

Well, if you are still in the dating stage, or are looking for a prospective long-term partner, perhaps it may be a good idea to widen your criteria to include characteristics in a would-be partner that would serve you, and your family, well in the long-term such kindness, generosity of spirit and a good sense of humour. Also I suggest you look out for other aspects such as how the person deals with anger and conflict, their interpersonal skills, level of empathy for others (and animals). 

Also, if you have opposing views on crucial aspects, such as money and tidiness, for example, work out how you will confront these issues in a constructive way, going forward.

If you are in a well-established relationship, it may be a good idea to commit to respectful communication as away of resolving conflict. However, if you are caught in a negative, destructive communication dynamic, couple counselling could be considered in order to rehabilitate the relationship.

 

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Giving advice – do so at at your own risk!

Giving advice to friends, partners and family is invariably a bad idea! Why do I say this?

As a psychologist I see many clients who have been burned badly emotionally with the repercussions of advice giving even though the advice is often given with the best will in the world, with love and empathy, often in response to a heartfelt request from somewhat close to you who is in a real jam.

Advice giving is a bad idea because:

In order to feel a sense of personal empowerment,  individuals need to come up with their own solutions to problems. Everyone is unique in terms of their worldview, personality, skills and attitudes. We can’t expect that our answers will suit anyone else. Providing answers for significant others will invariably not solve their problem(s) but will only provide a band-aid at best.

There is a risk that you, as the advice-giver,  will become invested in the other person’s  outcome as you have, in all likelihood, spent considerable time and emotional energy on enabling a solution to their problem. Should they not follow your advice it is possible that you will become frustrated and even angry with the person because you have set yourself up with a set of unconscious and even conscious expectations regarding your friend’s intention to follow your advice to the letter. You have consequently become psychologically invested in a favourable outcome based on your advice. 

This type of situation has the potential to seriously damage your relationship!

Giving advice also puts the advice-given in a one-up position (even if this is only temporary) in relation to the person asking for advice. This can cause resentment and even a dip in self-esteem on the part of the friend seeking the advice.

So what is the answer? Should you never give advice to anyone?

(Well, here I am giving you advice about not giving advice!)

I would suggest spending some time with the person, exploring all the various facets of the problem and the pros and cons of all possible solutions as well as the potential barriers to implementing all possible courses of action. This will require good listening skills on your part as well as a great deal of (rational) empathy (emotional empathy may cause you to become too emotionally involved in the problem which may limit your ability to remain objective and impartial).

This will put your friend in the position of choosing a solution of him or herself and taking responsibility for it’s implementation. You are merely the facilitator of the process, therefore, and the coach along the way (should your friend feel that your input this regard could be useful). But here again it would be a matter of sounding out the person as to what they would like in terms of your role.

I would appreciate your comments!

 

 

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Anger and anger management: What anger can tell you about yourself and your relationship…

And why this is important.

 

What tends to make you really angry?

How do you behave when you get angry?

What happens between you and your partner when one of you gets really angry about something the other one did or didn’t do? How does the argument tend to proceed? Does anger escalate or can you both usually get to some agreement or resolution of the issue without there being an unpleasant scene?

 

Anger is, of course, a universal and necessary emotion. However, anger is also a unique experience as each of us will differ on what we get angry about and the way in which we express our anger.

We reveal a great deal about ourselves through our expression of anger and we invariably see another “side’ of our partner (and our friends and family) when we get the opportunity to witness the way in which they handle anger and conflict situations. I notice this time and again in my couple counselling sessions when partners are in unhappy and troubled relationships. Often a partner will report to me that they have been “turned off” by their spouse after witnessing how he/she behaves in a high conflict situation.  

Your anger will reveal to you (and to others) what issues you feel intensely passionate about. Anger tends to be triggered within an individual when there is an (often unconsciously) perception that their integrity has been challenged and/or deeply held convictions and values have been disrespected or undermined in some way.

In addition, the way in which a person handles their angry feelings has a significant impact on their relationships and also on their health. Individuals tend to fall into two groups: those who like to confront and deal with issues as they arise and the other group who tend to “bottle up” their anger and to avoid potential conflict situations.  I have found that individuals who are experiencing problems in their relationships usually often become more extreme in the way in which they habitually handle conflict.

Both approaches can thus be problematic, especially when goodwill, mutual understanding and respect have been eroded. Couples in this situation usually report that communication has become a serious problem in their relationship. 

What is the “take home message” here? I believe that we could all benefit by paying more attention to the role that anger plays in our lives – what makes us angry, how we express that anger, what impact our anger has on our relationships and whether or not work needs to be done (on either an individual or relationship level) to improve on anger management for the sake of  personal well-being and the important relationships in our lives.

 

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Couples: Who calls the shots in your relationship? How the power balance can affect communication in a relationship.

How do power imbalances happen and what effect can these have on relationship satisfaction?

In my couple counselling psychology practice, I have found that power imbalances are pretty common in relationships that are in trouble.

In my couples sessions I  invariably explore the history of each relationship in order to track how  the couple started out and when problems began to develop. Sometimes imbalances existed from the start, for example in a case where  one of the partners had an addiction problem. From the outset the non-addicted partner would be cast in the role of rescuer – the “together” individual who assigned themselves the role of keeping the relationship and their partner in check and on course. This is an example of the co-dependent relationship characterized by the enabler/dependent victim dynamic.

In some relationships, though, a power imbalance does not exist at the start of the relationship but develops at a later stage. Why does this occur? There are many reasons, of course, and each couples’ situation is different. However, in my practice I have noticed that two scenarios are reasonable common. In couples where one partner has cheated either by being unfaithful or by committing some other form of sexual or financial infidelity, the “guilty” partner will invariably be placed in a “one down” position when it comes to determining the future of the relationship.

The other scenario comes about when one of the partners decides to “better themselves” by studying, qualifying and obtaining a better job whilst the other partner, who tends to be less ambitious and/or less motivated, does little to further themselves or improve their prospects. Over time a couple in this type of situation may find it increasingly difficult to stay on the same page in terms of their goals and priorities in life, setting the stage for dissatisfaction and relationship problems.

Sometimes power imbalances can be really subtle. One partner may feel that he or she is trying hard to please the other whilst the other person is doing little to reciprocate and/or one of the couple may believe that they are always having to apologize after and argument whilst their partner never has to admit that they may be at fault.

In couples where major power imbalances have developed, open communication is often compromised, as there is often a great deal of frustration and resentment present in the relationship. This can lead one (or both) of the partners tend to feel unheard and unappreciated. Often one partner will clam up completely when an argument is likely to occur, and as a result contentious issues in the relationship tend to remain unresolved and will in all likelihood continue to fester and to progressively undermine the relationship.

What can couples do if they find themselves in this situation? Power imbalances, once they are firmly established in relationships, are difficult to change. This will be the topic of a future post.

 

 

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“Dear future husband…” Beware of relationship myths and your unconscious expectations…!

In your relationship and in your marriage!

Whenever I hear Meghan Trainor’s new single “Dear Future Husband” I get reminded of think about the myths, beliefs and expectations individuals bring into their intimate relationships, usually unconsciously. These often get revealed in the course of  couple counselling sessions.

I do realise, of course, that the lyrics of the song are “tongue in cheek”! However, often I am surprised by the unquestioning beliefs individuals and couples hold about the nature of relationships in general, and about what they need to do in order to maintain a happy relationship and/or marriage.

You may ask why this matters? Well, unrealistic myths and beliefs about how relationships should be conducted inform  our expectations of our partner and of ourselves and when these are not realized a great deal of frustration and unhappiness is inevitable, usually leading to relationship problems.

For example, if you are your partner believes that “relationships that are meant to be should be effortless” (as stated by one of my clients during individual counselling – their partner refused to attend couple counselling for this reason!) then they will also believe (I would expect, though of course unconscious beliefs are not necessarily logically related) that if a relationship is not going well at any point that it is not meant to be!

Consider a verse from Ms Trainor’s song: “After every fight, just apologize, and maybe then I’ll try to rock your body right, Even if I was wrong, You know I;m never wrong, Why disagree? Why, why disagree?”

Of course, we will all probably chuckle at these lyrics! However, in my psychology practice, it would see many couples where one partner always calls the shots in the relationship. The reasons for this dynamic will differ for every couple. However, in my experience, it is very rarely the case that a relationship can happily survive such an unbalanced power balance in the long term (maybe this was possible in the “old days” but not anymore).

In my experience, if partners don’t routinely feel heard, acknowledged and respected in their relationship, this will violate their expectations of how a worthwhile relationship should operate, and the writing will be on the wall for the couple unless they wake up to the danger and take steps to change the dynamic without delay.

Have you explored your own unconscious beliefs and expectations regarding your own relationship?! This exercise could be an eye-opener!

 

 

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