Swiss cheese effect

Have you ever been in a relationship that was missing something, or some things? Maybe your partner didn’t communicate well enough or maybe there weren’t enough times your partner made you feel special. Maybe your partner became complacent and you just didn’t feel wanted anymore. Maybe your partner was too self-absorbed to be a good listener. Maybe your partner’s physical appearance changed and you were not as attracted to them as you once were.

When these situations occur, it’s not uncommon for someone else to come along that meets those previously unmet needs. It’s easy in those situations to see that new person as a breath of fresh air, and to believe that perhaps they are just the perfect fit for you. So, you decide to leave your current partner to be with this new wonderful person who makes you finally feel the way you’ve wanted to feel in your current relationship. If the new person feels like such a perfect fit, why then do these new relationships almost always fail? The two main reasons are an inherent lack of trust, and what I call the Swiss cheese effect.

The trust issue is obvious: if you fall for someone while with someone, you have shown yourself to be capable of betraying your partner’s trust. Committed relationships come with an understood contract that you will have eyes, and feelings, only for your partner. How can your new partner trust you when they know you were lying to your former partner in order to develop your new relationship? The trust issues created by these situations are very difficult to overcome, and could alone be enough to sabotage the new relationship. But if not, rest assured that the Swiss cheese effect will do the job.

In order to understand the Swiss cheese effect, you must think of your current relationship as a slice of Swiss cheese. A slice of Swiss cheese is held together in a solid form but has holes in it just like many relationships. And when a new person comes along that fills the holes, it can feel as if that new person can provide all that is necessary for a whole relationship. However, once the Swiss cheese is gone, all you have left is the filled holes, and this presents a major problem. You will be left with only pieces of a relationship and not enough to hold the relationship together. Many who fall for the holes find themselves longing for the cheese they have left behind.

So, rather than leaving your current relationship because there are holes and someone comes along who seems to provide what you think you are missing, take a minute to evaluate your relationship as a complex combination of many factors. Decide whether the holes in your relationship are things that can be improved through communication, and whether this new person really offers all that you think they do. I’m not saying you should stay in a bad relationship, but I am saying watch out for the Swiss cheese effect! Seriously consider whether it’s worth leaving your current relationship for one that is doomed to fail.

Why so anxious?

Wouldn’t it be nice if describing the source of your anxiety were as easy as describing the show you watched last night or the book you just finished reading. Asking an anxious person to describe the source of their anxiety is asking for a rational explanation of an emotional experience. Anxiety is usually not rational and its sources aren’t always clear. It’s not as simple as I’m afraid of spiders or snakes so now I feel anxious. Anxiety is most often caused by a combination of thoughts that don’t always make sense even to the person experiencing the anxiety.

Anxiety is often rooted in deeper fears that are more challenging to identify, such as how a person fits into the world or one’s ability to continue to provide for his or her family. One thing that is almost always true of thoughts that produce anxiety is that they are projections into the future. If your thoughts are focused on the present moment and you are feeling anxiety, you better run!

For the most part, depression exists when our thoughts are focused on the past and anxiety exists when our thoughts are focused on the future. Peace exists in the present moment, and the more time we can spend there, the more insulated we are against negative or painful emotions. As responsible humans, we don’t have the luxury of completely disregarding the future, but we are able to take time each day to force ourselves to live in the present moment.

Piles of Poop

One strategy that many of us have used to remove or reduce the impact of traumatic experiences on our lives is to push them into the recesses of our minds and just not think about them. There is the belief that pretending something didn’t happen, or concealing it from our conscious mind reduces its impact on our decisions and experiences. This decision is usually made either because the traumatic experience seems too painful to think about or too hopeless to address. I often describe these experiences as piles of poop in the mind, and find them to be some of the most productive areas to explore in therapy. Let me explain…

If you have a dog, you have most likely walked into a room of your house at some point in your life and found that the dog has dropped a deuce on the floor. At this point, you have a few options of how to handle the situation. You can turn around and go to different part of the house and hope that someone else walks in, finds the mess, and cleans it up. This approach can work sometimes, but will lead to resentment from others who find themselves tasked with cleaning up messes that they know should have been your responsibility. Another potential problem with this approach is that life can become quite dysfunctional when no one comes behind you to clean up the mess and you end up living in a world of poop.

The next option involves the out of sight, out of mind principle. You can decide to push the poop into the corner so it is out of the way and put a newspaper over it so you don’t have to look at it. The problem here is that out of sight doesn’t mean out of smell. So now, even though you can’t see the poop, it still stinks. And that stink will not only affect your peace of mind, but will keep others from wanting to be around you as well. It’s hard to enjoy life while holding your breath or hiding your face in your shirt.

This leads us to the final option. You can directly address the problem, which involves acknowledging that the poop is there, picking it up, scrubbing away any mess left behind, disinfecting the floor and taking out the garbage. This approach is no fun! I’ve never met anyone who enjoys the sight or smell of dog poop, or the feeling of picking it up even through a bag. However, this is the only way to appropriately and adequately handle the situation. This is the approach that minimizes the impact that the poop will have on your life, and the lives of those who are close to you.

So, while you may be tempted to avoid your piles or to push them away to be dealt with on another day, my advice is to hit the nastiness head on. Think about the piles that exist in your mind and start cleaning them up one by one. Expect to be uncomfortable and don’t be surprised if your eyes water a bit, but know that your short term discomfort will minimize the long term negative impact of those experiences.

Dipping your toes in darkness: The role of negative fantasy

Have you ever imagined yourself doing something crazy? Maybe you briefly fantasized about executing a PIT maneuver against a car driving impossibly slow in front of you. Maybe during difficult financial times, you imagined robbing a bank. Maybe you’ve imagined yelling some obscenity in a crowded room just to see the shocked reactions on the faces of others. Or maybe these have been my negative fantasies and not yours. I would imagine though, at some point, you have found yourself fantasizing about doing something that in reality, you would never do. I have heard people describe all sorts of negative fantasies in therapy, and they are most often preceded by the statement, “I would NEVER do this, but…” So, why do our brains seem to need to occasionally engage in stomach turning, gut wrenching, self-shocking fantasies?

I believe the answer has to do with conformity. From the time we are itty-bitties, but are told we must conform to the values of our society. Don’t hit! No talking! Wait your turn! And most of these conformities go against our nature. We all go through a training process to get us to the point that we can get along well with others. So, as we get older, most of us learn to ignore or resist our negative impulses. We learn what is acceptable and we force ourselves to act in those ways. But sometimes, like a drop of water squeezing its way through a tiny crack in a dam, a little piece of those negative impulses slips out, and into our consciousness. Once seen in our mind’s eye, they often disappear again into the dark recesses of our subconscious, but those brief glimpses can be quite unsettling. However, I believe they are also a necessary part of living in a civilized world. I believe they release the pressure of living within the boundaries of rules and laws, both moral and legal. Let us not forget that we are still animals.

Victimhood: Accept it or Reject it?

What does it mean to be a victim? We have all felt imposed upon by the world, either by people, situations, or systems but is there value in victimhood? Does it empower or does it weaken? It seems that identification as a victim can do either, depending on the context. For those who have endured abuse, self identification as a victim is empowering and an important step toward recovery. It helps to remove the self blame or any feelings of having been complicit to the abuse. It is part of the process of becoming a survivor, but what about less overtly awful examples of imposition? Am I the victim because traffic is moving too slowly, lines are too long, or because life is just too hard? Victimhood then becomes detrimental because when we allow life to dictate how we feel, we give away our personal power. A person can also become addicted to playing the role of the victim and learn to view the world as imposing or rigged against them. We all know someone who finds a way to make themselves the victim in non-victimizing situations and use that world view to their advantage. Identification as a victim can often elicit sympathy and compassion from others, and can diminish the role of personal responsibility. So, I guess the role it plays depends on the plot of the story.

Faceless Giants

I recently read an article that explained that people with depression or anxiety will typically pay $1000-$2000 more each year for phone, cable, internet services because they just can’t bring themselves to navigate the web of deceit and ineptitude necessary in order to get better deals on those services. After recently trying to navigate that web myself, I must say I understand those findings. Over the past week, in an attempt to save about $480 over the next year on internet and cable, I have spent 246 minutes on the phone. I have been transferred and disconnected. I have repeated the same information dozens of times. I have needed to be present at my home for two unnecessary service visits. And, I have had to travel to a UPS store, a FedEx store and a Spectrum store to return equipment.

Did I have a choice? Sure! I could have chosen to keep paying $40 extra each month to avoid the hassle of switching from one company to the other. I could have chosen to accept inferior service in order to avoid the hassle of switching back to the original company, who now by the way, has found a way to offer a much better deal that was only possible because I left and came back. I could have canceled the services all together and found a way to live without the luxuries of cable and internet. But in this age of online banking, online shopping, online billing, email, social networking and Netflix (yes, in addition to cable…#notproud), that just wasn’t an option that would work for my family.

So, in the end, we will have the television and internet services necessary to continue to live the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to, and even somehow to believe that we need. We will end up saving $240 on these services over the next year. We have been given $300 in Visa gift cards and free NFL package for our troubles, but at what cost? About six hours (phone time, travel time, service visit time) of my life I’ll never get back? Stress, stress and more stress while navigating the convoluted web of customer service, sales, and technical support? As I consider whether or not it was all worth it, I’m left with the realization that each experience I have with any of the faceless giants (cable, phone, internet, insurance, government, etc) who rule this world, takes something more important than money from me. It takes my sanity, my soul and my peace. Thankfully I have enough of these things left to keep my mind right, but so many among us don’t. And those people will continue to be taken advantage of, overcharged and overlooked, by the faceless giants on whom we all depend.

It’s not me, it’s you: One origin of hate

It’s not me, it’s you: One origin of hate

When awful things happen, we are left wondering how and why such a thing could happen. How could one human maintain such ignorant and hateful beliefs about another group of humans? How could one human hate so intensely that he would sacrifice his freedom, his life, in order to destroy the lives of others?

When a person feels disadvantaged in some way, there is a tendency to resist accepting personal responsibility for that disadvantage. If I can blame others for my situation then there is nothing wrong with me, and therefore, there is no need for me to change. But there is reason for me to be angry. If I have been told, as my father was told, and his father was told, that my problems are because of a particular group of people, then those people become my enemies. If I believe that there aren’t enough resources for us all, then I must hate and destroy you in order to ensure my survival. And, in order to protect this set of beliefs, which has been passed down for generations, I must ignore any information that goes against my beliefs. Those ideas that conflict with my own are lies, made up by my enemy, designed to make me look foolish.

Generational ignorance and blaming of others, the belief in the scarcity of resources, psychological dysfunction, and fear all play a part in creating and maintaining hate. And it is very hard to change the mind of the irrationally committed, which makes this type of hate especially scary.

What if…?

What if…?

What if? Those are the first two words in almost all anxious thoughts. Anxiety is generally created when we are thinking about some future event. Anxiety can exist in the present, but in those situations my advice is to run because you are obviously in some kind of danger. The reason we feel anxiety at all is to protect us from danger so that we may survive. So, when you find yourself feeling anxious and your physical safety is not in danger, you are most likely thinking a “what if” scenario. “What if” is speculation, “what if” is expectation, and “what if” does not exist…yet. If you choose to think about what is, rather than “what if”, you will be more productive and likely happier. “What is” really is all that we know for sure.

Don’t paint on my blank canvas!

Don’t paint on my blank canvas!

When one experiences negative feelings or insecurities about self or situation, a belief can develop that others share that opinion as well. This is what is known as psychological projection, and it can cause a person to believe that he or she is being viewed negatively by others. When one applies meaning to words and actions of others in an irrational way (without proof), and accepts that meaning as confirmation that personal insecurities are being seen and believed by others, dysfunction occurs. When I say, “Don’t paint on my blank canvas,” it means don’t view my neutrality as confirmation of your insecurities. Don’t assume that I’m thinking what you’re thinking. It’s important that we seek to identify, understand, and work through our own insecurities and resist the urge to project them onto others. Don’t paint your insecurities onto anyone’s blank canvas and all of your relationships will benefit.

What would you do?

What would you do?

When we read or hear about other people’s experiences, there is a temptation to imagine how we would have handled their situation differently than they did. “Well if that happened to me, I would’ve…,” but really that isn’t fair to the person who actually experienced it. When aided by the benefit of hindsight, we almost certainly come to a different decision than we would have in the moment.

One of the first things I say when I’m asked by a client, or a friend, what I would have done in any particular situation is, “It really isn’t fair for me to pretend to know.” I’m glad to offer my thoughts on a past decision but I’m careful to admit that one doesn’t know how they would react to any given situation until they are actually faced with that situation. It’s easy to look back and see where others have made bad judgments and to wonder how such decisions could have been made, but we must remember that the benefit of hindsight is only afforded after the event has occurred.

So, hold back your judgment and resist the urge to tell others how much better you would have handled their situation than they did. Remember that we all do the best we can in any given moment and we all make mistakes.