Don’t Avoid Conflict, Just Behave Well During It

Most people believe that conflict must end in tears, rage or losing out.  This is why so many people avoid it, and either go over-the-top in their aggression (to force and intimidate others) or comply and go underground to manoeuvre others into doing what they want.

This is regrettable because neither of the above strategies work well.  They both end in lose-lose outcomes.  This is mainly because people are intelligent and quick to recognise coercion whether it is done brutally or manipulatively – and they dig in, block and resist.

Yet resolving conflict is one of the few means we have at our disposal for building truly close relationships with others.  This is because every time we resolve an issue, we end up building empathy by emphasising our similarity rather than our difference.  More similarities mean that our interests become increasingly aligned over time – making us more and more on the same side.

We just need to behave well during conflict.  Always come forward to talk – don’t retreat and sulk.  Never get angry and lose control.  Stay soft and kind but put up a comprehensive, water-tight and sustained argument while keeping an exceptionally open mind.

Don’t Confuse Anger and Sadness

Many people (including some therapists) tell us to express our anger at the unfairness of life.  Go on, they say, beat those cushions to a pulp and scream out your rage.

But this can be very misdirected advice.  It accentuates the anger and sends blood pressure through the roof.  It often ends in repetitive, violent behaviour and it makes the perpetrator more outraged than ever, since they fail to address the real ‘purpose’ of their anger.

Let me give you an example.  A man called Tom feels angry that his friend, John  is backing out of their long-term friendship.  John keeps cancelling arrangements to have a few beers at the local pub and, he is also not returning Tom’s phone calls.  Tom feels inclined to give John an earful of his vitriol.  He feels furious that John is snubbing him and wants to confront him angrily.

But what is Tom really feeling?  I can tell you from my decades of experience working at the Smart Therapy Centre that the anger is simply a learnt strategy to deflect Tom away from feeling the sadness that perhaps John doesn’t care about him anymore and no longer wishes to be around him.

This hurts – and Tom has ‘automatically’ learnt from past events to protect himself from feeling this pain.  Specifically, Tom is afraid to let himself feel the sadness in case his fragile self-esteem cannot bear it, and so instead he opts to go on the ‘offensive’ by focussing on his anger.

But if there is one thing that Tom needs to do for himself, in order to move past this event, it is to feel the correct emotion (sadness).  Anger will simply make him deflect outwards and blame John without taking any responsibility for his own behaviour.  This will inevitably keep Tom ‘stuck’ in his rage.

On the other hand, if Tom allows himself to bravely feel the sadness and the vulnerability that comes from self-reflection, he will find that he can bear it quite easily.  In fact, facing reality actually strengthens Tom’s fragile self-esteem in the longer-term, as he learns that he is far more robust than he originally believed.

Also, being sad will more likely encourage Tom to reflect on how he may have contributed to John losing interest in the friendship.  Was he too pushy?  Was he a bit boring?  Was he whinging a lot of the time? Was he drinking too much?  Was he not contributing his required 50% input into the conversation or friendship in some way?

It is the honest, unadulterated answers to these questions that get people genuinely ‘unstuck’ and allow them to progress and incrementally improve their behaviours, strategies and happiness over a lifetime.  Keeping on ‘loudly’ expressing the wrong emotion just keeps people barking up the wrong tree for decades – agitated, unhappy and unable to progress.

The Agitation Flipside of Sedation

In my work at the Smart Therapy Centre I often see people who have been put on medications to sedate or calm them, with the purpose of combating anxiety and other forms of agitation.

What many people don’t realise is that we very quickly become tolerant to sedatives and tranquilizers leading us to need more and more to achieve the same result.  This is how many people become dependent or addicted.

Worse still, many of these medications are powerful and very short acting, so we can start to withdraw physically from them within a few hours after taking our last dose.

When we withdraw from these medications, we go into a ‘rebound agitation’ state.  This withdrawal state presents as: increased anxiety, agitation, restless legs, pacing, panic attacks, itchiness and can include hallucinations and seizure.

These symptoms are basically identical and easily mistaken for the original anxiety symptoms.  In this way, many people who are taking medications to calm their anxiety believe that their anxiety is not just still present, but that it is coming back with a vengeance.    Therefore, they take more medication.

This can easily become a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle that keeps people trapped on medications. 

Once people are caught up in this cycle it can be very difficult to extract them.  This is because (unbeknown to them), they lose subtle but significant frontal brain function, diminishing their ability to think, plan, remember, judge, decide, organise, inhibit and sequence information. 

Worst of all, it stops them from learning that they can very easily develop a few new skills to reduce their own anxiety without any need for these unwanted effects.

Take it easy but be tough

In my work as a clinical psychologist I often see things go wrong.  People lose their jobs, relationships break up and people often feel overwhelming anxiety or sadness.

Serious things go haywire for everyone and frequently we can’t change that.  What matters hugely is how we respond.   

When people have come from difficult backgrounds (such as critical parents or chronic instability), they often learn to feel ‘incompetent’ as children, because they (understandably) struggle to control outcomes in their difficult lives. 

This childhood ‘training’ inadvertently causes people over time to adopt the deep-seated assumption that they ‘cannot trust themselves’ to cope and that they are too ‘incompetent’ to deal with situations that are distressing.

This means people can then easily let themselves mentally ‘collapse’ and give themselves permission to lose all control.  This is often when people become passive and seek medication, or they allow anxiety to overwhelm or take them over.

This response works against their own best interests and can lead people towards further collateral damage, like hospitalisation, drug, medication or alcohol addiction,  ‘to cope’.  

Yet the assumptions about ‘not trusting yourself’ or ‘incompetence’ could usually not be further from the truth.  Most people who have come from difficult backgrounds have had to overcome enormous challenges and those who have not ended up dead are usually highly motivated and highly competent.

Instead trust yourself to cope.  In fact, insist on it.  It is crucial when stressful life events occur to never give yourself permission to lose control or mentally collapse.  Sit tight and make your way through the problems and solve them one by one.  Be tough with yourself.  Be disciplined.  Never allow any loss of control, no catastrophising or rumination. 

At the same time, be kind to yourself, take it a bit easier than usual, understand that you are just temporarily going through a rough period, but fill up your day with many enjoyable, constructive, problem-solving activities instead of harbouring ruminations.

How anxiety and poor assertion are connected

When people come to the Smart Therapy Centre for anxiety, I notice that they often find it hard to be assertive in other areas of their lives. For a long time, I wondered why this was the case, but in many ways lacking assertion and being anxious are highly related.

Lack of assertion is connected to believing that you are powerless to influence outcomes in others without resorting to the strategies of either aggression (getting impatient, brittle, unfriendly or angry) or compliance (ducking under the radar, being indirect, dishonest, sulky or stubborn), when faced with conflict.

Similarly, anxiety is connected to believing that you are powerless to influence your own internal mental state and that your anxiety simply takes you over as though you are a victim. The common theme here is powerlessness to influence outcomes.

In many ways this is not that surprising because anxious and unassertive people often come from difficult backgrounds, where they encountered threats as children which made them feel powerless.

In both recovery from anxiety and in becoming assertive, it is crucial to learn that we always have the power to influence both ourselves and others so long as we behave with the necessary discipline to stop paying attention to anxious mentations when faced with anxiety and behave with friendliness and openness when faced with conflict.   

Time for tears …. but then take charge

We often avoid crying because it makes us feel vulnerable and opens us up to self-reflection and examination of our own behaviours and their consequences. 

Many people are terrified (unbeknown to them) of facing their errors and taking proper responsibility for mistakes.  This is because deep down, these people believe they cannot cope with facing their mistakes, as though the distress might never stop and might drag them into a hole from which they cannot escape. 

In fact, facing our pain and taking appropriate responsibility for events in our lives can be even more scary than deflecting for months or years into anxious, angry or depressive ruminations!   

Yet crying and becoming vulnerable in self-reflection and then taking proper and appropriate responsibility for our part in distressing events is the very treatment that will cure almost anything. 

It is the recognising of our part and responsibility that gives us an ‘analysis’ of what went wrong in the first place and alerts us to what we can do differently in the future – ultimately allowing us to take charge again! 


Age Enhances Intimacy


People often have the mistaken view that great sex only happens in youth and deteriorates with age. 

But very often the reverse is true.  Younger people are frequently unsure and frightened of sex – having not had much practice.  They also experience considerable social pressure to rush in and be physically intimate with partners before they have built adequate psychological intimacy.  

In my work as a clinical psychologist for 25+ years, I have seen the significant problems that can arise when people get ‘physical’ too early.  For example, it often leads to difficulty with desire, arousal, performance and orgasm.  More importantly though, the wider the gap between physical intimacy and psychological intimacy – the higher the level of ‘alienation’ (a mental strategy that results in feelings of disconnection, estrangement, anxiety, hostility and/or repulsion). 

This happens because, if we don’t know our partner very well mentally, yet we are trying to interact with them at very close (and confronting!) physical quarters – then our emotional response is often fear.    

When we get scared, we generally try to flee, repel and create distance.  However, if it is impossible or socially awkward to either ‘acknowledge’ our fear or to physically flee the situation, then we tend to run away mentally instead.

It is the mental behaviour of becoming ‘alienated’ that allows us to run away.  We get stressed, withdraw, repel, disconnect and retreat internally. Unfortunately, one of the inevitable costs of utilizing this ‘strategy’ is that we lose empathy for our partner (since empathy primarily depends upon connection and ‘alienation’ is all about disconnection). 

Interestingly, most people completely lack awareness and cannot acknowledge their own fear in these situations, so they reach for alcohol or drugs to subdue their feelings – which only further diminishes their capacity to connect. 

As further camouflage, people often engage in ‘alienated’ sexual behaviour and fantasy that ultimately lacks empathy and kindness (either towards themselves or others).  For example, they may adopt sexual behaviours that create even more alienation like becoming sadistic or masochistic. 

On the other hand, taking years and decades to really ‘know’ your partner psychologically, reduces alienation and often leads to profound feelings of safety, trust, kindness, love and empathy.  

These are the emotions that are ultimately crucial for truly great sex.  The sort of sex that diminishes fear, alienation and ‘aloneness’ and instead creates loving, friendly and genuinely ‘intimate’ connection.

It is this deep, empathic connection that can help provide us with the strength and support to be brave and strong out in the wider world – and this connection only gets better with age!   



Know Your Vision



We have to know where we are heading in order to take the right path!

In my decades of work as a clinical psychologist at the Smart Therapy Centre, I often see people who have lost their way. 

This usually happens because ‘everyday life’ can easily distract us from our bigger goals and before we know it – time has passed and it is too late!   

In order to prevent this scenario, it is important to regularly ask yourself where you intend to be in 1, 2, 5 and 10 years.  Write these goals down and keep them highly visible (otherwise we just revert back to our old neural patterns and forget our more recent insights!)

Make sure the earlier goals you set are compatible (and are steps towards) the larger long-term goals.  Try and be as precise as you possibly can with identifying goals and frequently ‘picture’ what your new life will look like to help sustain motivation.   

As you move forward you may need to let go of certain habits, people or circumstances that are sabotaging your progress. 

Keeping our dignity with age


In my work as a clinical psychologist, I’ve noticed that older people get a tough time in our society – especially women!  Over and over older people are portrayed in photographs and media as insipid, stupid and deferential, unable to carry a conversation except with small children.

This depiction is contemptuous and deeply prejudicial.  Yet, there are three significant reasons it occurs that need to be addressed. 

Firstly, it happens because appearance (especially youthful) is over-valued as an attribute and everyone ages over time.  However, appearance is tremendously over-valued in women who are often socialised to regard their ‘unblemished’ appearance as the most important part of their overall identity.  As a result, when their youthful looks fade, they feel ‘invisible’ like they have been placed on the scrapheap.    

Secondly, in times of rapid change in society, there is more value placed on innovative skills (like knowledge of technology) and these skills are more easily picked up when you have been exposed to them from childhood.  It is easy for older people to feel out of their depth, become discouraged and then turn away from these new skills that would otherwise keep them relevant and connected to society.

Thirdly, older people have been placed in such restrictive and banal categories that many behave in the expected deferential and insipid manner to which we have all become accustomed.  In the process they often quit work too early, take endless cruises, run out of relevance, drink too much, pickle their brains, get boring and lose their dignity (usually in that order!)

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.  But it will only change if older people insist on a different portrayal of themselves – and this (in part) involves older people behaving differently internally: with more dignity, vibrancy and self-respect.

For example, older people need to stop over-valuing physical appearance in themselves, especially women.  Forget appearance-enhancing surgery and stiletto heels.  These so called ‘solutions’ are just silly.  How can anyone expect to be taken seriously without facial lines?

If we don’t change this emphasis, we inevitably set ourselves up for failure as we naturally age.  Instead, love your lines and craggy skin and value your increased ‘vitality’ attained through depth of skills and confidence.  Exude dignity and command respect.  Value yourself as a whole person – not as some ridiculous, brainless barbie doll.

In other words, put your own appearance last on your list and instead bring your attentional focus to other much more important attributes (especially leadership ones) that are all based on years of experience. 

Things like having excellent judgement, huge depth of knowledge in your fields of expertise, great communication skills, being highly strategic, having insight and wisdom and being able to see far enough beyond your own ego so that you can ‘bring others with you’ and extend them true generosity, empathy, kindness, warmth and cooperation. 

You might also want to consider other ‘mature’ skills crucial to good leadership, like exuding serious mental toughness, independence of thought, open-mindedness, willingness to reflect and listen and the capacity to assert and persuade.  Be no-one’s fool!  These skills are all highly complex and require many decades of training, so these are precisely the sorts of skills in which older people can really hold their own and expect to excel.

Older people must also commit far more time and attentional focus to staying abreast of innovative technologies (even if they are intimidating!) that can only enhance and amplify their myriad of skills that come from years of experience.  

Don’t let yourself become irrelevant would be my advice.  Keep working as long as you can (even if you reduce your hours) and stay actively engaged in future technologies. 

This way, you will keep some economic power (ongoing income as well as assets) and you are more likely to build up-to-date skills in new technologies. 

Once you put together your breadth of experience (good judgement, wisdom, insight, strategy, empathy, great communication and the huge ‘vitality’ that arises from this depth of knowledge) plus your new skills in technology and innovation then you are likely to remain highly relevant and in-demand (and maybe even revered!) no matter what your age.    

Re-invent Yourself!

You might think that it’s not easy to re-invent yourself especially with the same DNA!  But in reality, it can be done with some determination and conviction.

I’ve found in my 25+ years work as an author, director, developer and clinical psychologists at the Smart Therapy Centre that people often fail to realise that they can change themselves psychologically even at very profound levels.

We don’t have to be boxed into old, obsolete categories and versions of ourselves.  In fact, whenever we want to, we can decide who we would most like to be, and this change can be achieved much more easily than might be imagined.

Interestingly, if you are determined to change who you are, then it is best done by working from the inside-out by changing your inner attributes (like making yourself more mentally tough or more willing to cry or be vulnerable).  These changes then clearly show on the ‘outside’ to others who ‘read’ them and respond to them by treating you differently.  The changes also register on the ‘inside’ making the person subjectively feel like a completely different person – creating a win-win for everyone!   

To do this, all you need do, is change your behaviour (physical and mental) by changing what it is you focus your attention upon.

Let me give a brief example. 

Let’s say that you often end up doing what other people want you to do rather than what you want to do for yourself.  You feel ‘owned’ by others, as though you are ‘powerless’ in relation to them and you have no freedom to really be yourself.   

Over time, feeling coerced and at the behest of others, makes you feel bitter, envious, blaming and angry that you’re not getting what you truly want in life.  This bitterness means that you struggle to be kind to others and often leaves you behaving cynically and with cruelty.

After a sudden insight, you decide that being bitter and angry is just driving other people away from you and leaving you feeling desolate and lonely.  You notice that you barely have any friends left and are feeling miserable.  So, as a result you make a commitment to change yourself and undertake finding a way to do it.

Now, we know from cutting-edge neuroscience that whatever we pay attention to we will consolidate and learn, and it will become a bigger and bigger part of our physical brain and of our sense of self (the person we ‘believe’ we are) if we continue to focus our attention upon it. 

On this basis, we know that the more we pay attention the more we will pop-up millions of dendritic spines in our brains, that release ‘attractor’ chemicals towards other neurones and build synapses (connections) ‘devoted’ to the exact theme to which we are paying attention.  Thus, physically changing our brain. 

In this example, you suddenly see that you are paying undue attention to your anger, envy, bitterness, cynicism, cruelty and blame by ‘replaying’ these themes over and over (ruminating) in your mind.  This means that over time you will ‘behave’ more and more in accordance with those nasty little well-practised themes towards others.

You reflect even more.  What has caused you to develop these angry themes?  Are you just a horrible person?  Then, all at once you realise that it is because you fail to assert yourself properly in the first place and then feel coerced into meeting other peoples’ demands.  This is what makes you resentful, mean and cruel.

At this point you note that it is NOT because you were born cruel, or that you are intrinsically a mean, bitter or cynical person, but rather the problem has been that you have spent decades ruminating on ‘revenge’ themes because you just never learnt how to get fair outcomes by asserting yourself in the first place.  Not by any means a hanging offence!

So, what do you do?

First you must make a committed decision to change who you are.

Second, you need to think about exactly what type of person you would like to become.  In other words, which precise attributes matter to you.  On this basis, you might decide you would like to become assertive, kind, friendly and never cruel or cynical.

Third, you must identify which of your (current) unique attributes lend themselves well to the new you and then develop, expand and flaunt those fantastic attributes.  You note that you have always been a keen learner with a very curious and open mind.  Also, when you are not being cynical you can be kind as well as hilariously funny and make others feel very warm and happy around you.  You decide to pay lots of attention to these attributes and really expand and flaunt them at every opportunity.

Fourth, you must identify the current aspects of yourself that are simply getting in the way of developing your new identity.  You note that being unassertive in your behaviour sets off the whole cycle, so you determine to learn the complex skills of assertion.  Your good learning skills and curiosity will help you with this.  

You also note that you often have the harsh body language (voice tone, facial expressions) that go with bitterness and hostility and are so easily ‘read’ by others, so you decide to change these into more friendly versions of yourself.  You undertake to smile more, release the jaw, unclench the fists, nod more, have a softer, kinder voice tone.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t yet ‘feel’ that way, because you soon will, so long as you keep practising!

Also, as part of this step, you acknowledge that you must stop your ‘habitual’ mental behaviours of paying attention to thoughts, feelings, sensations images or memories that are in any way related to anger, blame, cruelty, envy and bitterness.  Give these themes absolutely no air-play time and simply make the decision to stop paying them any attention whatsoever, instead focussing your attention onto the new and constructive skills you are building in order to change yourself.     

There is an old saying that says you must kill the person you were in order to become the person you want to be.  This has a faint glimmer of truth, but the reality is much less violent!  Just spend lots of time paying attention to the inner attributes you would like to develop, making them a larger and larger part of your brain, and pay absolutely no attention to the things you would like to be rid of, allowing your unwanted synapses to break apart with ease.

Keep in mind that neural synapses break apart very quickly when they are no longer used and they correspondingly lose their input capacity – so changes (even large scale ones) can occur very quickly.  Before you know it, you will be thinking and behaving quite differently and you will subjectively ‘feel’ and, be treated by others, like a completely different person.  Your life outcomes will significantly improve.

If, at any stage, you would like assistance with this work, our ‘behavioural change experts’ at the Smart Therapy Centre in Fitzroy North  will be more than happy to help guide you in this process.