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    The Importance of Raising Strong Girls

    In my clinical psychology work at the Smart Therapy Centre over the past 25 years I have found that girls fare much better in so many ways if they continue to play vigorous sport and are discouraged from quitting (typically) at puberty.

    Sport allows girls to feel capable, coordinated and strong in their bodies and teaches them the importance of motivation and perseverance.  It teaches them to push through tough times and to get up and keep going even if it hurts.

    I’m not just talking here about the gains in physical attributes but also the psychological attributes like mental toughness, individuation, cooperation and resilience.  Research shows that girls who play sport have higher self-esteem, do better academically, are less likely to respond to peer pressure to take drugs and have higher confidence in their abilities than girls who do not play regular sport.

    Of course, men have known this for generations and sport has been a training ground and metaphor for going out into the real world where resilience and toughness are often required and where ‘collapse’ is simply not an option. 

    It is so wonderful to finally see girls and women learning these skills that will empower them like nothing else and help them pave the way towards true gender equality.  

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    Unhappiness is a learning opportunity

    Cartoon 1871 ridiculing Charles Darwin

    Most people who seek therapy are unhappy in one way or another. As they say to me, ‘I just want to be happy’.

    In turn, many therapists adopt the view that everyone is entitled to be happy and take steps to remove unhappy feelings. Doctors do this through the prescription of drugs, which flatten affect. Psychologists prop up clients’ self-esteem, reassuring them that they are okay.

    I don’t agree with this approach. I see unhappiness as a fantastic learning opportunity. In propping up the self-esteem of their clients, therapists can inadvertently rob them of an opportunity to reflect upon their lives, recalibrate their habits, learn new skills and change their way of being in the world.

    After all, there may be very good reasons that clients are unhappy. Perhaps they have poor skills in forming relationships. Perhaps they cannot hold down a job. Perhaps they do not know how to assert themselves in social situations. Perhaps their aggression drives away the very people that they love.

    When people tell me that they are unhappy, I try and figure out the underlying cause of their unhappiness. There are many possible reasons: poor social skills learned in childhood, insufficient marketable skills, bad diet and unhealthy habits, and so on. It sounds basic, but we only have one brain, and we often do not recognise our skill deficits because they occurred at a time when our choices and opportunities were very different.

    When people tell me that they are unhappy, I also think of Charles Darwin. Darwin was deeply unhappy. He suffered terrible anxiety, three of his children died in childhood and he was vilified and ridiculed for his radical theories of human evolution. Yet he is nowadays revered for his profound contribution to human knowledge.

    Perhaps aiming to be happy is aiming too low. Whatever the case, it is not an end in itself. It is better to think about how we can take care of ourselves, form good relationships and make a worthy social contribution, and let happiness look after itself.

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    From Trauma to Triumph

    If we experience trauma as children, our brains quite sensibly build themselves ‘fit for purpose’.  This means our limbic system (which sounds the alarm and keeps us hyper-vigilant) becomes the ‘go to’ part of the brain in everyday life. 

    Later on, this causes an over-response to mundane everyday events and extreme agitation or panic ‘freezing’ in slightly more challenging events.  Once we establish this brain pattern, it keeps us over-reacting and paying undue attention to our emotional state.

    When young brains are not exposed to trauma they increasingly ‘go to’ their frontal brain focussing on planning, rationality, reasoning and abstraction.  There is very little emotional focus or hyper-vigilance.  The frontal brain areas dominate the limbic system.

    In my clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre for the past 25 years I have focussed on helping traumatised people take their attentional focus almost completely away from their feelings and emotions (which if focussed upon, keep re-traumatising them). 

    Instead I encourage people to shift their attention squarely onto constructive (frontal brain) activities that increase their skill level and help move them away from their internal ‘fraught’ focus. 

    Basically, I want traumatised people to get off the merry-go-round of emoting at all things great and small.  They must stop bothering to even notice how they ‘feel’ and stop talking about their intense emotions to themselves and other people and instead get on with taking frontal brain action in life on their own behalf.

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    Do it while you can

    A common problem that I have seen over and over in my clinical work for the past 25 years is people missing vital windows of opportunity.

    Basically, people over-estimate how much time they have to do things and then suddenly rush for the deadline only to find it is too late and then they are full of regret.

    This happens across all aspects of life but particularly with relationships, career, addiction and having children.  For example, a drug addict can still look cute at 25 or even into their early 30s but by 50 they just look sad.

    Typically, people think they have all the time in the world to form a relationship or to take the next step in their career or to quit smoking or over-eating or to have children. 

    While it is true that some individuals do manage to defy the odds, one thing that I have learned in my job is that most people do not, and there are reasonably strict deadlines on these opportunities if you don’t want to endure the consequences.

    Roughly speaking it seems that the 20s is the time to form a long-lasting relationship if possible because after another decade the pool will have shrunk and there will be fewer people who are competent at relationships from which to choose.  Your relationship needs to be built solidly and cooperatively as a team so it can act as a platform from which you can both launch yourselves.

    Then 30s seems to be the decade to largely sort yourself and your partner out on a personal level.  Now you have more wisdom and more frontal lobe on board you can focus on fixing up relics of poor past socialisation and gaining important skills you may have missed.   So here, problems that are getting in your way like addiction or anger or sulking can be solved and you can build new skills like assertion and better communication skills to improve your outcomes. 

    Career is also getting built during the 30s and long-term plans are being laid down for future career pathways.  During this time, people will be considering whether or not to have children because fertility decreases markedly after about 33 years of age.

    During the 40s career is being hugely consolidated, and depth of knowledge is growing.  If you are planning on going out into your own business now is the time to do so while energy and motivation levels are extremely high combined with enormous knowledge in your area.

    (Incidentally, people who go on to make mammoth amounts of money in their careers are usually well orientated towards their careers by 20 years of age or earlier and have often been out on their own in business for many years by this time.)

    The 50s onwards is the time for keeping on building career momentum and exploiting huge amounts of experience that often result in being able to make excellent judgement calls and decisions – which is ultimately what every CEO in the country is being paid to make.

    The 50s is generally NOT the time to re-enact adolescence, act out, make a fool of yourself and divorce.  It is the time to have the wisdom to solve difficult problems together, accept and take responsibility for your life choices and rely on each other as age-related health problems start to emerge.  It is the time to be wise enough to realise that increasing alcohol does not take away the existential pain of aging in the long-term.

    Beyond the 60s (if you have not hit the bottle) is the age of true smarts, dignity and self-respect.  Hopefully career continues well on into the 70s and beyond, albeit at a slower pace.  Similarly, your relationship is continuing to deepen, and you feel completely at one with your life partner having ironed out most of the differences over the preceding years. 

    These things help because the decades beyond 70 are frequently times of immense struggle with learning to gracefully accept the inevitable aging process and our very real and often painful physical limitations - while still trying to maintain dignity, societal engagement, vitality and optimism about our lives and the future.

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    You can lead a horse to water …

    The famous saying you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink is very apt when trying to help other people (and especially life-partners) change problematic behaviour.

    From my decades of work at the Smart Therapy Centre, I am very aware that change requires a willingness to take action on our own behalf.  It requires internal motivation and it cannot be imposed.  If you try to force others you will meet massive resistance and stubbornness.

    On the other hand, assertive coaxing, kindness and persuasion work wonders.  That is, if they are done correctly.

    Coaxing like ‘you can easily do this – it is mainly about making the decision to change’ is only valid if your view is respected and if the encouragement is not overstated.  If it is overstated and said too often it diminishes the motivation of the other person to change, who no longer needs to step forward and take responsibility because you are doing all the work for them. 

    Basically, there needs to be a respectful acknowledgment that while you are happy to coax and help - in the end, they will do it, or they won’t, and THEY will live with the consequences of their own choices.  So, coax, but be willing to withhold when necessary.

    Kindness is also metered out similarly with real-life consequences.  Kindness is given through genuine care and empathy for the other person’s plight and it helps people to change because they feel safe and cared for enough to take the risks involved. 

    They understand that you have patience and time for them to change, but they also understand that the timeline is not infinite.  There are limits, and you expect some progress soon if your kindness is to continue.

    It goes without saying that if your kindness is met with hostility, meanness or lack of goodwill then there are consequences. 

    You might make comments like ‘you can push me away if you like, but you would be alienating your very best advocate and friend – I am the person who MOST loves you in the world and I am able to help you solve this ongoing problem – but if you choose to be rude then I can be equally rude back and I can withdraw my support – basically it is YOUR choice’.  

    With the comment above, notice how you have not immediately withdrawn love or kindness – in fact, you have re-stated your love and advocacy despite their poor behaviour.  BTW, you can only do this, if you keep your own emotions out of it.  Re-stating your love and advocacy tells the other person what they stand to lose if they continue behaving badly. 

    Also, notice how the responsibility is put back on the other person to make their choice about how they intend to behave going forward.  This makes them ‘own’ the new behaviour if they decide to change (even if, at first, only temporarily). 

    Also, notice that the primary ‘persuasive’ aspect of the above comment is that it is argued specifically from the perspective of how making the change will benefit the other person i.e. If you stop pushing me away and being rude, I can help you solve this difficult problem.

    Going forward, nearly every persuasive argument needs to be delivered from this perspective.  All the real-life consequences should be talked through, showing how the problem behaviour is getting in THEIR way time and time again – how it is stopping THEM from getting what they want in life.  

    In this process, every lie they are telling themselves to maintain the poor behaviour needs to be rigorously exposed.  For example, ‘I like to have a drink’ rather than ‘I am dependent on alcohol’. Any such exposure though, should always be done with kindness and again from the perspective that it serves THEM to know what is blocking them from taking the necessary steps to change.

    Your job is to act like a guide.  Encouraging them out of their personal prison.  Being kind when they are going well and telling them clearly when and how they have messed-up.   

    Of course, it is always clear to you both that you are ONLY on their side while they are behaving well towards you – otherwise they will be on their own.  This ‘tough love’ approach helps and motivates people to make the choice to change.

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    Getting Strong Inside

      

    Often psychologists tell people who are low on self-esteem to simply ‘love’ themselves in order to build resilience and a stronger internal sense of self. 

    However, after more than 25 years of clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre, I find this is simply not enough information to guide people in that endeavour.

    Being told to ‘love’ yourself assumes that we build our sense of self from the inside-out and all we need do is change our internal dialogue about ourselves.

    The reality is different.  Humans are highly social and socialised, and we build our self-esteem largely from the outside-in based upon what others think about us. Over time, we eventually internalise that information.    

    For example, if a child is told by others that she is good at maths she will continue being a keen learner of maths in order to maintain that social approval. 

    Then as she gets more and more social approval over time (more nods, more smiles and more affirmative rather than negative comments), she will gradually ‘internalise’ that information into ‘I am good at maths’ and this will become part of her sense of self. 

    It is crucial to understand here that she was not ‘born’ good at maths.  It was instead a socially reinforced behaviour that she later internalised. 

    It is easy to make this mistake however, because the child being taught this skill at a young age means that later as an adult she will ‘feel’ like she has always been good at maths as if she somehow had a ‘natural’ or intrinsic aptitude.

    It is also worth noting that she did not simply become good at maths by wishing it upon herself by saying ‘I love myself and I am good at maths’. 

    She instead practised maths and absorbed the positive reinforcement as she became better and better, until the skill was so well-practised it felt like it had always been a part of her.

    Keep in mind here that we can also have the reverse happen and we can come to regard ourselves negatively when social nuances from others as well as real-life outcomes (such as failing maths tests) indicate that we are poor at skills.

    In the end, our self-esteem will depend upon how we perform in the real world, which is essentially based on the number of skills we hold positively versus the number of skills we hold negatively from both our own perspective and from the perspective of others.

    If we want to improve our self-esteem, we must build skills.  Abstractly ‘loving’ yourself is not enough and it is not even plausible when you profoundly lack skills and repetitively fail to get good outcomes in the real world.   

    Instead, we must try to build all sorts of skills, not just the ‘hard’ skills like maths, languages, debating, dancing, sports or general knowledge (although these obviously help enormously), but also ‘soft’ skills that ultimately make huge differences to real-life outcomes. 

    Soft skills are things like being relaxed, open and friendly in conversations (these are behaviours we can easily learn to control even if, due to lack of practice, we don’t initially ‘feel’ them).  Other soft skills might include, knowing how to initiate, sustain or end conversations well; understanding socially acceptable behaviours, contexts and nuances; exercising high levels of internal discipline during conflict (not becoming angry, sulky or passive aggressive); or knowing how to assert both your own interests while cooperatively advancing others’ interests at the same time in order to achieve win-win solutions. 

    These skills are often built during life-coaching sessions with therapists, but you can also learn them yourself with truly honest discussion, guidance and feedback from peers and loved ones.         

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    Behaviour Matters

    Every time we interact with others, we are training them in how they will treat us in the future.  This goes for both adults and children. 

    For example, if we need to repetitively ask children to put away their toys, our repetitive behaviour is teaching them to ignore us. 

    The way this works is that we ask politely at first, but then with each subsequent request we become more and more frustrated and irritable until we seriously blow our top.  Yet despite our escalating frustration we are not putting any negative consequences in place until the end, where frustration sometimes results in physical punishment.

    This approach teaches children that they can keep ignoring us until we are at our absolute wits’ end.  It also teaches them that the only consequence that matters is physical violence.  This trains children to wait for external direction and stops them learning to be internally motivated in their everyday behaviours.

    This situation is a lose-lose for everyone involved.  Children receive no proper guidance and leadership from which to model, and parents feel constantly stressed about being ignored and anxious about inappropriately smacking their children.

    Instead we need to make a time (NOT in the heat of the moment) where we sit down with children and clearly discuss expectations around behaviour.  A crucial part of this discussion will be about negative consequences.  For example, if the toys are not put away immediately then the children will receive an immediate negative consequence like time out or removal of their favourite toy from their bedroom. 

    These negative consequences are always delivered dispassionately.  For example, ‘oh well, it was your choice to not put away your toys, so this is the consequence – just learn from this and think more carefully next time’.

    Children then quickly learn to take proper ‘internal’ responsibility for their behaviour and come to understand the limits on social behaviours, making them more socially skilled and competent.  At the same time, parents learn to take their roles as leaders seriously and they never need be frustrated again.  

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    A NEW BEGINNING

    If there is one clear thing that I have learnt in over 20 years of clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre it is this:  in the end, you are the ONLY person who can call yourself to account.

    You can lie and pretend to yourself until the cows come home but ultimately the buck stops with you.

    It doesn’t matter what others say or do.  It doesn’t matter how much they try to help you.  It doesn’t matter how much they try to penalise you.   

    In the end, it will be your commitment to changing problematic behaviours that will be the difference between success and failure.  Between a life where you feel capable and in control, and a life where you feel desperate and completely out of control.

    Now, think hard on this next question before you answer, because your life depends on it.  Are you prepared to go through another year of intense anxiety, panic attacks, depressed mood, loneliness, anger, heavy drinking, over-eating or unrelenting relationship tension? 

    If the answer is ‘yes’ then go ahead, change nothing and plough onwards without complaint. 

    If, on the other hand you are not willing to keep living with these problem behaviours then New Year is a good time to commit to serious change. 

    By serious, I mean longer-term.  Don’t just decide to change for a few days or weeks, but instead undertake to change for at least 3 months and then re-evaluate. 

    After 3 months, if your life is much improved (as it almost certainly will be), then re-commit to another lengthy stretch of time.  It only takes about 6 weeks to change established habits so that you feel comfortable and relaxed with the new behaviour. 

    You may get the occasional urge to go back to old problematic ways but soon these urges are very easy to resist and in hardly any time at all it feels completely natural to behave constructively and in your own best interests.

    If nothing else, think hard about this idea today.  Don’t slide it out of your awareness.  Instead, identify the problem behaviour and commit to serious change.  It just takes one clear decision to start …

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    Family stress at Christmas

     

    Although the weeks leading up to Christmas can be wonderful, catching up with old and new friends and celebrating with work colleagues, sometimes Christmas Day itself can be difficult and even heart-wrenching.

    This is often because families have old, unresolved wounds that can result in all sorts of tensions.  These tensions can be bad enough that family members become so alienated that they end up spending the day alone and lonely.

    More commonly though, when long-standing conflicts have not been resolved, there is sheer boredom and emptiness when families come together, simply because they have nothing they can talk about without causing a huge eruption.  Just like all roads lead to Rome, all ‘real’ conversation leads to eruption. 

    Therefore, topics become unreal, safe and tedious (often talking endlessly about the children) with people getting drunk to cope and falling asleep on the couch in front of the TV.  These are the sorts of hollowed out and empty relationships that occur when conflicts build-up and compound over time and are not resolved.

    But even with these tedious and safe avoidance strategies it doesn’t take much (maybe a little ‘barb’ or a nasty little ‘joke’ inserted into the conversation) to be back raking over the coals of past family injustices.

    Unfortunately, what I frequently see in my clinical work is that people then start debating what did or did not happen in the past when they were 8 or 14 years old.  This debate of who did what when, and who was right or who was wrong, can go on fruitlessly for decades.

    Generally, it is best to resolve only current (not past) grievances and this can be done throughout the year (instead of Christmas Day) by talking through issues of conflict as they arise.

    Of course, it goes without saying that talks should always be kind and friendly and although they can become intense, they should always be highly disciplined. 

    In these discussions, people should never be personally attacked (like ‘you’re an idiot’), but any specific problem-behaviours (like sulking or harshness) can be talked through and alternative behaviours (like speaking up more or exhibiting more softness) can be suggested in order to achieve better relations.

    Interestingly, in solving the current grievances, the past ones are usually also resolved.  This occurs simply because problem-behaviours from the past are generally carried forward into the present.  Debating them in the present allows them to be clearly identified and described, making it more likely they can be resolved and eliminated.

     

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    Desperate and unnecessary fighting tactics

    It may surprise you to know that bothaggressive people and compliant people are scared to death of conflict and tryto avoid it, albeit by using different strategies. 

    This is intuitive with compliant people who clearly shy away from conflict, but completely counter-intuitive with aggressive people who always seem to be getting into the ring to smash up others and themselves in the process.

    But what I have learned from my 25 years of clinical psychology work is that it is precisely because aggressive people are so terrified of conflict that they do this. 

    Aggressive people try to decimate the enemy in one king-hit - going excessively on the offensive with the motto ‘kill or be killed’.  The more terrified, the more aggressive.

    In contrast, compliant people try to avoid conflict altogether by disappearing under the radar and pretending they agree, but meanwhile often harbouring passive, stubborn and bitter resentments that come out through nasty barbs and manipulation.

    Both aggressive and compliant people use their strategies because somehow in their formative years they incorrectly learned that other people are hostile to them. 

    It then followed that it is only reasonable for them to counter such (imagined) hostility by employing unfair tactics back (aggressive or manipulative) in order to get what they want. 

    But nothing could be less likely to get them what they want.  Aggressive and manipulative tactics almost always lead to dismal and pathetic lose-lose outcomes (with both parties smashed to pieces) because they reduce goodwill and cooperation from others. 

    Also, both strategies keep people stunted.  Both strategies stop people learning that conflict doesn’t need to be fought in the ring - it is a wonderful gift that can promote great future solutions to problems, as well as creating depth and closeness in relationships through rational discussion and friendly (albeit, sometimes intense) resolution of differences.

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    What if… my anxiety comes back?!!!

    I find in my clinical work that when people get over their anxiety by stopping paying it any attention there is almost always a period a few weeks later where a scary thought threatens to derail their progress.

    It usually goes like this.  ‘Wow, I can’t believe how great I feel since I stopped paying any attention to my anxiety – I’ve had no anxiety for weeks … OMG!  Wouldn’t it be awful if it all came back again!!  I couldn’t bear it!’

    At this point people can become highly alarmed and start to hyper-vigilantly observe themselves for any possible signs of their anxiety returning. 

    They maybe start monitoring their pulse or breathing (looking for even slight increases) or notice if they have any feelings of dread or panic.  They might examine their thoughts or mental images to see if any are a bit on the ‘anxious’ side.

    Sadly, re-focussing on anxiety consolidates it in the brain and makes it easier to retrieve.  Before they know it, their anxiety is back again with a vengeance!

    Instead, be aware that the initial OMG! type-of-thought just reflects the normal human capacity to think laterally and with complexity.  When we have one thought, we easily then have similar, related or opposite thoughts, especially if we already had a well-established brain habit devoted to anxiety rumination. 

    All you need to do is be aware this might happen and then simply slide the ‘OMG! What if …. my anxiety comes back type-of-thought into your periphery and out of your focussed attention, giving it zero airplay time.  Make it clear that you’re certainly not going to fall for that old trick!  Then, engage in a constructive activity and keep enjoying an anxiety-free life!

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    With just a little help and kindness...

    Often in my work I see couples locked into bitter hatred of each other.  It becomes vengeful with neither party remembering who started the war but both parties keeping on fighting it.

    I find that it nearly always helps to introduce a couple of circuit-breakers.  Firstly, I ask couples to simply do several un-solicited acts of kindness every week for their partner and, in return for the partner to acknowledge the act with softness, friendliness and grace.

    Then, I ask the couple to ban all bickering and poor behaviour (like sulking, ‘huffing and puffing’ in exasperation, being rude, yelling or inserting hidden ‘barbs’ into the conversation).  Instead, both parties must follow the rules, by communicating in a civilised, well-mannered, friendly and helpful manner – irrespective of how they are ‘feeling’.

    I emphasise that it is fine to disagree on issues, but both parties must try and resolve their differences through civilised and rational discussion no matter what.  It can be intense, but it must always be disciplined. 

    These changes in behaviour, almost immediately increase goodwill and start to open the couple up to listening properly and resolving big differences through reasoned and cooperative debate.  It makes all the difference to have a little kindness and help inserted into any relationship … 

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    Button your lip about anxiety

    I have often talked about the importance of stopping paying attention to anxiety mentations. 

    But I know from my 25 years of clinical work that many people don’t realise that this means not only stopping an internal dialogue with themselves about their anxiety (like ‘OMG! I might panic if I do that’) but also stopping any dialogue with other people about their anxiety.

    So, to be clear, once you decide to embark upon quitting paying attention to your anxiety then that means that when others ask you how you are going you don’t respond with ‘Oh, not bad, but I’ve been a bit anxious lately’ or ‘I don’t think I could take that job – it might exacerbate my anxiety’. 

    Instead, no matter how you feel (which should not matter anyway because you’re not paying your anxiety-related ‘feelings’ any attention whatsoever) you say ‘great, thank you’ and then discuss constructive things you have been up to if probed any further.

    It doesn’t matter how unsure you feel or if you start shaking, sweating, blushing or your pulse races because you’re not paying any attention to these physiological sensations either.  You just keep right on engaging in conversation in a constructive way – no differently to how someone would behave if they had not a shred of anxiety.

    If you start discussing the ins and outs of your anxiety with others you will be reactivating and consolidating the very neural pathways that you wish to eliminate.  So, don’t do it.  Resist the urge for that bit of reassurance you would otherwise hope to gain from others.  It’s just not worth it.

    Remember though, that others might probe excessively about your anxiety because the relationship has been based upon you talking about it in the past.  Once you are no longer in the victim-role there may be a temporary lull in the relationship while you both find other things to talk about. 

    So be ready for this.  Even if you are asked specifically about your anxiety, just say ‘yeah, going really well thanks’ and then move onto something constructive you have been doing.   You can then follow up with, ‘and what about you?  What have you been up to lately?’  With partners or very close friendships, let them know in advance that there will be zero discussion about any anxiety going forward.

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    Conflict is a gift to engage in

    I often find in my clinical work that people view conflict and subsequent debate as negative, hostile and rejecting.  

    But nothing could be further from the truth.  Instead, a recent large-scale study found that couples who freely argue, actually love each other the most.  

    So long as conflicts are handled kindly and respectfully (even if, very intensively) then they are gifts that provide rare opportunities to gain resolution.  Without such resolution we cannot progress relationships towards depth and authentic closeness. 

    Conflict also provides us with an opportunity to hone our skills at debate.  While this might seem trivial, learning to argue in an articulate and logical manner is crucial to operating as an assertive free agent and ‘finding our voice’ in this big, noisy world.   

    But there are also some other important gains to be found.  For example, when we argue, we demonstrate to others that we care enough about the relationship to struggle for solutions rather than just withdraw into indifference. 

    We also clarify and identify what we stand for (what matters and what does not matter) which helps us build a strong identity or sense of self. 

    It also teaches others that we need to be genuinely persuaded and that we will never be a pushover, which helps earn the respect of others (a crucial element of any relationship).

    Moreover, we demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are strong, resilient, non-fragile and that we can handle the full force of arguments being fired at us without having to be treated with condescending kid gloves.  We learn to stand our ground (in a kind and open-minded way) and not be intimidated.

    Learning to debate also helps ‘non-talkers’ become fully participating members of any group or within a relationship.  Finding our voice through argument helps stop the passively resentful behaviours of sulking, meanness, and withholding that tend to arise from feelings of victimhood and lack of input.  

    Needless to say, all of this extends our brain power, forcing us to think fast and on-our-feet while developing better logic and reasoning skills with better articulation of arguments.  So, don’t delay, start debating today!!

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    Run your own race

    A huge mistake I have often seen in my 25 years of clinical practice is people making themselves miserable looking around at what others achieve and then paying attention to bitter, envious or self-hating mentations. 

    Remember, the more we pay attention, the more we instruct our brains to build neural synapses specifically devoted to these (unwanted) themes, ironically making them a bigger and bigger part of our mental experience.  This is how people become bitter, envious or self-hating - none of us start off this way.

    Instead, try to run your own race in life.  Decide the goals YOU want to achieve and then set about systematically achieving them, irrespective of what others are doing.  In other words, back yourself and run your own unique race.

    Of course, it is still important to stay connected to new developments that progress your ideas. However, this can be done without paying any attention whatsoever to the unwanted themes.  Constructively working with others, talking and reading about new developments in your area are great ways to stay connected, cutting-edge and relevant.

    If your focus is squarely on running your own race, any ideas you encounter from others are immediately related to how YOU could utilise them in your own specific agenda.  The focus is never on envy, bitterness or self-hate – it is always on running your own best race in whatever way works best for you.

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    No dictator needed with assertion

     

     

    People who overuse compliance as a communication strategy are often very well liked.  They appear relaxed, calm, friendly and kind and they can frequently progress quite well in their careers because of these attributes.

    They are the sort of people who are often described as ‘my rock’ because they don’t make waves or contradict, and their apparent calmness soothes others who may be more agitated when dealing with the world.

    But this is the problem:  it is other people who are dealing with the world.  Compliant people are primarily withdrawing from the world, usually because of their ‘fear of conflict’ with others should they come forward to honestly interact and say what they ‘really’ think.

    The difficulty for compliant people is that to be able to function (while being withdrawn) requires finding other people who are willing to go forth and do your bidding; engaging with the wider world on your behalf.

    To do this, compliant people most commonly partner in their intimate relationships with people who overuse aggression as a communication strategy and then hope that the aggressive person will negotiate, agitate and protect their interests.

    Of course, this is a risky strategy at best and downright dangerous at worst – since it kind of relies on a benevolent dictator.  Yet we all know that dictators can be terrifying (see image above).

    While compliant people have been busy withdrawing and disappearing under the radar, they have never learned to calmly argue and persuade others of their views.  Instead at times of potential conflict compliant people tend to go quiet and passively resist, blocking any undesired outcomes.

    This frustrates others (who may then become angry and frightening) and stops compliant people from ever really defining and truly ‘knowing’ themselves, as it is mainly through logical argument that we define what we stand for or what we stand against.

    In contrast to either compliance or aggression, people using assertion as their main communication strategy would know that it is never too late to learn to argue!  They would come forward in a friendly manner (and not withdraw) while calmly and open-mindedly discussing issues of conflict with others.

    This provides vital feedback to themselves and others in defining exactly what values and views matter.  At the same time, it sets early limits on other people’s behaviour (by indicating they are not a pushover), while still maintaining a friendly and permeable basis for interaction.

    Most importantly, assertion puts an end to needing a dictator (even a benevolent one!) and allows direct, unfettered access to the world that is calm, logical and empowering.

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    Be careful not to win the battle but lose the war

    Many people who are practised in using aggression as a communication strategy get a long way in work and life. This is because they are often highly motivated, proactive people who adopt a direct ‘can do’ approach and, unlike people who use compliance as their main strategy, they are not passive in going after what they want.

    But the biggest risk this type of profile faces is pushing for outcomes without first making sure they have genuinely persuaded others to come on board with them.  They mistakenly think when others nod and say ‘yes’ that this means it is a given, whereas others may simply be indicating that they are open to the idea, willing to listen or have partial agreement.

    Fundamentally the reason this happens is because people who over-use the aggression strategy have almost always been bullied in childhood and have responded (usually in adolescence) by learning to stand up fiercely with all guns blazing towards the perpetrator.

    Despite this bravado, it may surprise you to know that aggressive people are underneath, terrified of conflict.  This is because they fundamentally believe they will never get their preferred outcomes in life UNLESS they apply angry, escalating, winner-takes-all tactics. 

    This leads aggressive people to often use the one-punch knockout approach on their opponent rather than soft, lengthy, rational persuasion where outcome is based on the merit of the argument.  Deep down they don’t believe they can persuade.  As they see it, they must decimate the opposition before the opposition decimates them.

    In contrast, people who use assertion as their main communication strategy, never see others as the opposition.  Instead, they view all parties as being on the same side but with a problem to solve to the satisfaction of all parties. 

    In other words, until the solutions are win-win for everyone involved then the process is not yet over.  This reduces fear during negotiations as there is an ultimate assumption of fair and equitable outcomes for everyone.  (Even if this is not the case, it is best to operate on this assumption.)

    Assertive people are also very careful to ensure that others are genuinely persuaded and will ‘own’ and commit to any solutions.  This is because they know that if they ride roughshod over others it will inevitably result in lack of commitment, stubborn resistance and usually sabotage and trench warfare.    

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    NOT FRAGILE – WILL NOT BREAK!

    One of the most common mistakes of parenting is treating children as though they are fragile and cannot cope with difficulty.  It is a form of over-protection that often occurs by parents who have been bullied themselves in childhood and who are determined to never do the same thing to their own children.  Instead, these parents flip to the opposite side of the coin.

    While it comes from a good place, over-protection sadly does almost as much damage to children as beating them on a regular basis, as it instils the same foundational negative assumptions on which children then build their brains.

    For example, if you regularly beat and bully children you teach them that the world is a dangerous place, that other people will be hostile and that they are powerless and to do anything about it.  If you over-protect children, you teach them that there is a dangerous world and that there are hostile people out there (both of which they need protection from) and you teach them that the reason they need protection is because they are powerless to sort it out for themselves.

    In the longer term, these negative assumptions then often result in exacerbated threat awareness, low self-esteem and fears and doubts about one’s ability to deal effectively with challenges.

    In contrast to this, it is important for children to meet with the real world and not be protected from it if they are to build great resilience.

    Sure, children and teenagers need discussion and guidance from parents about complex and difficult issues when they have not encountered them before, but these things teach them excellent problem-solving skills and a sense of agency and mastery when they successfully sort problems out.

    It is important for parents to simply ‘expect’ children to cope well with both challenges and adversity and generally they will.

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    Help me make it through the night

    People often think that the key to successful long-term relationships is exciting, mind-bending and contorted sexual positions with sex toys and skimpy underwear.

    In reality, few things could be more alienating and devastating for a relationship and nothing could be further from the truth.

    The real key to staying in love with your partner over the decades (and becoming more and more ‘in love’ over time) is great conversation that sometimes leads to friendly, chatty, co-operative sex – not so different to sharing a great meal together!  Mutual and simultaneous orgasm pretty much always assumed.

    But this type of love is not so easy to come by.  It requires a willingness to see your partner as a real living human being and not an object to be bent into shape, derided or subordinated.  It requires seeing ourselves as on the same side (never as ‘the other’) so that success for our partner means success for us.   Central to this relationship is genuine equality and kindness and it involves being willing to share ourselves warts and all.

    To achieve it, we must be prepared to talk about the everyday things (like the shopping) and the hard things (like our conflicts and embarrassments) before, after and even during intimacy.  We need to have the courage to share many of our thoughts, even the unacceptable and conflictual ones and certainly all the brilliant ones (!) so that our partner can truly ‘know’ us.

    This genuine closeness gives us a very best friend who we can totally trust, and it helps us make it through the night during the times (we all experience) of fear, doubt, fragility and agonising human suffering.

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    WASTE TIME AND TIME WILL WASTE US

    When we are young we think we have endless time and we are often told that we ‘can have it all’. 

    When we believe that our dreams are going to fall into our laps, it is easy to waste time on dead-end jobs and dead-beat people.

    But ask any 80-year old how fast their life went by and they will tell you that it felt like they were barely getting started and then it was all over – their life had flashed by in the blink of an eye.

    In my work at the Smart Therapy Centre, older people often reflect that they wish they had been more proactive and less passive.  They wish they had single-mindedly gone after their own agenda and grabbed more opportunities when they presented themselves instead of trying to fit in, conform and please other people. 

    Part of the solution to this problem is understanding that we have our own unique set of cards to play in life, so we need to keep our focus on our own pathway and stop wasting time looking at what everyone else is doing. 

    We also need to get started early.  In many cases it doesn’t so much matter which career a young person chooses but that they choose one and get on with it FAST, rather than spending most of their 20’s leisurely ‘finding’ themselves.  

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