It’s Okay to Still Fall into Life Traps… We All Do!

Life-traps are self-defeating ways of perceiving, feeling about and interacting with oneself, others and the world.

If you are wanting to get a sense of what your life-traps may be, the book ‘Reinventing your life’ by Jeffrey Young is an excellent place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you want a more in-depth analysis, however, then do go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy.

A Psychologist has much more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can give you results on 18 schemas (life-traps), help you to identify your most common traps, and show you what you can do both in therapy and outside of it whenever you realise that you have fallen into a trap.

My Life-traps

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Photo by Vusal Ibadzade on Pexels.com

I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) three times now to help identify my main life-traps. The first time was at the beginning of 2014 when I was stuck in the middle of a complicated relationship while also trying to complete the last part of my Doctoral thesis and play basketball at a semi-professional level.

The second time was in April 2017, when I was in a Clinical Psychology job that I loved and a warm and supportive relationship. I had also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level, and was just playing with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which was way more fun.

The most recent time was August 2018, where I had just finished up my work in private practice in Melbourne, Australia and was about to leave my friends and family to volunteer for two years in Port Vila, Vanuatu as past of the Australian Volunteers Program (funded by the Australian Government).

I’d like to share these results with you to show you that:

  1. context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others,
  2. personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships and the world can change, and
  3. even though it is possible to grow and improve over time, we all still fall into traps at times, and this is okay. It’s about trying to identify when you have fallen into a trap, and then knowing what you need to do to get out of it. 

When looking at the results, a 100% score would mean that I have answered every item for that life-trap a 6, which means that they describe me perfectly. The higher the % score, the more likely it is that I will frequently fall into this life-trap.

YSQ-L3
2014 Results 2017 Results 2018 Results
Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap Schema or life-trap
1. Subjugation – 75% 1. Self-sacrifice – 60.78% 1.Self-sacrifice – 60.78%
2. Dependence – 64.44% 2. Punitiveness (self) – 57.14% 2. Emotional Deprivation – 59.26%
3. Self-sacrifice – 61.76% 3. Emotional Deprivation – 51.85% 3. Punitiveness (self) – 50%
4. Approval seeking – 54.76% 4. Unrelenting Standards/ Hyper-criticalness – 48.96% 4. Subjugation – 50%
5. Punitiveness (self) – 51.19% 5. Approval Seeking – 48.81% 5. Unrelenting standards – 43.75%
6. Unrelenting standards – 48.96% 6. Subjugation – 48.33% 6. Approval seeking – 41.67%
7. Insufficient self-control – 46.67% 7. Negativity/ Pessimism – 43.94% 7. Vulnerability to harm/illness – 40.28%
8. Emotional inhibition – 46.30% 8. Mistrust/ Abuse – 41.18% 8. Negativity/Pessimism – 39.39%
9. Emotional deprivation – 42.59% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 41.11% 9. Dependence/ Incompetence – 38.89%
10. Abandonment – 41.18% 10. Emotional Inhibition – 40.74% 10. Mistrust/Abuse – 37.25%

What’s Changed?

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Photo by Mark Lin on Pexels.com

By looking at the table above, the green items indicate an improvement in comparison to the prior assessment, meaning that these life-traps are a little bit less powerful for me. The yellow indicates no change since the last assessment, and the red indicates a worse score, meaning that these life-traps may have a more powerful sway over me.

From 2014 to 2017, 7 out of the initial top-10 life-traps had improved, one stayed the same, and two had worsened. Two additional traps not included in the initial top 10 had worsened and made the list (Negativity/Pessimism & Mistrust/Abuse).

From 2017 to 2018, 7 out of the 2017 top-10 life-traps had improved yet again, with one staying the same and two worsening. One additional trap (Vulnerability to harm/illness) had increased, but I believe this was due to the medical and safety briefings that I had been going through in the preparation of moving to Vanuatu for 2 years.

 

Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life-trap in 2018 than I was in 2014 and 2017. The average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas in 2017 it was 48.28% and in 2018 it was 46.13%.

I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, only five in 2017, and none in 2018. This means that I am much less likely to get completely pushed around by my life-traps, but they still do have some sway on me, especially the self-sacrifice and the emotional deprivation schemas, and to a lesser degree punitiveness and subjugation.

Here is Young’s description of these schemas:

SELF-SACRIFICE: Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations, at the expense of one’s own gratification.  The most common reasons are:  to prevent causing pain to others; to avoid guilt from feeling selfish; or to maintain the connection with others perceived as needy. Often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Sometimes leads to a sense that one’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment of those who are taken care of.

EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION: Expectation that one’s desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others.  The three major forms of deprivation are:

  1. Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.
  2. Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from others.
  3. Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.

SUBJUGATION: Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced – usually to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment. The two major forms of subjugation are:

1. Subjugation of Needs: Suppression of one’s preferences, decisions, and desires.

2. Subjugation of Emotions: Suppression of emotional expression, especially anger. 

Subjugation usually involves the perception that one’s own desires, opinions, and feelings are not valid or important to others. Frequently presents as excessive compliance, combined with hypersensitivity to feeling trapped. Generally leads to a build up of anger, manifested in maladaptive symptoms (e.g., passive-aggressive behaviour, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).

PUNITIVENESS: The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with oneself for not meeting one’s expectations or standards.  Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself, because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with one’s feelings.

Three out of my top four life-traps have improved since 2014, but emotional deprivation unfortunately continues to climb with each assessment. I’m not entirely sure why, but I do think that self-sacrifice, subjugation and emotional deprivation schemas may be common life-traps for people who decide to become psychologists. The therapeutic relationship is meant to be one sided, and focused on the patient or client’s needs, not the psychologist’s needs. It is for this reason that it is crucial for psychologists to get their relational needs met outside of their job, and to get their own therapy if needed to ensure that they can have a space that is about them too. I wonder how these life-traps will continue to evolve over the next two years while I am in Vanuatu…

How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?

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Photo by Anthony DeRosa on Pexels.com

The first step to changing anything is awareness. If you are not aware that you are falling into any traps, it means that you either don’t have any, or you are so enmeshed in your experience that you cannot see them.

Once you have an awareness of your traps, the next step is to try to understand them and why they occur for you. Most life-traps originate in childhood typically, which is why most psychologists and psychiatrists will ask about your upbringing and your relationship with your parents in particular.

Life-traps are actually considered to be adaptive ways of coping with maladaptive environments. What this means is that your life-traps were probably quite useful in the particular family dynamic that you had, or you wouldn’t have developed them in the first place. For example, my family often called me a martyr when I was younger, because I said that it didn’t matter what I wanted. In reality, it was just much more comfortable to let everyone else decide and take charge. Then if things didn’t work out, I couldn’t be blamed. I saw it as a win-win, but often didn’t get what I wanted, because I didn’t speak up, and then complained that my parents loved my siblings more, who were more than happy to speak up and ask for what they wanted.

Once you move out of the family home, however, these ways of coping are generally not as effective, and tend to become maladaptive ways of interacting with yourself, others or the world. If I keep playing martyr and refuse speak up as an adult, my needs still don’t get met. As a result, I may become excessively demanding of others as a counterattack measure (not likely for me), or I may try to escape from all relationships where I need to speak up about my needs. Either way, it keeps the life-trap going, and it isn’t helpful.

I need to realise that there are relationships out there where it is beneficial for me to speak up, as people then know what I want, and can then respond effectively to the situation at hand. It still doesn’t “feel right” when I think about telling others my wants or needs (and I’m not sure if it ever will), but I logically know that it is the best approach for me to take going forward. If I want to break free from my main life-traps, I have to learn to speak up, in a reasonable way, when it is important to me (and others). By doing this, eventually, the life-traps will become much less prevalent and less powerful too.

If you have been trying with therapy for a long time but don’t think that you are getting anywhere, please do seek out a Psychologist with experience in Schema Therapy. If you are stuck in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met, it could help too.

Learning about Schema Therapy and undergoing training in it has taught me more about my own personal life-traps than anything else that I have done before and really does give me a sense of what my most significant challenges are going forward. I’ve made a lot of progress so far, but there is still a long way to go, and that is okay. With acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection and perseverance I know that I will continue to improve, and I am confident that you can too!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

P.S. For a full description of the other 14 maladaptive schemas, please click here.

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25 Ideas That Could Change Your Life

1. KAIZEN

jesus-in-taiwan-372790-unsplash.jpgA Japanese term meaning “improvement”.

I think of Kaizen as ‘continuous improvement’ or ‘continual change for the better, one small step at a time’, as this is how I first heard of the term.

A lot of the successful Japanese manufacturing companies in automobiles and technology have used this exact approach to obtain massive success over time.

What could you achieve if you just focused on taking one small step in the right direction today, and then another one every day after that?

2. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE…

luca-iaconelli-242679-unsplash.jpgGandhi did not say “Be the change you want to see in the world” even though it is often attributed to him. What he actually said was this: 

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

3. BE HERE NOW

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If we are fully present in the moment and aware of what is going on both internally and externally, we have a choice in what we decide to do.

If you do not feel present, meditate, ground yourself, get outside, move and connect with your five senses in the moment and the world around you.

“Awareness is all about restoring your freedom to choose what you want instead of what your past imposes on you.” – Deepak Chopra

4. CHOICES DEFINE YOUR LEGACY

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This happens through a lengthy process of choices becoming actions, actions becoming habits, and all of your habits informing your character and ultimate legacy. A quote along these lines has been attributed to a Mr Wiseman in 1856, and it tells us that whatever we sow, we must later reap.

It is therefore essential to engage in as many helpful actions as possible when we still have a choice and before they become habitual. The more engrained something is, the easier it is to do automatically, and the harder it can be to stop.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” – Donald Hebb

5. LIFE WASN’T MEANT TO BE EASY

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We often don’t appreciate things that just fall into our lap, and we tend to value things much more when we put in some hard work to get it. Even people that build their own IKEA furniture rate the furniture as being more valuable than people who see that same furniture complete but haven’t made it themselves.

I know I’d be more proud of the $3million I built up through hard work than the equivalent amount of money won through a lottery. How about you?

Anything in life worth having is worth working for.” – Andrew Carnegie

6. THE MAGIC HAPPENS OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

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Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” – Brian Tracy

So many people want a comfortable life and therefore stick to what feels safe. Unfortunately, if you are not willing to feel uncomfortable, your life will only get smaller over time.

When you first step out of your comfort zone, it will be scary, you will feel awkward, and it may even feel unsafe. But is it really, or does it just feel threatening because it is new? If at this moment, you run back to what you are used to, you won’t grow. However, if you can persist through the initial pain, it will only get more comfortable in time, and your comfort zone will continue to expand and grow.

7. RETHINK WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE

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What is real freedom to you?

Doing whatever your parents, school, bosses or government wants you to do? UMM NO. This is called compliance.

Being a rebel and doing the exact opposite of what your parents, school, bosses and government told you to do? STILL NO. This is called counterpliance and is always defined by what you have been shown to do, which means that you are still part of the system. Plus you may end up grounded, expelled, fired or in prison, which doesn’t sound too free to me.

Just living for the moment and indulging in all of your passions and pleasures whenever you want, because YOLO, right? NOPE. This is called hedonism, and may feel great for a night, but not for a lifetime. It can have some pretty nasty side-effects too if you aren’t careful, including weight gain, disease, debt, dissatisfaction and even death.

True freedom must come from making the choice that is likely to be the best for you in the long-term, even if it denies you that last alcoholic drink or dessert, or the fun that happens after 2am, or that extra TV episode, or the added snooze time in the mornings. If we can’t get ourselves to do things that are difficult or painful in the short-term but beneficial in the long run, we can never honestly be free in the long-term. As a former NAVY SEAL famously said:

Discipline equals freedom.” – Jocko Willink

8. GETTING STARTED IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST PART

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The secret of getting ahead is getting started” – Mark Twain.

In a book that I once read (the Willpower Instinct I think), I came across a 10-minute rule that I found surprisingly useful. Basically, if you are not sure if you are up for doing something, give it a go for 10 minutes, and if after 10 minutes you still don’t feel up to it, stop. I tried it a few times with going to the gym, and usually, once I get there and get into it, I’m fine, but my brain often tries to tell me that I am too tired before I go.

The reason the 10-minute strategy seems to work is that it is much easier to get our brain to do something for 10 minutes than it is for a considerable chunk of time. This is because it requires much less energy when we are forecasting our capacity to do the task. Human brains are cognitive misers, which means they are always trying to “help” by conserving energy. If you want to get started or you feel tired, think small. Also…

9. THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANYTHING IS RUBBISH

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Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.” – Ernest Hemingway

This quote is fantastic because too often people think that the need to produce a masterpiece the first time they try or do something. If one of the most famous authors of all time produced crap on their first draft, why should we expect more on ours? The solution is to focus on the process, not the outcome, and just produce work before trying to edit, review or criticise what you have done.

10. DON’T PUT THINGS OFF TIL LATER

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If something takes less than 2 minutes to do, don’t write it down or add it to your to do list – do it now.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done

Most people have so much stuff to do at any one time that it is very difficult to ever get their to-do-list down to zero. This can cause anxiety and stress for some people, but the key is to have an excellent system to manage everything that comes in so that you don’t have to keep worrying and thinking about all of the things you need to do. Getting things done, or GTD is one such system. And the two-minute-rule from GTD says that small tasks should never go on your to-do-list if you can just get them done now. This rule alone means that my email inbox rarely has any unopened or unreplied emails.

11. BE YOURSELF; EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN

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Some believe that Oscar Wilde first said this, but the fascinating quote investigator website said that they could not find it in any of his writings. Keith craft said something similar that I like better, in announcing that we all have a unique fingerprint and that we can, therefore “leave a unique imprint that no one else can leave.”

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

12. WE REGRET THE THINGS WE DON’T DO MORE THAN THE THINGS WE DO

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When making a decision about the future, we tend to think about what we may lose if we take a risk. However, when reflecting on the past, we feel more regret about what we missed by not taking a chance. The question then becomes, do we:

  1. Play it safe, and not put ourselves out there because people may judge us or criticise us for giving something a go and not succeeding? Or
  2. Criticise others for being brave enough to try something that they believe in? Or
  3. Throw caution to the wind and give it our best shot, knowing that we will learn and grow more from mistakes and setbacks than we ever would have by sitting back and criticising others?

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

13. FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY!

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Susan Jeffers was my hero back when I read her top-selling self-help book. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to get rid of the fear before I acted fearlessly.

The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris then further highlighted to me that the action of confidence tends to come before the feeling of confidence, not the other way around.

Fear was designed to keep us safe as a hunter-gatherer but holds us back more in modern day life than it helps us sometimes. We need to instead assess the real level of risk whenever we feel fear, and go for it if the situation feels scary but is actually pretty safe. This could be horror movies, roller coaster rides, plane flights, or public speaking.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – FDR inaugural address, 1932

14. WYSIATI

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What you see is all there is.” – Daniel Kahneman

How you are thinking and feeling in the moment is very much influenced by how you are thinking and feeling at the moment. If you feel on top of the world, you are likely to be feeling happy, thinking positively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Anything may feel possible. Then the next week you have a setback or get sick, and you start to feel depressed and hopeless and think negatively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Both can’t be true, if they are only a week apart, so it’s important to understand the power of WYSIATI.

Don’t think too big picture if you are feeling flat and down, and try not to shop if you’re too hungry. The choices you’ll make once you’ve picked up a bit and have eaten something are likely to be very different.

15. MEMENTO MORI

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Latin: “Remember that you have to die.

In many cultures around the world and through history, the acknowledging of our own mortality through prayer, meditation, reflection, ceremony, or celebration is much more common than it is in atheistic modern-day Western life.

The phrase memento mori helped people to consider the transient nature of earthly life, our goods and our pursuits and enabled them to become humble and clarify what was really important to them.

16. THINGS FADE; ALTERNATIVES EXCLUDE

Two things that are inevitable in life are:

1. no matter what we do, time passes and things erode over time (also known as the second law of thermodynamics), and

2. if we go down one path, we cannot go down another track at the same time.

– “Decisions are difficult for many reasons, some reaching down into the very socket of our being. John Gardner, in his novel Grendel, tells of a wise man who sums up his meditations on life’s mysteries in two simple but terrible postulates: “Things fade: alternatives exclude.” […] Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means “slay,” as in homicide or suicide).” – Irvin Yalom (1991). Love’s executioner. p. 10. Penguin Books.

17. PARKINSON’S LAW

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Ever wondered how on some days, when you are super busy, you manage to get way more work done. Then on quiet days, you don’t have much work to do, but struggle to get it all done. The reason for this is Parkinson’s law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

The Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s rule is better in my opinion, and it is something I used a lot when studying at uni:

If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

If productivity is what you are going for, give yourself a closer deadline and someone to hold you accountable if you don’t meet it, and voila, productivity and efficiency improve!

18. THE IMPORTANCE OF MEANING AND PURPOSE

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He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche was a nihilist, which meant that he didn’t think the world had any meaning in it. Irvin Yalom said that even if the world is meaningless overall, it is still essential for each of us to find things that are personally meaningful to us, either as an individual or as a group. Viktor Frankl showed that in the concentration camps in WWII, those with some higher purpose beyond the camps were the ones who could manage to survive the horrible atrocities they faced every day.

What’s personally meaningful to you? Where could you find purpose?

19. DON’T LISTEN TO THE DOUBTERS

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Impossibility is not a fact – it’s an opinion.” – Muhammed Ali

Think of anyone who has done something groundbreaking or is still trying to do something pioneering today – Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Bill Gates. I wonder how many of them were told to give up, grow up, stop being deluded or to think realistically? I’d say most of them.

Just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had the massive amount of progression that we have had over the past 200 years.

20. CLARIFY YOUR VALUES AND MAKE DECISIONS BASED ON THESE

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(Some people spend) their lives doing work they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people they dislike.” – Emile Gauvreau

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your life has to be a certain way just because everyone else is doing something a certain way and telling you that you should too.

By clarifying your own values first and building your own hierarchy, you can then see if what you are currently doing is consistent with what is really important for you. If not, what changes could you make, that you’d be willing to make, that would help you to start heading in the right direction? The earlier that you make these changes, or at least concrete plans to make them, the higher chance there is that you will be happy with the path that you are on.

21. RELATIONSHIP WARMTH IS THE NUMBER ONE PREDICTOR OF LONG-TERM HEALTH AND HAPPINESS

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“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.” – Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus – The Minimalists

The minimalist movement has really picked up in the last 20 years in response to most of us in the Western world having way too much stuff and realising that it doesn’t make us any happier. If anything, it causes us more stress. Clothing used to be a scarce and valuable thing. Now wardrobes and houses are overflowing, and storage facilities are popping up everywhere to help clear some space.

What if we just bought fewer things, and focused more on what really matters: our connections with the important people in our lives. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard study of Adult Development, found that in the end, close relationships are more critical to our health and happiness than anything else.

22. OCCAM’S RAZOR

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Given several possible explanations about something, the simplest one is probably right.

Is the dog above trying to read, or is it merely sniffing the book?

Occam’s razor is why conspiracy theories are never likely to be true. Think about the moon landing, or 9/11, or the Illuminati, flat earth theories, or any other conspiracy out there. For the plot to be real, there are so many added levels that would have all had to run flawlessly for them to work out, and so many people would have had to keep this a secret for such an extended period of time without turning themselves in or trying to make money out of it in a tell-all. It’s much more likely that there is no conspiracy.

Occam’s razor can also be applied to losing weight, sleeping well, getting stronger, or improving any skill. Some people have complicated theories, but usually, the answer lies in relatively simple explanations. Doing too much, or complicating things beyond what is necessary often backfires.

Reduce things back to the bare essentials, and see what happens.

23. LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS

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The law of diminishing returns says that each time we do something to receive a benefit, the benefit will be less and less.

Let’s say you order this massive stack of pancakes in the picture above. The first pancake may taste amazing, and the pleasure received is a 9 out of 10. Each bite is likely to be slightly less enjoyable than the one before, especially after you become full. If you somehow managed to get through the whole stack, the last bite could be a 1 out of 10 on the pleasure scale. Come back for pancakes again next month, however, and pleasure bounces back up to a 9 out of 10 again.

The solution is to wait for long enough between doing the same thing twice so that you enjoy it just as much the next time.

Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.” – William Cowper

24. BE KINDphotography of a man and woman laughing

 

If you’re kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.” – Mother Teresa

If you know why you are doing something, try not to worry about what others think. People who do not understand why you are doing what you are doing will choose to see it from their point of view. If they could not do what you are without getting something in return, they will assume the same intention is within you. But being kind is a reward within itself. If you can give just for the sake of it, do it. You can thank me later.

25. DESIGN YOUR OWN LIFE

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When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and (you should) just live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again“. – Steve Jobs

As far as I see the world, we only have one life to live. We can spend it doing what others expect of us, or we can spend it doing what is right for us. We can blame everyone else for how things turn out, or we can go our own way.

Regardless of what you decide, time passes, and eventually, you will either feel that you made the most of what you had, or you will accumulate regrets. I try to live my life with no regrets, and I wish the same for you too.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

How Do You Deal With Your Problems?

Throughout my schooling years, I was a horrible procrastinator. I would leave everything to the last minute, sometimes even having to take a day off high school so that I could finish an assignment that was meant to be due that day.

Once I got to university, I couldn’t do this anymore, as the due date remained the same whether I went to classes or not. I would instead consume a lot of energy drinks the night before an assignment was due, and generally do the majority of the assignment in an anxious, tense and sleep-deprived state; printing it out and submitting it 20 minutes before the deadline.

Exams were the same. I’d miss classes, not pay attention when I was there, and then try to cram an entire semester’s contents into the last 4 days before an exam. I would lock myself in my room, and study up to 12 hours a day, only leaving for toilet breaks and something to eat until I was utterly exhausted. Luckily, I have a knack for remembering vast amounts of information in short periods of time, so I always passed, but it wasn’t easy, or fun.

I sometimes tried to start early, but never found this effective, as the negative consequences seemed so far away. Eventually, I figured I would just follow the mantra, “if you leave everything to the last minute, it only takes a minute’. This mantra actually helped me to fit a lot of things into my life by being more efficient, but it did have its limitations.

Once I got to my Doctorate of Clinical Psychology degree at Monash University, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to do a 70,000-word thesis that was meant to take 3.5 years to do. How could I possibly cram something so big, especially when it consisted of doing a research proposal, ethics application, recruiting participants, conducting a clinical trial, collating all the results, running data analysis and writing up the thesis and journal articles? It turns out I couldn’t.

The thesis ended up taking me 4 years to complete, and there wasn’t too much of it that I enjoyed. It required a direct challenging of my usual defence mechanisms, and this was no easy feat, especially because I didn’t know what they were. I knew that I had always procrastinated with my studies, but I was never entirely sure why.

What Are Your Defence Mechanisms?

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Fortunately, there was a fun test over at personalityassessor.com on coping styles’ titled ‘How Do You Deal?’ that helped me to identify which defence mechanisms I typically used. If you are interested in knowing what yours are, I definitely recommend taking it.

It is a bit time consuming as there are 2 parts and over 200 questions, but the reason I like this questionnaire so much is that it is tough to fudge the test to get desirable results. This is because the survey doesn’t have face validity, and therefore doesn’t appear to measure how much someone engages in a particular defence mechanism. Two examples of questions are:

I am bothered by stomach acid several times per week” or

It is annoying to listen to a lecturer who cannot seem to make up his mind as to what he really believes“.

I’m not even sure which defence mechanisms these questions are tapping into or if the correct answer is true or false. However, previous research has shown that specific patterns of responses on the questionnaire are quite good at identifying people who regularly use 10 common defence mechanisms, including repression, displacement, denial, regression, projection, reaction formation, intellectualisation, rationalisation, isolation and doubt. My results were astonishing to me.

My Defence Mechanisms

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I first took the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire in February 2013. I had just finished a year-long practical internship at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and I found supporting individuals with cancer really rewarding and meaningful, but also quite challenging as I had lost a dear friend to cancer when I was 21. I was wanting to finish up my thesis by July but was falling way behind, and I was also a month away from getting married and moving in with my then fiancé. I had a lot of big changes coming up, and I was both stressed and scared with how everything was going to go.

Here are my February 2013 results, alongside the descriptions of these defence mechanisms given by the personality assessor website:

1. Denial – 94th percentile – extremely high

Denial is a defense mechanism where people avoid thinking about problems, or even pretend like their problems don’t exist. For example, someone might deny that they have a drug problem. Or someone might deny that they’re currently having conflict in their romantic relationship.

 

Since denial can be subconscious, people who use denial might honestly believe that their problems don’t exist!

2. Isolation – 91st percentile – extremely high

Isolation is a defense mechanism where people compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings so that their thoughts don’t affect their feelings.

 

Isolation differs from denial. Using denial, a person with a drug problem might refuse to even see that they have a drug problem. Using isolation, a person with a drug problem would acknowledge they have a problem, but would not let the fact they have a problem affect their feelings. If intellectualization is all about staying in your head to avoid your heart, isolation is about keeping your head and your heart separate.

3. Displacement – 81st percentile – very high

Displacement occurs when we “take out” our frustrations on someone/something else. For example, imagine that you hate your boss. It might have dire consequences if you expressed your hate toward your boss. So, if you displaced those feelings, you might go home and yell at your family.

 

This is different than projection. In projection, we don’t see our own feelings—we see them in other people (e.g., I am not angry, my boss is). In displacement, however, we still “own” our feelings (e.g., I am angry) but we “take out” those feelings on the wrong target (e.g., angry at boss, but kick dog instead of boss).

4. Regression – 73rd percentile – high

Regression is a defense mechanism where people essentially start acting or thinking like a child. The idea is that when life feels too overwhelming or our problems feel too big, that we regress to an earlier, easier time when other people (our parents) used to take care of us. As such, regression can include:

  • desiring for other people to take care of your problems for you
  • acting dependent on other people
  • acting like a child (e.g., temper tantrums)
  • refusing to take responsibility for your actions
5. Doubt – 72nd percentile – high

The defense mechanism of doubt occurs when people doubt their senses or thought processes when they encounter problems. For example, imagine a good friend tells you they don’t really like you. You might utilize the defense mechanism of doubt by thinking “I must have misunderstood what they meant.”

 

Doubt is kind of like a mixture of denial, intellectualization, and rationalization. Doubt lets us deny that our problems are real (or avoid making big decisions we’re afraid of) by questioning our ability to accurately see the world and make good decisions. In contrast to denial, when people use doubt, they are aware of their problems on some level.

6. Rationalization – 68th percentile – high

Rationalization is when people excuse their actions with usually irrational false explanations. For example, if someone binges and eats an entire large pizza, they might think “Well, the food was going to waste anyway! I might as well have eaten it.”

 

Rationalization is kind of like a mixture of denial and intellectualization. Essentially, rationalization allows people to “explain away” their problems (usually bad habits, personal flaws, etc.) with a superficially valid explanation. The biggest difference between rationalization and intellectualization is that intellectualization is used to avoid feelings, whereas rationalization is used to avoid seeing our own personal flaws.

7. Intellectualisation – 64th percentile – high

Intellectualization occurs when people avoid painful feelings by thinking oftentimes inappropriate impersonal thoughts. For example, if someone’s pet dies, they might think, “Pets die every day. Why should I be upset?”

 

Basically, the idea is that people who use intellectualization minimize their problems—or at least their feelings— and avoid the pain in their hearts by staying lodged solidly in their heads.

8. Projection – 47th percentile – about average

Projection occurs when we project our own thoughts and feelings onto other people. For example, you might really hate your boss. If you used the defense mechanism of projection, you might be unaware of your own feelings toward your boss, but instead think your boss hated you. This defense mechanism would allow you to deny your feelings and, in turn, believe that any conflict between you and your boss is your boss’s fault (not yours).

 

Projection basically lets us believe that are problems aren’t really ours—they’re someone else’s!

9. Repression – 37th percentile – low

Repression occurs when people push down or block-out memories or desires that they feel are threatening. For example, someone might repress painful childhood memories and try to not think about them. As another example, someone might repress their attraction to a friend that they fear wouldn’t reciprocate their interest.

 

Repression is similar to denial, but slightly different. Denial is about convincing yourself that your problems don’t exist. Repression is about blocking out part of yourself—memories or desires, usually—perhaps to avoid creating a problem!

10. Reaction formation – 15th percentile – very low

Reaction formation is a fascinating defense mechanism where we do the opposite of what we really want to do. For example, imagine you are very attracted to another person. If, for some reason that attraction is a problem (e.g., you are married, they are married, etc.), you might start to feel the opposite toward them—you may think they are disgusting and/or actively dislike them.

 

Reaction formation allows you to avoid your problems—and also creates a buffer to ensure you avoid your problems. In the example above, you’re not merely repressing your attraction toward the other person—you’re actually feeling negative feelings toward them. These negative feelings will ensure the attraction doesn’t resurface.

Seeing that my marriage ended up being far worse than I had predicted, I maybe should have paid attention to these results a bit more, especially my denial and doubt scores.

It did help with the writing up of my thesis, however, as I stopped trying to avoid the problem, started coming into the lab from 9am-5pm every weekday regardless of how I felt and began making some real and consistent progress without cramming for the first time in my life. I finished a full draft of my thesis by September 2013, started working as a Psychologist in private practice shortly after that, and submitted the final copy of my thesis for examination in February 2014.

Have My Defence Mechanisms Improved?

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I retook the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire at the end of April 2017. I am living a life that is much more consistent with the experiences I want to have rather than what society says that I should be doing. I believe that I am a lot happier and in the best place that I have ever been psychological. But have my defence mechanisms actually changed?

Defence Mechanisms 2013 2017
Denial 94th percentile 75th percentile
Isolation 91st percentile 92nd percentile
Displacement 81st percentile 77th percentile
Regression  73rd percentile 68th percentile
Doubt 72nd percentile 64th percentile
Rationalisation 68th percentile 53rd percentile
Intellectualisation 64th percentile 18th percentile
Projection 47th percentile 56th percentile
Repression 37th percentile 20th percentile
Reaction formation 15th percentile 9th percentile

As you can see, eight of my results had improved, with denial dropping 19 percentile points and losing its position as my most used defence mechanism. This is great, as I am now more aware of the issues that I have and can actually do something about them.

My most noticeable improvement was my reduction in intellectualising things, but I also repress things much less than I used to, rationalise my actions less, and doubt myself less too. This means that I am now turning into what I feel and need more, and not just remaining in my head. By understanding and accepting my emotions rather than avoiding them or explaining them away, it really does make it easier to know what action I need to take. Regular journaling, mindfulness and therapy have definitely helped me to create these changes. So has being more honest and authentic with others.

The two defence mechanism scores that have increased are projection and isolation. The increase in projection isn’t helpful, as this means I could be externalising some problems rather than taking responsibility for the role that I played in creating them. The high isolation score isn’t so bad though, as separating my head and heart is something that I have worked on to make sure that I am making decisions in line with my values and not my fears going forward. If this never changes, that will be fine by me.

Can We Change How We Deal With Problems?

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It’s not possible to completely avoid engaging in defence mechanisms. We all have different ways of coping, and many of these coping styles are developed in childhood and modelled on what everyone else in our family did.

Some defence mechanisms are more helpful than others, however, and they can change in time with deliberate practice. Head researcher of the Grant longitudinal study, George Vaillant, has separated defence mechanisms into immature, intermediate and mature defences. Acting out, projection passive-aggressive behaviour, and denial is considered immature. Reaction formation, repression and displacement are intermediate defences. Mature defences include:

  1. humour: seeing the funny side of things,
  2. sublimation: channelling difficult emotions into something prosocial and constructive,
  3. anticipation: planning ahead for upcoming situations that might be challenging,
  4. suppression: not reacting to your feelings or letting them show if this would interfere with you achieving your goals, and
  5. altruism: deriving pleasure from helping others.

A 2013 study by Malone and colleagues found that men who used more mature defence mechanisms between 47 and 63 years of age had better health between the ages of 70 and 80. This was mostly because the people who regularly engaged in more mature defence mechanisms had better social support and stronger interpersonal connections than individuals who used immature defence mechanisms (Malone et al., 2013).

If you want to build up healthier coping strategies, understanding which defences you currently use is a great place to start. The best ways to do this apart from taking the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire is consulting with a therapist, especially a psychologist or a psychiatrist trained in psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy. Friends and family might be able to point out some potential defence mechanisms that you use, but I do think it is better to get this feedback from someone that is both professionally trained and impartial. They can then help you to replace these defences with more mature and adaptive coping strategies so that you too can have more supportive relationships and better long-term health and well-being.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What if You Could Change Your Attachment Style?

In my top 20 psychology books countdown, I put the 2012 title: ‘Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love’ by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller in 9th place, thanks to its Amazon.com star rating of 4.6/5.

 

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Attachment styles research is an area that I’ve been fascinated in since I first learnt about it in year 11 psychology class. If you are interested in learning more about it, I do recommend checking the book out, as our attachment styles tend to have a much more significant impact on how we are in intimate relationships than most people are aware of.

What Are Attachment Styles?

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Attachment styles are initially developed in the context of our relationship with our primary caregiver growing up. This is usually the mother, but in other cases, it can be the father, guardian or potentially even a nanny.

Almost all children can usually be categorised as having one of four attachment styles based on how they respond to the strange situation test, which was initially designed and researched by Mary Ainsworth in 1969. They can be considered to have a secure attachment, an ambivalent insecure attachment, an avoidance insecure attachment, or a disorganised attachment.

In the strange situation procedure, an infant between the ages of 9 and 18 months is placed in a room with some toys for 21 minutes and is observed playing through a two-way mirror while the primary caregiver and a stranger enter and leave the room. This situation was meant to recreate what may happen in a normal infant’s life so that their typical reactions could be observed.

The strange situation procedure went as follows:

  1. The primary caregiver and infant enter the room.
  2. The infant explores the room while the caregiver watches but doesn’t play with the infant.
  3. A stranger enters and talks with the caregiver, then approaches the infant. Caregiver leaves while this occurs without saying goodbye.
  4. The stranger tries to engage with the infant.
  5. The primary caregiver then returns and greets and comforts the infant. Stranger leaves.
  6. Caregiver leaves again, and the infant is alone.
  7. The stranger comes back in and tries to interact with the infant.
  8. The primary caregiver then comes back in, greets and picks up the infant, and the stranger leaves.

What is worth looking at during this process is how the infant interacts with the new environment and toys in the room, how they associate with the stranger, and how the infant reacts to when the primary caregiver leaves the room (departures) and comes back in to greet or soothe the infant (reunions). These responses are very predictive of what attachment style the infant has, and also what attachment style the primary caregiver may have.

Attachment styles are not set in stone, and they can change over time, but like most things I write about, gaining an awareness of your own attachment style is a crucial first step before you try to look at how you can improve it.

A Secure Attachment

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Infants who are securely attached to their primary caregiver will be willing to explore a new room when they enter it. They will turn around and check in with their parent from time to time as they are their “secure base”. They may even come back if they are starting to feel too scared or overwhelmed, as their parents are their “safe haven” and help them to calm down emotionally and physically when they are distressed. Once they feel calm and safe again, which may be very quickly, they will then go back out and explore once more.

The secure infant will engage with the stranger when the primary caregiver is there, but might be warier when alone with the stranger, and could become upset when the parent leaves, but is then able to calm themselves down after a little bit. They are thrilled to see their primary caregiver once they return, however, and will be responsive to their communication and interactions.

Essentially, a secure child feels that their primary caregiver will meet their needs appropriately and responsively, and they learn to turn to them when they need it and do things by themselves when they do not. It is the ideal attachment style for learning, development of skills, and forming and establishing healthy, long-term relationships.

In intimate relationships, being securely attached is ideal. It means that you enjoy being close and intimate with your partner when they are there and are happy to do your own thing when they are not. You feel comfortable opening up to them or talking to them about your feelings or concerns, and feel comfortable helping your partner out with their issues too. Relationships seem relatively natural to you, and you are more likely to have a happy, long-term relationship.

An Anxious/Ambivalent Insecure Attachment

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Infants who are anxious or resistant are usually this way as a result of unpredictably responsive caregiving, where sometimes their caregiver is too full-on, sometimes they are appropriately responsive, and other times they are not responsive. As a result of these inconsistencies, the infant usually amplifies their emotional needs in an attempt to try and get them met on a more regular basis.

Anxiously attached infants are distressed even before the separation in the strange situation procedure, do not like to explore the area or interact with the stranger, show resentment for being left alone and are quite clingy and unable to calm down or be comforted easily once the parent returns.

In intimate relationships, being anxiously attached is tough. It means that you love being close with your partner, but find it quite difficult to be apart, often fearing that they don’t care or that they will stop loving you or will be unfaithful towards you when they are not around. You have a tendency to become preoccupied with fears of abandonment, especially in times of high stress, and may inadvertently push your partners away by making them feel like they don’t have enough independence or that you don’t trust them enough.

An Avoidance Insecure Attachment

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Infants who have this style will try to ignore or avoid the primary caregiver in the strange situation. They outwardly show little emotion during departures and reunions with the caregiver, and they will also not explore too much regardless of who is in the room.

The ignoring or turning away from the primary caregiver is actually a mask for internal distress, however, as heart-rate and other physiological responses are similar to that of the anxiously attached infants upon the separation from their primary caregiver. It seems to be that these infants want to be comforted when distressed, but over time try to suppress their emotional needs because their parents are not attuned or responsive to their distress or able to meet their needs in ways that would help them. As a result, they try to pull away, keep to themselves, and show the world that they don’t have any needs.

As an adult, having an avoidant attachment is also tricky for intimate relationships. It means that you are likely to value independence and freedom a lot, and tend to feel smothered or trapped if you spend too much time with your partner. As a result, you will manage to push partners away, especially if they are demanding or needy. You are also likely to not share enough of your own emotional needs or desires with your partner and may resent them for expressing these things to you.

Two avoidantly attached individuals may seem like they could have a good relationship together, but often there is “not enough glue to keep them together”, and they fade further apart from each other over time.

A Disorganised Attachment

 

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There is a fourth attachment style known as a fearful or disorganised. This was later identified by one of Ainsworth’s graduate students Mary Main and is where the infant flips between signs that they are overwhelmed with a “flooded attachment system” and strategies of desperation. This is often a consequence of significant trauma, as a reliable coping mechanism has not been established in the infant. They want to be close to their primary caregiver, but they are also terrified of being close to them.

Adults with a disorganised attachment who have been through a complicated relationship with their parents or guardians will find it tough to initiate and maintain a healthy and happy intimate relationship when they are older. They will often vacillate between feelings of being trapped and smothered and wanting freedom one minute and then worrying about how they would ever cope if they lost their partner the next. Their behaviour and strong emotional reactions can be confusing to both an individual with a disorganised attachment and the people they date.

But How Do I Find Out What Attachment Style I Have?

If you aren’t too sure what attachment style you have based on the descriptions above or from reflecting on your experience as a child or in intimate relationships, you can also take a free online test to find out. I have taken the test titled “Your Actual and Ideal Attachment Styles” at personalityassessor.com on three occasions now. The first time was on the 22nd of October 2014, back when I was still married, the 12th of April 2017, when I had just bought an apartment with my girlfriend, and the 12th of August 2018, 4 days before I was about to leave everyone in my life in Australia to move to Vanuatu for 2 years.

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Can Attachment Styles Change Over Time?

These are the results from the three attachment style surveys that I took, followed by the description that was included in my 2018 results at the personality assessor website:
Attachment Anxiety:
  • 2014 = 13th percentile – very low
  • 2017 = 3rd percentile – extremely low
  • 2018 = 2nd percentile – extremely low

You are currently extremely low in attachment anxiety. People extremely low in attachment anxiety tend to desire extremely low levels of closeness in their relationships, and also experience extremely low concerns about rejection and abandonment.

You’ve decreased a lot in Attachment Anxiety over time.

The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Anxiety have been extremely consistent over time.

You indicated that you would like to stay the same with respect to attachment anxiety. Researchers believe that most people want to decrease at least a little bit in attachment anxiety.

Attachment Avoidance:
  • 2014 = 89th percentile – extremely high
  • 2017 = 47th percentile – about average
  • 2018 = 52nd percentile – about average

You are currently about average in attachment avoidance. People about average in attachment avoidance tend to desire about average levels of independence in their relationships, and they tend to experience about average levels of comfort with depending on romantic partners and opening up to them.

You’ve decreased an extreme amount in Attachment Avoidance over time.

The decreases that you have experienced in Attachment Avoidance have been extremely consistent over time.


You indicated that you would like to decrease with respect to attachment avoidance. Researchers believe that most people want to become a little less avoidant.

My Attachment Style

Based on the 2014 finding, I had an avoidant attachment style. That makes a lot of sense to me and is how I have typically been in most relationships. I was also a pretty quiet and anxious child growing up and kept to myself a lot even though on some level I really valued and craved for a solid relationship where it was possible to feel connected and have a sense of belonging without losing my sense of self in the relationship. I’ve always kind of struggled to show this to the other person, however, and often got accused of not caring enough in the relationships that I have been in.

While I can definitely see my part in the unhealthy relationships I have been in, I also have had a tendency to be attracted to and get involved with females who exhibited an anxious attachment, which only made the issue worse. If things go well in an avoidant/anxious relationship, which they usually do at the start, the quality of the relationship can feel great. Both of you are getting your relational needs met (maybe for the first time) and it is exciting and fun and nice. Once one person becomes distressed is when the problems begin, however, and they always do…

Before 2015 had a big tendency to shut down emotionally whenever I was overwhelmed or distressed, focus on getting through what I needed to do practically, and in general minimise my emotional needs. It was classic avoidance attachment behaviour. This pulling away caused distress in someone with an anxious attachment, however, and they would then amplify their emotional needs in response to the greater perceived distance in the relationship. They may have feared abandonment, and protested that I didn’t care or needed to give them more so that they would feel secure. I would then feel more overwhelmed and trapped, and pull away further in an attempt to calm myself down. Anyone with an anxious attachment would then begin to feel even more insecure and distressed and try to protest further. This vicious cycle often continued to play out and escalate, maybe with brief interludes, until the relationship ended, usually in a not so pleasant way.

Based on my 2017 and 2018 findings, it says that I would now be considered to have a secure attachment style:

Your prototypical attachment style is secure. Securely attached individuals enjoy being close with others, and form new friendships easily. They usually desire moderate levels of involvement in their close relationships.

This is pleasantly surprising to me because I still do feel more avoidant in my attachment then I would like to be, but my avoidance is now considered average, and my anxiety is extremely low. Comparatively speaking, I am still much more avoidant than anxious when it comes to relationships, but securely attached overall. I am a bit sad to see that my avoidance has crept up a little bit again since 2017, but hope that if I keep working at it that I can continue to bring it down further in the future.

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How Do We Improve Our Attachment Style?

Occasional conflict is inevitable in any relationship. Being in a relationship with someone with a secure attachment will help you to get through difficulties in life and your relationship, no matter what your age or attachment style is.

  • If you have a secure attachment too, it is likely to be pretty easy for you to have a happy relationship.
  • If you have an avoidant attachment, a secure partner can give you the space you need when you need it without getting annoyed at you or demanding for more.
  • If you are anxious, a secure partner can sit with your distress and hear you out until you have calmed down and your emotional needs have been met.
  • If you are disorganised, a secure partner will also try to help you work through and make sense of whatever it is that you are feeling and give you what you need, whether that is more space, a calming presence or greater closeness.

In time, a relationship with someone who is securely attached can help you to become securely attached too.

If you have had similar difficulties in multiple romantic relationships, think that you may be avoidant or anxious in your attachment style, or are securely attached but are in a romantic relationship with someone who you feel may be avoidant or anxiously attached, I hope that this information has been helpful to you.

An understanding of your own and others attachment styles really could stop you from falling into the same relationship traps, and give you a much better chance to have a long, happy and healthy relationship going forward.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

Isolation & Loneliness: Which One Is More Damaging to Our Long-term Health?

Just the other day I was having a debate with a client about isolation versus loneliness.

He believed that the amount of social contact we have with others was a more significant predictor of well-being, whereas I thought that how close we felt was more important for long-term health and happiness.

In other words, he thought that the number of interactions with others was more important than the quality of the relationships. I was solidly on team quality over quantity when it came to the type of relations that we want in our lives.

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Because I wasn’t sure whose position was more supported by research, I decided to subsequently explore the issue further.

My aim in writing this post is to first clearly define the difference between isolation and loneliness, and then highlight what the scientific evidence suggests.

 

Isolation

The Merriam-Webster dictionary for English language learners defines isolation as:

“The state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others: the condition of being isolated”

Notice with this definition that there is no emotion connected to it. It merely indicates being isolated or separate from others.

Someone could choose to live a solitary life in isolation, and they may be happy with their choice. For Alexandra de Steiguer, a shy individual who spent a lot of time alone when she was a child, she chooses to isolate herself each winter as the sole ‘caretaker’ of the Oceanic Hotel on an Island in New Hampshire. For the past 19 winters, she has spent months on the island without any guests.

de Steiguer states:

“it’s the thing I look forward to every year… When I come out here it’s like a homecoming. All those details of mainland life just fall away.”

She later says:

“Being alone (has) it’s advantages. It’s peaceful, and I can use my imagination…It makes me feel connected to life (and the natural world) in a way that I don’t normally feel.”

If you’d like to check out the 14-minute documentary ‘Winter’s Watch’ in full to get a true sense of the solitude that she encounters, please see below:

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I don’t think I could do what she does, especially after watching ‘The Shining’, but each to their own.

Henry David Thoreau also glorified isolation and solitude in his famous book ‘Walden; or Life in the Woods’, stating:

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

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To write the book, Thoreau built a cabin on the shore of a pond in 1845 and decided to live there for the next two years.

He also highly valued simplifying life and reconnecting with nature:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Before you think about selling up everything Emile Hirsch ‘Into the Wild’ style and moving to the wilderness by yourself, it is important to highlight two things first:

  1. Thoreau walked into the nearby town of Concord, Massachusetts almost daily and received visitors regularly.
  2. Hirsch’s character in ‘Into the Wild’ Christopher McCandless (**spoiler alert**) dies after eating a poisonous plant and concludes “Happiness only real when shared.”

When solitude doesn’t involve nature and is forced upon someone, it is often considered a devastating form of punishment. For this reason, solitary confinement is used by various prisons all over the world. The way it is used is typically in violation of human rights, or the UN’s Mandela Rules, which states that humans must not be “without meaningful human contact for more than 15 consecutive days” (Martin, 2016).

The fact that people would rather be out in the prison yard where they could be stabbed or beaten up instead of in isolation makes me realise that humans really are social creatures. Too much time in isolation can lead to active psychosis or acute suicidality in approximately one-third of the prisoners exposed to solitary confinement (Rodriguez, 2016). It can also lead to crippling social anxiety for prisoners once they are released back into society (Breslow, 2014).

Consequently, I can’t help but feel that except for a few individual cases or for people who are very introverted, too much isolation does more harm than good.

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Loneliness

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines loneliness as:

“Sad feelings that come from being apart from other people”

Notice with this definition, the focus is on the feelings of sadness. Unlike isolation, loneliness suggests a deficit and a longing for companionship and genuine connection that is not there.

As JD in ‘Scrubs’ suggests, it is also possible to feel lonely in a crowded space, even though you could not be considered isolated:Image result for JD scrubs lonely quote

So what is more damaging – being separate from others, or feeling apart from others?

 

The Village Effect

Our brains light up when they are exposed to human interactions, especially direct face-to-face contact. Online communications and passively watching videos don’t have the same effect.

In her 2017 TED talk, Susan Pinker looks at different reasons why people live longer, including the role that relationships play:

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As you can see in the graph above, minimising both isolation and loneliness were more critical for staying alive than someone’s BMI, their level of activity, their smoking and drinking behaviours, or even their heart health and blood pressure. While these factors are still relevant, having constant and close relationships is almost essential for our long-term health and longevity. Quantity, or level of integration, is seen as slightly more important than the closeness of relationships, or quality. One point for my client.

Either way, in her book ‘The Village Effect’, Pinker suggests that we would all benefit from the type of interconnectedness that a small village lifestyle provides. village effect

Pinker also believes that we would benefit more by increasing our in-person face-to-face contact and cutting back our use of technology as a way to try to better connect with others.

 

Alone Together

Another fascinating book that I read in 2017 was ‘Alone Together’ by Sherry Turkle.

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Turkle’s 2011 book also highlights the difference between how often we interact with other people and how sad, disconnected or alone we feel.

Her 2012 TED talk nicely summarises the negative aspects of technology and how it is leading to a greater sense of loneliness, even though it is easier than ever to remain in contact in some way or another:

As Turkle says:

“we use conversation with each other to learn how to have conversation with ourselves. A flight from conversation can really matter, because it can compromise our capacity for self reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is a bedrock for development.”

 

Turkle concludes:

“we’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. (We want) the illusion of companionship, without the demands of friendship.” (As a result, we) expect more from technology, and less from each other. (We imagine, that with technology), we’ll never have to be alone.”

It’s pretty scary stuff when you think about it. However, Turkle’s findings are a clear indicator that loneliness is more damaging than isolation, so one point for me.

 

Other Research

Social isolation is associated with:

  • an increased risk of depression (Hari, 2018),
  • more heart disease (Barth, Schneider, & von Känel, 2010),
  • a more significant risk of infectious illness (Cohen et al., 1997),
  • quicker cognitive decline (Bassuk, Glass & Berman, 1999),
  • elevated blood pressure (Shankar, McMunn, Banks & Steptoe, 2011),
  • greater inflammation and metabolic responses to stress (Uchino, 2006), and
  • increased mortality (Eng, Rimm, Fitzmaurice & Kawachi, 2002)

Loneliness is associated with:

  • a higher risk of major depressive disorder (Hari, 2018),
  • increased blood pressure (Hawkley et al., 2010)
  • heightened cortisol (Cacioppo et al., 2000)
  • elevated inflammation (Steptoe et al., 2004), and
  • increased risk of heart disease, functional decline and early death (Patterson & Veenstra, 2010; Perissinotto, Stijacic Cenzer & Covinsky, 2012).

A 2013 study titled “Social Isolation, Loneliness and All-Cause Mortality in Older Men and Women” looked at 6,500 men and women over the age of 51 from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing between 2004 and March 2012. After taking demographics and health at baseline into account, social isolation significantly predicted later mortality, but loneliness did not (Steptoe, Shankar, Demakakos & Wardle, 2013).

Both loneliness and social isolation were associated with an increased risk of mortality, but reducing isolation was considered to be more critical in reducing the risk of premature death than loneliness was. Loneliness did not add to the risk of early death for people who were already socially isolated (Steptoe et al., 2013).

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Final Outcome and Recommendations

THE VERDICT: SOCIAL ISOLATION IS MORE DANGEROUS THAN LONELINESS!

This is one time where I really am surprised to be wrong, but I am glad to have a bias pointed out to me whenever it occurs. I personally have never felt socially isolated, but I have definitely felt lonely, so my own experience must have influenced my opinion to some degree.

Social isolation is more hazardous to our long-term health than the subjective feeling of loneliness. However, both of these states are potentially damaging, and steps should be taken if you are experiencing them on a regular basis.

Lifeline recommends the following strategies for overcoming social isolation and loneliness:

  • Connect or reconnect with friends and family – staying in contact with loved ones can prevent loneliness and isolation. If your family don’t live nearby, technology can help you stay in touch
  • Get out and about – regular outings for social functions, exercise, visiting friends, doing shopping, or simply going to public places can help
  • Get involved in your community – Try a new (or old) hobby, join a club, enrol in study, or learn a new skill. Try looking online, at your local TAFE/Community College, library or community centre for things in your area that might be interesting to you
  • Volunteer – helping others is a great way to help yourself feel more connected
  • Consider getting a pet –pets are wonderful companions and can provide comfort and support during times of stress, ill-health or isolation
  • Get support – If loneliness and social isolation are causing you distress, you should discuss your concerns with a GP, counsellor or a trusted person

Engaging in treatment with a clinical psychologist could help if social anxiety or other mental health difficulties are contributing to your isolation or loneliness. If not, the meetup website is an excellent resource for getting out there, trying some new things, and meeting some new people.

As George Valliant says:

“Joy is connection… the more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.”

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Money and Happiness: How to spend for optimal benefits

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Not all the best things in life are free

I was on holidays in Queenstown, New Zealand earlier this year, and was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was. I was also amazed by how many experiences were on offer for people visiting or living there…

On my first day in Queenstown, I walked into the town and immediately saw brochures for the speedboats, canyon swings, skydiving, mountain biking, snowboarding and heli-skiing in several shop windows.

I began hiking up a mountain, and suddenly someone whirred by me through the trees on a zip line travelling at 70km/h. It looked scary, but also exhilarating.

Further up the hill, I came across a luge track where families and friends were roaring down the mountain in their carts, smiling and laughing and generally having a great time while taking in the breathtaking views. I saw people bungee jumping from a platform off the side of the mountain, and just above that were people paragliding down to the valley floor.

I don’t recall seeing many unhappy faces that day, and most people were fully engaged in the moment and what they were doing, something that is crucial for optimal well-being.

All of these activities, apart from hiking and taking in the scenery, did come at a considerable cost, however. Including the several days of skiing that I did afterwards at the surrounding Alpine Resorts.

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If I had taken more money with me on that trip to New Zealand, I would have been able to experience a more extensive array of potentially fun activities. As long as I did enjoy these activities, I do believe that they would have contributed to a higher level of happiness. But…

Can money ever buy us happiness?

Anyone who says that money can’t buy us happiness is looking at it too simplistically. I’ve seen too many clients that are financially stressed to know that a significant gift of money at their time of need would be a massive assistance to them. It would reduce their stress and hopefully increase their level of financial security, happiness and overall well-being. Right?

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By looking at past lottery winners, we are able to see that winning a large sum of money does immediately increase happiness. However, 12 months later the lottery winner has already typically returned back to their pre-win levels of joy, and are sometimes feeling even worse.

Furthermore, even people who have up to 10 million dollars of net worth often don’t feel financially secure, and still believe that if they had more money, then they would feel more secure, happier and more able to buy all of the things that they wanted.

It seems that it almost doesn’t matter how much money we have. Most people will continue to feel financially insecure and typically strive to make more money than they have currently. But is this the best way?

Another interesting study found that beyond a certain amount of money (approximately $70,000 annually), an increase in salary does not typically lead to any greater overall emotional or physical well-being. It seems that we do need to have enough money to look after our basic needs (food, shelter, water, safety etc.) and have a little bit of leisure or fun. However, making more money than this doesn’t seem to hold the answer to happiness, especially if we spend it in the ways that the majority of people do…

Why does more money not equal more happiness?

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I believe that the traps of Materialism and Capitalism are to blame, especially in Western culture. We are taught that working hard, making lots of money, and buying lots of stuff is the secret to happiness and success. This equation is just a myth however, and it is required for consumerism to flourish. Consumerism prioritises the short-term functioning and growth of a society above individual functioning or what is best over a long-term basis. It drives us to believe that we need stuff in order to be happy, and this is often at the expense of things that we really do need in our lives to flourish.

So what can we do about it?

In the excellent book “Stuffocation” by James Wallman, he makes the case that, as a direct result of our consumer lifestyle, we are now inundated with too much stuff, which is complicating our lives and stressing us out. This stress is now offsetting any of the benefits that come from the stuff that we buy. So should we throw everything out?

Wallman does explore Minimalism as a possible solution to our Stuffocation but doesn’t believe that it is the antidote, because it is purely defined by what materialism isn’t – real freedom can only come from doing what is right for us, not doing the opposite of what is wrong – it is too confining.

We could all just quit our jobs too, and stop making money, but the financial debt would catch up to us pretty quickly unless we somehow learned to become entirely self-sufficient and live off the land. Some people and communities are able to do this, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

Working less may definitely help, and Sweden has recently led the way with this by shortening their work days down to 6 hours. Many people complain about being time poor, and reducing how much time we spend at work would increase the amount of time available for people to use in whichever way they find most meaningful. This could be time with family, friends, engaging in exercise or hobbies, or taking some more time out to reflect and relax. We could cut down through improving productivity or efficiency (books like the ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey or ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen could help) or cut down our commitments. Our productivity does decline dramatically if we are doing more than 9 hours of work per day or more than 48 hours per week, so this should be a useful guide for what is the maximum amount of hours that we should work for optimal happiness.

Once you have the extra time, it’s still about making sure that you spend your money in ways that will give you the biggest bang for your buck…

How to spend money in ways that can increase happiness

(1) buy more experiences and less material objects – Wallman believes that Experientialism is the true antidote to Materialism and Consumerism. We need to invest money on experiences, and not on stuff. We need to be able to engage in these experiences. They also need to be things that are accessible or that we can afford to do on a regular basis if it is going to have a large impact on our overall well-being. If you have to invest in stuff, buy stuff that will make life easier for you, so that you can have more of the experiences that you would like, and less of the experiences that you don’t.

(2) make sure that you are buying things for the right reason – A car or even a ride on lawnmower can be a way to make things easier or to have an enjoyable experience, or it can just be more stuff. We need to determine why we are wanting to buy something, and if it is about impressing others (showing our status) rather than for our own enjoyment, it probably won’t lead to long-lasting happiness.

(3) buy more frequent and smaller pleasures, rather than less frequent and larger ones – People are relatively insensitive to the price of an object, and if we buy less expensive things, we get a similar pay-off or reward (in happiness terms) for a much smaller cost. The less expensive things we buy, the less that we need to work and save, and the less credit card debt that we’ll have. With the Australian Securities and Investment Commission stating that Australians owe nearly $32 billion in credit card debt, or over $4,300 each, this is advice that a lot of us could take on.

(4) avoid credit card debt and overpriced insurance – Have you ever noticed that all of the big buildings in cities tend to belong to either banks or insurance companies. There is a reason for this. They prey on our cognitive biases and utilise effective marketing strategies to get us to buy things now and pay them for it later. The average Australian is paying over $725 of interest annually on the $4,300 that they owe on their credit card at an interest rate between 15 and 20%.  If we pay only the minimum repayments, whether it is a credit card or a home loan, it will take a long time to actually pay it off and cost you a lot more money in interest. So spending more to reduce our interest, or getting a debit card rather than a credit card will help us to not waste money for nothing in return except for immediate gratification. With extended warranties and no excess insurance, we will have to pay a premium for “peace of mind”, so it’s important to work out if that peace is worth the extra cost for you. Insurance works like the lottery – we always think “what if it happened to me?” and forget about the actual probability of these events occurring.

(5) delay gratification by booking ahead – With more expensive experiences, the further we can plan these in advance the better it is for us, because not only do we get the experience, but also the anticipation and excitement leading up to it to. So the next time you want to be spontaneous and book a concert ticket or holiday, book it for 6 months in advance, and thank me for the increased happiness later.

(6) use your money to give to or help out others – There was a study where they gave individuals $20 and half of them were asked to spend it on themselves and the other half were asked to give it away. They then tracked the happiness of these groups over a period of time. Whilst the happiness levels were similar between the two groups immediately after the event, the happiness levels of the group who gave the money away were significantly higher only two weeks later. Giving to others really does make a difference, both to them as well as to you. This is a nice message to keep in mind with Christmas around the corner.

If you are interested in other ways to increase happiness through spending, please check out the fascinating article titled ‘If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right’ by Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson.

Dr Damon Ashworth
Clinical Psychologist

7 Life Lessons That We Can Learn From Hollywood Movies

I was recently reading a book titled ‘Writing Screenplays that Sell’ by Michael Hauge and was fascinated to see how psychologically informed screenwriters need to be to create engaging stories with meaningful plots and entertaining characters.

Although Hollywood sometimes gets bad press for promoting materialistic and unrealistic goals for the audience, I do believe that some valuable life lessons can be learnt from dissecting the common elements of screenplays that result in successful movies.

Here are eight insights that I believe are important:

#1 – Be the hero of your story

Every movie has a hero that we identify with and develop empathy for. Screenwriters do this deliberately because we are likely to care more about the story and become involved in the movie if it focuses on one character and their perspective and challenges more than the other characters.

In real life, the person whose perspective we are able to most tune into is ourselves, and we feel the emotional impact of our experiences whether we like it or not (even though a lot of people try to tune these out). It, therefore, makes a lot of sense to ensure that we are the hero of our own life.

Unless you believe in reincarnation, it is generally accepted that we only have one life. Once we become adults, no one else is entirely responsible for the direction that our life goes in except for us. We are the screenwriters, directors and the main character in our story – unless we give that power up to somebody else. This is a scary thought, but also a potentially liberating one.

Although there are limitations to our abilities and dreams and it is essential to have realistic expectations, there are too many people that I see that put up roadblocks and barriers where they don’t need to be.

So if we are free to do what we want with our lives, and responsible for how they turn out, what do we want to do? Live the life that someone else wants or expects of us, or follow our dreams and hopefully achieve our goals.

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#2 – Challenge yourself if you would like to grow

Screenwriters are taught that a movie should start slowly, and build pace as the film progresses through increasing the magnitude and difficulty of challenges that the hero faces until the climax of the film. A resolution is then typically achieved, and all of the loose ends are tied up before the movie concludes with the hero being a much better person than they were at the beginning of the film. It is from overcoming bigger and bigger adversity throughout the film that the hero develops and grows. Without challenges or difficulties to master, this growth and character development would not be possible, and people would find the movie dull or boring.

In real life, I see a lot of clients who want a life free of challenge. They strive for a life of inner peace without stress or anxiety and believe that this can be achieved by consistently remaining in their comfort zone. In their comfort zone, they do the same thing each day, don’t take any risks and generally feel okay. A lot of them will tell you that something is missing, however.

We need to push beyond what feels comfortable to grow, and with this comes a certain amount of stress and anxiety. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can be a good indication that you are sufficiently challenging yourself so long as you are not feeling completely overwhelmed. Just remember to start small with tasks that feel a little scary but are also achievable, and as you build up confidence move onto more significant challenges. As long as the challenges are consistent with changes that you would like to bring about in your life, you will feel more energetic and alive than you ever could by remaining in your comfort zone. Even if you don’t succeed.

The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

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#3 – Conflict leads to more intense emotional experiences

Screenwriters are taught to create conflict in every scene where possible, usually by having two characters in the scene who have different views and objectives. This is because conflict creates emotional involvement far more than general exposition ever could, leading to a more engaged audience.

In real life, especially in relationships, this isn’t always a good thing. We might feel a more significant attraction or more intense emotional experience with someone who is actually opposed to us in what they want. I see it all the time when individuals who are anxiously attached (like being close to their partner and worry when they are apart) end up in relationships with individuals who are avoidantly attached (like their independence and autonomy and then feel trapped and smothered if they are too close). Each time it leads to an emotional rollercoaster ride, with lots of conflicts, big ups and downs, and greater emotional involvement. It keeps both parties occupied and interested, but will do more harm than good in the end.

Finding someone who wants the same things that we do may be less exciting initially, but can also lead to greater satisfaction and well-being in the long run. Be aware of the emotional trap, and use your head as well as your heart when determining if a relationship is suitable for you.

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#4 – Have clearly defined goals

All heroes will have the primary goal or external motivation that they will pursue throughout the film. Screenwriters are encouraged to make this evident to the audience so that they will cheer on the hero as they make their journey through their challenges in pursuit of their goal. In a horror movie, it may be to escape from or kill the bad guy. In a heist movie, it may be to steal the money and get away with it. In a romantic comedy, it is to win the affection of the love interest. In a coming of age story it is to learn something, and in a sports movie, it is to win.

In real life, it is essential to think of the big picture at times, and ask yourself where you would like to be in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 years from now? How would you want to be spending your days? Whether it is owning a business, buying a house, getting married, having children or running a marathon, these external, observable goals help keep us motivated and focused on our destination, or where we would like to see ourselves in the future. Once these goals have been achieved, they can be ticked off the list. It then becomes vital to elicit and develop further goals to pursue.

Believe big. The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief. Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success. Remember this too! Big ideas and big plans and often easier – certainly no more difficult – than small ideas and small plans.” — David Schwartz

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#5 – Understand why you want to achieve these goals – clarify your values

It may not always be explicitly stated, but a hero in a movie will still have an internal motivation or reason why they are pursuing a goal, otherwise, it wouldn’t be worth them overcoming all of the obstacles that they face to achieve the goal at the end of the movie.

Two people may want to buy a house or run a marathon, but their reasons for doing so could be completely different. One home-buyer may want security and a place to call home, whereas the other person is wanting to make their parents and family proud of them (to gain love, approval or acceptance). One marathon runner may decide to enter the race to become healthier and lose weight, whereas another may do it to spend more time with their friend or partner that loves running (for greater connection or intimacy).

Values, unlike goals, can never be ticked off the list, but are guiding principles that can either be followed or not from moment to moment or day to day. If honesty is an essential value to you, you can be honest whenever you tell the truth, and dishonest whenever you lie. By living honestly, you will be feeling more fulfilled, and by being dishonest, you will likely feel dissatisfied or guilty. Firstly clarify which values are most important to you, and then set short, medium and long-term goals that are consistent with the guiding principles that you choose. 

To be truly rich, regardless of his fortune or lack of it, a man must live by his own values. If those values are not personally meaningful, then no amount of money gained can hide the emptiness of life without them.” — John Paul Getty

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#6 – Have mentors that can help you to achieve your goals

Screenwriters call these characters reflections, and they are there to help the hero to learn and grow along with their journey towards their ultimate goal. This is Robin Williams to Matt Damon in ‘Good Will Hunting’, Mr Miyagi to Daniel-son in ‘The Karate Kid’, and Morgan Freeman in most movies (‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘The Dark Knight’). They usually don’t have a big character arc themselves, because they are already evolved in the areas that the hero is trying to improve. This is how they can know what the right thing to do is and help guide the hero on their path.

In real life, it is important to have mentors or people that have done what you would like to do, that you can turn to for help when you get stuck, have questions, or need advice. By seeking support through individuals who are more knowledgeable and experienced in the areas that you are hoping to build skills, it is possible to learn from their insights and mistakes without having to repeat them yourself, leading to a more effective learning and growth process. If they are able to be honest and direct in their feedback of your strengths and weaknesses, they can also help you to see the real you and guide you towards what is right, authentic and true, even if you don’t exactly want to hear it. Mentors can be friends or relatives, or can even be paid for or hired too. It is why people have psychologists, personal trainers and life coaches. It is also why I obtain regular external supervision so that I can keep improving towards becoming the best psychologist that I can be.

The way for you to be happy and successful, to get more of the things you really want in life, is to study and emulate those who have already done what you want to do and achieved the results you want to achieve.” — Brian Tracy. 

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#7 – It is our actions that define who we become

In his book ‘Story’, Robert McKee, a famous screenwriter, says that the hero’s character is truly revealed not in the scenes when everything is relaxed and calm, but in the choices that they make when the going gets tough and they are under pressure. The greater the pressure, the more revealing the scene is of the hero’s essential nature. Notice it is not their intentions, or things that they may speak about doing earlier in the film, but what they actually do when it really counts.

How will you react in the most significant moments in your life? With courage and persistence in spite of fear or challenge, or with avoidance, excuses or procrastination? With compassion, generosity and respect, or criticalness, selfishness and contempt? Will you talk about all of the great things you want to do or the things that you could have been, or focus on what you can still do and get out there and do it? It doesn’t just have to be big moments either.

Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great” –Orison Swett Marden

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist