The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

Having goals, dreams and desires implies looking forward and planning ahead. However, focus on the future is often accompanied by worries about hypothetical situations. Indeed, the things we care about the most are often ambiguous and unknowable. Because humans are hard-wired to prefer certainty to uncertainty, we experience this ambiguity as highly uncomfortable, even distressing. Considering that the future is uncertain and that being faced with the unknown is uncomfortable, we tend to develop strategies to avoid or reduce uncertainty. These may work in the short term. When intolerance to uncertainty becomes the rule, however, striving to eliminate it altogether paradoxically contributes to increased anxiety and suffering, and ultimately impedes our ability to reach our goals (Dugas, Gosselin & Ladouceur, 2001).

According to Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of Things May Go Horribly Terribly Wrong (a perfect title for a book on uncertainty), the first step to changing the way we relate to the unknown is to become aware of the myriad strategies we engage in to neutralize ambiguity (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

The list below may be helpful to begin thinking about which intolerance to uncertainty tactics we engage in the most and to prompt reflection on what uncertainty means to us.

1. Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?

Approach Strategies:

  • Worrying to “solve” uncertainty. Worries are often plans, predictions and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel “productive” to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an “intolerance to uncertainty strategy” and only leads to more worry.

  • Reassurance seeking. Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to “feel certain”. Ex: Asking a loved one if they love you multiple times a day, asking multiple sources about an upcoming decision, getting second and third opinions…

  • Searching online. Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and, ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that intolerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones. Ex: Googling health questions as they occur, searching through someone’s or one’s own social media, excessive online-researching before making a decision (Carleton et. al, 2019).

  • Double checking. Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more. Ex: Repetitive checking of one’s bank account and email, repetitive-checking that the door is locked, double-checking the route to get to a destination.

  • Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting. To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.

Avoidance Strategies

  • Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Will I be able to succeed? Am I good enough? Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing (Rassin & Murris, 2005).

  • Avoiding new opportunities. Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether. Ex: turning down a promotion for fear of not being good enough, not going to a party with new friends, not travelling to unknown places.

  • Cognitive avoidance. Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.

Beliefs about uncertainty

  • It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.

  • Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.

  • Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go (“I will not be able to manage”).

  • Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.

As mentioned, everyone uses some of these strategies some of the time. Intolerance to uncertainty becomes most problematic when reliance on these types of strategies interferes with what’s most important to us.

2. Observe and notice: What are the costs?

The second step is to become aware of how regular use of these strategies interferes with one’s goals, relationships and general wellbeing. We may ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Are worries about the future getting in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment?

  • How much time am I spending trying to “solve” uncertainty? What else could I be doing?

  • What meaningful experiences am I avoiding or putting off due to intolerance to uncertainty?

  • Does my intolerance to uncertainty affect my relationships with loved ones?

3. Observe, notice and feel: Sitting with it. The final step implies doing the opposite of efforts to move away from uncertainty. In fact, it involves leaning into it and requires the willingness to experience its discomfort. If the only thing that is certain in life is that life is fundamentally uncertain, then acceptance of uncertainty, in all its discomfort, is necessary. Allowing oneself to simply experience ambiguity is not to love it, but to learn that it is both uncomfortable and tolerable.

  • How to sit with uncertainty? When resisting the urge to engage in strategies to reduce uncertainty, take a moment to explore your internal experience. Identify what you are feeling. Observe the sensations in your body, notice the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts. Remember, no matter how intense your thoughts and emotions become, they are temporary and they will pass. It may be helpful to remind yourself of the following coping statements: “This too shall pass”, “I do not know and it is okay”, “It is uncomfortable and I can feel it”, “It is uncertain, I do not need to solve it”.

  • For more information on sitting with difficult emotions, see this blog post.

4. Be flexible. The objective of these steps is not to eliminate our response of discomfort towards uncertainty. It is alright and normal to worry and feel anxiety at times. Rather, the objective is to become aware of how consistent efforts to not feel discomfort get in the way of engaging in experiences that are unknowable and likely to also be highly meaningful such as connecting with others and moving towards goals (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

Building tolerance to uncertainty is like strengthening a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes!


Rhea Marshall-Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 48(2), 121-136.

Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.

Rassin, E., & Muris, P. (2005). Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1285-1291.

Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). Things might go terribly, horribly wrong: A guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Intuitive Eating – another fad? Or something more…

Intuitive Eating – another fad? Or something more…

waffle-heart-2697904_1920.jpg

You may have recently heard the words “Intuitive Eating” or “Mindful Eating” in the news, on social media, or in a post on your favourite blog. The Globe and Mail even wrote a lengthy article in early January stating that intuitive eating is the new “non-diet” of the year. But what exactly is intuitive eating, and can it really help you improve your relationship with food and your body?

Intuitive eating is an approach to eating that shifts away from rules, rigidity around eating, and dieting. It encourages listening to your internal cues for hunger and responding by eating food that you enjoy and that makes you feel good both physically and emotionally. We have now seen that intuitive eating has been shown to improve both our physical and psychological health over the long-term (Bacon, 2010; Van Dyke & Drinkwater, 2014). If intuitive eating doesn’t sound all that fancy, it’s because it isn’t. Intuitive eating is essentially a much-needed back to basics approach, where we are encouraged to focus on our individual needs and preferences as a guide to developing a balanced relationship with food. You won’t find any “good” or “bad” foods in this approach, nor will you be encouraged to cut certain items out of your routine. The idea here is to stop looking outwards for a diet guide on how to take care of your body, and to begin looking inwards to better figure out what YOU need to feel good.

A good parallel here is when you think of an infant’s relationship with food. Infants cry when they’re hungry, and typically slow down their feeding when they’re full. Then they cry again when they’re hungry, and the cycle continues. Infants don’t ask themselves “how many calories are in my milk?” or “I can’t be hungry yet, I just ate!” or even “the other babies aren’t eating this much, why am I?!” – they simply listen to their bodies, feed when they’re hungry, and stop when they’re full. Pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, between infancy and adulthood, we’re inundated with messages about what we should or should not eat, how we should or should not look, and how anything less than the “thin ideal” or a “clean diet” is ground for shaming ourselves and others. As a result, we’ve naturally lost our inner compass, our inner guide that helps tell us what we need and want to feel satisfied.

Essentially, you and only you can tell yourself what your body needs, and it’s time to start listening.

So, how do we go about transitioning from focusing on external cues for eating to focusing on our internal needs? The following is a brief guide that will help you begin your intuitive eating journey, alongside some helpful reading recommendations to dig deeper into this subject.

Step 1: Learn to accept our bodies as they are, let go of diet culture

  • This is a really difficult step, and yet it’s essential. Letting go of thin ideals and shaming our bodies allows us to not only feel more connected and comfortable in our skin, it also lets us stop trying to control our eating behaviours with the goal of shrinking our bodies. If we can accept our bodies as they are, food can become about meeting our needs and experiencing pleasure, as opposed to an attempt to control and punish our bodies under the guise of ‘health’. When we try to use food to control our body size, i.e. when we try to diet, we have to retain that level of restriction in order to keep pushing down our weight. There is no freedom to ask ourselves what do we like, what are we in the mood for, how much would we like to enjoy? Instead, we are focused on “what am I allowed to eat?” in order to maintain this control. This approach ultimately backfires for most people as well, resulting in binge eating in an attempt for our bodies to finally feel that their needs are met. For these reasons and more, letting go of diet culture and accepting our bodies is crucial.

Step 2: Start getting curious about your personal hunger cues

  • We spend so much of our time assuming we should or should not eat because of the time of the day, because of what others are doing, or because of what we have eaten previously. None of this is focusing on what our body is asking for, so start by simply being mindful of your bodily cues for hunger. Do you feel a growl in your stomach? Do you suddenly have fantasies about different meal options? Does your concentration decrease slightly?

Step 3: Ask yourself what it is you’d like to eat.

  • What are you in the mood for? What do you have available? There is no right or wrong answer here, only you know what you’d like to eat!

Step 4: Eating mindfully.

  • Try to slow down, taste the flavour, the texture, and the temperature of your food. Notice how your pleasure for certain flavours changes throughout the course of your meal. Check in with your fullness cues. Are you feeling full half way through your meal? Are you still hungry at the end of your meal? Use these cues to guide yourself in either slowing down and finishing your meal or adding an extra snack to ensure that you’re satisfied.

Step 5: Be compassionate, non-judgemental, and flexible with yourself

  • Each meal is a learning opportunity. Sometimes we don’t feel full during a meal but then feel stuffed 30 minutes later. This helps us learn for the next time that we might need a little bit less of this specific recipe, or that we want to eat more slowly in the future. There is no “bad” or “good” way of doing this, it is simply a curious and open learning experience each time.

  • There are often reasons that we eat that are independent of our fullness cues, such as when a meal is really delicious and we’re willing to feel extra full in order to keep enjoying it, or when we know we’re only going to have a small window to have a meal during our workday. All of these situations are part of the fabric of intuitive eating. The idea is not to do this “perfectly” – in fact, that’s the exact opposite of the idea. The goal is simply to start becoming more curious about what your body needs and why it’s asking for what it needs in any given moment.

  • Become curious about other reasons that we might be eating, such as to hold onto pleasure, push back boredom, or cope with difficult emotions. These different motivations for eating are not problematic, they’re simply worth noticing. If we’re eating for reasons that are unrelated to our hunger and energy needs, then we might wish to expand on other ways to have those needs equally met, so that we have options in the future.

Ultimately, intuitive eating is about finally allowing yourself to accept and celebrate your body, and beginning to re-acquaint yourself with your inner guide for how to strengthen your relationship with food.


Tobey Mandel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Van Dyke, N., & Drinkwater, E. J. (2014). Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: Literature review. Public Health Nutrition, 17, 1757-1766.

Gagnon-Girouard, M. P., Bégin, C., Provencher, V., Tremblay, A., Mongeau, L., Boivin, S. Lemieux, S. (2010). Psychological Impact of a "Health-at-Every-Size" Intervention on Weight-Preoccupied Overweight/Obese Women. Journal of Obesity, pii: 928097. doi: 10.1155/2010/928097

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2012). Intuitive eating: A revolutionary program that works. Third Edition. St. Martin’s Press.

Bacon, L. (2010). Health at every size: The surprising truth about your weight. Dallax, Texas: BenBella Books, Inc.

Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

emotions pic.png

Lately I’ve been thinking about the various ways that people try to avoid their emotions. And it’s understandable. Emotions can feel pretty scary, especially when they get intense. Intense anxiety can elicit a sense of impending doom, the physical symptoms that accompany panic can generate a sense that one is having a heart attack, and individuals overcome with anger can feel like they are going to explode. So it makes sense that we would want to avoid negative emotions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to cite getting rid of an emotion like anxiety as their initial goal for therapy.

Problems with wanting to eliminate negative emotions

Although it’s understandable to want to avoid negative emotions, either by numbing ourselves when they arise, or wishing we could eliminate them altogether, there are several reasons why this isn’t actually a good idea.

1. Our emotions are useful signals. A helpful analogy here is to think of physical pain – although many people wish they could avoid or prevent physical pain, pain signals give us useful information that we need to protect ourselves (indeed, people who do not get these pain signals often develop serious injuries; see link). In a similar way, our emotions are there to tell us something. For example, when we feel threatened in some way, anxiety alerts us to the possibility that we may need to protect or prepare ourselves. Without any anxiety, we might take risks that put us in physical danger, or we might shirk our responsibilities altogether.

2. It’s often not possible. When we suppress an emotion, it doesn’t typically go away.

a. The emotion might actually intensify over time (have you ever tried to push away feelings of frustration about something only to blow up about it later on?). In this way, our emotions are not all that different from children asking their parent for something – what do they do if they don’t feel heard? They raise the volume (sometimes very, very loudly!).

a. Or the emotion might come out in a different form, which can be hard for those around you to understand (e.g. if you become passive aggressive) or in ways that might confuse even you (e.g. you might be unsure of why you feel tense, irritable or drained).

3. The ways that some people try to avoid negative emotions, including drugs or self-harm, can lead to more suffering. Sometimes people avoid thinking about negative emotions by throwing themselves into projects or focusing on the world outside of their inner experiences (e.g. with to-do lists, focusing on other people’s problems); this can be a hard one to detect because we might trick ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when we might also be avoiding (the motivation behind our action is the important distinction here).

So, you want me to just…what? Sit with my emotion?

guy rain head.png

Although this might seem crazy at first, allowing ourselves to sit with a negative emotion provides us the opportunity to see that our emotional wave (although very uncomfortable) will decline in intensity over time and will not destroy us. Also, by not trying to “do something” to get rid of the emotion at the peak of its intensity, we might avoid doing something impulsively which we might later regret (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).

Rather than telling ourselves that our emotions do not make sense, that we should not be feeling that way, that our emotions are dangerous, or that we should try to get rid of them, we can try to identify what emotions we are experiencing in that moment (e.g. I feel angry), validate for ourselves that our feelings are understandable in light of the situation or context (e.g. it’s understandable that I’m angry because this situation is unfair), provide ourselves with words of compassion (e.g. I know this is really hard right now, and I know I will get through this), and ask ourselves what it is that we might need - not what we need to get rid of the emotion, but what we need to take care of ourselves (e.g. restorative activities like a nap, working toward boundary setting)…and if we’re really up for challenging ourselves, we can even thank our emotion for drawing our attention to this need and for giving us the opportunity to take care of ourselves in a more compassionate and present way (Neff & Germer, 2018).


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

1. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/congenital-insensitivity-to-pain

2. McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

3. Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

“Holding Space” for Others’ Distress: How to Be There for your Loved One Without Trying to Fix Their Problems

“Holding Space” for Others’ Distress: How to Be There for your Loved One Without Trying to Fix Their Problems

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Have you ever been with a friend, partner, your kid, etc. and they’re extremely upset about something going on in their lives? For example, they failed a class, lost a parent, lost their job, or are struggling with a health issue? What is your first reaction? My first reaction is often to try to do or say whatever I can to make their suffering go away as fast as possible. If the person experiencing the distress is a young kid, I might have the urge to distract them; for example, by saying, “Check out this cool toy!” If it’s an adult, I might go into problem-solving or advice-giving mode, and say something like, “Maybe it’s time to discuss with your boss the possibility of moving to another department?”. While these approaches can be helpful, there are some ways in which they are potentially problematic.

What is wrong with trying to advice-give or problem-solve our loved ones’ suffering away, or distract them from their negative emotion? I’ve listed a few of the potential problems with this approach below.

1. You might be invalidating their feelings.

By trying to advice-give/problem-solve/distract our loved ones’ suffering away, we could inadvertently be giving them the message that they “shouldn’t” feel this way or that their feelings are “wrong” or inappropriate. In other words, we may, without even realizing it, be invalidating their feelings. Examples of invalidating responses include, “It’s not that bad”, “Big girls don’t cry”, or “You’re probably just over-tired”. We could also invalidate a loved one’s emotions through what we do, not just what we say. For example, when we distract a child who’s crying by showing him a shiny new toy.

2. You might be giving them the message that “negative emotions are bad.”

By trying to help our loved ones get rid of their negative emotion as fast as possible, we could be feeding into the false idea that negative emotions are bad. Although negative emotions can be extremely unpleasant, they do serve an important function.

For example, sadness could be telling us that we’ve lost something important, and therefore help us prioritize for the future the things we really care about. Anger, on the other hand, could be telling us that we’re being treated unfairly, and if we don’t take the time to acknowledge the anger and reflect on it, we may not be motivated to make changes to an unhealthy situation.

So, if we quickly try to change our loved ones’ negative emotions, they may not have the opportunity to get the information that the emotion is trying to tell them, and we may be adding to the belief that negative emotions are simply bad and should be shut down ASAP.

3. You might be implying that they can’t handle negative emotions.

Our quick attempts to problem-solve or advice-give could also be inadvertently telling our loved one that they can’t handle their emotions. To be fair, negative emotions are tough to handle. But, if we are able to sit with our emotions, perhaps using some self-soothing strategies while doing so, like deep breathing and imagery, we may find the emotion will run its course without us having to bottle it up or push it away. Being mindful of negative emotions in this way is beneficial because it allows us to process the emotion (see Point 5) and recognize what the emotion is trying to communicate to us (see Point 2). Additionally, sometimes the strategies we use to bottle up or push away emotions cause more suffering, such as numbing through sleep or alcohol, avoiding situations or people, and keeping ourselves excessively busy.

4. It may be more about us than them.

Our attempts to problem-solve the emotion away may be more about our own discomfort than about our loved one’s suffering. In this way, we might not be providing our loved one with the type of support they’re looking for. They may, for example, simply want a listening ear.

5. They may not have the opportunity to process their emotion.

By helping our loved one push away or bottle up their emotion, they might not have the opportunity to process the emotion. Why is processing our emotions important? As mentioned in Point 2, If we push emotions away, or “bottle them up”, we may not be aware of the important information they’re trying to communicate to us (Greenberg, 2002). Also, emotions that get pushed into the background don’t necessarily go away, but might continue to exist as “unfinished business.” The more unfinished emotional business we have, the greater the likelihood these emotions will build up until they essentially “overflow”, resulting in us feeling, for example, an overwhelming amount of emotional pain (Greenberg, 2002). In these types of situations, when we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we may end up lashing out with rage, or falling into deep self-loathing or despair.

6. You may be feeding into their self-critical thoughts.

Blocking negative emotions can make us feel worse about ourselves. To block our negative emotions, we have to tell ourselves things like, “Stop feeling this way!”, “You’re being ridiculous!” “Get over it already!”. Talking to ourselves and judging our emotions in this way can lead to a bunch of other negative emotions (like shame, anger toward ourselves, etc.). So, if you’re helping your loved one block their negative emotion, you could be facilitating their beating themselves up over their emotions

What can we do to “hold space” for our loved one’s difficult emotions, instead of trying to problem-solve, advice-give, or distract them away? What is commonly known as active listening is a great way to simply “hold space” for your loved one’s distress (Weger, Castle Bell, Minei, & Robinson, 2014).

Check out these tips for active listening:

1. Tolerate your own discomfort.

If someone you care about is really distressed and you just want it to stop, take a few long, deep breaths; remind yourself that this will pass and you can still be there for your loved one without making the emotion go away; and remember that, although it’s really difficult, experiencing negative emotions is a necessary part of learning and growing.

2. Communicate attentiveness through your body language.

Make eye contact, nod your head, and use an open, relaxed body posture.

3. Communicate attentiveness through your words.

Use phrases like, “Uh-huh”, “I see”, and “I hear you” to let the person know you’re listening. Reflect back to them what they’re saying (e.g., “It sounds like what you’re saying is you really weren’t expecting this and that makes it even more difficult.”). This will help your loved one feel heard and understood, and will build trust between the two of you.

4. Be a sounding board and reflect back.

Allow your loved one to bounce ideas and feelings off you while assuming a nonjudgmental, non-critical stance. Summarize their experience, what they’re saying and reflect it back to them. This will allow them to feel heard, understood, and will also correct your perception if you’re misunderstanding them.

5. Avoid advice-giving or “teaching” and interrupting.

Advice-giving and “teaching” can potentially lead to the problems discussed above (e.g., invalidation of feelings, not allowing emotions to be processed). If you sense that your loved one is really looking for advice, and you feel it might be helpful, you could always check in with them first before giving advice: “I can help you problem-solve, I can give you some advice, but I’m also happy to just listen.”

6. Invite the person to say more.

For example, "Tell me about it", or "I'd like to hear more about that if you’re comfortable."

7. Be authentic.

If it’s hard for you to relate to what the person is going through, don’t pretend. Instead, you might say something like, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through right now, but I want you to know I love you and I’m here for you.”

8. Don’t make it about you.

Try not to relate it to your own experience, unless you ask first. It’s natural to want to share a similar experience, as it can allow us to feel more connected to our loved one, and they may even feel less alone. The problem with this is that it could make it more about you than them, and take away from their unique experience, not really allowing them to feel heard. Instead, you might say something like, “I went through something that I think is similar. I can tell you about it if you like.”

———

I think one of our greatest abilities as humans is our capacity to problem-solve our way out of and “fix” difficult situations. We have probably survived so long because of this skill, which is one reason why we might default to this mode so quickly when someone we care about is struggling. However, as outlined above, there are also plenty of advantages to simply “being with” someone in their distress. I hope you found these tips helpful and can practice them next time someone you care about is sharing their difficulties with you.


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Greenberg, L. S. (2002). Greenberg Emotion-focused therapy: coaching clients to work through feelings. American Psychological Association Press, Washingoton, DC.

Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT® skills training manual, second edition. Guilford Publications.

Weger Jr, H., Castle Bell, G., Minei, E. M., & Robinson, M. C. (2014). The relative effectiveness of active listening in initial interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13-31.

Less What, More Why

Less What, More Why

Simchapic1.png

In sessions, clients often contemplate important decisions, such as whether to quit a job or whether to end a friendship. We sometimes go into problem-solving mode and consider practical factors, like the pros and cons of their different options. But over time, I have found myself focusing less on the ‘what’ and more on the ‘why’. That is, why they would be making that decision. So often, I don’t think that either of the options they are contemplating is inherently right or wrong, good or bad; but the reasoning behind it can vary in how healthy or constructive it is for them.

Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean:

1. Imagine that you want to stay home and cancel plans to go out with friends over the week end. Again, there is nothing inherently right or wrong about this decision. But the reasoning is important.

a. You might be doing this because you have had a busy week and you find alone-time nourishing, especially when you spend it resting and engaging in hobbies that you enjoy.

b. However, you might also be making this decision because social situations make you nervous and you’d rather not put yourself through that. Indeed, anxiety often elicits the urge to avoid. People struggling with social anxiety often find themselves avoiding social situations which make them anxious (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Importantly, avoiding something that makes us nervous can lead us to feel relieved in the short-term, but may actually serve to reinforce our fear over time (see Barlow & Craske, 2007).

In this example, the same behavior can be performed in the service of self-care in the former instance, and as an act of avoidance in the latter.

Simchapic2.png

2. Imagine that you often find yourself doing more than your fair share in a relationship. Over time, you might find yourself feeling hurt or resentful. You may be tempted to dial back how much effort you’re putting in for a while. There is no clear good or bad choice here, and this is where I would suggest that you pause and ask yourself why; what would be your goal in reducing your efforts?

a. You might be driven by a desire to make things more equitable in order to avoid feeling resentful toward your partner in the future. Indeed, some research suggests that relationship partners are more satisfied when they view the relationship as equitable (Stafford & Canary, 2006).

b. However, you might also be doing this to test your partner, that is, hoping that they’ll notice the change in your behavior, detect your underlying dissatisfaction, and adjust their behavior accordingly (e.g. by expressing more appreciation or doing their fair share). This can be risky for multiple reasons, including that your partner may not recognize the message you are trying to send and/or that they might not appreciate being tested in this way.

As you can see, the same behavior can aim to prevent resentment in one case, or to test the relationship in another case.

The practice of pausing and asking ourselves why may help us to get in touch with our underlying motivations, so that we can make more informed decisions. In so doing, it brings us one step closer to purposeful and thoughtful responding - rather than simply reacting.


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References and Resources

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Barlow, D.H. & Craske, M.G. (2007). Treatments that work: Mastery of your anxiety and panic (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Stafford, L. & Canary, D.J. (2006). Equity and interdependence as predictors of relational maintenance strategies. The Journal of Family Communication, 6, 227-254.