WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

This post is a continuation of my last post, which can be summed up nicely by this quote my colleague Andrea recently posted on Instagram:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

In that post I asked you to get in touch with all of the reasons WHY you want to keep your cup full. These are your WHYs for taking care of you: the values and people you want to nourish in your life. If you haven’t read it, it’s short, please take a moment to do so: Want to Change the World? Start by Connecting to You.

In this post I’d like to talk about WHAT self-care is for you? I think a common misconception is that self-care is all about tea and massages. These are great ways to recharge if they work for you! But personally I find going for a run or sitting around a dinner table with my friends just as nourishing as going to the spa. Last post I also suggested that you should not start with what other people tell you you should do to take care of yourself or what your inner bully tells you your “lazy butt” should do to take care of you. I think the most nourishing self-care moments are actually when we connect our actions with our values (our WHYs). So, let’s look back at those lists we created last time. Here’s my short list:

My WHYs

Who is important to me? (1)

  • My family
  • My friends
  • My colleagues

What is important to me? (1)

  • Growth
  • Hard work
  • Authenticity
  • Creativity
  • Connecting with people
  • Feeling part of something bigger than me
  • Taking care of my body
  • Being in nature
  • Freedom
  • Fun

I’ll try to give you an example of how you might try to connect your self-care actions with your WHYs in the area of health. Most of us know that exercise is an important piece of self-care, but for many of us it feels like a chore. I was in this boat for a long time. When I was a kid I played many sports, mostly just for fun, because my friends were doing them. But as I got older my friends did fewer team sports and by the age of 18 I was left sport-less. My husband is a professional athlete and when we met at the age of 20 I was inspired to get back into exercise. So, I tried to jump on the gym bandwagon. My husband spent his days at the gym, there must be something good about it right? And so I would go to the gym a few hours a week to work out and it was fine. But then slowly but surely the gym would creep down my priority list and ooops I would find myself months without going to the gym at all. Anyone recognize this pattern? And the pattern continued for years and years until near the end of my 20s when I decided I was tired of feeling bad about not going to the gym and gave up on exercise altogether. Phew what a relief! But then months later, feeling sluggish and unfit, I asked myself “is there another way?” Can I personalize this exercise thing so that I actually like it and it might stick? So I looked back and asked myself what I used to like about exercise? For many sports it was just the social aspect but there were no sports that all of my friends were doing anymore (and I’m not that good at making new friends) so that might not work. But then I realized the two sports I really loved, just for me, were horseback riding and cross-country skiing (neither of which is done in a gym, Aha!) So why did I like them? 1) Because they were both done outside, often in the forest (which connected me to nature), and 2) taking off for hours of trail riding or skiing totally disconnected me from “real life” and rejuvenated me (which gave me a sense of freedom). And so, with less time in the schedule as an adult I decided to try out something similar but more practical: running. I loved it and haven’t looked back since. What I learned is that if you turn exercise into something is meaningful to you, the motivation will come much easier.

Since then I have tried this with different aspects of my life. I’ve broken down self-care into 4 domains for myself: Health, Leisure, Work, and Relationships (1). And asked myself in each of these domains what is a meaningful self-care activity for me? Remember we can find meaning by looking to our WHYs.

Here are some of the self-care activities that work for me (my self-care WHATs):

Domain: Health
Self-care WHAT: Running
WHY: Connection to nature; feeling of freedom

Domain: Leisure
Self-care WHAT: Dinners with friends (especially outside)
WHY: Connection with people; feeling part of something bigger than myself; fun

Domain: Work
Self-care WHAT: Blocking off hours in the morning once a week for writing
WHY: Freedom; creativity

Domain: Relationships
Self-care WHAT: Long weekends up north with my husband
WHY: Connection; nature; growth as a couple, as parents; authenticity; (and freedom from the children!)

If you like the idea try it out and see how it works for you!

“Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.”
From the book Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg

I know I promised to talk about finding your lead domino (2) and making daily commitments to action. I did not forget. So stay tuned for part 3 of Want to change the world, start by connecting to you!


Jodie Richardson 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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Great book by Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

Check out this fun video by Dr. Russ Harris: Values vs Goals     

Intrinsic motivation is proven to help us reach our goals long-term. See: Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

Also see: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

1. These are really great questions that Benjamin Schoendorff asks in his ACT matrix training to get at what’s truly important to people and to break down life into important domains. You can find out more about the ACT matrix here. Clinicians can check out his book: The Essential Guide to the ACT matrix.

2. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek

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The importance of setting boundaries

The importance of setting boundaries

Recently, boundary-setting has been coming up often in conversations, in and outside the office. I noticed that for many, “boundaries” as a concept seems to be ambiguous—yet it plays out in so many domains of life. If you’re asking yourself whether your own boundaries may need a check-up, here are some hints.

Do you ever feel like you invest more than your return in relationships with partners, family, friends, or even strangers? Perhaps you feel resentful, or that you are being taken advantage of. You might feel a little bit annoyed all the time, or you might feel outright mistreated! You worry about the disapproval from others if you were to choose to say no or do what’s right for you.

Perhaps you often feel compelled to “fix things” for those who are close to you (emotionally, or otherwise). Maybe you worry they won’t think you’re a good friend, partner, son, daughter, (etc) if you don’t do what they are asking from you. Maybe worse, you fear that setting a limit would lead to argument or confrontation. So you might say “yes” when you mean “no”—out of habit, or just to avoid unpleasant interactions. At work, or elsewhere, you go above and beyond to ensure that another person’s comforts, wants, and needs are satisfied in a situation (but at the expense of your own!). Although it may feel “unselfish”, you eventually come to feel anger and resentment towards others. In fact, despite your efforts to ensure the other person is happy, relationships may not be working so well. While most people occasionally struggle with boundary questions, if it sounds a little bit too familiar too often, it might help to give your boundaries some reflection.

So what are boundaries?

In the context of psychology, boundaries are a conceptual limit between you and the other person. Simply put, it’s about knowing where you end and others begin. Knowing what’s yours and what’s not. Acknowledging that every adult is responsible for themselves. Having a functional boundary (one that works) means taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, and NOT taking responsible for the actions and emotions of others. Of course, this plays out a little differently when you ARE actually responsible for someone else (like a dependent or a child).

According to personal space theory (Scott, 1993), we have boundaries, and can regulate how permeable they are—meaning what we let in and out—when it comes to the physical, mental and spiritual environment.

Maintaining boundaries is about being the gatekeeper of your life in order to keep yourself safe and well. Imagine you are a castle, with front door, moat, and drawbridge which you can lower open or raise shut at your will (Peck, 1997). If you keep your front door unlocked and drawbridge laid open all the time, anyone is free to walk in, do as they please, and stay as long as they like. On the other extreme, if you keep the door shut and locked, and the drawbridge up, you end up isolated, and miss out on connecting with others. Many go from one of these extremes to the other. However, we know that the healthiest type of boundary is one that is appropriately and purposefully open to some people, in some situations, some of the time, and closed to others, at other times (Scott, 1993). In our day-to-day, how well we communicate these boundaries can either protect or jeopardize relationships (Scott & Dumas, 1995). Think of times you did something you did not want to do because someone asked you and you felt obliged. The simmering anger that ensues could damage the relationship; if you let it boil over, you might say something passive aggressive or even fully lash out. 

How do I keep my boundaries in check?

The first step is to create time to get to know yourself, and practice feeling worthy. Often when we allow our boundaries to be crossed, we feel as though we are being generous. Perhaps because we feel (or have been taught) it’s the only way to ensure being a “good person” or the only way to confirm our worth or value. Practice feeling worthy. Not because of your achievements or generosity toward others, but because like every person—you are!  Show yourself you are worthy by being kind and compassionate toward yourself and taking good care of your emotional well-being (to start, see Andrea’s daily mental health boost tips on Instagram), Lisa’s blog posts about the critical vs compassionate voice here and here, or Miss psychlife’s tips on self-care here. It may feel as though a good relationship means you take care of others at your own expense, and you hope that in return, they will take care of you in the same way. This is what creates boundary chaos. Instead, respect and nurture yourself by taking care of you first. You may be asking yourself whether doing this is selfish—it is not. By meeting your own needs, you respect yourself and the other by taking responsibility for your own well-being. You preserve your integrity so that you can communicate your boundaries to others and maintain equal, respectful, and resentment-free relationships.

The second step is about defining your edges. In each situation, asking yourself what you are responsible for and what is outside your scope. If your partner wants you to do something, asking yourself, “would I like to invest in my relationship in this particular way”? If so, you can do it within your boundary. Then ask yourself, does doing this come at the expense of my well-being in a significant way? And will my resentment grow if I do it? If the answer is yes to either, there is a good chance this is outside the boundary. Give yourself the power to own the choices you make, and avoid doing anything that you will come to resent. Make choices that you feel are right for you—not because you feel like you have to, or fear the consequences, or think “that’s what it takes to be a good person”—but because you feel content with the choice regardless of the outcome. 

The third step is more concrete: Practice assertiveness! First noticing when you want to give in—to do something that would create resentment or come at the expense of your own well-being. Then, communicate your stance respectfully. You can apply this with family, at work, and even with strangers. For example, you might feel guilty because you don’t visit your family as often as they’d like you to. Make a personal choice regarding how often you would like to visit, and express your choice firmly. You are not responsible for how they feel about your choice. At work you might go above and beyond your job requirements at the expense of your own time with friends and family, which can lead you to burnout. Despite your fears (“what if I lose my job?”), you can start by setting limits on how often you work above and beyond (or choosing not to at all) and communicating these assertively (saying “I am not available to work on the weekend”).  To learn more about how to practice assertiveness, check out Lisa’s post here, or these online modules that take you through it in detail.

To summarize, when boundaries are blurry or loose, we do things we don’t want to do, often at the expense of our emotional and physical well-being. This leads to constant frustration within the self and can damage relationships with others. Being responsible for minding our own emotions and actions rather than those of others is essential to keeping our relationships (and ourselves!) healthy. Of course, boundaries are not always simple and can look a little different for everyone, so explore this with your therapist to learn about how it all plays out for you.


Danit Nitka received her PhD from the Clinical and Research Psychology program at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and is 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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Peck, M.S. (1997). The road less traveled and beyond: Spiritual growth in an age of anxiety. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Scott, A. (1993). A beginning theory of personal space boundaries. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 29(2), 12-20.

Scott, A., & Dumas, R. (1995). Personal space boundaries: Clinical applications in psychiatric nursing. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 31(3), 14-21.

Scott, A. (1998). Psychometric evaluation of the personal space boundary questionnaire. Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, 1(2), 46-53.

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The importance of unplugging

The importance of unplugging

“Mummy, you are on your phone WAY too much”. BOOM. These are words spoken to me just a few days ago by my 7-year-old daughter, and they hit me. Hard. You know what they say, “Children and fools always speak the truth” (Mark Twain). Indeed, you can often rely on a child to give it to you straight! My daughter’s words stung a little and they also got me thinking, although I thought I was being mindful of not using my electronic devices too much when in the presence of my children, I took a step back and reflected and realized that my little sweetie is probably right; I probably am using my phone too much in their presence (not to mention using it too much overall!). 

These days, people tend to be “on” pretty much all the time. Many of us use our electronic devices or cell phones not only as phones but also to text, email, surf the internet, do our banking, get directions and take pictures among other things. We also often use them to check the time and as alarm clocks (what happened to a good old alarm clock or a watch?!) so they are within reach most of the time; in our pocket or purse, on our desk or even on our night tables (so it’s likely that they are being used before we turn in for the night and first thing in the morning upon waking as well). Recent data confirms that Canadians rely heavily on their electronic devices; in fact, it has been reported that Canadians check their smartphones 6 times per hour on average and 82% of Canadians report that they use their phone at least once an hour (CIBC poll conducted by Harris/Decima, 2014). These data suggest that the tendency in North America is to rely heavily on our electronic devices most likely because of the convenience they offer not to mention the dopamine rush we get when we do something that feels good, which increases the likelihood that we will repeat the behaviour. The pleasure you get from hearing the beep of your phone when receiving a text from a friend or several likes on a photo you have posted on Instagram makes it more likely you will check your phone, or make new posts, etc.). “Our brains lay down a memory so it will remember to do it again” explains psychiatrist Judson Brewer specializing in addiction (Brewer, 2014).

It’s hard to argue with the fact that there are many advantages associated with the technology and with using our electronic devices or cell phones. Among these include being able to connect with people all over the world with the push of a button, easily sharing information with others, having access to an abundance of information at our fingertips, a source of amusement and entertainment, and one cannot argue that they are practical (how cool is it that you can shop online pretty much anywhere for pretty much anything at any time of day? I admit to having gotten a real kick out of placing an order for groceries while heading back to the city from a weekend away to have them delivered upon my arrival, or purchasing a book to read when vacationing in a remote area without access to a bookstore). That being said, there are many disadvantages to using these devices carelessly and there can be too much of a good thing.

Many of us (I am guilty of this myself!) carry our cell phones with us most of the time (almost all the time?!), which doesn’t allow us to have time “off” where we truly disconnect. By carrying our electronic devices around with us, we are making ourselves available by phone and through our email and other social media accounts pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. The result is that we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to disconnect and enjoy much needed empty space. I will be the first to admit as well that I tend to check my phone when “waiting”; when in line at the grocery store or when picking up a coffee in the morning at my local coffee shop, during a commute using public transportation or as a passenger in the car, waiting for an appointment at the doctor or dentist, during commercials when watching TV, or even in between clients when I’m working (that little window of just a few minutes could be much better spent getting up and walking or stretching, getting a glass of water to stay hydrated, or even getting outside for a short walk or breath of fresh air!). Many of us have developed a habit of checking in with our phones during a moment where, in the past, we would more likely have checked in with ourselves; taken some deep breaths and allowed our mind to wander- naturally as it should!

Being “on” like this all the time can be quite tiring and draining and doesn’t allow us to truly disconnect. It can also have a negative impact on our mood, our performance, our health and our relationships and it eats up a lot of precious time we could be using more mindfully on an activity we are likely to get more out of (ex. spending time in nature, reading a book, listening to a podcast, etc.).

Recent studies have reported on the potentially negative impacts of the use of electronic devices such as reduced quality of relationships, a decrease in productivity, disturbed sleep, and negative impact on mood.

“Technology is a blessing and a curse. Like anything, moderation is the key. Work to keep it positive and make the technology work for you, not the other way around.” Tim Elmore

Interference with relationships

It has been found that electronic devices can have a negative impact on the quality of our relationships. The mere presence of a cell phone (without even actually using it!) was found to have an impact on perceived closeness, connection and perceived empathy, particularly when discussing something meaningful (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013).

Use of cell phones can interfere with relationships, because they can interfere with our ability to focus and to be present and truly connected with our loved ones. On a couple of occasions, I have had young clients (around the age of 10 years old) that when asked what their 3 wishes would be if they could have absolutely anything respond by saying they want their parents to spend less time on their electronic devices. Indeed, when we are with our loved ones, if we are looking at our phones to check emails or Facebook for example, or even answer texts or phone calls, we are distracted, our attention is not focused on the person in front of us.

Decreased productivity

Multitasking seems to be something we encourage and even glorify, thinking it makes us more productive because we are doing more than one thing at once (we must be getting ahead faster, right?!), yet what the research has shown, is that in fact, this is not the case. Our brains are not meant to multitask (more than two tasks simultaneously). More specifically it has been found that multitasking can lead to increasing the likelihood of making more errors (Charron & Koechlin, 2010). It has also been suggested that the use of cell phones and electronic devices can have a negative impact on our ability to concentrate. In fact, it has been found that the mere presence of a cell phone can be distracting and interfere with one’s ability to concentrate contributing to decreased performance and even productivity at work or at school (Thorton et al. 2014).

Sleep disturbances

The use of electronic devices has also been found to interfere with the quality of our sleep. Young adults (between the ages of 20-24) who were self-reported heavy internet users were found to be at greater risk of disturbed sleep as well as of mental health problems (Thomee et al., 2012). Other studies have highlighted the fact that the use of light-emitting devices, such as e-readers before bed, can interfere with sleep (Chang et al., 2015).

Changes in mood

The use of electronic devices might also have an impact on our mood or perceived levels of stress. One research study examined the impact of work email in a population of engineers and found that time spent emailing for work can result in feeling overloaded, and induce feelings of stress, regardless of the work created by the emails received (Barley et al. 2011). Frequent mobile use has also been found to be associated with stress and sleep disturbance in young adult men (Thomee et al., 2011). Another study conducted by the International Center for Media and Public Agenda with a sample of 200 students from the University of Maryland found that when asked to abstain from using all media for 24 hours and share their experience, participants reported feeling very isolated, lonely, bored, uncomfortable and anxious. This suggests that we have become so dependent on our devices that when we are without them we feel uncomfortable because we are no longer used to having “empty time” and sitting with our thoughts, and the skills/habits to interact with our environment have become less habitual to us.

Overall, these research findings explored above consistently suggest that the use of electronic devices can have a negative impact on our relationships, our productivity, quality of sleep and even our mental health.

OK, so what can we do? 
**Note that I will be trying these techniques out myself as of today; who’s with me?!

Use our electronic devices with intention

Use our devices mindfully! For example, if you decide that you want to see what’s new with your friends on Facebook, try and plan beforehand how much time you want to devote to this activity and limit yourself. It’s easy to get caught up and lose track of time and find yourself spending longer than have expected or intended to online. There are also several apps that can help; for example: Self Control (allows you to program that your computer be offline for pre-set time intervals), RescueTime or Break Free (tracks your online activity to help create awareness about your use and then allows you to set goals to reduce online activity with the help of alarms, automatic messages, scheduled offline time, etc.). Simply turning off notifications or removing certain apps from your phone can help as well as it can reduce the temptation to check (we all have a limited source of willpower, right?!).

Find an alternative: do you need to use your phone for that?

Use a watch or an alarm instead of your phone to check the time (just picking up our phone makes it more likely that we will start checking other things mindlessly and get sucked into a dark hole!) Try using a camera to take pictures. If attending a social function or spending time in nature, rather than bring our phone along to take pictures, why not bring an actual camera?

Plan to unplug

Choose a regular time to unplug and disconnect from your phone. Perhaps you will choose to put your phone away when you get home from work until after the children are in bed and put your phone away an hour before your bedtime. Another option could be to try spending a weekend afternoon without access to your phone so you can be fully present during your activities. Apps such as Self Control or Digital Detox might help with this!

Remember, “Almost everything will work better if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you” (Anne Lammott). 


Andrea Martin 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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Barley, S.R., Meyerson, D., E., Grodal, S. (2011). E-mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science. Vol. 22(4): 887–906.

Brewer, Judson. (2014). Beware the Habit-Forming Brain. How to tame your constant cravings by getting to know your brain better. Mindful Magazine. December, 2014.

Chang, A.M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J.F., Czeisler, C.A. (2015).  Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proceedings of the National Institute of Science of the United States of America. Vol 112(4): 1232-7.

Charron, S., Koechlin, E. (2010). Divided Representation of Concurrent Goals in the Human Frontal Lobes. Science. Vol 328 (5976): 360-363.

CIBC Poll: Checked your smartphone recently? Canadian smartphone owners say they check their mobile device every 10 minutes on average. NewsWire. TORONTO, Feb. 4, 2014. See http://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/cibc-poll-checked-your-smartphone-recently-canadian-smartphone-owners-say-they-check-their-mobile-device-every-10-minutes-on-average-513665311.html

Elmore, Tim. (2012). The Unintended Consequences of Technology. https://growingleaders.com/blog/the-unintended-consequences-of-technology/

Przybylski, A.K., Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality 2013 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Vol 30(3): 237-245.

Thorton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, Vol 45(6): 479-488.

Thomee, S., Harenstam, Hagberg, M. (2011). Mobile phone use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults - a prospective cohort study. BMC Public Health, Vol 11: 66.

Thomee, S., Harenstam, A., Hagberg, M. (2012). Computer use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults--a prospective cohort study. BMC Psychiatry. Vol 12: 176.

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Choose Yourself While Respecting Others: The Whys and Hows of Assertiveness

Choose Yourself While Respecting Others: The Whys and Hows of Assertiveness

Good relationships undoubtedly have a positive impact on our mental and physical health (1). Yet we face many challenges in relationships, including how to balance our own needs and preferences with those of others. In other words, how do we accommodate and compromise with our friends, partners, family members, coworkers, etc. without putting aside our own needs? And how do we take care of our own needs without being a jerk to others? One extremely useful tool that will help us cultivate respectful and mutually fulfilling relationships is assertiveness! Assertiveness will help you respect yourself, respect others, and have better relationships!

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness starts from the basic premise that you are a person worthy of respect, and you have the right to a good life. If you have trouble being assertive, it may be a sign that you have low self-esteem, lack self-compassion, or struggle with social anxiety. For tips on improving your feelings of self-worth, check out my blog posts on the self-critical voice and my colleague Andrea’s blog post on Why Self-Compassion?

Assertiveness is a communication style that respects our own needs and preferences and balances them with the needs and preferences of others. It’s expressing our thoughts and feelings in a direct and respectful manner. It is not just about the words we use, but our tone and body language also help us communicate in an assertive manner.

If we’re not being assertive, we’re likely communicating in a non-assertive fashion (2) such as:

  • Passive: Putting others’ needs and preferences before our own.
  • Aggressive: Violating others’ rights and putting our own needs first.
  • Passive-aggressive: Acting aggressively but in an indirect way (e.g., slamming the door loudly, expressing hostility with backhanded comments).

Why Be Assertive?

1. Assertiveness is part of healthy self-esteem.

Research shows that self-esteem is correlated with assertiveness (3), and assertiveness training improves self-esteem (4). This makes sense because when being assertive, we are sticking up for ourselves, giving our needs and desires a voice. Just like if we were to stick up for a friend, by sticking up for ourselves we show our own self that we're worthy and valued. So “be your own friend” and make your voice heard! Even if it doesn’t “work”, in the sense that you don’t get what you want, you’ll likely feel better knowing that you stuck up for yourself.

2. Assertiveness is good for our psychological well-being.

 If we are often putting our needs and preferences second, accommodating others first, and not openly expressing our thoughts and feelings, we may end up feeling anxious about relationships, we may feel depressed and disconnected from others, and we may get resentful. Not fun!

3. Assertiveness is good for our relationships

Authenticity and feeling understood are key ingredients to strong connections and fulfilling relationships (5), and assertiveness gives us an effective way for our authentic selves to be heard and understood. If we are not assertive and don’t voice our needs and opinions, people close to us may feel like they really don’t know us, and they may wonder and worry about whether our words and actions represent our true interests and needs. If we’re assertive people are more likely to feel like they can trust us to take care of our own needs vs. having to guess what we want.

If we’re aggressive, on the other hand, people will lose respect for us and we may eventually lose friends and develop low self-esteem.

Obstacles for Assertiveness

1. Unhelpful Beliefs about Assertiveness.

Myth: Assertiveness is the same thing as aggression.

We may falsely believe that assertiveness is basically the same thing as aggression. If we’re not used to being assertive, assertiveness may feel like aggression. If this is the case for you, it’s helpful to remember the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. When we’re being assertive, we’re not only taking care of our own needs, but we’re being respectful of others. When we’re being aggressive, we are focusing solely on our own needs and disrespecting others.

Myth: It’s always more helpful and polite to put others’ preferences first.

We may believe that putting others’ needs and preferences first is the polite and helpful thing to do. We may have learned this belief growing up, from our parents or from other influences. In fact, being assertive can be helpful to others. When we’re assertive, others are more likely to feel like they know and understand us, and can trust us to take care of ourselves and our own boundaries (vs. feeling like they have to guess what we really want).

Myth: An assertive person has to be assertive in every situation.

Assertiveness is a helpful way of communicating in many situations, but there are always exceptions. For example, you’re riding the subway and a stranger begins making aggressive comments toward you. In situations like this, your personal safety is top priority and it would be wise to exit the situation as passively as possible or ask someone for help, rather than confronting the aggressive individual. Or, perhaps you have a boss who is consistently verbally abusive. Ideally you’d be able to quit your job, but in the meantime you might try “picking your battles”, especially if your assertiveness is often met with hostility. Don’t give up too easily on assertiveness though; sometimes it takes many tries before people respond constructively (or at least not destructively) to our assertive behaviour.

Myth: If you’re assertive you will get what you want.

It would be great if being assertive worked every time. Unfortunately, we cannot control other’s behaviour, so even if we are perfectly assertive, we may not get what we want. There are still many benefits to being assertive though even if we don’t get what we want, such as protecting our self-esteem by allowing our needs and preferences to be heard (2).

See Assert Yourself! Module 1: What is Assertiveness? for more!

2. Anxiety.

Anxiety exists to protect us, but sometimes it’s overly protective and our anxiety alarm starts going off when it doesn’t need to. In situations where we want to be assertive, our anxiety system may be telling us, “Don’t do it, you’ll make a fool out of yourself; you’ll damage your friendship; something bad will happen”, etc. Anxiety gets us to focus on the worst-case scenario while at the same time underestimating our ability to cope with difficult situations. Fortunately, there are plenty of effective ways to manage anxiety. Check out my blog post on anxiety for some tips. And try this simple yet helpful anxiety-reducing breathing hack

3. Skills deficit.

Assertiveness is a skill and like any other skill it takes practice. I’ve listed some assertiveness tips below. In addition, try to find an assertive role model in your social network, and ask them what their approach to assertiveness is. You might even take a class on communication, debating, or even improv! Try practicing out loud at home alone, or with a friend or a therapist. Remember to pay attention to your tone and posture.

4. Cultural and Generational Influences.

Western society tends to be more individualistic, meaning people are more likely to be motivated by their own needs and preferences, and prioritize them over the needs and preferences of the group. Other cultures value interdependence and relatedness more than individualism, and tend to view themselves as part of a whole, and are more motivated by norms imposed by the group and maintaining harmony (6). If you are living in a culture that values collectivism over individualism, you may want to weigh the pros and cons of living by these cultural values vs. being assertive.

Similarly, different generations, often older, may have been taught to defer to authority more, and women are more likely to have been taught that it is aggressive for a woman to firmly and directly state her needs and opinions.

How to Be More Assertive

1. Think more assertively and accept differences. Be honest with yourself. Check in with yourself and ask yourself, “What do I really want here?” “What is my own true opinion?” Being assertive means accepting that your opinion might be significantly different from those you care about, and accepting that in certain situations you are not willing to put your needs aside (7).

2. Practice non-verbal assertive behaviour

  • Use direct eye contact but avoid staring
  • Take an erect, open body stance
  • Practice receptive listening. Check out this wonderfully helpful video on being a good listener: Are You A Good Listener? 
  • Allow your facial expressions to represent how you feel (e.g., smile when content; frown when frustrated or angry)
  • Use a firm, relaxed voice; not overly loud or quiet.

3. Clearly express your wants, beliefs, opinions, feelings, etc. using “I” statements. Be specific, direct, and genuine.

  • “I want to discuss our vacation plans this evening.”
  • “I need to leave the house by 7am for an important appointment.”

4. Be empathic. When in a situation in which the person’s needs, preferences, etc. conflict with your own, be empathic, thereby communicating you are sensitive to their position and are trying to take their perspective.

  • “I understand it’s difficult for you to discuss these issues, but I believe it’s important we have this discussion so we can come up with possible solutions.”
  • "I can see that it’s a really busy time for you, however it would be helpful if you did your share of the household chores.”

5. Communicate negative feelings calmly. When we’re feeling hurt by or anger toward another person, it can be very difficult to communicate our negative feelings in a controlled manner. The goal is to communicate the undesirable effect of the other person’s behaviour is having on you in as calm of a tone as possible. You might want to practice this out loud on your own first.

  • “I find you often cut me off when we’re having a conversation, and I find myself feeling frustrated and not connected to you. I would really appreciate it if you gave me the space to finish my thought before cutting me off. I will try to let you know when it's happening in the moment.”

6. Be a Broken Record. If you have a great deal of difficulty being assertive, or are perhaps feeling really nervous and are having to express your negative feelings to someone who is particularly quick on their feet, you might try the broken record technique. This is simply repeating your assertive phrase over and over in a calm, controlled manner. This is helpful when the conversation is getting off topic, when the person you’re having the discussion with might be pressuring you or inappropriately causing you to question your needs, preference, feelings, etc.

  • Sandra: "I think we should go to the party tonight."
  • Johanna: "I can’t go to the party; I have to work in the morning."
  • Sandra: "It’s going to be really fun – let’s go! We’re only young once."
  • Johanna: "I have to work tomorrow. I’m not going to the party."
  • Sandra: "I thought you didn’t care that much about your work? I think this party should take priority."
  • Johanna: "I’m choosing to prioritize work and I won’t be going to the party tonight."

7. Use phrases that facilitate connection with the other person.

  • Co-operative phrases, e.g., “What are your thoughts on this?”; “How does that sound to you?”
  • Avoid “should” and “oughts” e.g., “How about…”.
  • Seek others’ opinions, e.g., “How does this fit in with your ideas?”
  • Explore other solutions together, e.g., “How can we get around this problem?”

8. Distinguish between fact and opinion.

  • “My experience is different than yours.” (FACT)
  • “You were 1 hour late today. I felt angry.” (FACT) vs. “Your lateness is a sign you don’t respect me.” (OPINION)

See Assert Yourself! Module 4: How To Behave More Assertively for more!


Assertiveness is the "super-food" of communication. It helps us feel more authentic, it aids our self-esteem, it allows us to connect more deeply with others, and it helps others know our boundaries, among other things. So if you’re struggling with assertiveness, I hope you’re able to give some of these tips a try and experience how assertiveness can help you.

*Please note that much of this info is taken from the Assert Yourself! modules from the Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) website. Thanks CCI for your awesome resources!


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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1) Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: Five-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and Aging, 25, 453– 463.

2) Assert Yourself! Module 1: What is Assertiveness? Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI). http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Assertmodule%201.pdf

3) Sarkova, M., Bacikova‐Sleskova, M., Orosova, O., Madarasova Geckova, A., Katreniakova, Z., Klein, D., ... & Dijk, J. P. (2013). Associations between assertiveness, psychological well‐being, and self‐esteem in adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(1), 147-154.

4) Stake, J. E., DeVille, C. J., & Pennell, C. L. (1983). The effects of assertive training on the performance self-esteem of adolescent girls. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 12(5), 435-442. 

5) Reis, H. T., & Shaver, P. (1988). Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships (pp. 367- 389). Chichester, England: Wiley.

6) Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism & collectivism. Westview press.

7) Assert Yourself! Module 4: How To Behave More Assertively. Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI). http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Assertmodule%204.pdf

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How to recognise if substance use is a problem for you:  the role of personality and coping

How to recognise if substance use is a problem for you: the role of personality and coping

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Have you ever wondered whether alcohol or drug use is a problem for you? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. Take some of characters we have come to know and love (or hate) in TV shows. In The Mindy Project and Grey’s Anatomy, the main characters deal with break-ups and fights by downing wine and tequila. However, no-one bats an eyelid and they then return to work the next day- no worse for wear. At times, Don Draper’s drinking is considered macho and even romantic in Mad Men- at least not out of the ordinary compared to those around him (although we do start to realise that he is having problems with alcohol use in later seasons). For others like Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad­) and Frank Gallagher (Shameless), it can seem clearer that substance use is getting in the way of them leading fulfilling lives- to say the least. But it’s not always that cut and dry. The upcoming legislation to legalise cannabis use across Canada this spring provides a good example of how public attitudes towards drug use can change over time. So how can we tell when substance use is problematic?

Some questions clients have asked me include: “What if I only smoke weed to relax in the evening?” “What if I only drink alcohol at parties to help me feel more confident?” “What if I only take cocaine if it’s a special occasion?... is there something wrong with that?”

What about you?

One of the main questions you may want to consider is: “Am I using alcohol or drugs to cope?” In other words: “Do I feel able to socialise/ have fun / relax/ feel sad/ be mad/ feel anxious/feel lonely without using alcohol or drugs?”

Some other questions to consider:

Has alcohol or drug use got in the way of my responsibilities, my relationships or my interests?

Do I feel bad or guilty about my alcohol or drug use?

Do people around me feel that my alcohol or drug use is a problem?

If the answer to some of these questions is yes, you may want to consider completing a self-assessment questionnaire regarding your level of substance use. 

Thinking about your personality- a way to understand substance use problems

Addiction is a complex and multi-faceted problem, and research has identified numerous factors that can increase an individual’s likelihood of having problems with substances. Interestingly, one of these factors is our personality. Four personality traits (sensation seeking, impulsivity, anxiety sensitivity and hopelessness) can be measured from as young as 12 years old using a measure called the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale, and a high level of any of these personality profiles is associated with a greater risk of experiencing substance use and mental health problems. Just to be clear: we all have a certain level of these personality traits. But high levels can be difficult to manage at times (e.g., think Mickey from Love, who experiences multiple difficulties related to impulsivity, including substance use). Our personalities are associated with the reasons in which we may choose to seek out alcohol or drugs. In other words, substance use can be a way that we cope with difficulties that may be related to our personalities. Individuals with high levels of anxiety sensitivity, for example, are particularly sensitive to the physical effects of anxiety (e.g., racing heart beat, muscular tension, restlessness, sweaty palms) and experience these physical sensations as unpleasant and worrying. Alcohol or drugs can be used to dampen those physical sensations and to feel less anxious in the moment. Somebody with high levels of sensation seeking, on the other hand, is prone to risk-taking behaviours in general, and may seek out the “high” or adrenaline rush associated with substances (e.g. to get a buzz in social situations). These individuals can have a lot of difficulty tolerating boredom, and substance use can become problematic when social situations do not feel interesting or fun enough without using alcohol or drugs. Several studies have shown that personality-targeted interventions can help to prevent and treat substance use problems, both with adolescents and adults.

Recognising barriers to treatment

If you are concerned about your substance use, my final point to you is: be compassionate towards yourself. Individuals with alcohol or drug use problems are known to have difficulty accessing treatment due to multiple factors, such as perceived stigma, concerns about what treatment might entail, feeling ambivalent about whether or not to deal with the problem and not feeling sufficiently supported to address the issue. Unfortunately, this means that many people lack the support that they need, and can spend many years struggling with substance use problems before seeking help. This may perpetuate the problem- check out this great TED talk discussing the fact that feeling disconnected from others and from society can drive addiction problems

Remember that help is available, and treatment does work. Multiple studies have shown that cognitive or dialectical behaviour therapy (CBT and DBT) are effective in addressing substance use problems, and provide individuals with a wider range of coping skills to manage difficult situations or emotions. You can read more about these approaches in Andrea, Michelle, Lisa and Natsumi’s blog posts.

So be kind to yourself, and do what’s best for you. If you are concerned about your substance use or mental health, please consult a mental health professional to discuss your treatment options.                                                         

Some addiction resources

Online alcohol help centre: http://camh.alcoholhelpcenter.net/

Centre de Readaptation en Dependance de Montreal (CRDM- previous known as the Centre Dollard Cormier): www.ciusss-centresudmtl.gouv.qc.ca/nos-installations/centre-de-readaptation-en-dependance

The Foster Addiction Rehabilitation Centre (CRD Foster): www.crdfoster.org


Maeve O'Leary-Barrett 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 @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Conrod, Stewart, Pihl, Cote, Fontaine & Dongier (2000). Efficacy of brief coping skills interventions that match different personality profiles of female substance abusers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 14(3), 231-242.

Pearson, Caryn, Teresa Janz and Jennifer Ali. 2013. “Mental and substance use disorders in Canada” Health at a Glance. September. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X. Retrieved from: www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-624-x/2013001/article/11855-eng.htm 

Rapp, Xu, Carr, Lane, Wang & Carlson (2006). Treatment barriers identified by substance abusers assessed at a centralized intake unit. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 30 (3): 227–235.

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