Fear and Its Effect on Relationships

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Fear isn’t just about physical danger. Emotional fear can look a lot like anger. But relationships do not thrive in anger or fear.

People who behave with fear, generate fear in others. People who behave with love, generate love in others.

Think about your relationships. Is there someone (…you?) who is behaving with fear? What are the effects of that behavior?

Healthy relationships are built on emotional safety, honesty and trust. Does your shame and fear cause you to punish those in your life for expressing emotional honesty? Will they continue to be honest with you if they fear your response? Emotional intimacy will suffer as they pull away from you and your shame-based and fear-based tactics.

Parents:  If you are yelling and shaming your children, you are generating fear in them. If your children yell, are oppositional and harm others, if is clear proof they are learning in an environment of fear not love.

If you function in a fearful mode, ask yourself: What are you afraid of? Rejection and abandonment? Exposing vulnerability and weakness? Failure and self-doubt? Shame and guilt?

What would happen if you loved yourself instead of got angry at yourself? What if you completely accepted yourself and others, rather than reacted with shame, fear and anger?

 

Anger: A Sign of Fear of Conflict

I had a patient describe her husband as someone who bites his tongue for days about an issue, then becomes angry at her out of the blue.

I said: “Oh, he is afraid of conflict,” and she looked at me quizzically.

“But he gets angry and we fight. He seems to like conflict.”

“Yes, it may look like that on the surface. But, first he tried hard to avoid a fight by biting his tongue and not saying things. Then he blew up, perhaps in an attempt to avoid future fights by teaching you to not confront him. Overall, this tells me he is very uncomfortable with conflict.”

Avoid or attack are two common communication and relationship strategies people use. But when I see this dichotomy it signals to me that this person is afraid of conflict. If he fears conflict he will do everything he can to avoid it — either by directly avoiding it or by attacking others to keep them from confronting him.

Someone who is comfortable with direct, assertive, forthright conversations can have those interactions without behaving in either extreme — avoidance or aggressive attacking.

Assertiveness is not a skill many people are comfortable with, perhaps because they did not learn it as a child from their parents. Many people learned and had modeled for them those unhealthy extremes of avoid and attack. Perhaps as children they were raised by parents who attacked them via criticism, judgment or lack of warmth and connection.

Assertiveness, however, can be very healthy for relationships. The assertive person gets to speak her mind and feel heard in a healthier way than automatic submission or dominance. The person hearing the truth may get a lesson in self-awareness that can lead to improved behaviors in the long run. The relationship itself is healthier because thoughts are expressed appropriately and promptly, not held in, leading to resentment, or vented in dysregulated anger.

Assertiveness may seem to go against our natural human instinct to avoid conflict. Getting along with others is a prosocial, adaptive skill that helped assure our survival in tribal days. But while social hierarchies can be greased in the short term with submission and dominance, in the long term it is a healthy boundary established with prompt assertiveness that is essential for healthy relationships.

Lack of Assertiveness & Relationship Problems

When one or both members of a relationship have a lack of assertiveness it can lead to relationship problems.

In the short term, not speaking up may feel like a good solution. Unassertive people have good intentions: “If I don’t say anything negative or speak up, it will keep the peace.”

But in the long term it leads to problems for the relationship and for the unassertive person.

When one fails to establish boundaries and state a clear opinion, it certainly communicates to the partner that the Submissive person is giving way to the more Dominant partner, as I explain in “Pack Leader Psychology.” The Dominator may then take advantage of the Submissive person in unhealthy ways, perhaps even abuse.

Often a lack of assertiveness is learned in childhood, perhaps from parents who were also unassertive, or from parents who were dominating, emotionally or physically abusive or intrusive.

Children who experience either end of this parenting spectrum. learn that assertiveness is unsafe. Kids of abusive parents learn to lay low and avoid being any “trouble” and stirring up problems. Unassertive parents model relationships that are based on fear of disapproval and fear of conflict. Clearly, neither pattern is healthy for adult relationships.

The helplessness and disempowerment that accompany a lack of personal assertiveness is also unhealthy for the individual, often leading to anxiety and/or depression. When a person feels weak, this can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, as the person feels unable to manage even the most non-threatening of situations.

This leads directly to feelings of anxiety or fear/stress response. It can eventually lead to depressive feelings as the person gives up (“fold” response to fear) and numbs out the feelings of anxiety that are overwhelming.

Unassertive people also are likely to have low self-worth, which in and of itself can also lead to anxiety. Internal messages of shame and blame trigger the “fight-or-flight” feeling in the brain and body.

In relationships, if a person is not speaking up about her needs, her spouse may also sense her distance and also pull away emotionally and/or physically. This leaves her feeling emotionally alone, which can also trigger the fear response.

It’s a perfect storm of emotional problems all started with good intentions, but ending in many personal and interpersonal difficulties.

When in doubt, speak up!

What Type of Person Never Admits to Needing Therapy?

It is a truism in psychotherapy that those who actually should be attending therapy are the ones who rarely find their way into treatment.

In “Pack Leader Psychology” I categorized personalities into three types: Dominators, Submissives and Avoiders. Dominators are the types most likely to need therapy yet also least likely to seek treatment. However, the behavior of Dominators is also the most likely to send others into therapy.

Scratch the surface of anyone in therapy for common problems such as depression or anxiety or ADHD and you’ll usually find a Submissive or Avoider whose life has been made difficult by a Dominator.

This shows up in predictable ways such as:

  • a child with an intrusive, opinionated “helicopter parent” who develops behavioral problems or school attention problems due to the parent’s anxiety and over-control
  • a spouse who has been controlled, threatened or even abused by a partner and who is experiencing nervousness, anxiety and insomnia
  • a family member frustrated with a sibling who is attention-seeking, dramatic, and can never be wrong about anything
  • a spouse who believes she has to submit to her husband who argues about everything and cannot back down in a fight

Submissives and Avoiders come to therapy to find ways to cope with the Dominators in their lives. While I can certainly help these patients, especially by helping them be more assertive, my effectiveness is limited because the person who really needs therapy is not in the room.

I actually would love to require that everyone come to therapy WITH the person who is the source of their problems. That would really help the process along! All psychology is about human relationships, after all.

But getting Dominators to show up in therapy or stay in therapy for the long haul is the trick. Because of their strong reluctance to admit any faults, Dominators have great difficulty admitting that they might need therapy or might need to address any personal deficits.

Dominators can’t admit fault because they experience high levels of shame and, as a result, have great difficulty being accountable for their behavior. Challenge them on a mistake and they will lash out at others rather than take the blame.

Of course, if the Dominator were in therapy we could dig deeper and look at their insecure attachments to parents in their childhood to explain this self-protective behavior, but…

This leaves Submissives and Avoiders to seek help to address their own emotional problems that often developed as a result of the Dominator’s behavior. If the Dominator is “always right and never wrong” this sows chaos in the lives of those around them.

While Dominators are reluctant to accept blame, Submissives tend to be very self-blaming. These people-pleasers have learned to default to thoughts of self-criticism. Even if they have been treated terribly by a Dominator, perhaps abused physically or emotionally, Submissives may dismiss feelings of resentment or anger because they “shouldn’t feel that way.” The disconnect between the obvious reality of the Dominator’s inappropriate behavior and dismissal of the Submissive’s true emotions leads to confusion and a loss of authenticity or sense of self. Anyone would be anxious or depressed in that situation!

If you know someone who lacks accountability, does not like to be proven wrong, can’t apologize and hates criticism, you probably know a Dominator.

When I gently point out some behavior patterns in their lives, patients often come to the obvious conclusion themselves, saying: “Sounds like my wife/dad/sister is the one who should be in therapy.” Yep!

Are Gadgets Killing Self-Awareness?

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I heard a snippet of an interview on NPR tonight with a man who believes that the extensive use of gadgets is leading to a lack of creativity. He thinks that creativity requires quiet time to think and that the constant distraction by electronic media may lead to fewer moments of inspiration.

Of course, many commentators have noted that kids growing up today, with their faces interacting with screens and not with other people, will likely lack interpersonal skills and fail to develop essential emotional connections with others. It is shocking to me to watch a line full of people at a coffee shop who cannot spend 60 seconds waiting for their latte without letting go of their phone. God forbid they actually make small talk with the person in front of them.

image0093968Studies have shown that just having a short conversation with others can help a person feel connected and can improve mood. Even prosaic comments about the weather or the long line can make us feel we are part of a shared experience, and can affirm our sense of belonging, even if it is just to the tribe that waits in long lines at coffee shops on snowy days. We are not so different, you and me.

But if we never share vents about the snow storm or pleasantries about the excellent espresso, how do we remind ourselves that we are similar? How do we feel attached and experience the universality of experience that is human existence? Without reminders of our human alikeness, we may start to believe we are different. And different equals alone. And alone can equal depressed or anxious or insecure based on thoughts of self-judgment and shame.

But the big problem that I would like to address with this over-focus on cell phones is that it may lead to a lack of self-awareness or mindfulness.

Being able to observe and gain control over thoughts and feelings is mindfulness. In mindfulness, we learn that just because we feel an emotion or have a thought does not mean we have to react to it or believe it.

However, it seems that repeatedly and automatically reaching for a gadget in response to a ping will teach us the opposite: I am a automaton to this device and to my emotionally needy search for social affirmation through it.

As with creativity, self-awareness needs stillness. To be mindful, we cannot have a mind full of distraction. Inner peace is not learned by being constantly distracted and pulled out of our centeredness and into our gadgets, especially if those gadgets bring messages of social drama, social rejection, and social shaming. If every 30 seconds an email pings up or a social media “like” pops up with its red number, when are we going to have time to just “be?” To merely be quiet in mind, perhaps also in body. To allow our thoughts to settle, our fears to recede, and our inherent peaceful calm to surface.

Seated, silent meditation can be a wonderful tool to gain mindfulness and stillness. But I am a big fan of integrating mindfulness and self-awareness into micro-moments during one’s day.

If after you meditate the remaining 23 hours plus of your day is spent in impulsive, thought-less reactivity to a machine, that seems as if it may undo what value the seated meditation brought to you. Contemplatives know that ideally we bring self-awareness and calm to our entire lives.

One of the tests of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence is the ability to be alone. Alone with our selves and our thoughts. That means alone without the interference of a gadget to distract us from that aloneness.

Put down the device. Connect with others, connect with your creativity, connect with yourself, connect with your self.