One of my favorite books, by Dr. Eric Berne, discusses in detail three ego states people transition throughout their daily experiences. These ego states are simplified as adult ego state, parent ego state and the child ego state. For clarity, I will define each of these states as their definitions bare importance for the title of this post.
The adult ego state can be defined as an objective state of consciousness. It is in this mind state that we can see things for what they are, without any assigned meanings or interpretations, (think Data from star trek). The parent ego state can be defined as a moralistic state of consciousness, it is from this state of consciousness that we pass judgement on the behaviors of ourselves and others. Finally, the child ego state can be defined as primal/emotional state of consciousness. It is from this state that we seek to get our emotional needs of acceptance, recognition, love, respect and autonomy met.
Now, you may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with handling hostility? Simple, the best way to handle hostility is from the adult ego state. This is because, in this mindset, you are not taking things personally, you have both your parent and child ego states in check and you win. The aggressor is not successful in getting you upset and gives up.
This video, shows the me using demonstrating the adult mindset in action.
Now getting yourself in the adult ego state is easier said than done, even If you know you will be dealing with hostility in a future interaction. While I respect and deeply appreciate the work of Dr. Berne, nothing compares to cognitive behavioral therapy. This is because the best way to handle hostility comes from a revaluation and reordering of your belief system. For example, if you know you are headed into a hostile situation, it would be a great time to challenge your beliefs regarding your interactions with others.
If done properly, you will always arrive at an objective belief that states something to the effect that while hostility from others is not preferred, you can choose to not take it personally and focus on more healthier relationships. The process of addressing your beliefs forces you to simultaneously address your beliefs about morals and values (parent ego state) and how you get your emotional needs met, (child ego state.)
The strange thing about the parent ego state is that is that it is often wrong and only right when you encounter someone who shares the same morals and values with you. A popular example would be religion, specifically, religious rules on human behavior. Your morals are often going to be validated by someone of the same faith as you, while disregarded by someone else who does not share your faith. An objective reevaluation of your belief system will reveal that if someone’s behavior does not involve harm to someone else, then there are no issues. Further, even if someone’s behavior does involve harm to another person, the best course of action is to aid the person harmed, rather than attack the person doing the harming.
There is an NBA player, who I believe is on the spectrum. For people who are not knowledgeable with spectrum related issues, this guy may appear to be an all or nothing kind of player. One minute he is making and following through with picture perfect plays, the next minute he has unintentionally made himself the butt of a meme joke. I can tell that he is on the spectrum, because he works hard to hide his social oddities during interviews. A skill he will most likely perfect as time goes on. This is common among people on the spectrum, due to a marked difficulty in a being able to read and interpret nonverbal cues. “It’s hard for you to mimic something you don’t notice.”
One common issue people with Asperger or ASD diagnosis struggle with is perfectionism. This becomes an issue because of years of experience in trying to learn set of rules to compensate for the lack of intuitive rapport neurotypical people have in reading nonverbal cues. An unintended consequence of this is developing a subconscious tendency to be perfect. This is because the person on the spectrum has become accustomed and resistant towards critical feedback from others regarding how he isn’t doing most things to standard. So, to prevent any more critical feedback, the person takes an all or nothing approach to life. They are either doing it to perfection or not at all.
As you can imagine, perfectionism kills motivation, as the perfectionist becomes easily overwhelmed by the nuts and bolts of the intended activity he is required or desires to perform. So, in the absence of clarity, nothing gets done.
Overcoming perfectionism, is a process of coming to peace with rejection, real or perceived. Specifically, it is about coming to peace with rejection from yourself. You see, rejection from others is an illusion, as we are often not privy to the intents fueling the actions or words of others. So, if someone rejects you, you really don’t know why, unless that person is tells you and you believe them. It boils down to if you are at peace with the rejection in of itself. Being at peace with rejection, means that you often regard yourself unconditionally in a positive light. So, if the rejection is real and warranted, you don’t come to see yourself as a bad person but instead you see the situation as a learning experience.
Developing this mindset, requires a lot of effort and practice, but will help you move past the stuck mindset perfectionism creates in people. For clients I have worked with, who have made steady progress in overcoming their issues with perfectionism, they find themselves more motivated to get things done, and they find themselves doing things more quickly. It is not to suggest that minimum standards for activities be ignored, but is more to highlight the joy of liberation people experience when they allow others to be themselves towards them.
I once worked with a client, who upon anticipating that she was about to lose her job, started putting money away, payed her car notes and rent six months the in advance, and then mentally prepared herself for the storm to come.
In fairness, she had good reason to suspect she might lose her job, and all indications suggested that she was a very competent professional. I then introduced her to an exercise, in which she used her imagination to prepare for a positive experience. For example, a new job she better enjoyed with much better pay. While this exercise caught her off guard, she pleasantly surprised herself in learning that the steps she would take to prepare for this opportunity, where realistic and beneficial towards getting that job she wanted.
It is easy to focus on our daily struggles or major events in our lives not going our way, and it may seem like the right thing to do. “I have this problem, so therefore, if I focus on how best to deal with the problem it will go away.” But this doesn’t work like that, focusing on a problem only turns your attention to more of the problem, which only makes the problem more of your everyday life. The solution is the focus more on the opposite of the problem, or more specifically a desired outcome you wish to experience, followed by realistic measures by which to realize that desire.
Take for example, you live on island A, you are sick and tired of living on island A, so you go into a travel agent’s office and you inform said agent that you are sick and tired of living on island A and you want out. Naturally, the travel agent is going to ask you; “where would you like to go?” Instead of giving a desired destination, you shrug your shoulders and state, I don’t know, and continue your rant about how much you are done living on island A.
Then consider the second scenario, where you walk into the travel agent’s office, with the intent of removing yourself from island A. However, instead of lamenting how much you don’t like living on island A, you ask specifically for a plane or ship ticket to island B. Out of curiosity, the travel agent may ask you why you want to travel to island B, and you respond that you have heard so much good things about island B that you want to go and experience these good things for yourself.
This is how best to approach your problems, acknowledge them for what they are, and identify a realistic alternative to the experience. Then come up with a plan to realize this new experience. With this technique, you are not and never will be in denial about things not going your way, you will simply be taking radical steps in your life to surround yourself with the preferred reality you wish to experience.
One of the primary issues faced by people on the Autism spectrum and those with Asperger syndrome, is coping with feelings of being overwhelmed. These issues often start in childhood, as early as a year old, when children who become easily overwhelmed instinctively react by trying to shield themselves from exposure to excess stimuli. Parents of children on the spectrum can easily relate to stories of children who cover their ears with their hands in response to everyday sounds they perceive as loud and stressful. As the child ages, the coping skills for shielding oneself from excess exposure to environmental stimuli becomes even more subtle but the consequences are the same.
By environmental stimuli, I mean people, places and things which produce overwhelming feelings for the person, causing the person’s desire to retreat to safety until it’s safe again. The consequences are often themed with unfinished work, projects and poorly developed relationships with others. This often leads to unwanted isolation and a lifestyle marked by underachievement.
The solution is easy to understand, challenging to implement and well worth the effort. The solution is to do nothing in response to feelings of being overwhelmed. By doing nothing, you are choosing not to be reactive to your feelings of being overwhelmed, which is to engage in a series of behaviors to prevent yourself from experiencing the emotions you need to experience. Regardless of the specifics of what you do, your being reactive will be an attempt to control, manipulate and/or change your reality to manage your feelings.
Instead, by choosing to do nothing, you are allowing yourself the opportunity to experience the range of emotions you need to feel. Your challenge is to simply accept these emotions for what they are without being reactive. By choosing not to be reactive, you are beginning the process of deactivating your fight or flight response pattern, thereby opening access to your solution focused mind. When people choose to stop responding to their feelings of overwhelm fueled by their fears and worries, they become more insight driven and solution focused.
To the outside observer, who isn’t aware of the changes taken place inside the person, they will often observe someone who is behaving more courageous in their daily affairs. In fact, the person is behaving more courageous, as they are now in the practice of looking past their fears and worries and seeing their issues for the mere inconveniences they really are instead of catastrophes.
In my practice, it is a natural reaction for a client to listen to my take on doing nothing in response to feelings of overwhelm, and then responding with an example of a catastrophe they recently experienced in their life. Often, in processing these incidents with them, it is revealed that said catastrophe began as an inconvenience, which they poorly reacted to, thereby worsening the situation.
Catastrophes do happen in life, whether as an initial incident, or as an incident made worse from an overreaction. Regardless, the most effective response to feelings of being overwhelmed, is to accept the situation for what it is, and accept your feelings for what they are. Once this is achieved, only then can you begin to take a solution focused response.
The process of doing nothing to feelings of overwhelming stress and anxiety, is something that takes quite a bit of effort for a first timer. Specifically, there are evidenced based cognitive behavioral strategies, like the ones found in this CBT workbook, “Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks: A Workbook for Managing Depression and Anxiety,” by Seth J Gillihan PhD.
A person can study and practice these strategies on their own, or with an experienced therapist.
The number one cause for hopelessness is living a lie. This lie is usually a narrative you were raised to believe in from a very young age and thus your brain over the years has become wired to look for signs and signals that support your belief in this false narrative, leading you to make daily decisions which support this lie.
The problem with lies is that when we make decisions, or attempt to solve problems based on a lie, (aka problems that don’t exist) nothing changes. Take for example, there was once a young man who was being treated by his family physician for irritable bowel syndrome. During treatment, his condition remained the same for a long time and then took a turn for the worse. It was only when things got worse, that the young man explained to his doctor that he had been abusing laxatives, as part of his diet plan. Now that the doctor and the young man where no longer making decisions based on a false narrative, they could get him the appropriate help he needed for abstaining from laxatives.
This story is a concrete example about how we spin our wheels when we attempt to live our lives on false narratives. A false narrative is a logical fallacy, where the solutions we attempt to apply to our perceived problems make sense, if only the foundation were true. In the story shared in the previous paragraph, only the doctor was in the dark about what was the true cause of the problem. Perhaps some might argue the young man to some degree was also in the dark because he might not have made a connection between his use of laxatives and his stomach issues. Most people who experience hopelessness have no clue that they are attempting to live a lie.
They feel hopeless about their situations, because they have reached the conclusion the path they are taking is the only sure way of getting their needs met. It’s like someone who believes that he can walk through a wall, and repeatedly bangs his head against the wall with the expectation that the wall will eventually give in. Eventually, the person gives up, slums against the wall while massaging a wounded head. Hopelessness feels the same way, you keep tackling the same problem with solutions that make sense, but to no avail. Eventually you begin to lose faith in yourself, and when you see others whom you perceive are doing a great job in getting their needs met, you begin to see yourself as a failure and you start to develop a pessimistic view about your ability to thrive in life.
But what if the problem, or set of problems you have been desperately attempting to tackle, have never been the true issue at all? What if your core beliefs are foundationally based on myths? If you struggle with feelings of hopelessness, then this is good news. It means that there are other ways for you to get your needs met, but first you must go through great pains to revise your beliefs.
Most people who are genuinely lost in regards to where to start in revising their belief systems, would benefit a great deal from a seasoned therapist, who can guide them in addressing all aspects of their lives.
I knew of a gentleman, an old friend, he is deceased now. Years ago, before he passed away, he was well known between circles as being obnoxious and aggressive. Then there was an incident in which he and I received unfair treatment from a professor. As I engaged the professor to engage to rectify the situation, I noticed that my friend was unusually quiet. As the disagreement between the professor and I intensified, my friend became even more uncharacteristically meek.
In the years that followed, I have seen this phenomenon repeat itself several times with different people. Heck, it appears that the more boisterous they present themselves, the more likely they are to respond passively during a serious conflict.
Now why is this?
With clients, I have worked with over the years, who display this phenomenon, one thing they all have in common is an emotionally abusive and sometimes physically abusive past. This is not to imply that anyone who experiences an abusive past will grow up to be pretentious, but those who are pretentious about being tough, almost certainly do have an abusive past. The reason for this behavior is due to the manner the person learned to interpret conflicts as a child. Specifically, for those who engage in pretentious behavior, these people came to the unfortunate conclusion that they were ill equipped to cope with conflicts. Thus, the obnoxious and aggressive behavior is an adaptation to ward off would be bullies and abusers.
This technique may have served its purpose during their childhood, however in adulthood, they run into the inevitable of having to deal with people intent on provoking conflicts with them and others. The problem with people who are pretentious in regards to the attitude they put on, is that in their private lives they habitually run away from conflicts. Examples of issues they deal with are, failure to stand up for themselves, on the job, in their personal lives and failure to protect their children from abusive situations.
I once witnessed a father threaten his daughter, after she confronted him for not protecting her from an abusive situation during her adolescent years. It is interesting that he felt comfortable with saying the things he said to her, even though he never addressed the poor treatment his daughter received with her aggressors. In truth, he lashed out the way he did, because he was ashamed and it was too painful for him to hear about how he had failed his daughter.
The good news, is that there a solution towards becoming more courageous and it has nothing to do with putting on an aggressive act. The solutions are a three-step method and is as follows:
- Calmly address the offending behavior by the other party.
- Listen carefully for a possible explanation, or a refusal to explain.
- Calmly state what actions you are going to take if the behavior continues.
In this video, I demonstrate with a colleague how to use verbal judo, in which I carefully integrate the three steps.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and that’s because issues of incompetency highlighted by feelings of intense fear will come up for some people who use this technique. A solution to this would be practice beforehand with a situation that you just experienced.
For example, let’s say you experienced a conflict with a supervisor, where you became tongue tied due to a fear of being let go. Write out the incident as it happened and document your feelings every step of the way. The goal for this exercise is to document how you reacted to each feeling and then document how you would have preferred to have responded to the feelings. Finally, you are going to practice visualizing yourself giving your preferred response to each feeling.
You should practice exercise at least once a day, to trigger the process of neuroplasticity. For best results, I would suggest working one on one with a cognitive behavioral therapy.
Most of the clients I treat for anger management describe themselves as terrible people. Furthermore, they are often described as bullies by their family members and those who are close to them. Typically such a description will come from a spouse who will call in to schedule an appointment on their behalf.
In getting to know these clients, overwhelmingly men, I find that they are typically overwhelmingly nice. To a point where they are inconsistent in setting for themselves healthy boundaries with other people. In close relationships this becomes a problem as the person seldom addresses naturally occurring conflicts with the other person or persons. This leads to stuffing of feelings and chronic pretentiousness in the relationship, until the person can no longer keep his feelings bottled up, the next stage is the angry outburst. In severe cases, particular crisis fueled episodes, the angry person habitually engages in bouts of angry outbursts with strangers.
To others who witness these outbursts, based on their feelings of confusion and feelings of being upset, they come to see the “angry” person as a bully or mentally unstable at worst. Meanwhile the person who engaged in the angry outburst is burdened by feelings of guilt and shame and will typically resolve to double down on his commitment to being the nicest person possible. Unfortunately this plays out as the person failing to exercise assertiveness skills leading to little or no boundaries being set. This then sets the stage for a new cycle where the person habitually stuffs his feelings, bottles up resentment before deciding that he can no longer put up with perceived disrespect. For people in close relationships with these people, it could feel that the angry outbursts are unpredictable, when it fact they are very predictable.
At the beginning of therapy for poor anger management, the person is first introduced to exercises for recognizing his difficult feelings. He is then introduced to cognitive strategies for recognizing and responding appropriately to his difficult feelings.
The core of addressing poor anger management skills is to address the core beliefs of the chronically “angry” person which influence his episodes of anger. For example, with someone who has difficulty exercising healthy boundaries in his relationships with others, it will be important to determine what beliefs he holds unto which prevent him from setting healthy boundaries.
It could be a belief about how he communicates with others, or it could be a belief about how he sees himself, these are just two examples of a variety of possible beliefs a person could hold unto. For example, I once had a client share with me that he viewed expressing his disagreement at work and at home as a form of complaining. He then further stated that he saw complaining as a form of being weak minded.
Whatever belief he is holding unto, is going to be an irrational belief. Put simply, irrational beliefs are beliefs which are not true, but feel true to the person who holds unto them. For example, a belief which states that “no one should curse at me,” is a belief which feels true, because people generally don’t like to be cursed at, but is an irrational belief because we have no control over the words of others.
Once an irrational belief has been identified, a healthier alternative is chosen for the person to adopt, along with cognitive behavioral strategies for internalizing the new belief. The process of practicing new beliefs produces a paradigm shift in how the person’s sees the world around him and subsequently how he interacts with others.
For those who are successful in adopting and implementing new healthier beliefs, family members and others close to them come to see them as more genuine, confident and compassionate.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.
Hopelessness is a dangerous feeling to experience, this is because once feelings of hopelessness begin to set and fester, people start reconsidering their existence. When clients share suicidal thoughts and feelings with me, I have responded by asking them if they have left “no stones unturned.” Leave no stones unturned is an old figure of speech for searching and exploring all possibilities before considering another alternative. For example, if you lost your keys and you strongly suspect it is in your house. To leave no stone unturned would be that you thoroughly search your house before considering a search at another location.
So if you are experiencing bouts of hopelessness, and you are contemplating your existence, to leave no stone unturned means that you thoroughly explore every possibility to address your situation. In my fifteen years of counseling there are always several things people have not considered, and when they do consider and follow through, their lives improve.
In truth, nothing is worth ending your life over, I have counseled people who experienced feelings of hopelessness over the death of a loved one, people who received a medical diagnosis which changed their lives, breaking up with a romantic partner, experiencing a significant loss of wealth and not experiencing success or loss in reacquiring wealth. In all of these examples there were three recurring reasons which induced feelings of hopelessness. These reasons were all connected to the beliefs and values of the persons, mainly their relationships with these beliefs and values. Given that most of what we believe comes from our formative years, sometimes without realizing it, we sometimes enmesh our old beliefs with our sense of identity. Which makes it even more difficult for us to reconsider revising the beliefs we hold. So, the reasons people struggle with hopelessness are as follows.
Grief and Loss
The loss of a loved one can be an especially painful experience, particularly when that person passed away before his or her elderly years. However, grief and loss is not limited to the loss of a loved one, it also deals with the loss of income, the loss of a relationship, the loss of perceived status, and the list goes on.
I have noticed the pain of grief and loss is especially unbearably for parents who have lost children. In cases where this was the only child or first child of the person, the grief appeared to be so unbearable that they had almost stopped functioning in their daily lives. The loss was a situation they never contemplated and refused to accept. I have never been a fan of the stages of grief model, which involve denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This is because the first four stages typically occur together, and what keeps the person from coming to a place of acceptance are the beliefs they hold in relation to the grief. So if I am working with a client who lost her only child, and she continues to repeat that a parent should never bury a child, the statement is a testament to what she believes, which is keeping her sick. In truth, it is a sad day when a parent buries a child, but the statement, “a parent should never have to bury a child is false,” because there is no force or entity that can guarantee the prevention of such a tragedy. In truth this client can come to peace and make a new meaning of her life, even though the pain from the loss might never go away.
Pride may seem like an odd reason, but I rank pride as number two on my list because it is very common. Human beings are innately wired to function in a hierarchal structure, this means for most people who are not aware of this, from the cars they drive, to the clothes they wear, a certain level of status within a micro and macro hierarchal system is being communicated. For those who are not aware of this, and for those who are aware of this and cherish it, when there is a loss of status, due to changes in the person’s life, a sense of hopelessness can set it. This sense of hopelessness is often due to a set of beliefs which state that the person can exist and function in no other state other than the previous state he had grown accustomed to. This is called pride, so in maintaining consistency with the term, leave no stone unturned, an effective solution would be for the person to explore what it would be like to actually live his or herself without his perceived status enhancer.
People don’t like doing hard or difficult things, especially when the prospect of engaging in a difficult task does not guarantee any favorably outcomes. For example, a gold digger is less likely to dig for gold in an area where there is no evidence for gold. Or a high school senior is less likely to apply to attend a college or university if he or she does not believe that a college degree would be beneficial in their life. Given that change is a constant in our lives, it is inevitably that we will all come to crossroads in our lives where we have to consider committing too hard and difficulty work in the hopes of an outcome that improves our lives. If the work is hard and time consuming and the reward is not guaranteed, this can be discouraging to some people and influence the onset of hopelessness. A solution to this would be to explore the belief of promised or guaranteed outcomes. In truth, nothing is guaranteed, however the work we put in helps to add meaning and purpose to our lives, as well as experience.
Hopelessness can be overcome; it is a matter of moving past our difficult feelings and revisiting the messages we have come to believe.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC