Posts Tagged 'Communication'

From Cyberspying to Defriending: How Facebook Wreaks Relationship Mischief

Read my new blog post on Psychology Today by clicking the link below!

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-novel-perspective/201110/cyberspying-and-defriending-how-facebook-is-finding-its-way-the-th

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Character Development: The Heart of Any Story Worth Living

A friend of mine who’s had a disproportionate number of struggles in her 45 years on earth, bristles whenever I try to comfort her by espousing the virtues of character development. “Great, another f-ing personal growth experience,” she says.

While I completely empathize, I sometimes wonder whether we can ever really know how much character-building is too much. From Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Jung, to the Vilna Goan, many philosophical and spiritual luminaries have subscribed to the belief that adversity cultivates character, challenging the forces of  inertia so that we may face a fear, strengthen emotional muscle, eradicate self-defeating thoughts, or break an unhealthy relationship pattern.

Personally speaking, character development is why I became a psychotherapist. It is also one of the reasons I go to the movies or pick up a book – I want to witness personal transformation, and be transformed in the process. I want to help the chronically timid woman discover previously untapped reserves of strength and courage. I want to read about the political refugee who finds salvation in friendship and small, meaningful acts of humanity.

Unfortunately, character development doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Life typically presents us with circumstances that bump up against our rougher edges. These circumstances, which we might call conflicts, present us with opportunities to refine these growth edges or run the risk of becoming, well…even edgier.

Of course, no one ever consciously desires conflicts. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them, the fight-or-flight response being hard-wired into our DNA. However, in the world of novels and film, not ony do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize, consciously or not, that they are an important part of any story worth telling.

As many of us recall from high school English class, conflict is a basic element of a story that results from the interaction between the protagonist (the main character) and the antagonist, typically a person (boss), group of people (government), situation (hurricane) or personal shortcoming (addiction).

Conflicts in novels and films shape the plot and move the story forward, presenting the main character with opportunities to overcome inner obstacles, potentially leading to epiphanies, life lessons, and psychological rebirth.

Just like in novels, the chapters of our lives often present us with opportunities to strengthen areas within ourselves that haven’t been fully developed. In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to explore through writing character traits that might be cultivated through a conflictual encounter with an antagonist in a recent episode of their personal narrative.

I tell participants that “conflict” can be interpreted literally as a person who is giving them grief, or as loosely as ambivalence about making an important decision. Once they have identified their antagonist, I encourage them to imagine how the conflict with their antagonist might help them develop personal strengths in areas where they haven’t historically felt so strong.

For example, a successful executive with a history of being judgemental about the less fortunate may, upon losing his job, find himself developing a greater degree of compassion for himself and for others. Similarly, a newly divorced woman who took a passive role in her relationship with an alcoholic spouse may need to become assertive to move forward in life and secure the welfare of her children.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of of the situation whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with  introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice. This new awareness can transform our personal narratives into paeans to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, reminding us that character development is not only the heart of any story worth reading, but also worth living.

Feeling Stuck? It’s Just a Chapter, Not Your Life Story

Every life is an unfolding story with plot twists and bright spots. When people become depressed, it is usually because they mistake one or more difficult chapters in their lives for the entire plotline, and fail to embrace lessons that can help them move their story forward.

Take the 2006 Blockbuster, “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The true rags-to-riches film chronicles exactly 28 chapters in the life of Chris Gardener, a suddenly single father who battles homelessness and ridiculous odds to earn a coveted entry-level position at a major San Francisco brokerage firm. The genius of this film is that 27 of the chapters, wrapped into gritty little headings like “Locked Out,” “Being Stupid,” and “Riding the Bus,” are about the “Pursuit” part of the equation. Only the last chapter, as the narrator points out, is entitled “Happiness.”

If Mr. Gardener had gotten stuck in one of these chapters, misinterpreting his temporary difficulties as a never-ending story of struggle and victimization, he may have failed to muster the courage and resilience to succeed. Consequently, the film might have been called “Giving Up,” and its message – that the seeds of happiness are often sown with toil – would have been lost.

Of course, it’s so much easier to accept the meaning of difficult chapters and heart-wrenching scenes when it’s happening to someone else, and we’re virtually assured of a positive outcome.

In my workshop series, Writing from a Novel Perspective http://www.novel-perspective.com/Workshops.html, I invite participants to imagine themselves as protagonists of their own life stories with the power to interpret, transform, and reclaim their personal narratives.

One of the first exercises I give the class is to assign a title to the current chapter of their lives and write a brief description. The exercise is helpful in several respects: 1)  it allows participants to reflect on and begin to identify current trends and themes in the lives; 2) it helps them consider these trends within a framework with a defined beginning and ending; and 3) it empowers them to interpret the meaning of their own experiences.

This exercise also speaks to the power of naming and interpretation. There are many ways to tell a story. But how we interpret our stories affects how we feel about our stories, and how we feel about our stories often determines how they unfold.

Perhaps that’s why one of the primary goals of psychotherapy is to help clients name their problems; the idea being that once something is named, it can be examined, claimed, and interpreted. The power of naming is further emphasized in the first acts of the biblical account of Creation, when God divides light and darkness, and names them “day” and “night.” It is perhaps no coincidence that the Hebrew noun for “word,” dvar, shares a root with the verb “to cut.” Thus words sculpt and shape our reality.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we have identified the chapters and deciphered their meaning, we can begin to weave the fragments of our lives into a meaningful narrative that values the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character – facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. Thus, difficult chapters like unemployment and divorce become opportunities for personal transformation. This new awareness can help us write new scripts for old stories while embracing life’s inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won’t last forever.

Emotional Yoga: Why Stretching is Good for Relationships

For the second week in a row, I stood shivering outside my boyfriend’s  apartment, waiting for him to come home. I saw his lateness as symptomatic. I knew he cared for me. Yet I wondered if he anticipated the consequences of his actions on my feelings.

“What do you want me to do?” he said in exasperation.

His question hung in the air for several seconds. Then I spotted his yoga mat, and the answer slipped off my tongue.

“Emotional yoga,” I said.

“Emotional what?” he replied, perplexed.

“Emotional yoga,” I repeated. “I want you to mindfully stretch a little for the sake of our relationship and see what that does for you…and for us.”

Today, when there is practically one yoga studio for every two Starbucks, I find it ironic that people often fail to make the connection between yoga’s mind and body-enhancing effects and its metaphorical potential for sustaining healthy relationships.

According to Wikipedia, the word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word for “unite.”  An asana is a pose that helps “restore and maintain a practitioner’s well-being, improve the body’s flexibility and vitality, and promote the ability to remain in seated meditation for extended periods.” Asanas include “Child’s Pose,” a simple relaxation posture where the body faces the floor in fetal position, and “Downward Facing Dog,” a position that mimics a dog stretch by requiring a person to kneel with hands and knees on the floor, and push his hips toward the ceiling to form an inverted V-shape. These positions must be done with proper body alignment in order to reap the benefits and avoid injury.

Like an asana, a healthy relationship requires flexibility, commitment, and alignment with our internal sources of vitality and well-being – loving ourselves unconditionally, for example – even while enduring periods of discomfort. I am always grateful when my yoga teachers push me to stretch beyond my comfort zone, but stop if I encounter pain.

This is an important lesson for relationships. Many people confuse discomfort and pain and, consequently, their relationships suffer.

Those who mistake pain for discomfort are often unwilling to do things for or with their partner that are unfamiliar, not to their liking, or personally inconvenient. In refusing to put themselves into a moderately uncomfortable position, they miss out on an opportunity to experience the pleasure that comes with overcoming perceived limitations, and giving of oneself for the benefit of the relationship.

In this way, yoga is aligned with the premise of cognitive-behavioral psychology, which holds that one’s internal state can change by manipulating his or her environment. An example of this might be the husband who begrudgingly accepts a dinner invitation at his in-laws, only to discover that the benefits of making his wife happy outweigh the discomfort of eating over-cooked steak and listening to his mother-in-laws incessant nagging about having more grandchildren.

The positive reinforcement he receives from pleasing his wife, especially if it occurs more than once, may ultimately alter his attitude about visiting the in-laws the next time he is asked. The less tension there is around planning a trip to the in-laws, the better they’re relationship will be. At the same time, his ability to experience himself as a giving, flexible person will enhance his own self image, and such an improvement in his self esteem will ultimately be good for their marriage.

It’s reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me. “Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream “no, no, no” – they don’t think they can handle the tension because it’s never been asked of them before,” she explained. “But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity.”

The danger, of course, is pushing beyond one’s limits and straining a muscle, especially if the alignment is off. Unable to perceive or accept their own limitations, some people push themselves to assume postures that are too advanced, or continue to hold asanas that are causing them pain, either because they haven’t learned the correct alignment, or because their own ego equates personal limitations with failure.

This describes the predicament of those who mistake pain for discomfort. In the language of relationships, this might explain the woman who stays in an abusive relationship, telling herself that it really isn’t all that bad, or the man who endures constant criticism from his wife because he believes he deserves it, or he is too afraid to leave.

Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. However, discomfort, if experienced in proper alignment, can eventually give way to flexibility and even pleasure. That’s why making yourself a little uncomfortable for someone you love from time to time will stretch the relationship into new levels of health and vitality. Such is the yogic way.


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