23 Traits of People with the Victim/Learned Helplessness Mindset:

23 Traits of People with the Victim/Learned Helplessness Mindset:

When we’ve experienced relational trauma, we’ve been victimized. Some of us stay victimized long after the trauma has happened and this wreaks havoc on our lives and relationships.

 

Some of us have been the one with the victim mindset, and some of us have been in relationship to someone who perceives the world through the victim mindset. (And some of us have played both parts.) No matter which side we’ve been on, if we’ve experienced it, we’ve felt the dread, fear and infuriation this mindset brings with it.

 

Perceiving from the victim mindset is different from being victimized although the two are related. Those of us who have survived trauma, especially in early childhood, often stay stuck in the victim role and our victim mindset is born.

 

Clinically, we refer to the victim mindset as learned helplessness. Learned helplessness happens when we are exposed to an aversive stimulus that we cannot avoid. Whether we are trying to avoid a slap, bullying at school, sexual abuse, or mistreatment from friends, if we feel powerless enough, we will learn that, no matter what we do, we can’t stop it. Studies show that many creatures including fish are susceptible to the learned helplessness phenomenon.

 

This is an allegory I often tell when I’m working with clients:

 

A few decades ago, circus animal handlers tied baby elephants to a tent stake. They attached a heavy chain from the baby elephant’s leg to a stake near the tent so that they could be left unsupervised without wandering away. Throughout its life, this is how handlers kept the circus elephant. Once the elephant matured, the handlers exchanged the heavy chain for a thin rope. The strength of a heavy chain was no longer needed; just a little bit of resistance against the animal’s leg was enough to keep it from freeing itself. The elephant was more than strong enough to pull its leg away from the tent stake and roam free, but because of its early conditioning, it didn’t realize this. It gave up at even the slightest bit of resistance. At one point, the elephant was actually stuck, and it habituated to being stuck. It continued to believe that it was helpless passed the point of objective helplessness.

 

This story is a great way to pictorialize the learned helplessness/ victim mindset. At some point, we are helpless, and we are subject to feeling helpless long after our objective helplessness.

 

Whether we are the person with the learned helplessness/victim mindset or we’re interacting with someone who is stuck in the learned helplessness/victim mindset, we find ourselves emotionally drained. It’s a challenge no matter which role we play. If we are the victim, we move through life feeling powerless and miserable. In reference to the circus elephant, we might think, “You can see that I’m stuck! Why won’t you help me and untie my leg from the tent stake?!” If we are in relationship to a victim, we feel irritated and burdened. We probably think, “Just start walking away from the tent, and you’ll see you’re not actually stuck!”

 

It’s hard to be the one who feels dependent on someone else to change things, and it’s hard to be the one who is charged with the impossible burden of changing something for someone else. Nothing is ever enough, and everybody feels it. In this dynamic, everybody is set up for failure.   

 

Here is a list of 23 common characteristics demonstrated by those of us with the learned helplessness/victim mindset:

 

1) Self-pity: We typically wallow in how hard things are for us. We feel entitled to better treatment and circumstances, but don’t know how to manage our disappointment or set and maintain a healthy boundary. Instead, we feel bad for ourselves and wait for someone or something to improve our situation.    

 

2) Lack of Accountability: Our feelings and circumstances are not our responsibilities. Instead of taking care of our feelings and identifying our part in a situation, we look to external stimuli that we’re sure is the culprit of our discomfort. If good things happen, we’re not sure how or why, but we know it couldn’t be because of anything we did. We wait for the other shoe to drop. If something bad happens, we are usually anxious about it but not surprised.

 

3) Passive-Aggressive: Growing up, it either wasn’t safe to disagree or assert ourselves, we went unheard, or we weren’t taught how to do it. We do not know how to appropriately self-advocate or assert ourselves, so we communicate our displeasure and hurt through passive-aggressive comments, actions, and silence. We wait for the other person to address an issue and when they do, we often become defensive or deny any hurt, disappointment, anger, or resentment.     

 

4) Quit Relationships, Jobs, Hobbies, etc.: Instead of maintaining proximity to a person or situation and working through challenges, when we experience hardship in a dynamic we cut someone out of our lives, quit a job or hobby, or otherwise remove ourselves from the relationship or situation. (Abusive or toxic situations are not included in this dysfunctional behavior. It is perfectly healthy and recommended to remove ourselves from an abusive or toxic circumstance.)

 

5) Critical of Ourselves and Others: It is hard to be compassionate for others when we a) didn’t experience much compassion growing up b) aren’t compassionate with ourselves and c) haven’t been able to receive compassion from others in any meaningful way. We nitpick, judge ourselves and others harshly, and hold people to unreasonably high standards.        

 

6) Blaming: We believe that everything would be so much better if someone else changed their behavior. Everything feels like a personal affront, and we believe that others know exactly how we are interpreting their actions but just don’t care. We inflict unnecessary pain in relationships because of our unwillingness or inability to accept responsibility for our choices and feelings.

Natalie Mills San Francisco Psychotherapy and Coaching, San Francisco Counseling, San Francisco Therapy, San Francisco CA Therapists, San Francisco CA Therapist, San Francisco CA Couples Counseling, couples therapy san francisco ca, couples therapist san francisco ca, San Francisco Marriage Therapy, San Francisco Marriage Counseling, San Francisco Coaching, EMDR therapists in San Francisco, EMDR therapist in san Francisco ca, EMDR therapy in San Francisco CA, psychologist in san francisco, female psychotherapist san francisco, female therapist san francisco ca, psychotherapist in san francisco, marriage and family therapist in san francisco, relationship therapy in san francisco, help with intimacy therapy san francisco, help with intimacy San Francisco, help for depression in san francisco, depression treatment san francisco, anxiety treatment san Francisco, help for anxiety san francisco, anxiety treatment san francisco, addiction treatment San Francisco, alcoholism treatment san francisco ca, substance abuse treatment san francisco, eating disorder treatment san francisco, anorexia therapy san francisco, bulimia therapy san francisco, binge eating disorder therapy san francisco, EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, self-compassion therapy san francisco, eating disorder therapist in San Francisco ca, eating disorder specialist san francisco, couples therapy san francisco, couples therapist San Francisco, eating disorder recovery san francisco, eating disorder therapy san francisco, treatment for anorexia san francisco ca, treatment for bulimia san francisco ca, treatment for binge eating disorder san francisco ca, addiction treatment san francisco ca, treatment for substance abuse san francisco, eating disorder treatment San Francisco, mental health san francisco, mental health therapist san francisco, mental health professional san francisco, healing from shame san francisco, trauma recovery san Francisco therapy ca, trauma treatment san francisco ca, mental health support in san francisco, treatment for shame san francisco, sexual abuse specialist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco therapy, trauma treatment San Francisco, PTSD therapist in San Francisco ca, therapy for PTSD in San Francisco ca, trauma specialist san francisco, PTSD specialist san francisco, treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder san francisco ca, anger management therapy san francisco, stress management therapy san francisco, help with communication san francisco, attachment-based therapy san francisco, attachment-based therapist san francisco, sex therapy san francisco, sex therapist san francisco, sexuality specialist therapy san francisco, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, psychospiritual therapy san francisco ca, grief therapy san francisco ca, feminist therapy san francisco, marriage counseling san francisco, attachment-focused therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapist in san francisco, choosing a therapist in san francisco, choosing the right therapist in san francisco, how to choose a therapist san francisco, find a therapist in san francisco, female therapist in san francisco, finding the right therapist san francisco, ethical non-monogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, ethical nonmonogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, polyamory affirming therapist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, treatment for sexual assault san francisco, treatment for sexual bullying san francisco, support for sexual bullying san francisco, trauma specialist san francisco ca, attachment trauma treatment san francisco ca, relational trauma treatment san francisco ca, treatment for codependency san francisco ca, codependency therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapist san francisco ca      

7) Frequent Comparison: We look around to see who among us has it better than we think we have it. We vilify those people and feel sorry for ourselves. We feel better about ourselves (but it is short-lived) if we identify someone who is not as smart or successful.      

 

8) Difficulty Letting Go of Conflict and Grudges: Man, do we hold grudges. We bring up perceived wrongdoing long after it happened. It often feels like those wounds happened yesterday. And we don’t back down. When given the choice of being happy or right, we almost always choose to be right. (But since we don’t see our choices, that’s not how we would tell it. We believe we’re just doing what we have to do.)    

 

9) Don’t Know or Respect Self-Boundaries: We are out of touch with our boundaries, so we are constantly going above and beyond, even when it doesn’t work for us. We are constantly doing more than we can do. We don’t know how to say no and are afraid that, if we do, we will be rejected and abandoned.

 

10) Often Feel Slighted or Targeted: We do not feel considered by others. We feel targeted and cheated. We’re not faithful believers in the unintentional or giving the benefit of the doubt to others. If we feel bad about something, it’s because someone wanted us to feel bad. People aren’t just doing things, they are doing things to us. And we can be really hard on the people who we believe have perpetrated a slight.

 

11) “It’s Never Enough” Mindset: We are constantly aware of and looking for lack. We’re inclined to focus on the negative even when something positive happens. If we get a raise, it happened too late. If we get engaged, we don’t like the way it happened. If we go on an incredible vacation, the weather sucks or the accommodations aren’t up to our standards. If it’s raining happiness, we will pull out an umbrella and wonder why it’s not raining down on us.

 

12) Insecure: We need constant validation or reassurance at work, in our relationships, and everywhere else. We don’t trust our own experience, so we need it narrated to us by others. But we only want the positive version. And not too much of that, either, or we’ll feel uncomfortable and mistrustful.

Natalie Mills San Francisco Psychotherapy and Coaching, San Francisco Counseling, San Francisco Therapy, San Francisco CA Therapists, San Francisco CA Therapist, San Francisco CA Couples Counseling, couples therapy san francisco ca, couples therapist san francisco ca, San Francisco Marriage Therapy, San Francisco Marriage Counseling, San Francisco Coaching, EMDR therapists in San Francisco, EMDR therapist in san Francisco ca, EMDR therapy in San Francisco CA, psychologist in san francisco, female psychotherapist san francisco, female therapist san francisco ca, psychotherapist in san francisco, marriage and family therapist in san francisco, relationship therapy in san francisco, help with intimacy therapy san francisco, help with intimacy San Francisco, help for depression in san francisco, depression treatment san francisco, anxiety treatment san Francisco, help for anxiety san francisco, anxiety treatment san francisco, addiction treatment San Francisco, alcoholism treatment san francisco ca, substance abuse treatment san francisco, eating disorder treatment san francisco, anorexia therapy san francisco, bulimia therapy san francisco, binge eating disorder therapy san francisco, EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, self-compassion therapy san francisco, eating disorder therapist in San Francisco ca, eating disorder specialist san francisco, couples therapy san francisco, couples therapist San Francisco, eating disorder recovery san francisco, eating disorder therapy san francisco, treatment for anorexia san francisco ca, treatment for bulimia san francisco ca, treatment for binge eating disorder san francisco ca, addiction treatment san francisco ca, treatment for substance abuse san francisco, eating disorder treatment San Francisco, mental health san francisco, mental health therapist san francisco, mental health professional san francisco, healing from shame san francisco, trauma recovery san Francisco therapy ca, trauma treatment san francisco ca, mental health support in san francisco, treatment for shame san francisco, sexual abuse specialist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco therapy, trauma treatment San Francisco, PTSD therapist in San Francisco ca, therapy for PTSD in San Francisco ca, trauma specialist san francisco, PTSD specialist san francisco, treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder san francisco ca, anger management therapy san francisco, stress management therapy san francisco, help with communication san francisco, attachment-based therapy san francisco, attachment-based therapist san francisco, sex therapy san francisco, sex therapist san francisco, sexuality specialist therapy san francisco, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, psychospiritual therapy san francisco ca, grief therapy san francisco ca, feminist therapy san francisco, marriage counseling san francisco, attachment-focused therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapist in san francisco, choosing a therapist in san francisco, choosing the right therapist in san francisco, how to choose a therapist san francisco, find a therapist in san francisco, female therapist in san francisco, finding the right therapist san francisco, ethical non-monogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, ethical nonmonogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, polyamory affirming therapist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, treatment for sexual assault san francisco, treatment for sexual bullying san francisco, support for sexual bullying san francisco, trauma specialist san francisco ca, attachment trauma treatment san francisco ca, relational trauma treatment san francisco ca, treatment for codependency san francisco ca, codependency therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapist san francisco ca

13) Loud Inner Critic: Our inner critic is our loudest internal voice. We could have always done something better, smarter, more thoroughly, or more efficiently. We don’t look as good as we want to. We aren’t as worthy as everyone else. We amplify our mistakes and gloss over our positive attributes if we see them at all.

 

14) Unhealthy Management of Feelings/Mismanagement of Anger: We don’t know how to take care of ourselves and our feelings. We look to people and things outside of us to improve our mood, situation, or to make us feel better. When we’re angry, it’s usually disproportionate to the situation, and we’re often mean. We oscillate between quietly seething and exploding in rage.

 

15) Complains: Pretty much everything can be turned into a complaint. We are unable to sit with happiness, joy, relaxation, or neutrality for any length of time. Our negative-biased brains are in overdrive, constantly searching for what’s wrong, what’s lacking, and what could be better. We are never satisfied, and everyone around us knows it.

 

16) Difficulty Accepting Compliments: We are uncomfortable with most types of attention and don’t respond favorably to positive attention, compliments, and gifts. You will not often hear us utter a gracious, “Thank you so much.” You will hear a constrained, “Oh… um, thanks.” We often tell people why they are wrong to compliment us. We feel undeserving and mistrustful of compliments. But we are even worse with negative attention…

Natalie Mills San Francisco Psychotherapy and Coaching, San Francisco Counseling, San Francisco Therapy, San Francisco CA Therapists, San Francisco CA Therapist, San Francisco CA Couples Counseling, couples therapy san francisco ca, couples therapist san francisco ca, San Francisco Marriage Therapy, San Francisco Marriage Counseling, San Francisco Coaching, EMDR therapists in San Francisco, EMDR therapist in san Francisco ca, EMDR therapy in San Francisco CA, psychologist in san francisco, female psychotherapist san francisco, female therapist san francisco ca, psychotherapist in san francisco, marriage and family therapist in san francisco, relationship therapy in san francisco, help with intimacy therapy san francisco, help with intimacy San Francisco, help for depression in san francisco, depression treatment san francisco, anxiety treatment san Francisco, help for anxiety san francisco, anxiety treatment san francisco, addiction treatment San Francisco, alcoholism treatment san francisco ca, substance abuse treatment san francisco, eating disorder treatment san francisco, anorexia therapy san francisco, bulimia therapy san francisco, binge eating disorder therapy san francisco, EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, self-compassion therapy san francisco, eating disorder therapist in San Francisco ca, eating disorder specialist san francisco, couples therapy san francisco, couples therapist San Francisco, eating disorder recovery san francisco, eating disorder therapy san francisco, treatment for anorexia san francisco ca, treatment for bulimia san francisco ca, treatment for binge eating disorder san francisco ca, addiction treatment san francisco ca, treatment for substance abuse san francisco, eating disorder treatment San Francisco, mental health san francisco, mental health therapist san francisco, mental health professional san francisco, healing from shame san francisco, trauma recovery san Francisco therapy ca, trauma treatment san francisco ca, mental health support in san francisco, treatment for shame san francisco, sexual abuse specialist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco therapy, trauma treatment San Francisco, PTSD therapist in San Francisco ca, therapy for PTSD in San Francisco ca, trauma specialist san francisco, PTSD specialist san francisco, treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder san francisco ca, anger management therapy san francisco, stress management therapy san francisco, help with communication san francisco, attachment-based therapy san francisco, attachment-based therapist san francisco, sex therapy san francisco, sex therapist san francisco, sexuality specialist therapy san francisco, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, psychospiritual therapy san francisco ca, grief therapy san francisco ca, feminist therapy san francisco, marriage counseling san francisco, attachment-focused therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapist in san francisco, choosing a therapist in san francisco, choosing the right therapist in san francisco, how to choose a therapist san francisco, find a therapist in san francisco, female therapist in san francisco, finding the right therapist san francisco, ethical non-monogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, ethical nonmonogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, polyamory affirming therapist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, treatment for sexual assault san francisco, treatment for sexual bullying san francisco, support for sexual bullying san francisco, trauma specialist san francisco ca, attachment trauma treatment san francisco ca, relational trauma treatment san francisco ca, treatment for codependency san francisco ca, codependency therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapist san francisco ca

17) “It’s Not Fair” Attitude: We begrudge other people their happiness and take it personally. It’s not fair that they have what they have and we only have what we have. It’s not fair that life is as hard as it is for us. We firmly believe that our lives should be better, easier, or smoother in some way.     

 

18) Vacillate Between “It’s Not My Fault” and “Everything is Always My Fault Because I’m Terrible” Attitudes: When we’re not blaming other people for doing the wrong thing or causing us to have to deal with uncomfortable feelings, we blame ourselves because, after all, we believe that we are terrible. We either take on too little responsibility for wrongdoing or too much and beat ourselves up mercilessly.

 

19) Cannot See Choices: We see all of our actions, thoughts, and feelings as inevitable reactions to external stimuli. Life, people, and situations have power; we’re simply living in reaction to them. Our lives are not in our own hands. And that’s exactly how we relate, talk, behave, and live. We don’t choose how to spend our money, what to eat, or how much to drink; it just sort of… happens.        

 

20) Often Feel Resentful: Because we don’t know how to manage and communicate our feelings, we usually bottle them up and store them away in our resentment bank. This resentment leaks out and alienates us from others. Over time, if left unchecked, this resentment turns into contempt.      

 

21) Defensive When Given Constructive Feedback: This is the kiss of death. Anyone who knows us knows that we don’t do well with attention. We fear that people will notice that we do not measure up so, when there are ways in which we are not measuring up, and someone says so, we cry, get defensive, and blame others. Once we get ourselves together, we meet our new demands passive-aggressively.

Natalie Mills San Francisco Psychotherapy and Coaching, San Francisco Counseling, San Francisco Therapy, San Francisco CA Therapists, San Francisco CA Therapist, San Francisco CA Couples Counseling, couples therapy san francisco ca, couples therapist san francisco ca, San Francisco Marriage Therapy, San Francisco Marriage Counseling, San Francisco Coaching, EMDR therapists in San Francisco, EMDR therapist in san Francisco ca, EMDR therapy in San Francisco CA, psychologist in san francisco, female psychotherapist san francisco, female therapist san francisco ca, psychotherapist in san francisco, marriage and family therapist in san francisco, relationship therapy in san francisco, help with intimacy therapy san francisco, help with intimacy San Francisco, help for depression in san francisco, depression treatment san francisco, anxiety treatment san Francisco, help for anxiety san francisco, anxiety treatment san francisco, addiction treatment San Francisco, alcoholism treatment san francisco ca, substance abuse treatment san francisco, eating disorder treatment san francisco, anorexia therapy san francisco, bulimia therapy san francisco, binge eating disorder therapy san francisco, EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, self-compassion therapy san francisco, eating disorder therapist in San Francisco ca, eating disorder specialist san francisco, couples therapy san francisco, couples therapist San Francisco, eating disorder recovery san francisco, eating disorder therapy san francisco, treatment for anorexia san francisco ca, treatment for bulimia san francisco ca, treatment for binge eating disorder san francisco ca, addiction treatment san francisco ca, treatment for substance abuse san francisco, eating disorder treatment San Francisco, mental health san francisco, mental health therapist san francisco, mental health professional san francisco, healing from shame san francisco, trauma recovery san Francisco therapy ca, trauma treatment san francisco ca, mental health support in san francisco, treatment for shame san francisco, sexual abuse specialist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco therapy, trauma treatment San Francisco, PTSD therapist in San Francisco ca, therapy for PTSD in San Francisco ca, trauma specialist san francisco, PTSD specialist san francisco, treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder san francisco ca, anger management therapy san francisco, stress management therapy san francisco, help with communication san francisco, attachment-based therapy san francisco, attachment-based therapist san francisco, sex therapy san francisco, sex therapist san francisco, sexuality specialist therapy san francisco, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, psychospiritual therapy san francisco ca, grief therapy san francisco ca, feminist therapy san francisco, marriage counseling san francisco, attachment-focused therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapy san francisco, internal family systems therapist in san francisco, choosing a therapist in san francisco, choosing the right therapist in san francisco, how to choose a therapist san francisco, find a therapist in san francisco, female therapist in san francisco, finding the right therapist san francisco, ethical non-monogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, ethical nonmonogamy affirming therapist in san francisco ca, polyamory affirming therapist san francisco ca, treatment for sexual abuse san francisco, treatment for sexual assault san francisco, treatment for sexual bullying san francisco, support for sexual bullying san francisco, trauma specialist san francisco ca, attachment trauma treatment san francisco ca, relational trauma treatment san francisco ca, treatment for codependency san francisco ca, codependency therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapy san francisco ca, relationship therapist san francisco ca

22) “Life Just Happens to Me” Mindset: Because we cannot see our choices, we don’t see our lives as a series of choices as much as a series of events that happened to us because of other events that happened to us and so on. We feel completely disempowered and stuck in relationships, jobs, and life situations. Drama, hardship, and struggle are always at our front door, sneaking through windows, and wreaking havoc in our homes.

 

23) Difficulty Reaching Out: We often wait to be contacted by others. It either doesn’t occur to us that we can reach out, too, or we feel uncomfortable doing it, as though we’re overstepping our bounds or being a bother. Besides, if someone really loves us and wants to make time for us, they’ll reach out no matter how long it’s been since they’ve heard from us.   

 

This way of living is really hard on us, and it’s very hard on our relationships. We feel some level of miserable most of the time, and it rubs off on others. Many of us come by this victim/learned helplessness mentality honestly. It’s an understandable response to adverse and traumatic experiences. Transitioning out of this mindset takes deliberate effort, patience, and time, but it can happen.

 

I don’t have a quick “10 Ways to Stop Learned Helplessness” follow-up article because it can’t be done in 10 quick and easy steps. It takes time and effort, and often the guidance of a psychotherapist or coach. Like everything, it is a practice.

 

If you would like to talk more about shifting your mindset or changing the way you respond to someone who you believe employs this mindset, please contact me.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

 

I am a licensed mental-health professional located downtown at 870 Market St. San Francisco, CA 94102.

As It Turns Out, Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds.

As It Turns Out, Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds.

Have you ever noticed that one guy at work, the one who you’ve never liked, but couldn’t put your finger on why? Or the neighbor who, for some reason, when she smiles at you, you feel irritated? Or why you can’t stand the smell of a certain laundry detergent? Or why, even though you’re accomplished in your field, you feel like an idiot before you give a presentation?

We all have an information processing system hardwired into our brains. This processing system has evolved to help us integrate emotional turmoil into our mental health and is essential for healing. This system helps us to let go of what is not useful information and make connections to what is useful about an experience so that we can adapt, grow, learn, and face similar situations more intelligently.

Here is an example:

You have a stressful interaction with your mother-in-law while she is visiting for a holiday. You feel angry, disappointed, and resentful. Your chest is tight, and your stomach is in knots. You think negative thoughts about her (“She’s always such a cold, demanding jerk.”) and about yourself (“What is wrong with me that after so many years, I can’t seem to avoid these situations with her? Is it me?”)

You keep mulling over what happened, talk about it with friends, maybe even have a stress dream about it that night. The next day, you still feel a bothered by it but not nearly as much. You’re able to think more clearly about it and understand that you two interpret things differently and that there are ways that you can skillfully manage this. This is your brain’s information processing system at work. It’s transformed this disturbing situation into a learning experience. (You can also thank your REM sleep phase for this since this is the time during which wishes, learning/lessons, survival/stress experiences are processed through the action of “synaptic pruning.”

Because of this uninterrupted time to process, your brain was able to associate the memory of the interaction with your mother-in-law and useful information already stored in your brain (from other stressful interactions with her and others) to create resolution. You remember what happened, what worked, what didn’t, and that it isn’t personal, that this is just the way she is and that you have useful tools for interacting with her. The intense emotional reaction you felt the day before is gone.

Unfortunately, our brains do not adaptively store all of our experiences in this way. Sometimes we encounter traumatic experiences or otherwise stressful experiences that overwhelm our brain’s capacity to process and adaptively store information received during these experiences. This is often referred to as “going off-line.” It’s kind of like short-circuiting.

When we encounter extreme stress, the emotional and physical reactions we experience during the event keep the brain from identifying useful information about the situation; there is no resolve. What happens instead is that the event and its information is maladaptively stored. This means that the event and its components are stored in the brain and body as it happened. Everything you saw, heard, felt (physically and emotionally), tasted, smelled, thought remain in their original, unprocessed form.

You do your best to move through it, but whenever any of these senses are triggered, your emotional disturbance level sky-rockets and you have a reaction. Many times, multiple unprocessed events are linked to one another in such a way that if one is triggered, all are triggered. These events, while often linked to one another, are stored in isolation so that they are not linked to anything adaptive.

No amount of time will help them to integrate. It’s as though these events are frozen in time. An event could have happened 40 years ago, but when triggered it’s as though it is still happening or just happened.

Our personalities, coping skills, perspectives, and beliefs about ourselves and others can develop through the lens of these unprocessed events and impact our emotional and physical capabilities.

Research shows that it’s not just clearly identifiable traumatic events that are responsible for this outcome, but any event or pattern that our brain experienced as overwhelming.

It could be the way someone spoke to you as a child, your interpretation of someone’s behavior you witnessed at three years old or making a mistake during an academic oral exam in second grade. We don’t always know how our brains will store an event.

The good news is that we’re not stuck here. There are therapeutic tools that can help us to free ourselves from the suffering of an unconscious cycle or unprocessed event. One of the most efficacious and reliable tools is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy. This therapy helps us to safely contact the disturbing event or maladaptive cycle and process it, giving us a new understanding of the situation so that we can use its information intelligently.

If you would like to know more about EMDR Therapy, please call or email me. I would love to talk with you more about this process and see if it’s right for you. If you’re not quite ready to reach out yet, that’s ok, too. You can find more information on EMDR Therapy here and here.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

7 Critical Checkpoints for Your Anger

7 Critical Checkpoints for Your Anger

Humans are wired for anger. It’s an important part of our evolution. Anger tells us when something needs our attention, when we have an unmet need, or when something is missing. The problem with anger is in our mismanagement of it. And it can be incredibly destructive.

 

The best way to curb the destruction caused by anger and to use it more intelligently is to understand the feeling, to be curious about it. The more we understand our triggers and patterns, the more present we can be with our anger.

 

Start by identifying what activates it. Get a pen and paper and answer these questions.

 

What triggers your anger? (Here are some common ones)

-yelling

-loud sounds

-having to wait (for someone, for something to happen)

-receiving critical feedback or being corrected

-deceit

-when someone talks over or interrupts you

-being/feeling avoided

-being/feeling smothered

-being in conflict with someone

-rudeness

-inconsiderate actions/remarks

 

Then, start thinking about your pattern of anger. Once your wire is tripped, how do you react?

 

What’s your typical expression of anger?

-lashing out directly at someone, yelling, attacking

-passive aggression, withholding affection/love, trying to control someone using emotional manipulation/guilting, off-handed comments, gossip, isolating

-blame, resentment

-avoidance, defensiveness, stonewalling

-punishing, intimidating, judgment, criticizing, contempt, threatening, using ultimatums

-revenge

-throwing things, breaking things

-physical violence

-broken promises

 

What’s it like for you when you engage any of these strategies? Does it get the job done/ get your needs met? At what cost? Do you like yourself when you use these strategies?  

 

What unmet need underlies your anger-trigger?

Here are some common needs that when unmet, cause us to feel anger:

-Feeling disrespected/ need to feel respected

-Feeling invalidated/ need to feel validated

-Feeling scared or unsafe/ need to feel safe

-Feeling abandoned (physically or emotionally)/ need to feel continuity of relationship or proximity

-Feeling or being out of control/ need to feel in control

-Feeling worthless/ need to feel worthy

-Feeling unlovable/ need to feel lovable

-Feeling inadequate/ need to feel adequate or good enough

-Feeling mistrusted/ need to feel trusted

-Feeling wronged/ need to be treated justly

 

When we stay caught in anger, we behave regrettably. We have no idea what our unmet need is. And we don’t even care; all we know is that something has pissed us off and whoever or whatever it is needs to pay. We can go so far off the rails that we forget we love the person with whom we’re angry. When we don’t know how our anger works and it just happens to us, we can’t catch it, pause, and redirect ourselves. Left uninvestigated, anger can kill or deeply wound any relationship.

 

It’s not easy to respond wisely to our anger. I know that. We run on the fumes of righteous indignation. We feel powerful when we yell or stonewall or manipulate or judge. We’re right, and they’re wrong. If the person really loved us, they wouldn’t do this. Given a choice between fully experiencing our vulnerability or a quick jolt of power, most of us would choose the quick jolt. But learning how to take care of ourselves, translate our anger, and address unmet needs is a much more satisfying, viable, and supportive power. This gives us the opportunity to connect on a deeper level and know true intimacy.

 

“When the gentleness between you hardens
And you fall out of your belonging with each other,
May the depths you have reached hold you still.
When no true word can be said, or heard,
And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
May you hear again an echo of your first music.
When the weave of affection starts to unravel
And anger begins to sear the ground between you,
Before this weather of grief invites
The black seed of bitterness to find root,
May your souls come to kiss.
Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
To allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt,
Reach out with sure hands
To take the chalice of your love,
And carry it carefully through this echoless waste
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you
Towards the gateway to spring.”
-John O’Donohue

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

There Is No Way to Avoid Pain

There Is No Way to Avoid Pain

There is no way to avoid pain. The human brain has evolved to avoid pain, but there is no way to avoid it. So we find ourselves in a bind.

 

We make concerted efforts to protect ourselves from pain. We try to minimize it or hide from it, trade one type of pain for another. We try to protect loved ones from their pain. And mostly it comes from a loving place. But when we try to protect ourselves and others from something so inevitable as pain we are doing a disservice.

 

We are reinforcing the belief that pain is something to fear, that we cannot handle it, that we should go to any length not to experience it. So we don’t take risks. We numb. We deny ourselves. We micromanage. We hide. We lie to ourselves. We stay in relationships that don’t feed us. We stay at jobs that don’t serve us. We silence our voices. We don’t get off the couch. We make excuses, and we rationalize. We do not live fully.

 

The worst thing about pain isn’t that it hurts or that it’s scary; it isn’t even pain itself. The worst thing about pain is our fear of it. We’ll do anything to put a wide berth between us and pain.

 

But what would it be like if instead of avoiding it, we learned how to interpret pain? What if we learned how to understand what it is telling us and how to manage it, how to soothe ourselves?

 

Because sometimes it’s telling us to move away from something. Sometimes it’s telling us to slow down or rest. Sometimes it’s telling us to move toward or into something. And sometimes it’s telling us that we’re on the right track.

 

How can we hear the messages that only pain can communicate and learn from this teacher if we don’t attune to it?

 

When we are willing to listen to our pain’s message, we find our limits and our limitlessness. We explore unseen capabilities and gifts. We become less afraid to live our lives. We experience intimacy. We trust ourselves. We stop asking for permission and start living in our authentic space. We stop people-pleasing. We explore what it means to be groundless. We explore what it means to live as embodied consciousness.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

“Help- my partner is depressed.”

“Help- my partner is depressed.”

Having depression is painful, really, really painful. It’s a draining and dreadful experience. It zaps its target of joy. Doing even the simplest task becomes a burden. Frankly, everything becomes a burden. It’s almost impossible not to feel sensitive and irritable. Depression causes people to feel tired, unmotivated, and insecure. It’s incredibly isolating.

But people with depression aren’t the only ones suffering. Their loved ones are also impacted by these symptoms. This is especially pronounced if the person suffering from depression is your partner.

Of course, it’s essential to be compassionate and empathic toward your partner. Offering love and support is valuable. And of equal importance is your own self-care. It’s ok for you to have needs and desires. It’s ok for you to want those needs and desires to be met. I’m sure there are plenty of you who can attest to the challenge of navigating this particular conflict in your relationship.

The most common complaints of people whose partners suffer from depression are things like, “S/he doesn’t want to have sex anymore”, “S/he never wants to do anything”, “I can’t depend on him/her to fulfill household responsibilities”, and “I can’t seem to feel as connected to him/her as I used to”.

Depression slows everything down, way down- libido, thought processing speed, motivation, and in some cases, even movements and speech. Your partner isn’t trying to make things difficult; they are exhibiting normal symptoms of depression. Having this knowledge doesn’t make it better, but it’s important to differentiate between your partner and your partner’s symptoms. Your partner is still in there.

While you can’t force your partner to do anything, you can encourage them to get help for the depression, seek therapy, etc. You can also get assistance for yourself. Therapy can help you get the clarity and support you need to navigate this difficult part of the relational road. Both individual and couples’ therapy can fill this need.

In addition to trying therapy, my advice is to continue to do the things that you enjoy. Don’t stop living your life. While you might feel guilty about enjoying yourself while the one you love is suffering, your guilt won’t make them feel better. It won’t be the demonstration of solidarity or love you hoped it would be. This is where resentment can trickle in.

Most relationships work because of shared interests, intimacy, reciprocity, and mutual respect. When depression is present, interest, ability to share intimacy (both sexual and emotional) and reciprocity can take a pretty big hit.

Your needs don’t evaporate or necessarily change because your spouse is struggling. And sometimes this can be the beginning of a lot of resentment- on both ends. You resent your partner for their inability to meet your needs, and they resent you for having needs that they can’t meet right now. It can be helpful for you to address this with them in a gentle and assertive way. Sometimes just speaking to the presence of this shift in the relationship is enough. It isn’t always enough, but it’s an important start. It’s important for you to feel like you have a voice; don’t force yourself to suffer in silence because you afraid of burdening your partner. You have the right to say, “I know you’re depressed and haven’t felt like doing much. This is hard for me, too. I still need help running the household, and I miss feeling close to you.” There’s room enough for everyone’s feelings.

It’s important for you to know that you didn’t cause your partner’s depression. That’s not how this works. Depression is a response to chemical fluctuations and or situational changes in a person’s life. Their recovery is not your responsibility. You can offer support and empathy, but you can’t make them better. You can get help for yourself. You can continue to live your life and find joy.

For more information about depression, symptoms of depression, and your role in the life of a loved one who is experiencing depression, please contact me via email or phone. You can find this information in the “Contact Me” section of my website.

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

What You Need to Know About Happiness

What You Need to Know About Happiness

It’s nothing new that there are a many goods and services that communicate how flawed we are, how we are not ok as we are. It’s part of what drives the market. Seriously, there is so much of this stuff available to us that there is no way I could make an exhaustive list here. We hear and see it so much that we start to believe and feel it. “I’m not as good of a parent because my kid doesn’t have four different kinds of carriers (at minimum) and the newest multicolored toys which promote brain development.” “I don’t have a good body because I don’t have a thigh gap or a shelf-butt.” The examples of this are pretty limitless. We have creams, clothes, pills, places to live, jobs, vacation destinations, ways to look, ways to feel, technologic devices, cars, food… an innumerable amount of things that are thrown at us to let us know that we are not complete until we have them in our possession. Heck, not only are we incomplete (and missing out), we aren’t as good as the other humans who are already using these products.

What a trap. We are not ok, not enough until we are surrounded by all of these things… but by the time we start to feel like we’re gaining some ground, more products have come out or have been improved, and we’re right back where we started. And maybe we’re even worse off. Maybe now that we have all of these dependencies on our things, we’ve taken a few steps back. Dismal.

I am not imploring you to give up everything but the clothes on your back and live an utterly minimalist lifestyle. I like creature comforts, too. I have favorite clothes and favorite coffee and favorite devices and favorite places, too. I am not asking you to give any of this up. I am advocating that you change your thinking about what these things mean about you and your life. Change the meaning you’ve made of them. Make some space for you to be ok as you are.

What does this look like? It starts with changing your thinking. Sometimes this feels especially challenging the more dependent you have become on these goods and services. When you employ the various products packaged as happiness in a cup, it’s harder to respect your thoughts, your innate ability to create your happiness. It’s not just you. It happens to most of us at some point. “Obviously, it’s true that this product will make me a better, happier person. How dumb would I be to think that I could be just as happy (or happier) without it?” Don’t worry too much about it; you just think what you’ve been trained to think. Being consistent about changing your thinking is exactly what will help you readjust this part of the thought pattern.

A pretty critical part of the problem is that we want an easy solution to happiness. It’s two-fold. We think we need these products to make us better… and, once we get said product, we just wait for the transition to happen! Acquire this thing and all of your dreams will come true. Just being around it will make you better, happier. Honestly, that would be awesome. But here it comes…

We have work for it. We have to take an active role in our happiness because feelings and perceptions of experiences are produced inside of us. The good news? If the solution is inside of us, no one can break it or steal it or create a new and improved version. So, sure, it takes some work, but it’s worth it. (Also, it’s super light and travels well.)

So, start taking those baby steps toward changing your thinking. Ask yourself what you’re seeking. Is it confidence? A sense of belonging? A sense of purpose? Increased self-worth? What thoughts get in your way to connecting with it? When do you notice these thoughts? Making these connections harnesses your awareness. When you’re more aware of your process, it’s less overwhelming and more in your control. When it’s more in your control, you feel more confident about your ability to meet your needs.

So, the next time someone doesn’t text you back right away, and you start to freak out and freaking out makes you want to reach for something, stop. Ask yourself these questions. And it’s ok if you still end up reaching for that product. Just this step is a step in the direction you’ve been trying to go.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Regretting Parenthood- It’s OK

Regretting Parenthood- It’s OK

Time out. I want to take this time to address something that seems to be kept under fairly tight wraps:

For those of you who find yourselves in this taboo circumstance and in case you aren’t met with enough reassurance about it, I want you to know that it’s ok to regret parenthood. It’s ok, and it’s more common than you might think. You can even feel overwhelming love for your children and still regret having them. It’s ok if it feels like this is something more than the typical “Sure, I miss some things about my childfree days, but if I had it to do over again, I’d choose parenthood every time.”

It’s ok to regret parenthood even if you wanted children more than anything in life. It’s ok if you weren’t sure about or were staunch against ever having children, had them, and now regret having them. It’s ok if you vacillate between enjoying parenthood and regretting it. It’s ok. You’re not a bad person. And you’re not a bad parent.

For years, I’ve witnessed the oppressive guilt and shame that accompanies some of those who come in for support, for a safe place to reveal their regret for becoming parents… and it is one of the most courageous things I have ever seen, people who are honest about something that much of society says they should experience as the pinnacle of humanity. We need to make space and give support to this honesty.

The problem is not how you feel or that this is your experience. The problem is with the lack of support. If your feelings are not welcome, where are can you take them? Is it a sustainable solution to deny them or stuff them or disown them or…?

Over the years I’ve heard people in various stages of parenthood describe both their regret and their guilt and shame about their regret, people who have young children, adult children who have gone on to have their own children, and every stage in between. Parents who are close with their adult children, who love their children (and grandchildren) very much, share their regret about becoming a parent. One doesn’t negate the other; you can enjoy your children, love them, share a tight bond, and still feel that parenthood isn’t for you.

It’s ok that it’s not what you expected, and you wish that you had made a different choice. Again, your feelings about this don’t make you a bad person or a bad parent. They are not a reflection of your strength of character. It’s ok that you have feelings of resentment about the change or loss of your identity. You are not alone, and you are not wrong for feeling this way.

I think this next part is pretty obvious, but just in case it’s not, I am not advocating that a regretful parent tells their children that they made a mistake having them or that they clearly demonstrate these feelings through their behavior. That will add to the regret.

I’m saying that it’s ok to have your feelings and that you have a right to express them to trustworthy friends and family. You have the right to receive support and love from your circle. These are crucial aspects of feeling as good as possible about your parenting job.

There are plenty of people who feel that becoming a parent is the apex of their lives, and this is so, so beautiful. But there is no less beauty in someone who, for varying reasons, finds themselves in a parental role, feels that this was a huge mistake, and has the courage to speak up, get support, and do the best they can. It’s ok. You’re not wrong. You’re still a good person. There are plenty of reasons to explain why you might be experiencing this and not one of them has anything to do with being defective or “bad.” Let’s figure out what this feeling is all about.

If you would like to talk more about this, please contact me. I would love to connect with you.

You can call me at (415) 794-5243 or email at natalie@nataliemillsmft.com.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Managing Emotions Through Mindfulness

Managing Emotions Through Mindfulness

You’ve probably heard passing comments on the topic of mindfulness, but… what exactly is it? And what isn’t it? Author and teacher of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.” It’s a special, intentional, and heightened awareness. You can have an intellectual awareness that you are feeling anxious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are mindfully experiencing what it’s like to feel anxious. Awareness and mindfulness are not synonymous.

If you are mindfully aware that you are feeling anxious, you are tuning into your body, noticing how and where you can feel it. You are noticing your thoughts, your behaviors, and possible triggers of this current experience without judging yourself or the experience. With mindfulness, there is no “good” or “bad” evaluation of an experience. It simply is.

The act of intentionally acknowledging your experience, whatever it is, is intensely powerful. Instead of feeling controlled by a circumstance or feeling so overwhelmed by it that you distract yourself, mindfulness can teach you to move through it with trust and confidence. You are gaining insight into yourself and how you move through the world as you notice the narrative you have created about why things are the way they are. You get to decide what works for you and what doesn’t.

Sometimes, people confuse the idea of being mindfully aware and accepting a current moment with resignation. “So, if I am ‘being mindful’ as I listen to the news, I should just ‘accept’ that this is how things are, sit back, and let it happen?” Nope. Mindfulness and inaction aren’t synonymous either. In fact, being mindful of your experience and moving toward acceptance can help you to reach more grounded decisions and take calmer, more effective necessary action. It can give you the space to respond in a less reactive, more thoughtful way. You’re neither impulsive nor frozen; you are responsive.

A good start to enhancing your mindfulness is to try it when you are eating. Set aside a reasonable time for you to try this during a snack or mealtime. Notice how you feel as you prepare to eat. What do you notice about the way your body feels? What do you notice about your thoughts? Senses? Notice how you take the initial bite. Is it fast and deliberate? Slow and deliberate? What do you notice about the taste and texture? And do you go in for another bite before you’ve finished the first? Notice all of these things without judging. Continue bite for bite until you have finished. What was this experience like?

One of the great things about mindfulness is how accessible it is. You need not be a member of any particular religion. You need no guru or leader (although guided mediation is available for those who want it). It is simply you, your experience, and some intentional, nonjudgmental noticing. Anyone can do it- young, old, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, on your own, with a guide, any time of day, for however long, any number of times per day. It is limitless.

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie

Fear, Depression, and Hope

Fear, Depression, and Hope

Most of the time you are not consciously thinking about what is at the core of what scares you.  You might not know what’s at the core. Maybe you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the impact of being afraid, the impact of fear on your wellbeing. Whether or not you have given it a lot of thought, for some, fear can seem as though it has infinite power. It can feel paralyzing, isolating, and uncontrollable.

It can feel as though there is an endless supply of fear, that it can be turned in any direction- fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of being alone, fear of failure, fear of economic instability, fear of “being found out.” Most of the time you want to feel good. (Who doesn’t?) To do that you probably tend to act in a way that you believe will allow you to avoid pain.  You try to predict what will cause you pain by using experience from the past and making assumptions about the future. Fear can be pretty motivating.

It’s possible to go to incredible lengths to avoid or control fear- intense preoccupation with details, intense preoccupation with outer appearance, addiction, aggression, are a few examples.

When there is so much fear telling you what you need to avoid to feel ok, it doesn’t leave much time to sit productively with what is happening in the present. You probably find that you enjoy your relationships, jobs, families, and hobbies much less. You are not as productive when you are distracted by fear, however; if you use your productivity to defend against fear, you might find that you get a lot done, but still feel incredibly anxious.

At some point, there is a circumstance that encourages you to stop avoiding whatever it is you fear. Perhaps you make a conscious choice to face it because you have renewed resolve. Maybe you find yourself in the dreaded situation and begin to see that you are already getting through it and that it has not overtaken you. Or maybe you have decided that so much avoidance is exhausting so you begin to take slow, small steps toward a courageous shift.

Fear is a pretty compelling emotion. It’s why some of you stay in relationships or jobs long after you want to be there. It’s why some of you suffer from addiction. It can drive you to lead completely inauthentic lives by denying who you are and what you want, and you begin to live for someone else, what that person wants, who that person wants you to be. This can cause depression and anxiety which feeds addictive behavior; it can be tough to extricate yourself from this cycle.

That small step toward a courageous shift I was talking about earlier is essential for getting yourself out of this pattern. On another hand, when you are in this cycle, it can be hard to see that you have any choices. Maybe you feel like you don’t have any choices at all. That’s a normal feeling. When you have been experiencing the same behavioral and emotional cycle for a length of time, it can be difficult to remember a time when things were different. Maybe things weren’t ever different, and your hope for change is slim. But if you’re here, you have found some amount of hope somewhere within you. Together we can increase that hope.

 

Love and Be Loved,
Natalie