Therapy is an incredibly valuable experience that can bring tremendous benefits to your life.
How much you get out of therapy depends on many factors, from how much effort you put into it to how good of a fit your therapist is for your needs and goals. Multiple studies consistently show that one of the strongest predictors of successful treatment is the quality of a therapeutic relationship between a psychotherapist and a client. In short, finding a therapist that is the right fit for you is one of the most important things for making progress in therapy.
Now, finding the right therapist takes investment – in terms of your time, energy, and finances. Thus, it’s natural that you want to know if you’re working with the right person, so your investments pay off. To make the process a little bit easier, in this article, we are going to discuss:
- What are some red flags telling you that your therapist may not be the best choice for you?
- How does it look and feel like when you and your therapist are the right fit?
- How to know if you are making progress in therapy?
Hopefully, these topics can help you save precious energy in finding the right therapist, or decide if your current therapy journey is going in the right direction.
Psychotherapy Red Flags: 5 Signs That Your Therapist Is NOT The Right Fit For You
Having a bad experience with a therapist is not so common. Research shows that 75% of people who enter therapy benefit from it significantly. Still, it is important to be informed about possible red flags of therapy. Finding them doesn’t always mean that you are working with a bad therapist (although this can be the case). Sometimes, it’s just a case of a wrong fit and someone else’s style and approach would feel better for you personally. But this feeling you have with your therapist is important, and is very informative about whether to stick with them or move on.
If you’re working with a therapist and feel something is off, maybe it’s time to think about discussing it with them or, eventually, finding a new therapist. There is nothing wrong with either.
Here are some things that may be telling you that you are not getting the most out of your therapy sessions.
1. You don’t feel understood
A good therapist should, first and foremost, be a good listener. If you often feel rushed, if your feelings are minimized or dismissed, it is a red flag.
Sometimes, because of various reasons such as cultural or religious differences, the therapist’s lack of experience with certain issues, or too wide disparities in personalities and views on life, it’s possible to feel like your therapist is not able to fully understand you. It may feel like they are asking the wrong questions most of the time or focusing on the wrong thing. Perhaps you wanted to point out something important but they keep talking about something else that you don’t find relevant, and this repeatedly happens in your sessions. If that is the case, it may be time to move on and find a therapist who you feel is better attuned to your feelings and needs.
2. You feel judged, shamed, or unsafe to share your authentic thoughts and feelings
It is completely normal to be reluctant to share your deepest fears, secrets, and vulnerabilities with a stranger, especially at the beginning of your therapy journey. However, if you feel like your therapist is “looking down” on your issues or tries to lecture you on what is right or wrong, that’s a sign that you should look elsewhere. Therapy should be a place free of judgment, where you feel safe and comfortable. A strong therapeutic alliance is the most pivotal thing for successful therapy. Thus, it is important to find a therapist who you feel accepts you, empathizes with you, and with whom you can be open and honest. If your current therapist is not that person, it may be time to discuss it with them, or try someone new.
3. They keep pushing you to talk about or work on something before you feel ready
Therapy is the place for you to safely explore your thoughts, emotions, memories, patterns… at your own pace. Your therapist will guide and nudge you in a certain direction, but they should respect your pace and your choices. Thus, they should respect if you express that you are uncomfortable working on some themes for now, no matter how important they think discussing them may be. If you feel like they are breaching your boundaries or trying to force you into talking about something you don’t yet feel comfortable working on, it’s a reason for concern.
4. Your personalities are too different
Your therapist is not your friend, but your personalities still need to be compatible to an extent for you to feel like you two are the right fit. Some people like their therapist to use humour, some don’t. Some like their therapist to be informal, talkative, or quirky, others like more of a distanced or directive approach. Not all human beings fit well together, and that’s okay. An important piece of the “finding-the-right-therapist” puzzle is to find someone who you like and feel comfortable talking to.
5. You repeatedly feel frustrated after your sessions
It is not uncommon to feel less-than-great after some therapy sessions. Therapy touches on your sensitive spots and invites you to leave your comfort zone. It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it’s a valuable one, especially in the long run. If your therapist is the right fit, you will usually leave your session feeling better about yourself than when you came in. You may feel emotionally drained or shaken up, but at the same time hopeful or with a sense that you gained some new knowledge. However, if you leave more than half of your sessions frustrated and feeling like you lost your time, it is something that needs to be addressed.
A good therapist will encourage you to speak up when something is not working and discuss with you openly about ways to overcome an issue. They will be highly motivated to make sure that your therapy sessions are beneficial for you. But sometimes, people just don’t “click” and that’s okay. You can take note of which qualities worked and which didn’t. That will be precious when finding your next therapist.
Psychotherapy Green Flags: 5 Signs That Your Therapist Is Right For You
Sometimes, we may not be sure what a good therapeutic relationship should look like. This is especially true if we have no previous experience or knowledge to compare it to.
What does it mean that your therapist is the right fit?
What does a good therapist do? How do they behave?
How should you feel with your therapist?
Sometimes, you can’t tell right away. It may take a couple of sessions for you to get comfortable and gain trust. However, after some time, it’s usually not too difficult to recognize if you’re with the right therapist – if you know what to look for. Below are some common therapist green flags that can help you determine whether a relationship with your therapist is a high-quality one.
Disclaimer: we treat it as a given that your therapist is appropriately trained and licensed. When starting therapy, always make sure to ask your therapist about their credentials.
1. You feel understood and validated
An experienced therapist knows how to listen efficiently. They make you feel heard and understood. They ask the right questions to get to the underlying message behind what you’re saying. Even when they don’t share the same background as you, if they make an effort to understand and be mindful of all aspects of your identity and how it colours your emotions and thoughts, that’s a great sign.
With the right therapist, you feel like they “get” you – they follow your pace and help you gain new perspective. They summarize what you have said in a way that makes sense to you. They ask for clarification. You feel like your experiences are valid because they acknowledge what you say without judgment. You feel seen and accepted, like you can be true you around them.
Again, all these feelings may not come right away; sometimes, it takes a couple of sessions to adjust, gain trust, and get comfortable. Still, the goal is that your therapist provides a safe environment where you feel like you matter.
2. Your therapist is gentle but challenges you as well
In therapy, you may show your vulnerabilities, fears, insecurities, all the sides you’re maybe not often showing to the world. Through this process, your therapist should be an ally. It doesn’t mean they will agree with you all the time. In fact, they may challenge your views or ways you behave, helping you gain new insight or face what you avoid confronting. But they will always do this gently, so you don’t feel attacked or exposed. If you see your therapist as someone who guides you, holds space for you to be yourself and explore what it means, and at the same time encourages you to get out of your comfort zone and face difficult things in your life, it’s your cue that they are the right choice for you.
3. You leave most of your sessions feeling better about yourself or with new tools
Therapy can be painful, uncomfortable, and challenging, because it is where you face your deepest vulnerabilities and memories, and learn to change long-standing patterns. That can be tough! Sometimes, you may leave the session frustrated, tired, or kind of upset. Occasionally, this is normal, and it’s okay to raise this issue with your therapist. If your therapist is the right fit, they will work through these issues with you or, possibly, adjust their approach.
A great therapist is not just a good listener, but he/she provides you with tools and support to change habits, develop new skills, or gain useful insight. They will help you leave most of your sessions with a sense that you have something to work with or think about between your meetings.
4. In difficult situations, you think about what your therapist would suggest you do and find it helpful
At a certain point in therapy, when you’re facing a challenging situation, thinking about what your therapist would suggest or “hearing your therapist’s voice in your head” is natural. This is what is often called “internalization” of your therapist’s voice. The way they relate to you – with compassion, support, and acceptance – is how you slowly start relating to yourself. This is often a transitional period between your previous unhelpful self-talk and the stage where the voice that directs you toward healthy choices becomes completely yours. It’s a positive sign.
5. You notice a positive change in yourself
Therapy is a process. Positive change takes time; it will not happen overnight. Still, with the right therapist, you should notice some improvement after a while (say, after about 10-15 sessions. This, of course, varies greatly from person to person). Even if the problem you came to therapy with may not be solved yet, some positive change is a good sign that you and your therapist are heading in the right direction.
Also, it’s important to know that progress is not linear – some setbacks will occur. Sometimes, you will make different, healthier choices and use tools that you learned in therapy. It will feel great! Other times, you will slip and fall into your old patterns. This is completely normal. Through the process of learning, with support and new knowledge, you will be able to bounce back more quickly than before and relate to yourself in a different, healthier way.
So, what are some indicators telling you that therapy is working?
10 Signs That You Are Making Progress In Therapy
There is no universal set of ways to measure progress in therapy and emotional healing. It is individual and depends on your personal goals and needs. Still, as an example, here are 10 common signs you might be making progress in therapy and heading toward improved mental health.
- are not as much “in your head” as before
- listen to your body’s needs more
- start setting healthy boundaries
- are able to notice your critical inner voice and challenge it
- allow yourself to rest and take care of your needs
- are getting better at recognizing your emotions and allowing yourself to feel them
- feel your energy levels improved
- are more able to create space between an emotion and a reaction instead of being purely reactive
- engage in healthy habits more regularly
- have more trust in your abilities to cope with challenges.
- are having fun again
This, of course, is not an extensive list. It’s a list of common positive changes people experience in therapy. It is a result of putting in the effort to work through the things that hold them back, and doing so with the right therapist.
Notice how something like “being happy all the time” is not on the list. The goal of therapy is NOT to feel only pleasant emotions and stop experiencing unpleasant ones. Instead, the goal is to start relating to your emotions in a different, healthier way and, from there, start making positive changes in your behaviour as well.
Have you ever been to therapy? What is your experience? How do you notice you are making progress in therapy? We’d love to hear your thoughts; please be free to comment down below. Also, if you find this blog post useful, go ahead and share it on your social media.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Hubble, M. A., Duncan, B. L., & Miller, S. D. (1999). The heart and soul of change: What works in therapy. American Psychological Association. Online HERE
Geller, J., & Farber, B. (1993). Factors influencing the process of internalization in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 3(3), 166-180. Online HERE
Wampold, B. E. (2007). Psychotherapy: the humanistic (and effective) treatment. American Psychologist, 62(8), 857. Online HERE
What really happens in therapy?
Thanks to the stigma surrounding psychotherapy that is still, to some extent, present in our society (although this is, fortunately, changing for the better), many people have never seen a therapist and are hesitant to do so, even if they could benefit from it. Add to that sometimes-inaccurate portrayal in the media, and it’s not a surprise why many people have a slightly distorted, or downright wrong picture of psychotherapy. This can discourage people from seeking help when they really need it, and further damage their mental health. Thus, it is important to talk openly about therapy and share accurate information. It can help combat reservations people may have about finding a therapist and getting the right kind of support.
If you’ve never been to therapy and you feel like something is holding you back, maybe it’s worth exploring if you believe some of the common misconceptions about therapy. Here are 8 common myths we’ve heard about psychotherapy (in no particular order), and truths that disprove them.
1. Therapy is for weak people
Maybe the most common myth about therapy is that seeking professional help means that you are somehow weak or flawed. Everyone goes through a rough patch from time to time; that’s part of life, and we don’t have to go through it alone.
But sometimes we try to do exactly that, afraid of what other people might say or what we would think of ourselves if we have chosen otherwise. The truth is that seeking therapy does not mean you are incapable of solving your own problems. Exactly the opposite! You are taking charge of your life by actively improving some parts of it with the help of a professional. You have enough self-awareness to realize that some things are not working the way you’d want them to. Instead of trying to prove yourself as tough, you are choosing to smartly and efficiently get where you want to be. You’re not letting fear hold you back. That pretty much sounds like the opposite of weak, doesn’t it?
2. You will be lying on a couch
Nowadays, this is very rare. Some psychoanalytically oriented therapists use this approach sometimes as a way to help the client speak more freely about their inner experience, but only if the client feels comfortable with it. Typically, a therapist’s office looks a lot like a living room, where you both sit at a comfortable distance, facing each other. Some therapists take notes during your visit (yes, as you’ve seen in movies :)), others leave that for after the session. It all depends on the therapist’s approach and style, and there are many different ones out there.
3. Therapy is mostly just you talking and the therapist listening. You can do that with a friend.
While support from friends and family is amazing, sometimes that is not enough to work through some challenges. Your therapist is a professional with years of training, educated to treat cognitive, behavioural, and emotional problems, and will use many different techniques to help you deal with them effectively. Because of their long training and experience, your therapist hears things differently than a non-therapist. For example, you may be upset about others not following the rules, and your therapist may hear a fear of lack of control. Or you may be upset that your partner is going out without you and making new friends, and your therapist may hear a fear of abandonment.
It may look like a casual conversation, but a good therapist is trained to ask intentional questions to help you have a better look at your experiences and emotions and link them together. Exploring deep parts of yourself in a safe, encouraging, non-judgmental environment with the guidance of a professional who is (or should be) unbiased is much different than talking to a friend.
Moreover, a therapeutic relationship is different from all the other relationships in your life. The most obvious difference is that the whole focus of the relationship is on you and your well-being Even when a therapist shares something from their personal experience, it’s you and your goals in mind. A therapeutic relationship is deeply psychologically intimate but also strictly professional. Usually, you can’t be friends outside of therapy (or, at least, not during the course of treatment).
4. You have to have a major mental health issue or be in a crisis to seek therapy
People come to therapy for various reasons. Indeed, some of these people battle serious mental health issues and might benefit from medication. However, the majority of issues people come with are what you’d call “everyday problems”. Examples include managing stress, navigating transition and change, dealing with grief, finding a work-life balance, overcoming fears, improving relationships, etc. Moreover, many people look for therapy as a preventative measure, or as a way to maintain their mental health.
5. You will have to talk about your childhood
Not necessarily, and not if you don’t want to. There is nothing in therapy you strictly HAVE to do. If you don’t feel ready, a good therapist will not pressure you to talk about your past. Learning about your childhood can help in understanding the patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours you have now, the way you see the world, and the decisions you are making in the present. Our early experiences deeply and powerfully shape our beliefs about relationships, safety, and love. These beliefs further direct what we think we “have to do to earn” those things. Some of these beliefs and tactics serve us well, and some are inaccurate and unhelpful. Nonetheless, we carry them all into adulthood.
For example, if your caretakers encouraged you to “always put others first”, that being kind means accommodating other people’s needs, that saying “no” is rude and you earned punishment for that… you, as a child, quickly learned how to behave to gain their approval. Your nervous system shapes in a way that communicates: “putting others first=mom’s/dad’s approval=safety” and “boundaries and self-care=mom’s/dad’s disapproval=wrong, danger, abort!”. As an adult, you may tend to people-please, be an ‘overgiver’ in relationships, and struggle with setting boundaries. Even if you rationally understand that boundaries are important, your nervous system can still cling to the old patterns. This is why you may feel a knot in your stomach or your heart pounding when you are about to set some personal boundaries, even when you know it’s the right thing to do.
When you understand why you feel or behave a certain way in the present, where the root of the problem is, the path to change becomes clearer. You connect the dots, are more aware of unhelpful patterns in the present and are more able to replace them with more accurate, useful ones, that will serve you better right now.
6. Therapists have ready solutions for your problems and will tell you what to do
Although your therapist knows a lot about what is important for mental health in general, a path to good mental health can be different for different people. A therapist may be an expert in mental health, but the client is an expert in their own life. In therapy, they are two equals who bring their knowledge together to explore the issue and weigh options to find a solution that works well. A good therapist doesn’t work based on a ready-made formula, but tailors treatment around each client’s needs and goals. They won’t give you direct advice. Instead, they will empower you to identify and understand your blocks, and guide you toward finding what’s best for you and trusting your own decisions.
7. Therapy can solve problems in one or two sessions
Usually not. Just like you don’t get a six-pack after one or two sets of crunches, you most probably won’t completely solve the problem you came with after just one session. Therapy is a process. Sometimes it’s a short process, sometimes it’s a longer one, but worth the effort nonetheless.
8. You will always feel better after a therapy session
Many times, you will leave your therapist’s office relieved, hopeful, optimistic, joyful. Other times, uncovering your fears and insecurities, remembering your past, or facing your true emotions, can be a painful experience. Talking about something that has a high emotional impact can be stressful and leave you exhausted. Therapy encourages you to leave your comfort zone, and that is not always a pleasant experience. Sometimes, therapy is described as “a storm that leads into calm”. It is a process in which, at times, things become worse before they become better.
Thus, it is not surprising to, sometimes, leave your therapy session feeling drained. You need time to process and to let things you unpacked fall into their place. It’s part of the healing process. However, if after the majority of your sessions you feel worse, it’s important to raise this issue with your therapist.
Do any of these misconceptions sound familiar? What are some myths you’ve heard about psychotherapy? Please let us know in the comment section below.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Kottler, J. A., & Balkin, R. S. (2020). Myths, misconceptions, and invalid assumptions about counseling and psychotherapy. Oxford University Press, USA.
Wampold, B. E. (2019). The basics of psychotherapy: An introduction to theory and practice. American Psychological Association. Online HERE
Have you ever faced a situation where someone repeatedly violated your boundaries? Just ignored the limits you have set, despite your clear communication, and crossed the line again? Frustrating, right?
Relationships are extremely important for our well-being as humans. And yet, the vast majority of us have never been taught how to build and nurture healthy relationships.
One of the most important relationship skills is knowing how to set and reinforce healthy boundaries. Do you know how to do it? In THIS article, we explained in detail what personal boundaries look like and how to set them. But the question many people struggle with is – how to maintain my boundaries? How to hold my ground and protect my boundaries when someone repeatedly violates them?
“Boundaries are personal limits we define and communicate about what we will and will not tolerate. They are like guidelines for other people about which behaviours are welcome in interaction with us and which are not.”
Healthy boundaries are crucial for our well-being and a key part of any healthy relationship. They allow us to take ownership of our own lives and shape our relationships.
Setting boundaries is a skill that requires self-awareness, communication skills and, sometimes A LOT of emotional regulation. This is because many of us have been raised to (falsely) believe that:
pleasing others = kind & good
honouring our own needs = selfish & bad.
Thus, it is not surprising that many people find setting boundaries with others new and scary. But setting boundaries is not the hardest part. Sometimes, some people won’t respect them, and this is where it becomes really tricky. They may get angry, passive-aggressive, disappointed, they may try to manipulate or guilt-trip you into changing your behaviour, or just blatantly ignore what you have communicated and repeat unacceptable behaviour.
So, what do you do?
You need to respect your own boundaries for others to respect them as well
“What is important to understand is that, as much as boundaries sound like they are directed at others, they are, first and foremost, about you.”
Boundaries are not about making other people behave in a certain way. This is not within your power. Rather, boundaries are about making an agreement with yourself about what you will and will not tolerate. Thus, they are much more about your inner work, about how you relate to yourself, about giving yourself permission to respect and honour your wants and needs, than about how you communicate with others.
It may not be fair, but it is your responsibility to respect the boundaries you have set as much as it is the other person’s responsibility. This is also where your power lies. You are not left to the mercy of the other person’s will to change their behaviour – you have the right to decide what is best for yourself in response to their behaviour.
If someone is crossing your boundaries, you have several options, including:
- Restating the boundary
- Enforcing the consequences
- Accepting their behaviour and reshaping the boundary
- Disengaging/distancing yourself from the relationship
How to maintain your boundaries effectively
Often, when a boundary is crossed, people feel helpless or get angry and frustrated, but don’t know what to do beyond that. They may end up explaining their boundaries again (which is absolutely okay – some people need to hear it more than once to adjust to new behaviour. However, remember that you are not obliged to repeat nor explain more than once if you don’t want to). But if boundary violation is not followed by a consequence, it essentially communicates that your boundaries are flexible and that you will tolerate said behaviour (because, well, you do).
Setting boundaries consists of two crucial components:
words (expressing how you would like to be treated) and
actions (consequences if the boundary is not respected).
If any of these components is missing, your boundaries are not complete nor stable.
For example, you have communicated to someone that you don’t appreciate them being late every time you meet. You tell them that, next time, you will wait for them for 15 minutes, no more than that. If the next time they are late again, and you are still there when they show up 30 minutes later, your actions are not in line with the boundary you have communicated. Supporting your own boundary means leaving after 15 minutes of waiting.
Thus, violations of your boundaries should be met with clear communication of what your boundaries are and then consistent consequences you have set. Take the time to know your own boundaries, state them directly to those involved, and protect them with your actions.
Important: when setting boundaries and consequences for their possible violation, only communicate those that you are ready to follow through. Otherwise, your boundaries may sound like (empty) threats, and this is not beneficial. Boundaries are not there to manipulate others into doing what we want but to openly communicate how we genuinely believe we deserve to be treated.
Just because you’ve let others cross your boundaries doesn’t mean you need to keep doing it
As children, we may have learned to allow crossing our boundaries because we were helpless and depended on the big people in our lives for survival. But as adults, unless in extreme situations, we have the power and responsibility to properly defend them.
And although it may sound simple, it is far from easy. It takes self-love and self-respect to believe and behave in a way that reflects: “I will not tolerate such behaviour. This is not what I deserve. I have the right to express my preferences and needs, and to honour them”.
Knowing your basic rights and also what is your responsibility and what is not can help you feel a little less awkward about keeping boundaries. When you choose to fully accept and believe in these rights and responsibilities, it becomes much easier to set and reinforce your boundaries.
- It’s not your responsibility to make other people happy all the time
- You are not responsible for others’ poor decisions nor is anyone responsible for your decisions
- It’s not your job to rescue people from their big uncomfortable feelings
- You don’t need permission to be who you are, think what you think, or care about your needs
- You have the right to feel your feelings, whatever those are. Behaviours and feelings are not the same things
- You have the right to say NO
- It’s okay to spend time alone without explaining yourself
- It’s okay to honour your needs and wants
What if someone keeps crossing my boundaries?
Sometimes, despite clear communication, multiple warnings, and a change of behaviour from your end, some people will keep pushing your boundaries. Whatever their reason may be for that, remember that you have the permission to choose what’s best for you and your well-being.
It can be useful to ask yourself: “If things stay exactly as they are right now and never change (and it seems like they won’t), what can I do to protect my well-being?”
Maybe you conclude that this boundary is something negotiable and that you are willing to make an exception with this person. It’s okay – your boundaries can be flexible. You are the creator of boundaries in your own life and you have the right to shape them however you find is serving you. If you are willing to compromise, make sure that you are doing so with protecting your well-being in mind, not out of a sense of obligation or to please the other person.
Unfortunately, when someone is constantly crossing the boundaries that are very important to you, the best option may be to distance yourself from the relationship. It’s easier said than done, we know. Sometimes, for practical reasons, it may not be possible to end the relationship right now. Change and transition are often very difficult, even when we know the end result is something that will serve us. Ending relationships is painful, even the ones that don’t work well anymore.
Remember that a key trademark of any healthy relationship is respect, which includes respecting your boundaries. One of the great things about adulthood is that we have choices, especially in who we build relationships with and how we nurture them. You can choose your relationships, and it is perfectly okay to let go of those that don’t support your well-being.
In the end, keep in mind that setting and keeping boundaries is a skill. It can be uncomfortable, especially when you first start implementing them. It can also be triggering and intimidating to hold your boundaries and confront someone who is crossing them. You are practicing something different than what you’re used to – it’s completely normal if it feels awkward. It takes courage to enforce a new behaviour and potentially face the uncomfortable reactions from others or, eventually, distance yourself from the relationship.
The good news is that, over time, as you practice setting and holding boundaries, it becomes much easier and the reward it brings is priceless. So, hang on and commit – it will be worth it.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Tawwab, N. G. (2021). Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. Penguin.
Gazipura, A. (2017). Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, & Feeling Guilty… and Start Speaking Up, Saying No, Asking Boldly, and Unapologetically Being Yourself. BC Allen Publishing & Tonic Books.
Faitakas, M. (2021). The Importance of Setting Boundaries. SMUJournal. Retrieved on 29th of May 2022 from HERE
Raise your hand if you ever tolerated someone’s unacceptable behaviour and made excuses for them because you didn’t know how to react, or you were afraid that, by saying something, you would be seen as rude or selfish.
Raise another hand if you repeatedly did something for someone out of obligation, and then resentment toward them grew because you felt taken advantage of.
🙌 🙌 🙌
It’s okay, many of us experienced such situations at some point. But if it keeps happening over and over again, if you feel resentful and taken for granted in relationships, if you repeatedly feel like others don’t hear or respect your wishes or needs, maybe it’s time to learn to set some boundaries.
In therapy and coaching, but also in general, we can often hear people say that they would like to learn to set boundaries but have difficulties with it. One part of the reason why they are struggling is that setting boundaries is, simply, uncomfortable. It often triggers feelings of guilt and shame, and it can be especially hard for people who identify themselves as people-pleasers.
Related to this, sometimes, they don’t know how boundaries are supposed to feel like. What is my responsibility and what is not? Is it inappropriate if I tell the other person he or she crossed my boundary in this situation? Do I have the right to set boundaries for this thing?
The third reason is that they don’t know how to set boundaries – practically. What to say to set a boundary? How to maintain it?
Let’s deep dive into all three and learn how to set healthy boundaries, so we can show up for ourselves and for others more genuinely and authentically.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are physical and emotional limits you create to define what are reasonable, acceptable, safe, and permissible ways for others to behave toward you. Healthy boundaries help you define where you end and the other person begins, what you will and will not hold yourself responsible for, and teach others what is and is not an acceptable way to treat you.
Boundaries can be about various things, for example: what are appropriate times for others to call or text you, can they come to your house unannounced, how much time or money you give, how others speak to you, how physically close you are comfortable to be with someone, discussing different topics like sex, politics, religion, personal experiences, etc.
In a way, boundaries are like rules. We all know that there are different rules in life, like having to stop at a STOP sign or waiting in line at the store, etc. Those rules are easy to follow – usually, there are big signs communicating the rule, like a bright red STOP or “Wait in line” sign at a cash register. Rules are clear. Not following them results in some sort of penalty, like a fine or social disapproval. These rules are in place to prevent chaos. Our boundaries have the same purpose – to prevent overwhelm and chaos in our relationships and protect our well-being. However, they are not so clear. We don’t have signs taped over our foreheads listing what we consider to be appropriate and inappropriate. We need to communicate this. And when someone violates these boundaries, we can set consequences.
Lack of boundaries:
- Feeling like you’re not appreciated
- Resentment in your relationships
- Lack of awareness of your needs, which leads to burnout
- Always saying yes to avoid disappointing others or feeling guilty
- Feeling obligated to immediately respond to others and meet their needs
- Feeling like you’re being taken advantage of
- Being aware of your needs and communicating them clearly
- Saying no to things that you don’t feel comfortable doing
- Connecting with others when you feel emotionally open to connect, not when others expect it
- Having the confidence to speak up about how you want to be treated and placing consequences if that is not respected
- Believing you have the right to preserve your well-being
Why Are Boundaries So Important?
Boundaries are necessary for the health and quality of our relationships. Without them, our relationships cannot thrive. Poor boundaries lead to resentment, guilt, anger, frustration, disappointment, and burnout. They indicate that we are not honest in our relationship because we are not free to communicate how we feel or what we need but, instead, act from the fear of disappointing others. So, boundaries are kind. They allow other people to understand how to best engage with us, and that is nourishing for our relationships.
Even more importantly, boundaries are crucial for our physical and mental health. They keep us safe and help us fulfill our needs. They give us a sense of agency over our physical space, our time, and emotional resources. Without them, our energy quickly gets depleted, leaving us exhausted, stressed, and hopeless. Poor boundaries can lead to other problems as well, such as having difficulties with decision-making or confusing our own wants and needs with others’ wants and needs. We may end up spending so much of our life doing what others want that we lose a sense of self, finding it difficult to identify what it is that we authentically want or don’t want.
Boundaries are an expression of self-care. Self-care is not just about how you eat, how much you exercise, or how much you rest. It is a much broader concept, referring to how you treat yourself, how you find balance, joy, play, and kindness toward yourself. Self-care is how you take care of your physical and mental health; setting and maintaining boundaries is an essential part of it.
How to Set Boundaries Effectively
Even though personal boundaries can be challenging to navigate, recognizing our limits and communicating them well is essential for our own well-being and for building healthy relationships with others. Here are 5 steps that can help you set healthy boundaries.
1. Understand that you have the right to set boundaries
Not only it is your right to create boundaries, but it is also your responsibility. You can’t control other people’s behaviour, you can only control your own. Hence, what you feel and need and how you want to be treated is not up to the other person to figure out, but up to you to communicate. Personal boundaries allow you to take ownership of your own life and shape your relationships.
Knowing your basic rights and also what is your responsibility and what is not can help you feel a little less awkward for setting personal boundaries. When you choose to fully accept and believe in these rights and responsibilities, it becomes much easier to set boundaries and let go of the guilt surrounding them.
- It’s not your responsibility to make other people happy all the time
- You are not responsible for others’ poor decisions nor is anyone responsible for your decisions
- It’s not your job to rescue people from their big uncomfortable feelings
- You don’t need permission to be who you are, think what you think, or care about your needs
- You have the right to feel your feelings, whatever those are. Behaviours and feelings are not the same things
- It’s okay for others to get angry or feel uncomfortable
- You have the right to say NO
- It’s okay to spend time alone without explaining yourself
- Other people have every right to disagree with you or don’t like your decision
2. Identify what you need
In order to create boundaries, it is important to clearly define what you want and why. To set good boundaries, it’s often necessary to get in touch with your needs and personal core values. Sometimes, especially if you ignored them most of the time to cater to others’ expectations and demands, this can be challenging. Still, don’t give up. Small steps lead to big results. Here are some questions you can ask yourself that may help:
What is important to me?
How do I want my relationships to look like?
What are my goals?
So, it’s important to be clear about what exactly you want to change, why, and how. This will help you communicate your boundary clearly and stay the course when it gets through. Writing this down can also be helpful.
3. Communicate your boundary
Now comes the hard part – you need to communicate the new boundary you want to set. You don’t need to apologize for your boundaries – there is nothing wrong with saying no or asking for what you need. Many people worry that communicating their boundaries clearly and not apologizing for them will seem rude, selfish, or inconsiderate. However, you can communicate your boundaries with a sense of softness, compassion, and kindness, and still stand your ground. The key is to communicate your boundaries without criticism or contempt. Take ownership of your boundaries, without blaming the other person. Use “I statements” – keep the focus on your needs.
For example, instead of saying:
“You keep calling me at inappropriate times when I’m at work. Stop bothering me during business hours.”
you can say:
“I am really busy during the business hours and answering calls at those times distracts me. If there is nothing super important, please don’t call before 5 pm, or I won’t be able to answer.”
One trick that can make kindly communicating boundaries easier is to replace “but” with “and”. This small language change implies that both things that you are communicating can exist at the same time. For example: “I love spending time with you AND also I need some space for myself” sounds different from: “I love spending time with you BUT I need some space for myself”, doesn’t it?
If needed, you can explain why you find it important to set this boundary, and frame it as a positive step for the relationships and/or for your well-being. However, avoid overexplaining, because 1. it may sound confusing, and 2. it may start looking like apologizing and imply that you don’t have the right to determine what you want and don’t want to do. But you do have that right, and you can own and honour it.
So, in short, how to communicate your boundaries:
- Be direct and clear. Say exactly what you need and what you want to change.
- Be warm in your communication. Replace “but” with “and”
- Don’t criticize or blame. Instead, focus on your needs and use “I statements”
- Explain why this is important to you. Don’t overexplain or apologize for it
These are some general rules about how to communicate your boundaries, but they will vary depending on the person you are communicating with and the nature of your relationship. Whatever approach you choose to use – gentle, firm, compassionate, short – knowing what you want as a result of setting the boundary is the most important thing.
4. Be prepared for resistance
Sometimes, people will acknowledge your newly set boundary and respect it. Other times, unfortunately, things won’t go so easy. They may try to argue, oppose, guilt-trip you into withdrawing your newly set boundary, get angry, or ask questions. In a way, it’s expected – they are used to one kind of interaction with you and now they are facing change. This kind of reaction is especially common with people who benefited from your lack of boundaries – you are now revoking that privilege, so it’s expected that they get upset. But if they had this privilege at the expense of your needs or well-being, they were never meant to have it in the first place.
Others reacting poorly to you setting boundaries is not proof that you shouldn’t have set them. Setting boundaries can be an uncomfortable process (for both sides), so be prepared for it. We’ll talk about this a little bit more in the last section of this post. What’s important to remember is that setting boundaries, however uncomfortable, is a valuable skill that you build over time and is absolutely worth the effort.
5. Execute your new boundary
Boundaries include an action. Stating boundaries is a big step; however, it’s the follow-through that makes them effective. If you have set a boundary – asked the other person to change their behaviour, and communicated how you’re going to behave – make sure to stick to it. This way, you are showing consistency – to the other person and to yourself.
Of course, we all want others to respect our boundaries. However, we have to accept that, sometimes, it won’t be the case and we can’t make anyone behave the way we want. Boundaries are there to communicate and protect your needs, not to control someone else’s behaviour. This is why you need to set consequences for violating your boundaries, and give yourself permission to execute them. If someone is repeatedly crossing your boundaries despite multiple warnings and clear communication from your end, you have a range of options. Ask yourself: “If things stay exactly as they are right now and never change (and it seems like they won’t), what can I do to protect my well-being?” Maybe to distance yourself physically, work on emotionally detaching yourself, end the relationship…? Weight the benefits and risks and choose the next steps, just make sure that your mental health is your top priority.
Of course, your boundaries don’t have to be set in stone – you can change them or make an exception, it is your choice. However, if you bend your boundaries for some reason, make sure it’s serving your well-being. And no, “I feel bad pointing out someone’s unacceptable behaviour toward me again, so I’ll just adapt and put up with it somehow” is not a good enough reason.
Why Do I Feel Bad For Setting Boundaries? Help!
Setting boundaries comes with tremendous benefits, both for you and the people around you. But the reality is – it requires tolerating uncomfortable feelings.
Most of us really want other people to like us and don’t want to disappoint anyone. Boundary setting can be especially challenging for people who try hard to please others, or who come from families where boundaries were not encouraged nor respected.
In some families, boundaries = disconnection, disrespect, or lack of love. This becomes a model an individual carries into adulthood.
If you grew up in an environment where there were frequent breaches of privacy, if you were punished for speaking up or saying no, if sacrificing your own needs and pleasing others meant being a good kid, you may be having troubles with setting boundaries as an adult. If you learned that taking care of your needs is selfish and always putting others first is selfless and compassionate, it’s natural that, when you stand up for yourself and set boundaries, however healthy they may be, guilt arises. Guilt doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong; it often means that you are conditioned to feel it in certain situations. Such as, for example, when you take time for yourself or prioritize your needs, or when people have uncomfortable emotions about your boundaries.
Let’s be real – sometimes, people won’t like your newly set boundaries and may have big feelings around them. What is crucial to understand here is what is your responsibility and what is not.
Setting and keeping your boundaries are your responsibilities. You are responsible for the way you do it – what you say and how you say it. You are not responsible for other people’s actions.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It’s never pleasant to witness someone having uncomfortable emotions, especially toward something you’ve said or done. But their reaction is their responsibility, not yours. Let them have their emotions, they have the right to it. You can be attuned to others’ needs and care about their feelings without moving your boundaries. Feeling responsible for other people’s emotions doesn’t necessarily make you kind and compassionate. Instead, it can lead to rescuing behaviours, resentment, and unhealthy, enmeshed relationship dynamics.
So, if the question is how to set boundaries without anyone feeling bad, the answer is – sometimes, it’s impossible, simply because we can’t control other people’s emotions, however gentle and compassionate we are in our communication.
Just remember, others are allowed to feel uncomfortable. They can handle it, and so can you.
Setting boundaries is something that takes courage, practice, and consistency. How they look like and how they take place is different for everyone. It may take some time to figure out what kinds of boundaries you need, allow yourself to set them, and experiment with the most appropriate ways to implement them in your life, but your mental health and your relationships will appreciate the effort in the long run.
Where in your life do you need firmer boundaries? What do you find challenging when it comes to setting them? Let us know in the comment section down below.
Also, if you know someone who would find this article useful, please be free to share it with them, or share it on your social media.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Barth, F. (2012). Boundaries and connections (pp. 25-44). Routledge.
Glover, N. (2021). Set boundaries, find peace: A guide to reclaiming yourself. TarcherPerigee.
Katherine, A. (2012). Where to draw the line: How to set healthy boundaries every day. Simon and Schuster.
Martin, S. (2019). 5 Tips For Setting Boundaries (Without Feeling Guilty). PsychCentral. Online resource HERE
Oh, that nagging feeling that you are not good enough, that you didn’t deserve praise, that you just got lucky, that you don’t fit in…
Does this line of thought sound somewhat familiar?
„I feel like a fraud. What gives me the right to be in the position I am in now? I don’t have the abilities needed, I’m not competent enough, someone would be way better at this. It’s just a matter of time when everybody realizes this. And all the accomplishments I’ve made? Honestly, I was lucky. Besides, everybody could do it.“
Most people experience some self-doubt when facing new challenges. It’s completely normal, especially when we work on something new. However, when self-doubt is there almost constantly, no matter how much you have accomplished, it’s possible that you are experiencing something called the imposter syndrome.
The imposter syndrome is a feeling of chronic insecurity and doubt about your abilities, despite plenty of contrary evidence. It’s often accompanied by fear that you will be exposed as a fraud, or that your accomplishments are just a matter of luck, not your talent or abilities.
The imposter syndrome is very common among high achievers, who often have massive expectations from themselves and lean toward perfectionism. Research shows that around 20% of highly successful people experience this state very often, while 70% of people experience it at least once in their lifetime.
People who experience the imposter syndrome tend to:
- attribute their accomplishments to luck or some external reasons, rather than their ability
- believe that every task they take has to be done perfectly and rarely ask for help
- be convinced that people are overestimating their abilities
- feel like they don’t deserve success or praise for their achievements, and believe that other people are somehow deceived into thinking otherwise
- fear to be ’discovered as a fraud’, that everybody will find out how incompetent they are
It’s not surprising, then, that the imposter syndrome is often accompanied by anxiety, perfectionism, and sometimes depression.
Where Does the Imposter Syndrome Come From? What Causes It?
More and more people are experiencing imposter syndrome, and it comes as no surprise. Our society puts a huge emphasis on achievement. In our culture, there is often a pressure to “be the best version of yourself”, to accomplish, work hard, be competent and confident, etc. This can trigger self-doubt, especially when the majority is participating in this game. You see people around you and on social media who are always busy, accomplishing something, moving ahead, people who seem to know what they’re doing with their lives. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. What is easy to forget is that people tend to try to present themselves in the best light possible, even if that is not an accurate picture. When we overlook this, when we compare our whole story, our ups and downs, with someone’s highlights only, it’s easy to doubt ourselves, wondering if our abilities are enough.
Certain environmental factors can contribute to the imposter syndrome. A sense of belonging fosters confidence; genuine support can do wonders for our trust in ourselves. If you are part of a group where there are certain stereotypes about competence, where there is less support and positive reinforcement, or you feel like you don’t belong, there is a higher chance of developing signs of the imposter syndrome. Studies show that imposter syndrome is more common among racial and ethnic minorities.
People who struggle with imposter syndrome can come from different family dynamics. They are often children of parents who valued and praised achievement above everything else, and who believed that criticism is the best motivation. The imposter syndrome often has its roots in families where there is a lack of support, where the child gets harshly criticized for failure, but receives little to no praise for success because the parent believes that success is something that should be a norm, not something the child should be applauded for. Additionally, it is common for people who come from families where they always had to do what was expected from them, and they worked especially hard to please others.
In such circumstances, the message the child receives is something along the lines of: “I should always achieve, excel, be competent. It’s somehow never enough, but I have to keep trying. I am not enough the way I am, so I must work hard to compensate”. This becomes a perpetuating cycle in adulthood.
If this sounds like you, it is possible that, since you “learned” very early on that mistakes will be met with criticism, followed by feelings of shame, guilt, and unworthiness, you try to avoid such feelings by mechanisms that helped you in the past, such as working hard, perfectionism, trying to convince others that you’re a smart, competent person, etc. However, since you’ve rarely been praised for your abilities, it’s difficult for you to internalize success and genuinely believe that you are capable. Generally, the imposter syndrome is commonly a result of seeking self-esteem by trying to live up to an idealized image, to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
Beliefs about intelligence and success
Imposter syndrome sometimes occurs even without the above-mentioned family dynamic. For example, research shows that academic success in childhood in combination with parents and teachers who emphasized your natural intelligence, as well as a biologically higher susceptibility to anxiety, can contribute to developing the imposter syndrome later in life.
A common scenario is this: things went smoothly for you in elementary and high-school, you didn’t have to work hard and people around you adored your intelligence. But in college, or on a new job, where there are higher demands, you start struggling. Now that challenges are bigger and you need to put in much more work, you may start doubting your natural intelligence and your abilities, feeling like you don’t have what it takes to be successful after all. Because you learned that “how intelligent you are” = “how little you struggle with challenges”, when things are not so easy and you need to put in extra effort, you may start thinking of it as evidence that you may not be as smart and capable as you and/or others thought you were.
Indeed, studies explain this phenomenon. For example, research showed that people who think of intelligence as a fixed trait tend to follow “performance goals”, which means that they are primarily motivated by the wish to prove their intelligence and capability. This kind of thinking is often followed by shame, anxiety, and fear that others would see them as incompetent. On the other hand, people who see intelligence as a malleable quality are motivated by “learning goals” – their primary aim is to increase their knowledge and skills. These individuals react to failure in a more resilient way and rarely feel inadequate.
How to Deal With the Imposter Syndrome
Fortunately, there are ways to beat this uncomfortable state. If the imposter syndrome is negatively impacting your health and your ability to properly function, it is important to seek professional help. Additionally, here are a few tips to possibly help you get out of your own way, decrease anxiety surrounding (dis)trust in your own abilities, and take ownership of your success.
1. Know that it’s not just you.
You may be feeling like everyone except you knows exactly what they’re doing, but that is not true. This feeling is common in the general population, but especially among high achievers.
2. Separate thoughts and feelings from facts
Your feelings are always valid. There is no “You shouldn’t feel like this” or “It’s ridiculous to feel this way”. You feel what you feel, and all feelings are okay. Emotions carry important information, they are there for a reason. However, that reason is not always something in your environment. Thoughts and feelings are internal events that don’t have to be (and often are not) 100% based in reality. Many times, our feelings come as a result of interpretations that are influenced by our past experiences, assumptions and expectations, fears and insecurities.
So, you feeling incompetent is not proof of your incompetence. You’re having a thought about being incompetent, which can come from a place of insecurity, fear, anxiety, butit is not a reflection of your objective abilities.
3. Refrain from Comparison
Comparing yourself to others is a shortcut to feeling frustrated, insecure, and anxious. And not only does it usually leave us feeling awful, but it’s also pointless. How does comparing someone’s “spotlights” with your “behind the scenes”, which is how we usually compare, make sense? We are all different people with different “starting points”, different backgrounds, preferences, abilities, traits, entirely different lives. Perhaps a better choice is to, instead, invest that energy into learning and growing, in your own way.
4. Change the spotlight of your attention and reframe how you look at the situation
Someone once wisely said that the difference between misery and happiness depends on what you do with your attention.
Instead of putting an emphasis on all the mistakes you’ve made or on the fear of being exposed, you can do many other, more productive things with your attention. For example, you can make an effort to re-focus from trying to appear confident and competent and that way possibly prevent others from “finding out” what a fraud you are, to learning from others and from your mistakes, building your skills, and doing the best you can (whatever that “best” is for you – don’t set unrealistically high expectations!). Or, you can turn your attention to gratitude, all the great things, people, and experiences you have in your life. Or you can focus on catching yourself when you’re being overly critical toward yourself and challenge this kind of self-talk.
Shifting your attention like this is not easy, but it’s essential. Insight itself is important but doesn’t do much without applied, real-life work on changing the existing patterns.
Another interesting thing you can do with your attention is test your confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to find evidence that supports beliefs you already have, overlooking or discounting the evidence that is contrary to this belief. Your imposter syndrome uses confirmation bias to convince you that you are not capable and competent, making you see your mistakes and shortcomings, and overlooking or downplaying contrary evidence – your achievements.
How about you trick your imposter syndrome by playing the same game by testing its own weapon, but in the opposite direction? Actively work on finding the evidence that you are, in fact, intelligent, talented, successful, and good at what you do. Notice and write down big and small wins, remember and accept compliments and recognitions, be thorough at finding the evidence in favor of your abilities. With consistency, you may get surprised at how much your perception can shift.
5. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be perfect.
Yes, you may believe that you have to be. But objectively, nobody is, and that is perfectly okay. You are a unique human. Imperfect and enough.
Dealing with the imposter syndrome has nothing to do with minimizing mistakes and maximizing achievement, and everything to do with how you relate to yourself. So, it’s a process, it takes work, but it pays off.
In the end, here is just a gentle reminder. None of us:
- have it all together
- is 100% confident all of the time
- have never made a mistake
- is perfect
It’s called being human. It’s relatable. And it’s beautiful.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. Online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7174434/
Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: theory, research, practice, training, 30(3), 495.
Sherman, R. O. (2013). Imposter syndrome: When you feel like you’re faking it. American Nurse Today, 8(5), 57-58.
Palmer, C. (2021, June). How to overcome impostor phenomenon. Monitor on Psychology, 52(4). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/cover-impostor-phenomenon. Online: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/cover-impostor-phenomenon
Have you ever experienced contrasting emotions or ‘mixed feelings’ toward something or someone? Have you ever had a hard time making a decision because you had felt both positive and negative emotions toward the decision? Maybe you felt trapped, stuck, torn by two opposing forces?
If your answer is yes, what you have experienced is called ambivalence. It surely isn’t pleasant, but it’s an inevitable part of the human experience. It’s not uncommon for people to think things like:
“I have a great job opportunity, but I love my current job. It feels like, whatever I decide – to stay at my current job or to accept this new one – I’d regret it”.
“I love my husband, but I get attracted to other people. What is happening? Do I really love him?”
“My children bring me so much joy, but they often make me crazy. I want to spend time with them, but I also want them to leave me alone.”
There is nothing weird about these kinds of thoughts. People are complex beings, and with that comes the complexity of their thinking and emotions. Although we would like to have a perfectly clear picture of what we want and how we feel at all times, because of this complexity, it is not always possible.
Ambivalence is a state of internal conflict, experiencing both positive and negative thoughts and feelings about the same person or issue at the same time.
We all experience mixed feelings from time to time; it’s an inseparable part of human life. But it’s also an uncomfortable state, the one we often don’t know what to do with. Our minds like to be certain – that’s what helps us feel safe – and ambivalence brings just the opposite of that. Having seemingly contradicting feelings toward something can make us anxious and torn between options.
So, how do you get rid of ambivalence quickly and effectively?
A short answer is: you don’t and you shouldn’t. Instead, you learn to deal with it.
Ambivalence Is Not a Problem – Intolerance for Ambivalence Is
We, humans, are complex beings who walk around trying to put each other into neat little boxes – good/bad, right/wrong, mean/kind, etc. We are prone to black and white kind of thinking, trying to categorize people and experiences. This is normal to a certain extent – we are trying to quickly make sense of what is happening around us and predict what to expect. Simplifying life like this can be useful – in today’s fast-paced, over-stimulating world, our ability to filter, reduce, and simplify can help us properly function. However, if we are not careful or aware of this kind of thinking, it can carry an emotional cost.
The problem arises when we don’t know how to deal with mixed feelings. We say to ourselves: “These two things can’t go together, so which one will I choose? Which of these realities is “truer”? Which one wins, and which one will I deny and minimize?”
Extreme intolerance for ambivalence is called “splitting”. It refers to an inability to hold opposing thoughts, feelings, and views of other people and oneself. People who use “splitting” see the world in absolute terms, without any room for shades of gray. For them, depending on the situation, people are seen as “perfect” or “total failures”, something “always” or “never” goes right, etc. They seem to not be able to integrate the idea that, what we often consider as “good” or “bad” traits, can exist in the same object. This, as you can imagine, can cause problems in relationships. It makes keeping long-term, stable, healthy relationships almost impossible, and the ability to optimally regulate own emotions and moods incredibly difficult.
The problem, then, is not ambivalence itself, but our intolerance for ambivalence.
Having Mixed Feelings Is Completely Natural
What’s true is that we can hold multiple emotions and opinions at once, even the ones that look contradictory on the surface. They can exist together without canceling each other out. Emotions are states that come and go; they are not permanent. Having both positive and negative feelings towards a person and/or a situation is completely natural.
- love your children dearly AND still feel overwhelmed or angry with them.
- feel like you want to spend more time with your partner AND need some time alone.
- love someone AND know it’s not healthy to keep them in your life.
- compassionately understand what led someone to do the things they did AND still hold them accountable for their behaviour.
- believe in yourself AND still be afraid of failure.
- grieve AND still hold space for joy.
Being able to see and accept that people, circumstances, and situations, as a whole, contain both “good” and “bad”, is one of the defining features of mental health.
Having tolerance for our mixed emotions is beneficial for several reasons.
First, when we accept that we can have multiple, seemingly opposite emotions at the same time, we don’t invest so much energy in suppressing some emotions or trying to explain which of these are true and which are not. Instead, we can re-focus this energy toward accepting our experience, understanding ourselves, and making better decisions about complex life issues.
Second, when we accept our experience instead of trying to repress or run away from it, we can have a deeper understanding of ourselves and make better decisions about complex life issues. A straightforwardly positive or negative attitude toward something has a clear message: approach or avoid. With mixed feelings, we have the opportunity to review our goals and values and reflect on our beliefs. One study showed that mixed emotions are a sign of emotional depth, not indecision. It shows the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, which is often a reflection of emotional intelligence.
Third, intolerance to ambivalence is a relationship killer. One of the key elements of mature, healthy relationships is accepting the other person as a whole. We don’t have to like all aspects of someone’s personality to love them; in fact, it’s quite impossible. Mature love means being able to see different traits of another, to acknowledge that we feel positive and negative emotions toward these traits, and still love, appreciate, and choose this person. If we are not able to integrate both “good” and “bad” traits of another person into a whole, we may have an idealistic picture of what relationships should look like. This can create unrealistically high expectations, lead to “on” and “off” relationship dynamics, and put both individuals through emotional and behavioural roller coasters.
One Simple Tip For Dealing With Mixed Feelings
One way to do start building tolerance for ambivalence is to acknowledge that two seemingly opposing thoughts or emotions can exist in our mind at the same time. They don’t have to cancel each other out – make some room for both of them and, like a curious scientist, try to observe them without judgment.
What you can also do, then, is make a simple shift in language – replace BUT with AND. When we use BUT, we are implying that the two things between which the word BUT stands cancel each other out. However, when we use AND, we make room for all emotions.
For example, consider the difference between these two sentences:
“I love my husband but he makes me so angry sometimes”
“I love my husband and he makes me so angry sometimes”
Notice how the first has a worried, unresolved connotation. The air around the second one is, on the other hand, altogether different. One doesn’t negate the other; you get angry at your partner sometimes which doesn’t mean you don’t love him dearly. With “and” language, the tension stemming from the “but” language starts to dissipate. There are no angsty questions lurking, there are no dilemmas to resolve or apologies or justifications to be made.
Additionally, being clear with yourself about your values, about who you are, what you find important, and what you want to cherish in life can also help you resolve the state of ambivalence, or at least guide your decisions when mixed feelings are present.
Embracing ambivalence can open a whole new spectrum in your interactions with others and in understanding and accepting your own experience. Fulfillment and disappointment, love and anger, pain and pleasure, there is room for all of them. Instead of instantly labeling, we can get curious instead – about ourselves and others. With this idea in mind, with openness for all emotions, we can explore and better understand what is happening, inside and outside of us.
The world is not an either/or place; our lives are full of shades of gray.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Burton, N. (2012). Self-Deception II: Splitting. Psychology Today.
Schimmack, U. (2001). Pleasure, displeasure, and mixed feelings: Are semantic opposites mutually exclusive?. Cognition & Emotion, 15(1), 81-97.
Schneider, I. K., Novin, S., van Harreveld, F., & Genschow, O. (2021). Benefits of being ambivalent: The relationship between trait ambivalence and attribution biases. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(2), 570-586.
Zimmerman, E. (2016). Is Ambivalence Healthy? Researchers Have Mixed Feelings. Stanford Business.
Procrastination is something we all experience. You certainly know the feeling – staring at a blank page, having an assignment waiting for you, delaying starting a large project, and doing everything except what you are “supposed” to do. You carry around this heavy, dark cloud of procrastination, feeling miserable for hours or days, but you are still unable to make the first step toward getting it done. And even though you may be irritated, agitated, you can’t sleep… you can’t work either. Until finally, something happens, and you get it done. Often in a guilt-infused panic mode, at the last moment, but you get it done.
The quality of your work may suffer. The quality of your life definitely does.
But why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we procrastinate, even when we know we will feel bad about it? The answer to this question is not simple and goes much deeper than just “laziness” or “irresponsibility”.
Why do we procrastinate?
Contrary to what most people believe, procrastination is not about being lazy or lacking willpower. Since it’s such a widespread phenomenon, numerous researchers tried to get to the bottom of it and understand the roots and reasons behind it.
“Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions induced by certain tasks – boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”
– dr. Piers Steel, a professor of the University of Calgary
There are many potential reasons for procrastination, but the majority of results of scientific studies show that they come down to three groups of explanations, or can be a combination of them. They show that, usually, procrastination may be:
- a result of our brain’s natural tendency to be more drawn to instant gratification than long-term benefits
- a habit we use to cope with stress and provide emotional relief
- a way to protect our sense of self-worth
Procrastination is not a time-management problem; it’s an emotion regulation problem. So let’s get deeper into it.
I Procrastination is something our brain naturally does
The brain is pretty amazing. It is probably the most complex thing humankind currently knows. And yet, it can sometimes seem, well, a little lazy. The problem is, our brains are programmed to be more drawn toward instant gratification than toward future benefits; they’ll rather take immediate satisfaction than focus on the big picture and delay pleasure for the sake of long-term goals. In general, we struggle with tasks that require effort now in return to future possible benefits. That is why it can be so difficult to stick to long-term goals such as weight-loss programs or saving for retirement.
An interesting study from UCLA showed that, when we imagine our future self, our brain’s activity is similar to as if we’re imagining someone else completely. In other words, when you imagine yourself a day, a week, a month from now, it’s like you’re imagining, say, a mailman or a worker you said “Hi” to once at a random store. A complete stranger. So, in a nutshell, an emotional part of your brain doesn’t really care about your future self as much as it does for your present self. Not even close.
Looking from this perspective, procrastination makes sense. It explains why it’s so easy to procrastinate, and why it takes effort and active attention to break the pattern and actually start working on something you know is important for your future self, but your present self doesn’t like doing.
II We procrastinate as a way to deal with stress
Here is a funny paradox – although we know procrastination, long-term, increases our stress levels and brings a whole bunch of uncomfortable emotions, initially, we may use procrastination as a stress-relief habit.
When we feel stressed, drained, overwhelmed, or we have a low level of frustration tolerance (low ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings or stressful situations), our brains may use procrastination as a way to gain some strength and energy in the present moment. If you have something stressful going on in your life, if your brain is filled with overthinking, worrying, overplanning, anxiety, high expectations, etc., and you have something boring or challenging to deal with, your brain may be like: “Are you kidding me?! I can’t deal with this too! Give me some break!”. So, we turn to procrastination as a way to try to lower the level of stress by doing something we find less overwhelming. Watching cat videos is much less demanding than making 15 phone calls, isn’t it?
Since your brain is, pretty shortsighted, it automatically turns to short-term stress relief, even though, long term, stress will increase due to procrastination. If this worked a couple of times, your brain may start adopting procrastination as a habit it can turn to when you need to deal with something you have no motivation for and your stress levels are high.
But what about situations when we procrastinate on things we love and value, those that are really important to us?
III We procrastinate as a way to maintain a good self-image
Here is an even funnier paradox than the previous one – when we really, really want to succeed, but are also very, very scared of failure, we may self-sabotage as a way to self-protect. In other words, we may use procrastination as both, a way to sabotage ourselves and, that way, preserve our good self-image. Let’s explain.
The self-worth theory of motivation asserts that one of our primary needs, as human beings, is the need to be accepted, by ourselves and others, and the primary way we see this happening is through achievement. In other words, we feel the need to be seen as competent and capable, because this gives us a sense of self-worth, and we are ready to sacrifice our other needs to preserve that image.
Basically, many of us have a simple model in our head that our performance determines our inner capabilities and our skills, which determine our success, and this success determines our self-worth, how we think about ourselves. Naturally, when this is the case and we are facing an important task, our anxiety and fear of failure skyrocket. Performing well on a task becomes crucial because, if we fail, it is not just the work we did that is at stake, it’s our self-image as well. But we still want to do it, it’s something we value and find important. So we have two strong forces battling inside us – a driving desire to achieve and a paralyzing fear of failure.
When the desire to succeed and the fear of failure clash…
We can strive for success, really want to do something, but at the same time be afraid of failure and what it means for us. When we are overly striving both away and toward something, we can feel stuck. This is exactly how people often describe procrastination – as being stuck, against a wall, feeling like having an obstacle they can’t get over.
When this is the case, we may use procrastination as a “middle ground” between these two motivations, a smart strategy to protect the picture of ourselves as capable individuals. If we procrastinate on a task that we value and care about, there are two scenarios:
- If we fail, we have built a good excuse for ourselves – “Well, I didn’t have enough time to do it better. It’s probably not an accurate representation of my abilities”.
- If, on the other hand, we succeed, we can say to ourselves how capable we are – “Wow, I succeeded despite such a short time I had”.
It’s a win-win situation. Except it is not, because we sacrifice our peace of mind and, often, the quality of our work.
So, how to fight this?
How to stop procrastinating?
The first step toward overcoming procrastination is to be aware of it. Procrastination comes in many disguises, from guilty Netflix nights to being “busy” and doing seemingly important tasks to avoid what is really important. It’s not always easy to recognize procrastination for what it is, until it’s too late. To overcome it, you first need to stop and notice it. The second and crucial step is unravelling what lies behind it. What is your, individual reason for putting things off? From there, you can take some steps toward managing those reasons and get rid of procrastination. Here are some suggestions and tips.
I Fight procrastination by training your instant-gratification brain
Sometimes, when it comes to doing things that we are not motivated or we don’t like doing, we need a little extra push to get things going. Two things can be helpful to overcome our brains’ automatic tendency to grasp for instant satisfaction:
Re-balance the cost-benefit analysis
Instead of letting the emotional part of your brain run the show, turn up your logical, rational side. Consciously make the benefits of taking action feel bigger and the disadvantages of the “pain of doing it” feel smaller. So, you want to focus on the reward of taking action or finishing a task and make it outweigh the pain of tackling it. For example, you can visualize how great it feels to tick it off of your to-do list, or tie finishing each step of a task to a treat, to something you’re looking forward to. Try experimenting and see what works for you to re-balance things and get started.
Bridge the gap between your present self and your future self
Be aware that your brain is short-sighted and that it sees your future self almost as a stranger. Thus, keep reminding yourself – it’s still going to be you. You, with your kind of thinking, your memories, your experiences, your problems, and if you don’t take action now, you’ll probably have another set of problems to deal with. Imagine if you had to face those problems right now – how would you feel? Really try to bring that feeling into the present moment. Uncomfortable? That’s exactly how you’re going to feel if you let the consequences of your inaction for your future self to deal with.
In a similar manner, when you set goals, while it’s important to imagine long-term benefits, make sure your present self knows what’s in it for them too. Find a way to make the process more enjoyable short term. Play with little rewards and see what feels good each step of the way.
II Beat procrastination when you are stressed and overwhelmed
Like any habit, procrastination can be broken, or changed. In short, every habit has three parts: trigger, response, and reward. In the case of procrastination, the trigger is stress. Your response is avoiding the task. The reward is a little bit of stress relief. What you can change in this cycle is your response. You are always going to have stresses in your life – you can’t change that, but you can acknowledge it and change the way you respond to it.
So, instead of seeking stress relief by avoiding a task (and then beating yourself up about it and becoming more stressed), you can:
1. Take the time to notice what’s going on underneath
Stop and acknowledge what is really stressing you out and taking your energy.
2. Avoid self-criticism
Forgive yourself for wanting to avoid the stress by procrastinating. There is no need to criticize yourself; that will increase the stress.
3. Identify the first step and use the “5-minute trick”
When we have to deal with something complex, it can be difficult to start because it can seem overwhelming. Finding the smallest first step that you can start with is usually helpful. A goal or a task like: “Learn Italian” is huge, and facing it in that form can feel paralyzing. On the other hand, “Search for an Italian language teacher and contact them” or “Go to the bookstore and buy an A1 Italian language workbook” seem much more manageable. To make it even easier, commit to working on the first (or any) step for only 5 minutes. Usually, you will find yourself continuing beyond that, but it’s a good place to start, because that is the most difficult step.
4. Find another way to get stress relief
Your brain needs some energy, and is trying to get it in an inefficient way – through procrastination. Make sure to compensate, but from a different source, something that is better and healthier for you. Promise yourself that after the work you do, you will do something to recharge yourself. This is not self-indulgence, but a reasonable way to look at your needs and provide yourself with enough energy to continue functioning efficiently.
To sum up, these steps may go something like this: “I procrastinate – I may be stressed about this and this and that – It’s okay, I need some relief, and my brain is trying to do this by turning to procrastination. Let’s change that. I will work on this for a limited amount of time, and instead of inefficiently trying to get some energy through procrastination, I will provide it to myself by doing this and this and that afterward”.
III Overcome procrastination when it comes from fear of failure
People who are very fearful of failure (and many high-achievers and perfectionists fall into this category) often have a kind of simplistic model in their mind: performance = ability = worth. Sometimes we procrastinate on things that are important to us, that we love and value, because we are scared to make a mistake and what that would mean for us and our self-image.
If you recognize yourself in this, here are a few things you can do:
1. Notice it for what it is and don’t let it slide
Ask yourself what is going on, what you’re afraid of. What kind of uncomfortable feelings does this task inflict on you? Then think about how realistic this kind of thinking actually is. Are you focusing on the negative or catastrophizing? Is some kind of black and white thinking present? Do you impose some “should” or “musts” on yourself? Talking to a therapist about it can also help.
2. Change your self-talk and tame your expectations
Catch criticism or perfectionism and realize it’s not helpful. Instead, you can look at things as an opportunity to experiment. Have a kind and friendly attitude toward yourself and approach a task with curiosity: “Let’s see how this will go” instead of “Everyone will think I’m a failure”. Self-compassion is incredibly helpful in this, you may want to incorporate it into the way you think and treat yourself.
3. Focus on your values instead of on your fears
Think about your values, what is important to you, and connect them with a task you do. How can you make this task less scary? Instead of focusing on what you are fearful of and why you don’t want to do the task, come up with a list of why you want to do the task, what is drawing you toward it, what is motivating you.
4. Challenge the performance–ability–worth relationship
You are more than your accomplishments. You don’t appreciate your friends because of their performance, academic or career success, but because of their other qualities, such as kindness, humor, loyalty, their ability to listen, their quirks and uniqueness. Our abilities and performance are connected, that’s true, but not always; there are many factors that determine our performance. We don’t always perform perfectly, even though our abilities may exceed what we show at the moment. It goes vice versa as well – admit it, there were situations in your life when you got lucky and got an A on a test when you really didn’t deserve it.
Be mindful of your natural brain’s tendency to procrastinate and re-balance things.
Be gentle with yourself and find a way to de-stress in a healthy way.
Acknowledge the fear, and take it along for a ride. You got this.
Do you have some useful tips on how to deal with procrastination? Share them with us in the comment section below! If you like this blog post and find it useful, please be free to share it with others.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Emotional intelligence is the capability to accurately identify and monitor your and other people’s feelings, as well as the ability to effectively manage your emotions.
You may know that general intelligence (IQ) can be important for success. But did you know that emotional intelligence (EQ) is equally, if not even more important?
Emotional intelligence is a key element of success in the workplace, as well as for happy and healthy relationships. Research shows that high EQ leads to better communication, effective conflict management, and empathy toward others. It also helps us connect with our feelings and live in tune with our true selves. It is, therefore, not surprising that emotional intelligence is essential for reaching personal and career goals and for building successful professional and personal relationships.
The term emotional intelligence first appeared during the ’80s and was later popularized by psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Goleman. He suggested there are 5 elements of emotional intelligence. Each of these elements can be developed and improved, and the more you have them in check, the higher your EQ should be.
5 Important Elements of Emotional Intelligence
- Self-awareness – A critical part of emotional intelligence is being able to understand and monitor your own emotions. It also refers to the capability to recognize the relationship between your behaviours, motivations, and feelings. Being self-aware means you are in tune with your emotions and values and see yourself realistically. It also means you’re aware of how others perceive you and understand how your moods and emotions affect other people.
- Self-regulation – Another important part of emotional intelligence is being able to think before you act, to control your impulses and direct your emotions appropriately. This means you are flexible and able to modulate your feelings when facing change or stressful situations. Good self-regulation also refers to having integrity and taking responsibility for your actions.
- Motivation –People with high EQ are pretty good at motivating themselves without relying on external sources such as money or recognition. What drives them is a higher purpose, internal values that move them forward. They set goals that they see value in and combine inner drive and discipline to reach those goals. Correspondingly, they have the ability to motivate others.
- Empathy – The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and act accordingly is a big part of emotional intelligence. When we recognize how others feel and approach them with something they can relate to, we are creating a connection. This plays an important role in building relationships, managing conflicts, motivating people or helping them see the bigger picture.
- Social skills – The capability to communicate well and find common ground with others is crucial for creating good, stable, and meaningful relationships. Crucial skills in this domain include, for example, active listening, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, leadership, and persuasiveness.
How Does Emotional Intelligence Look Like In Practice?
In everyday life, we can see emotional intelligence in someone’s sensitivity to the moods of others and the ability to grasp the point of view of other people or as readiness to see what is going on with them beneath the surface. High emotionally intelligent people can, for example, recognize that someone’s angry outbursts may come from the feeling of helplessness or fear. Thus, they can act accordingly instead of jumping into defence mode immediately. Similarly, emotional intelligence allows us to recognize emotions and motivations behind our own behaviours or behind some other emotions that may mask real feelings. From there, high EQ helps us manage those feelings and direct them appropriately.
Some signs of high EQ:
- You are able to stop and think before you act
- You are able to objectively watch your thoughts
- You show empathy and understanding for others
- You recognize your mistakes and offer a genuine apology
- You have a moment-to-moment connection with your emotional experience
- You know your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your values
Emotional intelligence is about being open and ready to connect – with others and with yourself, practicing and balancing both is the key to raising your EQ.
Would you like to test your EQ and learn more about your personality characteristics? With our highly trained professionals, you can assess your Emotional Intelligence through Profile Evaluation System (PES) to get an extensive, well-rounded, and comprehensive description of different aspects of your personality, including your EQ.
Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Ioannidou, F., & Konstantikaki, V. (2008). Empathy and emotional intelligence: What is it really about. International Journal of caring sciences, 1(3), 118-123. Online HERE
Rahim, M. A., Psenicka, C., Polychroniou, P., Zhao, J. H., Yu, C. S., Chan, K. A., … & van Wyk, R. (2002). A model of emotional intelligence and conflict management strategies: A study in seven countries. The International journal of organizational analysis. Online HERE
January is the month of new beginnings, new decisions, new choices. For many, the month of January, looking from the distance of December, feels like it’s going to be a fresh start, a blank page that will be filled with great choices we missed to make in the previous year. This time is going to be different. Right? But, with the year 2020 unfolding, it’s not uncommon that people struggle to keep up with their New Year’s resolutions. Somewhere along the way, they realize that sticking to their decisions is too difficult, or that those goals are not that important, or that “they just don’t feel like it”. What happens?
That strong urge for change that pushed us to make New Year’s resolutions – called motivation – faded away. This is not surprising – keeping high levels of motivation, in the long run, is tricky. Knowing a little bit more about how motivation works might help you achieve and keep your resolutions.
A Closer Look Into the Nature of Motivation
There are different definitions of motivation out there, but the majority basically boils down to this:
Motivation is a desire to act in pursuit of your goals. It pushes you to act, to behave in a certain way to get what you want or need.
You certainly felt this drive before, this urge to move and take action. It felt awesome, it pushed you toward reaching your goals, you felt energized and willing to engage – yes, in short, you felt motivated. But motivation is not easy to maintain. That initial spark fades away after some time and is, typically, not enough. That’s because motivation consists of three components:
- Activation – the initial decision to make things happen
- Persistence – the continued effort toward a goal despite the obstacles
- Intensity – how hard you work for your goal
Further, there are basically two types of motivation:
Extrinsic motivation comes from an external source – to get a reward or to avoid punishment.
Intrinsic motivation comes from the inside, from within us – we do something because we enjoy it.
Both types of motivation are important. However, it turns out that intrinsic motivation is more powerful.
What does this mean for you? Only knowing that something is good for you is not enough to push you to make a change; a considerable reward has to be in play. This can be something external, like social recognition, money, or approval for example, or internal, like a sense of purpose or the feeling of deep fulfilment that comes from acting in accordance with your core values. Ideally, both should be present, but even one can be enough to push you forward through all three above mentioned components of motivation.
Staying Motivated Throughout the Year – Action Plan
In terms of New Year’s resolutions, if you want them to stick, the first crucial step is to turn them from a wish/decision to a goal. But it’s not just any goal; to keep you motivated, your goal needs to be a certain way to enhance the energy you need to get to the destination:
- Optimally challenging – meaning you need to put the effort in, but it’s realistic and not too hard,
- Specific – meaning your energy is directed toward a particular outcome,
- Congruent with self – meaning your goal is in line with your values.
Additionally, here are 4 additional hacks that can help you get and stay motivated throughout the year:
1. Find your why
Nothing drives us like a strong feeling of purpose. The question WHY we do something is crucial, and if the answer is in line with our personal values, it is a huge push forward. To find out what your personal core values are requires tapping into your deepest self and asking: “What kind of life do I want to live?“. If you can connect your work and goals to your core values, it becomes a powerful source of motivation.
2. Focus on who you want to become
People interpret situations and difficulties in accordance with how they perceive themselves, and choose actions that feel congruent with their identity. For example, if someone believes that they’re a “loser”, sometimes they will choose actions that will reinforce this belief, and not choose actions that are incongruent with this picture of themselves because “it’s not for people like me”.
Thus, for increasing motivation, it can be more effective to focus on the identity – who you want to become – than on the ability – what you want to achieve. If you want to, for example, start going to the gym more often, the reason: “Because I’m (becoming) an athlete/healthy/good looking person” might be more motivating than: “Because I need to exercise more/have a healthier lifestyle”.
3. Set small milestones
Sometimes, setting a goal can feel intimidating because it looks too big to achieve. A crucial thing to not crush your motivation down is to divide large tasks into small, manageable parts, and do one at a time. Your brain will get a hit of dopamine every time you tick one small task off of a list, which will keep you motivated.
4. “CHOOSE” instead of “MUST”
A slight shift in the language can make big changes in the mindset. Sometimes the things we’re not motivated to do and see as a chore are, if we stop and think about it, the things that we are grateful for. “I have to go to work” and “I get to go to work” sound very different, don’t they?
And don’t forget – motivation is not a one-time thing. It has to be reinforced day after day. As Zig Ziglar wisely said: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”
How do you keep yourself motivated? Share it with us in the comments. Additionally, if you like this post, please be free to share it with your friends and family.
Happy new beginnings!
Armstrong, M., & Taylor, S. (2020). Armstrong’s handbook of human resource management practice. Kogan Page Publishers.
Hockenbury, D. H., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2010). Discovering psychology. Macmillan.
Do you feel like the same situations keep happening to you over and over again? Do you keep attracting partners that don’t fulfill your needs or you face the same problems in different relationships? Are you struggling with the same stresses and conflicts at work, or you keep losing your jobs? It’s like you’re a magnet for people who hurt you, or embarrassing situations, or bullies at work, etc.
I am sure that, at least once in your life, you have said or thought something like: “Why this keeps happening to me all the time?”. And really, why? Is it some kind of a mystic cosmic power that brings these experiences to your life? Fortunately, psychology has a more realistic explanation to why you keep entering the same unpleasant situations all over again. Let’s explore what actually happens.
Frameworks You Live By
From the moment you are born, you are in a survival mode. During your childhood, your little mind is programmed to absorb everything that is happening around you in order to learn and adapt to your environment. You pull in the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideals of those around you. By interacting with your parents or primary caregivers, you form certain beliefs about yourself, other people, and life in general. These beliefs are the product of the way you interpreted behaviours of your important adults and how they treated your needs, as well as things they were telling you about other people, rules, and life in general.
Of course, not all parents are the same. Thus, some will be convinced that life is a fight, you are not allowed to make mistakes and need to be perfect in order to succeed or be loved and appreciated. For others, life will be a scary and dangerous place full of people waiting to hurt you, so you need to be careful who you trust and never let your guard down. Some will, on the other hand, believe that life is easy and fun, that people usually have good intentions and that, whatever you do, everything will be okay in the end.
These belief systems become the frameworks we live by. They are like colored glasses that affect how we see everything unfolding in our lives. More importantly, these beliefs direct our decision making, condition our behaviour and, ultimately, affect how others react to our behaviours and how they treat us.
Now, imagine a situation that you’re going to a party where you don’t know almost anyone.
Version 1: You’re afraid nobody will talk to you because believe you’re boring or not good with new people. Consequentially, you will probably feel self-conscious and anxious, and enter the party acting awkward, standoffish and not so friendly. As a result, people will not be encouraged to come to you and start a conversation, which will only, in turn, reinforce beliefs you already had.
Version 2: You strongly believe that you’re an interesting person and others will be open to meet you. You think: “This party is going to be great”. People will probably be drawn by your openness and outgoing attitude and come talk to you, which also proves you were right in your beliefs in the first place.
This effect is called a self-fulfilling prophecy, a term coined by famous sociologist, Robert Merton.
Merton noticed that sometimes a belief brings about consequences that cause reality to match the belief. He defined self-fulfilling prophecy as “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1968).
In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief or expectation that we hold about a future event that manifests because we hold it. Our expectations and predictions of what will happen impact our behaviour, which shapes how others see us and how they act toward us. In turn, they provide feedback we set ourselves to get in the first place, which serves to reinforce the original belief. Generally, this process is unintentional – we are not aware that our beliefs cause the consequences we expect or fear. And that’s exactly why it’s so difficult to tackle them down and start changing them.
Breaking the Cycle Can Be Hard…
Breaking the cycle of entering the same situations over and over again can be tricky, in the first place because we don’t see our fundamental beliefs as beliefs but as actual facts about the world. Subconsciously, it’s important for us to prove that our beliefs about how life works are “right” because it gives us a sense of security. If we “know” the rules by which the world functions, we feel like we can prepare and know what to expect. That’s why we filter information so they can fit our belief system. We rate experiences that are in line with our beliefs as an important “proof” that our frameworks are actually true, while we label those opposite to our frameworks as unimportant coincidences that won’t impact the way we see the world.
Over time, these patterns of thought and behaviour become our automatic response, a sort of a habitual reaction to circumstances. Researchers believe we have neural pathways in our brains that are reinforced by habit. The more you repeat the behaviour, the stronger your neural pathway for that behaviour becomes, and the easier it triggers the next time.
It’s like a forest dirt road – the more you walk on it, the more well-established it becomes. You have an automatic impulse to walk down that well-worn path, rather than on the grassy part. However, this dirt road often leads to the same destination. To break the cycle, you need to consciously resist the urge to stay on the road you know and start walking on the grass to a different direction. Over time, as you repeat taking the same route on the grass, another path will form and it will be easier to walk on.
One thing you can do to make the first step toward exiting the circle of “attracting” the same problems is to, for starters, let go of certainty. It’s important to understand that much of what you think you know about yourself, other people, and life, is more probably a belief and less probably a fact. It is a product of your upbringing and your past experiences. But the good news is that we can choose our beliefs and, therefore, change them.
You can start off by choosing a pattern that you want to break out of. Then, write down the past five times when it happened. List all the details about those situations – how did it happened, what led to it, why you think it happened. Now, try to find commonalities across these situations. In the end, try to find what part you play in these situations? Are there any behaviours that might have led you to the common outcome?
Here is a list of questions that might be helpful in discovering a pattern and your part in it:
- What keeps happening over and over again?
- How does it start?
- What happens next?
- And then what happens?
- How does it end?
- How do you feel after it ends? (John James, 1973)
This process is crucial for changing your patterns. It gives the opportunity to tackle down the reason you might have taken up a particular role and contributed to the outcome that keeps happening. From there, you can set up a goal – what you want to change and what results to get – and then map out a different path from the one you’re taking now.
It’s absolutely okay if you’re not able to identify the reason behind the same situations repeating in your life by yourself. A good therapist can help you figure out where you’re standing and how to proceed.
Please share your thoughts and experiences on the topic down below in the comments, it’s always amazing to hear it! Also, don’t forget to share this post on your social media.