Rejection is a pain – 10 ways to reduce it happening in intimate relationships.

 

To start this article, I want to begin with a simple premise: Physical pain and the pain from being rejected are the same. The human brain and the brain of other social animals reacts the same whether someone is dying from a chronic illness, being shocked, or being dumped by an intimate partner or being denied entry into a group. However, we for some reason like to separate the two, and place rejection within the realm of emotions (which as humans we falsely think are controllable) and physical injury in the domain of the uncontrollable (after all it was not their fault the sidewalk was there when they fell off their bike while trying to do a hand stand). What I mean by these statements is we tend to empathize with physical injury and forgive the reasons, but we tend to consider the suffering from reject as a sign of weakness and not being of hardy stalk. However, our world view of rejection is wrong, and by correcting this view, we can heal from the pain of rejection better, heal faster, and regain a sense of stability. To do this I think it is useful to use a common form of rejection and that is intimate partner rejection and I want to compare that to a more long-term physical disease such as cancer. I like this analogy because both rejection of an intimate partner and the development of cancer can occur very quickly or they both can sit dormant for years until an escalating moment. The second, is once cancer and the possibility of the loss of an intimate partner is made apparent both disease states tend to accelerate in their progression. Third, once the cancer is removed or the person leaves there is no guarantee of recovery or that one will not experience the disease ever again. Finally, I think this is a good analogy because we need to be honest both cancer and rejection from a close intimate partner can both lead to death. Indeed, the number one cause of homicide in the United States is intimate partner homicide, and over the past three decades cheating – the ultimate form of rejection – has become the number one reason for intimate partner homicide. Additionally, suicidal behavior is often followed by rejection, especially of a close intimate partner. With these four similarities in mind let us move on and explore how we can heal successfully.

I want to start our comparison by first stating a simple disease step model, I think by using this simple model it will be easier to come to understand how rejection occurs and the pain process:

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There are a few qualities of this comparison that I like to make. First is that it is a progression, while it may seem like it at times, when two people are truly intimately connected they do not just wake up one morning and say “I am leaving”. There is always a progression that continually erodes the relationship much like a cancer erodes and destroys a healthy body. A good example of this is research that interviewed divorced individuals and indicated that when the individual really starts to analyze their relationship, the relationship started to erode about two years before the individuals start to realize there is a problem.

The second thing that I hope the reader recognizes is that while this is a very general model, the processes are almost identical – BUT – the major difference is how the individual tends to respond, especially as both diseases progress. This is largely due to our belief systems that (1) a person should have control over their relationship, and (2) if there is a problem one should be able to fix it, if the couple ‘really’ loves each other. I think it is worth taking some time exploring these two faulty belief systems. The first is the illusion of control, the fact is, you and your partner, can do everything perfect. You can follow all the relationship advise, treat each other with complete respect, cherish one another completely, and guess what? – You can still end up being a divorce statistic. Please do not take this as a criticism of humans and our ability to have long lasting relationships. Remember the analogy between physical disease and rejection. A person can eat right, exercise, refrain from toxins and they can still end up having cancer or dying young of heart disease. This same principle applies to human relationships. With that being said, we should not end up be complete skeptics of our health or our relationships. The person who eats right and exercises will have a much better quality of life even if they still end up with a disease. The same goes with relationships, while all relationships may end, the more we invest healthily into them the higher the quality of experiences we have. The second illusion that if two people really love each other they should be able to fix it, I think comes from our overall illusion that we can also control our own fate.

Especially in highly individualistic societies, like the one here in the United States, individuals tend to believe that everything good and bad that a person does OR that a person experiences is solely due to the actions and beliefs of that individual. In other words, we maintain bad beliefs such as “she broke up with you because you are a bad person”, or “If he can’t love you because of who you are, no one else is going to either”. Now we should qualify this, because for much of western society’s history we did this with physical diseases, so once we believed that people got cancer because the gods were punishing them for being a sinner, or a person has a mental illness because they had a weak mind that allowed them to be possessed by some demon. It was not until western medicine and science started to debunk these myths that we started to see physical diseases as we do today – Although there are still some people who believe that diseases are a punishment from god, but that a whole other article.  It is in this same tradition of science that I write this article, in that we know enough scientifically about human relationships, that placing the entire fault for rejection on a single person or a single occurrence or process is ridiculous. So, if it is not because one person changes, that ruins a relationship, then what is it? As you think about this question you probably thinking that it is an unsolvable question, but it is actually fairly simple, change is the culprit to eventual rejection. But before I explain this there is one more faulty belief system that we must first address. That faulty belief is that we as individuals do not change greatly over time, and that our personality, beliefs, and who we are at the core does not change. The fact is you will be a different person five years from now than you are today. Indeed, you probably been a different person several times today already. Let me provide a simple example, what if someone secretly recorded you alone in your bedroom, out with friends at night, playing with your kids, and let us say giving a big work presentation. I am willing to bet if I blurred your face and changed your voice in each scenario and played it back to you, you would report seeing and hearing four (amazing) but different individuals. The truth is we are who we are based on (a) the demands of the situation, (b) our skills and ability to respond to the situation, and (c) our ability to comprehend the situation. Additionally, each situation demands something different from us, and therefore we must respond to a situation differently. However, because it would make us crazy to think we have so many different selves, which would lead us to feeling very unstable, our mind and brain have developed the illusion that we are consistent and stable overtime. In fact, we have gotten so good at this that we can change memories going clear back into childhood to make them congruent with who we are today without even realizing it is happening. The problem is, if I am stable and that is core to who I am, then my relationships remain stable and the same, because they are also core to my own identity. Therefore, any time a person has relationship difficulties, they sadly try to reset the relationship to “how we use to be when we first fell in love”. As you can guess, this almost always ends up failing. Indeed, most successful couples when they reach a point of recognizing their relationship has eroded, recognize first how much they and their partner has changed, and instead of rekindling the old flame, they go through process of courting and falling in love with this new person and leave that old relationship behind. It is as Mignon McLaughlin stated, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person” – but should add with the same person as they are today.

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So the question that remains is given that any relationship no matter of the healthy behaviors the couple engages in, how does one have a long lasting relationship and decrease the chances of eventual rejection and loss.

 

#1 – Engage in healthy relationship behaviors, say “I love you” daily, touch, communicate, be honest with feelings for each other, doing things together, etc. For this there are plenty of relationship books that can help couples learn exercises of a health relationship.

 

#2 – Self-awareness. The ability to recognize one’s own physical and mental state as it relates to one’s situation is what we call self-awareness. We often go through our day with a narrow window of self-awareness because that all we really need to get through the common roles we have in life. However, it is advised to at least once a week for at least 30 minutes a person becomes completely self-aware of their physical, social, and psychological world. After which, engaging in self-reflection about how one is doing, how one is changing, and how one is feeling about their current situation is an important and provides a person with a guide. This can be done through several mediums such as journaling, yoga, meditation, prayer (if your religious), or any form activity that allows you to be aware of where you are completely as a person.

 

#3 – Recognize and embrace change. Accept that change is going to happen and that means you will need to continually work at your relationship. Never assume that your relationship is like a rock and is unbendable or unbreakable.

 

#4 – Continually try new things. Stagnation is like stopping exercise or eating right when it comes to relationship health. Yes there are times in all our lives when we do the day-to-day grind. However, actively seeking ways to engage one’s interest, discover new things, and engage one’s world differently can provide great learning opportunities and relationship bonding moments.

 

#5 – This probably should be number 1 – but remember if you decide to live in a radioactive bucket – do not be surprised if you get cancer. In same vein, if you live your life with toxic people, do not be surprised if you always are experiencing rejection and loss. Sometimes the people we desire  – are reason for our disease – just like I know if I continue eating chocolate cake I will gain weight and run risk of heart disease.

 

#6 – Be human! Often, we think that the perfect relationship is a relationship without conflict and problems. We forget that relationships are made by imperfect people, and therefore are inherently not perfect. Be honest with feelings, do not hide your faults, and encourage your partner to do the same.

 

#7 – Do not ignore other social relationships. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the excitement of an intimate relationship we let other important relationships in our lives weaken or even completely abandoned. Remember that we are a social creators, and we all have a differing needs for both social connections and emotional connections. When we do not maintain the needed level for both, we can find ourselves in deep despair, loneliness, and possibly depression. While it is wonderful to fall in love, remember that you both need to fall in love with each other’s complete world.

 

#8 – Maintain connection through common beliefs. Interestingly the idea of opposite attracts is not true when it comes to long successful relationships. Indeed, individuals who are in long-term relationships – and are still in love – have the same or similar belief systems and attitudes. Identify these early on in a relationship and nurture them together.

 

#9 – Intimate relationship that include sexuality, should be a vibrant sexuality. I often gross out my younger students when lecturing on long-term relationships, because I ask “how many have grandparents who were married for most of their lives and still really love each other?”. I then explain to these students that when it comes to sexuality, your grandparents were – and still probably are – freaks in the bedroom. Indeed, we find that individuals in long-term loving relationships tend to try new things, get adventurous with each other, and never let their sexually intimate life become stagnate. Now there are always those exceptions where one or both partners, usually due to health problems, lose interest in sex and we know that sex interests vary across the life span. We still find that individual who are going through a period of low sexuality or loss of their sexual life, tend to compensate in different ways such as increasing and diversifying other pleasurable couple activities.

 

#10 – Understand your own ‘life space’ and the life space of your partner. A famous social psychologist, Kirt Lewin, introduced the idea of life space, as a way to try and visually represent human behavior. If you can imagine a large bubble, that contains all of a person possibilities, then you understand visually what one’s life space is. But first what is meant by all of a person’s possibilities? Lewin recognized that every situation that we find our self in there is a range of possible reactions to that situation. All of one’s possible reactions is one’s life space. So, let me give an example, a school teacher who is making 40,000 a year, is at a car show where she is presented with the opportunity to purchase a $200,000 luxury car. Is this part of the teacher’s life space or range of possibilities? Given her income, cost of insurance, other financial obligations, the probability of buying the luxury car given the teacher’s current life space is very very small. Now the teacher recognizing that the car is not within her current life space can do things to add to it, life get a higher paying job, pay off lots of bills etc etc. But unfortunately, we do not live in a world of what we could do, we often live in the here and now, and understanding our current life space helps us understand our limits and abilities when it comes to actually engaging in a intimate relationship. Once we are aware of it, then and only then can we recognize how it will impact our current relationship, but also what we need to work at, so that the range of possibilities within a relationship can increase through the expansion of our own life space. The other reason for bring up the concept of life space is we often need to recognize the boundaries of our partner’s life space. If you are approaching a relationship with the intent on changing someone, you might as well start saving for the divorce now. For a person to change they must recognize the limitations of their own life space and have the tools and ability to expand their space. Now this does not mean if someone does not meet all your standards that you should not consider being in a relationship with them, but it does mean that you will need to sacrifice something to have that relationship – and sometimes sacrifice is okay.

Sources

Ang, C.S., Mansor, A.T., & Tan, K.A. (2014). Pange of loneliness breed material lifestyle but don’t power up life satisfaction of young people: The moderating effect of gender. Social Indicators Research, 117, 353-365

Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., Berntson, G.G., Ernst, J.M., Gibbs, A.C., Stickgold, R., & Hobson, J.A. (2002). Do lonely days invade the nights? Potential social modulation of sleep efficiency. Psychological Science, 13(4), 384-387

Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., & Preacher, K.J. (2010). Loneliness impairs daytime functioning but not sleep duration. Health Psychology, 29(2), 124-129

Cacioppo, J.T., Hawkley, L.C., & Thisted, R.A. (2009). Loneliness predicts reduced physical activity: Cross-sectional & longitudinal analyses. Health Psychology, 28(3), 354-363

Cyranowski, J.M., Zill, N., Bode, R., Butt, Z., Kelly, M.A.R., Pilkonis, P.A., Salesman, J.M., & Cella, D. (2013). Assessing social support, companionship, and distress: National Institute of Health (NIH) toolbox adult social relationship scales. Health Psychology 32(3), 293-301

Demir, M., Jaafar, J., Bilyk, N., Ariff, H.R.M. (2012). Social skills, friendship, and happiness: A cross-cultural investigation. The Journal of Social Psychology 152(3), 379-385

Gunn III, J.F., Lester, D., Haines, J., & Williams, C.L. (2012). Thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness in suicide notes. Crisis 33(3) 178-181

Lieberman, M.D. (2013). Social: How our brains are wired to connect. New York, NY: Broadway Books

Olson, K.L., & Wong, E.H. (2001). Loneliness and Marriage, 28(2), 105-111

Segrin, C., & Domschke, T. (2011). Social support, loneliness, recuperative processes, and their direct and indirext effects on health. Health Communications, 26, 221-232

Segrin, C. & Passalacqua, S.A. (2010). Functions of  loneliness, social support, health behaviors, and stress association with poor health. Health Communications, 25, 312-322

Shankar, A., McMunn, A., Banks, J., & Steptoe, A. (2011). Loneliness, social isolation, and behavioral and biological health indicators in older adults. Health Psychology 30(4) 377-385

Zimmer-Gembeck, M.J., Trevaskis, S., Nesdale, D., & Downey, G.A. (2014). Relational victimization, loneliness and depressive symptoms: Indirect associations via self and peer reports of rejection sensitivity. Journal of Youth Adolescents. 43, 568-582

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10 Qualities of a Happy Person

By: Curtis Peterson ©

Scrolling through my recent articles, which has been awhile, I noticed that I have focused on some negative attributes of the human condition such as loneliness and violence. With this in mind, I decided to write an article on more positive aspects of being human such as happiness and fulfillment. The first thing I think we should describe is what is happiness.

Happiness is often described by its’ opposite pain. Pain is a negative physical-psychological state that indicates that there is something wrong with the person. Pain can be both physical – like a paper cut – or it can be psychological – like the pain of rejection. Interestingly, we do not need to spend much time differentiating between the two because recent neurological data suggests that both physical and psychological pain originate from the same place in the brain and undergo similar processes. However, healing from each may require different methods. However since pain is a signal to the individual that something is wrong, then it would make sense that happiness is the absence of pain – meaning everything is currently alright. However, happiness goes a bit further because it includes feelings of optimism, feelings of place, and a general feeling that at this moment things are the way they should be.

Now it is important to distinguish between two types of happiness. The first is situational happiness; this is the happiness that we experience when we have some special event that occurs such as a birthday, wedding, divorce, or graduation. This type of happiness can be likened to its’ opposite, which is extreme pain experienced due to situational factors such as a car accident – meaning (hopefully) these extreme forms of pain and happiness tend to be short lived. The other type of happiness is continuous happiness. There is a portion of our population that measure high in continuous happiness, which includes a heighten state of optimism, a general sense of justice, and along with optimism, and these individuals tend to see struggles as opportunities. Now, this is very important; this does not mean that these individuals do not struggle. Indeed, these people can be found across the socio-economic strata from impoverished individuals to wealthy, minorities to majorities. They also tend to face the same number of challenges as less happy people do, but they differ in one way. Continuously happy individuals tend to view current crises as part of the human experience and that they will not last forever. Now since the late 1990s, a group of psychologists started what is known as the positive psychology movement. The idea behind the movement is the recognition that most of what psychology has studied are the psychopathologies of life – or what we can call the pain and dysfunctional side of life’s spectrum – and very little time was spent looking at its’ opposite such as happiness, well-being, and positive motivation. These psychologists started to look for individuals who seemed to continually happy and content, and of course, once we found them we bugged them with surveys, brain scans, and observing them to try and determine what makes them unique. What has resulted is what I call the ten principles of continuously happy individuals. The ten are listed here with a description of each to follow:

1. Engaged life
2. Meaningful life
3. Authentic life
4. Have a spiritual belief or philosophy
5. Notion of Justice
6. Work and play
7. Positive evaluation of negative emotions
8. Positive view of the future
9. Social and emotional connections with other humans
10. Unconditional positive regard


Living an engaging, meaningful, and authentic life

Now let us look at each one of these starting with the first three: living an engaged, meaningful, and authentic life. These three were first formulated by John Seligman who is the founder of positive psychology. What he and others have found is that continuously happy people tend to:

First happy individuals live an engaged life, meaning that they do not see themselves as passive bystanders, but as an active participant in the human experience. These individuals can be identified by how they engage in every aspect of their life including work, family, friends, hobbies, and even rest. They tend to be very curious and want to learn more when they experience new things.

The second is living a meaningful life. Now having a meaningful life does not mean you become president of the United States and work tirelessly towards world peace, or become the top CEO of an organization. No living a meaningful life means that you find meaning in what you do, even the inconvenient tasks of life. Many of the individuals that psychologist has found that are continuously happy are not all successful by western standards in that they not necessarily financially wealthy or have a high-powered position such as doctors or CEO. I can remember reading the story of an elementary school janitor who measured high on a scale of happiness. When he was asked about his work, he said he didn’t think of his job as simply mopping floors and cleaning toilets, but rather preparing a clean and healthy environment for children to learn. I would like the reader to think about how the individual frames their daily work tasks from meaningless – just cleaning toilets – to meaningful – preparing a clean place for children to learn. That is the key to living a meaningful life: being able to take even the most mundane task and find the meaningful purpose.

Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 9.18.41 PM.pngThe third notion of this triad is living authentically. Most people think they are acting “real” or “being truly them” but when one digs deeper usually that real person is what we call a persona that the individual is wearing. What is a persona? The word persona was first used by Carl Jung and would eventually evolve into the word personality as we know it in psychology today. But the word persona is a Roman term which is a Greek mask that Roman actors wore when playing a Greek drama. Carl Jung liked this name because he believed that for the most part, we all wear masks and we have masks for different situations, but the true self lays somewhere behind that mask. Now we all must live in a world of social convention, with the exception of Walmart and college classrooms, it is usually not seen as appropriate to wear pajamas to social situations, and conversely while one can, it usually not socially acceptable to go to bed wearing a three-piece suit. So, in many ways, we will always have some type of persona that we must wear in our social world. However, a person who is truly authentic does not hide behind these social conventions. Now, this does not mean showing off your personality by being a loud-mouthed jerk – unless that authentically who you are. No this means truly letting people know who you are as an individual. One of the most authentic individuals I know, whenever engaging in a social group activity would say “I am extremely introverted, so I like to think things through before I talk about them socially, so please do not think me rude for being quiet through the first part of this group project.” Being authentic is the ability to express your needs, wants, and even negative qualities in order for others to have an understanding of who that person is as a human being. In a time of such political polarity, I had the chance to hear a truly authentic person when he said,

“Curtis I am a conservative, I have always voted conservative and even go to many conservative events, but that does not mean I agree with everything that conservatives stand for especially when it comes to their broader views about people in poverty”.

Both the student in the earlier statement and my conservative friend are what one would consider living with authenticity, meaning it okay to have beliefs and ideas and even lean towards one view or another, but being authentic means that one does not become completely entrenched into something that they start acting against their personal beliefs and attitudes and who they are as a person.

These three seem to be essential qualities of a truly happy person, but there are seven others that tend to be very common. We will start with spirituality


Spirituality

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-9-19-38-pmHappy individuals tend to have a deep sense of spirituality. Whether it is finding meaning in poetic naturalism, and seeing one’s self as an important chain in human evolution and life – or a religious individual who has a strong belief in their faith in God. In the most basic sense spirituality is the belief in something bigger than the self, that brings the individual meaning and purpose beyond just surviving from day to day. Now it is important to say you can be a hardcore atheist and a devoutly religious person and lack spirituality. Some individuals are indoctrinated into their belief system and believe what they believe because that is all they been taught by their family, friends, and communities. Usually, a person becomes spiritual, when they go through some spiritual experience that brings meaning to their life and helps them believe in something beyond their existence. For example, I had a good friend who went to a weekend Christian get away with his spouse, upon returning he found spiritual meaning in his life and has guided his actions since. This friend is doing amazing things working with kids and families. Another good friend of mine has found meaning in not having a religious belief, but having a deep respect and love for human potential and our places in this amazing universe – as she would say. Both individuals may have different belief systems, but they both would are considered highly spiritual in that they have found meaning for their existence beyond the self and simple survival.


Notion of Justice

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-9-20-46-pmIndividuals who tend to be happy have a belief in universal justice. For me, this is much like the idea of karma, in that the universe has ways of balancing out the injustices that we may experience from time to time and ultimately leads to fairness. This idea reminds me of the final justice that many of the domestic violence survivors I have worked with experience. One that comes to mind was a young woman when she was going through the criminal justice system and trying to get justice through the court saw very little help let alone justice, the most her abuser received was 30 days in jail for strangling her until she passed out. She and her kids were abused by this man with little justice over a three-year period. When through other means than the justice system she got out and started building her life on her own. Today she is married to a very loving and non-abusive man and she has become a school teacher. However, her ex-abuser has spent his life in and out of jail and now serving time for drug charges. This example is an example of the just world idea and that individuals eventually get what they deserve and justice, in the end, will always prevail. It is believed by many psychologists that this belief in justice is what helps happy individuals get through difficult times in their lives and can see the light at the end of the darkest tunnel.


Work and Play

Have you ever known someone who when they get to the end of the work week they get bummed and say instead of “I can’t wait until Friday” they say, “I can’t wait until Monday”? If you do know someone like this, you probably met a continuously happy individual. An interview with someone who scored high on this type of happiness stated, “I can’t tell the difference between the joy of spending the day at the beach, versus a day spent in the office.” Now, this is important to state at this point; happy individuals are not workaholics!! But when one lives a meaningful, purposeful, and authentic life both leisure and work become balanced in that one finds equal enjoyment in both.


Positive view of negative emotions and positive view of the future

The seventh and eighth concepts on our list go hand and hand with a qualitative difference. Having a positive view of negative emotions is an affective experience whereas positive view of the future is a cognitive one. A positive view of emotions is the ability to understand that (A) negative emotions are situationally bound, and (B) negative emotions have an important purpose in informing the individual that something is wrong.
Let’s begin with the first concept of emotions as being situationally bound. Emotions occur through an interaction between the person and their environment. The individual includes their current affective state and the person general view of life. Emotions, however, do not occur independently of the context that the individual is in – the situation. However, all too often individuals ignore the situation and feel that the emotions somehow has some transient state that must somehow go back to earlier traumas and experiences. This false belief leads to maladaptive ways of controlling one’s emotions through drinking, drugs, or other self-destructive behaviors. When in reality most negative emotions that individuals commonly experience can be alleviated simply by changing one’s situation. It is kind of like a common Sigmund Freud meme that says “Before diagnosing yourself with depression, make sure you are just not surrounded by assholes.” Truly happy people understand that negative emotions are transient experiences that can be changed by determining the situational cause.

The notion of situational causes leads to the second important aspect in the way happy individuals interpret emotions. Happy individuals understand that negative emotions have an important adaptive purpose in signaling to the individual that there is something wrong in their current situation. They also understand that they have control of their situation and have the ability to change it in some manner. Therefore, they see negative emotions as an opportunity to change rather than some continued state that leads to depression and agony.

The second concept – and number eight on our list – is having a positive view of the future. If you have heard the country song and the saying: “if you are in hell, keep on going, and don’t give up” you understand the idea of having a positive view of the future. I said earlier that happy individuals have the same positive and negative experiences that we all experience. They lose loved ones, experience both marriage, and divorce, they know physical and psychological pain as we all do, but they do something different when they think about the negative experiences. Instead of getting stuck in the negative experience they have a strong belief that an experience can inform us but they do not define us. Using my example of working with individuals who were abused by their spouses, the most successful survivors see their experience as just that a life experience that helped them grow and be a better person. Whereas, individuals who tend to get in the cycle of abuse, tend to allow the abuse to define every aspect of who they are, being the victim becomes their identity. Knowing that we will always have both positive and negative experiences in life, but not one experience determines who we are as an individual, is important in becoming a happy person.


Social and Emotional Connection with others

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-9-22-24-pmIf you have been following my posts, you may remember me writing about loneliness, and how there are two types of loneliness: emotional and social. Emotional loneliness is not having a close emotional relationship with at least one other individual. Social loneliness is not having a sufficient number of social connections and people one knows. Now there is no set number for how many social and emotional relationships one needs. Some individuals need only one emotional relationship but may need a large social network. Whereas others individuals may need several emotional connections but only a few social connections. It is important, to be honest with yourself and be authentic. If you are a high emotional need person, and you have a partner, it is important to express this need in order thwart any unneeded jealousy and problems in an intimate relationship. Conversely, it is important if you need little emotional connections with others it is important to communicate this to your partner especially if they have a high need. I bring these examples up to show the integration between these ten concepts because not being authentic about your social and emotional needs can lead to problems in other domains of one’s life. But let us move on and explain deeper in our need to belong through our connection from others.

If loneliness is the lack of emotional and social connection, it must represent what psychologist who study this a thwarted sense of belonging. Belonging being the need to feel like one has a place both physically and socially. Psychologist Susan Fiske best explains the need for belonging as a means for fulfilling four basic needs of an individual: (1) the need for control, (2) the need for understanding, (3) self-enhancement needs, and (4) the need for trust or to see others as benign. For a full description of these needs, I will refer to the reader to my article entitled “What is Loneliness” for our purposes, it is important to understand the humans are social creators, we cannot live independent of one another. If there is or were a grand designer, humans were designed through our language and use of symbols to work together live together, and experience what we call life together.

Happy people, understand this, they enjoy other people and they engage in their social world. Now, this does not mean if you are an extrovert you immediately have this down and that if you are an introvert you will never experience this type of joy and happiness. I often get asked – or told – that introverts are more miserable individuals because they hate people and can’t form relationships. First, we should say extroverts can hate others as well – we usually spot them in groups as the a**hole of the party or group. A true introvert doesn’t hate being around people, in fact, a true introvert needs to be around others as much as anyone else. The difference is they get energized and refreshed by spending time alone in quiet contemplation. If, however, you have the label of an introvert, but you hate being in a social situation and get anxious about going out, please stop blaming your introversion, you may be suffering from shyness or more serious condition such as social anxiety or social phobia. Okay now that we have gotten past the personality variability issue let’s talk about how other’s increase our happiness.

When we have others we can rely on, talk to, be both angry and sad with (emotional connections) and others that can help us meet our living needs (social connections) life, while it does not change, it does seem to become much more manageable and provides more opportunity to engage in things that make us happy. If there is one thing I would like my reader to do after reading this article, it is to pick up the phone call (or text) everyone you know and simply tell them how much they mean to you. After so many years studying psychology and helping people, I can promise you there is at least someone in your world that is suffering right now, and simply letting them know they are loved and cared for in some cases can mean the difference between life and death, and a minimum it will help someone get beyond their problems.


Unconditional Positive Regard

In the positive psychology literature, you are more likely to run into the term positive regard, but I have included the notion of unconditional positive regard to make our discussion go beyond just increasing one’s happiness, but also becoming a full and complete individual. But let us start with defining what positive regard is as it is experienced by happy individuals. Ever get in a heated conversation with someone who has an opposing view and maybe you ended up frustrated because you feel you cannot get through to them so they could “see the light”? It is a common and often frustrating experience, and it comes from a very basic human fallacy. Most individuals live with the cognitive fallacy that everyone must think and understand things the way that they do, and if someone doesn’t that must mean they are a lower form of life and lack intelligence. This fallacy comes from the mistake that we assume that we see the world as an objective reality, and that reality is the same for everyone. Unfortunately, we do not experience the world as an objective reality, but always through the lens of our personal experiences, beliefs, and attitudes. Since we all come from different experiences, we all see reality slightly different. Don’t believe me? Look on Facebook or watch the news and see how liberals and conservatives talk about each other. With my point proven let us move on to becoming a happier person.

It is said that when a wise person walks in the room, that they understand that everyone comes from a different background and different experiences and therefore their reality and life truths are likely to be different than their own. Conversely, the unwise person believes that everyone’s reality is the same, and therefore if someone doesn’t think the same way they do there must be something organically wrong with them. Continuously happy people take this idea a step further and embrace that everyone is different and enjoy hearing the experiences and understandings of others. Now that is the path to being happy, but I said I wanted to take this a step further to being a complete person.
So far, we have talked about the key components of happiness that have included living a meaningful life, being authentic with others, and having good social and emotional relationships. Now its time to take it a step further to becoming a happy and full person. Carl Rogers was a famous psychologist and therapist who developed a unique form of therapy called humanistic therapy. His belief was that individuals already know the solution to their problems but what they need is a safe and accepting person who will not judge them to discover that solution. He used a humanistic philosophical concept known as self-actualization to explain how this relationship can occur. But first what is self-actualization?

Humanistic psychology grew out of the dismay of Freudian psychology and behavioral psychology which posits that everything we do is predetermined by either uncontrollable unconscious needs or by learned associations. Therefore, everything in life is deterministic according to these views. The humanistic theory was developed to try and explain human motivation and how humans can change their situation given the right resources. They argued that every human has a motivation to become self-actualized or to put in more simple terms to become a complete person. Rogers argued that the way in which a person becomes self-actualized is by having complete understanding and acceptance of who they are. This required, however, to have a true and objective understanding of who the individual is both their good and bad qualities. They must also have the ability to accept and understand their bad qualities and how they can drive their behavior just as much as their good qualities. This idea according to Rogers is the state of self-actualization.

Now if we have complete acceptance for who we are both the good, the bad, and the ugly, this allows us to completely accept other for who they are, including the good and the bad. Meaning we can accept them with no condition and provide them with unconditional positive regard is our aide to help the. In the most basic form, being self-actualized is the ability to live life with no prejudices or hatred against others. Imagine a place where we stop to understand others, and that it is okay for them to be different because you as an individual are beautiful, different, and unique as well.


Conclusion

Before I end our conversation about happiness I want to leave you with a story about the experiences lived by Jews that lived through the German concentration camps during WWII. At the end of WWII, psychologist and psychiatrist noticed that a lot of young soldiers and Marines were coming back with a mental health condition known then as “shell shock” and what we call today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This disorder has devastating effects on the individual personally, socially, and in their community life, and is marked by repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety and stress reactions to trauma the person experienced in the past. Approximately 20% of a given population is susceptible to experience PTSD after a traumatic experience. But after WWII the rates were above 30%, and some have argued they were higher than 50%. A group of psychologists including the famous Jewish psychologist Victor Frankl, started to think that if our trained forces, who went through extensive training for what they experienced are having such high rates of PTSD, the civilian Jewish population must have a much higher rate? So, they went about to assess the surviving Jews that were freed and after years of assessment they found that the PTSD rate among Jews was less than 5% – that is 15% lower than the general population and a lot lower than what was being observed with returning military. In trying to determine why these rates were so low they did several thousand interviews. The psychologist summarized their findings by something one of the survivors said:

“The Germans could bound me, beat me, kill everything I love, BUT there is one thing that the Germans could never enslave, and that was my mind, my mind was always free and could never be taken away”.

With that thought in mind, I leave my reader with love, peace, and I hope many more happy days.


If you have any questions about this articles or would like to know more about happiness and positive psychology please fill-out the following form:


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The Inconvenient Truth About Violence and Homicide in the United States

By: Curtis Peterson ©

 

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Arizona Western College – 2013 – Mentors for Violence Prevention Development Day

16 years ago, I responded to this employment ad for a shelter assistant at a local shelter. The ad required that person have at least completed some course work in social science. Given I was completing my bachelor’s degree in psychology at the time and needed a job, I went ahead and applied. The interview was at the local YWCA, in a large home that was converted into makeshift offices. My interview took place in what was probably once a large dining room, and the director who interviewed me was a large foreboding woman, who when she walked in you could feel and instantly respect her presence. We started the interview with the standard niceties such as greetings and introductions then she asked a question that at the time I did not know but would end up changing my life from that point forward. She asked, “What are domestic violence and sexual assault?” – after a long pause, I said, “Aww umm something my mom and dad said I better not ever do!!??” Well needless to say what was scheduled to be a 20-30 minute interview turned into a two and half hour educational experience on the dynamics of domestic violence and sexual assault. After that, for some reason, that executive director saw something in me that I did not recognize, and went ahead and hired me.

 

 

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Relationship between age of victim and age of offender for domestic homicides

That interview was a start of a journey that would take me into the deepest minds of victims, survivors, offenders, and psychopathic rapist and murders. It would expose me to violence starting as young as six months of age clear to the oldest victim I worked with who was 88 years old. It would show me the type of violence that doesn’t happen every so often, like mass shootings and terrorist acts, but violence and murder that occurs every day in American households across the United States. In fact, the reason why I titled this paper “The Inconvenient Truth” is because there could literally be a 24-hour news station that just covers domestic homicides and if they didn’t need revenue they could do it commercial free. The reason why this is inconvenient is that what we fear as Americans, such as terrorist and the “rogue” mass shooter, is not what we should be most fearful of, and that is the person living in our house and sleep next to every night. The inconvenient truth is, America does not have a terrorist problem, it has a family problem. A family problem, that has led to brutal violence, torture, and death of millions of Americans, and makes it, so the United States has the highest homicide rate of any of the 26 modern nations. Additionally, in a nation that prides itself on supporting its police forces, every day we place officers in situations that give them the highest risk of not going home to their family: a domestic disturbance call. Notice I did not say a riot, gang shooting, mass shooting, or terrorist activity – no – our law enforcement is more likely to be shot and killed by a married couple who are arguing and it has turned violent. Yes, the bottom line once again even our protectors are not safe in our American homes.

 

If you are reading this, I hope you are feeling the dissonance, and hope that I will say something that diverts the blame of violence in the United States away from families to some group. I know, blaming others, would “feel” nice, but unfortunately, it would just be covering up the truth about the nature of violence in the United States. Sorry domestic homicide and family violence only have one source, it cannot be blamed on minority groups, white privilege, ISIS, Muslims, Christianity, LGBT groups, or yes even those godless atheists. Sadly, the source of domestic homicide is the family, community, and beliefs we hold about each other. I am not talking religious beliefs. I am talking beliefs about what we think we have the right to when something in our family goes wrong. I am talking about when a person loses a sense of power, or when a person does not behave to our expectations – to act out and force those individuals to get them back in line. If you do not believe me scroll through your Facebook and see how conservatives and liberals bully each other because they do not hold the same perspective, or how there is this standard that men and women must hold to be a “good boyfriend” or a “good girlfriend.” Let stop kidding ourselves that we are a good and virtues people and instead let us start acting like good and virtues people. If you value human life, then stop giving a blind eye to people who assault life through their actions and behaviors. Stop doing what a psychopathic serial killer told me once and that saying and thinking “I like you Mr. Peterson, but you should know I could shove that pencil in your ear and through your head and walk away and think nothing about it”. We do this every day, with our insults without understanding, with our ignoring of family problems, and with our focus on things that should not evoke as much fear as what we do to each other in our homes and communities.

 

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Graph indicates the increase in infant homicides between the 70s and 90s, it has kept that steady increase up to today and is expected to continue unless something changes.

Let us be real about who we are as a nation, while all forms of violence including homicide have been on the steady decrease in the United States since the 1990s, there is one that has been on a noticeable fast increase. The type of violence that has been on the steady increase starting in 2000 is infanticide. Yes, United States citizens are killing more infants than we did since the 1940s. No this is not abortions or some psychopathic murder issue, this is out of mommy’s womb infant under the age of two who are being killed – on purpose – by their parents or primary caregiver. I am hoping this information is sobering, to a Nation that prides itself on peace and freedom. If we are truly a nation that values the life of others, especially children, then why is there no national movement to stop infant homicide, which outnumbers abortions 6 to 1? Or a call on governmental interventions that protect and honor the safety and life of our most vulnerable population?

 

 

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Relation between homicides and immigration rates in the United States

With this in mind, I like to bring home the point that this is an American issue. I know we have a national movement to limit immigration, but I am hoping by this point the reader is starting to see we do not have an “other people problem” we have an “us problem.” Indeed, when we look at immigration, we find that after a period of increased immigration we see a marked reduction in violence and homicide in the United States. That right, violence comes from the American culture, and when we bring in diversity through immigration we make us less violent. So, if you want to blame our violence problems on Mexican or Muslim immigrants just know you are a source of the problem and not a solution.

 

 

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Grandpa and Granddaughter – reason I will continue to fight.

If you have made it through this article without getting angry and frustrated and deciding you did not want to read further, I thank you and would like to close with a few remarks about the time I have spent in the field of violence intervention and prevention. First, as the people who are close to me and know me, I have been trying to escape this field since almost the day I started. Most of my personal problems have centered around my desire to not to deal with other people’s violence and the desire to be blissfully ignorant to all the pain and suffering that I heard on a daily life as a professional. Even my education has tried to bail me out, my master’s degree focused on organizational psychology, and my doctorate has focused on social psychology, which I hoped would put a layer of distance between me and violence. Sadly for me, these choices have to lead me deeper into the understanding of violence. Indeed, it has helped me recognize that we do not have a psychopath problem, a mental illness problem, or even a gun problem – no, we have a community and family problem. Every time, I thought I had escaped the field it has a way of dragging me back in kicking and screaming. The latest is my dismay on national attention being placed on the not so real problems of violence and homicide in the United States. All in all, I have experienced what a clinical person, social worker, criminologist, and criminal justice experts only think or dream of having, and I would trade it all to be able to live in a community where neighbors trust each other and strangers are viewed as potential friends instead of threats. I would trade my experiences knowing a child is born into a world where parents and caregivers care and nurture them, a world where intimate partners did not use each other for their own selfish needs but instead lifted each other up and supported one another. Finally, I trade my experiences for a United States that actually care about the humanity and welfare of others on this little planet. But, I have come to the conclusion that unless I keep fighting and helping people those dreams will never come true, my friends let us not get to our death bed thinking “I could have done more, but I didn’t.”. I hope you will join me in this crusade.

 

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The amazing mental life of babies

By: Curtis Peterson ©

If I were to do my education all over, I believe that I would have dedicated my life to child psychology and study in infants, but at least as a social psychologist, I get to study and understand the social-developmental aspects of infancy. In fact right now is an exciting time in understanding the psychological and social life of a baby and parents can start capitalize on these findings. This article is aimed at providing parents with knowledge about the life of their infant, this is not an extensive article but will instead focus on findings in social-developmental psychology over the past 15 years. We are going to start with one premise, this premise I think parents – especially moms – have known for a long time, but only recently have been proven by science. That premise is:

babies have a much more complex and dynamic psychological world than they have traditionally been granted to them by society.

What makes this premise significant? Up until the last 15 years, it was believed that infants had a rather simple existence – sleep, eat, and poop – this belief was made on two assumptions. Assumption one is that our cognitive existence relied on our ability to symbolize the world via language. The second assumption was, since babies “act” more like lower forms of animals they must not have the full mental capacity to be entirely human. The problem with both of these assumption – at least from a scientific perspective – is that these assumptions were based on a reliance that required language to understand one’s mental world. Meaning that we had no way, until the past about 20 years, to understand and evaluate the mental world of infants and babies, which unfortunately was translated into those two false assumptions. However, thanks to technological advances and research methods that allows us to peer into the mental world of babies, we now recognize the complexity of an infant and babies mental life. Here are just some of the things that we have learned about infants in the last 15 years:

  • Babies have moral discrimination ability that we can detect as early as four months of age.
  • Babies – like adults – try to identify features of their environment that they have control over including:
    • Rationality (making logical sense of a situation),
    • Consistency (want to have a predictable experience),
    • Efficiency (ability to find the most efficient method of solving a problem),
    • Normality (preferring situations that are comfortable and avoiding situations that are out of the norm).
  • Babies can identify the emotional states of others more accurately than adults.
  • Babies can differentiate between adults that are good (i.e. a picture of Martin Luther King) versus bad (i.e. a picture of Hitler). Interesting this discrimination ability is present as early as four months but disappears as the child starts to master language around 18-24 months.
  • Mirror neuron activation – the ability to experience the actions of others neurologically (think about last time you cried at a movie during an emotional scene that was your mirror neurons activating) – appears as early as three months of age. Neurons that are expected to analyze the emotional and psychological state of other (commonly referred to as the mentalizing system) begin to activate as early as six months. What does this mean? Infants and babies – at least from a brain activation perspective – are analyzing and predicting the mental and psychological state and well-being of others as early as six months of age.
  • Babies have a fundamental understanding of mathematic principles and geometry. Again, something we start to lose as we develop language and start socializing in our education and learning environments. – For those individuals who think they are bad at math, you were better than you think at one point in your life.

Many more fascinating findings can be reviewed, but from the social-developmental approach, the ideas listed above are the concepts I would like to focus on from a parenting perspective.

img_4243 How many have heard the following conversation?

Well-intending person: “you really shouldn’t talk like that around your baby.”
Parent: “it is okay she can’t understand what I am saying”

What is the fallacy that the parent is committing? First, let us review some basics of communication 101. The first thing we know about communication is that it is about 90% how something is said and only 10% the actual words used. The 90% includes the tone, body posture, emotional state, and behaviors of the communicators. As mentioned in the above bullet points infants and babies can understand this 90% as early as four months of age and will interpret the behavior and emotional state as such. This means with no comprehension of language a baby understands what is being said by the way it is being presented.

I bring this point to light because as a psychologist I am often asked why a baby is “acting out,” or “throwing a fit,” and upon analysis of the situation it is almost always the infant reacting to the emotional and social world of the adults are them. Remember as pointed out above infants need – just like adults – rationality, consistency, efficiency, and normality. Just like adults when these cognitive needs are violated we act out, become stressed, and have anxiety – it doesn’t matter if you are an adult, a child, an infant, or a baby. Often I find that when the parent adjusts their behaviors and environment to meet these basic psychological needs, the “tantrum” and “misbehaviors” go away.

The second lesson we can learn from current studies of infants and babies is that they have a better moral compass than most adults. Sadly, when the child develops language we quickly socialize this natural moral ability out of children. But – Parents can use this knowledge to help develop an infant’s moral development. For example, most babies will develop some form a stranger aversion, meaning they can be slow to warm up to individuals who they have never seen or rarely see. This is normal, however, when a baby reacts to someone new – or someone they knew – in an extremely aversive way, it would be good advice to the parent to take a closer look at that situation. Per the studies that have been conducted on moral develop your child is seeing something dangerously aversive about that individual that you are not. It would be against my better judgment not to warn parents to not leaving their baby alone with that person.

While there is much much more to say about the mental world of infants and babies, I think for at least this blog this is a good place to stop. If you would like more information on the social world of infants, please fill out the form below with your question(s).

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Why am I so Lonely?

By: Curtis Peterson ©

The Case Study of Alice

A reader (who we will call Alice) messaged me and asked “Dear Curtis, I have many friends and family that are around all the time, but why despite all this, do I feel so lonely?”. I like to say that this is a rare question but over the past years since I have started studying loneliness it is, unfortunately, the most common question I am asked. The first person to write about the form of loneliness Alice was experiencing was Robert Weiss in 1975 and he coined the term “emotional isolation” more popularly known as “emotional loneliness.”  Since this time, we have found that emotional loneliness is the most common and most profound type of loneliness affecting our health and well-being, even more than obesity, not exercising, and not eating right. In fact, chronic emotional loneliness predicts when one is going to die 3x better and more accurately than one’s physical health. To understand emotional loneliness, we must start with a common premise: human beings are social creatures and need other people. Indeed, research has shown that when we deny ourselves social interaction, the body starts to shut down as if it is dying of thirst or hunger. With this premise let us begin to explore what emotional loneliness is and what you can do about it.

What is emotional loneliness?

Emotional loneliness is defined as a deep feeling of loss of emotional connection with others, despite one’s level of current social connection. It is the person who “feels lonely in the crowd,” or feels like they don’t fit in, and no one is close to them or understands them. Before moving on, I should state, that emotional loneliness is something that most everyone will experience at least once in their lifetime, it is not a dysfunctional emotion nor is it maladaptive one. In fact, it is very adaptive, because it motivates us to reduce it, which helps individuals to seek out emotional connections with others. However, there is a subset of the population, where emotional loneliness can cause a bout of severe depression. Additionally, one of the symptoms of depression is the feeling of emotional loneliness. The difference between loneliness when someone is depressed and normative loneliness, is individuals with normative loneliness, although they may feel down, seek out emotional emotional connection. For people who are depressed, the feelings of loneliness become a reinforcing cycle of one’s self-defeating beliefs and ideas of who they are which aid in the continued cycle of depression. If you are reading this article and experiencing loneliness, I ask that you pay close attention to this difference, and if you feel that you have depression and not normative loneliness, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help.

In Alice’s case, after visiting with a mental health professional decided she was not depressed but just felt lonely. She concluded this with her mental health professional because she lacked any of the other symptoms associated with depression. So, what was making Alice feel so lonely if it was not an emotional crisis or depressive state? After chatting with Alice for a while I asked her “Tell me who you are as a person?” and well of course she gave the standard “mom, employee, wife, blah, blah” for which I asked again “no who are you as a person, who is ‘Alice’?”. To which she replied, “I am not sure what you’re asking, and if I did, I am not sure what the answer would be.” At that moment, I knew we had discovered the source of Alice’s emotional loneliness!

Why do people experience emotional loneliness: attachment, industry, and identity?

When I started studing loneliness, I developed a basic theory that one’s identity, specifically, a weak or damaged identity, drives a person’s experience of loneliness. Since that time, I have shown that loneliness is negatively associated with one’s sense of identity, that the positive outcomes of a strong identity are the opposite of adverse outcomes of loneliness, and that when you make a person’s identity salient and meaningful within a situation this reduces their evaluation of being lonely. So, it is worth exploring what an identity is and how it develops.

To understand identity, we must start with a discussion of a term William James (father of American Psychology) coined in 1896 called the “self-concept.” James defined the self-concept as “the totality of everything a person can call theirs.” James argued – and research since James has confirmed – there are two elements of the self-concept:

  1. The social self (later termed social identity) which is how someone defines them self in their social world and,
  2. the personal self which is everything that makes an individual who they are separate from other people. His term for the personal-self was the ‘spiritual self,’ which he wanted to use to emphasize everything that makes an individual unique.

To understand why emotional loneliness is caused by lack of identity we must see how it develops through the lifespan. For this, we will use some different theories of development starting with a very popular theory know as “attachment theory.”

Attachment theory originally attempted to explain how an infant becomes attached to their caregiver, and based on the responsiveness of the caregiver to the infant’s needs determined how the infant would socially interact with others. The purest of attachment theory would state that this infancy attachment process determines how an individual will relate with others throughout their lifespan. A more probable explanation is that early attachment determines a pattern of relatedness that if not broken through life experiences can determine how one will relate with others. In other words, if you had a bad, uncaring parent, this does not necessarily mean you bound only to have poor quality relationships!! What we do know is that individual’s who currently have an insecure attachment style (i.e. avoiding social relationships or self-destructive or avoidant when in a relationship) is negatively associated with the development of a healthy identity and positively related to experiences of chronic emotional loneliness.

What does this mean? Sadly, this means that individuals who are unable to develop social and intimate relationship are already at a disadvantage when it comes to loneliness. However, in Alice’s case, she had very loving parents and relatives and was raised in an emotionally close family. But, in recent years she has had a series of weak and unsupportive relationships, and she measured high on the subscale of “fearful-avoidant” on a measure of attachment style. But what does this have to do with identity?

The problem with having poor attachment style is that we often lack or do not trust feedback about who we are as an individual. Individuals with a poor attachment style are less likely to believe people when they say “you are a good parent” or “I am so happy you work for our organization.” By not being able to trust the feedback from others the individual’s identity becomes more and more diluted and less meaningful, and the individual start to feel more and more unimportant despite what others say about them. This weakening of a self-concept makes us feel less connected with others, and as a social being, we must know – and believe – that we have value to others. This loss of emotional value creates a sense of loneliness even when we are around others. There are two other developmental concepts originally presented by Erik Erickson, called industry and identity that we should discuss to finish the developmental story towards emotional loneliness. Erickson theorized that during different ages, we go through what he called a social-emotional crisis. If we successfully make it through a given crisis, it helps us develop into healthy and able individual. The crisis that Erickson believed we faced in late childhood was the crisis of industry versus inferiority. To understand this crisis read the two descriptions of Ed and Billy.

Ed: Ed recently started playing guitar, despite being new at it, his parents see his potential and encourages him to continue playing. A few times, Ed played his guitar for his class, his classmates cheered, and his friends thought he was cool.

Billy: Like Ed, Billy wanted to play guitar, however, when he signed up for lessons, his parents told him it would probably be a waste and that they better get their monies worth. His parents would only allow Billy to practice when they were at work, so they didn’t have to listen to “that noise.” When he told his friends what he was doing, they laughed at him and said he should just give that up before he embarrasses himself.

Now, the examples of Ed and Billy I will admit are extreme examples, but I would be willing to guess that most of us have experienced life somewhere between Ed and Billy. Second I would like to say that this is also not a plug to continue diluting children’s potential by giving everyone a trophy. But rather I would like to discuss – if both Ed and Billy had the same potential – what is each boy learning based on their social experiences ? In Ed’s case, Erickson would argue that he is developing industry. Industry is where one learns that what he or she does has meaning to others and has some social value. In Billy’s case, Erickson would argue what Billy is learning is sense of inferiority in that he has no social value, and that this lack of social value must be something about Billy and not about those individuals who are discouraging him. Now Erickson’s model is a socioemotional model, in that what the person is experiencing, is not necessarily a rationale experience, Billy may be very naturally talented, but because of his experience with others he feels has no talent and therefore no worth – at least when it comes to guitar playing. This disconnect between what we do and feedback from others is the starting recipe for the development of emotional loneliness through reduced sense of a meaningful identity.

Not only does Billy feel inferior, but he also is not getting enough feedback from those who are important to him to develop a well defined identity. As Billy enters adolescences, this is going to inform him about his developing identity. Erickson argued that during the ‘teenage years’ individuals experience the crisis of identity versus role confusion. Let us follow this developmental trajectory. An individual has good healthy attachments with others, and experience industry during middle childhood. This experience provides him or her with the confidence to explore and solidify his or her identity through the adolescent years leading to a clear identity which provides future direction as the individual enters adulthood. However, if a young adolescent, has weak attachments with others – and has received feedback that what he or she does have little value – this makes the individual more likely to be a crowd follower or a ‘loner’ during adolescence. These experiences may lead to an undefined identity, and probably taking on the identity of others leading to confusion between how one thinks he or she ought to be and the behaviors they take on from following others. This experience is not a good start to the beginning of adulthood and those young crowds the individual followed start to dissolve. You may be asking, ‘well what about Alice, you said that she had a healthy and supportive family?’. To that, I would say yes I agree, she had the optimal developmental experiences that should have resulted in a strong identity and little experiences of emotional loneliness. However, this is why I like telling the story of Alice because she emphasizes something that we often underestimate and that is our current situation and recent social experiences have a big impact on us. That is to say that our current situation matters and has an immense impact on what we experience. Indeed, research on counseling techniques indicates that working with a person’s current experiences of their symptoms is far more successful than trying to find and understand the deep rooted developmental experiences that promote current symptoms.

For Alice, the last few years she has had small but continues insults to her identity. These hits include a failed marriage which damaged her identity as a wife, and her grown children do not call very often, insulting her identity as a mother. On top of this after 15 years as an administrative assistant, her employer cut her position, eliminating an important social identity. Though she has been experiencing these insults for several months now, she started to notice that when she visited her family or went out with friends, she felt like an outsider, and thought that no one understood who she was. This experience eventually evolved in developing a complete emotional disconnect between her and those around her. Then came the wrong kind of advice, you know the advice I am talking about I am sure “that company didn’t deserve you anyways”, “you were meant to do better things”, “it is your kids not you”, “he wasn’t right for you anyways” – you know that advice that sounds right when we give it, but we feel awful when receiving it. The following provides how these messages are interpreted by the lonely person to understand why this is a bad way to support someone.

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Now we, I believe, are well-intending when we provide support to our friends and family, but it is important to note that we should be tuned into the other people in a way we can tell if they are emotionally withdrawing before giving said advice. Unfortunately, in an attempt to resolve our own emotional distress and dissonance, we often give advice with no intent on relieving the receiver distress, but making our self feel more emotionally secure and worthy. This creates even more emotional distance between the emotionally lonely person and the well intending person, creating the possibility of chronic loneliness and which at it’s worst can lead to severe depression and poor physical health. So what should we do if someone we know is experiencing emotional loneliness, or if we are experiencing emotional loneliness?

Reducing emotional loneliness.

The emotionally lonely individual. In Alice’s case, I encouraged her to focus more on strengthening her important identities. This included reaching out to her children and visiting them, expressing what her intimate relationship needs are to potential future partners, and share her knowledge of administrative processes by volunteering in administrative capacities for local non-profit charities. Before moving on with Alice’s outcome I want the reader to note the qualities of these activities:

  1. Active involvement. Note that each of the things Alice and I agreed on doing required her to engage her world actively. I bit of warning if an individual is very resistant to actively engage their world this is a warning sign that they may be suffering from depression.
  2. Skill utilization. Each of the active requires Alice to engage in activities that are associated with a given identity.
  3. Socially meaningful. Each activity must not only provide Alice with a sense of meaning, but it must also contain a value for those around Alice.
  4. Personally meaningful. Each activity is something significant and meaningful to the individual and is not a task for a task’s sake. You may also notice it not a canned set of instructions on what to do when someone is experiencing emotional loneliness; they are all tasks directly related to who Alice sees herself as.

So, what was the outcome of Alice? Last time I talked with Alice, about three months after she initially contacted me, she is doing much better. She enjoys being with her friends and family again and feels like she has a place when she does visit them. Although she still does not have a steady intimate relationship, she said that being able to express her needs and wants allows the person to make decisions to continue seeing her not because she is a “bad girlfriend” but because they were not willing to accept her. She also is now a regular feature at a local non-profit providing office administrative classes, for a job development program. Alice said while her kids still do not call her as much, she enjoys how they light up and get excited when she visits. Probably more important Alice stated that when she does visit her kids they started asking her for ‘motherly advice.’

What do I do when I know someone who is emotionally lonely? First I would like to say, that the emotionally lonely person is a very good manipulator of a social situation to hide their emotions of loneliness and disconnection. So if your friend or family does express their loneliness, more than likely, they have been experiencing loneliness for a very long time. This means starting with “it will be okay” is a bad starter – or – as one person told me, they felt it was something about them that made the person lonely and immediately started asking what they had to do wrong to make them feel that way. I hope by this point the reader understands that emotional loneliness develops over time as the person experiences various insults to a meaningful identity(s) they hold about them self. Here is a list of potential to-dos:

  • The best first liner is “when did you start feeling this way?” and in their answer try to find the insults they experienced that impact their identity.
  • Encourage them to engage in activities they once found enjoyable.
  • Try to provide opportunities for them to experience a positive view of their identity and who they are as a person.
  • Encourage them to help with social activities utilizing skills you know they have.
  • Encourage them to engage in helping behaviors like volunteering their time to meaningful charitable activities.

Again, before I make some concluding remarks, it is imperative to state, that if your friend or family member is resistant or avoidant of doing these things, they may be suffering from depression and at that point, it would be worth encouraging them to seek professional help. In conclusion, I hope that you have read some useful information, and that in the world where who one is becoming more and more diluted – and that making meaningful social connections is becoming increasingly hard, -that we remember that what makes us human is our need to have a significant social role in this world of ours. I encourage all my readers to make sure you engage in something socially meaningful every day, beyond likes on Facebook.

If you need more information about loneliness or are experiencing loneliness and need help please email me at psycguypeterson@gmail.com

America Needs A Superordinate Goal

By: Curtis Peterson ©

What does it mean to be an ‘American’ (aka United States Citizen)? I think everyone in the United States asks this question at least some time during their lifetime – I know I have. But I would be willing to bet, that the answers while using the same symbolic words – such as freedom and bravery – these words have a completely different meaning for many groups. This can be seen very clearly in the deep divisions between political ideals and between racial groups. I often wonder if there is anything that can actually bring the United States away from division and instead have a shared meaning and life goals? In my reading and contemplation on this matter, I can’t stop thinking about a famous research program – Robber Cave Experiment –  by Muzafer Sherif.

rcsignWhat Sherif wanted to test is a developing theory in the study of group dynamics called Realistic Conflict Theory. By this time, social psychologist had already established that all someone needs to do to create prejudice behaviors between two groups, is to randomly assign them to either a group ‘A’ or group ‘B’. This became known as the minimal group paradigm.The problem was, is that in the real world very seldom are we randomly assigned to a group, we always come from a group or enter a group, that has a history and connection with one another. Realistic Conflict Theory aimed to explain how conflict occurs in the real world where conflict due to competition and resources matter. What Sherif did in his study was to conduct a three-week summer camp where young boys all around the age of 10 to 11, were randomly assigned to one of two camps, for which the two groups had no contact for the first week. Over the following week ,the two groups played competitive games against each other. What Sherif wanted to test, is whether mere contact (aka mere exposure effect) between the two groups in the absence of competition would reduce conflict in the third week. What he found was is that no, in fact, conflict got worse and resulted in violence and vandalism (sound familiar democrats and republicans?).

sherif-image-chapter-sevenHow did Sherif ultimately reduce conflicts between the two groups and increase intergroup liking? What Sherif did, he implemented a set of superordinate goals and task that benefit the entire camp instead of just one group or the other. Examples included having them rope tow a truck to camp and filling a water tank. These superordinate goals had two qualities (1) they benefited both groups, and (2) they forced both groups to work together. After having the boys complete these superordinate goals not only did the vandalism and violence go away but, scores of intergroup liking between the two groups increased significantly.

Now there has been times that the United States that we have seen the Robber Cave effect, two immediate examples included the bombing of Pearl Harbor and 09/11. After both of these events – for a short time anyways – significantly decreased prejudicial behaviors, hate crimes, and violence. Both of these events created a superordinate goal for the American people, in the first, it was to seek revenge on Japan, and the latter was to care for those injured and fallen and to seek out those who caused 09/11. The question that I think that we should pose, is will it take another 09/11 or Pearl Harbor for us as a people to see eye to eye and let go of our divisions and difference and unite as one people?

Responding to Criticism on my notion of loneliness

By: Curtis Peterson ©

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Recently I have been criticized for my views on loneliness, even though these views are deeply seated in current research on the topic of loneliness. I would like to respond to some of the criticisms I have received. For this blog, I want to take on one of the most salient criticisms I have received

Criticism 1: Loneliness is not a product of an individual’s social world, but rather a disposition of a person and psychological disorders.

This criticism mostly comes from individuals who work in the mental health field, and work with individuals who report being extremely lonely. In this view, many of the individuals who are upset with my notion that loneliness is deeply seated within one’s social experiences, claim that loneliness is part of one’s psychological disorder and therefore should be treated on the individual level.

However, there are fundemental problems with this argument. The first comes from science dating back to the 1940s and is supported by current research, and that is loneliness is not a symptom of psychological disorders, but are a consequence of the social allienation most individuals with psychological disorders experience.

There is only one exception to this rule, and that is for individuals who experience depression. But, loneliness, when someone is in a bout of depression, is qualitatively different than the normative loneliness that everyone experiences. Loneliness during depression drives us away from seeking social and emotional connections, while normative loneliness drives us to seek out a social and emotional connection to alleviate the negative emotional state associated with the experience of loneliness. For me, there is another very important reason to separate loneliness from depression, and that comes from recent research conducted with individuals who have made serious suicide attempts and individuals who display suicidal thoughts. According to this research, individuals who are diagnosed with depression seem to only have suicidal ideation and attempts when they also score high on scales of normative loneliness – such as the UCLA Loneliness Scale. This is important because it provides a window into what drives individuals who are experiencing depression and when they are at risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts.

The second fundamental problem with loneliness only being a feature of psychological disorders that are self-driven is that everyone can experience loneliness regardless of their mental state. In fact, loneliness is a fact of being human. One reason that some individuals may argue that it is not is we all have varying degrees of the need to have social and emotional connections with other individuals. Indeed, most of the individuals that disagree with me have very low needs for social and emotional relationships. Loneliness and social connection as a drive system are very much like our system for hunger and thirst. Some individuals need for more food intake – and make sure they get three meals a day -and some individuals only have the desire to eat maybe once during the day. Loneliness is the same way, some individuals need a constant stream of socialization and emotional connection, whereas others need very little. Unfortunately the high-level person – especially in American culture – are considered needy, dependent, and weak – whereas individuals who have very little need are seen as strong and independent. While I would argue that being at either extreme can lead to dysfunction – just like too much food can lead to obesity, and too little food can lead to anorexia – the assumption that low social need people are stronger than high need individuals is just empirically false. There is no evidence in the empirical literature to suggest that individuals differ on how “strong” and “independent” they are based on their need for social and emotional connections.

My main goal for refuting the claim that loneliness is a feature of one’s disposition is in our modern world individuals are becoming more and more disconnected from each other. Evidence indicates that loneliness and the negative physical and psychological consequences of continued chronic loneliness are on the increase especially among at risk populations such as teens, elderly, and individuals who are members of stigmatized groups. Therefore, loneliness as an increasing epidemic in our society needs to be addressed on the social and cultural level, and we should let go of old unsupported notions that loneliness is a feature of one’s disposition. I make this plea that we should look at loneliness as a disease of society because the only long-term solution and “cure” for loneliness are for one to meet their social and emotional connections with others, through engaging in their social life.