Want to change your life a lot? Change your life a little.

 

photo-1521053013817-11cbdb012b8fWhen we’re considering our options for changing our lives, it’s important that we not overcomplicate it. 

Many people get intimidated by the process of life change because they think change necessarily needs to uproot them in profound ways that they’re not quite sure they can handle. 

Life change usually doesn’t work like that. 

More often than not, life change comes as a result of changing our habits— and, most often, we change our habits bit by bit, not all at once. 

The reason for this isn’t because we don’t DESIRE profound change. Many of us DO desire profound change, even as we have mixed feelings about profound change actually happening in our lives. 

No, the reason for this is rather more basic: our lives are the way they are for reasons. 

We have the tastes, preferences, and habits we do for reasons. They serve specific functions and purposes in our lives. 

They’ve been conditioned by the people, circumstances, and needs of our specific lives and stories. 

Put another way: our lives look, feel, and function in certain ways because of who we are. 

My life looks, feels, and functions different from yours. Your life looks, feels, and functions different from the lives of your friends. I’m not talking about the specific “stuff” in your life— I’m taking about the patterns, the feel, the vibe. 

If we try to rush in and change these patterns that have been established in our lives because of the specific people we are and the specific people and situations we have in our lives, those changes are going to feel more than different— they’re going to feel alien. 

We need to change our lives bit by bit because, in order for changes to stick they need to feel at least somewhat familiar 

They need to feel like US. 

They need to fit in with the lives we’ve already established, the lives we already know how to live, the lives that already make sense to us. 

Don’t get me wrong: you can, over time, completely change, completely overhaul your life, if you want to. 

But if you realistically want to change your life, you have to do it in such a way that is conducive with the patterns you’ve already established— or else your life will reject those changes as surely as physical bodies reject organs that they sense are not theirs. 

A misstep many people make in trying to change their lives is trying to change everything, in profound ways, all at once. 

They figure that because specific aspects of their lives aren’t working, because specific habits need to be changed, that the whole of their lives necessarily need to be overhauled— and don’t get me wrong, I completely get that impulse. 

When our lives aren’t going well, there absolutely is a temptation to say, “Screw it all!” and chuck the entire thing. 

Our brains, however, won’t let us do that. 

If we try to change too much, too fast, our brains will go into open, active rebellion against the changes we’re attempting to pull off. 

If we try to strong-arm our brains and bodies into completely new, unfamiliar patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, they will scramble for the comfort of the familiar…even if the familiar is part of what isn’t working. 

All of which is to say: when you’re looking to make a change, take into consideration the context of your life as a whole. 

Ask yourself: am I asking my brain and my body to make too large of a leap, too fast? 

In my enthusiasm for changing what’s wrong, am I forcing myself into a situation here my brain is gong to freak out and frantically scramble backwards for the familiar? 

This is why I am such an enthusiastic advocate for changing one, teeny, tiny thing at a time. 

Change one teeny, tiny, habit at a time. 

Then change another. Then another. 

And remembr: always, always, always give your body and your brain time and space to learn and sink into the new habit after you adopt it. 

Give your body and brain time to make that new habit familiar. 

Get a sense of how that new habit is going to fit into your routine, how that habit gels with the vibe of the life you’ve already established. 

I know, I know, you want to change as much as possible, as fast as possible. It can be frustrating to have to adopt new patterns bit by bit, especially when you’ve realized how much of your life needs to be overhauled. 

But I’m telling you: if you want those new habits to stick— really stick— take your already existing life and patterns into account. Make allowances for the leaps you’re asking your brain and your body to make— and do things to make those leaps manageable. 

Want to change your life a lot? Change your life a little. 

 

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Nobody Said You Have to Meditate Like THAT.

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What you need, and how you experience the world, is going to be substantively different than perhaps anybody else you meet or know. 

That may seem obvious. Why is it so important to acknowledge? 

Because as you’re attempting to improve your life, you’re going to encounter many people offering various philosophies and technologies that may or may not be helpful to you…but these people might be pushing them in such a way that your brain can’t really register or take advantage of them. 

Remember that, whatever tools you use to improve your life and move closer to your goals, you’re probably going to have to adapt, either a little or a lot, to how you think, how you perceive, how you function. 

I wish somebody had told me this when I was beginning my journey into self-improvement. 

I’ve had the experience of, very often, encountering an interesting idea, tool, or philosophy, something that might have been helpful to me…but then discarding it or not learning more about it because the way the person presenting it was not resonating with me. 

For example: many teachers these days advocate the healing properties of meditation in self-improvement paradigms. There is mounting research to suggest that consistently taking quiet time for awareness and calm can have beneficial effects on attention span, anxiety, and even our physical bodies. Therapy modalities such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy draw on mindfulness as an important touchstone of their techniques. 

Meditation may be useful to you. But the way meditation is presented by various sources may be a complete turnoff to you— and you might be tempted to discard it as a result. 

Does the idea of sitting crosslegged, eyes closed, listening to Zen-like flute music make your skin crawl? It kind of does mine. Which is one of the reasons why, for a long time, I eschewed the idea of incorporating meditation into my daily rituals. 

It was only LATER that I found out that that traditional idea of meditation was only ONE way to go about it.

Because of the way I had been presented with the idea of meditation, I didn’t realize you could, you know, choose a more comfortable position, or listen to music that was more your speed. I didn’t realize that there were many ways to meditate— and that the really important thing was that it provide a time and space to feel good, comfortable, and clear…and that my version of this might look different from anyone else’s. 

Don’t discard an idea just because of the way it’s been presented to you. 

For many people, the very idea of psychotherapy or personal development makes their skin crawl. 

The reason for this is, again, primarily because of the way it’s been presented to them: they think that self-help, personal development, or improving their emotional and behavioral health necessarily means getting touchy-feely, weepy, uncomfortably vulnerable, and/or becoming a functional marshmallow. 

This might be true for some people. But I can tell you, both as someone who administers psychotherapy for a living and somebody who has been on my own personal growth journey for quite awhile now: that’s not what it looks like for everybody. 

People who come into my office at The Doyle Practice routinely remark about how my office “doesn’t look like a therapist’s office.” 

The truth is, there are allllll kinds of ways to do therapy and personal growth. And the way that’s going to be most effective for you is exactly that: the way that is most effective for you. 

You have different sensibilities than anyone else on the planet. 

You respond to different metaphors than anyone else. 

You’ve had your own unique experiences, positive and negative, which impact what you respond to positively…and what you absolutely can’t stand. 

When you’re charting your own personal development journey, keep your uniqueness in mind. 

Trust me: there are lots, and lots, and LOTS of ideas out there in the world of therapy and personal development. And many of them are presented in ways that are highly identified with the specific people who are teaching them. 

Do yourself a favor, and try to look past the teacher or the way an idea is being presented. 

Ask yourself if the CORE of the idea is something you might be able to adapt to your life. 

Ask yourself if you can see taking the ESSENCE of an idea, and molding it into something that you can and would use. 

Your idiosyncrasies matter. This is, after all, YOUR life that you’re looking to manage and change. 

 

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Book review: “Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior”

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52 Self-Help Books in 2019, Week 2: “Brain Lock: Free Yourself From Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior,” by Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. 

“Brain Lock” is Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s attempt to put down in a usable manual his four-step behavior therapy approach to treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Though, when you really get down to it, three of his four steps are substantively similar, and all of his steps basically amount to a version of cognitive-behavioral therapy, in that they involve the consistent redirection of thoughts and behavior to rewire the brain. 

It seems I’ve seen Dr. Schwartz’s name associated with at least one other book oriented toward “rewiring the brain.” He’s a psychiatrist at UCLA who, if memory serves, has done research on the plasticity of the brain— that is, the brain’s ability to change itself based on environmental factors.

In other words, what happens to us and how we respond to it can literally change our brains— our brains are “moldable” in response to experience. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is a disorder in which people are affiliated with powerful, intrusive thoughts, usually about the “wrongness” of something; and then seized with a powerful compulsion to do something in order to make it “right.” The stuff OCD sufferers are compelled to do may or may not have particularly strong relationships to the initial thought; for that matter, the thought itself may or may not have any particular relationship to reality.

Dr. Schwartz spends much of his book outlining cases of OCD he’s seen in his patients, the symptoms of whom range from the mundane to the bizarre. 

The bottom line of most OCD sufferers, however, is that their symptoms end up disrupting the hell out of their lives, notably their relationships. 

Doing the compulsions, while maybe temporarily relieving the anxiety instigated by the obsessions, does nothing to permanently resolve that anxiety; for that matter, giving in and performing those compulsions actually seem to make the obsessions come back in more powerful fashion later. 

This is a particularly vexing problem, insofar as any behavior that reduces anxiety in the moment has the power to become addictive— taking drugs, performing a ritual, smoking a cigarette. When humans hit on anxiety-reducing behavior, we don’t give it up easily, no matter how nonsensical or ultimately destructive it may be. 

Dr. Schwartz notes that OCD sufferers may vary in their acknowledgement of how reality-based, or not, their symptoms are.

A frequent pattern seems to be that sufferers start out truly believing that their compulsions are necessary to avoid not only the anxiety generated by their obsessions, but also the practical problem presented by what their brains are telling them is wrong. But, as their disorder deepens in severity, they lose any sense of proportionality, and go down a rabbit hole of obsessions and compulsions at that are less and less rooted in any kind of reality. 

In the initial few chapters of “Brain Lock,” Dr. Schwartz gives us an overview of what brain imaging studies has revolted about OCD in the recent past. PET scans of OCD sufferers seem to indicate that a part of the brain called the orbital cortex— located right above our eyes— gets overheated in people with OCD; Dr. Schwartz explains this is part of the brain that informs us that something is wrong, and some action needs to be taken. 

However, when that “something is wrong” signal is transmitted to other parts of the brain, namely the caudate nucleus and the putamen, something gets “stuck,” disallowing a person to come up with an effective behavioral response to the “something is wrong” signal from the orbital cortex.

Typically these brain structures should work together to coordinate behavioral responses to a “something’s wrong” signal— but, when someone has OCD, these brain structures kind of chase their tail, and the overheated orbital cortex keeps sending that “something’s wrong” signal with increasing urgency. All of which results in the anxiety and scrambled, ineffective behavioral responses of OCD. 

The reason Dr. Schwartz gives us a rundown of what’s “stuck” in the brain of the OCD sufferer is because his four-step method of getting out of “Brain Lock” depends on the sufferer understanding, with emphatic certainty, that the obsessions they are experiencing are NOT a representation of reality— but rather of a misfiring brain. 

Dr. Schwartz calls Step One of his method “Relabeling.” Whereas OCD suffered might have previously experienced their obsessions as a representation of reality, Dr. Schwartz teaches his patients to consistently relabel those obsessions as what they are: OCD.

It’s only by recognizing an obsession for what it really is, Dr. Schwartz argues, that a sufferer will develop the motivation, let alone the skillset, to fight back against the disorder. 

By learning to recognize when a symptom, as opposed to a reality-baed event, is occurring, and by accurately relabeling it as a symptom, a patient can put themselves on notice that they need to run through the four-step routine— or run the risk of caving in to their compulsive urges and thus deepening and reinforcing their problem. 

The second step in Dr. Schwartz’s method is “Reattributing.” In this step, a sufferer takes the “relabeling” step to its next level: once they’ve correctly labeled a symptom as a symptom, they then “reattribute” the symptom to a brain malfunction, NOT to anything happening in reality. 

It may seem that the “relabeling” and “reattributing” steps are similar, insofar as they both focus on the patient reality-testing their obsessions. I think the “relabeling” step is more accurately an exercise in awareness that a symptom is occurring, whereas the “reattributing” step is more a cognitive-behavioral exercise in reframing the problem so as to feel differently about it (i.e., you’re going to feel very different about something you think of as just a brain malfunction vs. a serious, actual problem in reality).

That is to say: the “relabel” step is more about reality-testing, and the “reattributing” step is more about anxiety management. 

The rubber really hits the road in Step Three, “Refocusing.” In this step. Dr. Schwartz claims that the OCD brain can actually become rewired in response to the sufferer choosing to do something OTHER than the compulsion for at least fifteen minutes. 

On its own, this is a pretty standard Behavior Therapy intervention; but I happen to think there’s a subtle cleverness about this step. Dr. Schwartz isn’t asking people to get rid of the obsession or the anxiety that goes with it; he knows that’s a losing battle.

He’s asking people to go ahead and EXPERIENCE those symptoms; just make sure you DO something OTHER than what your brain is irrationally recommending.

It’s a cute little end-run around the idea that we need to effortfully change the obsessions themselves; that’s like telling a smoker to NOT want a cigarette. 

You can want a cigarette, just like you can want to do a compulsion in response to an obsession. What matters is that you don’t actually DO what your brain wants you to do in that moment…and that you experience the fact that the world does not end in response. 

Dr. Schwartz’s fourth step is “Revaluing,” which is kind of a callback to the “Relabeling” and “Reattributing” steps. After his patients have refocused on another behavior, he encourages them to “revalue” the compulsion that they did NOT pursue as worthless manifestations of OCD.

He encourages sufferers to really get tough on OCD, reminding themselves that OCD is pitilessly trying to ruin their lives and steal their joy. 

At its core, this is another cognitive-behaviorally-driven reframing technique, designed to change how people feel when they experience obsessions or have the urge to perform compulsions.

And, like the other steps, it’s cute— by going through the four-step process every time one experiences an obsession or a compulsion, one can definitely rewire how one thinks about their symptoms and their behavioral options. 

The book is padded out with extensive (very extensive, one might say almost superfluous) examples and case histories of OCD culled from Dr. Schwartz’s UCLA outpatient group. He devotes one chapter specifically to how OCD symptomatology has a way of chewing up families and relationships, and he strongly recommends family members not become enablers of OCD (which they seem to be prone to, just to minimize the strife and inconvenience caused by trying to argue with someone who is experiencing OCD symptoms). 

Throughout the book, Dr. Schwartz also notes how medication can be supportive for people who are being treated for OCD— but only to the extent that the sufferers are working diligently in behavior therapy (i.e., don’t expect meds to “cure” OCD— only behavior therapy has been shown to rewire the brain). 

Reading “Brain Lock,” one gets the impression Dr. Schwartz has seen OCD discourage and defeat many, many people, and he approaches the subject of his Four Steps with an almost evangelical fervor. My impression is that the extensive case studies are included so that sufferers can see that, no matter how bizarre or entrenched their own symptoms seem, that there is hope for them.

In fairness, all of the patients Dr. Schwartz describes seem to have come to him when they were at the end of their ropes: their OCD had become so smothering that they were desperate enough to try anything. 

I think the ideas in “Brain Lock” are interesting and valid, if not particularly new— again, his Four Steps are mostly boilerplate cognitive behavioral therapy by any other name. 

The truth is, if a patient is at the point of being willing to admit what they’re experiencing isn’t “real,” but instead the manifestation of a clinical disorder, more than half the work is already done.

Any working therapist can tell you that most of their day is spent convincing depressed people that things aren’t hopeless, anxious people that the world isn’t ending, and traumatized people that the past isn’t the present. If all patients were willing to “relabel” and “reattribute” as enthusiastically as Dr. Schwartz’s exemplary patients were…well, my job would be much easier. 

But, in my experience, when anxiety is involved, nothing is quite that easy. 

That said: I like Dr. Schwartz’s method.

I like his metaphor of getting the brain “unstuck;” I like his method’s emphasis on reminding the patient repeatedly that what they’re experiencing is a brain glitch instead of reality; and I especially like his emphasis on getting the patient to actually DO something different in the “refocus” step DESPITE their compulsion and anxiety gnawing away at them. 

I also think the fact that behavior therapy has been proven to actually rewire the brain is useful, encouraging news for sufferers from everything from depression to anxiety to PTSD. 

Relabel. Reattribute. Refocus. Revalue. 

Repeat. 

DESIRE vs. WILLINGNESS.

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There’s a big difference between having the DESIRE to change and the WILLINGNESS to change. 

You might have heard the joke, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” 

The answer: “Only one…but the light bulb has to WANT to change.” 

This old, corny joke makes a valid point: people rarely change, at least on purpose, unless they want to. The DESIRE to change certainly is a necessary component if real life change is what you’re after. 

The desire to change is necessary…but not sufficient. 

We can DESIRE a change all day. 

The world is FULL of people who DESIRE change, on all levels: individual, institutional, political, global. 

Peoples’ track record, however, on their actual WILLINGNESS to change is less impressive. 

Many people DESIRE change in their lives and the lives of others…but when it comes to their own WILLINGNESS to change? Well, truthfully, they’d prefer that the world, including other people, would change around them, thank you very much. 

They see no particular reason THEY should need to change. 

Unfortunately, it turns out the desire to change isn’t worth much without the willingness to change. 

Someone might desire to quit smoking. But are they willing to endure the discomfort that comes when it’s a time of day they’d normally light up, and their once-beloved habit isn’t there for them? 

(I have a consultation client who is going on a month smoke-free, so I know for a fact that it is POSSIBLE to endure those times…but how many of the thousands of people who attempt to quit smoking every year don’t think that far ahead, and collapse when things get stressful?) 

Someone might desire to be less depressed. But are they willing to track their thoughts, talk back to their cognitive distortions, and get out and do things even when all they want to do is sleep or engage in isolative, comfort-seeking behaviors? 

Someone might desire to get out of a relationship that isn’t working for them. But are they willing to endure the unhappiness of their partner when they attempt to end it, or the loneliness and boredom that breakups often entail, or the self-doubt that comes with wondering if they made the right decision? 

The distinction between desire and willingness is not trivial. 

One isn’t much help without the other. 

The good news is, if we have the desire to make a change, we can actively work on becoming more willing to change. 

All it really takes a is a little thinking ahead. 

When you have a change in front of you, ask yourself: what are the piece-by-piece component steps I’d need to realistically take if I was really going to make this change? 

Again: that might sound like an obvious question, but you’d be surprised how many people fail to ask it. They just start with the goal they’d like to attain, and take a “eh, I’ll figure it out” approach to its actual accomplishment. 

(This is where I, as a therapist and/or a life coach, can be a real pain in the ass: I am an absolute hard-ass when it comes to forming practical, on the ground, day by day plans to actually ACHIEVE our goals.)

Then, when you’ve gotten clear on the action plan that is likely necessary in order to achieve your goals, ask yourself: of these steps, which of them strike me as particularly difficult? 

Really consider this question. The temptation here is to be kind of macho— “I’m perfectly willing and capable of overcoming any obstacle in my way”— but none of us are particularly macho when we run face-first into practical obstacles to our goals.

There may even be steps to your goals you’ve identified that you don’t WANT to admit might be difficult for you— but which, if you’re being honest, you KNOW won’t be easy. 

Then, one by one, imagine yourself successfully handling each obstacle— bit by bit, piece by piece, obstacle by obstacle. Imagine it in as practical, realistic, on the ground  a way as your brain can muster. 

Visualizing yourself not only achieving your goal in the end, but overcoming the practical obstacles en route to that goal, can be the key to taking your DESIRE to change and converting it into the practical, everyday WILLINGNESS to change. 

Thinking one or two steps ahead, and using the skill of visualization to amp up their WILLINGNESS, are steps many aspiring goal-seekers don’t think to do. 

So check it out: you’re already ahead of the game. 

 

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How NOT to get sucked in by a cult.

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The relationship between honesty, reality-testing, and self-esteem can’t be overstated. 

It’s really, really difficult to have a stable, positive sense of your own identify if you haven’t made a firm commitment to perceiving, accepting, and speaking the truth as you understand it. 

This is tougher than it sounds. 

Like, it SOUNDS simple. Just tell the truth, to yourself and others, right? How hard can that be? 

Well, it can be very hard, actually, if you’ve come to understand the truth as threatening. 

We live in a culture that often rewards shading the truth. Bending understanding and expression to fit cultural norms and attitudes on the one hand; or the narrative pushed by those with agendas on the other hand. 

Very little of what we get on social media, for example, is unfiltered truth. It’s usually someone’s VERSION of the truth. 

Mind you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with anybody having an agenda, and focusing on selective details of situations in order to support that agenda. Literally everybody does that. I do that all the time. If you follow my work online, you know you’re getting a very specific point of view about humanity, what tends to make humans unhappy, and how humans can get happier. 

Where our self-esteem comes into play is if we buy into others’ agendas without our own critical thinking, our own values, our own character ethic, becoming involved. 

When we swallow anybody else’s version of “truth” without reality-checking it according to our own perceptions and priorities…that’s when our sense of identity begins to suffer. 

Why? 

Our self-esteem suffers when we don’t have respect for truth because our brains are not stupid. 

Our brains know when we are respecting and reality-testing truth as best we can discern it…and when we’re just swallowing someone else’s version of truth and reality. 

The fact is, in order to maintain healthy, stable self-esteem, there’s no way around the obligation to think for ourselves. 

To maintain healthy, stable self-esteem, there’s no way around the obligation to be as honest as is possible, with ourselves and others, about how we understand the world to work. 

Our brains know when we’re BS’ing…and our self-esteem will pay the price. 

One of my interests is religious movements and cults. One of the things by which I’m fascinated is how people can surrender their own autonomy and judgment and follow the teachings and instructions of gurus who are often pathologically narcissistic, and just out to use their followers to gratify their own egos (and pad their own bank accounts). 

Narcissists know that one of the things they have to do in order to get people to follow them is bend their followers’ understanding of “truth” to what they, the narcissist, says it is. The followers who end up mindlessly following the narcissistic leaders into calamity often do so because they’ve gone ahead and done so: taken off their critical thinking hat and surrendered their understanding of “truth” to somebody else. 

People with genuinely high, healthy self-self-esteem don’t end up in cults. 

Why? Because— at least in part— they are too committed to truth and honesty. 

That is: they are too committed to independently perceiving, assessing, and processing what the world around them means. They refuse to surrender this process to a guru, or to anyone else— because doing so would be fundamentally dishonest. 

Why do some people surrender their understanding of reality to someone else? 

Because they often perceive reality to be threatening. They want someone else to deal with the hard questions for them, because it is less exhausting and anxiety-provoking. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the tough questions of life and reality to be, well, less tough. I wish those questions were less tough, too. 

But to surrender our reality-testing to someone, to try to outsource it to a leader (or a therapist, or a minister, or to anyone else), is fundamentally dishonest. And your brain knows that. 

Be honest with yourself. 

Accept and embrace your responsibility to perceive and deal with reality on reality’s terms. 

Your self-esteem will thank you. 

 

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52 Self Help Books in 2019, Week One: “Anxious to Please: 7 Practices for the Chronically Nice.”

 

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Welcome to the 52 Self-Help Books in 2019 Project. 

I like projects. 

As followers of my work on the Dr. Glenn Doyle Facebook Page, the Faith and Works Facebook page, and the Use Your Damn Skills blog know, I strongly feel that projects organize our resources in ways that we’re not always able to without them. 

I, personally, find that organizing my energy into projects with specific purposes, goals, and milestones, is a particularly useful “end run” around my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

In 2018, my projects included reading and blogging about the Bible, cover to cover, and visiting 52 different Catholic churches in the Chicago area for Mass. In 2019, I’m expanding my projects to include, among others, this: the 52 Self-Help Books in 2019 Project. 

The idea is simple. Every week I’m going to read a different self-help book, and at the end of the week blog about it. I’m not looking to write comprehensive book reports or reviews here; rather, I’ll be looking to summarize some of the main ideas of the books, some of the action-oriented recommendations of each book, and maybe offer a thought or two about my own reaction to the books in the context of my experience as a clinical psychologist. 

LET’S GET STARTED!

52 SELF HELP BOOKS IN 2019, WEEK ONE: “Anxious to Please: 7 Practices for the Chronically Nice,” by James Rapson and Craig English (2006). 

This book examines a phenomenon that is widespread, but curiously underexamined: anxious attachment style, accompanied by the “nice person” compensatory strategy. 

You might be familiar with the idea of attachment styles. The gist of the concept is, the quality of our earliest relationships mold our relational style in to one of several categories: secure, anxious, and/or avoidant. 

Parents who interact with their young kids in a basically appropriate way— responding to them when they need things, acknowledging them when they need to be acknowledged, giving them space when they need space— in still in those kids a “secure” attachment. Those kids grow up feeling able and willing to explore the world around them, knowing that they always have a secure “base” to return to in their parents. They carry this style of relating into their adult friendships and relationships. 

Parents who respond to their kids in less appropriate ways, however, instill in those kids insecure attachment styles. 

If, for example, parents behave in such a way that terrify or consistently hurt their kids, those kids learn to basically avoid their parents (and, thus attachment in general) for their own survival— and they carry THAT style of relating into their adult friendships and relationships. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be dismissive of or hostile to attachment, and tend to over-emphasize self-reliance in their adult lives. 

And then there are those kids whose parents weren’t consistent but weren’t terrifying. These parents were sometimes on the ball, but sometimes not; whether these young kids got what they needed form their parents was basically a crap shoot. The thing is, when you’re a kid, being able to solicit the attention of your caregiver can be a life-or-death scenario; thus these kids become obsessed with how, exactly, they can increase the odds they’ll get what they need from their parents. They grow up to be adults who have anxious attachment styles.

Their uncertainty about, and obsession with, gaining the attention and approval of others in their lives extends into their adult friendships and relationships…often with not so great results. 

This book is concerned with kids who grew up to be anxiously attached adults. it discusses how these people, in their adult relationships, often turn to a compensatory strategy called the “nice person” strategy: they try to construct a version of themselves who is not high maintenance; who is always pleasant and agreeable; about whom everybody can superficially agree, hey that person is nice. 

It’s the hope of the anxiously attached “nice person” that the “niceness” they’ve worked so hard to cultivate— which often includes stuffing down and sacrificing their own needs, preferences, and opinions, so as not to ruffle anybody’s feathers— will lead them to the unconditional love and affection they craved from their early caregivers. 

Sounds like a good strategy, right? Not so much, as it turns out. 

In fact, as it turns out, “nice people” spend so much time stuffing their own needs, preferences, and opinions, while accommodating the needs, preferences, and opinions of other people, that eventually most “nice people” wind up with a lot of unexpressed emotion that is boiling just under the surface, waiting to explode. 

Add to that fact that many “nice people” eventually start to develop resentment and ager toward their friends and relationship partners because said friends and relationship partners fail to give them the attention and affection that those “nice people” are craving with all their effortful “niceness.”

Which, understand, isn’t the fault of their friends and partners; people who employ the “nice person” strategy are looking to get wounds healed and holes filled that their adult friends and partners couldn’t possibly heal and fill, let alone perfectly, as the nice person fantasizes they can. 

This failure eventually hurts, disappoints, and angers a “nice person”…but, you guessed it, there is no WORLD in which the “nice person” can express that hurt, disappointment openly (after all, it’s not very “nice” to express things that might hurt your partner’s feelings, right?). So the “nice person” can thus become pretty passive aggressive over time as these unexpressed resentments build up inside them. 

Turns out “nice people” aren’t all that nice over time. Not because they’re not effortfully trying to be nice— they very much are— but because the strategy they’re chasing down has zero chance of working over the long haul. 

So what’s to be done about any of it? 

In this book, Rapson (a relationship counselor with psychoanalytic underpinnings) and English (a writer and actor— you can definitely tell when he takes over the writing, because the book explodes in flowery, sometimes annoying, prose) first lay out the problem, including some cultural influences that exacerbate it (mostly how the media and culture encourage martyrdom of personal autonomy as a way to be liked and wanted) and then propose that the problem can be addressed by seven “practices” that must be practiced by recovering “nice people” (who they label as “transforming people”). 

The first is Awareness Practice: you need to become enough of an observer of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and bodily reactions to KNOW when the “nice person” stuff is kicking in. This practice is similar to how many people start out in cognitive-behavioral therapy; they need to get off auto-pilot, and realize that their experience every day is created by thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and responses that are all linked. 

In Awareness Practice, the authors encourage people to work on observing these connections without judgment, without apologies (a huge habit and problem for recovering “nice people”), and with self-compassion and grace (the willingness to meet and accept oneself exactly as one is). 

Then it’s on to Desert Practice: removing yourself from the various distractions and addictions that you’ve accumulated to distract you from the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that flow from your attachment anxiety and your “nice person” coping. This is rough for a lot of people— when we’re anxious, we’ll very much go to great lengths to NOT know or think about what we’re anxious about. 

Desert Practice can take the form of abstaining from certain foods, habits, or even relationships for a period (the authors wisely recommend setting explicit limits on your Desert Practice, so you have opportunities to assess how it’s working and what’s coming up). The idea is, you can’t really heal an anxiety that you’ve kept at arm’s length via addiction and distraction. The point of Desert Practice is to construct an experience by which you can come face to face with those things you’ve used to numb out from the problem right in front of your face. 

Then the rubber really meets the road with Warrior Practice (so named, I assume, because at least one of these authors has a preoccupation with martial arts, which weaves in and out of the narrative). Warrior Practice centers around strengthening your ability to feel and tolerate strong emotions; then, instead of impulsively acting out of those emotions, instead choosing your behavior based on your own “personal ethic” (i.e. a distillation of values and priorities that are chosen by YOU, not your anxiety). 

It’s in Warrior Practice that the authors describe the threefold key to increasing our ability to tolerate strong emotions: become aware of it; meet it with compassion; decide what you’re going to do about it not based on past patterns, but in accordance with your personal ethic. Included in Warrior Practice is the art of cultivating restraint, using skillful aggression (as opposed to mindless aggression driven by anxiety), and reeducating our reflexes so we don’t fall into “nice guy” behaviors just out of habit. 

In Brotherhood and Sisterhood Practice, the authors stress the importance to the “transforming person” of platonic, supportive same-gender friendships. Apparently it’s a hallmark of “nice people” that they’ve so long fantasized about romantic attachments filling their needs that they’ve often neglected forming same-gender friendships, which often leaves them feeling alone (thus overly dependent upon their romantic partners, exacerbating the problem that exists in the first place) and misunderstood. 

Cultivating same-gender friendships through Brotherhood and Sisterhood Practice can be a productive step for the recovering “nice person” as they seek to lessen their dependence on romantic partners, as well as a useful reality test for when someone is slipping back into “nice person” ways. The authors attempt to make the case that these platonic friendships necessarily need to be same-gender because there are aspects of one’s gender experience that just can’t be “gotten” by someone not of that gender. 

(Eh. I think this practice has more to do with lessening dependence upon romantic partners and potential romantic partners in general. In general, the less we isolate and the more opportunities we have for reality testing with sane, supportive people— regardless of gender— the less we’re apt to fall into “nice guy” coping strategies.)

(Eh, actually, though, upon reflection, I kind of get it, at least from a male perspective. “Nice guy” dudes often reflexively try to earn the approval of women, even if their relationship with them is supposedly platonic. Maybe it is better if recovering “nice guys,” at least, have some friendships with people they don’t instinctively want to impress and please as much as “nice guys” tend to want to impress and please women. Point taken.) 

Then there’s Family Practice, which refers to a process of overhauling how one thinks of one’s family of origin and all the dynamics therein. The authors recommend taking a deep dive into your family’s history and trying to identify intergenerational themes, as well as roles played by various family members, a’la the types of roles identified by family therapists. 

The point of Family Practice is to try to get a more objective view of why your family of origin and the people in it function as they do— supposedly so you can start to realize and accept that the fact that you didn’t get your needs met isn’t your fault. The more you can see your family objectively from an adult point of view, the less you’re likely to look at your attachment needs from the point of view of the anxious child you one were (who assumes it’s all about them). 

Disillusionment Practice is the process by which we tear down the myth of the Goddess/Prince. “Nice people” fantasize that they’re going to meet a romantic partner, the Goddess/Prince, who is going to perfectly soothe their attachment anxiety (but who they need to take care not to displease by being too, you know, differentiated an individual, because then the Goddess/Prince might shame and abandon them). 

Turns out the Goddess/Prince thing is really hard to shake, insofar as “nice people” really, really want to believe that perfectly pleasing a partner will not only make that partner inclined to stick around and love them, but also that that sticking around and love will soothe the “nice person’s” ever present anxiety about being good enough.

When the Goddess/Prince myth is shattered, we’re just left with imperfect relationships with imperfect human beings— not to mention the obvious realization that we’re imperfect and can never be perfect enough to “earn” the unconditional love of, well, anyone— and the loss of that illusion can require some real mourning. 

The thing is, authentic intimacy is basically impossible as long as the Goddess/Prince myth is up and running. As long as “nice people” imagine themselves beholden to a Goddess/Prince, they will hide facets of themselves and negate other facets of themselves and basically lose their sense of identity, to the point where they’re likely to melt down. Authentic intimacy involves the relating of two peoples’ authentic selves— not the “self” of at least one partner that has been carefully constructed for the pleasing of the other. 

Integration Practice is what the authors call taking all of the previous practices on in ways that support and reinforce each other. That is, Awareness Practice provides the baseline to know what you’re up against; Desert Practice is necessary to draw away from the distractions and addictions you uncover through Awareness Practice; the skills of Warrior Practice is necessary to successfully undertake Disillusionment Practice; and so on and so forth. 

The reason the authors identify integration as an entirely different “practice” is to emphasize that life is a laboratory, in which you’re going to be constantly experimenting with more than one practice at a time. It’s not as if they’re a hierarchy or a list— they all have to be worked on, with various emphases, at once in order for a “nice person” to become a “transforming person.” 

The book then devotes several chapters to recovering “nice people” in romantic relationships, insofar as it is in romantic unions that so many of the most troublesome “nice person’ behaviors rear their heads. The authors encourage people to view their relationships as “transforming relationships,” i.e., relationships in which both people are committed to consciously employing the seven practices in order to create unions that are deliberately free of “nice person” behaviors. 

The authors make some good and interesting points about the desirability for all people involved in relationships to be pursuing their own personal growth, and for relationships to become real-world situations in which not everyone is going to like what happens all the time (and that’s okay, because we’ve given up the idealistic fantasies that fuel the “nice person” syndrome). They note that privacy and individuality are actually healthy for a relationship, and can help to heal the “nice person” dysfunction.

I feel most of the examples the authors use to illustrate communication in “transforming relationships” depend on both partners having very high (unrealistically high, in my view) levels of self-awareness, not to mention willingness and ability to remember and use their “transforming person” skills. 

That said? Sure, the goal is to create unions (the authors recommend thinking of the “union” as its own entity, separate from both people in the relationship, because it needs care and tending beyond the individual goals and needs of the people in them) in which, yes, we’re all very self-aware and unashamed of our needs and willing to verbalize and willing to show restraint and wiling to extend grace to our imperfect partners and willing to deal with our crap and…yeah. It’s definitely a best-of-all-worlds picture the authors paint of “transforming relationships” and unions. 

A particularly curious chapter is the one about “Creative Conflict.” One of the things “nice people” avoid most effortfully is conflict in a relationship (because if they displease their Goddess/Prince, they might be shamed and rejected and abandoned, see). The authors advise tackling this aversion head-on by making conflict a thing that’s dealt with very openly, often in a structured way (i.e., agreeing when and where arguments are going to happen, as opposed to just launching into them wherever because the mood strikes), and with heaping doses of compassion (for self and partner), restraint, and awareness. 

I think Creative Conflict is a lovely concept— and I also think conflict, by its very nature, is really, really hard to regulate like that. Again, it’s a very “best of all worlds” type scenario the authors have proposed.

Myself, I find it somewhat unlikely that, however powerfully “nice people” are “transforming” their lives, that they’ll always (or even usually) have the self-regulation necessary to pursue conflict in such a disciplined, nonjudgmental way. But, again: sure, that’s the goal, I suppose. Aspire higher. 

The book ends with a chapter written for the romantic partners of recovering “nice people,” giving them some advice about what to expect and how to deal with their partners who are giving up their “nice guy” strategies for dealing with the heaps of anxiety they experience. It’s a nice gesture, this chapter. The gist of it is, don’t freak out, support your partner, look at your own crap, and, what the hell, just do the whole program yourself, why don’t you? 

IN SUM: “Anxious to Please” is a good self-help book. In contrast to a lot of self-help literature, the suggestions are pretty concrete, and most of them align with the wisdom dispensed by such mainstream psychotherapy techniques as cognitive behavioral therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

I like the emphasis on learning how to contain strong feelings, I like the emphasis on confronting your numbing addictions and distractions, and I REALLY like the emphasis on separating your behavior from your feelings. 

I do think the book oversells, a bit, the extent to which “nice person” behaviors stand in the way of a healthy relationship with sexuality and one’s gender experience. Near the end, as they’re describing “transforming relationships,” the authors go a little over the top trying to sell the idea that giving up the Goddess/Prince thing and becoming real life individuals who grow and change (maybe to their partner’s liking, maybe not) as something that can renew a couple’s sexual chemistry.

Eh. What I suspect is, that one or both of the authors had that personal experience— they went from “nice person” to “transforming person” and suddenly the sex got hotter and they felt like more of a man— and so they’re including it in the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, “nice person” stuff can absolutely ruin a sex life; but recovering from “nice person” stuff isn’t a magic bullet to regaining sexual interest or resolving gender weirdness (the chapter on Brotherhood and Sisterhood Practice also feels a little off). 

The first three practices, Awareness Practice, Desert Practice, and Warrior Practice, I’d say are definitely not only useful but essential for success in personal development of any kind. The book is worth reading for those chapters alone.

Also, most people could stand to learn much more about how attachment style develops and how it impacts their adult relationships, so I’d recommend reading it just for that crash course. Maybe take the “transforming relationship” and Brotherhood/Sisterhood sections with a grain of salt— not saying they’re bad, just saying your mileage may vary— but overall the book flows well, so it’s not as if you’ll get bogged down in a section you hate. 

Give this book a read. Even if you’re not an anxiously-attached “nice person,” I guarantee you know one. 

You’re wealthy. Yes, you.

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You’re wealthy.

Yes, you. Right here, right now: you’re rich.

That is, you have resources that other people covet.

Your time. Your attention. Your money. Your energy. 

Even if you’re cash-poor at the moment, it’s important to realize that money is not the only currency that is valuable in this world. Advertisers want your attention and your excitement almost as much as they want your money. 

Entire industries, such as marketing and politics, are designed around catching and holding your attention, as well as encouraging you to use your time and your energy to do specific things (such as buy products or vote for candidates). 

Even if you’re dead broke, the resources you DO have are in high demand. 

Which is why you need go guard them fiercely. 

Your resources are exhaustible. You only have so much energy, time, and attention to go around. 

They’re either going toward your goals and values…or they’re gong toward someone else’s. 

One of the end goals of personal development, as well as good therapy, is to get to the point where you’re putting your resources toward goals you choose and that you find meaningful…as opposed to letting your resources be yanked out of your control by others who may or may not have your goals and values in mind. 

How do you allot your resources in the course of a day? 

How much of your time, energy, and attention go toward things YOU choose and YOU find meaningful…as opposed to being coopted by people and organizations that are out to manipulate you into certain patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving? 

One of the most common sources of depression and anxiety is a feeling that we’re kind of spinning our wheels in the world— not directing our finite resources toward what WE find meaningful. 

This often crops up when people retire. They’ve spent their entire careers directing so many of their personal resources toward goals that have been defined and structured by their careers, careers they’ve chosen because they align with their values and goals…then, when they retire, they don’t have a ready vehicle for channeling their personal resources anymore. 

So they feel restless. They feel like they lack purpose. They feel that what they do in the course of the day doesn’t matter anymore…because their personal resources aren’t being invested in goals and values they care about anymore. 

Depression, anxiety…these are common consequences of peoples’ resources going to places where they shouldn’t, by rights, be going. 

Have you ever felt that the stuff you’re doing in the course of a day just isn’t right for you? 

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re not doing things that really matter? 

Have you ever felt that you’re essentially searching for things in which to invest your energy and focus that would really mean something to you? 

Those feelings are likely action signals that your personal resources are being inappropriately invested. 

Mind you, many of us aren’t taught when we’re young how to invest our resources well. 

In fact, when we’re growing up, many of us are taught that the only resource that means anything is money. If we don’t have money, this line of reasoning goes, we’re by definition poor or broke. 

The currencies of time and attention and energy are the REAL sources of wealth in this world. 

In fact, the only reason why money as a currency has ANY value is because people THINK it can buy them other peoples’ time, attention, and energy. 

Realize, without a doubt, how “wealthy” you truly are. 

Realize too that it’s on you to protect and invest your “wealth.” 

You’re a mental, emotional, and behavioral “millionaire,” without doubt. 

Don’t spend your wealth. 

Invest it…in things you care deeply about. Today. 

 

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