What if I’m wrong?

Here are a couple of thoughts on the business of being “wrong.” First, the question itself begs a certain dichotomy to form in a relationship. It implies a one-up, one-down position. It can make one person more powerful, keep another at a distance, or in extreme circumstances serve as an opportunity to belittle or berate. What does being “wrong” imply about the relationship, the importance of keeping a relationship, or the way that people will continue to relate to each other? Is it worth it to damage or hurt a relationship to be “right”? If one person is “wrong”, then how is the relationship handled in the future? How do people move forward?

Next, being “wrong” might be rephrased as being technically inaccurate. If you are responding in a way to that does not match reality in a reasonable sort of way, you may be considered “wrong.” However, in some circumstances this begs the question of differences in opinion, perception, feelings, and agendas. A person can have a valid point of view, see things differently, or see aspects of a situation that another person is not able to see. This can prevent communities from being rigid, thinking “inside-the-box”, refusing to consider alternatives, or being racist or non-diverse in their thinking. Trying to understand the validity in where others come from can help us be more understanding, have better relationships, be more forgiving, and become less “stuck” in the right/wrong dichotomy. If you are technically “wrong”, this also might be your opportunity for self-correction, learning, or growth. Consider teasing out the differences of being “wrong” vs. being technically accurate, and if being “wrong” has anything to do with conflict around perspective, perception, intention, or emotion.

In addition, there is a certain cost to being “wrong.” Everyone at some point in their life has probably had an experience in which they thought something to be true, accurate, or reasonable but found this to not be the case. The cost to being “wrong” is often related to embarrassment, shame, humiliation, or perhaps the loss of trust or leadership. Are you able to correct your actions based on what happened? Can you tolerate the pain of your own humiliation and consider what really matters? If the inability to bear the cost of being “wrong” results in isolation, criticism, withdrawal, and becoming more adamant that you were “right”; you may want to give some thought to what it is costing you in terms of your relationships.

Here are some final questions for you to consider:

  • What are your intentions? Sometimes we are in long term work, romantic, or family relationships that must be giving careful consideration.
  • What are the intentions of the other person? (Are you sure, or are you assuming? What evidence do you have?)
  • What is the true cost of being told you are “wrong”? What do you have to gain by making sure others know you are “right”?
  • If you are “wrong,” can you tolerate your embarrassment enough to grow, learn, regroup, or reconsider how you will handle future situations?
  • Is it more important to be right than to be effective? (Consider what the relationship means to you and if your own self-respect in handling the situation is on the line).
  • Are you unforgiving of other people when they are “wrong”, thus unable to forgive yourself? Is your own criticism preventing you from moving on, getting unstuck, or responding in a way that is potentially painful but perhaps necessary?

When life hands you lemons and you can’t make lemonade

Has anyone ever told you to simply turn a negative into a positive? Maybe people have told you to get over it, move on, keep your chin up, or let it go. At some point someone may have suggested returning unfavorable actions with kindness, acting happy when you were not, or being pleasant despite unpleasant circumstances.

Is this kind of feedback actually helpful? Here are some thoughts on this manner:

There is some value in being able to shift perspective, look at the bright side, or even create positive emotions by doing things that are enjoyable and pleasant. It can also be quite beneficial to “shift gears” by getting your mind off your problems and distress, see things differently, or look at the bigger picture.

Sometimes, however, when the focus of our attention is always on the “positive”, it can prevent or inhibit us from fully experiencing emotion, approaching or addressing conflict in an adaptive manner, and having those “difficult conversations” in which disagreement means risking sharing what we really think and feel. Sometimes focusing on the “positive” can create environments in which there is very low tolerance for negative emotion, pain or sadness is never acknowledged, and people remain isolated in their inability to connect more deeply with each other.

However, the other extreme for this situation can also be that persons are chronically down, depressed, moody, irritable, or aggravated. Sometimes emphasizing or holding onto these experiences are a testament that pain exists, that pain is real, and that the world should acknowledge it more. Sometimes people get “stuck” in these places, however- and have considerable difficulty shifting out of it.

A full, rich, and meaningful often involves the ability to connect to others in a meaningful way, to express vulnerability and not be alone in our pain, to take emotional risks in sharing what matters, and to (also) show up for the pleasant, mundane, simple, and joyful experiences that life has to offer. This means neither getting “stuck” in painful emotions nor living a life of hiding, masking, “sucking it up”, or denying what is painful. In reality, emotions come and emotions go. Sometimes they are intense and sometimes they are extreme. The key is to allow them to be there when they come and allow them to leave when they are ready to go. When we can both acknowledge our own pain and participate in the happiness of what life offers (taking into account the truth of both perspectives), we will have better ways of managing the lemons of life.

Too needy? Too dependent? Too clingy?

When we desire or want things that other people aren’t able to give us, one option is to blame ourselves for wanting or desiring it in the first place. This can be especially true for people who feel misunderstood or unacknowledged.

When we blame ourselves for wanting or needing something from someone else, we not only fail to solve any problems- but also feel worse for being in this situation in the first place. Sometimes people believe that by determining fault they’ve actually solved a problem! The field of psychotherapy confuses this issue even further by using condescending labels like narcissistic and entitled, and implies that it is simply bad to want or need things in the first place.

If you have been in the business recently of sitting around, feeling bad, and blaming yourself for desiring something from another, here are a few things to consider that might help your relationships go more smoothly:

1) Are you clear about what it is you want in the relationship that you aren’t getting? Consider the intensity behind your request and the urgency of how you come across. Is there any particular pain involved that you are trying to avoid feeling, don’t want to accept, or don’t think you will be able to tolerate if the person can’t accommodate you? Sometimes urgency and intensity is increased when we don’t want to grieve, acknowledge our own loss regarding the relationship, or move on.

2) Consider that no one relationship can placate or accommodate all demands for affection equally. Intense and intimate relationships need periodic breaks. Is there a way in which your relationships complement different areas of need for you? Is there a way in which your need for affection, acknowledgement, or understanding can happen with more than one person?

3) Consider the diversity in which people in your life express caring, show appreciation, or give their support. See if there is a way you can focus on acknowledging this, and be willing to let go of focusing on what the person isn’t giving you.

4) Bear in mind that all people need and want things from other people: The ones who don’t get called narcissistic or entitled simply have ways of getting it effectively. One way of being effective is being able to read and interpret interpersonal cues accurately. If you know when to back off- and you are good at gaging what other people can tolerate- you will be easier to get along with and better liked. Forcing a square peg through a round hole in any relationship can hurt or even destroy the relationship.

5) Not having affection, acknowledgement, validation, or understanding now doesn’t mean that you will never have it or no one will ever give it. It may mean that you have to search around for it, you need to find it in other relationships- and you may have to tolerate the emotional pain of not having it right now.

Are you in touch with your true cartoons?

In DBT, primary emotions are emotions that people have about a situation or event. Secondary emotions are emotional reactions to emotions. Figuring out which is which may be helpful for people that have a lot of trouble sorting out what they feel, identifying what causes feelings, and knowing how to make use of feelings. The overall goal is to enable people to express emotions accurately.

Let’s take the example of anger. Sometimes, when people get angry, they say things they do not mean. They deliver “low blows”, say things that are extremely hurtful, and launch into full attack mode.When anger shows up, it is very possible that other primary emotions (betrayal, hurt, scared, or sad) are also part of the picture.

Imagine how the conversation would be different if the person who expresses anger was actually expressing any of the above emotions. “I was really upset when you didn’t show up. I thought something might have happened. At first I was really worried, and then I started thinking that you might have forgotten about meeting with me altogether. I wasn’t really sure what to make of the situation. I have this tendency to think no one cares about me when this happens. Perhaps you could tell me what happened.”

Another example may go something like this: Feeling afraid but then feeling ashamed for feeling afraid. Sometimes people are afraid of intimacy and connection but act on the shame. For instance, having a really good time with friends (feeling appreciated, included, and valued) is followed by withdrawal and avoidance. Is this you? If so, what words would you put on your fear that would be more accurate? Are there any elephants in the room that you’ve failed to consider?


Finding wisdom during emotional chaos

Our emotions get activated despite our best efforts to control them. So how do we know when to trust our “gut”? After all, when we have a “bad feeling” about a situation- and we rely on our feelings to avoid painful or scary scenarios- then how do we know when to approach a situation despite our anxiety about it?

While I am not sure there is a simple answer, here are some factors to help think this through. First of all, consider the importance of your emotion. Be clear about what you actually feel. Try to get a “sense” for the feeling itself. Next, consider the information that your feeling may be giving you about your environment. What is the actual threat? What could or would happen if you acted on the feeling? What (if any) action is your feeling prompting you to take? If you avoid taking action, what might the consequences be?

Consider the extremes. If you never trusted your “gut”- ignored or avoided feelings all the time- you may be vulnerable to getting yourself into bad situations. If you always trusted your gut- you may prematurely make judgments about people or situations that are unfounded or inaccurate. You might come across as overconfident or hyper-vigilant, and find yourself unable to tolerate situations that aren’t actually threatening.

Finding clarity in chaos may take trial and error, the willingness to be corrected, openness, and curiosity. Trusting your gut may also mean speaking up, being “seen”, and risking confrontation and disagreement. Neither one may be entirely confortable! Remember, making changes involves taking risks. Often discomfort and misery drives us to seek alternative solutions by trying out new behaviors.


What is mentalization-based therapy?

Last week I had the opportunity to observe a mentalization-based group therapy. Mentalization was developed by Peter Fonagy and Anthony Bateman and is the only other treatment (besides DBT) that has strong empirical (scientific) support for treating borderline personality disorder.

What exactly is mentalization? This is my own attempt to describe what I know about it so far: We are constantly making interpretations about the intentions of other people, and we tend to be pre-occupied with their intentions towards us.  When we assume the intentions of others we think we “know” what other people are wanting, thinking, or feeling. While sometimes this is perceptive and accurate, poor (or inaccurate) mentalizing can often exacerbate conflict or add stress to relationships.

Consider the following scenario: You are late to work. Consider what your reaction might be if your employer insisted that the following scenarios are true:

“You must really hate me. You do hate me, don’t you? Why don’t you tell me why you hate me so much and we can get everything off our chests. Come on. You can be honest. Tell me what your problem is with me.”

“You think you are too good for other people. What makes you think you are better than everyone else? If you think you are better than everyone here, then maybe we should give you extra work so you can keep proving to the rest of us how important you are.”

When other people do not “mentalize” accurately, it can increase defensiveness and emotional arousal. And talk about being misunderstood! When other people insist that their interpretation of your behavior is accurate (when it is not), it makes it more difficult to keep emotions on an even keel and steer clear of more conflict. Can you think of a time in which this has happened to you?

In a mentalization-based group, group members are encouraged to generate many “interpretations” of reported or observed behaviors. Some of these “interpretations” may be accurate and some may not. Some may be entirely out of this world! Attempts at accurate mentalization (“You must have been really taken aback when your boss said those things!”), may increase understanding, lower emotional arousal, and enable a person to use the group for perspective-taking and problem solving. Additional benefits include seeing things from a wide variety of viewpoints (What might have been going on with your boss that day?), considering things that have not been previously considered, increasing compassion when others misinterpret intentions, and staying level-headed when there are strong urges to engage in extreme ways of responding.



A note on dialectics and relationships

Person A is described as miserly, grumpy, short, and abrupt. We’ll say that Person A doesn’t offer any extra information when asked personal questions, rarely smiles, and almost never makes eye contact.

Now, one way of responding to this situation is to simply say that Person A is kind of a jerk. You could sort of see how Person A is pretty unlikeable, and you could even kind of get yourself on a non-liking tangent.

While being on the non-liking tangent may have some benefits to you, it actually may not help you solve interacting problems with Person A. If anything, it may make interacting with Person A slightly worse- if not downright uncomfortable.

Assuming that Person A is someone you can’t avoid, and assuming that you could get more relaxed and self-confident around people that drive you a bit crazy- you’d probably have to do something besides walking around thinking that Person A is a jerk.

Thus consider alternative interpretations of Person A’s behavior. Start with the potential benefits of “miserly, grumpy, short, and abrupt.” I would have to guess that Person A is not a time waster- he probably doesn’t like to chit- chat. This in turn might mean that he is more efficient, which could be an attractive trait to some.  He probably also doesn’t have a lot of people around that bug him very much. Who knows? Perhaps he likes his privacy. Perhaps he is lonely. Perhaps he didn’t grow up with a lot of easy going personalities. Perhaps he grew up around people that were really harsh and abrupt with him.

You see how coming up with different interpretations for Person A’s behavior can change your feelings about Person A? Alternative explanations might provide understandable reasons for behaviors that may be hard to understand. And when we can be more understanding, we can be more accepting of ourselves and of others.