Can You Get Someone To Change Their Behavior Without Sabotaging Your Relationship?

Giving useful, helpful, and adequate feedback is something that is hard for a lot of people. I constantly witness parents, spouses, friends, family members, and even mental health professionals try to change the person they care about by blame, shame, and humiliation. While negative feelings have important functions and can motivate people to change their behavior, lack of useful feedback can have the opposite effect. For sensitive people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors, internalized shame, self-consciousness, and obsessive self-defeating thoughts, the consequences can be devastating. Here is a list of what not to do, and some food for thought about what to do instead: 

Tell them it is their fault: Getting someone to take responsibly for their actions makes sense. However, telling someone they are at fault is generally not followed up on by some plan of action, support, or help to prevent problematic behavior happening in the future. Generally, telling someone they are at fault does nothing more than make them feel bad. It makes more sense to be able to describe what specific behavior they did and the consequences it had in a non-judgmental manner. Is the goal the help prevent them from doing it in the future? If so, what is your role in this interaction? What are your intentions in blaming someone? Often, saying a person is at fault is simply a way to express anger, and expressing anger too intensely can sometimes destroy relationships. 

Tell them they are mentally ill: If you are trying to write someone off for behavior that you don’t understand well, this is an easy way out. Telling someone they are “mentally ill” can sometimes get people off the hook for providing more specific feedback or expressing anxiety more directly. What specific behavior are you talking about? Is there something in particular you want them to change? Do you have trouble describing their behavior? If people are treated with respect, they generally respond proactively. Mental illness can sometimes be a nebulous term for behavior that is not fitting or appropriate to the situation, and can also be a way to say “I am not comfortable with what you are doing.” However, being ganged up on, being misunderstood, and being shamed only ostracizes the recipient. Is calling someone mentally ill a way to express fear of what you can’t understand? Consider what it is about their behavior specifically that makes you uncomfortable, and see if you can use words to describe it without judgment. 

Tell them that they do things for attention: An attentive, listening audience can be a powerful thing. Just ask anyone who has benefitted from a caring partner, a best friend, or a loving family member! I love it when I receive the type of attention I want, and the type of attention I need. It makes me feel closer, more connected, and warmer towards the people I care about. There is no need to pathologize what is completely normal, and to make people feel bad for social inclusion, affection, and control. If there is a behavior that they actually do that burns you out, overwhelms you, or angers you; it may be time to own your frustration and know and communicate your limits. It may also be an opportunity to provide some feedback on what isn’t working in your relationship, or to clarify what it is you actually need for them to do or change. 

Tell them they have a personality disorder: Describing a disorder doesn’t change a behavior. People often think that if they could only describe something, somehow it will change! Telling someone the reason they behavior x way is because they have personality disorder generally just make them feel bad, and in some cases hopeless to do anything about it. If you want to hold someone accountable, you will have to develop better ways of giving feedback. A more thoughtful approach to changing behavior includes a compassionate and realistic plan to address it. 

Tell them they are a bad (parent, teacher, spouse, child, etc.): In essence, bad is a judgment. Trying replacing “bad” with descriptions of impact, consequences, and feelings about what happens when they behave the way they do. What is it about their behavior is “bad”, and why is it so important to bring to their attention? Are you avoiding expressing your own difficult feelings by judging others? 

In general, people are more willing to do what we want them to do when we have a strong relationship with them, when the feedback we provide comes from a place of caring, and when we validate and encourage others. A person is more likely to take feedback into consideration when they feel valued and cared about. Are there ways you can encourage or enhance the relationship? Focusing on behaviors that you want to increase (such as connection, openness, courage, self-awareness) will probably go a lot further than punitive responses coming out of frustration or anger. While constructive feedback is sometimes called for, aversive consequences manage to prevent problem behavior, and limits around what a person can tolerate is reasonable; punitive responses can also damage relationships.  

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?

A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

Boston DBT Parent Class: Parenting the Emotionally Extreme Teen

 How did this class help you? Here is the feedback from four parents who took the Spring 2015 class:

 

“To try and react better..To try and anticipate my daughter’s behavior triggers..try to find out what is causing the extremes and deal those triggers… By accepting emotions and where they are coming from; not to deny my emotions but they are there for a reason. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer. “- Parent 1

“To better understand my emotions, and that they have a purpose…To explore that purpose. Better able to identify escalation in my daughter. I’ve learned to buy time, to put some time in between responding to my daughter and others. What was most helpful was the overall impact of the course which has left me better equipped and more curious about DBT.” -Parent 2

“It made me more willing to bit my tongue, take a deep breath, and not focus on ‘fixing things’. Acceptance was important, both dealing with my own emotions and allowing for acceptance of my child’s emotions. Using mindfulness techniques to tone down my level of arousal was also important. Understanding that emotions might be valid but ineffective in some circumstances. I thought the (video content shown in class) outlined some very pragmatic examples and techniques.” -Parent 3

“To be more present with my emotion. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer, to think things through. Being able to listen to others’ experiences. Each class was built on each other. Have learned many skills to be more effective with my daughter.” -Parent 4

Please contact

drhoekstra@bostondbtgroups.com

 if you would like

more information about

upcoming classes.

Have you been told to change your “bad mood”?

Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.

Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.

Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.

Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?

Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.

One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.

Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.

Cartoon elephants (emotions!) up close and personal: When you don’t like what you see

Sometimes, if you look closely at what actually feel, you won’t like what’s there. Sometimes it’s just too much. Here are some tips on what to do when you get up close and personal with your elephant, and this

MagnifiedJPEG

may be what you find.

  • Start with whatever is present in the moment. See if you can notice and allow for what is there vs. actively trying to ignore or push away.
  • See if you can get yourself to willingly tolerate all sensations, discomfort, or urges associated with the emotion. Noticing if there is anything holding you back from doing so.
  • Bear in mind that the better able you are to tolerate, you will be better equipped to survive the moment. Redirect your attention back to your elephant and practice the gentle yet curious gaze.
  • Tolerating sensation does not mean that you have to approve of reality, take action, or fail to take action.
  • An unwillingness to tolerate what is there will not make cartoon elephants disappear. (You can’t have a life without cartoon elephants!) A refusal to tolerate can actually create more problems later.
  • What you pay attention to= what your life is about. Do you want your entire life to be characterized by the struggle of not looking at your cartoon elephants?

 

Four brief ways in which mindfulness can actually be used to help you cope: Practical applications of being mindful.

Here are a few simple ways in which learning and using mindfulness can help people.

Quiet the mind. A simple mindful activity such as focusing on the breath for a few minutes can help people slow down racing thoughts, lower emotional arousal, and feel a bit more settled. If a person can take emotional arousal down a few notches, he or she may feel more prepared to face a situation that evokes anxiety.

Focus attention: When people are wholeheartedly involved in one task (focusing all of their attention on whatever they are doing), their mind is typically not racing, jumping, or scattered. Focusing on one thing can help a person feel less disorganized.

Become grounded, centered, or more connected to ourselves, our environment, or our surroundings. This can be important if you have a hard time relating, enjoying, or benefitting from pleasant experiences. Sometimes the focus of attention is on pain, threat, or impending crisis and it’s hard to absorb the stuff that makes us feel better.

Help you be clear on what you feel: We know what we feel because we sense it in our bodies. Some people spend a lot of time trying to ignore, hide, repress, or inhibit what’s going on inside. Being mindful can help us get back in touch with emotion, discomfort, and even desire.

Want to learn how to be mindful? Click here to try my 30 days of mindfulness program and receive one e-mail a day for 30 days with a mindfulness tip, suggestion, skill, or practical “how to”. If you’ve already done it, click here to do the 30 (more) days of mindfulness- for a total of 60 days of opportunities to learn mindfulness.

When trauma forces us to look at what matters: Newtown, CT, and surviving emotional pain

Traumatic experiences have a tendency to shake us to the very core, calling into question our beliefs about humanity, safety, influence, power, control, and faith. When traumatic things happen, our vulnerabilities are exposed. We may feel raw, defenseless, or powerless.

Trauma cracks open our humanity in ways that may bring out the extremism in all of us.  Some people may react to the experience of helplessness by shutting others out. This might be manifested through withdrawal, avoidance, criticism, verbal attacks, or vigilant efforts to control everything and anyone.  Others might reach out, remember what really matters, or connect more deeply to those around them. Some are suddenly more conscious of what they cannot control; thus seeking to strengthen relationships, deepen their faith, or work harder to protect those they love.

Sometimes it is difficult to know how to react to others who are in pain. One way of addressing our own feelings of helplnessness in these situations is to contribute, share, mobilize efforts to help, reach out, or make ourselves available.

In light of the recent school shootings, I’ve put together some tips for how to be with people in pain. I hope that these tips go beyond today and tomorrow, and that they can be considered useful in the everyday experience that connects us not only to each other but to places like Newtown, CT.

  • Make space for emotions- both your own and someone else’s
  • Acknolwedge pain by allowing it to exist.
  • Instead of platitudes, changes of subject, false reassurances, or noisy chatter try to tolerate discomfort and awkwardness
  • Be direct and invite experiences of emotion to be talked about openly. Name the elephants in the room.
  • The more comfortable you are talking direclty and openly about how you feel, the more of an invitation this will provide for others
  • Be aware that others may not express emotions in the way you expect
  • You don’t have to understand why exactly people behave the way they do in order to be helpful. Try focusing on the what of the feelings instead of the why.
  • Be prepared for ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of clarity. Being emotionally present is more important than analyzing details or intellectually distancing and describing behavior.

Remember that people sometimes need invitations to experience and express a wide range of intense emotion in the wake of trauma. It is a lonely experience to diminish pain or act like it doesn’t exist- when what is needed most is the experience of not having to face it alone.