When it comes to relationships what are we actually responsible for?

Our early relationships with our primary caregiver/s may have lead to us believing that we are responsible for the feelings of others. Children of parents who make their own emotions more important than that of the child and who communicate to the child that he/she needs to make mummy/daddy feel better are teaching children that other people’s needs are more important than their own. This can create problems in adult relationships where the adult constantly feels guilty about the problems of those around them. This can be exhausting and stressful as the person tries to fix everyone and runs themselves ragged doing so. This dynamic can become even more dysfunctional if an abuser takes advantage of this vulnerability by manipulating the person’s sense of guilt and low self worth.

Understanding what patterns of belief, thoughts, and feelings, we are bringing from childhood into adulthood is fundamental to how healthy our adult relationships will be. Knowing that we are not responsible for the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions of others, but we are 100% responsible for our own, is a healthy place to start.

What are the changes to our patterned beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions, we need to make to create healthy and fulfilling relationships?

Naming Emotions

This morning I woke up feeling irritable. Some emotions simply feel bad. Grief, shame, disappointment, frustration, isolation, fear, and some feelings of sadness can feel as though they weigh us down.

It's easy to hook into these emotions when we feel them and to start looking at the world through the lense of the emotion and to tell ourselves that we have anxiety, stress, or depression. We can start to worry that we have a disorder and begin to notice that we feel this way quite often. After a while we get into a habit of checking out these feelings and quantifying them; 'How depressed or anxious am I right now?'

We commonly use these umbrella terms to describe or identify a wide range of emotions. Interestingly enough if we can get a bit more complex in connecting with our emotions and identify them in more detail we might discover that we are actually feeling lonelysad, because we have lost something or someone; worried about some important deadline looming; resentful about the way someone is treating us at home or at work; overwhelmed by our workload; despondent about climate change or politics; or another feeling response to something that is happening in our world. Many of these things are out of our control.

Being able to identify the feelings and name them is an important step in deepening our understanding of ourselves and what we need. Identifying specific feelings has also been shown to reduce their intensity. It seems that acknowledging how we are really feeling and what it is about enables us to get alongside ourselves and make these human experiences normal instead of something we need to fight.

It is human to feel, and to feel many different emotions. Understanding that is a big step in our emotional maturity. Ready to experiment? How are you feeling right now and how many words can you use to describe it?  



Earthquakes: coping with anxiety

I've been thinking about the effect of the recent earthquakes on us here in Wellington and want to spare a thought for those in Kaikoura who have lost lives and property.

It's true that in many ways we are 'living on the edge'. We all know that everything about our life is impermanent and the only real constant is change. This is one of the elements we learn to live with as we become adults and move out of the security and innocence of childhood where if we have been fortunate enough to have kind attentive parents our anxieties have been soothed and comforted. We learn to live in our present lives by focusing on what does not appear to change and by creating as much stability and constancy as we can. We can become so embedded in this that we forget that this constancy can be upturned by life events and we can be very shocked when this happens.

Many people are understandably feeling stressed and anxious about aftershocks and the small but real threat of the big one. For people already struggling with anxiety this can add another layer of it. Particularly when this is being sensationalised in some quarters. Some people will be suffering from the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and the problems of sleep disruption and ongoing negative and catastrophic thoughts. Physical stress symptoms can ramp up.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness practices can help reduce the thoughts and symptoms. These are evidenced-based therapies for both anxiety and depression. 

If you are suffering from earthquake anxiety you might find it helpful to talk to someone. If you decide you don't need to see a counsellor there is a hotline you can ring; the 'All Right? Hotline' on 0800-777-846, specifically to talk about your earthquake fears.

Store your water, stock up some tins, make a plan with your family. Relax and breathe, knowing you've done all you can. Enjoy the good moments of your life in the present, right now.


Emotional Resilience

It used to be thought that emotions had to be released either by cathartic crying, even to the point of hyperventilation, when sad, or hitting pillows when angry. Research in the field of neuroscience now shows that on the contrary, when we ramp up our emotions in this way we can actually be practicing them and telling our brains to produce more of them. Angry people get angrier and eventually create a 'short fuse'. It is more helpful to release the body tension produced by intense emotions by doing something physical, unrelated to the emotion, like going for a brisk walk or some other form of exercise to burn off the energy, and then a calming relaxing activity to calm the mind and regain our state of intelligent thinking where we have choices. Intense emotions affect our ability to think clearly as our body systems go into fight or flight mode.

The sadness of grief can be very intense and frightening and take a while to get to know and understand. Some people find that they naturally cry and feel better and others find crying makes the emotion too overpowering and that calming the mind and relaxing the body helps recover the sense of well being. Whichever type you may be learning to recognise the emotions and find healthy ways to experience them is helpful in the long term. There are a number of therapies that can explore this practice.

Anger, fear, and sadness are normal emotions to experience as humans and one helpful process is to notice, name, and then let them come and go without creating a big story around them in our minds.

Sometimes anger and fear are helpful and drive us to act in situations where apathy would be harmful to us. Emotions that persistently arise from automatic and habitual thinking though, are often the source of depression and anxiety that might be unrelated to what is happening in our current lives. Learning to recognise and let these habitual patterns go strengthens us up and makes us more resilient to the difficult events in our lives.   


If we have been feeling mentally or emotionally unwell for a while the idea of having a sense of wellbeing can seem out of reach. We can simply wish to be free of the negative and debilitating feelings of anxiety and depression. For many years mental health treatments focused on helping people to be released from the severity of these conditions. Positive psychologists and counsellors though, aim for more than simply being free of the symptoms and instead aspire to help clients to achieve a sense of wellbeing. They believe that every human being deserves to have the opportunity to create happiness in their life. Sometimes we need to learn some new ways of thinking and being in the world to make this happen. What are the wellbeing practices in your life? What is one small thing you can do today to nurture your own happiness?

Self Compassion

Sometimes the way we talk to ourselves can be overly critical and harsh. It's a good thing to be able to control behaviour that causes harm or has negative consequences for us but when we become too critical of ourselves we can create a relationship with ourselves that doesn't serve to support us or enable us to be happy. At its worst this kind of self-criticism can seriously affect our wellbeing and effectiveness in life. Creating a culture of self-compassion in our thoughts is beneficial work. Noticing how we are talking to ourselves, "Oh, I'm so stupid for doing that, I'll never amount to much, I don't look as good as that person, I'm just not a good person" etc. is the first important step to changing this critical internal monologue. Wondering about who's voice we are actually replaying can enable us to step away from it. Is that really my critical parent's voice, an abusive partner, a cruel teacher? It can be really helpful to begin to explore how we can relate to ourselves in a much kinder way and focus on the small ways in which we do really well in life. Give ourselves a break! 


Welcome to my new website!

This is where I write up some things that I'm working on or have come across in my reading or research that you may find helpful...

Growing Our Personal Resources to Meet Challenge (Rick Hansen)

One of the things from Californian neuropsychologist and therapist Rick Hansen’s work (check my links page for his TED talk on Hardwiring Happiness) that I find simple and useful is the idea of growing our personal resources to meet challenges. We can grow these in the world which usually takes considerable time and work, or in the body by keeping it healthy and being aware of our brain health. The area we have the most opportunity to grow our resources though is in our mind. Some things we can focus on growing are determination, patience, happiness, cheerfulness, and perspective. These can become some of the personal resources that will help us when life experiences overwhelm us.

Some capabilities that will contribute to developing our inner strengths include: gratitude and positive emotions, attitudes like tolerance and openness, meaningful interactions with others, being solution focused, and fostering our generosity and courage.

Sometimes we forget that we have opportunities every day to think and act from some of these perspectives and we get stuck in our same old ways.

What are you growing in yourself today?