Love Languages in Relationships…With Personalities!

As a couple’s therapist, I often find myself having discussions about people’s love languages and how to help one’s partner translate their expression of love into the other partner’s way of receiving love. The concept of love languages was introduced by Psychologist, Gary Chapman, in his (1995) book, “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate.” His work has since gained a great deal of traction and has been adapted to a website and a love language quiz, which is widely accessible to couples in need of a relationship tune-up.

 To outline the concept briefly, there are thought to be five predominant ways in which we give and receive love: through acts of service(e.g. pumping your partner’s gas), gifts, words of affirmation (communicating interest and understanding), quality time, and physical touch. While we may enjoy all of these in relationships, usually one speaks us most profoundly –perhaps a type of affection we became accustomed to receiving in childhood, or more commonly, a means of affection we may not have received enough of growing up. I’ve found it’s a wonderfully, simplistic, universal framework for conceptualizing human affection that generalizes well to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, genders, and sexualities.

In addition to this model, I think it’s important to consider each partner’s personality types, as one’s orientation toward extraversion or introversion also tends to influence how they may exhibit affection. For instance, extraverts thrive in social, larger group settings and tend to express themselves better verbally, while introverts thrive in one-on-one or smaller group interactions, can require personal time for self-reflection, and tend to express themselves better in writing. Within the context of affection in relationships, this distinction can help explain a lot, since the modality in which we communicate is becoming more central to our daily interactions in our modern world.

 In real life, this could look like an extroverted partner who expresses words of affirmation a great deal in person, but becomes more reserved over phone, video, or text communication, which can shift the dynamic of the relationship entirely (e.g. in the context of a long-distance relationship that relies heavily on written communication), leaving the other partner wondering. And vice versa: an introverted partner may seem slightly reserved in person but more expressive over phone, video, or text. (E.g. maybe this is why he’s not texting the words she’s hoping to hear, and maybe she’s coming across as more forward over text than she would in person.)  It’s easy for each partner to take this personally if the subtleties of personality style are overlooked, but this added lens offers greater objectivity about what’s transpiring in the relationship: they’re more likely to express affection in a manner consistent with their personality types. This helps the long-distance couple understand that the extraverted partner is likely to resume being affectionate once they’re together in person again, and that the introverted partner really is expressive in their own way. Of course this is just one of many examples of how personality type may manifest in relationships. There are some stereotypical gender and cultural differences, (e.g. men tending to be less expressive over text; some cultures tend to be less emotionally expressive in general), but these generalizations don’t apply to everyone. Another take away is the realization that much of what happens in life and relationships is not personal, but often more about what’s going on for the other person, which is a powerful antidote to counter reactivity in relationships.

Opposite Action

When you feel urged to do something compulsive, do the opposite: practice non-action. This is one of the surest ways to undo patterned behaviour. A practice in non-action could be meditation. Meditation is helpful because it’s an alternative behaviour, which conditions a new response. It also affects neurological and chemical changes in the brain, thereby creating new neural pathways to help you stick with your alternative responses (vs. compulsive reactions) over time.

Urges, such as chemical cravings for substances, as seen in addiction, or behavioural clinging for attachment in cases of relational trauma, only last at their peak intensity for about fifteen minutes. If we can do something else to ride the wave of discomfort, we can allow it to pass without acting reflexively, which gives us greater freedom to choose a mindful response. We may have to practice this again and again throughout a particularly difficult hour, day, or week, but it is not a futile effort, as it will help you gain mastery over the urges that once controlled you, just as one masters a tough meditation.

In this way, much of life can be seen as a walking meditation. Embrace it mindfully and learn to surf!

We Can All Use a Little CBT

CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is one of the more established psychotherapeutic modalities that’s been shown to be effective in the treatment of various concerns, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, among many others. But CBT isn’t just a treatment for those experiencing psychological distress; we can all use CBT-based practices to enhance our everyday lives.

CBT largely involves exploring our relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours –reality checks we could all use a healthy dose of from time to time. One exercise that might be particularly useful in our daily grind is to start identifying “cognitive distortions,” or mental habits.

Our brains and our bodies like to be as efficient as possible. We’re built to conserve precious resources. We have a finite amount of energy available for daily expenditure. Something along the same lines as the reasoning behind Steve Jobs wearing the same outfit each day…to cut down on extraneous decision-making mental activity. So our brains become efficient by creating mental shortcuts, or mental habits whichbecome physically reinforced. Neurological pathways that are used most often become stronger and myelinated(i.e. covered with a protective fatty sheath) making them lightening fast (i.e. more subconscious) and more easily activated for super-charged mental habit action. A similar analogy is how our most frequently used muscles become the strongest and most dominant. This allows many of our most common mental actions to become automated (e.g. just how driving a car becomes second nature once we become pros at it). Such mental efficiency is the reason we’re able to accomplish so many wonderful things in a day, but it comes with the downfall of making us susceptible to erroneous thinking. Below is a list of the most common “cognitive distortions” we all do. If you can catch yourself in the act, you can notice when your thinking may be unrealistic in order to come back to a more balanced appraisal of the situation.

  • All-or-nothing thinking (either/or, pass/fail thinking; perfectionism): seeing things as black and white and failing to see grey areas. E.g. using words like “always” and “never” as descriptors.
  • Overgeneralization: making a very broad conclusion based on a single event; expecting the same result to reoccur in future situations. Seeing a single event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  • Labeling and mislabeling: Attributing a person’s behaviour to his or her personality or character. E.g. “He cut me off in traffic. He’s a jerk.” “She yelled at me, she must be an angry person.”
  • Mental filter (selective attention): Only focusing on negative aspects of a situation and ignoring possible positives. Only focusing on information that confirms what you already believe. E.g. “I forgot a few of my lines. The whole presentation was a disaster.”
  • Disqualifying the positive: Rejecting positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or another. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences. E.g. “That person is only flattering me because they’re my friend.”
  • Jumping to conclusions: Making hasty assumptions without thoroughly checking the facts.
    • Mind reading: Assuming what other people are thinking (and intending) without really knowing or checking it out. (And/or expecting others to know what you are thinking without clearly telling them).
    • The fortune teller error: Anticipating that things will turn out a certain way and being convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  • Magnification (catastrophizing or minimization): Making things out to be worse than they really are. Magnification of the negative: emphasizing possible weaknesses, failures, and threats. Minimizing the positive: deemphasizing possible successes, strengths, or opportunities.
  • Emotional reasoning: Assuming that your emotions necessarily reflect facts and reality. (E.g. “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”)
  • ‘Should’ statements: Thinking you’re morally obligated to do things. Using “should” and “shouldn’t” statements to motivate behaviour and avoid guilt. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is disempowerment and guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  • Personalization (or self-centred thinking): Interpreting things as being necessarily and intentionally about you. Over-focusing on oneself and ignoring how events relate to others and the world. Taking things personally without checking them out. Being easily offended. Interpreting most things to be about yourself or personally referring to you.
  • Self-Blaming: Taking too much responsibility for situations you don’t have control over. Seeing yourself as the cause of some external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.
  • Other-Blaming: Holding others responsible for things done to you that they may not have control over.
  • Double standards: Holding yourself to a different standard than you would apply to someone else.
  • The fallacy of fairness: Expecting that life should always work out fairly.
  • Catastrophization: Over-exaggerating; making something seem worse than it is.

 

*We at Heartfulness Psychotherapy appreciate that CBT isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We recognize that other approaches can be equally as effective and integrate flexible treatment options into our programs. Different strokes for different folks. 🙂

Why Are Middle Aged Folks Drinking So Much? Observations on Adult ADHD & Addiction

I’ve recently noticed a trend in my office: middle-aged people have been seeking me out because their drinking has become problematic. Their partners have expressed concern and they’re left wondering in bewilderment how it ever got to this point. They’re intelligent, motivated, successful, caring men and women leading generally satisfying lives as partners, parents, and professionals. They may have even seen a therapist or two already in the past in an effort to uncover possible issues from early life difficulties, seemingly to little effect. They wonder how our work together could possibly be any different.

What I’ve noticed is that many of these clients tend to share some commonalities:

  • They bore easily; they’re often restless and on the move
  • They’re energetic and talkative, often dominating the conversation and changing topics, perhaps interrupting frequently
  • They’re forgetful and/or struggle with time management and attending appointments
  • They’re generally quite interesting as they can share a flurry of ideas concurrently*
  • They’re quite intelligent* and high-functioning,* but may have had a history of being disruptive in grade school (and may have developed a complex about frequently being reprimanded*)
  • Perhaps they’ve wondered if they might have some attention deficits, but nothing’s ever come of this consideration or early childhood assessment*
  • They may be quite sensitive*

These characteristics are commonly seen in individuals with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (in addition to other diagnostic criteria). ADHD is frequently identified in young boys who exhibit behavioural disruptions in grade school, but less so in girls who tend to present somewhat differently (likely in part due to differential influences in socialization).

Perhaps parents from previous generations feared medicating their children and/or the stigma that might have accompanied seeking formal psychological assessment and diagnosis. In other cases, high-functioning intelligent children may have kept up with their academics, without much commitment to formal study practices, and thus flew under the radar. For various reasons, some people make it all the way into middle-aged adulthood without ever having their ADHD identified (or symptoms thereof, as it’s possible to experience symptoms on the spectrum without qualifying for a formal diagnosis).

Oftentimes such individuals resort to self-medicating symptoms they didn’t realize they were dealing with by using alcohol and other drugs to help with increased focus, productivity, and to escape the flurry of thoughts they’re so inundated by in order to unwind before bed. When thinking about ADHD, we seldom fully appreciate how exhausting it can be to have to constantly moderate attention away from countless distractions, personal “notes to self,” and new ideas, all within seconds just in time to return to the conversation at hand and appear attentive to the person in front of you! Seeing ADHD in this light helps me understand the high correlation with concurrent addiction.

Many factors contribute to the susceptibility and development of addiction; among them, genetic, psychological, sociological, and existential influences. It is also well known that most cases of addiction tend to correlate with some form of psychological trauma. To this end, addiction is often about self-medicating symptoms of distress. In therapy, while it’s essential to approach addiction from a trauma-sensitive lens, it’s also important to consider possible unidentified mental health concerns –likely also tied to trauma, which may independently perpetuate the cycle of addiction if left unaddressed.

Another important thing to realize is that addictive tendencies are degenerative in nature. Long-term substance abuse can create cumulative health impairments. Addictive tendencies can be progressive as they become ingrained behaviourally and neurologically (i.e. physically reinforced in the brain). As we age, we tend to lose water weight, so substances like alcohol can have greater influence than expected. It’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that substance abuse habits started in youth can subtly escalate over time, as greater tolerance and dependence develops –all of which can contribute to middle-age problem drinking.

If you’re wondering whether your substance use could be an issue, consider:

  • Is it interfering with your relationships and other commitments?
  • Do you continue to ‘use’ despite significant adverse consequences?
  • Is the use compulsive?
  • Do you experience craving and preoccupation?
  • Is it difficult or impossible to control the amount or frequency of use?
  • Have others expressed concern?

Therapy can be helpful in identifying and learning to manage symptoms of addiction and ADHD. Sometimes simply acknowledging such concerns can be a first step that brings considerable relief. If you think you could be affected by similar challenges, reach out to a regulated healthcare professional to see how you could be supported and what options are available.

*Such characteristics are not formally included among the diagnostic criteria, but reflect anecdotal observations I’ve made in working with ADHD.

Nipping Jealousy in the Bud

Jealousy is wanting something someone else has for oneself. It’s usually accompanied by feelings of dissatisfaction, possible resentment, and yearning for the desired thing/person in some cases. It by definition comes out of a place of insecurity and a sense of feeling lacking or not having enough without the desired object of one’s affection. Jealousy becomes problematic when we don’t recognize it for what it is: i.e. a signpost of something that holds some value to us; a beacon pointing us in the direction of an underlying aspiration. Jealousy becomes an issue when we make it more about others when it is really our own journey.

To transform jealous energy into constructive energy, first hear what it’s telling you. What do you feel lacking in? What would you like to acquire or improve upon?

Ask yourself what you need to help you feel more abundant rather than lacking.

Once you have the goal framework in place, set an intention as to how you might achieve the desired outcome. This might require shifting your mindset. Adopting a problem-solving attitude puts you in the driver’s seat, which is more empowering than passively wishing for something to happen. Envision yourself working toward this goal. Mentally imagine what it will feel like once you have it. And remember patience with the process: everyone has their own path and their own pace; some people will meet their goals faster than others and we cannot always get the exact version of what it is we seek, but with patience, tenacity, and listening, we can be headed in the right direction.

CBT in the Treatment of Chronic Pain

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the leading psychotherapies used to address chronic pain, and there’s good reason why. CBT explores clients’ underlying thought, behavioural, and emotional patterns, the relationship between them, and associated environmental circumstances that might sustain symptoms of distress. It encourages clients to develop new skills to change unhealthy ingrained patterns to in turn change their symptoms. CBT has been extensively researched and is widely used in the treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, anger, addictions, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia, and chronic pain, among other concerns.

Pain refers to an unpleasant sensory experience usually accompanied by a strong adverse emotional response. In fact, the same centres of the brain that process physical pain also process emotional pain, so oftentimes when one form [of pain] exists, the other may follow. Chronic pain can contribute to low mood (depressive symptoms), increased worry about health concerns (anxious symptoms), and increased use of the healthcare system, which can be emotionally taxing in itself. It can cause strain on relationships, long-term disability, a loss of one’s life as they knew it, and a loss of one’s identity. CBT is an effective treatment to address all of these concerns, because it emphasizes changing one’s habits within the means available to them, which can be empowering, because even if we can’t change our external or physical realities, we retain the option to shift our mindset.

With increased studies in neurobiology, largely due to advancements in brain imaging technology and accessibility of these technologies, the leading approaches in the field are shifting away from the older thinking that our brains and bodies should be treated separately. A more holistic approach is being adopted, treating the brain and body concurrently to affect changes in clients’ presenting symptoms. You might notice that if we change how our bodies feel physically, we tend to change how we feel emotionally, which often brings changes in our thoughts and behaviours, and vice versa, since they’re all considered interconnected in the CBT model. It also follows that the saying “it’s all in your head” misses the mark, because even if a difficulty is originally psychological in nature, if left untreated, it can impact one’s physiology, disrupting hormones, neurotransmitters, blood pressure, and various other body functions. And our mental and/or physical states can become entrenched; that is, our systems can become acclimatized to staying stuck in a certain ‘mode’ (e.g. feeling depressed or stressed), thereby contributing to symptom chronicity, thus calling for an active, change-oriented approach to therapy.

CBT encourages goal-setting, which can help address the low motivation frequently seen in clients dealing with chronic pain. It involves practices to identify and challenge inaccurate beliefs accompanying the pain, and helps develop cognitive behavioural coping strategies, such as pacing daily activities and shifting negative thoughts. CBT also integrates relaxation practices which teach clients how to decrease emotional reactivity to physical pain by changing how they respond to it (e.g. with calming practices rather than panic), which uncouples the negative association between experiencing physical pain and getting emotionally upset. Relaxation practices are helpful because decreased body tension is less likely to exacerbate the experience of physical pain (think about the powerful impact lamaze can have on childbirth, or relaxing your muscles when getting a needle).

CBT is often combined with mindfulness-based practices, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which teaches participants to notice pain non-judgmentally, with curiosity and acceptance. This change in perspective often results in less emotional reactivity to pain (mental or physical), thereby cultivating a greater tolerance, which can be a central goal in the treatment of chronic pain. Luckily, in Canada it’s becoming increasingly common for rehab centres to integrate these types of approaches to enhance recovery.

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Pain management strategies you can try at home:

  • Notice your beliefs about pain. Are they limiting you?
  • Practice spreading out your daily activities and/or planning to tackle strenuous tasks when you tend to feel better in the day, or leave them for “good days”
  • Anticipate needing extra recovery time after strenuous activities and don’t judge yourself for it.
  • Resist the urge to push beyond your limits. Take a break if you need one. Pushing yourself too hard can be counterproductive, leading to longer recovery times.
  • Getting proper sleep can reduce emotional reactivity (i.e. crankiness).
  • If the pain disturbs your sleep, relaxation training and meditation can offer a restful alternative that’s nearly as restorative as REM sleep.
  • Practice mindfulness: focus on the present moment with non-judgment, curiosity, and acceptance. Connect with a mindfulness-based therapist if you’d like to learn more.