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Change Your Negative Life Story

I try to teach my clients and those close to me that negativity is a learned perspective. When we are growing up we are all exposed to views of the world that are not objective or reasonable. Anthony, one of my group clients grew up with parents from two different countries who met in Europe during the last world war. Even though they have been living in the United States for over 50 years they still consider themselves to be suffering from prejudice from American neighbors and former co­­‑workers. Anthony grew up hearing Americans are greedy, selfish and biased against all foreigners. His parent’s pessimism pervaded much of their thinking and he was often told to shy away from anything unfamiliar. Basically their view of life was to take no chances and never stray from family as “outsiders” could not be trusted. He realized as time went on that his parents assertions were mainly based on their own insecurities and unwillingness to trust.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Despite knowing this reality as an adult he has remained an untrusting person, very afraid to take chances and afraid that he will be ridiculed if he reveals his true nature to anyone. His first wife eventually left him as she could no longer tolerate his unhealthy attachment to his parents and his un-willingness to make friends and socialize.

      Anthony, interestingly, is a member of one of my group sessions where 4 of the 10 members were born in other countries and all immigrated to the states in the last several years. Anthony was initially surprised that these individuals did not experience the bias he expected. In fact three of them were recruited by American companies, helped to find housing and were graciously received by their colleagues. They had difficulty of course, adjusting to a new culture but none spoke of the bias that Anthony had been taught to experience. It wasn’t just the fact that members from other lands had a different experience that eventually made the difference in his world view.

        What changed his pessimism into a reality based view of life?                                                     First and most importantly he developed trust in myself and group members. As he said “I can see and really feel how you all care about each other, at first I thought you were all playing a role but over time I realized you were complete strangers at one time, from all over the world and now you have come to truly like and respect each other, you’re like a family of friends”.

        Eventually, based on this established trust, Anthony was able to systematically examine his views of life and their accuracy. He essentially was able to obtain a consensus view based on objective feedback rather than the hard wiring he adopted from his family. This is the critical juncture for change. We can only change our old story by having the courage to take in objective feedback in the present. I have seen this process result in profound changes in many lives. It is not simple or easy, it requires the courage to change based on your faith in the well meaning of others trying to help you move forward in life while leaving the biases of the past behind. Anthony and many others who are truth seekers, what I call “spiritual learners” arrive at a place of comfort within and with others that is truly life saving. One of my previous blogs describes the “spiritual learner” concept and chapter 16 in “The Curse of the Capable-With an Open Heart and Open Mind-The Spiritual Learner” is a more complete reference for you as well.

   

Are you Preoccupied or Selfish?

In this morning’s group session one of our members abruptly announced he was going to take a three month trip across country with his wife and would be leaving group. Members were astounded as we have a guideline that when someone is going to leave they pick a date, and give advanced notice so we can go through a compete process of saying goodbye. This entails giving and receiving direct feedback, settling any leftover conflicts etc so the ending will feel and be complete. I have been through this process many times with clients and I have noticed over the years that the way people end, in essence how they deal with loss, is quite predictive of how their life will go in the future.

   How we cope with endings, how direct or indirect we are in our communication says a great deal about our ability to maintain closeness, intimacy and friendship. Rob is a very good person but highly self critical despite being enormously successful in his business, which is why he can afford to take such long vacations. He has suffered, by his own admission what I call “The Curse of the Capable”. He masks his insecurity and vulnerability through his achievements. This method has worked for him in business but certainly not in marriage and with the relationships in his life.

   Rob’s inability to let people know in advance that he was leaving fits with a number of difficulties he encounters in his life. He had difficulty telling his dying father that he loved him, he has difficulty telling his adult children how much he cares, turns his head away from whomever he is addressing when he is saying something positive that could bring about an intimate feeling. He struggles, in essence, with the fear of not being good enough in the eyes of others. He has difficulty taking the chance of being vulnerable, a necessary step to maintain intimacy, because of his irrational personal story that views vulnerability as exposing weakness and insecurity. He was afraid he would disappoint people if they knew in advance of his departure, he didn’t have the faith in himself to believe he could state his intentions and emerge with a positive rather than a negative outcome. Ironically we are all happy for him that he is finally leaving work and making a giant step to enjoying life.

   He told the group that he thought we knew he was leaving since he had mentioned on different occasions about taking such a trip. He mentioned that he had this conversation in his head so many times it felt like it actually took place. Another common dynamic of those who are preoccupied is that they have meetings in their minds so often they start to act upon these meetings as if others actually attended. The other result of being preoccupied is a person like Rob thinks about a particular issue so much they expect others to appreciate their efforts and understand their needs when do they finally let others in on their obsessive thought process at its conclusion. One of the women he has helped considerably told him she was very disappointed that he did not have the concern to inform us, or have the trust in group members to let us in on his plans. Another member, a fellow business owner who has felt considerable camaraderie with Bob, echoed her sentiment but added, “I think below the surface Rob you are a very selfish man, I think you tend to want things your way and don’t consider how you affect other people”.

      I interjected at the end of the meeting that I think there are in fact, two kinds of selfishness. One is based on truly not caring about people, individuals who are narcissistic by nature and use other people simply for the self interested function they have. The other, particularly for people who suffer from The Curse is based on being preoccupied. Rob is not a good listener for instance; he is often planning his response as a person is talking to him. He is so worried about his image that he is rehearsing his response rather than listening. Like many who are preoccupied his memory and concentration are compromised which leads to people close to him feeling un-important and not heard. People, like group members, end up feeling that he is self centered and selfish. I think, through knowing Rob for some time, that this is a surface explanation and does not speak to the anxiety he is experiencing on a deeper level. He is not a man who does not care; he loves his wife, his children and truly cares about group members. His preoccupation however, a common dynamic among achievers, makes his relationships less than satisfying. The irony is that when he relaxes, pays attention, gets involved beyond himself, people find him loveable and kind. Rob must change the old story in his mind that says love and respect is dependent on achievement to the realization that achievement is important in life but ultimately without the relationship skill of empathic listening life will always feel like something is missing.

   As group ended we could all see Rob felt awful, several people encouraged him to continue phone sessions with me and to not perseverate on the negative comments exclusively. He certainly had a strong tendency to cement criticisms in his mind. As I walked out of group with him, everyone was waiting in the parking lot. They all hugged him individually and made him make eye contact. As he walked away with tears in his eyes, I asked him how come he didn’t hug me. He returned, looked directly at me, and gave me a huge hug and said “ I wish I had the courage to let people in more, I am still afraid of the outcome, guess I just didn’t want to feel vulnerable, I love everybody in this group, including you”. As I walked away I said to myself,” This is not a selfish man!”

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