Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Impossible to Please, or Life with a Perfectionist

You might know someone like this. Nothing is ever right for them. There is no pleasing this person. It could be your partner, or it might be your boss. They pick at you, point out every mistake, and are never satisfied. Get skilled, because you're in a relationship with a perfectionist. Taking care of yourself and knowing how and when to set limits is going to be key to your survival and mental well-being. They are not likely to change, so you need extreme self-care so you don't get angry and bitter, depressed, or overwhelmed.

In Impossible to Please: How to Deal With Perfectionist Coworkers, Controlling Spouses, and Other Incredibly Critical People (New Harbinger Publications, 2012), psychologists and writers Neil Lavender and Alan Cavaiola do a great job of writing a guide for staying sane. Here are some of their tips:

1. Don't expect the controlling person to change.

2. Set your own expectations and benchmarks. (You will never meet theirs.)

3. State your own boundaries, clearly and without attitude or defensiveness.

4. Give yourself a little time to respond to unreasonable requests. You can say that you'll get back to them, and buy yourself a little time to consider how you want to respond.

5. Speak up. If the controlling person is at work, let them know how their behavior impacts your work, and what you would like them to do in the future. If you are in a personal relationship with the controller, let them know how their specific comments or behavior makes you feel, and what you would rather they do next time.

6. Agree to disagree.

7. Don't expect the other person to validate your feelings. Know that your feelings are important even if the controller can't acknowledge them.

8. Stay in your adult role. Just because they may behaving like a critical parent, don't become a child.

9. It can help to create distance for a while.

10. With criticism, assert your right to want something else or be different. Critical controllers tend to operate like there is only one right way to do everything, and its theirs.

11. Don't show your frustration; it won't help.

12. Don't let them undermine your self-esteem and self-confidence.

13. If you're at work, consider speaking up to HR or someone with the authority to change things.

14. If it's in your personal life, get a little counseling to identify some coping strategies or help you make other plans.

Why do people become perfectionists? It can't be fun. While it's good to have high standards, controlling perfectionists push away others with their perfectionism. They may have deep-seated anxiety and their rigidity is how they cope. Often they are not happy, and more likely to be stingy with others and fear-based. Perfectionists are often unhappy and critical with themselves underneath that idealized view of themselves. People who are generally at peace with themselves don't invest in criticizing others with this intensity and mission. In close relationships we have to be vulnerable, and it has to be okay to be imperfect. People don't love you because you're perfect.

Impossible to Please has some useful strategies for getting perspective and getting up above the controlling perfectionist in your life with your self-esteem intact. This is a helpful book in the effort to not take their criticism personally, because the need to belittle you is really about them.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Growing Up Quiet

Over a third of the population are introverts, while the other two-thirds are extroverts. Introverts can have strong people skills, but they prefer to be interacting with people one-on-one, and they can get drained by group interaction. Introverts need alone time to recharge their energy.

If most people are extroverts, who enjoy lots of interaction and get recharged by being with people, then more parents and teachers are also extroverted. There is pressure from parents and teachers to get children to be more social.

 I often see children and teens in counseling whose parents worry that perhaps their child is not socially engaged with others on weekends and during other free time. When I check with the child or teen, sometimes they are not depressed, but have had more than enough people contact all week at school.

It often occurs that extroversion is the norm and the ideal, but we need to rethink that assumption. It's far better for us to be informed about the continuum of introversion to extroversion, and being sensitive accepting our own natural temperament type, as well as those of the people we're close to. There is nothing inherently bad about being an introvert.

This situation is the topic of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown Publishers, 2012). In this well-written book, Cain suggests that we undervalue introverts. She charts the historical development of the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ from Dale Carnegie courses about how to win friends and influence people via extroversion, to Tony Robbins, Harvard Business School, American schools, and mega-churches. We favor extroverts, and it's not fair to those who are more reserved by natural temperament.

I found Cain's interview with Harvard developmental psychology researcher Jerome Kagan fascinating. He's in his 80s, and has spent his career studying the emotional and cognitive development of children. In one of his studies, begun in 1989, Kagan and his team began to study 500 four-month-old infants, and based on a 45 minute evaluation, he predicted which babies were likely to become introverts or extroverts as adults. In the study, babies were exposed to voices, noises, colors and smells. Their reactions varied widely, some being highly reactive, and others being low reactors.

Kagan reexamined his subjects at ages 2, 7, and 11. As it turned out, Kagan was right. His predictions were accurate that the babies who were highly reactive to stimuli at age 4 months usually grew into more serious, quiet, introverted types. The low reactive infants, who remained calm, were more likely to develop into relaxed, confident, extroverted types.

Cain examines brain research on what role the amygdala, the emotional switchboard in the brain, may play in differential reactivity in extroverts vs. introverts. Some of what determines reactivity may be hard-wired in your genetics. Another part is the influence of the world around you. David Dobbs developed a theory that some children are like dandelions, meaning they can thrive in just about any environment. "Orchid children," in contrast, have highly reactive nervous systems that can make them easily overwhelmed with adversity. Orchid children especially need a nurturing environment. These highly sensitive children can, with the right support and nurturing, grow to become even more socially skilled and have fewer emotional difficulties than the low-reactors.

It's helpful to know some of the concepts, particularly if you are on the quiet side, or are close to someone who is. It helps us accept that while your amygdala may be hard-wired to panic when you have to give a speech or make small talk in a crowd of strangers, your adaptive self-talk can calm you down and help you get through the temporary stress. Learning to coach yourself through situations that aren't natural for you helps train your frontal cortex (the higher level thinking part of your brain) to not let the amygdala (the ancient part of the brain) run the whole show.

Cain's book gives us a better way to understand and accept our own natural level of extroversion or introversion. She also encourages each of us to find our optimum level or "sweet spot" of stimulation. We don't want to be either bored (under-stimulated), or overwhelmed (over-stimulated).You can have some fun playing with how much stimulation, social interaction, and alone time you like in your week, your weekend, and your life.

Quiet is a perfectly good way to be, and a fascinating read. Understanding your own temperament, and that of your partner and children, is an excellent place to start.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Encouraging Your Child the Right Way

Parents often worry about their children's self-esteem, and try to find a balance between being too stingy with praise and overdoing it. As it turns out, we may want to help our children have a realistic view of how they are seen by others. Over-inflating self-esteem, as in “everybody gets a trophy,” may set your youngster up for a crash when they hit a rough patch down the road.

In Sue Shellenberger's recent Work and Family column in the Wall Street Journal (2/27), the journalist gives a practical update on current studies and thinking about the relationship between parental encouragement and developing solid life skills. As it turns out, high self-esteem is more a result of good performance than a cause. Overdoing it on the parental encouragement can make a child feel worse when things don't go well.

Mark Leary is a professor of both psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, who determined from his studies that children as young as 8 years old tend to have their self-esteem level fluctuate based on feedback from their peers about their likability and attractiveness. While children always need to feel loved and valued, Dr. Leary believes it's quite alright for children to feel poorly about themselves for a bit if they are behaving in ways that are mean, selfish, or generally not going to be adaptive in later life. We want to help our children create a positive, but also realistic, view of themselves.

I found it interesting that a study of 313 children, ages 8 to 13, published this February in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that parents can do harm to their children’s self-esteem when pumping them up too much. The children can feel shame later when they experience frustration and defeat.

Research studies show that helping children have a realistic perspective about themselves is helpful. When researchers tried to inflate self-esteem of college students with flattery in a 2007 study published by the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the college students’ grades worsened. Researchers proposed that the students’ inflated self-esteem may have made their attitudes more cavalier, causing them to study less, and resulting in dropping grades.

Here are some tips for parents about finding the right balance with encouragement:

1.      Focus on the effort the child is putting in, not the grade or result.

2.      Empathize when your child is struggling or having a rough time with something (academics, friends, a sport). You may want to share something age-appropriate that you struggled with, but hung in there and persevered.

3.      Encourage your child to look at how others (his team, etc.) will see his or her behaviors, or other long-term positive outcomes in life, work, and relationships for doing the right thing.

4.      Emphasize character-building choices.

5.      Don't give up or encourage your child to give up. Don't predict future doom, as in “You will never succeed in life if you don't try out for Junior Lifeguards.”

6.      Praise things that are sustainable, like effort on homework, rather than straight A’s.

Parents of children of all ages, go out there and give some encouragement this week. Build that resiliency, notice that effort, shine a light on the improvements, and focus on your child's creating a healthy and realistic view of him or herself. You can do it!

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sociopath Next Door

Beware of the charm and the flattery. Both are warning signs of the charisma of a sociopath. I always wish I could warn young people before they begin dating. You might be young, insecure and lacking confidence in yourself, but don't mistake the charisma of a sociopath for true confidence. Through counseling a number of bewildered adults through trying to repair their lives after surviving having a parent, or a marriage or relationship with a sociopath, I have developed a lending library of books to help the wounded partner try to make sense of what's happened.

One excellent book to start with is The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. (Broadway Books, 2005). Stout is a Harvard psychologist who clears up the misconception that all sociopaths are violent criminals. They are not. In fact, Stout estimates that 4 in every 100 people, or 1 in every 25 people, fit the criteria for sociopathy. These individuals seldom seek counseling or professional help. Most often it's the people around and closest to the sociopath that are likely to come for counseling to try to heal from the trauma they have experienced.

Stout describes sociopaths as "ice people" who really aren't capable of loving or empathizing with others. This dynamic really confounds people who are in the majority who can do both of those things. It's been called various names, including psychopathy, sociopathy, guiltlessness disorder, missing conscience, and/or antisocial personality disorder. According to the DSMIV, the current bible of psychiatric diagnoses, people with antisocial personality disorder have to have at least 3 of these 7 criteria met:

1.      Failure to conform to social norms

2.      Deceitfulness or manipulative

3.      Impulsivity, failure to plan ahead

4.      Irritability, aggressiveness

5.      Reckless disregard for the safety of self and others

6.      Consistent irresponsibility

7.      Lack of remorse after having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person

Researchers also note the tendency of sociopaths to crave greater than normal stimulation, which creates more risk-taking. Many sociopaths began to have legal issues as teens with breaking rules.  Their emotions run hollow. Many sociopaths are not violent and are not in prison. They may, however, be wreaking havoc on the lives of people who are in relationships with them or work with them. Sociopaths have no conscience, so it's like the normal rules don't apply to them. They may appear spontaneous, exciting, interesting, and charismatic, but they can be very dangerous to your safety, your self-esteem, your bank account, and your heart.

Both Stout and I have seen too many people hurt by sociopaths and helped them begin the journey to heal from the trauma that was caused. It's important for the public to be educated and aware that such people exist, and what some of the characteristic behaviors are.

In her book, Stout does a good job of discussing the nature vs. nurture debate about the possible causes of sociopathy. It's probably some of each. Identical twin studies have shown a heredity factor. No one can tell you exactly how a sociopath is created, but it's interesting to see the cultural differences in the incidence of sociopaths, which is more common in cultures which highly value individuality. In the United States, the incidence level of sociopathy appears to be on the rise.

Sociopaths want to win at any cost. They can marry for money or power. They can act attached, but it is not genuine. Some wish to have others feel sorry for them, see themselves as victims, and can be lazy while taking gross advantage of those closest to them.

In contrast, narcissists are somewhat different. Narcissists can't empathize with others, but they do have a conscience, and they can feel guilt. Narcissists can be in pain about the poor quality of their relationships because of their lack of empathy, and can enter therapy to address this pain.

True sociopaths would usually only go to therapy if court-ordered. Sociopaths feel little beyond the basics of pleasure and pain, aggression, boredom, frustration, or anger.  Sociopaths don't care about other people and they don't marry for love. See how dangerous they are, and how the unsuspecting person can get caught up in their web?

There are lots of religious, ethical, and moral implications of people not having a conscience. Stout does an excellent job of discussing these implications.

Mostly, The Sociopath Next Door is a wake-up call for people to be aware that sociopaths do exist, are more common that you might have imagined, and are not likely to change. It is incredibly helpful for people who have been traumatized by the damage of a sociopath to understand the disorder, and educate themselves in order to heal and move on with their lives. If the book helps increase public awareness so that people can avoid a sociopath, that's a really good outcome, too.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Are You Committed?

There’s a big difference between being interested in something and making a commitment to it. Whether it's making healthy changes to your diet, how often you exercise, making new friends, changing jobs, saving money or the decision to be a better partner or parent, it’s making a commitment to yourself and to others that really counts.

You can tell a lot about a person by looking at what their schedule says. What are your priorities? Adjust your schedule to reflect what you say you value. I am often working with my coaching clients on setting and reaching their most important life goals. It is sometimes useful to ask, “How is doing what I am currently doing helping me to reach my goal?” It might not be.

For example, if your partner is unhappy because you are working too much and you continue that behavior, and yet you say you value the relationship, you have a dilemma. A true commitment to being a more responsive partner will take setting boundaries around work, halting the people-pleasing of unreasonable clients or your boss, limiting your perfectionism about finishing everything in your emails and on your desk before you leave, and redefining your ideas about what it means to be truly successful at home as well as at work. Interest in being a better partner is a feeling, but leaving the office on time as a sacred ritual to preserve time with your partner is a repeated, new behavior.

Interest is passive, and it might be fleeting. Commitment is continuing to keep the faith, and do the hard stuff even when you don’t necessarily feel like it. Commitment takes the long-term view, and recognizes that most things that are really valuable take some sustained effort.

Parenting comes to mind as a perfect case for the need for commitment. It’s common to be interested in having children. Most prospective parents picture a sweet and loving baby or small child who loves you back. As I coach parents through some of the unanticipated and difficult chapters in parenting, that’s when I call for commitment. I’m thinking about when your teenager is rude, defiant, and testing all the boundaries.

Commitment is also needed to have the tenacity as a parent to hang in there for answers when your child has learning disabilities, physical challenges, ADHD or ADD, depression, anxiety, or chemical abuse problems. This past week, I was moved by an NPR interview with David Sheff, author of a new book, Clean, about what he has learned about addiction treatment in the US through trying to help his son, Nic, now 30, and sober for 5 years, through his addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. Sheff never gave up on Nic. That’s commitment. What a lucky guy Nic is to have a father with that level of care and tenacity.

In marriage, commitment translates into listening to your partner, making a decision to do loving and thoughtful behaviors (even when you don’t feel like it), closing the exits by deciding to go direct with courage towards your partner about any concerns rather than passively complain to someone else, and continuing your own journey to bring your best self to the relationship. Being committed in relationships means making a positive decision to create regular time together for fun and for play. This takes being aware of the energy you bring into your closest relationship, and taking some effort and care into keeping things interesting and setting new goals.

It’s okay if you don’t want to be committed to something, but own it. Take responsibility for not just being interested in the people, causes and changes closest to your heart. Making a real commitment can inform your daily choices and behaviors, and that can make such a difference. Interest is passive and transitory. Commitment is more solid, fixed, and has some muscle and follow through behind it. With the things you want in your own life, stop to reflect on whether you are interested or whether you are committed. Make sure to check that your behaviors match up with your most important commitments.