Monday, July 27, 2015

Voice Dialogue: Identifying the Voices in our Heads

Do you realize that we all have inner voices, sometimes known as sub-personalities? Everybody carries around a whole cast of characters. The more aware you can be of your cast, the better your life can become. You don't want one of your unhealthy voices running your life on auto pilot.

Two clinical psychologists in Northern California, Hal Stone, Ph.D., and Sidra Stone, Ph.D., developed the therapeutic technique known as "Voice Dialogue.” The idea is not to get rid of any of the internal voices, but to assist them in growing up and becoming more reasonable. This technique is very helpful for unhooking people from roles they have unconsciously played, not letting your behavior choices be dominated by a voice that's immature or destructive, and begin to familiarize you with some healthier, alternative voices.

This concept reminds me of a wonderful, classic book on clinical hypnosis called, My Voice Will Go with You. I have had a number of patients over the years who told me that they could "hear my voice" as a healthy advocate for them in difficult situations, almost as if they had internalized my voice and took a piece of our work together with them into their life.

The ego, or thinking part of the mind, first develops a Protector/Controller role. This happens when we are small children. Later, more sub personalities emerge, depending on our family relationships and environment. For example, primary selves develop like the Pusher, who makes you finish school or go to work, and the Pleaser, who wants to get along with others and be polite at all costs. The Rulemaker develops and tells us what people should be doing, us included. The Critic imposes expectations for our behavior and performance. The Rebel sub personality wants to defy, and not be restricted by the expectations of others.

The primary sub personalities also have opposite or "disowned" parts that are often not conscious. For example, the Pusher has an opposite, the Relaxer, who takes time off to relax, recharge, and play. People who become far too serious and workaholic can be said to have disowned their Relaxer voice and let the Pusher run wild with their life. Similarly, there is a Procrastinator voice whose opposite is the Proactive self. Some people have a Self-Distrusting voice, and the opposite which can be disowned is the Confident self. There are people who are dominated by their Intellectual voice and disown the Experiencing/Emotional self.

The goal in voice dialogue is to develop your ability to observe your inner selves, including the disowned selves, in a mindful way. This leads to more self-acceptance and more internal peace. You want to recognize when the selves are in conflict. If the voices disagree, it causes distress. Being more aware of the different aspects of self, and even the ability to get the healthier voices to dialogue with the less healthy ones, can really make you feel lighter and happier. You can get unstuck from automatic programming developed early in childhood. The attitudes and beliefs of our earliest caregivers can give us our set points.

Meet some of the rest of your cast:

·         The Critic: Has to be right, steals your self-confidence, likes to argue, can be critical of self or others. The disowned aspect of the Critic is the Compassionate self, who encourages, feels empathy, and is kind to self and others.

·         The Worrier: Likes to make you anxious thinks about "what if?" and fears you won't be able to cope with whatever happens. Its disowned partner is the Equanimity Self, who is confident and self-assured.

·         The Caretaker: Puts everyone else's needs first, can't set any boundaries to protect self, and is scared to disappoint anyone. It's disowned self is the Caregiver, who gives to themself and others, but doesn't take responsibility for other people, can say no without feeling guilty.

·         The Blamer: Likes to shift responsibility to everyone else, the past, and circumstances beyond their control. Fails to notice their own part in any trouble or conflict. The Blamer is not interested in changing any of their own behaviors. The Blamer is often a Rebel self as well, covering up insecurities through attacking others. The alternative is the Accountable self, who is more objective, can see their own part in situations, and sees the other person's part as well.

·         The Victim: Complains about being different, misunderstood, and not appreciated. Some victims really have been through loss, disappointment, or betrayal, but they just can't (or won't) give up that fixed role. There all sorts of fun combos here, as the Victim can join forces with the Critic, the Rebel, or the Blamer for equally unhealthy life scripts. The opposite is the Responsible self, who acknowledges that most people suffer some loss or challenges, but takes responsibility for creating the best life possible, despite difficulties that occur. Amazing things can happen when the Responsible self meets up with the Optimistic self.

·         The Enforcer/The Rulemaker: Rigid, unforgiving, inflexible, and tries to exert control as much as possible, over their own life, and those around them. Enjoys checking for mistakes. Needs rules for everything in order to cope with their fears and insecurities. The flip side self is relaxed, flexible, comfortable with guidelines, but doesn't need rules to feel safe. This is a Flexible/Easy-Going Self.

·         The Rebel: Feels entitled, wants to do things their own way, and can't exercise self-discipline or set limits with themself. The alternate is the Healthy self, which reminds us to act according to our values instead of always what we feel like.

·         The Pessimist: Sees absolutely everything from a negative light, kills the joy in things, ruminates, and predicts doom at all times. The Pessimist is exhausting to be around. Has a hard time trying anything new because they feel it will fail. The Optimist self, in contrast, sees difficulty as a learning curve, and events as short-term, focusing on what action they can take to make a positive difference.

·         The Excusemaker: Justifies, uses excuses, and rationalizes why they take unhealthy or negative actions. The disowned part here is the Responsible self.

By identifying your own internal cast of characters, you can move all the personalities along towards finding a healthy, supportive self who is not run on auto pilot from your childhood or your life experiences.

Monday, July 20, 2015

How Birth Order Shapes Us

Are you an oldest, a middle, a youngest, or an only child? How did your position help form your personality? There are a number of influences in forming our personalities: gender, genetics, temperament, our parents' parenting style and ability to attach, environmental and socioeconomic factors, and birth order. Birth order can help explain how children in the same family can grow up to be so different. Birth order can also be fun to look at with couples, as it can be predictive of conflicts.

What are oldest children like? Oldest children get things done. They can either be "compliant nurturers" or assertive. They tend to be exacting, precise, and particular. They are often achievement-oriented, capable, and successful. Those same traits that cause them to be successful at work can cause conflict at home.

Because first borns are the pilot project for new parents, who are often excited and anxious to get it right, pretty much every first for an oldest is celebrated and important. First borns model themselves after the adults in the family. They tend to be organized, on time, and in control. They can also feel a lot of pressure to succeed and sometimes become a secondary parent to younger siblings.

As a growth opportunity, first children need to be sure not too be overly critical of themselves or others. They need to be positively assertive, but not bossy (where they alienate others). They often need to loosen up a little and learn to relax. It's important for oldest children to learn to give consideration to the thoughts and feelings of others, and not act as if they are always right. These individuals need to watch out for perfectionism. Cultivating flexibility and avoiding rigidity is essential. Patience is a virtue oldest children need to learn to truly be successful with others.

Imagine the fun and the potential conflicts when two oldest children decide to partner or marry. Can you say power struggle?

Only children can be functionally like super-charged first borns. They can grow up to be highly perfectionistic. It's also important in understanding the only child to know how they became an only child. Did the parents want additional children and couldn't have them? Did parents plan to have just one child? These parental factors influence the way an only child grows up.

Middle children tend to get along well with others. Psychologist and birth order researcher Kevin Leman calls middle children "mysterious." Their personality is formed partially in response to how they perceive their older sibling. Middle children can be very well-adjusted, and be peacemakers and mediators. They often turn towards friends for support, and can be highly independent and mentally strong. Middle children need to be encouraged to open up, express their opinions, feelings, and preferences.

What about the baby of the family? Last born children tend to be personable, outgoing, and a bit charming. They can be affectionate, like the limelight, but can alternatively tend to be rebellious, over indulged or manipulative. Parents may be more relaxed or worn out by the time the youngest arrives. The youngest child needs to learn to be responsible, direct, and consider other peoples needs.

The middle and youngest child are always affected by the oldest child in the family and the shadow they cast on the family. If the oldest is impacted by problems or disabilities, we can see a middle or youngest child becoming the acting or functional oldest. Other losses, such as parents losing a child or having a miscarriage, also play into birth order.

There are studies reported in Kevin Leman's excellent The New Birth Order Book (Revell Publishers, 2001) which suggest some predictable patterns with certain birth order matches. While there are modifying factors, having a different birth order from that of your partner is considered an easier or more natural match. When you have two oldests, they may get into power struggles unless one is more aggressive and one is the pleaser type of oldest. Two youngest children may be wildly irresponsible together, including with finances. An oldest and a youngest is a good match. Middles are so well adjusted they could easily have an oldest or youngest partner. Two middles may not communicate that well with each other.

As parents, we also want to consider both order factors. We want to avoid the natural tendency to overly identify with the child that has our same birth order. We want to help first borns learn to ease up on themselves and others. Oldest children need us as parents to help them move towards excellence, but not perfectionism. We can encourage middles to express themselves and help them not get stepped on by siblings. We can help develop the emotional maturity and responsibility of youngest children.

Birth order doesn't change when people remarry or blend families. It can, however, predict where conflict could occur and how to help prevent it.

In counseling individuals, couples, and families, I always ask about birth order and siblings; I'm curious about how it figures into your relationships.

Whether you are a typical or atypical person for your birth order, understanding the role birth order usually plays for individuals and relationships can give you valuable information about understanding yourself and others better.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Power of Your Mindset

We spend a number of minutes each day picking out what we are going to wear, but there is a far more important accessory we choose each day. It's called our mindset. It influences everything we do. It can hurt us or help us. We can start by identifying our mindset and being aware of how it is influencing our behaviors.

Stanford University psychologist and researcher, Carol Dweck, wrote a classic book on understanding your mindset which includes some elegantly simple ideas that are useful for our daily lives at work and at home. Our mindset may be the most critical factor in creating achievement and success in our lives. The book is called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How to Learn to Fulfill Our Potential (Ballantine Books, 2006).

There are two essential types of mindsets, fixed and growth. They are the equivalent of entering different worlds. Mindsets are belief systems. Mindsets can be changed if you choose to. You can  have a different mindset on different issues or in different areas of your life.

In a fixed mind-set, your own personal narrative is limited. You judge yourself harshly, with a mistake meaning failure. A fixed mindset make disappointments or rejection seem like all is lost. You can be upset with either mindset, but in the fixed one you can't see hope or the possibility of learning lessons and going on to later success. This mindset tells you there are limits to your intelligence, your career, your relationships and your life. One can operate with confidence from either mindset, but the fixed one makes that confidence brittle and fragile if something doesn't work out.

In contrast, the growth mindset makes a huge difference in how you process disappointment failure and rejection. It believes you can change, grow and learn all your life if you are open to it. A growth-oriented mindset allow you to focus on learning rather than ego investment in being smart.

In parenting children towards a growth mindset, we would want to honor effort and learning new things rather than achievement, grades or awards our children get. A growth mindset doesn't believe you have to easily master new skills without effort, or that you are simply born talented or not. It focuses on learning new things about yourself, others and the world each day. This mindset makes it okay to work diligently at things, experience failure and go forward.

In your romantic partnership a fixed mindset could be thinking that the relationship either makes you happy or it doesn't, and then you will need to break up or divorce. A growth mindset helps you see that your closest relationship gives you the opportunity everyday to learn to become a better communicator, a stronger listener and more loving.

In your business, a growth mindset tells you to learn from everything that happens, and readjust your sails if you're not headed towards the results you want. The fixed mindset will tell you to give up if you run into obstacles.

You can demonstrate either the fixed or growth mindset towards:

  • Your marriage
  • Your business
  • Learning new skills and tasks
  • Parenting
  • School
  • Loss
  • Life
  • Friendships
  • Activities
  • Sports
  • Hobbies

You will tend to get very different results with one mindset or the other. Change is difficult for most people. A growth mindset won't solve everything, but it will contribute to helping you develop a richer life where you don't live a life that is too small and limiting. Dweck's book is a great introduction to the idea of mindsets, and might be a great starting point for constructive conversations at work and at home. You just might want to challenge yourself and those you care about to shift to the growing side of mindset. For now, consider that mindset as an accessory to be chosen every day, and choose wisely.