It’s often a mystery to us why we get trapped in doing things that keep us “stuck” in life. Some call it self-defeating behavior. Others call it self-sabotage. Regardless of the terms we use to describe it, it means that we are acting in a way that is keeping us from finding real meaning and value in our lives. Worse, they can can amplify the symptoms you are struggling with. Without addressing these issues in parallel with the individual issues you bring to therapy, progress can be left at a standstill.
Table of Contents
First, Get Out of Your Own Way
The Responsibility of Not Being a Victim
You create your own experience through the choices you make on a daily basis. In order to avoid being a victim, you have to admit that once you realize you are doing things that are not working for you, you are accountable. In other words, once you “get it” you can never go back to to the way you were. If you are not happy, then you are accountable. You can no longer dodge responsibility for how and why your life is the way it is. If you don’t accept this responsibility, then you will misdiagnose every problem you have. This may be hard to accept when others in life seem to be acting in such unfair and unreasonable ways.
The bottom line is that you are not a victim. We create the emotions that flow from the situations that we find ourselves in. We need to stop looking in other places for the answers to our life’s problems. This means we need to avoid blaming others and focus instead on the choices and behaviors in our lives. It is natural to blame others for our problems. They may be doing things that are causing your problems, but you have to focus on your response to those situations. As long as you focus on others, you will cripple any efforts toward getting out of your own way.
Don’t Let Others Create Your Experience
This part is tricky. It requires that you admit to, and accept that you, and only you, are accountable, and responsible, for your life. This also means that you have to stop looking to others to find the solutions, cures, and answers to your life.You have to let go of thinking that “if others would only….” then everything would be okay.
Remember that you, and only you, are the person who can create what you get in life, even when others are being unfair and seemingly unconcerned with what is happening to you. To avoid being controlled by others, you need to stop seeing yourself as a victim who needs the help of powerful other people to change things. You are the one creating the emotions that result from any situation in your life. Keep the focus on where it belongs–your own choices and behaviors.
Don’t Get Stuck on Asking “Why”
We often “why” people are acting or behaving in a certain way, especially if it’s causing them (or ourselves) pain. This gets us stuck because we don’t “understand” and we want to try to either help “fix” them or “figure them out”. This is doomed to fail for many reasons, however the truth is that other people are “doing what works for them” based on their own “private logic”. This has nothing to do with our own “private logic” we live by.
Instead, we need to understand how people, in general, live their life. All people try to avoid what they fear, and work towards what they desire most. The number one fear among all people is rejection. The number one need among all people is acceptance. As hard as it may seem, everyone deals with situations in terms of “what is in it for me” to some degree or another. People tend to take in and hear only what they want to understand and avoid those who make them tense or cause them discomfort.
Even “good people” can be, and often are, petty, small, inconsiderate, and uncaring. They are not necessarily concerned with the same things that you are, even if you think they should be. Much of what we do is on automatic pilot because of how we learned in the past “what works.” For yourself, the challenge is to consider all the possible ways you could be getting a “pay off” for the behaviors even though you are not aware of it. While it’s true that you cannot eliminate your negative behaviors without understanding why you do it, don’t get stuck in only asking “why”.
You Cannot Change What You Do Not Acknowledge
This requires that you make sure you “get real” with yourself about your life and everyone in it. You have to look less at what others are doing. Instead, look more at what you are doing that keeps things happening the same way, no matter how unfair or unreasonable things are. Be truthful about what is not working in life.
Others have probably pointed out some things to you but you are insisting that they see it your way rather than stopping and “really listening.” We do not want problems to be true and we do not want to hear “bad news” in life. This keeps us from being open to what is not working in our lives. Yet, there are no accidents; we create our own experience by what we choose and do. We cannot heal what we do not acknowledge.
Life Rewards Action
Good intentions mean nothing without your doing something. You can read a book on self improvement, go to counseling, or strive to be your best; it won’t matter a bit if you don’t actually practice what you need to change. This requires that you make careful decisions and then follow-through with doing things that make a difference.
You have to focus on “never giving up” and keeping yourself moving forward in positive ways. Insight, understanding, having good intentions are nice beginnings, but they mean nothing unless you actually do something to make real changes. Nothing in life will change until you begin to practice doing things differently.
Unfortunately, as human beings, we want to be safe. We don’t want stress and risk. Anxiety and fear are normal, but don’t let it dominate you! Fear becomes too handy and then it becomes too easy. Take action in the face of fear. Make life decisions because they are the foundation of how your life will be lived and how others will be allowed to relate to you. Make a life decision to risk reasonable, risk responsibly, but do take risks! Take action and insist on results!
Perceptions is More Important Than Reality
There is no reality; only perceptions. It is critical that you stop and come to understand the “filters” through which you view the world. We like to talk more about what others need to do, see and understand. The reality is that you have to understand your own “filters” you use to view the world and why you keep being “stuck” and getting the same response from others in life.
Remember, no matter what happens in life, what matters is how you interpret things, not reality! You can choose your reaction. You can choose to perceive a situation as a challenge. Events in life only have the meaning that you assign to them. We usually fail to see how we contribute to the our experience of the world and the reactions that we get from others. You control your perceptions, interpretations, and attitudes about life.
Stop Looking for the “Magic Cure”
One of the problems in life is that we are “looking for peak feelings and experiences” that will “cure” and solve our problems in life. The reality is that this will “never happen.” We have to understand that we are responsible for managing our life. To do this, we have to stop looking for “the solution.” To do this, we need to stop rushing to figure everything out.
We have to manage our life on a daily basis. Problems will happen and it is our job to learn to manage each day, each of our responses, and how we think about them. We have to stop complaining about what is happening.
Unfortunately, Life is not Fair
Everyone hates this one. Sadly, though, life is not fair. We have to deal with life the way it is, even if it is not “right.” Many times, we get stuck on why something should not be happening rather than dealing with it. Whether or not something is fair, or unfair, has little to do with the fact that you have to deal with it regardless.
All you can do is to manage your life and what happens each day. You can keep yourself jumping from one thing to another, rushing around, being scattered, and feeling on a high because of constant movement, yet never solving anything. Such an approach keeps you from really knowing yourself or being able to realistically manage your life and deal with the reality of your daily life conditions.
We Teach Others How to Treat Us
This is a hard concept to accept in life because we tend to spend much time “playing the victim” in life. We have to “own,” rather than complain, about how people treat you in life. Our response to other peoples’ behaviors “rewards them,” either directly or indirectly, which “teaches” them what works relative to how they are to behave around you.
If you are continuing to get the same response from other people over and over again, then you have to stop and consider that YOU may be doing something that maintains their behaviors. Partners who complain about their significant other’s behavior, and yet never take a firm stand on what is acceptable, are actually rewarding the behaviors of others.
This insures that others will continue their behaviors because they do not know the real boundaries of how to behave. You give them “power” because they are “rewarded” for their interactions with you. They know you talk and talk, complain and complain, but never set limits and refuse to allow such behaviors to continue. As a result, they become “psychologically deaf” to your complaints.
There is Power in Forgiveness
You have to become open to what anger and resentments are doing for you in life. Sometimes you continue your behaviors of complaining in order to keep your anger and resentments “alive” and active in your life. There becomes an “enjoyment” of the anger and resentments because they are “familiar and known” to you. It may be that you were “taught” to have such anger from how you observes others relate to each other while you were a child.
You then have “chosen” to continue such behaviors because they are “comfortable.” You have to “forgive yourself and others” in order to “let go of your anger” and remove these resentments from how you relate to others in your life.
Your Goals Must be Specific and Clear
It is critical to making changes that you “get clear” about what you want. If you can pull ten people off the street and describe your life goals to them, they should all be able to accurately agree on what they believe you meant to say. Otherwise, your goals are vague and will be as solid as air.
You can then focus on “taking your turn” to accomplish what you want. Stop your denial, take your psychological blinders off, and start to focus on what you can do to make changes. Stop thinking that “if only others would change, then life would be better.” Focus on “naming” what it is that you are doing, have to do, and need to do to handle the situation you are in right now. Stop rushing around looking for what others need to do.
Remember, start by focusing ONLY on what you have to do in order to manage your life on a daily basis. Everything else should be considered a luxury.
Choose SMART (not Perfect) Goals
Setting realistic short-term behavioral goals can help you achieve your long-term plans. To do this effectively, you must be aware of the critical difference between having dreams vs. having goals. Dreams are vague, non-specific, and and often lead to frustration and setbacks. Goals are specific, measurable, action oriented, realistic, and have a timeframe for completion (aka “S.M.A.R.T.”).
You should be able to describe your SMART Goals to 10 strangers on the street and have all of them agree on what your goals are. If even one of them disagrees with you, your goals lack one or more of the SMART components. This is one of the ways in which we combat vagueness as an indirect way to reduce perfectionism in being realistic.
You can download the SMART Goals worksheet for planning and practice.
Make Your Changes Work for You
In order to make these ideas work for you, it is critical that you be realistic. The sad truth is that others are not as sensitive or as understanding about your life, needs and wants as you might think they should be. Only you can help you. Stop looking for what others need to do to make changes.
We all act in unhealthy ways or have difficulty responding well to problems in our life. What is needed is to clearly look at what we are doing rather than focusing on our past as the cause, and by extension, an excuse to avoid change. These guidelines hopefully will help to get us out of our own way and on with our lives.
Make a decision to change if you are doing something in your life that is not working for you. You, and only you, must be responsible for changing things. This does not mean that you have to “convince others” to understand, or help, you. You have to start with yourself. Life is a journey that does not have a map or timetable, so make the most of it!
Drug & Alcohol Abuse
Combining mental health issues with alcohol and drug use is like pouring gas on the fire. And then we struggle when things continue to fall apart.
It’s not uncommon to be struggling with mental health issues at the same time as having a substance abuse or dependence problem. Nearly 20% of those receiving treatment for a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression also have had a substance use disorder during the past six months. This issue of Dual Diagnosis (mental health issues plus substance abuse or dependence) often complicates treatment and can significantly delay progress in therapy.
Excessive alcohol consumption and drug abuse are not dissimilar to having a second person in therapy with you. Since the symptoms of substance abuse or dependence can be similar to many psychiatric disorders, treatment is often complicated in terms of determining cause and effect.
Alcohol disinhibits aggression and can lead to episodes of severely escalated quarrels, emotional abuse, and/or physical violence. Drug abuse may also lead to greater aggression or emotional distance between others, since the person is living at least one part of their lives together behind a mask of intoxication. Depending on the substance being used, there may also be serious medical consequences for continued usage. It’s important to note that marijuana is included under the category of “drug”, and excessive use can greatly impact willpower and focus.
It’s no surprise that having active thoughts of suicide can drastically affect the outcome of effective therapy, and the two can’t be mixed together as they are at cross-purposes. If any indication of suicidal ideation is present, this must be addressed first and foremost before pursuing any other type of therapy. The goal is to keep yourself safe enough to tackle the other problems in your life.
Emotional & Physical Abuse
One of the more difficult concepts is that of learned helplessness. When you are a victim of abuse, not only is your safety at risk (which is the ultimate concern), but your patterns of feeling like your choices are yours to make are impaired.
Situational Domestic Violence
Situational domestic violence is minor domestic violence that does not constitute battery and usually does not involve clear perpetrator/victim dynamics. The violence usually follows escalated quarrels in which anger and frustration lead to physical acting out, but there are no injuries in situational violence, and weapons are not involved. Situational violence is usually symmetrical, meaning both parties are violent and take full responsibility for their actions, feel remorse, guilt and regret, and want very much to change. Additionally, research has found that half of violent relationships tend to be reciprocally violent. In non-reciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more that 70% of the cases.
It is crucial to clarify the details by asking the following questions:
- How frequently does the violence occur?
- How does it begin?
- How does it end?
- What specifically happens during the violence and do you attempt to process what happened afterwards?
- If you do talk about the episode later, what is the outcome?
- Are alcohol, drugs, or both involved during any of the episodes?
Of importance is whether both partners honestly admit their responsibility for what happened, (especially for the actual violence itself) or if one partner blames the other for it while ignoring his or her own personal accountability. Do you both wish to eliminate the outbreaks of violence? Are you fearful about the other partner learning that you have disclosed information about the violence or that you are in therapy? These issues must be attended to first and foremost before any other personal growth and change.
Characterological Domestic Violence
Characterological domestic violence is defined as domestic violence in which there is a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. The violence is used by the perpetrator as a means to control and instill fear in the victim. Regardless of what the victim does, the violence will continue. The perpetrator does not take responsibility for the violence but instead believes that the violence was “justified” by the victim’s words or actions. The perpetrator may also deny there was any violence altogether and try to convince others that the victim is “making it up.” The perpetrator’s violence is often serious enough to cause injury and poses a severe risk to the victim.
No treatment has been shown to successfully treat characterological domestic violence. If characterological domestic violence exists, a safety plan will need to be created for the victim. Any therapy that does not focus specifically on your safety and recovery from the abuse does not have a good chance of working whatsoever until this core issue is addressed. Specifically, marital therapy is inadvisable and contraindicated.
Social isolation is a type of emotional abuse in which one partner prevents the other from having friends and social supports outside the relationship. This is usually done so that one person can have complete control over the other. It is likely that this is done because of a fear that a partner may sexually or romantically betray the relationship. This may be a toxic psychological situation that is potentially dangerous to an individual’s mental and/or physical health.
Addressing the tactics being used for social isolation and addressing betrayals of the past is often the first step. It is important that the partner suffering the abuse has a chance to describe how the social isolation has impacted his life. To this end, addressing the emotions and experiences of feeling socially isolated to your partner is key. The goal is not to criticize or blame your partner, but instead to only describes your own feelings when hearing particular words or phrases.
If you do this with your partner and they react defensively, things need to be slowed down. Instead, positive communication needs to be a focus for both persons in the relationship. The goal is to help the couple to reword their descriptions, which can can soften and deepen the speaker’s words and make them less threatening to hear. The point here is to bring out the yearning both may feel for love, loyalty and safe connection with each other.
If a partner has experienced betrayal before the relationship began, it is important to help her describe this betrayal and the impact it had on her so that her partner can possibly understand why she has tried to isolate him. Then, each person can be given aid to discover new ways of express needs for loving safety and security with their partner.
Integrating new rituals of connection with one another will help to deepen their friendship and enhance their romantic interactions. Gradually, the notion that with more feelings of safety and security, it is ok for each partner to have other friendships and supportive connections outside this relationship will be introduced. Then, the therapist can enable the couple to discuss outside relationships they want to have, including what needs those relationships serve for them and the boundaries that protect from these relationships becoming a threat to the couple’s relationship.
In resolving this issue, both partners should ultimately be able to ask for and receive reassurance of being loved from the other if either one feels insecure again.
Degradation and Humiliation
Degradation and humiliation are powerful forms of emotional abuse that can endanger the mental and physical health of the recipient. When present, one person is degrading and insulting their partner when they are either alone together or with other people. They may also be repeatedly invalidating their spouse’s reality while presenting a different reality that contradicts it, a process that ends up making the other person feel crazy. This is occasionally referred to as “gaslighting”. This abuse shreds the victim’s self-esteem and self-concept, thereby rendering her fearful and easier to control.
Sexual coercion is a form of emotional and/or physical abuse that includes one partner’s sexual insensitivity towards the other, pressuring sex when that partner doesn’t want to, or intentionally hurting the other partner during sex. By using sexual coercion, the abusive partner may be trying to sexually denigrate his or her partner so that the abuser can psychologically and/or physically control the partner. Sexual coercion can endanger the victim’s mental and/or physical health and produce lasting effects such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other anxiety-related disorders. Any pattern of emotionally abusing a partner through sexual coercion is a serious problem.
Emotional abuse through property damage is defined as one person either destroying items his or her partner cherishes and/or damaging vehicles, house structures (often walls or doors), furniture, or other items. Damage of a partner’s property is a dysfunctional way to express rage, anger, frustration, or other negative emotions. Because it involves physically violent action, it may frighten and intimidate the victim, reminding her of the possibility of bodily violence and thereby increasing her partner’s control over her and jeopardizing her mental and/or physical well-being.
Mental Health Concerns
It’s interesting to list “mental health” issues as a concern when pursuing therapy. The main factor here is that, if unrecognized, the purpose behind pursuing therapy will be hidden behind a shroud of events and behavior that can stop therapy in its tracks.
An example is someone wishing to receive therapy for childhood issues that is also struggling with clinical anxiety and depression. While working on the past will help soothe and relieve some of the pressure, without addressing the impact of the anxiety and depression themselves, you may find yourself running around in circles during recovery. These issues are the virtual “rug pulled out from under your feet” if not addressed.
This reflects distress arising from bodily perceptions. Complaints focused on cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, respiratory, and other systems with autonomic mediation are included. Many of these symptoms are included in diagnostic criteria of anxiety disorders and have a high prevalence in disorders with suggested functional etiology. All of them may, naturally, be reflections of a physical illness.
This reflects symptoms typical of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The focus is on thoughts, impulses, and actions that are experienced as irresistible by the individual but are of an unwanted nature. Experiences of cognitive attenuation are also included in this dimension.
This area focuses on feelings of personal inadequacy and inferiority in comparisons with others. Self-deprecation, uneasiness, and discomfort during interpersonal interactions are included here.
Of no surprise is that depression can impact and change lives for the worse. Most of the typical symptoms of depressive syndromes according to current diagnostic criteria are included here. Symptoms of dysphoric mood and affect as well as signs of withdrawal of life interest, lack of motivation, and loss of vital energy are represented. Feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, and cognitive and somatic aspects of depression are not uncommon.
Untreated clinical depression can affect even the most resilient of us. Even Shane Lopez, author of Making Hope Happen and an advocate of positive thinking, struggled with chronic depression. Deep-seated depression can cloud our thoughts and judgment about ourselves, others, and the world around us. If pursuing therapy for a specific issue, if clinical depression is not also addressed as a mental health disorder too, can cause endless complications and relapses despite any amount of individual or couples therapy.
This dimension is composed of symptoms that are associated with manifest anxiety. Nervousness, tension, and trembling as well as feelings of terror and panic are included. Some somatic correlates of anxiety are also included here, as well as panic attacks and ritualistic (but not compulsive) behavior.
Thoughts, feelings, or actions characteristic of the negative affect state of anger are reflected here. Qualities such as aggression, irritability, rage, and resentment are included.
Phobic anxiety is defined as a persistent fear response to a specific person, place, object, or situation which is characterized as being irrational and disproportionate to the stimulus. It leads to avoidance or escape behavior. The items of this dimension are actually all manifestations of agoraphobia.
Paranoid ideation is represented here as a disordered mode of thinking. Projective thinking, hostility, suspiciousness, grandiosity, centrality, fear of loss of autonomy, and delusions are viewed as primary reflections of this disorder.
The scale provides a continuum from mild interpersonal alienation to dramatic evidence of psychosis. Items include withdrawal, isolation, and schizoid lifestyle as well as first-rank schizophrenia symptoms such as hallucinations and thought-broadcasting.