It’s Rarely About Us

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In life, we have enough to deal with with our own personal battles, the up and downs of everyday life and our own junk from our past and worries about our future. Still, most of us allow other people to dump on us, to put some of their battles, junk and worries into our already cluttered lives.

Most of the time we don’t even know this is happening and the people doing it to us are usually unaware as well. This all happens in our unconscious for the most part and is what is called displacement in psychology.

Displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism where someone transfers feelings of emotions, ideas or even desires unto other people or even objects. This usually happens in an effort to relieve anxiety, especially when it comes to things like aggression and sexual impulses.

Take for example, a wife who is sexually attracted to her boss and feels extreme guilt about it. She may come home and accuse her husband of being unfaithful, wanting to be with other women or even not finding her sexually desirable any more.

The wife will do this with so much emotional energy, that the husband will have no idea where these thoughts and feelings are coming from and will most likely do everything he can to assuage his wife and may even find himself stressed out although in all actuality, the situation has nothing to do with him.

The issue is not his, but he will make it is. He will take on all the emotional energy although it is not his in an effort to allay his wives feelings.

He may lose sleep about it and wonder what it is he is doing wrong.

We’ve all been in situations, arguments even where we knew on some level that it was not about us. I’ve been in situations where someone made me feel like I did something wrong and I did everything I could to rectify the situation, only to eventually find out it had nothing to do with me, meaning that although I was stressing and doing everything I could to make the person happy, there was really nothing I could do because it wasn’t really about me.

A good clue that it isn’t about you is when the level of emotion is out of proportion to the situation.

Lets say you accidentally drop and break a dish, but your partner goes berserk about it or you come home five minutes late and your spouse is raging out of control over your tardiness. Chances are, they are displacing their feelings, be it anger, anxiety or whatever.

Emotions can be considered energy in motion. When people have a build up of energy, they have to find a way of getting rid of it or it will affect them in other harmful ways (depression, self-harm through drugs, alcohol, reckless behavior).

Often the easiest and even safest way to get rid of that pent up energy is to direct it at the people they love simply because they know that chances are you aren’t going anywhere.

Your husband can curse you out and you may fight, but chances are you will still be there tomorrow. If he curses the person he really wants to curse out, for example, his boss, chances are he will not have a job tomorrow.

In psychology we are used to this and call it transference. Most clients eventually will transfer or displace feelings unto us, rather its issues they had with their mother, their father, their ex-husband, or whomever we start to “remind” them of.

As a male therapist, when I worked in a high school, I used to get a lot of teenage girls who would displace their anger and fear about their absent fathers towards me and in therapy, we work through this. It is part of my job, but in the real world, it is usually much more difficult and frustrating to deal with.

In some of the worst cases of displacement, it can become abuses. Lets say a husband is angry with his boss, but he can’t hit him, so he comes home and unconsciously picks a fight with his wife and hits her, displacing his anger. This may eventually become his way of “dealing with” his anger and the abuse cycle begins.

Sometimes this can have a chain reaction. Suppose the wife, now hurt and angry, displaces her anger unto their child by hitting him and the child then goes and hits the dog.

It can be a vicious, unhealthy cycle.

Displacement is an amazing psychological deception and some people will do it just as much consciously as unconsciously.

Some people will purposely displace their anger, worries, whatever unto others so that they can either attempt to avoid their own feelings or to distract the other person from the real problem.

When this type of displacement happens, it can be more abusive than simple unconscious defense mechanisms at work.

Take for example a wife who really is cheating and her husband gets suspicious. She gets scared and instead of confessing, she very angrily accuses him of being the one who is cheating. He may get so caught up in her strong emotional energy that he feels guilty for his suspicions and ends up being the one trying to treat her like a queen in an effort to show her that she is the only one for him, all the while she has successfully distracted him from the real problem at hand.

So the next time someone yells at you, gets angry really quick or displays any other emotion that seems out of proportion to the activating event, before you allow yourself to get caught up in all that emotion, take a few seconds and ask yourself, “Is this really about me?”. Sometimes that’s all it takes to avoid getting caught up in a battle of emotion that is not yours to fight and prevent yourself from unnecessary stress.

Taking Back Control Over Your Thoughts, Feelings And Emotions

quotes-will-smith-Favim.com-596013This is one of my favorite quotes, not because it is brilliant, which it is, not because it is simple and true, which it also is, but because it is something I teach daily to my clients and something that I personally struggle with.

A large majority of my clients are suffering from various issues because of interpersonal problems, many which could be eliminated or at least greatly reduced if they just stopped allowing other people to control their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Matter of fact, learning to control your thoughts, feelings and emotions is the hallmark of cognitive behavioral therapy which is the main theoretical orientation I work from.

When I listen to my clients vent in anger, cry in sadness or hyperventilate through anxiety, what I hear a lot of is that they are giving other people too much power over them, many of them who don’t have their best interest at heart and who wouldn’t be sitting across from me in emotional and psychological pain if the tables were turned.

These people my clients let control them, for the most part, couldn’t care less about the agony they were causing them.

Most of my clients allow boyfriends, so-called friends, family members and even mere acquaintances dictate how they feel about themselves, how their day is going, what they think about their life and even their future.

It goes much deeper than that, but the point is that they have given other people power over them and I have to teach them how to start taking it back and keeping it for themselves.

I also try to teach them that nothing matters until they make it matter, something I got out of the book I AM: Discovering Who You Really Are by Howard Franco.  It basically means that you decide what effects you, how it effects you and what doesn’t.

Most people’s emotional thermostat is set on automatic, they automatically respond to certain situations the same, usually either with anger, fear or self-pity.

Learning that nothing matters until you interpret why it matters, how much it matters and how to respond to it, allows you to keep your power and decide rationally how and if you should respond to a situation. It takes the automatic response out of it, and allows you to slow down and make a much more fair decision.

Often our emotions and actions are out of line with the actual situation which causes a lot of emotional turmoil, but I don’t want to stray too far from the main topic. The bottom line is, we have to stop the cycle of allowing other people to control us, especially those who invest so little into us in a positive way.

I used to have an ex-girlfriend who I let control my thoughts, feelings and emotions to the point that I was probably a bit neurotic. How I felt about myself depended on how she felt about me that day. If she was happy with me and showing me love, I felt great about myself. If she was in a bad mood and treating me poorly, I hated myself. My life was full of anxiety trying to figure out how to keep her happy with me, something that was totally out of my control.

It took too many anxious days and crying at night for me to realize that she had too much control over me and I needed to take that control back. It took some self-help books, talking with friends who actually cared about me, and even some meditation before I finally found the strength to take back control and leave that person.

Sometimes however you can’t just leave that person because that person is in your family, or your husband or someone you don’t want to lose contact with, but you want to stop allowing them to control you. In that case, the person who has to do the work is you and only you.

It is not easy, but it is one of the most liberating personal experiences you may ever have.

I’ll end this with a line from chapter three in the book I AM: Discovering Who You Really Are, which is titled “You Decide What Matters”:

“What you experience can only have an effect on you in a tangible way if you make it matter. If you don’t make it matter,  it will have no effect on you.” – Howard Falco

The Relationship Between Anger, Control and Fear

A lot of times when I am working with people with anger problems, I realize that two of the main sources of their anger come from either the need to control other people and fear.

Anger and fear are part of our natural flight or flight responses. The problem is, we are genetically geared to survive real threats that our ancestors who had to deal with threats to their lives on a daily basis were designed for. Today we don’t have to constantly worry about getting attacked by a leopard or the tribe across the river attacking us, and so our mind often generates fear and anger even when it is unnecessary or the threat is just imagined.

Anger in it’s self is not a bad emotion and can actually motivate people to make changes for themselves and their environment. The Civil Rights leaders in our recent history were angry and so they marched, protested and boycotted to make changes. Anger can make you write a letter voicing your disappointment in a company’s costumer service department or make you search for a new job instead of taking the abuse from a harsh boss. It can make you leave a bad situation, stand up for something you believe or protest against something you don’t.

However, anger can be destructive if it’s not dealt with in a healthy way which is when people run into problems.

Most of my clients with anger problems, once they get to the point where they can verbalize and dissect where their anger is coming from, are actually afraid. They are afraid of losing control, being taken advantage of, being ignored, etc. Take a client of mine who got into a fight while standing in line at a burger joint when he felt someone had blatantly skipped him. Does it make since for a grown man to get in a fight over a $5 hamburger because he had to wait an extra two minutes? Was it worth him going to jail and having to take anger management classes? Of course not, but to him at the time it was. He was eventually able to tell me that the reason he got so angry so quickly is because when he got skipped it made him afraid that he was invisible, that he would be seen as weak, and that he wouldn’t be respected. His fear is what made him so angry and caused him to act in an irrational way. At the same time, his need to be respected caused him to want to control the situation by making the other other person respect him and beating him up until he did.

Often times clients tell me, “She ignored me so I hit her”, “He came home late so I burnt his favorite shirt”, “He didn’t say excuse me when he brushed my shoulder so I had to push him”. All of these statements show both fear and control. Fear of being ignored, fear of being cheated on or left by a spouse and fear of being disrespected. They also show the desire to control the other person, to make them pay attention, come home on time and say “excuse me.” The problem is, we can’t control other people, just ourselves. The desire to control other people will always end up stressing us out, making us angry and causing us to act in irrational ways.

Another example is the constant wars that are waged across the world. People are afraid of losing their religion or xenophobia (the fear of people different from you), and will fight and kill out of that fear and the desire to control other people by either making them convert, conform or leave a region.

Lastly, a client of mine and her teenage daughter got into a very big fight after she found her daughters diary and read it. She didn’t like what she read in her daughter’s diary and decided to confront and punish her for the contents of her diary. Now nothing in that diary was life threatening or even “bad”, they were just her daughter expressing how she really felt about her mother and some of the things her mother did. I felt it was wrong 1) for the mother to have read the diary and 2) for her to try to punish her daughter for her private thoughts. Eventually the mother expressed to me that she felt like she had little control over anything in her life except her daughter, and she was terrified of losing control over her daughter. That need for control was actually pushing her daughter further away as well as causing the mother all kinds of anxiety and anger issues.

We have to understand that the only people we can control is ourselves and that if we can’t change a situation, we have to change the way we think about it. Wasting our time trying to change other people or change a situation instead of changing the way we think about it or removing ourselves from it, will only cause us to develop angry feelings as we try to control what we cant.