counseling, happiness, prosocialbehavior, psychology, self-help

Are You An Emotional Vampire?

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As a counselor, I hear often hear stories about emotional vampires and their antics. I credit this to the fact people often are driven to seek out professional counseling when certain relationships in their life are driving them crazy. Making them miserable. Ruining their days. Even worse, sometimes ruining their lives, particularly if it a boss or another person, who has direct control over their life.

Emotional vampires are the people in life who are habitually draining to interact with. The difficult person. The whiner. The victim. The non-stop talker. The narcissist. The drama king/queen. The person void of empathy. The complainer. The martyr. The anger dumper. The controller. The person who makes everything a competition.

None of us escape these personality types. They are in every profession, every family, every social circle.

These folks are quite simply exhausting. They need constant attention. They can bring down the mood of any person they interact with. They often seem to lack any sort of self-awareness (or other times they ARE aware and quite frankly don’t give a damn about how their behavior impact others).

All emotional vampires suffer from low self-esteem, but not all people with low self-esteem are emotional vampires.

As a person who works day in and day out in the mental health profession, I find enormous respect for the art of relationships, especially understanding what makes them work or fail. In all successful relationships, whether with romantic partners, friends, families, or co-workers it’s vital that each person honestly examine his or her behavior and be willing to discuss it and change.

The real question is: ARE YOU AN EMOTIONAL VAMPIRE? We all think we know ourselves well, but psychological studies show otherwise. In fact, most of us are somewhat off the mark with how we view ourselves versus how other people experience us.

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If you are wondering if YOU may in fact be an emotional vampire, reflect HONESTLY on the following:

  • Are you self-involved? Yes / No
  • Do you think before your speak? Yes/No
  • Do you feel like you are often the victim? Yes/No
  • Do you believe your problems are not your fault?Yes/No
  • Are you a black and white thinker?Yes/No
  • Are you often negative? Yes / No
  • Do you gossip or bad-mouth people? Yes / No
  • Are you critical, and/or controlling? Yes / No
  • Do people often tell you to calm down? Yes/No
  • Do you feel that people often don’t (or can’t) understand you or your problems?Yes / No
  • Do you become easily overwhelmed? Yes/No
  • Do you feel that there are many barriers in your life which you have no control over? Yes / No
  • Do you struggle to control your emotions? Yes/No
  • Do you often ask for help from others and/or feel like few people are willing to help you?Yes / No
  • Do you feel like you often don’t receive the attention or appreciation that you deserve?Yes / No
  • Do people avoid you or glaze over during a conversation? Yes / No
  • Do people often complain that you don’t listen to them, when in fact, you feel like they don’t listen to you?Yes / No
  • Do you feel like most other people have lives that are much easier than yours?Yes / No
  • Do you fight with close friends and loved ones often?Yes / No
  • If so, is it usually their fault?Yes / No
  • Do people suddenly drop contact with you with no explanation and refuse to communicate with you again?Yes / No

If you did answer “yes” to at least half of the above questions, chances are you are an emotional vampire.

The remedy for these draining behaviors is to start shifting your perspective. Counseling can be a great way to begin the journey to becoming a better version of yourself.

Journaling about this can also help. Ask yourself, “Is there a particular trigger that creates the situation? If so, then how can you avoid the trigger? How can you become aware of when you fall into this attitude?”

Ask yourself, who are the people in your life who give you energy and who are those who drain you. If you are surrounded by people who are energy vampires, their negative qualities may begin to rub off on you. Figure out who in your life is positive and mood enhancing to spend time with. Make an effort to develop those relationships.

One caveat to the topic of emotional vampires is personality disordered individuals. The sad truth is there are pathological people with personality disorders–these people are more often than not incorrigible.

Luckily if you are reading this, it is unlikely to be the case that you are in that category. 

If you find you are struggling with these types of behaviors, it may be helpful to give professional counseling a try. Counseling can lead to a happier and healthier you which will greatly benefit you…and the people around you!

To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

https://anewcounselingservices.com/erin-theodorou%2Cm-ed-%2C-lpc

Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822

etheodorou@anewcounselingservices.com

 

 

 

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counseling, goals, happiness, humility, prosocialbehavior, psychology, self-help

Are You a Good Person? The Litmus Test

Do you think you are a good person?

The mere fact you are choosing to read this means you’re wondering if in fact you are.

I find most people view themselves as “good.” Not perfect, but good. Most of us would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not regard themselves as a “good person.”

Yet how many people do you know that acknowledge the darker parts of their personality? Or their shadow self as Jung called it.

In short, the shadow is the “dark side”. Many people do NOT recognize the darker components of their personality.

Because most people tend to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of their personality, the shadow is largely negative. 

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The problem with viewing yourself as wholly good, without acknowledging your shadow self, is it can lead to unhealthy ways of coping.

As humans it is important to feel we behave and act in a manner that reflects our self-image. How can you stay congruent with your identity, if you view yourself as a good person, in absolute terms, when you inevitably do wrong? This leads to justifying bad behavior. It leads to distorting the truth and repressing emotions we do not have the courage to face.

When people view themselves as wholly good behave badly, they find ways to justify their behavior to themselves (and others) as to maintain their self-image of being “good” and keep cognitive dissonance at bay.

The truth is none of us are good people 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

We all are fallible, we all have moments of weakness, we all act out of character (this is distinct from people we may encounter with poor character who act this way over and over again over the course of our relationship with them). No one who walks among us does not behave badly from time to time. It is part of the human condition and part of why conflict is so common in our relationships.

Being a good person is a value many of us in all likelihood hold dear (narcissists and sociopaths excluded).

Yet how do we know for sure if we are in fact a good person? “Good” is a very relative term. There is no universal truth that defines what being a “good person” is and looks like.

Some people think they’re “good” because they don’t intentionally go out and harm others, and others believe they are good because they do superficial acts of kindness for others.

Yet if you believe yourself to be a “good person” program, consider the following questions:

Are you a good person if you hurt people but your intention was not to do so?
Are you a good person if someone tells you that you are causing them pain but you disregard how they feel?
Are you a good person if you constantly speak ill of others?
Are you a good person if you lie on your taxes? Lie to your spouse? Lie to your children?

Do you ever feel envy or jealousy towards other people? Do you feel resentment towards the people in your life?

Are you honest with yourself?

Are you a good person if you steal from the government? On whatever level you may be playing the game…
Are you good person if you cheat–on a test, partner, or someone else? If you cheat your company?

When you witness poor behavior in others (lying, judgement, dishonesty, self-deception), can you acknowledge those same impulses inside yourself?

Are you a good person if you wish bad on others?

Do you express rage and contempt towards others?

Do you consider yourself a good person without accepting the darker parts of your personality?
Are you a good person if you are unaware of the negative emotions that arise within you through the day?

Do you believe it is wrong to feel hatred towards the people you love?

In terms of behavior:

~Would you give up your seat for a disabled person or pregnant woman on the train?
~Would you stick up for someone being verbally berated?

~How often do you help someone with extra bags?
~Do you donate your time or money to causes outside of yourself?

~Do you hold the doors open for others?

~Do you offer words of encouragement and kindness freely to others?

All the questions give insight into your character.

Are you happy with how your answer these questions? Do you find you can make excuses for yourself to justify your OWN bad behavior/character flaws but have the habit of condemning others?

I don’t believe that any human being is bad through and through or good through and through. We all have some of each inside us.  I do feel people’s character exists on a continuum–with character disturbed on one end and being virtuous on the other end.

The truth is some people have more good in them than bad.

The truth is some people have more bad in them than good.

It is important to know which person you are dealing with at any given time.

Maybe you’ve experienced this before: Dealing with someone who thinks he’s much nice or kinder than he really is. It can be hard to manage and maintain a relationship with someone who is not as good as he or she believes himself to be.

It can also be hard for people to maintain relationships with us if we are not a good of a person as we believe ourselves to be.

You need to be aware of the good AND bad in you. And others.

Viewing oneself as “good” explains a wide range of common defense mechanisms– denial, minimizing/justifying one’s own “bad”behavior, lying, becoming defensive.

The fact is our character is NOT set in stone—we are all capable of growing into a better person IF we are able to adopt a realistic self-image. We need to be able to look deeply into our shadow self if we want to move beyond the darker aspects of our personality.

We can see everyone feels justified in their own shoes. Every action that a person takes take, good or bad, they can always tell themselves it is justified  – otherwise they would not be able to perform the act in question at all.

We all want to be our best, but many people wonder if it’s actually possible for people to become better–themself included. The answer is a resounding yes. There are always ways to improve yourself.

Some general suggestions for a path forward:
1)Support others. Contribute to things outside of yourself–the larger community. Offer kind words and encouragement to the people you encounter. Consider how your words, actions, and behaviors impact others. Do not enable the bad behavior of others at the expense of someone else. Do good and good will come back. We all eventually reap what we sow.

2)Let go of anger. Think before you speak. Words said in anger can only be forgiven, not forgotten. A mindfulness practice can help you to lower your baseline feelings of anger. Much of anger arises from ruminating over the past–past injustice, grievances, pain from long ago. Stress can up our ability to lash out in anger. Consider adopting stress management techniques to your daily routine.

3)Take care of yourself–mentally, emotionally, physically. Exercise, eating well, meditation, seeking out counseling…all lead to building a strong foundation for living a good life and empowering yourself to be a better person.

4)Learn to set boundariesfor others AND yourself. We talk often about setting boundaries with other people but you should have your own set of standards in how you will or will not conduct yourself. Example–you won’t scream at other people, curse people out, threaten people, smear people’s names to others, steal, cheat, etc.

5)Reflect on the following questions (Forbes):

~What, or who, is worth suffering for?

~What can my most aggressive judgments of others tell me about myself?

~Are my opinions of others fixed, or do they evolve? Is that fair?

~Does my daily routine reflect my long-term goals?

~What do the things I envy tell me about what I want to give myself?

~If I could meet the best possible version of myself in an alternate reality, what would that person be like?

If you feel like you are struggling to become a better version of yourself, counseling can be a way to figure out a plan for your life, moving forward.

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To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

https://anewcounselingservices.com/erin-theodorou%2Cm-ed-%2C-lpc

Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822

etheodorou@anewcounselingservices.com

 

 

counseling, goals, happiness, humility, psychology, Uncategorized

Is Comparison TRULY the Thief of Joy?

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Is comparison truly the thief of joy?

The tendency to compare ourselves to others is as human as any other emotion. All of us are guilty of this behavior from time to time.

Comparison is a thief of joy because it fosters competition more than affiliation. It is hard to develop close relationships or feel a sense of community with people when you view everyone as “the competition.” Sad to say when we engage in the game of social comparison, we are stuck dealing with comparison’s partner in crime: envy. And its ugly stepsister– jealousy. Neither of which lays the foundation for healthy relationships with one’s self or others.

When we compare, we compete. (And I am not talking about HEALTHY competition). Instead of celebrating other people’s strengths and gifts, we seek to tear them down because we begin to view them as a threat. Comparison leads to competition which requires someone be the winner and someone else the loser. 

In turn, we view others as competitors instead of companions. Instead of fostering a sense of community, we foster a zero sum game. This is not a game that is going to end well for our relationships.

Ask yourself–when is the LAST time you compared yourself to another? A family member? A friend? A coworker? Or think of the last time you checked your Instagram or Facebook feed. Which updates made you feel jealous or made you feel as if your life paled in comparison? Which posts make you feel smug or better than that person who posted it? Feeling superior OR inferior to another are two sides of the same coin.

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In comparing yourself to others to evaluate your own sense of self-worth, you will ALWAYS be losing. This leads to a “better than versus worse than” mentality and feelings of superiority or inferiority— neither of which helps us to build healthy relationships with others or feel happy with our self.

Yet human nature being what it is includes having a fundamental need to evaluate ourselves, and the only way many of us seem to know to do that is in reference to something else.

We compare our accomplishments with everyone else’s.  We compare our looks, our body, our Instagram likes, our college acceptances, our careers. We compare our weight with everyone else’s. The size of our house. The number of stamps on our passports.

You name it- we compare it. Comparison drives the underlying feeling that we are never ENOUGH.

Soon we are stuck in the mental loop that there is always someone else doing it ALL better than we are.

Another issue with comparison is we usually zero in one aspect of a person’s life and envy it.  It is usually an area where we judge ourselves the most harshly that we compare to others. Yet rarely when we compare ourselves to others are we looking at the whole picture — the good, the bad, and the unfortunate.

We look at the one aspect of a person’s life we envy without taking into account all the other components of the person.  Everyone has a few less than ideal aspects to their life. No one’s life is completely free of sadness, pain, loss, shortcomings, insecurities, or disappointments.

In life, we all are forced to play the hand we are dealt.

The point is not to be better than anyone else. All ANY of us can do is play the cards we were dealt the best way we know how. To try to become a better version of yourself.

In this game of life you will never reach a point where you are better than others in EVERY way and why would you WANT to be.

By indulging in comparison, we demean ourselves and those we are comparing ourselves to.

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When I assume someone is better than me because they earn a higher salary than me, I am diminishing my value to the number of zeroes on my paycheck. If I assume I have more discipline than someone who weighs more than me, I am diminishing someone’s worth to a number on a scale instead of looking at them as a human being.

Comparison has a way of creating problems when there is none. It plants seed of jealousy and envy within us that spoils our ability to connect openly and authentically with others.

Jealousy has a way of focusing on one thing at the expense of others. Jealousy gives an incomplete view of another person.  For  instance, envy ignores the hours of work that generated the high-level salary — the sacrifice of time that could have been spent with friends or family. It tends to overlook the years of schooling, studying, discipline, student loan debt, and sacrifices that preceded the success. It discounts the cost of the benefit.

It’s pretty easy to envy one aspect of another person’s life — his/her looks, talent, wealth, significant other, personality, or intelligence. It’s much harder to look closely at a person’s life as a whole and then envy another person’s life — a complete compilation of experiences.

Whenever I experience pangs of envy and I have to weigh everything at once, I tend to be more satisfied with my lot. Because if I want anything someone else has (his/her salary, ACTUAL career, education, self-confidence, weight, etc) I have to take everything else that comes with it — be it the high levels of stress, ill spouse, imperfect teeth, chronic illness, difficult child, or an alcoholic parent. Everyone has aspects of their life that are UNenviable.

Sure some people’s lives have more blessings and some have more suffering and loss. But every life has its ups and downs. Everyone gets some — some good and some bad.

Mind you, everyone’s “some” will be different.

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So if you’re walking down the street and a super fit 20-year-old runs by, you might instantly assess that, by comparison, you’re out of shape. Then you may note that you’re at least two decades older than the jogger and juggling the care of three children under the age of 5 with a  full-time job. You recall that you don’t have the same metabolism or time for exercise. Or maybe you realize you don’t even LIKE to run.

Maybe you are just starting out in your career and feel jealous of someone who is 10 or 15 years further along in their career. You feel pangs of insecurity at their lucrative career. Yet you know this person is older and further along in establishing their life. Or maybe when you think about it, you don’t want an EXTREMELY stressful career with LONG hours that just happens to be lucrative, in turn. In playing the comparison game, we usually do not look at the big picture. It’s apples to oranges comparison.

Our comparison-targets also tend to be those within our social circle. We don’t usually fixate on how our lot in life corresponds to that of Mark Zuckerberg, or to that of the homeless man sprawled on the sidewalk, but rather to that of our friends, colleagues,  family members, and neighbors.

In other words, the more similar or close we are to another person in some way we think is important, the more we tend to compare ourselves to that person.

The truth is comparison is a waste of our time. First of all, success is a relative term. “Winning” and “success” has different meanings for different people. Some might be excelling at one thing but is struggling in other areas of their lives.  Second, we are all on our own timelines and started at VERY different places in life–different advantages and disadvantages. Third, social media is a highlight reel of people’s lives. Not many people are sharing/posting about their failures and daily challenges.

Comparison is a short-sighted approach to life. It brings on feelings of envy and jealousy–two wasted emotions.  If we realize that there is always going to be competition, there is always going to be someone we believe is better than us, then we can’t lose. If we start to be happy and satisfied with our own unique gifts, talents, and strengths, we lose the need to compare ourselves to others. Only when you apologetically own who you are—the good, the bad, and the ugly does comparison lose its grip on you.

If you find you are struggle with social comparison, counseling can be a good place to work through these feelings. Instead of trying to be better than others, focus your energy on being the very best version of yourself.

To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

https://anewcounselingservices.com/erin-theodorou%2Cm-ed-%2C-lpc

Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822

etheodorou@anewcounselingservices.com

 

 

counseling, emotionalimmaturity, goals, happiness, psychology, self-help

Building an Emotional Backbone: A Family System Approach

Do you often feel taken advantage of by others? Is it a struggle for you to speak up for yourself? Do you find yourself saying yes when you want to say no? Do you feel the need to have other people’s approval?

Are you uncomfortable with asserting yourself? Do you get angry at how other people live their lives?

Do you find you allow yourself to be controlled by other people? Do you find yourself trying to control others? If you do, it is time to build up your emotional backbone.

I think there are many misconceptions about what an “emotional backbone” is.

Having an emotional backbone is pivotal to self-differentiation, a Bowen Family System concept. Self-differentiation is the ability to separate feelings from thoughts.

People who are poorly self-differentiated have difficulty separating their own feelings from other people’s feelings; they often look to other people to define how they think about issues, feel about people, and interpret their experiences.

A person who is self-differentiated has an emotional backbone–they do not look to their family, friends, or partner to define them. This means being able to have different values and opinions from other people in your life but be able to stay emotionally connected to them.

It is being able to lovingly detach from people who are not emotionally healthy and will inevitably impede on your growth and development. You cannot truly become self-differentiated and simultaneously participate in perpetuating dysfunctional relationship patterns.

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Developing an emotional background when raised in a dysfunctional family system is often difficult for the individual. This is where counseling can be very beneficial to becoming someone with a strong emotional backbone.

An emotional backbone is a sign of strength of character. It is an unwillingness to be used, to be taken for granted, to be mistreated, to be abused, and a firm commitment to uphold one’s beliefs and values.

Do you have a strong emotional backbone? Ask yourself the following:

1)Do you resent others?

2)Do you often complain to no avail? Do your complaints fall on deaf ears?

3)Do you avoid conflict?

4)Do you say yes when you want to say no?

5)Do you feel taken advantage of?

6)Do you feel unappreciated?

7)Do you allow your anger to build and come out in unhealthy ways?

8)Do you compromise your self-care?

9)Do you people please?

10)Do you seek the approval of others?

11)Do you allow others to mistreat you?

These are a job signs you may be struggling with developing a strong emotional backbone.

Oftentimes, I believe people confuse being louder, being stronger, saying things more angrily, speaking up without knowing how the relationship is going to be effected by your words, or speaking from the unhealthy part of oneself is having an emotional backbone. This is not what having an emotional backbone is.

Yet this is common in a dysfunctional family system which plays out in ALL our relationships not just with members of our family of origin.

This type of dysfunction often serves the status quo instead of being a catalyst for healthy change in our lives, causing the same unhealthy cycles to play out over and over again over the course of one’s life.

Switching between persecutor and victim is common in a dysfunctional relationship.  It goes round and round–certainly not my idea of having an emotional backbone. This is just people switching chairs at the same concert.

Persecutors criticize and blame the victim, can be very controlling, rigid, angry, and unpleasant.  The victim see themselves as powerless, helpless,  hopeless, and can want kid glove treatment from others.

A person with a developed emotional backbone sees themselves as able to determine the conditions of their life including what relationship patterns they will be an active participant in.

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Counterdepedents are controllers. Very much the persecutors.

Codependents are people pleasers. Very much the victims.

Neither have healthy, strong emotional backbones.

Many people who grew up in dysfunctional families find themselves in relationships with codependents and counter dependents. Codependents are people who come from the mindset of “I am not okay, you ARE okay.” Counter dependents come from the position, “I AM okay, you are NOT okay.”

This is based on transactional analysis. Below are the different approaches:

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Developing an emotional backbone requires a healthier approach, ie the “I am okay, you are okay” perspective. However, this is not likely with a person who is codependents or counter dependent.

I believe a strong, developed emotional backbone is crucial to having and maintaining healthy relationships. If you do not have an I am okay, you are okay approach you are going to perpetuate dysfunctional patterns in your relationships.

Most of us desire an emotional backbone–a strong sense of self, an ability to be less reactive, less shaken by conflicts, to be able to express our wants/need clearly, to stand firm with boundaries, to say no in a healthy way without guilty, want to reduce dysfunctional relationship patterns, to not undermine ourself, and to discover who we truly are.

To have a strong emotional background is to become WHO you truly are–not who others want or need you to need you to be. Only when you get to this point can you give and receive REAL love.

When we try to change ourselves from the outside in, we often feel defeated when we find ourselves back in our old ruts. We find we cannot keep the change going.

It can hard to catalyze change in our life and relationships if we are not self-differentiated. A person who is NOT differentiated will struggle with change.

For instance perhaps you are a person who knows YOU NEED to start to SPEAK up for yourself. Well-meaning family and friends often tell you to start speaking up for yourself.  But for you, it has always been a struggle for you to speak your piece. The difficulty is there is likely an entrenched pattern that exists in your relationships, with relationship imbalances, thus it can be risky for you to start to assert yourself. IF you speak up, that can cause problems and difficulties, especially if you are not prepared for how to handle other people’s reactivity.

If you do not know what your next step is, if you cannot predict possible outcomes, often that one little tip “you need to speak up” is not helpful. You need to be OKAY with ANY possible outcome as controlling other people’s reactions is not realistic. Knowing we cannot control other people is just a given for a self-differentiated individual, but for a person who has not achieved this level of self-differentiation, they work hard to control other people’s reactions and the outcomes of situations.

For example, a wife goes home to her husband and says she needs some time for herself. She is always taking care of the house, the kids, working. She read she needs to “speak up for herself.” Her friends and family have been encouraging her to start “speaking up.” Her husband, on the surface, allows her the time and agrees she deserves it. The wife decides to plan a ladies night out for the first time in YEARS. But then her husband ends up calling/texting her numerous times that night when she is having said time for herself out of his own anxiety, ruining her alone time, and the wife says it just isn’t worth it and ends up giving up on getting her needs met. No more ladies nights out for her!

Standing up for yourself is not going to be effective if you have not ALREADY done the emotional legwork on developing an emotional backbone. There is A LOT more to developing an authentic emotional backbone and a lot more going on than just “speaking up for yourself.”

To build an emotional backbone, you need to be able deal with the fight between us AND us–not between us and others. Not everyone will agree with your priorities but when you have an emotional backbone you know that is their prerogative. It is not going to impact how your choose to conduct your life. You live your life according to your values and beliefs, not needing and requiring the validation of others. You know anyone worth having in your life will respect you and your values.

This is true self-differentiation. This is having an emotional backbone.

Power and growth needs to happen within me before I can expect others to take me seriously, to respect me, to hear me, things need to happen within me. Often we do not do this self work, we just expect it to happen with OTHER people and then wonder why it doesn’t.

You need to take yourself seriously before you can expect others to take you seriously. 

Healing and recovering from your own demons will begin to stop the fight between you and you.

Others often take advantage of the internal fight we experience. The reason people who are self-differentiated can remain firm and set boundaries is because they do not feel too much guilt, shame, or fear abandonment because they already HEALED those parts of themself and their childhood wounds.

Feeling guilt, shame, and fear of abandonment are all signs of an undifferentiated individual.

Too much fear of rejection means you have work to do on yourself. The need for approval from others means you have a long way to go on your journey to self-differentiation.

How can you develop and strengthen YOUR emotional backbone?

One, we have to deal with the internal before we deal with the external. We have to do the work on ourself before we can begin to develop better relationships with other people in our life. Only when we have a healthy relationship with ourself can we have healthy relationships with others.

Second, it is important to recognize that to have an emotional backbone does not occur because we learned a few simple behavioral changes or assertiveness changes. To have long-lasting success, deeper issues and systemic stuckness needs to be addressed, which is why counseling can be such a real benefit.

Through counseling, you can learn to calm yourself in highly charged emotional relationship situations. If we cannot calm ourselves, we will fall back into the ruts of the past and our emotional demons will take ourself. Emotional regulation is a must to developing an emotional backbone.

Thirdly become an expert on YOU. I don’t mean become selfish. I mean become an expert on YOUR thoughts and emotions, NOT an expert on the thoughts and emotions of OTHERS. If you are caught up in trying to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, you are in a state of enmeshment. It is NOT your job to figure out the emotional map of others.

Oftentimes, we are far too much an expert on others and NOT an expert on ourselves.

Fourth, we need to let go of our naive and immature illusions, which allows us to grow up emotionally (although many people don’t want to do this because it is hard to grow up emotionally). Our illusions keep us WEAK and SOFTEN our emotional backbone. Being emotionally grown up means managing our feelings, not trying to manage the feelings of others.

Having an emotional backbone means being willing and able to let go of getting our needs met by other people. To let go of our illusions that others can make us happy and fulfilled.

These illusions might be: I NEED my father to love me, I NEED my mother to be proud of me, I NEED everyone to get along to be happy and whole, I NEED my husband to think I am special to be happy, I NEED my kids to not hurt my feelings so I can feel good about myself, I NEED others to stop betraying me to be happy, I NEED others to follow my advice to feel happy, I NEED my wife to love me so I can be happy…..

Do any of these sound familiar? These are some of the illusions we have that keep up from having a good and healthy emotional backbone.

Emotional grown-ups own their own stuff and leave other people to take ownership of THEIR stuff. We feel empathy but know we cannot do the self-development work for others.

Fifthly, deal with any codependency issues, emotional fusion, enmeshment, all of which will be required to develop an emotional backbone.

People with an emotional backbone are able to love and care for themselves. They are flexible and do not need to be propped up by others.

Sixth, doing self-care can help develop an emotional backbone.

Self-care is an important part of our well-being.

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Being a self-differentiated individual with an emotional backbone is the foundation of having healthy relationships with one self and others.

The truth is when you have a strong emotional backbone, you are not trying to control others. Simultaneously, you are also NOT allowing others to control you. Before you can be with someone with an emotional backbone, you need to develop your own.

Most people are unaware if they are indeed conducting their lives with a lack of self-differentiation. They are not even conscious of how fused their feelings are with other people’s.

People may mature physically, have careers, get married, have children yet STILL be an emotional child. This is what much of Murray Bowen’s research and literature posits.

Lacking an emotional backbone is often due to unresolved childhood issues, the defenses one develops in childhood, and ongoing emotional pain.

I truly believe developing an emotional backbone is the cornerstone to a happy and focused life. It is crucial for having healthy relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners.

People with an emotional backbone are rational, follow through on goals, have equality in their relationships, have final say on their decisions, respect other people’s decisions, and KNOW what they think and feeling outside of the noise and chatter from others.

If you feel you are struggling with developing an emotional backbone, counseling can be a great place to start the process.

To schedule a counseling session with me:

https://anewcounselingservices.com/erin-theodorou%2Cm-ed-%2C-lpc

Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822

etheodorou@anewcounselingservices.com

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counseling, happiness, psychology, relationships

Growing Up in a Dysfunctional Family: Whose Life are You Really Living? Are You Self-Differentiated?

Since my days as a counseling graduate student, I have ALWAYS been a fan of Bowen Family Systems theory.

Bowen Family Systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally.

Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.”

People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree (Bowen Center, 2019).

Bowen really explores the differences between healthy functioning families and dysfunctional families.

There are several characteristics that are generally identified within a healthy, well-functioning family. Some include: support; respect is abundant for all, privacy is respected, love and caring exists for ALL family members; an emotionally safe environment is present, new members are welcomed, people go gentle on the teasing and sarcasm, the family provides security AND a sense of belonging; OPEN lines of communication exists; the family system ALLOW members to change and grow, and the family makes each person within the family feel important, valued, respected and esteemed.

A dysfunctional family, on the other hand, is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and abuse (physical or emotional) occur continuously and regularly, leading to other members to accommodate such actions.  Dysfunctional families don’t cope with stress in a healthy manner.  Blame is plentiful in a dysfunctional family. Poor communication is the norm. Boundaries are disregarded and habitually crossed. Rather than dealing with the stress that is causing problems, dysfunctional families lash out at each other.

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you are more likely to struggle with self-differentiation than if you were raised in healthy family systems unit.

Some signs you are part of a dysfunctional family unit (from Wikipedia):

  • Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy or appeasement towards one or more members who have real or perceived “special needs.” In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than they deserve, while another is marginalized
  • Denial(refusal to acknowledge abusive behavior, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the “elephant in the room”
  • Inadequate or missing boundaries for self (e.g. tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment of self and others)
  • Disrespect of others’ boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises, not respecting someone’s wishes; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed)
  • Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient peaceful arguing between family members)
  • Unfair or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role, abilities (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven/inconsistent enforcement of rules)
  • Disrespect towards family members including shaming, displays of contempt, bitterness, ridicule, judgmental statements, demonization/dehumanizing, belittling, hypocrisy, excessive criticism, excessive gossip

Mind you, no family is perfect, even the functioning ones. Dysfunction exists on a spectrum.

Yet often in dysfunctional families members are very often enmeshed. Enmeshed families are rigid systems where boundaries are generally not respected. People in enmeshed families don’t know where they end and another family member begins. This is a hinderance to the differentiation process.

In an enmeshed family, control is usually an ongoing issue. Enmeshed family members often try to control how other family members think and act while simultaneously fighting off perceived attempts of feeling controlled themselves in how to think and act. Live and let live is NOT a mantra in an enmeshed family.

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Have you ever heard someone complain about the “drama” in his or her family? Chances are that the family fits the profile of the enmeshed family, in which each family member feels obliged to react to whatever is going on in the lives of other family members, effectively multiplying the tension.

In an enmeshed family, you will be made to feel guilty even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Any step outside the unspoken rules of the family system will be met with resistance.

Guilt, shame, abandonment, ostracism, and rejection are all seen in a dysfunctional family as methods of keeping members “in line” with conforming and behaving within the family systems unit.

Ask yourself the following…

Do you ever catch yourself defending yourself to other family members (your choices, beliefs, feelings, decisions)?  Are you expected to defend such? Are new members welcomed in? Is everyone with the family system overly involved in the lives of each other with little privacy? Is change frowned upon? Does a parent tell one child that they are their favorite? Are emotions contagious–if someone is angry, it rubs off on other family members? Do people form coalitions and gang up on other family members? Are you made to feel guilty for saying no? Are parents best friends with their (still underage) children? Are parents overly involved with their children and their activities? These are all signs of enmeshment.

What happens if you are the process of self-differentiation and de-enmeshment from your family? You will in all likelihood be met with resistance. Often anger and guilt to follow.

The truth is some people live their whole lives UNdifferentiated from their family of origin.

It can be too painful to self-differentiate, depending on the level of dysfunction, within the family system.

When you attempt to begin the process of differentiation, the reaction you receive from family members can be too much for you to handle, depending on where you are at in your personal development.

Am example is the following.  Imagine you grew up with a mother who wanted to know EVERYTHING about your life–a behavior that continues well after you are into adulthood.  Maybe your mom feels ENTITLED to know anything she wants about you (She is your mother after all! As she would readily point out if you resisted–ie the GUILT tactic).  Mom repeatedly asks you personal questions about all aspects of your life–despite the fact you are 45 years old with your own wife and kids. Mom’s MO is to grill you with questions regardless of how personal they may in fact be. There is no line mom won’t cross!

Maybe you begin counseling to figure out a way to set boundaries with mom. The therapist gives you strategies to how to better manage the relationship. Next time, you see mom for Sunday dinner, she, BEING the woman she is, asks you a question on a topic you feel uncomfortable with discussing (your income, your marriage, how you are parenting your kids, insert uncomfortable topic here). Maybe you usually answered whatever question asked by her (ie the path of least resistance) but this time you respond by saying you feel uncomfortable. Maybe your mother replies you are being too “sensitive” (a common rebuttal in enmeshed families when you set a boundary). She may even ask why you are being so “difficult.” You reply calmly to mom that you understand why she is curious but you are not interested in talking about said topic today (or EVER  for that matter but today works in this example).

After Sunday dinner, a few days pass…you start to feel relieved that you were able to set the boundary with mom.

But then your sister calls. Your sister shares with you that your mom has been complaining about you being “overly sensitive” and “difficult” lately with her (in dysfunctional families “triangulation” is common).

Mom, you see, is annoyed with you, for setting a boundary. For not playing her game as usual. Thus she is now venting to your sister about you, hoping your sister relays her displeasure with you. That such displeasure will get you back in line because change destabilizes dysfunctional family systems.

This is a prime example of triangulation.

Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle. Triangulation may manifest itself as a manipulative device to engineer rivalry between two people, known as divide and conquer or playing one person against another (Bowen Family Center).

Being labeled something disparaging is par for the course in enmeshed families when you start the differentiation process. Change and growth are NOT welcome in such family systems. Often, once you stop playing the family system game, you are criticized. This is part of trying to get you to change back and not continue self-differentiating.

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If you are wondering how self-differentiated you currently are, I copied and pasted Bowen’s Scale of Differentiation below.

Bowen’s Scale of Differentiation:

0……………………..25……………………..50……………………..75……………………..100

0-25

Can’t distinguish between fact and feeling

Emotionally needy and highly reactive to others

Much of life energy spent in winning the approval of others

Little energy for goal-directed activities

Can’t say, “I think….I believe….”

Little emotional separation from their families

Dependent marital relationships

Do very poorly in transitions, crises, and life adjustments

Unable to see where they end and others begin

25-50 (many people are here)

Some ability to distinguish between fact and feeling

Most of self is a “false self” and reflected from others

When anxiety is low, they function relatively well

Quick to imitate others and change themselves to gain acceptance from others

Often talk one set of principles/beliefs, yet do another

Self-esteem soars with compliments or is crushed by criticism

Become anxious when a relationship system falls apart or becomes unbalanced

Often make poor decisions due to their inability to think clearly under stress

Seek power, honor, knowledge, and love from others to cloth their false self

50-75

Aware of the thinking and feeling functions that work as a team

Reasonable level of “true self”

Can follow life goals that are determined from within

Can state beliefs calmly without putting others down

Marriage is a functioning partnership where intimacy can be enjoyed without losing self

Can allow children to progress through development phrases into adult autonomy

Function well–alone or with others

Able to cope with crisis without falling apart

Stay in relational connection with others without insisting they see the world the same

75-100 (Few function at this level)

Is principle oriented and goal directed–secure in who they are, unaffected by criticism or praise

Is able to leave family of origin and become an inner-directed, separate adult

Sure of their beliefs but not dogmatic or closed in their thinking

Can hear and evaluate beliefs of others, discarding old beliefs in favor of new ones

Can listen without reacting and communicate without antagonizing others

Can respect others without having to change them

Aware of dependence on others and responsibility for others

Free to enjoy life and play

Able to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of stress and pressure

Able to take responsibility for their own destiny and life

Maybe you are reviewing this scale and finding your are less differentiated then you would have previously thought. What to do now?

Counseling is a great outlet to pursue in beginning the differentiation process.

a1.jpg Once again, please excuse grammatical, writing errors. This blog is more about the content (I am not Charles Dickens here).

To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

https://anewcounselingservices.com/erin-theodorou%2Cm-ed-%2C-lpc

Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822

etheodorou@anewcounselingservices.com

If you find yourself struggling with enmeshment, I find the following articles to be helpful resources of starting the process of de-enmeshing.

Resources:

https://drbaney.com/category/differentiation-of-self/

https://ct.counseling.org/2018/02/differentiation-of-self-through-the-lens-of-mindfulness/

https://theallendercenter.org/2017/10/the-differentiated-self-healthy-relationship/