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The Hidden Nature of Wanting Things

Handling negative emotions

water

Here’s a realization that stopped me in my tracks recently: sometimes, when I crave something, what I really desire is not the thing itself, but for the need for it to go away.

Maybe that sounds like two versions of the same thing, but when I reflect that there are often a lot of ways to making a need for something go away without getting the thing itself, then the game begins to change.

To take an easy example: if I want a glass of water, what I really probably want more than the sensation of the water going down my throat is the cessation of my thirst.

In that example, of course, drinking the water is probably the best thing I can do, but what if the thing I want to do is to eat something unhealthy or do something I’ll later regret or act in anger because of negative feelings? In these cases, it would be ideal to stop feeling the need for the thing by some means other than getting what I think I want.

The good news is that there are alternatives that will often make a need or craving go away: for example, meditation or a frank discussion with a supportive friend or family member can often settle an angry or frightened mood, focusing attention on something else can often distract us from an unhealthy or unhelpful activity, and there are at least a couple of dozen of ways to get around being hungry.

The problem I run into, myself, is that I often get caught up in wanting the thing and don’t realize that I just want the need for it to stop. When this happens, anything that may make the need diminish seems like self-denial. Although I may be actually accomplishing what will make me most happy (making the craving go away), my internal commentary insists I’m preventing myself from getting what I want, from getting the object of my craving. This makes me think of a healthy redirection as a fight with myself, and instead of gravitating toward the best choice, I struggle.

I don’t think it’s the case that we always just want the cessation of a need, though I guess somebody could make a case for that. For instance, when I want to listen to music, it doesn’t seem to me that I’d usually be just as happy if the desire for hearing music went away. To use this idea, I’ll have to distinguish between times it applies and times it doesn’t.

Whether the insight will actually prove valuable for me or not, I don’t know, but I’d like to think that it will help me from time to time when I’m having trouble deciding between an appealing option and a healthier but less flashy one, to understand what that decision is really about and act accordingly.

Photo by Bart.

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How Do You Fix Greed? Part I: The Roots of Greed

Society and culture

How do you fix greed? It’s a question that’s plagues our country and much of the world right now, although I’m going to talk about America specifically–because let’s face it, where greed is concerned, we Americans are at the top of the charts. In some other countries, corruption and greed in the government is an especially nasty problem, but here in America greed is more or less a core value, something that’s encouraged for every citizen. As a result, we’re the wealthiest large nation in the world and consume a percentage of the world’s resources that’s far out of proportion to our population.

What specifically is so bad about greed? Isn’t it natural, anyway? Even if it isn’t, what can you do if greed is just something bad people embrace?

What’s wrong with greed?
The problem with greed is that it leads to people and corporations trying to amass resources they don’t need and can’t use well, often straining the capacity of the rest of society and the natural environment in the process. It’s not just the multi-millionaire tossing back caviar while homeless families try to survive on canned soup: it’s kids amassing electronic devices instead of going outside and playing with friends, adults trapping themselves in jobs that make them miserable in order to get the larger houses and better cars they think they “should” be able to have, and people whose lives are dominated by abject envy of everyone wealthier or more famous than they are. Greed is bad investments, celebrity idolization, consumerism grown out of proportion, lousy jobs, waste, inequity, and disconnection of us all from one another.

Isn’t greed natural?
We’ve grown to think it’s natural and normal for people to want as much money as they can get, but we don’t really want money at all: what we want is what money gets us, and by this I don’t mean the products and services, but rather things like a sense of safety, power, indulgence, or validation. When we talk of caring about something, we’re saying we have an emotional stake in it. Our emotional stake in money doesn’t have anything to do directly with having the assets: it’s first about answering physical needs—the minimum of food, shelter, health care, safety, clothing, transportation, and education that is the baseline for our society–and second about gratifying unmet emotional needs.

The emotional roots of greed: some examples
Let’s say Ed grows up in a house where his parents only pay attention to him when he accomplishes something–gets good grades or wins a trophy in a track meet, for example. Ed may very well internalize the idea that the only way people will care about him–in fact, the only way he’s actually worth anything–is if he has something to show for it that everyone can appreciate. He may therefore go into a high-income career and spend his money on trophies: trophy house, trophy clothes, trophy vacations, trophy foods … all so that he can impress people into caring about him and so that he can feel worthwhile. This may sound a little pathetic, but consider how many people buy things–cars, houses in the right neighborhood, even certain foods–in order to act out the life they want to be seen leading.

Actual human connection could make all of this trophy-getting unnecessary. If Ed acquires a set of friends who appreciate his sense of humor and determination and don’t care about his money, Ed may come to stop caring about money so much too, which could lead to enormous changes in making his life happier–like living where he really wants to live, doing what he really wants to do, and prioritizing experiences with friends and family or meaningful accomplishments in the world over acquiring things.

Ed’s situation isn’t the only way we get emotionally involved with money. Imagine Deborah, whose childhood was one disaster after another resulting in moves, loss of friends and homes, and other kinds of upsets. Once Deborah gets out into the world on her own, she may prioritize security over all else, meaning that she has to pile up a lot of things and a lot of money so that she will feel safe against things like the layoffs her father went through or the loss of her home to a flood because her parents couldn’t afford flood insurance.

Or imagine Nick, who was awkward and shy as a kid and ended up being the butt of everyone else’s jokes. They won’t be laughing at him when he pulls up to the high school reunion in a Ferrari while wearing a twenty-six hundred dollar suit, now will they?

Or Andrea, whose parents gave her all the physical things she wanted but left her actual care to a string of nannies and boarding schools. As an adult, Andrea buys anything she wants, whether she can afford it or not, because she “deserves” it–constantly trying to fill an emotional void with things, and probably failing just as badly as her parents did no matter how delightful that first, brief glow of pleasure may be.

That’s not nearly the whole list, but I hope my point is clear: the roots of greed are emotional ones. People want to feel safe, loved, valued, validated, and respected. In different ways, money promises all of those things, even though it often doesn’t deliver.

Are greedy people bad people?
It’s tempting to write off anyone who acts greedy as simply a bad person, yet there’s a more exact and constructive way to look at the problem. First, problem behaviors like greed usually come from people trying to meet their emotional needs, which is a pretty understandable thing to try to do, even if somebody hasn’t chosen a very successful method.

Almost all people who act greedy also do things that we would admire in their lives–they might parent their children well, give to charities, have a strong work ethic, work for causes, help friends and neighbors, have a lot of integrity, or otherwise show their true value.

Writing these people off also means writing off whatever part of ourselves might agree with them, the part that may covet clothes or free time, travel, cars, expensive foods, luxury, or even having a lot of money to help other people with.

Writing off anyone who acts greedy is wasteful, too, because if people can learn not to be greedy, as surely seems to be the case even without the fictional or legendary examples of Siddhartha and Ebeneezer Scrooge, then there’s a powerful reason to try to find ways to fix greed: if a greedy person becomes a non-greedy person, we’ve gained an ally–sometimes a powerful one.

In the next part of this series, I’ll take a look at how greed is entrenched in American culture and what would be necessary to root it out.

Photo by subsetsum

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How to Not to Get Into an Argument

Handling negative emotions

If you ask people what their favorite thing about the winter holidays is, one of the most popular responses is “family.” But if you google (for instance) “worst thing about Christmas,” one of the most common complaints–right up there with overcommercialization and the stress of having too much to do–is also “family.” Holidays sometimes throw us into difficult, uncomfortable, or undesired situations, and they sometimes provide a perfect setting for everyone to regress and get in arguments.

But arguments and other clashes with family and non-family alike are mostly avoidable Taking a few pages from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s time-tested and surprisingly practical system called Non-Violent Communication (as described in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life), here’s a nutshell version of a way to stop arguments before they start.

Only one grown-up needed
You might very reasonably have the concern that no communication method will help if the other person is acting like a nincompoop. If so, you may be relieved to know that non-violent communication can help solve problems regardless of how emotionally mature the other person is acting. Anger, fear, irrational accusations, complaining, and depression are all perfectly OK for the other person to present, as long as you can swing being the grown-up in the conversation.

Listening with compassion
Heading off arguments begins by listening a different way. It’s easy and natural to listen to what people say to us–especially when they’re talking about us–and to think of their words as being about ourselves. If someone says “Why do you always try to run everything?” or “Didn’t you even stop to think how he would feel about that?” or “I can’t believe you made me another stupid sweater!”, the obvious thing to do would be to think of what those things mean to us and respond with something like “If you ever got off your butt and helped, I wouldn’t have to run everything!” or “Don’t my feelings count too?” or “I slave over this gift of love for thirty hours, and this is how you repay me?” If you respond this way, unfortunately, you are then in an argument.

My mother used to always say “It takes two to fight.” Skipping right over my smarmy childhood comebacks, I’d like to point out the usefulness of this statement: one person can shout, threaten, insult, or complain, but if the other person responds compassionately, then there is still no argument. In an argument, two or more parties go back and forth, each saying things that add fuel to the fire. If either person takes another approach, the argument eventually gutters out.

Here’s how to listen compassionately: accept whatever the other person says–even if it’s unkind, unfair, or untrue–as an offer of information.

What you’re trying to find out–the information you’re trying to glean–is these two things:
1) What emotion is the other person feeling? (Be careful what you consider an “emotion”: this list can be useful to sort true emotions out from false).
2) What essential thing does the other person need? This doesn’t mean what they want or are asking for, necessarily, but rather what deep-seated need is being brought up.

When you think you may have figured out the answers to those those two questions in conversations, try to say them back to the people you’re talking to so that they understand they’ve been heard. If you need more information in a particular conversation, ask questions to get that information.

Don’t worry about guessing wrong about someone’s emotional state or needs: generally speaking, if you offer a kindly-meant attempt at understanding how someone feels, they will automatically correct you if you’re information’s wrong, giving you exactly what you need to defuse the argument.

Sometimes people will keep spouting negative comments or repeat the same point over and over in a conversation even when you make it clear you understand where they’re coming from and care about their needs. This generally means nothing more than that they have a backlog of anxious feelings about the topic at hand, and/or they don’t feel confident that they’ve been heard. Patiently continuing the process we’ve talked about should in most cases eventually allow these situations to wind down.

I’ll continue this topic in my next article with some examples.

Photo by Peter Gene

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Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice

Handling negative emotions

This is the thirteenth in a series of fourteen articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The mantra that goes with the Self-Sacrifice schema is “I should take care of other people; they shouldn’t take care of me.” A person with this schema will tend to ignore their own needs, wants, and worries but pay plenty of attention to other people’s problems.

When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema starts paying attention to their own needs, they generally feel guilty. Their mental commentary is often full of “should statements” like “I shouldn’t need help with this” or “I shouldn’t be spending time on myself when someone else needs something.”

Self-Sacrifice schemas often arise in childhood when a parent is needy or unable to handle basic responsibilities. The child gets used to taking care of another person while suppressing their own needs and desires, and then has a lot of trouble getting out of the habit as they grow older. This often includes being in the habit of keeping emotions close, not sharing them so as to avoid anyone else being affected by those emotions.

As a result, says schema therapy originator Dr. Jeffrey Young, “almost all patients with Self-Sacrifice schemas have linked Emotional Deprivation schemas.”

On the bright side, a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema can do a lot of good in the world and experience increased self-esteem from their efforts. Yet the schema reflects a serious problem, an imbalance between taking care of themselves and taking care of others.

Dealing with a Self-Sacrifice Schema
Tackling a Self-Sacrifice schema, as is true with most problem habits, is first a matter of being aware when the problem is occurring, preferably in the moment (though it’s certainly better than nothing to at least reflect and recognize these situations afterward). When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema notices that the schema is taking over–for instance, when they’ve been asked to volunteer for something and know it will cost them more sleep than they can afford to lose–the specific problem thoughts, usually close to invisible, can be brought out, examined, and reframed.

So in the example given, the person could realize the sleep problem but feel guilty about saying no. Examining her thoughts, she might realize that she is telling herself “I should do this even if I do lose sleep” and ask herself further “Should I do everything that other people ask me to do, no matter how hurtful or unhealthy it is to me?” Reviewing, reframing, and debating our own mental commentary helps us identify habits that make us behave in ways we wouldn’t choose to behave if we thought things through carefully.

Ultimately a person trying to give up a Self-Sacrifice schema will need to try risking embarrassment or guilt, whether that comes from refusing to do something for someone else, asserting their own needs, or receiving someone else’s help. If this is done with people who genuinely care, the results can help break down the idea that help isn’t deserved and doesn’t feel good, and over time this kind of cooperation and willingness to be helped can begin to feel as natural and good as helping others.

Photo of Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais by Accidental Hedonist

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Mental Schemas #8: Enmeshment and Undeveloped Self

Handling negative emotions

This is the eighth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.


Where do you end and I begin?
A person with the enmeshment schema is completely wrapped up in someone else’s life. It’s often a parent, but it can be anyone with a strong personality: a husband, a wife, a boss, a brother or sister … even a best friend. Enmeshed people ignore their own preferences and ideas and order everything in their lives according to the needs of the parent or other person they’re enmeshed with.

Some common feelings enmeshed people have are:

  • They/I/we couldn’t survive without this bond
  • I feel guilty if I keep anything separate
  • I feel completely smothered

Enmeshed people almost always have an “undeveloped self”: they don’t know what they want or need, what they prefer, where they’re going in life, or what would make them happy. It’s possible also to have the undeveloped self problem without the enmeshment problem, to feel empty and directionless and uncertain of wants and needs without necessarily being wrapped up in another person.

There’s a related schema called “subjugation,” where a person feels like they must act according to other people’s wishes, but instead of feeling closeness, subjugated people usually feel resentment, anger, and despair. An enmeshed person feels smothered; a subjugated person feels crushed. I’ll talk about subjugation in a separate post in future.

Enmeshed people and other people with undeveloped selves usually end up that way because of parents or other figures in their lives who are overprotective, abusive, or controlling.

Disentangling
In order to make progress in their own lives, enmeshed people first have to come to feel it’s OK to separate from the other, to be their own person. If they’re able to get to that point, they can begin to reflect on what they themselves really like, want, need, aspire to, and believe. Really knowing who we are and what’s important to us personally in life is what allows us to develop.

There are some dangers for an enmeshed person trying to get out of enmeshment. For instance, sometimes it can happen that an enmeshed person separates from the other by deciding that they hate everything that person loves, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, this still isn’t finding an individual self, because just doing the opposite of someone else still means that one’s decisions are based on another person.

Another danger is of getting out of an enmeshed situation is falling right into another–for instance, leaving a too-close relationship with a parent by getting into a romantic relationship with someone who has a very strong personality and becoming enmeshed with that person instead, or working through enmeshment in therapy and separating from the other person only to become enmeshed with the therapist. (Good therapists take pains to prevent this from getting very far!)

So the other goal, in addition to finding one’s own preferences and identity, is to learn how to have healthy relationships with other people, relationships that are connected but not enmeshed. The best tool I know of for this is mindfulness, being aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and preferences from moment to moment in our lives. It’s only when we lose track of our own thinking that we can get overwhelmed with someone else’s.

Ending enmeshment and developing the self take a lot of hard work and understanding, and can often be especially well helped by a good cognitive therapist.

Photo by Djuliet

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Dealing with a powerful temptation

Handling negative emotions

greener

A note: Most of my posts are based directly on findings from psychological research or other tried and proven sources. This post, while it owes a lot to these kinds of sources, has much more of my own ideas and observations than usual. It’s also missing the funny parts, for which I apologize.

In most cases where we want to cultivate willpower, it’s possible to make progress a little at a time, and a certain amount of failure is a natural part of the learning process. But what about when losing the willpower battle even once would have dire consequences, like an alcoholic who is struggling to stay sober?

Major temptations that keep cropping up may point to unmet needs, and ultimately the answer to getting over such a temptation is a matter of finding a constructive way to address those needs.

Before we continue, I should explain what I mean by a “need.” A “need” is a basic requirement that leads to suffering if it is not met. We shouldn’t confuse this with a desire, which is some specific thing that we think (sometimes rightly) will give us pleasure or help us avoid pain. Having enough food to eat, keeping the children safe, and having fulfilling work are all needs of one kind or another. Having a piece of the world’s best cheesecake, getting a child into a prestigious school, avoiding a conversation with someone unpleasant, or becoming a movie star are all desires. Desires can generally be dealt with by looking at the underlying need, which means that the cheesecake or the school itself isn’t necessarily the only answer.

Long-term temptations often seem to arise when a major underlying need is not being met. Unmet needs are also the drivers behind interpersonal conflict (see www.cnvc.org for information on an approach to solving interpersonal conflict that is successful specifically because it focuses on underlying needs). In a way, we can look at long-term temptation as a serious conflict within a person. The ways to address such a conflict are similar to the ways we address conflicts between people: both sides in the conflict need to be able to express their needs and then get their needs met. Until this happens, the conflict cannot be resolved.

As an example, let’s say there is a man called Don who is constantly tempted to spend a huge chunk of his and his wife’s retirement fund on an expensive sports car. (Let’s say he and his wife have agreed that they each have full control over their respective retirement funds.) Don daydreams about the car, looks at models online, and has gone for test drives. Deep down he knows that he doesn’t want to screw up their retirement just to own a sports car, but he can’t stop thinking about it.

ferrari

If Don wants to resolve this problem, he has to dig deep and fully and truthfully answer the question of why he so desperately wants the car in the first place. Maybe it symbolizes a level of financial accomplishment that is strongly associated with having proven himself–in other words, Don believes that having the sports car means that everyone will see him as successful. Or maybe Don associates having the car with being young, and is scared to death of becoming old.

But let’s say instead that the sports car represents to Don a kind of indulgence for himself that he has never experienced before. All day, every day, he’s putting his time, attention, effort, and money into taking care of customers, superiors at work, family members, friends who need help, and so on. He has felt for a long time that he doesn’t really have any opportunity to focus on himself and do things that he would like to do.

At this stage, it’s essential for Don to untangle his needs from his desires. The car is a desire, but his need is to feel as though he’s had a chance to explore who he is and do things that are important only to him.

So what does Don do? The details are complicated, but the most promising way to deal with the problem is at least simple in concept: Don needs to find a more constructive way to meet his needs. This might involve him taking early retirement or stepping down from some of the responsibilities he’s taken on, or taking a vacation by himself, or blocking out time for some new activity in his life that’s driven solely by his own inclinations and doesn’t directly benefit anyone else.

The other thing that may help Don (in addition to understanding his needs and finding a constructive way to meet them) is to put his desire in perspective. An expensive sports car would definitely represent doing something just for himself–but would it meet his underlying need to feel like part of his life is his own, or would it just give him a short-term burst of satisfaction that would soon fade as he realized his life was exactly the same as it had been, just with a cooler car? The things we are often most tempted to do, if they are harmful to us, are very often not successful in even meeting the need that gives rise to them. Addiction to a variety of drugs falls under this heading, as a desire for satisfaction or pleasure drives a person to use a drug, but the drug provides only temporary relief. Gaining material things, however appealing they may seem, very often supplies a limited amount of pleasure over a short period of time. Pleasure is not a need, though happiness can be. (See my recent post on the difference between the two for more information on that.)

Understanding the need underlying a powerful temptation is a nearly unavoidably important step, but as to addressing the need, there are some alternatives. One reasonable alternative, as undesireable as it might sound to most of us, is becoming resigned to suffering. It’s not as passive as it sounds: in the example above, Don could decide that though he has a deep-seated need to have some part of his life for himself, his obligations are too important for him to make enough room to really answer that need. In that case he could spend his effort in becoming reconciled to his situation through avenues like support from his family, therapy, and meditation. It’s even possible that over time his needs might change and his old need to have some part of his life for himself could go away: after all, the human mind is capable of many kinds of adaptation. If this change didn’t happen, though, Don could still find ways to adapt to the continuing pain of not addressing his need, and if he did a very good job of managing those needs, his feelings of temptation would be likely to wane. This approach is similar to approaches one can take to deal with chronic physical pain.

Yet another approach is to change some part of the situation so that the object of desire is no longer a destructive goal: it becomes either neutral or positive. This generally means some kind of sacrifice or at least great change. In Don’s case, the car is a pretty questionable goal: research seems to suggest that material goods aren’t very effective at making people happy. But we could imagine a situation where Don could get a job that paid better but involved a lot more local travel, and so not only allow him to get the car without wrecking the retirement fund, but also give him more of a chance to drive in it. More realistic situations where a life change might help address a deeply-felt need might include giving up a good income to work in a job that offers more personal satisfaction or ending a relationship that has been stable but ultimately doesn’t provide the support someone needs.

In all of these cases, the important thing is to recognize the temptation as a symptom of the problem and not the root problem itself. Translating that temptation into the need that is driving it opens up possibilities and provides much-needed perspective. In some cases this alone might be enough to suggest a solution, and in others, it’s at least a step in the right direction.

Green grass picture by Dawn Endico.
Ferrari picture by
Simon Lieschke.

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