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Why People Won’t Apologize

Handling negative emotions

apology

There was an interesting story by Shankar Vedantam on NPR’s All Things Considered this morning about a new study on apologies: “Why Not Apologizing Makes You Feel Better.” Most of us have been given to believe that apologizing makes things better for the apologizer as well as the apologizee, but participants in this study tended to feel better about themselves when they flat out refused to apologize.

From that factoid we might begin to think that apologizing isn’t such a great idea after all–until we start digging a little deeper. Of course, if not apologizing makes a person feel more empowered, then it makes perfect sense that it’s often hard to get people to apologize even in life-or-death situations, like when two ethnic groups can’t make peace because one won’t apologize for what they’ve done to the other.

So feeling better in the short term is all very nice, but in the longer term not apologizing hurts relationships, loses support and understanding, and creates grudges.

That alone might be enough to keep us in the apologizing mindset, but another fact is especially striking: the people who aren’t willing to apologize tend to be the people who are more insecure or who feel more threatened in the first place. So apologizing may make us feel less empowered, but it tends to mean that we already are more empowered.

To put it another way, apologizing makes us vulnerable, and as Brené Brown points out in the TED talk I mentioned in my last post, we tend to feel like vulnerability makes us weaker–and yet other people often see voluntarily vulnerability as strength.

Not to beat this idea to death, but there are some clear illustrations in what we know about body language. If you’re feeling relaxed and confident, you’re likely to leave the front of your body exposed, physically more vulnerable to harm, by not crossing your arms or holding your hands together. The “crossed arms in front of chest” pose and even the “clasped hands in front of genitals” pose are often used as though they’re “power positions,” yet what they actually communicate–and we tend to pick up on this subconsciously, even if we don’t consciously–is insecurity. If you’re interested, take a look at some of my other articles on body language for more information.

Fun post trivia: in looking for a picture to include with this post, I couldn’t find any clear, Creative Commons-licensed picture of someone apologizing for something. The closest I was able to come was this picture of people doing general apologies to people they didn’t know for no reason having to do with themselves, while wearing paper bags over their heads. (Thanks, Neal Jennings!)

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How Do You Forgive People Who Won’t Admit They’ve Done Anything Wrong?

States of mind

In recent posts like “3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding” and “You, Me, and the Dalai Lama” I’ve talked about some of the things I’ve been learning and contemplating from listening to recorded talks by the 14th Dalai Lama after having the good fortune to see him speak in person last month. At the end of his talks, he generally takes questions, and one of the questions that seems to come up pretty frequently is how to forgive someone who won’t admit they’ve done wrong.

When relationships in our life are disrupted or hurt through some past or present trouble, it can be a constant drain. In some cases the problem can be solved–or at least mostly solved–by cutting ties: friends who mistreat or lie to us, for instance, are sometimes not friends worth having, at least not if we’re trying to lift ourselves up by keeping company with people we admire.

In many cases, though, cutting ties is either not an option or too drastic an option, for instance when immediate family members do something (or a lot of things) that we find harmful. Even when it’s possible to stop communicating with a family member, the problem can still fester, and of course cutting off a family member creates its own problems.

So another avenue is to have a heart-to-heart discussion with the person who has done the harmful thing to try to understand and forgive. Of course this approach is a big improvement on simply cutting ties, and it’s likely to bring more peace. But what if the other person doesn’t want to be forgiven? What if the other person doesn’t even agree that there was any wrongdoing? For that matter, what if the person keeps doing the harmful thing?

A situation like this begins to make it clear what real compassion and forgiveness are. For us to feel compassion or forgiveness toward another person, that person doesn’t have to act according to our preferences or beliefs, because there is a difference between the person and the action. We can and should condemn actions that we think are harmful or unjust, but even while doing that we can accept and feel compassion toward that person. We can even feel compassion toward people we oppose.

I admit, this isn’t an easy thing to do, but at least the steps are clear. All we have to do is say “I condemn what you’ve done, but I support you“–and mean it.

There’s another piece of this, an important one: forgiveness and peace of mind are matters that happen within ourselves, not outside us. If we want peace of mind, we have to take complete responsibility for it ourselves. If we let even a small part of our peace of mind depend on what other people do, then we open ourselves to being disturbed and angered and made unable to act and think as we wish based on things other people do, things outside of our control.

In the same way that we can release anger that might come up from, say, getting cut off in traffic by reminding ourselves “I can’t make other people drive the way I want them to,” letting go of any feeling of possession about other people’s wrongdoings is necessary to feel peace of mind in troubled relationships and to offer compassion and support even to people whose actions we condemn.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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How Can Bad Relationships Feel So Right?

The human mind

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on schema therapy and mental schemas, a subject I’ve written about here a number of times: see links on my Mental Schemas and Schema Therapy page. One of the most intriguing insights that’s come up in that reading is “schema chemistry.” What’s schema chemistry? The short version is this: sometimes the people we are most strongly attracted to are the ones who are the most likely to make us crazy.

I don’t want to overstate this: I don’t imagine for a minute that all love, romance, chemistry, and attraction are based on people fitting their mental baggage together–but it’s pretty fascinating that some of it seems to be, for some people.

The apparent reason schema chemistry happens is that the kinds of troubles we’re used to are comfortable and normal-feeling to us, so a person who causes the same problems we’re used to will feel more familiar and closer. If Mary grew up in a house where her parents always left her alone, she might very well feel more “at home”–not happier, but in more familiar and “right-feeling” territory–if she dates someone who always leaves her home alone, too. If Jack’s mom was always telling him he was a hopeless screw-up, he might have more respect for and feel more familiar with a girlfriend who always tells him the same thing.

According to some accounts in Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide by Drs. Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko, it appears this isn’t always a mild effect, either: sometimes it really makes the sparks fly.

As you might expect, this can be bad news. Two people might fall madly in love, have a breathtaking romance, and then settle down into a pattern of gradually making each other miserable. Apart from breaking up, the best hope for a couple like this is often to get couples therapy–I’d be inclined to suggest couples schema therapy specifically–and to learn there not only how to handle their own emotional baggage better, but also how not to push the other person’s destructive buttons.

Here are a few more examples of schema chemistry:

  • A person who feels defective (the Defectiveness schema) gets together with a person who feels like people should be punished for even small mistakes (the Punitiveness schema)
  • A person with a sense of being better and more deserving than other people (the Entitlement schema) gets involved with someone who is constantly taking care of other people at the expense of their own needs (the Self-Sacrifice schema)
  • Someone who grew up feeling lonely and neglected in a house where there was very little nurturing or expression of love (the Emotional Deprivation schema) dates someone to whom expressing emotions seems unnecessary and disturbing (the Emotional Inhibition schema).

There are any number of combinations, given that there are 18 different schemas and a variety of ways to express each one. Fortunately, there are many other factors to bringing two people together than schema chemistry. Here’s hoping it’s not at work in your relationship! If it is, just becoming aware of how the two schemas interact may start to help. I’m working on a short, informal book on mental schemas that I hope will make it easier for people to gain insights on their own and others’ schemas; it should be out in November or December. For information on that, stay tuned.

Photo by jb_brooke

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How Trust Is Like a Bank Account

Habits

It’s true that relationships with other people are not at the center of habit formation: habits form within our individual brains. Yet our relationships with others still influence how our habits form in a huge number of ways: other people can

  • support or undermine our efforts
  • provide a positive or negative example
  • distract us
  • buddy up with us, making habit formation easier
  • be part of the habit we’re trying to change (for instance, if the habit in question is about how we treat others)
  • provide vital information or training, as with a mentor
  • affect our mood through interactions
  • affect our overall happiness based on how healthy our social connections are
  • and so on.

With that in mind, it appears likely that any significant improvements to our relationships with others will tend to aid us in forming habits we want, breaking habits we don’t want, and reaching goals.

To that end, I’d like to pass on a metaphor from Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. While Covey’s book isn’t particularly research-based, he provides what seems to me a useful take on how we approach our lives. Covey’s metaphor is this: trust, an essential basis for constructive relationships, is like a bank account. Says Covey,

An Emotional Bank Account is  a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship. It’s the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.

If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.

Part of the utility of this idea, for me, is in offering a simple approach to getting inside someone else’s point of view in a relationship. If someone else is behaving toward me in a way I don’t like, for instance, there’s a good chance that there’s a trust problem between us. What has my interaction been with this person? Have I given them reasons to trust me and be glad I exist?

Of course relationships are a two-way street, and we can’t always rely on other people to take note of the deposits we’re making, but since we can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions (one reason why worrying about how things “should” be can be so emotionally destructive for us), one of the most empowering things to do in relationships is to try to gauge our current emotional bank balance. Is there a good fund of trust stored up in that account? Or are a few healthy deposits needed to prevent overdrafts?

Photo by Andy on Flickr

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11 Things Schema Therapy Tells Us About Living a Happy Life

States of mind

While I was compiling the schema therapy self-quiz that has run here at The Willpower Engine over the past week (to take it, start here with part 1), I began to realize that the principles behind the schemas amounted to some advice about how we can live happily and fulfillingly. This shouldn’t be surprising to me: after all, the whole point of learning about and working on mental schemas is to live a happier and more fulfilling life, so the fact that the schemas offer recommendations on how to do that shouldn’t be too shocking.

But I sometimes think about psychology the way I think many of us may think about it, as a non-judgmental, unopinionated body of knowledge. This, it seems, is wrong, and it makes sense that it’s wrong. After all, when we look to an area of knowledge to help better our lives, that area had better contain a sense of what “better” means.

Here are some of the ideas I found embedded in descriptions of some of the schemas. These conclusions are mine alone, though, and don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Young (who originated schema therapy) or any psychologist whatsoever.

  1. Good relationships require trust, even when there’s some chance that trust will be betrayed.
  2. Being happy and doing well in the world begins with assuming we each have value. There does not have to be a reason we are valuable, although admittedly having solid reasons can be comforting.
  3. We can screw up any number of times and still have value as human beings.
  4. Somethings things go badly, and this is normal and in an important sense OK. It helps to be prepared for particularly bad situations if they’re likely, but it generally doesn’t help to preoccupy ourselves a lot with bad things that might happen.
  5. There is a place for each of us in human society, and it is useful and right and good for us each to seek out some support and some ways we can support others.
  6. When other people tell us things about ourselves, they are often wrong, no matter how certain they sound. (However, sometimes others can provide us with useful and accurate insights.)
  7. Valuing another person’s needs above or below our own often seems to lead to trouble.
  8. We all screw up sometimes, and we all do well at things sometimes.
  9. We aren’t entitled to anything at all: we start with nothing and do our best to get our needs met.
  10. It generally helps to give other people the same consideration we would want ourselves, even if it feels like we’re in a special situation that doesn’t apply to others.
  11. Being approved of is not a useful measure of how valuable a person is.

Photo by Adam Foster | Codefor

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What Are Your Mental Schemas? A Quiz, Part 2

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part 2 of the quiz on mental schemas. See Part 1 for more information about what this quiz might be able to tell you and why mental schemas are worth understanding.

When you were young, did your family seem not to fit in with the other families? At school, did you feel as though you weren’t part of what was going on?
In social circumstances, do you feel as though you have little to do with the other people around you?
At times when you’re unhappy, do loneliness and a feeling of separation have a major role?
If so, it can be worth reading about the Alienation Schema.

Do you often feel like you’re not good enough for the situations or roles you want in life?
Are you acutely aware of making major mistakes on a regular basis?
If someone tells you that you suck, do you tend to believe them, at least a little?
These feelings can be indications of an Incompetence Schema.

Do you regularly find yourself worrying about terrible things happening to you, or to your friends or family?
If something goes mildly wrong, do you begin to imagine how that might be the start of a disaster?
Do you have trouble putting aside worries over situations you can’t change?
A Vulnerability Schema can cause these kinds of issues.

If you were going to consider a major life change, is there someone else whose opinion on the matter would feel more important than your own?
Apart from your children, if any, is there a relationship in your life without which you feel like one or both of you couldn’t survive?
Do you ever feel smothered in one or more of your relationships?
If these questions hit home, you might well want to learn about Enmeshment Schemas.

When you were young, were you often told that you were doing everything wrong?
Do you regularly feel that no matter how hard you try, you have no chance of being a great success at anything?
Think about something you’ve done well in the past. Do you tend to regard that success as a fluke rather than as evidence of your abilities?
If you answered yes to some or all of this set of questions, you may be facing a Failure Schema.

The quiz continues next time with the final fifteen or so questions.

Photo by kk+.

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What Do Divorce and Malpractice Suits Have in Common?

The human mind

What do divorces and malpractice suits have in common?

My current reading is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about the power and perils of responding from the gut. Early in the book he examines some clever research into divorce and some other clever research into malpractice suits, which together help illustrate one surprising principle.

The divorce research is something I’ve heard about and been fascinated by before. John Gottman, a research psychologist at the University of Washington, has developed methods for analyzing a brief conversation between a married couple on any subject that has been a recent difficulty for them. Gottman’s researchers, incredibly, can predict with 95% accuracy whether or not the couple will still be together in 15 years–without knowing their history, common interests, finances, love life, how long they’ve been together, family relationships, or anything else.

The malpractice research is just as fascinating. You might imagine that the doctors who get sued most for malpractice would be the ones who make the most mistakes, yet this turns out not to be the case at all. The biggest predictor of malpractice suits is a bad relationship with the patient. That is, doctors get sued much less for screwing up than they do for being disliked!

The common element between these two kinds of relationships–between spouses on the one hand and doctors and patients on the other–is respect, or lack of it.

How to predict divorce
Gottman’s researchers are trained in SPAFF (specific affect) coding, which involves recording a person’s attitude or emotions on a second-by-second basis. Using cues like word choice, tone of voice, expression, and body language, they record how a subject seems to be responding moment by moment throughout a conversation. The biggest indicators of divorce are what Gottman calls “the Four Horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. And it’s contempt (and its close relative disgust) that is the most powerful and reliable signal of a doomed marriage.

To put it another way, as long as both partners feel as though they’re getting a reasonable amount of respect–that their spouses are not looking down on them but rather holding them in some esteem–the marriage will tend very strongly to do well. As fond as I am of the Beatles, it appears that all you need is not so much love as it is respect. (With that said, I highly recommend love as well.)

How not to get sued
Getting back to doctors, it turns out that people tend to sue doctors when they feel those doctors look down on them, have little regard for them, or treat them poorly. Acting superior, ignoring the patient, trying to rush through with the minimum amount of contact, or dismissing patients’ concerns are all dangerous behavior in this respect. Statistically, if you are a doctor and you have made a terrible error but have treated the patient kindly and respectfully, you’re much less likely to be sued than a colleague who has made only a minor error but who has alienated the patient.

I won’t go into how Gladwell shows respect applying to car salesmen and their customers, but by now you can probably guess how that works.

Using respect for personal benefit
All of this gives me one simple, clear principle to apply in my own life: the single most important thing I can do to improve my relationship with other people–whether they’re friends, coworkers, customers, family, service providers, police officers, strangers I run into on the street, or anyone else–is to try to find things about them I respect and let that respect show. Whether I want to be married to the person in question or just want to help ensure they don’t sue me (or both), the lesson seems to be the same. Relationships being as complicated as they are, simple principles for making them better are a heck of a boon.

Photo by wajakemek | rashdanothman

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Two Top Tools for Reducing Stress

Handling negative emotions

 

The ridiculously cheery song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” offers advice that may be a little hard to follow sometimes. Sometimes we’re not prepared to let go of fears and anxieties, feeling that we need them–occasionally, we may even be right. But even when we’re ready to stop worrying and be happy, letting go of stress is easier said than done.

To help reduce stress, there are many useful approaches described on this site, including meditation, mindfulness, emotional antidotes, a brief walk in a natural setting, and more. However, there are two especially effective, immediate approaches that have both been shown to greatly reduce stress, although both take some effort.

One is social time: if you’re spending most of your time alone (or perhaps with people it’s hard to be with), spending a lot more time with people you like can help enormously: see “Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.” E-mailing, time on the phone, and even time working with others in the course of your job can “count” toward your total. People who get in at least six hours of some kind of social time per day report being happy and relatively free of stress. See the article for more details.

The other option is idea repair: noticing and fixing thoughts of yours that encourage you to feel anxiety or frustration over time. By learning to recognize and remake these thoughts, you can make immediate, dramatic changes in your stress level. The thoughts are likely to come back again soon, but then you just repair them again, and over time they stop coming back as much until they go away completely. I recently posted an article covering the most useful idea repair articles on this site, which may be a good place to start if you’d like to take this approach.

Of course, you could work on both social time and idea repair, but people tend to be much more successful when they focus on just one thing at a time. Trying to add too much to your obligations at once can be a little overwhelming, and the last thing most of us need is something else to stress about.

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Fixing a Problem By Leaving

Strategies and goals

Following up on last week’s articles “Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed” and “When Is It Time to Make a Change?“, today’s article takes a look at the possibilities and consequences of fixing a situation by leaving it.

When there’s no way to get away
Leaving isn’t always an option. For example, if the problem is affecting a place, person, or group of people you care about–say, your brother-in-law has a drinking problem, or your hometown has gone into a bad economic slump–then getting isn’t likely to help. Even when leaving the problem behind physically won’t help, though, it’s sometimes possible to leave emotionally, which is to say stop caring about the situation. Ceasing to care about things is often not a helpful approach, and even when it is advisable, it isn’t always easy. Yet ceasing to care can sometimes be the best choice, especially if an activity or relationship is involved that wasn’t that healthy or appropriate in the first place, as with ending a friendship with someone who’s been a destructive influence.

What’s lost, what’s gained, and what the break will cost
When leaving is an option, it can help to become clear on the three kinds of things that are affected when we leave a situation: what’s lost by leaving the situation behind, what’s gained by leaving it, and what damage (or benefits) might result from the leaving itself. For instance, leaving a job can be a way of ending an intolerable work relationship with a boss or coworker (a key cause of unhappiness at work, according to the Gallup Group’s investigations on well-being) but may cause uncertainty with your income, increase or decrease your commute, open up new opportunities, threaten rifts between you and others still working at or with the place you left, create a situation that will tend to make a spouse relieved or fearful, and so on. Not all of these costs and benefits may be apparent at the beginning, and some will not be predictable, such as unexpected opportunities and the emotional impact of the change.

Ways to think about leaving
One of the most useful things we can do when thinking about leaving a situation is to bring to light all of our fears, concerns, and hopes that may make us want to leave or stay and to try to find any broken ideas (thoughts that cause bad feelings by misleading us in subtle ways) that may be causing pain now, preventing progress, or threatening the future. Two good ways of bringing out these kinds of thoughts are writing them out on paper or on a computer or talking about the situation with a sympathetic friend who’s a good listener.

Some examples of kinds of thoughts worth looking at:

  • Fears of what will happen if you do leave
  • Fears of what will happen if you don’t leave
  • Assumptions about your current situation that may or may not be accurate
  • Concerns about how other people will judge a decision to leave
  • Hopes for opportunities that might open up
  • Overly-limiting ideas about who you are and what you’re capable of doing
  • People who would be affected by a change, including whether it’s you or someone else who would be most affected
  • What kinds of life complications would go away or be added by leaving

A “pros and cons” list can be useful, but it’s unlikely to provide an obvious answer, even if the list is much longer on one side than the other, since different items in a list can have very different levels of importance. Seeing the two sides of the issue laid out like this, though, can make it much easier to balance out the the possibilities the situation offers, provided all the key points are covered. One very useful approach is to spend days or even weeks coming back to the list and adding to it whenever new ideas occur, then considering both sides carefully and sleeping on it, letting a decision emerge naturally.

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When Is It Time to Make a Change?

Handling negative emotions

In my recent article “Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed,” I promised to follow up with a discussion of things that can be changed. If a situation is bad, there are circumstances in which we can’t do anything about it–for example, for most of us the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill was such a situation (although even in instances like this we’re not completely powerless, as I’ll discuss in my upcoming article on ways we can affect the world). When we have little or no opportunity to change a situation, then in a way the situation is no longer our problem; instead, our challenge is to address our own feelings about the situation, as discussed in last week’s article.

But what about situations where we do have some control, influence, or future prospects? If you hate your job, does that mean it’s time to quit your job, or time to change your attitude toward your work? (See “6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like“). If you’re having a lousy marriage, does that mean you should divorce, or that you should work on finding ways to be happier together? If you’re failing your first year of college, should you stay even though you think your chances of succeeding are slim or quit?

Questions that point the way
Although there’s no one simple answer to questions like these, often it comes down to one of three options:

  1. Stay and work on it
  2. Stay and reconcile yourself, or
  3. Leave.

These choices don’t apply to every single situation, but they do to most. Which one we choose depends on questions like the ones that follow. Asking questions like these helps us focus on key issues about our situation.

By the way, it’s best to answer these questions out loud–whether to yourself or while talking with a friend–or in writing, since this will lead to more specific, focused responses than quiet thought would do.

  • Do you have direct control over or responsibility for the problem? Note that this includes situations that feel out of control but that you are the sole actor in, such as eating habits or organization.
  • If you don’t have control, do you have some direct influence? Is there someone you can talk to, a request you can make, or an action you can take to encourage things to go in the right direction?
  • If you don’t have direct influence, do you have indirect influence? For example: if you want to be promoted, are there things you can do to stand out better at your job? If you want to be picked for a team or performing group, can you expand your practice schedule?
  • How much does this problem really matter? This isn’t always the same question as “how much do you care about this problem?” because it’s possible for us to get really worked up about things that may not necessarily be very important. (See “How emotions work“)
  • How much impact will your efforts be likely to make? If you’re worried about a situation in your neighborhood, you’re likely to be able to have more direct impact than if the problem is national or international, for instance. This doesn’t mean that you should only direct your efforts towards small or local things, only that it’s worth considering how big your contribution can be.
  • If one or more other people are involved, are their aspirations the same as yours? If they’re not, are you necessarily in conflict, or is it possible there might be an approach that could work for everyone, or at least for more people than the existing options would help? I’m not talking about compromise here, although I don’t deny that has some value in its place, but instead about getting away from the idea that when two people don’t agree, they necessarily have to duke it out. An excellent resource for learning how to work with someone who’s opposed to you is psychologist Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Another great book for navigating difficult negotiations is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. If you’re really interested in learning how to make constructive solutions in the midst of conflicts, either or both of these books can be invaluable.
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