Relationships

Why humans need connection

Humans are born wired for connection – it's in our DNA, as strong a need as food, water and warmth. And if you look at a newborn baby, that makes sense. Unless babies successfully attach to their mother, they won't be able to survive – human infants are born completely helpless, so we are entirely reliant on our caregivers. A loving, secure relationship is literally a matter of life and death for babies.

So in our brains is an 'attachment system', which gives us a magnetic attraction to others – (usually) first mum, then dad, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, school friends, teachers, adult friends, colleagues, mentors and later romantic partners and our own family, when the whole cycle starts over again. Jeffrey Young, the founder of schema therapy, understood this need for attachment – that's why it is one of the core developmental needs he identified in all children (along with the need for safety and protection; to be able to express our feelings and emotions; spontaneity and play; and boundaries/being taught right from wrong).

Another psychotherapy pioneer to understand this fundamental need was psychoanalyst John Bowlby, often called the 'father' of attachment theory. Bowlby realised that all children (and adults) need a secure attachment to their caregivers, especially mum. If we are lucky enough to develop this secure attachment in infancy, this 'attachment style' will remain constant throughout our lifetime and help us form strong, stable, loving relationships with friends, romantic partners and then our own children.

Strengthening your connections

Most of the people I see for schema therapy were not so lucky. For various reasons, their attachments were not secure as children, so they have all sorts of problems in relationships now. Perhaps they struggle to commit, or dive in too quickly and deeply (especially if they are a Highly Sensitive Person - read about them here). They may avoid relationships altogether, because they are just too painful. But, as I always tell my clients, although these patterns are firmly established in our brains, they are not set or fixed in any way. Our brains are always changing, throughout our lifetime (because of neuroplasticity). This remarkable discovery means that we can learn to attach more securely and so learn to love, to trust, to allow others into our lives.

This is one of the most moving and beautiful aspects of therapy – seeing people learn to deepen and strengthen their connections, first with me, then family, friends and later a romantic partner, even if this seems like an Everest-sized obstacle at the beginning of our work! However daunting it seems, remember that you are never too old and it is never too late to let love blossom. We are born ready to love – it's just the painful experiences we have when young that throw us off the path toward fulfilling relationships. All you have to do – with help, guidance and support – is step back on to the path... 

If you would like some help with strengthening your connections, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or visit my Contact page to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

Should you quit social media?

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Having dabbled in Twitter and been on and off Facebook over the years, I recently decided to quit social media altogether. This was partly a reaction to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and my discomfort at the potential use of my data to enable calamitous, world-damaging events like Brexit and Trump's election. But I have become increasingly worried about the effect of social and other digital media on my brain.

I noticed that my attention span was shrinking – I found it hard to focus deeply on any one subject and was often zipping off to some website or other, interrupting my reading or writing. I also felt addicted to quick bursts of digital stimulation, even if what I was reading – football gossip, the latest gloomy event to dominate news cycles – either made me feel nothing much or downright bad.

As a long-time mindfulness practitioner, all of this manic distractibility felt especially wrong to me. Haven't I spent the last eight years training my brain to be quiet and still, to focus? Is that not the whole point of mindfulness practice? So what was I doing logging into Facebook 20 times a day, itchy for a little dopamine hit when someone liked my post? It made no sense at all and felt jarring to the person I was trying to become.

The final straw for me was reading Cal Newport's brilliant Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He makes a powerful argument that the way we live and work and think in the 21st century is damaging our ability to produce 'deep work' – the kind of creative output that leads to a Van Gogh painting, or Ian McEwan novel. Now, I know I'm no Van Gogh, but I do want to write books, to think deeply about my clients and their problems, to understand complex psychological issues and learn the latest developments in CBT, schema therapy and other approaches that can help the people I work with.   

Going cold turkey

Newport takes quite an extreme approach to maintaining his focus. He doesn't surf the web, has never used Facebook or any other form of social media, gets his news from an actual newspaper, and only bought a smartphone when his pregnant wife made him buy a phone that actually worked! He admits that it's a bit extreme, but he does produce a huge amount of work – including his wonderful book – and only does a 9-5, five days a week. (If you still need convincing, here is his TED Talk, explaining why he thinks we would all be better off without social media).

Only you can decide whether your social/digital media consumption is hurting your brain, but I can testify to the fact that I feel much better without daily hits of Facebook. I do still overuse The Guardian online, but I'm working on that. I am on LinkedIn, but that's just for work and I rarely look at it. And I feel much more focused, less distracted, more mindful, even... I strongly recommend giving it a try, even if only for a week or two. Digital detoxes are also a good idea – try having at least one screen-free day a week.

And if you want my help with this or any other problem, call me on 07766 704210, email dan@danroberts.com or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan

 

 

 

 

Do you have trouble managing your anger?

Anger is a tricky emotion. In pure evolutionary terms, anger is our signal to fight a threat, as part of the fight, flight or freeze response (anxiety is the emotion that tells us to freeze or flee). This is all well and good if you are facing a hungry lion, but not so helpful if your boss has just criticised you, or another driver cuts you off in traffic. But this primitive, self-protective threat response explains why we can react so strongly, violently even, if we feel threatened – in a very crude way, that's what anger is for.

Most of my clients have some kind of problem with anger, roughly falling into two camps. The first group is scared of or uncomfortable with anger – theirs and other people's. If this describes you, it may be because one of your parents was given to angry outbursts, which as a child were very frightening. That vulnerable child inside you learns to be scared of anger, even when you are – on the outside at least – now an adult. It's also possible that your family were rather buttoned-up, viewing any expression of anger as rude and uncivilised (a very British way to deal with anger!), so you learned to keep your angry feelings stuffed deep down inside you. As an adult, it's now hard to access and express them, even when it's appropriate to do so.

The other problematic form of anger is expressing it too often and too volcanically. This is the cause of domestic violence, bar brawls, violent crime, road/air/trolley rage and aggressive bullying. It's just as harmful as repressed anger, both to those around you and ultimately yourself – you will probably end up in serious trouble, perhaps even prison, if you cannot contain your anger and explode at the smallest provocation. People with this 'anger style' may come from very angry, combustible families in which everyone was always shouting at/being aggressive to each other. They may also have been hurt, neglected or abused as children, so that child inside is absolutely furious at the world and can't help but express it, even when it's dangerous or destructive to do so.

The angry modes

In schema therapy, when people are expressing anger in a problematic way, we see this showing up as one of three angry modes. If you find yourself blowing up all the time, perhaps shouting or swearing at other people, being threatening or even physically violent, you are in Bully/Attack mode. This is the most problematic angry mode, so a major part of your therapy would involve learning how to respond to triggering situations in a calmer, more rational manner. Anger-management strategies can be helpful here, as well as longer-term healing of schemas such as Abandonment, Mistrust/Abuse or Vulnerability that can trigger this attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence style of responding to threats or challenges.

The second mode, Angry Protector, is less destructive but still problematic. This is when you express anger in more subtle ways, perhaps non-verbally by scowling or with a closed-off body posture; with sarcasm or cutting humour; angrily complaining about or being harshly critical of other people. This mode is all about keeping a distance between yourself and others, perhaps because deep down your vulnerable child is scared of attack or rejection. You may also be uncomfortable with any kind of criticism or challenge, so respond with subtle but unmistakeable shows of anger to shut that down.

Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
— Aristotle

The third mode is the most helpful, even if it doesn't at first appear that way! This is the Angry Child mode, and is evident in the way a person expresses their anger – often disproportionately to the perceived insult or infraction. You may have a tantrum, smashing or throwing objects (not to hurt others, just to release your anger). You might also get very tearful or upset. And beneath the anger is always hurt, fear or sadness, so if we were working together I would help you express your anger in a non-attacking, non-destructive way, so we could contact and soothe the hurt, upset or fearful vulnerable child lying just beneath the angry surface. 

When we get people into Angry Child mode, teach them how to express their anger verbally or by doing something safe but physical, like twisting a towel or punching a cushion, they experience a tremendous sense of relief – all the anger literally drains out of their bodies. It can then be deeply healing and soothing to deal with the hurt that lies beneath – over time, your anger subsides as you feel happier, safer, stronger and calmer.

If you have a problem with anger and would like my help, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan

 

Do you struggle with romantic relationships?

Many people have difficulties with relationships, for all sorts of reasons. Finding a suitable person to be with and then maintaining a reasonably happy, stable relationship is not easy, for any of us. But if you avoid romantic relationships altogether; if you find yourself repeating the same pattern over and over again in every relationship you have; or if you are in a long-term relationship but feel consistently unhappy, perhaps feeling disproportionately angry with or jealous of your partner, it's possible that unhelpful schemas are the root of your problems. As I explain in this article about schemas, they are unconscious, deeply-rooted ways of thinking and feeling that get triggered by certain situations – and romantic relationships are among the most common triggers.

If you avoid relationships, perhaps for fear of getting hurt or rejected, you may have an Abandonment schema. This is often linked to the death of a parent, or a significant member of the family leaving in a sudden and upsetting way. The love and care you received as a child may also have been unstable and unpredictable, perhaps because one of your parents had mental-health problems, or was just not cut out to for the complex business of parenting. So avoiding relationships altogether is one way to make sure that this painful schema never gets triggered – sadly though, that means your life will be lonely and unfulfilling (if you actually want a relationship, which most of us do), so this is clearly not the most helpful strategy. 

Watch out for schema chemistry

If you find yourself playing out similar patterns in relationships again and again, or perhaps choosing a certain type of man or woman in one relationship after the next, 'schema chemistry' may be to blame. This describes the unconscious, schema-driven forces that make a certain kind of person irresistibly attractive. When you feel very strong physical chemistry with someone, as if you can't get enough of them and feel like they are perfect for you in every way, tread with caution. It may just be healthy sexual attraction, of course, in which case there is nothing to worry about. But if you have a history of falling in love with unsuitable people, that lightning bolt of chemistry – though exciting and seductive – is not to be trusted.

If you are in a relationship but it's not a happy one, again that is not unusual – long-term relationships are hard work, requiring commitment, sacrifices and a huge amount of love and patience on both sides. But if you have the same kind of argument over and over – volcanically losing your temper about fairly minor domestic incidents, becoming very anxious or consumed with jealousy every time your partner speaks to a member of the opposite sex – then your schemas may be to blame again.

The good news is that the schemas which cause all of these problems can be healed. Although that's not easy, it's far from impossible. There are now a number of therapeutic approaches designed to help people with these deep-rooted, life-disturbing problems, such as schema therapy or compassion-focused therapy. When I am working with people who have these kinds of problems, one of our long-term goals is for them to find a happy, healthy, stable relationship – after all, what is life for but to love and be loved? And a healthy relationship as an adult is one of the best ways to heal the wounds of childhood, so a little work in this area goes a long way.  

If you would like some help from me in finding and maintaining a healthy relationship, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan 

 

 

Why is your 'attachment style' so important?

Humans, like all mammals, are hard-wired to attach to their parents from the moment they are born. When you are a tiny baby, the first person you usually attach to is your mother, followed by your father, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, friends, teachers, colleagues, romantic partners, and so on, throughout your life. This 'attachment system' in your brain is very powerful, because when you are small and helpless it is literally a matter of life and death whether your parents – usually starting with your mother – love, feed and keep you safe. So attaching to them is absolutely vital.

The first person to really understand this was John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who argued that all babies have this attachment system and, depending on their relationship with their mother, form either a secure on insecure attachment. A secure attachment means your mother has looked after you well enough, given you lots of love and hugs, changed you when you were wet, fed you when you were hungry, made plenty of eye contact, sung to you – and all the other things babies need to feel safe and secure.

Attachment and relationships

If your attachment was insecure, your mother – for all sorts of reasons, often because her own attachment with her mother was not secure – couldn't meet your needs as a baby, so you didn't feel 100% loved by or safe with her. One of Bowlby's  groundbreaking ideas was that the kind of attachment style you developed as a baby would stay with you into adult life. Why is this so important? Because people with an insecure attachment will struggle to form strong, lasting, happy relationships with friends, colleagues and especially romantic partners.

In schema therapy terms, these people may have an Abandonment schema, so constantly worry about being left or rejected by their partner. Understandably, this causes all sorts of problems and makes it very hard to have a stable, happy relationship with anyone. The good news is that, as Bowlby and later attachment researchers found, you can learn to have stronger attachments – and therefore better relationships – throughout your life. Schema therapy is one of the approaches that is very good at making these changes. If you do have an Abandonment schema, for example, we would work together on healing it so you felt happier, more confident, more trusting and relaxed in relationships.

As I always tell my clients, however difficult things were in your childhood, and however much you are still affected by those experiences as an adult, it's never too late to change. Heal your schemas and you heal the most painful and vulnerable parts of you – this really can be life-changing, as I have seen time after time with the people I work with.

If you would like to find out more about schema therapy, email dan@danroberts.com

Warm wishes,

Dan