Signs of a healthy relationship

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We know the importance of healthy relationships intuitively. When we feel connected in our communities and with our friends, we feel happier, experience less depression and anxiety and find greater joy in living, even when we are on our own. We have lower blood pressure, are less likely to develop stress related illnesses and recover better from grief and trauma.

One study, for example, found that lack of close relationships in later life increased the risk of premature death by 50%, a rate comparable with smoking.

Our closest relationships have the biggest effect on our happiness. So how do we know that we are falling in love with someone that is good for us? Or whether our friendships are nourishing and strong?

Here are some signs that you are in a healthy relationship:

You like yourself

Someone very wise once asked me; “But do you like you when you’re with them?” It is easy to focus on what we like about the other person, but how do they make us feel about ourselves?

You feel good (mostly) after you connect with them

Watch how you feel after seeing them; do you feel happy, energised, sad, peaceful, ashamed, depleted?

You have your own space

There is room for you to pursue your own life, interests and relationships outside of the the main relationship. And even more than that, it is actively encouraged; both of you understand that your lives ‘outside’ draw nourishment into the relationship and keep it, and you, healthy.

You both prioritise the relationship

Togetherness is important to you both. You like spending time together and take care of each other’s feelings.

You can say ‘No’

Your partner respects your boundaries. You can say ‘No’ without being coerced, threatened, shamed or manipulated.

You can talk about the difficult stuff

It is ordinary to need to have conversations that are tricky; in a relationship, you are navigating two people’s different experiences, wants and needs. Life can be complicated, with children and parents and finances and work, and all the other various complexities that we experience as we go along. You need to be able to have the difficult conversations in a way that is constructive.

There is room for both of you in the relationship

You both, reasonably speaking, should ‘count’. Although of course there will be times of stress where one partner needs more, there should ordinarily be room for each of you to draw on the supportive presence of the other.

You can argue

This follows on from the last two points; you should be able to argue, or at least disagree, knowing that this will not break your relationship. And you do this (mostly) in a way that is not destructive. And if you do err, there is space for you both to apologise and move on.

You feel/are safe

This is a big one. There is no room for physical, psychological or sexual abuse in a loving relationship. If you are, or you fear you might be experiencing any of these, seek more information and specialist support if necessary. A good relationship is one where you feel safe. Where you feel kindness, rather than contempt, both for and from your partner.

(This is said with the caveat that sometimes, when we have experienced abuse in a previous relationship, we can experience current relationships as more threatening then they are. We become wired for protection rather than connection. It might be appropriate to seek specialist support if you feel that this is the case so you can unpick what is past and what is present.)

To conclude

The above is not to suggest that we should be perfectly happy and perfectly balanced at all times in our relationships. Life can be hard and wearing, and inevitably, these times have an impact on our closest relationships.

But despite that we should know that when the chips are down, those closest to us have our backs.

Why is it so hard to change? The hidden costs of behaviour change

Take a look at why it might be so hard to change that behaviour, and some tips that might help

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Sometimes, we might have a behaviour that we want to change, but never quite manage to actually do it. It could be that you have never taken actual action, have tried repeatedly but keep ‘relapsing’ or that you manage to change for a while but it doesn’t stick.

You might have a habit of people-pleasing, or struggle to give yourself a rest from working too hard. Maybe you find that you don’t reply to your correspondence in a timely fashion, or repeatedly don’t do a particular task Or it may be something bigger; smoking, over or under eating, or drinking too much.

If so, read on.

The Good

It can be easy to focus simply on how good it will feel when we do finally get around to doing that thing, how free we will feel, how light. How competent. How clean. How much time or money we might have. How we will feel better.

Now, I’m not saying that all of those things will not be true. If you smoke and you want to give up, for example, there will likely be a myriad of benefits when you finally do; you’ll feel healthier, your lungs will start to recover, you’ll reduce your chance of getting a number of cancers, your clothes won’t smell, you won’t have to plan your day around smoking, you’ll be able to go out for dinner without sneaking off to have a sneaky fag (or wanting to). And so on.

In fact, it is important to know these things. Being able to imagine them gives you a powerful incentive to change.

List these. Hang onto them. REMEMBER them.

The Costs of Change

However, chances are, there will also be a hidden cost to giving up that you might not have spent so much time considering. If this is the case, it might help to look at the following too:

  • What might I lose if I give this up / do this thing / don’t do this thing?
  • What will I need to face if I do change?

Make a list: it might be that all your friends smoke, and you’ll miss their company. Or that you’ll miss the break and the silence in the noise of socialising, the opportunity to dip out for a moment and collect yourself. It might be that you smoke to curb your appetite, and you’ll need to face your hunger, or you’re frightened you’ll put on weight.

List them all. Every one.

Make a plan

So now you know what you’re frightened of, avoiding, or worrying about. You can make a plan, or sit with the grief of whatever it is you’re losing.

You might find that you don’t smoke with your friends, but that you find other ways of connecting with them, over coffee or dinner. You might find you need to factor in time out into your socialising, if you’re an introvert, or that you need to find another way to de-stress. You might need to enlist specialist support around your fear of putting on weight.

Some questions to ask yourself in this stage are:

  • What skills might I need to learn in order to get where I want to be?
  • What support might I need to enlist?
  • Are there other changes that I can make that will make it easier to achieve my goal?
  • Can I break it down into ‘mini’ goals?

It’s fine to fail

This might seem a funny thing to say, but I mean it. Sometimes, we can’t quite know what we are avoiding until we actually stop the thing we want to stop.

So you don’t need to give up, or beat yourself up for not doing it this time. You can use it to learn more about what you’re struggling with, and adjust accordingly. It can take repeated attempts to change, particularly if it’s something really big or difficult.

When to get professional help

You don’t have to be at rock bottom to seek help. It is valid to reach out for support if you’re finding something tricky, or you’d like a professional opinion. Or indeed, it is fine to go the self-help route if that’s what appeals.

However, if you find whatever you’re struggling with is causing you serious unhappiness, distress or worry or is escalating badly, it is worth considering getting some more specialised help. Particularly if it is beginning to get in the way of you living your life; going to work, having close relationships with families and friends, etc.

There are lots of brilliant resources out there; therapists and the like, groups, charities, internet forums… seek out what meets your needs practically, emotionally and financially. It’s fine for this to change as your needs do too.

Take care, and good luck.

Learning to trust yourself after an emotionally abusive relationship

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One of the hardest things about emotional abuse is that, through a campaign of blame, undermining, criticism and gaslighting, it can cause you to lose trust in yourself.

This is true even if you are aware of what is happening. I have met many people who were aware of some (although usually not all) of the tactics their partner was using, but because of the drip, drip effect of emotional abuse (and the isolation that often co-exists with an experience of abuse) it affected them anyway.

This manifests in a few key ways:  

  • You may not trust your feelings, because they have been so frequently invalidated or dismissed. Equally, it may actually have been dangerous (emotionally or physically) to express certain feelings, such as anger.
  • You may not trust your perceptions: gaslighting is key here, when the other has control of what reality is (e.g. says they said / did something when they didn’t and blames you for being crazy / wrong / bad, frames reality in a way that doesn’t allow for you to have your own perspective), then you learn that you cannot trust your own mind, what you see and experience, as real.
  • You may feel overly guilty / responsible: this is because you have been blamed so often for things that you couldn’t reasonably be held accountable for.
  • You internalise the idea that you are ‘less than’ other people, and automatically take the ‘one down’ position in relationships.
  • You may focus more on making sure everyone else is okay / happy before yourself: this is often learned as a way of keeping you safe, but can cause you to lose touch with what you want and need.

In this short article, there are a few things listed that might help. It is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to do your own research too!

Spotting emotionally abusive tactics

One vital tool in your tool box is to know what emotional abuse looks like, both in general and in how it manifests itself in the particular relationship/s you are in. Knowledge is power. There are many great books and articles on the topic that can teach you about the tactics and dynamics of abuse.

Surround yourself with non-abusive relationships

This will have a threefold benefit; it will increase your support system for dealing with any abusive relationships that you might still be in or dealing with, and being treated well (when we can allow this in) is in itself enormously healing. Plus it will also give you plenty of examples of how non-abusive relationships work, which you may internalise on a deep level as well as on a cognitive one.

You might want to try some or all of the following: find a support group, prioritise and nurture friendships or relationships that you have that are non-abusive, go to therapy, spend time in nature or with animals or join an internet support group (or anything else that you can think of!)

Look at your individual vulnerabilities

We all have our own particular ways of experiencing and living in the world, and in the same vein as the point above; knowledge is power.

When we know how we are repeatedly hooked, we begin to be able to unhook ourselves.

It may be that we have a fierce need to explain our side of the story, and get hooked into defending ourselves, or we like to look after others and get hooked back in via care-taking. You will have your own subtle and particular experience. Get to know it, see if you can begin to deal in a different way with the abuse. *

This is not a way of holding you accountable for the abuse; we develop ways of relating that absolutely make sense, and have probably kept you emotionally (and potentially physically) safe, but there usually comes a point where these defence mechanisms cause us to lose more than we gain. Then, it might be time to look at whether we have other options, too.

Get back in touch with your boundaries

It is painful to have a boundary that is repeatedly violated, so it is common to simply become numb. Plus, your anger and discomfort have likely been ignored and/or invalidated. You may also struggle to set boundaries in other, non-abusive relationships.

An important part of healing is often to touch in with how it feels when we are treated in a way that we don’t like, and to think strategically how we can deal with it in a way that honours our feelings. Here are some things that might help:

  • Play around with boundaries in your imagination for a little while, think about what you might like to say, how you might say it and how that might feel.
  • Plan what you may need to increase your skill at setting boundaries: read books about boundaries, look for people who deal skilfully with other and see what they do. Try on their way of relating, see how it fits.
  • If you’d like to, when you’re ready, you can start with the easy relationships, the ones that feel safest. Work on this, and increase your levels of difficulty slowly. Even if you need to start by saying ‘no’ in the supermarket, every boundary is a win. Or, start with what hurts most. Whichever makes sense for you.
  • When it doesn’t work out how you wanted it to, evaluate what went wrong, learn what you need to learn and move on.
  • Celebrate your achievements! It takes enormous courage to change old patterns, particularly ones developed in such difficult situations. You are doing amazingly just to engage in the process.

Setting boundaries with people who do not listen can be infuriating, saddening and crazy-making, so it is fine to find this challenging and also to reach out for support if you need it. Particularly with people who use abusive tactics or tend to respond defensively, it’s not necessarily that helpful to judge your boundary by their reaction.

Dealing with shame

A common experience when you’ve been in an abusive relationship is to feel frequently ashamed and guilty / overly responsible. Shame can be hard to look at and stay with, but it is best healed by showing it to the light of safe, non-judgemental relationship.

Honouring what feels good

For me, this is as important as getting in touch with what is uncomfortable. This might be physical; exercise can often be important to healing, or wearing clothes that feel good; either your favourite pair of pyjamas after a rubbish day, or a clean shirt; whatever feels right. Eat as well and as nourishingly as your budget and time constraints allow. Read a book, watch something good (or terrible but enjoyable!) on television. See people that nourish you. Spend time in nature.

Allow yourself to treat yourself well. Explore any internal blocks to this, and see if you can move through them.

You are valuable simply because you exist.

Finally

If there are any areas that you are particularly struggling with, there is plenty of support out there. If you can’t afford therapy, there are often low cost services that will be able to help.

* It is important to note that if you are in a dangerous situation or relationship, please act in the way that best ensures your safety. There are places that can offer you specialist support to deal with what you’re experiencing, or help you to find a way out if you want that: please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Dare to be average: on dealing with perfectionism in social anxiety

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Ellen Hendriksen writes in her book on Social Anxiety, ‘How to Be Yourself’, that part of what drives social anxiety is a kind of social perfectionism.

Perfectionism. Well, it’s all about being perfect; impossibly high standards that one rarely manages to quite meet, leaving you in a cycle of unsteady highs followed by shame, self-criticism and depression, all against the backdrop of ever-increasing anxiety.

Hendriksen contends that Social Anxiety is insecurity in social situations in part because you experience particular social situations as a sort of test, or a performance. This, combined with the expectation that you will ‘perform’ perfectly; be witty, charming, perfectly attuned, graceful, and never, ever make a social faux pas, or be boring or boorish, creates an impossible double bind.

The pain of this is twofold, how we feel about ourselves (shame, self-hatred etc), and how incredibly, heartbreakingly lonely it can be to feel disconnected from our fellow humans.

How we (unwittingly) keep ourselves stuck

We make our anxiety worse for ourselves in a number of ways; we over-prepare, rehearsing late into the night to the point of insomnia, and imagine catastrophic outcomes (thinking, of course, that all of these things will help us).

Actually, research shows that for social anxiety, instead of helping us prepare, thinking about all the ways that things can go wrong actually causes more anxiety. Which in turn, causes us to be even less okay in social situations, causing more shame and self-criticism and then again, more attempts to prepare and cover up our awkwardness, leading to more anxiety, and so on..

Some tips; release the pressure

Social anxiety is something that can be healed. It is not a life sentence. That doesn’t mean that you will reach a point that you will never feel anxiety (I believe that is called a ‘psychopath’!) but that you can reach a point where you are not ruled by your fear. Where you can tolerate, manage it, and where it also reduces to a manageable level.

You could start by Daring to be Average (thanks again Ellen Hendriksen!). I appreciate this might sound odd, but where perfectionism is keeping you stuck, you could begin to experiment with letting yourself off the hook a little. Reducing your expectations by half, maybe. Allow spaces to happen in the conversation, allow yourself to be boring, self-absorbed, quiet, imperfect; whatever it is you’re scared of. You could even try to be boring!

The most skilled socialisers don’t socialise flawlessly, they are just not thrown when they make a ‘mistake’, if they say the wrong word or can’t find what they mean, if their story meanders, or their joke doesn’t land as they thought it would. They can smile, maybe joke about it; “that was longer than I thought; phew!” or “haha, it was definitely funnier in my head!”. They dare to ‘fail’, and usually, people like them for it.

What you will probably find, by daring to be average, is that you are more natual, and that people will like you more, not less.

Another tip is; Stay Out of their Heads. Whatever you think other people are thinking, it’s probably not true. And it’s likely to be a lot more positive than you think it is.

For example, when you think about the last time you met someone who was visibly anxious, what was your response? I would imagine it’s somewhere on the empathy spectrum; you might feel sympathy for them, knowing how hard it is when you’re anxious, or you might feel a desire to put them at ease or help, you might be rooting for them to come through it. You are unlikely to be thinking they are an idiot, or weird, or disgusting, or whatever it is that you think that people are thinking of you.

Fourthly; Don’t go down the Rabbit Hole. (Whatever your particular rabbit hole is.) Whether it’s an unrelenting post-mortem of all the things that you said or did ‘wrong’, the conviction that you have nobody, that everyone thinks you’re strange, that you have no friends; whatever it is, try not to go there. Anxiety drives anxiety. The more you worry, the more anxious you’ll get, and the more you will therefore feel you need to worry. It starts with the first thought.

Or before you do something difficult try and remember a time (or more than one) where you were authentic, strong, spoke from your values. Research shows us that much more than affirmations, remembering a time when were stood up for something we believed in (even if it’s entirely unrelated) helps us to be more ourselves in social situations.

And lastly, increase your feelings of general security and connectedness and think of three relationships, be they people (fictional, imaginary or real), or animals that exemplify nurture to you, warmth and joy and love, and think about those. Think on each in turn. Allow yourself to luxuriate in the feeling of love and connection, allow yourself to feel what it would feel like to be accepted, treasured, you could create an imaginary person who would be your perfect support. If it brings up sadness or loss that is overwhelming, try a different attachment figure. Do this repeatedly, and not necessarily when you’re already shaky. It’s likely to be easier to settle your system when your feelings are heightened if you practice first when you’re in a calm place.

If you find yourself stuck, it can be worth enlisting support on your journey; a therapist, a therapy group, a support group, an internet forum. Whatever it looks like for you. Good luck. Go well.