How Do You Know When a Relationship Can Be Saved?

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We all lose friends and lovers. We all hope there is a way — some way, some how — to recapture the companion, erase the slight, stitch up the wound and go back to the “days of wine and roses.” Time is spent thinking, dreaming, wondering, planning, and — very often, trying — to put the Humpty Dumpty relationship back together again.

Here is one possible guide to what might produce the loss and a second list of the signs suggesting you might succeed where “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” failed.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

  1. One or both parties blames the other, taking no responsibility for any part of the rift, and refusing to be enlightened by either the partner or a therapist. I am excluding frank physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, as well as alcohol and drug addiction from the list of causes. Any of these compound the problem of saving the partnership.
  2. A tendency to store things up. Some people are hesitant to express their discontent frankly, even as the years pass. Short of mind-reading, the partner then cannot be assumed to know of the brewing disturbance until the anger blows up.
  3. Lack of self-awareness. Such a person doesn’t understand the negative impact he is having on his lover or friend. He is the counterpart to the person just described who fails to communicate his unhappiness.
  4. The unwillingness to compromise or work on changing yourself if the companion does specify his misery.
  5. The practice of “counting” and weighing the various kindnesses, concessions, and compromises you make on behalf of the other, as well as his, always smaller number (as you perceive it). A rough equity is desirable, but absolute equality is impossible to achieve. As my friend John likes to say, “Buddies don’t count.”
  6. Jealousy of the other’s success or of his closeness to his life partner or additional companions.
  7. The failure to evaluate your own relationship history, including unresolved issues from childhood that might impact your behavior toward the friend.
  8. Excessive self-effacement. Putting the other first to the point he experiences a sense of entitlement and you believe you are taken for granted. The tendency to place another on a pedestal points to likely self-esteem issues  — in you.
  9. The expectation that what you do (perhaps your job, for example), whether in or out of the home, qualifies you for special treatment.
  10. The friend or lover is replaced with someone else, though the betrayal might be a secret.
  11. Faux apologizing. Political style apologies (“I’m sorry if I hurt you”) fail on several levels: the precise nature of the injury isn’t specified, no real responsibility taking occurs unless the “if” is removed, and one needs a concrete plan and desire to prevent more pain, as well as an offer of restitution.
  12. Low priority placed on the relationship. Partners can feel abandoned to the loved one’s dedication to work, substance abuse, favoring a child over the spouse, overcommitment to his family of origin, or hobbies.
  13. Unrealistic expectations of what a good relationship should be.
  14. A tendency to be critical and/or judgmental.
  15. Betrayal. This can take the form of secretly assisting someone who wishes to undermine your buddy; and other, more dramatic acts of infidelity.
  16. A successful grieving process. When estrangement happens, either member of the dyad can begin to mourn the loss of the friend/lover. If he finally comes to be at peace with the rift, his willingness to try again is substantially reduced. He has achieved the much-mentioned state of “moving on.”

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WHAT MIGHT SIGNAL THINGS CAN BE PUT RIGHT?

  1. Both parties want the relationship to resume. Yes, two people start a friendship or romance, and both need to work on putting it together, but only one is needed to end it.
  2. You still possess an abiding love for the other. If memories of the best of times bring a smile and affection, a rekindling of the contact may be possible.
  3. You share a history impossible to replace.
  4. Readiness on both sides to discuss the painful issues face-to-face.
  5. Willingness to accept responsibility. Remember, however, Cheech Marin’s famous line: “Responsibility is a big responsibility, man.”
  6. Self-awareness.
  7. A tendency to appreciate the good qualities in the partner, rather than a blanket vilification of him.
  8. Openness to compromise.
  9. The capacity to review your life and history — the patterns that become apparent — and change them.
  10. Understanding what a sincere and complete apology requires and the desire to deliver it.
  11. An agreement to alter the rules of the relationship, being precise about what the new guidelines require of you, careful not to agree to those conditions you can’t stomach, and putting in place a system that will evaluate the compliance of both people.
  12. Going forward, the assertiveness to communicate future unhappiness before it poisons the relationship.
  13. The capacity to set “counting” aside.
  14. Resolving any jealousies.
  15. Learning to listen and ask questions.
  16. Giving the partner’s well-being increased and abiding priority.
  17. Realism and acceptance of the fact that no relationships in life are ever perfect.
  18. Ultimately, there must be forgiveness, lest the couple take turns in using the past as a weapon. Whether intended or not, the past is as lethal to love as WMD are to nations.

This is not a complete list, but a starting point in your analysis of what went wrong and whether companionship can be put right. The union of two good people doesn’t guarantee a joyous and congenial match. Compatibility isn’t always present.

Redeeming a broken relationship is rarely an easy thing. Be prepared to work hard and hope your partner is equally prepared. If a resumption of your friendship is what you want, do what you can lest you live in regret for not having tried.

I’ll leave you with two quotes about friendship that apply equally to romantic love:

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
― Bob Marley

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
― Linda Grayson

The top image is Bromance at its finest, as sourced from Wikimedia Commons and created by smellyavocado. The second photo, called Strawberry Banana Smoothie, is the work of Courtney Carmody and comes from the same source.

A Simple Guide to Making Fewer Mistakes in Life

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Everyone asks the question, “How did this happen to me?” Pondering the past is a crucial step in finessing the future. That is, unless the explanation of a mistake is mistaken. Too often the way we understand the past sets us up for unending repetitions of the same poor judgment and ill-advised behavior.

The problem is not making the errors. You are human, so you will make plenty. The difficulty is how we interpret them to ourselves. Better to make “new” mistakes than repeat the old ones.

I’m going to list six ways we explain minor and major blunders. I’ve tried several of these myself, so consider them “test-driven!” Perhaps you will recognize yourself and retrain your brain for the better.

  1. No explanation. Fooled you, didn’t I! Sometimes we find a problem too painful to think about. We then use methods of self-distraction: drugs, drinking, food, entertainment, sex, work; even self-mutilation can take one’s mind off one dilemma by substituting a new one. Others find no value in “crying over spilled milk.” They fear the fate of Lot’s wife in Genesis. Told not to look back at God’s destruction of Sodom, she took a backward glance and turned to a pillar of salt. You will learn more that is new if you sometimes reflect on the old. Trust me, you won’t be transformed into a salt shaker for doing so. A box of saltines? That’s another story.
  2. Someone else did this to me, dammit! Anything is possible and when disaster descends there might be a bad guy. He dumped you, he cut you off in traffic, he fired you, he said something mean, he stole, he cheated, he lied, etc. You rage or seek retribution. Usually, however, identifying the malefactor and trying to punish him won’t enlighten you. A cycle of self-consuming anger is more likely. The old Italian expression tells us, “If you want revenge you should dig two graves.”
  3. I am worthless and deserve what happened. Self-flagellation is not self-reflection. Rage turned inward leads to depression. Such explanations might be accompanied by a statement like, “Bad things are always happening to me, so I must be doing something bad.” Moreover, since most of us blunder, it is pretty easy to feel the proper target of divine retribution.
  4. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. This is a Latin phrase and Latin is a dead language, but the logical error lives. Wikipedia defines it as believing, “Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.” If you think the crowing of a rooster makes the sun rise you are making this mistake. Listen to the daily stock market report and you will hear a pundit describe the “cause” of the market’s movement by pointing to a reason in the day’s news cycle. A real expert would bet every nickle on the movements of stocks in advance and retire in a week. In your case, you might think you just got dumped because you came on too strong, didn’t come on strong enough, called too often, didn’t call often enough, texted too much or too little, responded to texts too fast or too slow, etc. Perhaps you are right, but the explanation might not be as directly tied to an immediately prior cause as you imagine.
  5. There are lots of reasons and I can’t know them all for certain. Here is the problem: we tend to think of events in a discrete fashion. Similarly, we think of our actions as having a particular beginning and a specific end. Life is not lived that way. Our time on the planet is not a matter of jumping from rock to rock, but rather of swimming in a river along with everyone else. If you were leaping from one stone to another, it might be easy to figure out where you fell off. Instead, your history is impacted by the actions of everyone you have met, who influenced you in ways you comprehend and ways you don’t. Indeed, we might extend this to generations who preceded you and the decisions they made — say, to leave their home country, marry a particular person, take one vocation over another, or even things as seemingly trivial as turning right instead of left. Turn right and this ancestor meets the love of his life, turn left and he is run down by a truck. Understood this way, your existence has been fashioned by waves beyond measurement, not just your personal choices, but all the histories of all the people in your life story. This includes your ancestors since time began, and the social, environmental, and political events of world history.
  6. The search for patterns. OK, one could spend the rest of a lifetime trying to figure out all the influences described in #5. What is more, little good would spring from the effort. However, if #5 gets you to look at repeated difficulties in your life, you might learn something: identifiable behavioral patterns describing your time on the planet. Maybe problems with authority, perhaps choosing partners who are self-involved, possibly being a “people-pleaser,” or persistently tending toward confrontation or avoiding it. Looking back, you might realize how long you’ve traced the same figure on the existential ice and some of the reasons why. This is one of the things therapists help with as outside observers who can sometimes recognize the forest as well as the trees.

In the end, it is not always necessary to understand exactly how repeated mistakes developed, so long as you:

  • Face the extent to which the mistakes are harming you and the amount of control you can exert over them.
  • Make better choices and behave differently. That is, change your patterns.

The first three ways of explaining errors usually won’t help much because they don’t lead to responsibility-taking. The fourth is an error in logic, while the fifth overwhelms people with more data than needed. Number six, however, might allow you to recognize a set of missteps you can productively address. That said, the process is not an easy one and self-recognition is humbling.

Don’t rely on me. Rather, consider the words of Isaac Asimov in I, Robot:

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

Here is a post many people have found useful. This version has been updated since its publication in 2010:

Dr. Gerald Stein

https://drgeraldstein.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/insecurity.jpg?w=225

Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him.

What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. An inability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away…

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Maturity: Ten Steps To Get You There

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As children we cannot wait to grow up. Time is the enemy. Our pint size and inexperience — not to mention our elders — tell us that we are not ready yet; ready for all the things we’d like to do.

Soon after our chronology reaches double-digits we want to drive and drink and date. We want to be independent. We want to be taken seriously; to do the right thing, to flee the coop.

Time stands in the way, like an implacable Big Ben, blocking our path. Its clock-faces look down like some sort of gigantic, elongated, menacing owl, hovering over our air space. Well, nothing we can do about that. But what can we do to achieve maturity? Surely, just waiting to get older isn’t enough. And age, by itself, is no guarantee of wisdom.

Joseph Conrad’s novella The Shadow Line: A Confession deals with just that: the kind of experience without which one remains innocent of oneself and the world no matter what your age; the kind of experience that is informative and transformative of one’s character. In other words, that brings maturity.

Conrad’s narrator is a young man, a seaman, with no one to look out for but himself. He is impulsive and makes important decisions without quite knowing why. He is easily offended and uncertain of his proper place in the company of others. He wants to get on with things, at the point in his life where:

…one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.

What he will confront — indeed, what he needs to confront — is a crisis at sea with an enemy no less implacable than Time. It is Mother Nature he will face, and the things that can happen when water and air and all the uncontrollable elements conspire to frustrate the lives of men. And he will feel much older because of it:

It seems to me that all my life before that momentous day is infinitely remote, a fading memory of light-hearted youth, something on the other side of a shadow.

In the space of three weeks Conrad’s unnamed protagonist is changed by his match with adversity. But what if you are not a seaman challenged by the Godless waters? What might you do to hasten maturity’s arrival? A few things come to mind:

  • Try things that are new and difficult for you. Will you suffer? Yes. Will you fail? Sometimes. But if you keep at it, you will grow from the experience. Keeping only to the tried and true will teach you little.
  • Question authority. No, this doesn’t mean throwing rocks and breaking the law. It means asking yourself whether you should believe all that you’ve been “told.” For example, is your religion the one and only “true” religion? Are your parents good models of how to live? Does your political party have a monopoly on truth? Does material wealth bring happiness? Is technology making your life better? Remember, the crowd isn’t always right.
  • Reflect on yourself, your character, and your behavior. Take an unflinching look at yourself, who you are, and who you want to be as a person rather than as someone of a certain rank or job title. Ask yourself why you keep doing things that don’t work very well. Look at how much of your decision process and conduct is performed on auto-pilot, fixed on a course that was set long ago.
  • Compete, especially in team sports. It is said that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” thus referring to the character-building that can happen in team sports played in places like Eton College, an independent boarding school. Pulling for and working with a team of almost any kind is an opportunity to grow as a person. You cannot become mature as a solo-act.
  • Be open to experience and what it can teach. This means you have to be prepared to have your attitudes changed by what you observe (especially of yourself) and what you participate in; and that you have to go out and “have” experiences (including passionate ones), not just read about them or watch them on TV or simulate them via the computer. Beware of electronic signals and noises, cell phones and computer screens that tweet and squawk and bother and bewilder you with things that usually aren’t important. Rather, as Epictetus suggested, be a spectator of yourself and achieve understanding that way.
  • Be open to others. Allow yourself to become close to a few others, not so defended against what they might do to you that you are marooned in a fortress of your own design. You will be fooled and sometimes you will be hurt, but it is hard to mature without the experience of intimacy. And without the joys that come with human contact.
  • Take responsibility. Don’t always be a follower. Develop a sense of leadership and be willing to accept at least some responsibility for your failures, in or out of leadership positions. As Cassius said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
  • Alter your default tendencies. If you are prone to act impulsively, slow down and become more reflective. If you are prone to looking back, try to look forward. If you anxiously await the future, set yourself the task of living more in the moment. None of this comes easily, but the practice of mindfulness meditation can often help.
  • Determine what is most important in your life, commit to it, and “live it.” I have an old friend with whom I sometimes differ on political questions. Nonetheless, I admire him enormously for “living” his beliefs. For example, he is a staunch advocate of the sanctity of life, a position founded on a deep religious faith. He not only defends this position, but has spent much of his adult life taking unwanted children into his home and sometimes adopting them. I am in awe. He has committed to something much bigger than himself.
  • Supplement your experience with reading. I’m talking here about the women and men of great ideas who lived in a quieter world: Virginia Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Plato, Epictetus, and others. But be aware that however great their writing, you will not appreciate them (and learn from them) nearly so much until you have done some living. Their words are dead until they are infiltrated by the events, motives, and meanings that you know first hand.

A young man or woman will profit if he looks at life like a funnel. Begin at the wide end, taking in everything, investigating many things. Sample the riches that nature and civilization have provided for you. Once you have begun to establish your values, what is important to you, and what you are good at, narrow your focus. Make some choices. Concentrate on perfecting  your chosen craft and devoting your time to fewer things in greater depth.

At some point you will have to discover whether “God is in the details” or “the devil is in the details.” But if your approach to work is slapdash and casual, I doubt that even the devil will care. Discipline matters and you cannot be mature unless you both know its importance and “show” that you know by putting it into practice.

One final thought. If maturity, aka wisdom, is your aim, be aware that you must never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop deepening the capacities of head and heart. Life is rich. Spend your time well. There is never enough. Once over “the shadow-line,” you are free to roam.

The top image is a 2004 photo of Big Ben at Dusk by Andrew Dunn, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Apologize and How Not to Apologize: When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

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Is saying that you are sorry the same thing as making an apology? Indeed, many of us have said “I’m sorry for your loss” too often to keep track: to relatives, friends, business associates, and acquaintances. Were we trying to apologize or attempting to provide a consoling message? Were we admitting guilt for what happened or expressing sympathy?

The answer should be easy. When we say that we are “sorry for the loss” we are voicing concern and attempting to comfort, not taking responsibility for the death. Unless, that is, we specify that we caused the demise of the loved one. But ordinarily, we are communicating that we are sad that it happened, not culpable.

When a person is, in fact, blameworthy, he has not necessarily done something terrible. Accidents do happen and sometimes injuries are very small. But, surely the most difficult apology to make must be to acknowledge one’s part in the death of a child. I bring this up because George Zimmerman, the man whose gun shot killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin following a conflict with him in February, is widely reported to have “apologized” to Martin’s family when he said the following in court at a bond hearing:

I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.

Yet, whatever his intention, Zimmerman did not actually apologize. Leaving aside the legal wisdom of making such a statement in court, I’d like to discuss what would have been required for Zimmerman to apologize rather than simply express sympathy, which is what he accomplished.

According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, one must:

  1. Acknowledge the harm that you inflicted — for example, “I broke your toy” or “I shoplifted the purse” or “I shot and killed your loved one.”
  2. Say that you are sorry for what you have personally done, admit that you should not have done it, and express remorse; not simply that you are sorry that a loss occurred.
  3. Attempt to compensate the injured party or parties in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by a cruel joke, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for you to make a public admission of your foolishness in front of the same people who were present when you embarrassed the other person. Similarly, if you broke his window, you would need to repair or replace it, or get someone else to do this.
  4. You must do your very best to make sure that your behavior isn’t repeated.

Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, making no excuses that diminish his responsibility. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without justifying it, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

Although George Zimmerman didn’t apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family, he did try to explain away his (unspecified) action when he stated, “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.” If we look at the requirements of an adequate apology listed above, we can see that Zimmerman met none of them. He did not state that he was responsible for the death of the teenager and the pain that the family is suffering, he did not say that he was sorry for taking the action, he offered no compensation to the family, and he said nothing about changing his behavior (such as trying to avoid future conflicts or deciding not to carry a gun, for example). I understand that the legal process made some of this inadvisable, but that fact does not alter the definition of what an apology is and what it is not.

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Clearly, we cannot and do not apologize for everything. But, if we spill some milk, it really is nice and proper for us to say that we are sorry for what we’ve done and try to clean it up. Most of us do, except for those times when we blame the other by saying “You shouldn’t have put the milk there” or expect someone else to mop the floor.

Apologizing can be surprisingly rewarding, even if difficult. It can help to repair injuries and improve relationships. Apologies can sometimes provide closure to those parties who have suffered significant losses, where adequate compensation is not possible. They can contribute to mutual understanding and lead to forgiveness and letting go.

An example of an attempt to produce such reconciliation between perpetrators and victims was the Republic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after apartheid was ended in that country in 1994. Apartheid was the white government’s policy of racial segregation, denial of human rights, discrimination, and mistreatment of blacks. The Commission included public hearings in which some of the victims testified to their experience. Perhaps more significantly, perpetrators of violence were also permitted to make public statements of their responsibility for wrong-doing and to request amnesty.

There is quite a distance between spilled milk and spilled blood, no question about it. But the possibility of reconciliation, however remote, can only come with a properly voiced apology and the expressed regret that should come with it. Life is full of disagreements, differences, and damage, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those who are able to feel remorse and admit wrong doing set the stage for the possibility of some amount of healing. Indeed, the perpetrator and the victim are very occasionally bonded together more strongly by the experience.

I hear you saying, “That’s a lot easier to say than to do.” True enough. As one of the members of the comedy team Cheech and Chong used to say, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” Self-interest often recommends denial of fault, as in the case of a trial in a court of law. And yet, sometimes common decency, conscience, and a caring heart dictate that we try to repair what we have broken.

The first image is St. Francis in Meditation, a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran from 1635-1639. It is followed by an 1885 Caricature of a Marriage Proposal by H. Schlittzen. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

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Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him. What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. The ability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away or look down, but rarely hold the gaze of the other by looking into his or her eyes.
  • 3. The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.
  • 4. Answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice has been done by everyone. The person being questioned doesn’t have certainty about his answer, so he replies with a tone betraying his insecurity. Since I originally wrote this piece, a name has been given to the practice: upspeak.
  • 5. Men and women who are uncomfortable with sharing personal information for fear of being judged will oft-times turn the conversation to a different topic, away from anything that might make them vulnerable or reveal too much. This is also called “changing the subject.”
  • 6. One way of inoculating yourself against criticism is to joke at your own expense. Do this often and others may conclude you believe you are flawed.
  • 7. Do you have trouble making a decision? The comedy team “Cheech and Chong” (I’m not sure which one) said: “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” If you automatically let others choose the restaurant, movie, and other activity, you are either easy-going and good-natured or don’t want to be held accountable for making the wrong choice.
  • 8. Do you state strong opinions? Those who avoid doing so might maintain the peace — often a good thing — but some fear drawing fire and unwanted attention.

Before I give you nine more signs of insecurity, I’ll say what might cause the condition. Many possibilities. Critical or neglectful parents, poor academic skills, frequent moves making you “the new kid” (especially if you are introverted by nature), learning disabilities and ADHD, being “different” in some fashion (size, shape, color, religion), thinking of yourself as the “poor” kid in a community of the affluent, sensing you are the average child in a school filled with bright youngsters, feeling ashamed of your parents or residence, frequent rejections, getting fired (whether deserved or not), clumsiness, a history of abuse or bullying; physical unattractiveness, deformity, or injury, etc. For a more thorough discussion of these causes, click here: The Causes of Insecurity. Now back to the list of signs of insecurity:

  • 9. Do you laugh nervously in social situations? It is another behavior betraying self-consciousness.
  • 10. People will appraise you harshly if they see you bite your nails or they appear bitten.
  • 11. Are you self-effacing, placing yourself at a disadvantage — letting others go first, speak first — reluctant to raise your hand? Do you hesitate to take your turn? Do you sacrifice your interests as a matter of course? Insecurity can make you wait until the opportunity before you is lost. Excessive deference displays little regard for yourself, even if some amount can be a sign of good breeding and consideration.
  • 12. Are you nervous eating in front of others? Do you fear dropping something, displaying poor table manners, or making a mess? You probably won’t, at least not more than the rest of us.
  • 13. Can you make phone calls without trepidation; especially those in which you need to introduce yourself, correct a problem, or speak to an authority? Too much discomfort in anticipation of these actions can reveal your sense of uncertainty.
  • 14. Might you make too many excuses? Those who are unsure give explanations where none are required. Imagine you order an entrée at an elegant restaurant and the waiter asks whether you want an appetizer to start. You explain why you don’t. Some folks offer multiple excuses for what they do, anticipating criticism. If you must give a reason, limit yourself to one. The more you give, the more uncertain (or dishonest) you sound. For  example, “I can’t come to the party because I have a stomach ache and my car broke and I need to study.” One reason will be more convincing. You needn’t explain yourself as often as you think.
  • 15. Insecurity can be suggested by hesitation to ask for a favor or an inability to say “no.” Anticipation of rejection or disapproval is the motivator for both of these problems with self-assertion. By contrast, a self-assured person will not believe the relationship (or his own value) is dependent upon going along with someone else’s wishes or fulfilling the desires of others as a matter of routine.
  • 16. Do you make frequent requests for reassurance? A few examples: “Does that make sense?” “What do you think?” “What would you do?” “Do you think that is a good idea?” “Do I look OK?” Must you have sex to prove your partner remains interested in you? If you are self-assured, you won’t implore your lover to calm your doubts and remind you, over and over, in words and deeds, of your desirability or intelligence.
  • 17. Last one. Here insecurity takes a different form. This person wants the spotlight at all times, the better to be told “You are the fairest of them all!” She or he pushes for recognition, strutting about the stage we call life; checking to see where he stands and what others think of him. Bragging and display become a full-time job. Perhaps he was the class clown in grade school, but now he drops names to prove his importance and get your attention. His inner emptiness must be filled and refilled, like a bucket with a hole in it. Such people are plagued by narcissism as well as insecurity, a troublesome combination. There is hell to pay for those who expose the pretender’s flaws: lacerating attacks against any critics. If you are this variety of insecure person, I doubt you will admit it even to yourself. If you meet such an individual, run!

I suspect you get the idea. Please add an item if you like. You can use the list in one of two ways: to consider whether you are insecure or evaluate the confidence of those around you. Of course, you are the only one whose self-confidence you can change.

You may find the following related post of interest: Signs of Self Consciousness: When the Mirror Isn’t Your Friend. Also, you might want to read  The Upside of Insecurity or, this very recent post: Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances/

The image above is Insecurity by Lacey Lewis: http://www.lacey-lewis.com/ With permission.

Therapy, Responsibility, and the Nuremberg Defense

http://mburgan.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/nuremberg_defendants.jpg

Therapy, like life, requires taking responsibility for what becomes of you. But, as the comedy team Cheech & Chong famously noted, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” What does that have to do with “the Nuremberg Defense?” Read on.

If you are old enough (or a good student of history) the word Nuremberg has a certain resonance for you. It is a German town that was a center of the Holy Roman Empire and the Renaissance; later becoming the host of Nazi Party rallies between 1927 and 1938, the site of the passage of the Nuremberg Laws stripping German Jews of their citizenship, and equally well-known for the war crimes trials that were held after WWII, in an attempt to hold Nazi villains to account. Such Nazi higher-ups as Hans Frank, Rudolph Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher were brought to justice there (see above photo); Hermann Goering escaped hanging only by committing suicide.

A common refrain during the testimony of the accused was the statement “I was only following orders.” This line of explanation was used so often that it became known as “the Nuremberg Defense.” It was found insufficient by the judges, who reasoned that the accused had the moral responsibility to refuse orders to commit “crimes against humanity,” even assuming that it could be demonstrated that such orders were given.

Since I don’t treat war criminals, you might be asking yourself how the failure of some of these long-dead Nazis to take responsibility applies to treating people with less dramatic problems of depression or anxiety or relationship disappointment? In the course of talking with my patients, I often discover that they have suffered from some sort of misfortune; be it inadequate, negligent, or abusive parents; accident or injury; or unfair treatment at school, at work, or in love. Sometimes the stories are heartbreaking. It is perfectly proper for patients to blame at least part of their unhappiness on these events and these people. Moreover, it is often essential that they grieve those losses, give voice to their anger and sadness, and rail against the unfairness of life. And it is important for a therapist to help them as they process their grief.

But therapy cannot end there.

The patient, if he is to improve his life, cannot simply assign responsibility to some other person as a release from the need to take charge of what becomes of himself in the future, any more than a Nuremberg defendant might hope that assignment of responsibility to the commanding officer would take him off the hook for the unspeakable acts he committed.

Put more simply, neither the war crimes defendant nor the common therapy patient can point to someone else, say “He is the one who caused this,” and leave things at that. Just as the SS criminals were asked, “And then what did you do?” so must we all, regardless of what misfortune has happened to us, ask ourselves, “Now what? Do I simply accept the injustice, forever blame others, and stay defeated and aggrieved in-perpetuity, or do I grieve my loss, take responsibility for my life, and try to get beyond the injuries I’ve suffered?”

We all know people who, however small or large the disappointment that they have experienced, never get beyond criticizing, blaming, whining, and feeling sorry for themselves. While some of this is often necessary to get past the hurt, a lifetime of it is simply a waste, a personal failure to take control and to admit and accept that if life is to have meaning and value, we all have to do something positive with that life, regardless of bad breaks. Even if fairness demands that others compensate us for our losses, if such compensation cannot be obtained, life still calls us to repair ourselves. As a therapist colleague of mine, at the risk of sacrilege, used to tell those patients who seemed to forever bemoan their fate, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

Shakespeare commented on responsibility-taking in Julius Caesar when he gave Cassius the words:

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

This is not always literally true. But there is no better way to live than to try to make our circumstances the best we can, however unlucky our lot. A good therapist will help you get there.