Friday, 24 April 2009


When we find ourselves in very similar situations but with different people, this is a good indication that we are being reciprocal in (and somehow contributing to) whatever is happening. In some way, this situation is being maintained by us. Since the early groundbreaking work on reciprocity (Gouldner, 1960; Homans, 1958; Levi-Strauss, 1957; Malinowski, 1922; Simmel, 1950) many studies have examined reciprocity, demonstrating reciprocity in relationship development and maintenance. Its importance to all human interactions is a “vital principle of society” (Thurnwald, 1932: 106).

This can be difficult to accept when relationships are not going so well however in examining this we gain back more control, we reduce our stress and so we are able to better problem-solve rather than remaining in limbo. Often when someone is in an unsatisfactory relationship, friends and family can be heard wondering aloud about why doesn't he just leave or sort out the problems? This person is likely engaged in collusive reciprocity, whereby the buy-in is simply through staying put, through putting up and shutting up. Collusive reciprocity such as this usually comes from being unassertive. The collusion is in avoiding or submerging a problem in the relationship, with an overwhelming desire to keep the peace, for example. Equally, not acknowledging the extent of your anxieties relating to a relationship problem could be considered as being reciprocally colluding. This is not however the same as accepting rationally that important differences exist, nor in ignoring minor negative events or behaviour.

How does one recognise colluding reciprocity? It is usually down to the individual being aware of feeling persistent flashes of anxiety about a recurring problem, but there never seeming to be "the right time" to address it or being closed down by their partner. Equally, making statements such as "I do it to keep the peace"; "there's no point in saying anything because he/she won't listen anyway"; and a general attitude of helplessness or powerlessness are key signs. There are however opportunities to improve one's situation through facing up to where one is caught in colluding reciprocally. Not a guaranteed change in your partner's behaviour however, but ways to improve how you feel about the situation, reducing the anxiety and helplessness and an exploration of problem-solving strategies. This certainly minimises the problem in the longer-term and increases the chances one hundred-fold of changing the outcomes in the longer term. With someone highly unassertive, this usually requires short-term professional counselling for improved self-esteem, assertiveness and communication, with support, understanding and guidance from family and friends. A common problem for a person suffering in this sort of unhappy situation however can be isolation due to a general withdrawal of friends and family over time, sharing in the helpless attitude of the long-suffering party, and therefore disengagement i.e. "there's nothing we can do either if she/he chooses to just stay, put up with it, etc." Again this reduces the problem-solving capability and the self-esteem of the person even further.

There is of course healthy reciprocity in relationships and I call this cooperative reciprocity. This is assertive with respect between the individuals permitting compromise, give and take and negotiation. The reciprocity brings mutually satisfying solutions to the real problems. The healthiest reciprocity is whereby your partner's happiness and well-being is as important as your own, if not more so.

In reality, for most couples, there is a mix of some colluding and more cooperation. Skilled partners recognise the importance of maintaining goodwill and strive to create more opportunities for it to exist, and allow minor differences or problems to exist without this threatening the relationship. There are few things more satisfying for me than guiding individuals to creating more opportunities to create further goodwill and happiness in their relationships. Where our relationships go well, all is well in the world!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Creating realistic expectations

In a study of a range of people, some of whom suffered from depression (mild to severe) even mildly depressed undergraduates showed a stronger expectation in the likelihood of future negative events than non-depressed undergraduates (MacLeod & Cropley, 1995). In other words they had a stronger tendency to make negative future predictions. As a therapist, uncovering my client's expectations can provide valuable insight into what their negative expectations are and how these are contributing to or even maintaining their problem.

A very good friend of mine is also an extremely nervous driver. In fact, I had never realised this until fairly recently when we travelled together for a couple of hours, with her driving. I listened to how she spoke and responded each time a car approached from the rear and then overtook her. Her hands were fists, wrapped tightly around the steering wheel, her shoulders and neck were tense and and she made comments such as "oh god, he's far too close .. I wish they wouldn't come up so fast .. I always think they're going to run into the back of me .. etc.". These thoughts all revolved around predicting very negative outcomes. Over dinner afterwards she told me that she hadn't always had this reaction when driving however this problem had been growing, as other problems grew in her personal life. Her self-esteem had taken a knock, and one of the side-effects of this for her was an erosion in her confidence in her own ability to be safe whilst driving. We tested out balancing her negative predictions and on the way back the next day, she agreed to test out more balanced (and realistic) predictions! Although not magically cured it was enough for her to notice improvement and she felt that she was able to drive more competently the next time and practice some more.

During the study I mention above, the future negative events being predicted also included feeling rejected, feeling inferior, finding oneself rather irritated, people getting annoyed with you, people acting hostiley toward you, not handling problems effectively, being a disappointment, not measuring up, making an important mistake, and so on. In another study, depressed subjects were more likely to minimise the gains to be had of taking the risk of approaching new social situations and more likely to magnify the risks and the downside (Pietromonaco & Rook, 1987).

An effective means of countering this, as well as improving someone's mood, can be as simple as engaging them in the following exercise:

Find out what this person's expectations are relating to the thing that they dislike, fear or avoid doing (preferably something that were they to improve at it, it would surely have a positive impact on their life). To illustrate this, here's another example: one of my clients avoided social situations due to their self-proclaimed chronic and "natural shyness" resulting in a dislike of meeting new people, yet he desperately wanted to meet his ideal mate (an unfortunate catch 22 situation). We agreed that in order to increase his chances, he would need to begin tackling new social situatons with renewed vigour. I discovered that his expectations of doing this were expressed in very negative terms, such as "I don't like most people", "most people don't like me", "I will feel like a spare part", "I just feel too awkward", "I will make a fool of myself", "I can't seem to find anything to talk about", "most people are boring", and "I'll end up feeling worse than I do now". We agreed that not only are these expectations negative, but that they are faulty too. We worked together on each one, listing first the faulty expectation and then writing down a possible more realistic (and optimistic) one. Here's some to get you started:

Faulty expectation for not being more outgoing: "I am simply an introvert"

More realistic expectation: "Though like many people I am more introverted than extraverted, I've managed to meet people before in new situations and have made some good friends through this".

Faulty expectation for not being more outgoing: It's all my fault if someone new doesn't like me.

More realistic expectation: Ican't please everyone - no-one can - but it's true that when I feel good about myself, I am more relaxed and this comes across.

Faulty expectation for not being more outgoing: I've tried this before and it didn't work.

More realistic expectation: the past is not necessarily a guide for the future. My shyness is not a problem in all situations, in all areas of my life, and need not last forever (it can be viewed as a phase). I have learned many new skills and through trial and error I can improve at this too.

Being able to reality-test these in a fairly small and safe way is the next step. Breaking down the task of meeting new people into the small steps to be taken, rehearsing this in advance, as well as increasing one's vigilance to this negative self-talk and being prepared with some realistic ones to counter them with, is the next part of the process. Martin Seligman Ph.D. has written extensively about this subject from the perspective of positive psychology (I am reading his book on "Authentic Happiness" right now and I recommend it to anyone keen to develop themselves and overcome any self-limiting patterns). Together with my client above, we summarised his new thinking into a mantra that he could memorise until able to repeat it back to himself automatically, as follows:

"Though I have tried to improve before, my circumstances are different now, I understand better how I have been maintaining my isolation and shyness. I am already developing new and better skills at becoming more outgoing".

With support, care and love if this is affecting a loved one, chronic shyness can be overcome. This method is effective with a wide range of faulty expectations and can assist in many other areas of building relationships. During conflict resolution for example, one can always try to uncover and balance one's own faulty, negative predictions, in order to begin the process of establishing harmony once more!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Spring has sprung!

"Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal and transformation in our lives" - Mary Ann Brussat

Well it is now officially spring-time! My birthday has just come and gone and I usually find myself reflecting moodily on the year just passed and the new one now beginning. The past year has been a good one though, bringing good people into my life, and new experiences building on old ones. I still commute back and forth to my spiritual home in France, where I am lucky enough to be surrounded by nature as well as the company of my 3 cats, 1 hedgehog, twenty frogs and some cheeky (and brave) birds.

Thinking about what it is I love about nature so much makes me think about how we are all connected to this side of living. A more intuitive and season-led way of living. While I am in London it is easy to forget this and at weekends I usually make sure I get into the great outdoors. Take my cats' adaptability, intuition as well as their patience for instance. They spend day after day, finding enjoyment and entertainment in the minutiae of changes (unfortunately killing some of it, although as Persians their killer instinct is barely there). They are patient about time passing and have no concept of achievement, status (other than the occasional squabble for the spot on the sofa), passing judgement nor their widening girths and greying hairs. Their company is so easy, with their friendly faces and their comfortable presence in the house. "Patience is the companion of wisdom" (Saint Augustine).

I live quite quietly, wandering around my garden and the vineyard beyond. Spring is the time to really appreciate the changes as new greenery begins to poke through and the dead wood from the year before quickly disappears (it birds don't carry it away for their nests then the locals make quick work of it in their wood-fired ovens). As my house and garden age, as well as needing a lick of varnish and a spot of weeding, they resonate with all the memories that I have collected in this place.

This is all quite apt at a time of year when I am so conscious of how quickly my years are speeding by!

"...Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand..." (Anne of Greengable’s much loved stuffed toy sums it up!)