Sunday, 23 August 2009

Why do I get so stressed out on holiday?

When I'm writing this little blog I'm usually feeling calm, analytic and have my therapists hat firmly on, so it's easy to write about how to manage one's emotions, how to improve relationships and be a happier person. However, in my more tired and stressed-out moments I am reminded very quickly that I still have the ability to become a little obsessed about, and more than a little irritated by, "the small stuff". For me, this is never more in evidence than when I am on holiday. Like a lot of other people, my holidays are when my relationship is most vulnerable to disagreement and discord. This might seem a little contradictory, admitting this as someone who advocates the merits of taking a break, however, it has to be said that one woman's meat is another woman's poison! My idea of a break, and my partner's for example, are somewhat different. While he loves to do nothing more than to lie by the side of the pool under a baking sun, dipping in and out of the pool from time to time, I am lurking in the shade fidgeting, reading, writing or thinking (a little obsessionally I am going to admit) about what I am going to do with this down-time.

As a child, I grew up as a dancer from the age of 3 onwards and I suspect my perfectionist tendencies were molded there, ballet being notorious for shaping this kind of thinking. During any long spells of time spent at home, I'd mooch around, offering my long-suffering family large dollops of bad humour interspersed with bouts of introspection, dancing in my mind and in my bedroom. As a developing adolescent I realised that this propensity towards bad humour when inactive would have to be channelled towards doing something physical and thus I became very sporty as well as becoming moderately successful in my academic and then my professional life. I was, I reasoned, channelling my energy in to some very productive habits. In my twenties I found myself working extremely hard, studying and keeping myself in good shape with quite a disciplined regime going. By the time I hit my late twenties, I realised that I was quite bored with this, with not much to remind me that there was a bigger world out there. For a time, I gave up work, travelled, examined my own values, learned another language, took some vocational studies and generally became more relaxed through broadening my own horizons rather than just "keeping busy".

As someone who now openly acknowledges her perfectionist tendencies, I can see that my idea of being more relaxed is not necessarily my partner's! Throughout my adult life I've shared holidays with friends and family that have nearly driven me to despair through boredom of doing what many consider to be the perfect break of lying on a beach or by a pool. I usually curb this by seeking out something that I can become gainfully occupied in learning, doing or creating. During the past holidays this has manifested itself in taking sailing lessons, salsa lessons, Spanish lessons, touring nearby historic sites and so on.

With my partner, he shares his holiday between doing what he loves and doing things that we can love doing together. We are happy sailing together, we are in sunshine, on the water and whipping up a bit of speed! I have realised that I don't particularly enjoy strong sunshine and that I do not get my kick from baking to a crisp on dry land! Thankfully as a couple, we are able to find plenty of commonalities even if on a holiday that isn't my first preference. I am also able to pre-empt discord by knowing why I am feeling this way and how I can accept the down-time (my biggest challenge).

Now that I'm in my forties, I'm aware that the sort of holiday that most advertising gurus encourage us to dream of (the deserted sandy beach being fanned by palm fronds, facing an azure blue lagoon of ocean, with a limitless supply of cocktails waiting in reserve) could be guaranteed boredom for me. It will surely activate my perfectionist tendencies and before I know it I will be in the grip of one of my darker moods. As a therapist used to working with others seeking to modify their own perfectionist tendencies, I know that this is not so strange nor uncommon. We often hear about high achieving business people, academics or celebrities who do not switch off while vacationing; who do not interact particularly well with their families on holiday; and are generally happiest when busy or achieving. The upside is that for this type of person achieving feels better than relaxing, the downside is that personal relationships can be ignored and worse still damaged.

It's therefore not too hard to understand when I have a totally stressed-out client who is adamant that going on a holiday or simply taking a longer break from work will not help, in fact it could make them worse. Some might say that there is the potential for some collusion of the therapist in the client's problem. Well, yes there is, although my experience is that as someone who has struggled with this, I can also empathise; having had to work on this myself, I can help others to become aware of the less conscious thinking that is the more likely source of stress; as well as develop the potential areas for shared enjoyment with their family or partner.

My point this week is that it is not any given situation that stresses us out, or relaxes us for that matter, but rather the view that as individuals we take of it. If you and your partner share an opinion on what makes a fantastic holiday then this is great news for ensuring you have a wonderful time. Unfortunately, as I have experienced from time-to-time in my own life, if not, then it can become a recipe for disagreement and further stress. For my part, I have stopped feeling as though there is something wrong with me that I cannot bear to spend more than an hour lying on even a beautiful caribbean beach. I have been known to hate beaches, to loathe the intense heat of lying under the midday sun and I admit that I get a little mean when having someone else's holiday for too long. At times I realise that the disagreeable child my family knew and loved so well lives on! What I have managed to get to grips with however is that thankfully I really can choose to have a holiday that might be some people's idea of hard work, but is my idea of utter bliss! Being happy as a couple needn't be doing the same things on holiday. In fact, for couples like myself and my partner, the answer is often is to find out what we can share and enjoy together and to accept the things that we cannot.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Finding safety in the face of fear

Harry reappeared for counselling, having seen me for developing his coping skills while going through a painful divorce a number years ago. Unfortunately, he had been finding himself faced with very similar problems in his new relationship. On one level he was conscious that this was a pattern which had prevailed long before he met this woman, however during our first session together he was too preoccupied with blaming this woman for the flaws and defects that he felt were too important to ignore, yet he could not leave nor seem to resolve them. He also reported that he could not "bear" the feeling of being out of control that being in a relationship brings. Harry's dilemma was that in order to become a father, he needed to decide whether to stay and commit or to leave and find someone he felt more compatible with.

Vanessa, another client, had been married three times; she insisted that she continued to believe in the benefits of marriage but could not bear the experience of being "controlled" once in the marriage. Her problems in relationships she noted, appeared in a similar pattern, time after time.

What becomes apparent for such people is that their fear of being controlled in relationships (and of losing control) have come to dominate their life choices; and as with most powerful fears, what we focus on will unfortunately come to pass. If we focus on our hearts' desires and life goals, we can achieve something pretty close. If however, we focus on the things that we fear or really do not wish to happen, then unfortunately these will come to pass. As the ancient chinese proverbe says, "the dog that barks loudest is the one that gets fed". If our fears are louder than our hearts' desires then our goals and dreams become lost over time, as we "feed" the fear.

For Vanessa and Harry, because of their fear of being controlled, they have become hyper-sensitive to it, continually scanning the relationship for problems, over-reacting to the signs of any, and over-compensating by becoming both overly controlling themselves and then letting go completely. Sadly, this creates an ideal environment for a controlling pattern to grow. In highly controlling relationships, the major problem is a fluctuation between too much and too little control, creating erratic swings in decision-making and moods. Additionally, because they value independence and a high locus of control, they likely gravitate towards partners with similar preferences or problems. Pop psychology articles might refer to these individuals as "commitment-phobic", however this label is extremely unhelpful in helping these individuals sustain a mature, loving relationship.

Finding Safety
Cognitive Therapists will work with their clients to identify their "safety behaviours" during the diagnostic phase of therapy. This is because clients experiencing undesirable patterns in their relationships have likely developed some maladaptive safety behaviours. In order to break the undesirable cycle in the relationship, so must these safety behaviours be identified and broken, as these maintain the problem. During therapy, the safety behaviours for Harry and Vanessa to work on adapting were as follows:

1. Serial withdrawal: breaking up and making up was a regular occurrence; as was threatening to split in order to get their partner to "back off" or to change their behaviour;

2. Keeping the escape exit clear - for Harry this meant refusing to be in a relationship where having children or making a bigger commitment were on the agenda; for Vanessa this entailed her keeping her social life completely separate from her partner;

3. Being hyper-vigilant to the early warning signs of losing control; fighting to regain control.

These 3 safety behaviours are good examples of what someone "commitment phobic" might do. Another very common one is to pick a partner who themself cannot become an intimate partner or make demands of true intimacy. In order to "protect" themselves from their fears, Harry and Vanessa were responding in a way that meant a mature, loving and adaptive relationship was untenable. What they both agreed to do was develop new and healthier ways of responding to their fears and the real problems experienced in their relationships. This involved both of them being able to take each situation on its own merits, solve problems early rather than allowing them to fester; to negotiate the differences rather than withdraw or fight; to reduce their tendencies to over-compensate to the point where control became the issue once more (i.e. fluctuating between abdicating control and then grabbing it back).

For this fear to dissipate, focus was also shifted towards Harry's and Vanessa's most positive desires, their life goals and their achievements. For Harry, this was becoming a father and for Vanessa, this was experiencing the happiness in her third marriage that she felt had been lost after the early years.

Exercises were introduced for increasing their tolerance to giving up some of the control in the relationship and in trusting their partner. They learned with their partners to become alert to the early warning signs and found ways to better communicate how they were feeling rather than becoming emotional and ineffective. Harry realised that he was remaining in an unsatisfactory relationship simply because it permitted him to have more control. Having control is important in life, having too much control is like tightening the sail on your sailboat to the extent that you are no longer moving. Releasing their sail and learning better navigational skills allowed movement towards their goals, for both Harry and Vanessa.

As illustrated in this short blog, moving towards healthier, happier relationships might involve breaking unhelpful "safety behaviours" and learning the more adaptive skills which allow a loving and intimate relationship to flourish. I am pleased to say that Vanessa is now much happier in her third marriage and Harry finding a woman he is more compatible with, with whom he is now the proud father of 2 beautiful girls. If you find you are responding more to the things you do not want in life rather than the things that you do want, think about how you are protecting yourself. How could you otherwise solve the problems; what is the evidence supporting the problem - what is the evidence to the contrary (develop your balanced thinking); what is the impact of your protective responses on others close to you? Bringing back your focus onto the things that you dream about; the things that you want in this life will increase your chances of realising them; focusing on your fears will unfortunately smother them.