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We all have social situations where we consistently stumble. At certain times, or in certain contexts, often while under stress — we blow it. And we just don’t know why. We lash out, cling, blame, or withdraw and it hurts our relationships.
We try to be better… but then it happens again. And again. If it happens too often people can “nope” out of the relationship. We get scared that we’re broken. That our future is going to hold a lot of time alone at home with the lights off.
It can be hard to see what you’re doing wrong. We might notice a pattern, but only roughly. During conflict or criticism, or when feeling lonely, our instincts can seem all wrong. But the inability to see the problem clearly means we keep stumbling around like Mr. Magoo.
You hear a lot of talk about habits these days but nobody talks about our emotional or relationship habits – and those are a lot harder to fix.
Well, psychology has a word for those: schemas. And they’re not just habits, they go a lot deeper. They’re near-unconscious core beliefs about yourself and others that influence how you interact with people. If you listen carefully you can hear them whispering in your head when things go south socially:
Other people’s needs are more important than mine.
If you don’t fight back people will take advantage of you.
They don’t really care.
It’s like bad computer code running in your brain. Cognitive malware. Over the years we come to just accept those beliefs as obviously true. We don’t question or even notice them anymore. But having a social life that feels like a deeply miscast Shakespearean tragedy is no fun.
We need to fix this. Most talk about “emotional intelligence” is abstract, vague and ethereal. Word salad is back on the menu! EI sounds great — but how do you actually do it? The only effective thing performed by most books on the subject is a wallet biopsy.
We need something concrete and actionable. I’d love to think of myself as James Bond but I’m a lot more like Q. And I have just the gadget we need for this mission, 007.
We’re gonna get insight from Schema Therapy and ACT, by way of the excellent Interpersonal Problems Workbook. This is black belt level stuff. The methods psychologists turn to when CBT and other front-line modalities don’t do the trick. As you may have heard, science is a really big fan of proof. Well, this stuff works.
A randomized controlled trial of a ten-week ACT protocol showed significant decreases (Cohen’s D = 1.23) in problematic interpersonal behaviors on the Inventory of Interpersonal Problems (IIP-64).
Ready to give your brain a much-needed software update? (Some of our heads are still running Windows 95.)
Let’s get to it…
You acquired your unique witches’ brew of schemas growing up. They helped you deal with problems then, but now some of those early coping mechanisms have become socially carcinogenic mental biohazards.
Maybe your family yelled, you always gave in and apologized, and now your software says, “Prime Directive: Avoid conflict at all costs.” Or maybe you were bullied and had to fight back to survive. And to this day whenever somebody is remotely critical you carpet bomb everyone in a two-mile radius.
Schemas are not the connective tissue of your personality; they’re a lot more like scar tissue. But they worked — at least in that context, at least in the short term — and so they’ve stuck around long beyond their usefulness. Old beliefs trapped in amber. But now they’re hurting your relationships. A child acting out to get the attention of neglectful parents makes sense. A 37-year-old adult doing it at the office, uh, not so much.
And it gets worse: schema-based behaviors are self-perpetuating. The more often you use them, the more people respond to you in ways that confirm your schemas. Act hostile and the world becomes hostile to you. Riding this merry-go-round is not fun.
Your schemas guide not only your behavior, but also how you interpret other people’s behavior. You see others in the light of your schemas, noticing their negative words and actions that reinforce your schemas and filtering out anything that contradicts your core beliefs. Your schemas are deeply ingrained, and they persist because they help you understand the world and organize your life.
The biggest problem is we rarely see them clearly. (Other people can. Hooo-boy, can they ever.) But to you they are obvious truths taken for granted like gravity. When you spend the first 18 years of your life getting ahead by shouting, other options might not occur to you for the next 18. Or 80. And it’s really hard to fix something you can’t see. (That didn’t need a spoiler alert, right?)
So how do we get a better look at those totally non-redemptive aspects of your personality? If you want to be a happy person, it’s nice to play a “highlight reel” of good moments in your head. But right now, we need to do the opposite. Review your, uh, “lowlight reel.”
Think about the times things have gone wrong for you socially. Pick one that seems emblematic and watch it in your head.
Think back to a recent, typical social situation in which you experienced negative emotions… Run it like a movie from start to finish, saying what you said, hearing what you heard, doing what you did. Watch and hear the other person acting out his or her part. What are you afraid will happen in this scene? How does the other person see you in this scene? What does this scene make you feel about yourself? Let yourself feel the same feelings that you had at the time: shyness, embarrassment, nervousness, fear, irritation, anger, shame, guilt.
Maybe you felt criticized, teased, pressured. Or it seemed you were ignored or unappreciated. And with numbing predictability, that big bad schema was invoked. The one that’s caused difficulties again and again. Did you attack? Give in? Withdraw? Rebel or manipulate?
What’s your go to problematic response? The one that has caused rifts or ended friendships?
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, you have an idea what the issue here is. You probably know what the trigger is and your not-so-effective response. But knowing isn’t enough to correct this. To housebreak the puppy, you need to catch it in the act of peeing on the carpet.
Time for a recon mission…
Put yourself in a situation where the schema rears its ugly head. Maybe it’s when you’re having a discussion with your partner or dealing with “that” person at work.
Now all you have to do is nothing. But that’s not going to be easy. The goal here is “Watch, don’t act.” Just observe your thoughts and feelings. (This is probably the first time anything related to social skills has ever told you to pay far less attention to the other person and more attention to yourself.)
And then they do the thing that triggers you. The schema voice will start its whispering. But you need to focus on the facts. Notice what is actually happening vs what the schema is telling you. Did the other person “attack” you or just make a joke? Do they “hate” you or did they merely disagree?
This isn’t easy. The schema will push you to run the old software program. To give in, lash out, or whatever. You want to see the process unfold in your head but not fall into the trap.
Maybe your eyes are narrowing. Maybe your fists are clenched. But don’t respond. Observe the process in your head. (Facebook Relationship Status with your brain: “It’s Complicated.”) The feelings might shift, trying to bait you to act out. But just observe.
If you’ve been successful at doing nothing, you’re at a very special moment now: The Moment of Choice. You just woke up, Rip Van Winkle. You now know you don’t have to respond as you did in the past. You don’t have to follow the old pattern. You can choose to respond with nothing…
Or you could even choose to respond with something different.
(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)
Okay, we’ve seen how the slow-motion car crash occurs. But you can’t just sit there like a wax-dummy version of yourself whenever you feel triggered. So what do we replace the schema with?
And how do we make sure we don’t go from the interpersonal frying pan into the interpersonal fire?
The goal is to replace your schema-based behaviors with values-based behaviors.
The important thing to note here is that values are not goals. Goals can be completed. Values – like “be a good person” – are never complete. They are ongoing. But this makes them adaptive. Life rarely follows our scripts and focusing on values gives you a North Star to follow no matter what happens.
So when it comes to relationships, what are your values? Take some time to sit down and really think about this.
What is most important to you in your relationship with your parents, your partner, your kids, your friends, your boss? Your schemas may tell you that the most important thing is being right or avoiding criticism, but deeper down, your better self has other, more positive and powerful values, such as honesty, love, or respect.
Write down your values for each major relationship in your life: work, family, friends, partner, kids. And then write down your intentions. What are you going to do to get closer to your values when your schemas scream at you?
Now you’ve got some new software. And you didn’t even know you could code…
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
Alrighty, now you know your schema and its wiles. You also know your values and intentions. How do we upload the new software? Time to take this into real life.
Put on your spikes. It’s game day…
I’m not gonna lie — this is going to be uncomfortable. I mean, reading this hopefully won’t be uncomfortable but doing it, well, if growth was fun, we’d have already done it.
You’re in that situation again. They do that thing. You feel the stress. And the schema gears start rolling. But you have felt the Moment of Choice before. You know you don’t have to follow your schema. But this time you also don’t have the comparatively easy option of doing nothing either.
The negative thoughts pop up as you resist the schema. Bone-deep mayhem in your brain. Thoughts and feelings flailing like four cats in a knapsack. And the chorus of schema beliefs start their whispering:
I’ll be rejected.
I don’t have to put up with this.
See? Nobody cares.
An escalating tsunami of emotion. Every negative feeling says I am the most important thing ever and this discomfort will not end until you follow the schema.
It’s lying. You know this. If feelings lasted forever, you’d still be upset about Jimmy kicking you back in the second grade. That said, the thoughts keep coming. You can’t stop them, but don’t have to follow them. You can’t control your feelings, only your response.
Struggle in the quicksand and you only sink deeper. Instead, what we’re going to do is defuse them. “Cognitive Defusion” isn’t sleight of hand, it’s sleight of mind. It’s a trick to remind you that you are not your thoughts.
When you believe your schema’s negative thoughts and feelings are you, you think you have to follow them. You don’t. You have experienced that Moment of Choice. You can resist the schema siren song. Those thoughts and feelings are the schema, not “you.” And what they say is not accurate.
So how do we defuse? Reword each of the thoughts by adding, “I’m having the thought that…”
“I’ll be rejected” becomes “I’m having the thought that I’ll be rejected.”
“I don’t have to put up with this” becomes “I’m having the thought that I don’t have to put up with this.”
Defusion will give you the emotional distance you need. The thoughts and feelings will dissipate. (This is the criminally underappreciated upside of your brain’s short attention span.) But in the moment, it will feel like they never will.
Here’s a perspective that will help. It’s going to sound corny, so I apologize in advance:
You are not the weather. You are the sky.
Those negative thoughts are the weather. And the weather changes, inexorably. You cannot control the weather and you do not need to. Observe and acknowledge it and let it pass. (Okay, maybe bring an umbrella.)
Defuse the thoughts, let the weather change, and only the sky will remain. That’s you. And once the negativity passes? There’s the Moment of Choice again. Now turn to your values. Your intentions. Follow the new script.
This is success. And as you practice, this will get easier. It will become your new default. You’re becoming a better you.
Do take a moment to bask in your shimmering foxiness.
(To learn the 4 rituals that will make you happy all the time, click here.)
Okay, time to round it all up. And then we’ll learn what it takes to stick with this challenging process of change over the long haul…
This is how to have emotionally intelligent relationships:
With time your schemas will no longer define you. You don’t have to run the old software. People will trigger you and you’ll be able to step back from the emotions. Your feelings won’t govern your behavior. You will. You’ll instinctively act based on your values and your relationships will blossom.
But it’s gonna be a lot of work in the meantime. At first, it’s gonna feel like building a skyscraper from the top floor down. Terraforming your brain isn’t easy. Your bad schemas have had decades of practice. The grooves are worn deep. Reading this once is not going to upload the new software Matrix-I-Know-Kung Fu-Style immediately. So what can help?
Some self-compassion. Accept that you’re not perfect and this will take time. Realizing you’re not perfect and you deserve some compassion may lead to a deep realization that others aren’t perfect and they deserve some compassion too. This is something that may help your relationships more than anything.
Knowing the mistakes you usually make is powerful. But it’s how you use that information that matters. You can use it to beat yourself up. (Not recommended.) Or you can use it to be better. (Recommended.) And you can use it to realize that we all have flaws and all deserve some compassion. (Highly recommended.)
Don’t let your past continue to hurt your future. Don’t let temporary feelings cause a rupture that cannot be repaired. The most tragic moments in life are when someone you have great memories with becomes a memory themselves.
So when your old ways and their negative feelings rise up remember that corny phrase:
You are not the weather. You are the sky.
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