How free will is linked to a positive sense of self

Authenticity can come from having a sense of agency over our lives. (pic copyright: delcreations)

The extent to which we believe in free will can determine our sense of self – how we feel about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Diminishing our free will can trigger depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem. That’s according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Researchers at Texas A&M University worked with two groups of 300 participants, giving them tests to examine the relationship between free will and sense of self, and between free will and authenticity. They discovered that people with low free will showed “greater feelings of self-alienation and lower self-awareness” as well as lower authenticity compared with the group who had higher free will.

“Our findings suggest that part of being who you are is experiencing a sense of agency and feeling like you are in control over the actions and outcomes in your life,” says lead author Elizabeth Seto from the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University. “If people are able to experience these feelings, they can become closer to their true or core self.”

My experience of working with clients in therapy bears out these findings. People can feel depressed, depleted and hopeless when they feel they have no choice over aspects of their lives. This can put them in a victim position from which they feel unable to escape. Things get ‘done’ to them, and they have little sense of any agency over their own lives. The process of being in therapy can help identify options, and instil a belief that they are in charge of their own lives. Sometimes that can start with a very small step, and gradually they can make more decisions in alignment with who they truly are – instead of looking to external factors for encouragement or validation.

I will leave the final word on this to Carl Jung: “Freedom of will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.”

Couples: why your partner needs to feel loved AND understood

davanti counselling loved and understood copy

Relationship conflict can be healthy if you understand your partner’s point of view (pic courtesy of niamwhan/freedigitalphotos.net)

Couples following Oscar Wilde’s advice that “women are meant to be loved, not to be understood” could be missing a trick. OK, so you can substitute ‘men’ or ‘partners’ in place of ‘women’ to make Wilde’s quote relevant to your own relationship. But the point is that just loving someone isn’t always enough for a successful, enduring relationship – especially when it comes to managing conflict.

This concept is highlighted in a Quartz article on how to make conflicts in relationships healthy. It draws on a study from the University of California at Berkeley, ‘Do you get where I’m coming from?’ that examines the perception of being understood in the context of relationship conflict. Researchers Amie M. Gordon and Serena Chen carried out seven studies to test “whether conflict in close relationships is only detrimental when people do not feel their thoughts, feelings, and point-of-view are understood by their relationship partners”.

Conflicts can become toxic when partners descend into behaviours such as blaming, withdrawing, making the other party feel guilty, or dragging up past misdemeanours and misunderstandings. The antidote to that toxicity is understanding your partner – and showing him or her that you understand, even while you’re disagreeing.

Gordon and Chen concluded: “Feeling understood during conflict may buffer against reduced relationship satisfaction in part because it strengthens the relationship and signals that one’s partner is invested. Overall, these studies suggest that perceived understanding may be a critical buffer against the potentially detrimental effects of relationship conflict.”

From the perspective of a couples counsellor, this research has huge resonance. Couples often come to therapy with both partners holding an entrenched position: that to compromise would mean ‘giving in’. They’re both holding out for the other person to change.

I find that the process of couples counselling is to help partners understand where the other is coming from. In other words, to ‘get’ each other. This may mean appreciating that one is an introvert, the other an extrovert. One may need closeness, the other may need more time alone. One may need to do all the planning, the other prefers to ‘wing it’. Neither is right or wrong. They are individuals in a relationship. Both, ideally, just need to be understood.

Couples counselling can facilitate that understanding so couples can be kinder to each other, for who they are and how they respond.

If you can identify patterns of conflict within your relationship that you’d like to resolve, and if you feel you’d like to try couples counselling, call Karen on 07956 823501, or email davanticounselling@gmail.com to book an appointment.

Sugar, spice… and all things stressed

Scientists have proved the link between stress, sweets and emotions - and the impact that can have (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/rakratchada torsap)

Scientists have proved the link between stress, sweets and emotions – and the impact that can have (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/rakratchada torsap)

If you find yourself reaching for the biscuit tin, searching in the treats cupboard, or raiding the kiddies’ sweetie stash when you come home from work feeling stressed – and need to find an antidote that calms you down, quickly! –  it will come as little surprise that researchers have found that eating sugar is one of the best stress relievers around.

You can read on ‘Women’s Doctor’ that sweets relieve stress – but you can of course try to substitute sugar for healthier alternatives. However, the answer may not be as simple as that. Body fat can have an effect on the way the brain responds to stress and metabolism, according to a University of Florida study.

The research found that: “Stress causes a desire to eat more, which can lead to obesity. And too much extra fat can impair the body’s ability to send a signal to the brain to shut off the stress response.” So, stress isn’t just in the brain after all.

This is a new finding in this field, where stress was generally thought to be an emotional response. Now that the ‘fat to brain pathway’ has been detected, researchers are going to look at those signals that prompt overeating in response to stress, and work out how those links can be recognised and broken – both ways.

Further articles on the link between stress, diet and emotion include:

Why ‘soulmates’ struggle with conflict in their relationship

Do you have a 'unity' or 'journey' approach to your relationship? (image courtesy of Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net)

Do you have a ‘unity’ or ‘journey’ approach to your relationship? (image courtesy of Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net)

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Emily Brontë

The image of romantic togetherness may sound idyllic – meeting your soulmate and living happily ever after – but it could ultimately be damaging to your relationship. A psychological study has found that people in romantic relationships who regard their partner as their ‘soulmate’ or their ‘other half’ can struggle when it comes to conflict. After all, if they were a match made in heaven, why on earth would arguments or discord affect their perfect union?

The key to a happy life together lies in how people view and evaluate their relationships. While there may be a multitude of ways of thinking about relationships, the social psychology researchers identified two frames through which to view relationships. One is the ‘Unity’ view, where couples believe they were made for each other and meant to be together. The second is the ‘Journey’ frame, which sees a relationship unfolding over time, with conflict helping to grow the partnership and make it stronger.

In two experiments Professor Spike W. S. Lee of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Southern California tested couples on the unity vs journey spectrum. The first experiment was a knowledge quiz that recalled either conflicts or celebrations with their partner. The second, subtler experiment involved identifying shapes that formed a whole (representing unity) or drawing a line from A to B (representing journey).

As anticipated, recalling celebrations made people satisfied with their relationship regardless of how they thoughts about it. Recalling conflicts made couples feel less satisfied with their relationship—but significantly only with the unity frame in mind, not with the journey frame in mind.

Professor Lee concluded: “People who implicitly think of relationships as perfect unity between soulmates have worse relationships than people who implicitly think of relationships as a journey of growing and working things out.” If you think of your relationship as a journey, he added: “You’ll feel better now, and you’ll do better down the road.”

Can there ever be a timescale for “getting over” a bereavement?

Is it possible to put a day and time on when you'll feel better after a bereavement?

Is it possible to put a day and time on when you’ll feel better after a bereavement?

I’ve always taken the view that bereavement has no timescale attached to it. The day will come when the pain alleviates, but it won’t disappear for good. Grief is for life. And we learn to live with it. I believe that we grieve for as long as we need to, even when the rest of the world believes we should be “getting over it”. Whatever “over it” means.

However, new research from a charity that offers end-of-life care is challenging my views. A survey of 2053 people by the Sue Ryder charity, which offers support and advice on death, dying and bereavement, has calculated the amount of time it takes to feel better after a bereavement: two years, one month and four days. Crucially, the research found that people who had someone to talk to about their grief would recover far more quickly than people who couldn’t open up about it. People with no support grieved, on average, for nearly three years (an extra eight months, three weeks and five days compared with people who could speak about their feelings).

Significant stats from the Sue Ryder survey include:

  • A third said bereavement had a negative effect on their wellbeing, with some considering suicide.
  • A quarter suffered in silence, bottling up emotions that would then explode at a later date.
  • People aged 45-54 took twice as long to feel better than 16-24-year-olds.
  • Women take longer than men to feel better: two years and four months compared with one year and nine months.
  • One in four men said they couldn’t talk about bereavement with anyone, compared with one in seven women.
  • One in 10 people were too embarrassed to admit they were scared or upset.

The Sue Ryder charity is offering an online forum for support following a bereavement, as it may be easier to open up anonymously if embarrassment kicks in at not being able to “cope”.

My view is that one’s bereavement is one’s bereavement. The length of time it takes to grieve depends on the circumstances of the death, the attachment you had to the person who’s died, and how you feel about yourself at the time. Reaching out for help can be a lifeline. But only you can know when the time is right for you.

What are you planting today to help you believe in tomorrow?

How does your psychological garden grow?

How does your psychological garden grow?

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” This is one of the most memorable quotes from one of the world’s most iconic women, Audrey Hepburn, whose 86th birthday would have been today. It’s a quote about inspiration, and about trusting that the seeds you sow today will one day blossom into something beautiful and meaningful.

While Audrey Hepburn’s quote has been related to the humanitarian work she did for children, from a psychotherapy perspective all kinds of shoots can spring forth from this rich metaphor. Some I have in mind are these:

  • What types of thoughts are taking root in your mind? Benign, helpful ones that will later bud into positive beliefs – or negative, destructive thoughts that will build resentment and breed rot in your flowerbeds?
  • Are you eyeing up your neighbour’s flowers – as spring breathes life into gardens across your neighbourhood – wishing you could have what they have? Or do you want to trample on them in the spirit of envy because the grass isn’t greener in your life?
  • Are your entrenched behaviours beginning to stifle the significant others in your life, like ivy around a tree?
  • Is your prickliness spreading like a bramble, ready to trip people up?
  • Are you primped and prepared for everyday weathers? Or are you wild and unwieldy like an overgrown garden?

Do you wish you could bloom like a peony, rather than twist like a thorn  – but don’t know how? Are you ready to dig around in your psyche for clues as to how your life can change, and plant something more positive for your future? Then psychotherapy could be for you.

To take the first steps in helping your psychological garden to grow, call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Can we be happy without feeling guilty?

Why does your happiness get judged, criticised or called selfish? What would happen if you allowed yourself to be happy – no strings attached? (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Stuart Miles

What would happen if you allowed yourself to be happy – no strings attached? (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/Stuart Miles

As it’s the International Day of Happiness – a time for us all to reflect on what happiness means – I can say that the predominant aim of clients coming for private therapy is to feel happy. There is a lack in their lives, or a block, and if only that lack or block would move out the way – or, if other people in their lives would change – then they’d be happy. Yet very often that lack or block isn’t because of other people. It lies within.

I see it in clients who would love to do something creative – like write, draw, sing, dance, cook, paint, colouring in. Whatever makes them happy. Yet they say they’re “not creative” or “it won’t lead anywhere”. And so the potential happiness they could gain – from creating something unique that wouldn’t exist had they not created it – remains lost, unsaid, unwritten, unpainted, unsung.

People who yearn to feel happy can often feel selfish if (more…)