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.”

How adversity can make you more compassionate

Living through adversity can lead to more empathy and compassion, says research (pic courtesy of smarnad/freedigitalphotos.net)

Living through adversity can lead to more empathy and compassion, says research (pic courtesy of smarnad/freedigitalphotos.net)

“Is past suffering associated with hardened hearts or warmed ones?” This was the central question posed by recent research into whether experiencing adversity ultimately makes you more willing and able to help others – or whether the experience of pain closes you off and makes you less able to empathise with others.

The research – carried out at Northeastern University and published in the journal Emotion – found a link between the severity of past adversity (such as loss, illness, violence, relationship breakdown) and increased empathy and a “tendency to feel compassion for others in need”. In other words, the more suffering someone has been through, the more likely they are to reach out and want to help others.

The researchers at Northeastern University carried out two studies among Americans who had suffered previous adversity. The first study measured the compassion and empathy of 224 people, with the option to donate to charity at the end of the survey. The second study was a laboratory experiment with 51 people, who were asked to complete a survey on emotion recognition and another task. The participants were unaware that an actor in the lab pretended to be ill and therefore unable to complete a boring task – giving the participants the option to help the man (as a way of measuring their compassion). People’s compassion levels were measured separately the next day. The results showed that the higher the adversity someone had suffered, the more likely they were to help the ill man.

While the researchers acknowledge that some people suffer “chronic dysfunction” following earlier trauma, this piece of research is the first to find a link between adversity and empathy/compassion. They said: “Individuals who have experienced adversity attest to increased tendencies both to perspective-take and to place value on the welfare of others in need.”

My take on this is that bad things happen to everyone. It’s the process of coming to terms with what has happened, and perhaps developing new qualities as a result of the negative experiences, that can make us more open to empathising with others. This is what is termed as “post-traumatic growth” (Staub and Vollhardt, 2008). It’s when a bad experience festers and is not worked through – sometimes leading to negative patterns of thinking and behaviour – that can harden rather than warm our hearts.

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…)

Stress: is kindness more effective than confidence?

Press forgiveness rather than punishing yourself. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/stuartmiles)

Press forgiveness rather than punishing yourself. (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/stuartmiles)

Ever found yourself finding reasons to beat yourself up, believing yourself to be at fault, and wishing you could be a better person? If that’s a familiar (or daily) situation, then research is increasingly seeking to prove that being kind to yourself is far more effective than finding mantras for your self-esteem.

Being kinder to yourself, and finding more compassion for your faults and those of others, could help you deal more effectively with the daily stressors of life. That’s the main finding of research from Brandeis University on self-compassion.

The long-standing view has been that self-esteem is the cure-all, but the new view is that self-compassion could be far more effective in helping us cope with the stresses that bear down on us all.

Self-compassion is the ability to forgive yourself for stuff you’ve done, not blaming yourself or taking more responsibility than you should, and letting it go rather than dwelling on it. In other words, it’s the ability to cut yourself some slack.

The researchers asked people to rank their agreement to statements such as, “I try to be understanding and patient toward aspects of my personality I do not like” and “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies”. Resulting stress tests were recorded.

Tests showed that people with low self-compassion carried their stress from the day before into today, which made them more vulnerable to the effects of stress.

The researchers said: “It is easy for stress to build over time, and a seemingly small daily stressor, such as traffic, can impact a person’s health if they don’t have the right strategies to deal with it.”

My take on this? Forgive yourself for stuff outside your control – where possible. Beating yourself up in areas that have nothing to do with you, or have a detrimental effect, are to be avoided. This way of being can have its roots in childhood, and how you had to take care of a parent as a child.

For support and to work on forgiveness, call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling.com

Why bereavement can feel like getting lost in space

Like this astronaut, losing gravity is a powerful metaphor for grief. (pic courtesy of porbital/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Losing gravity is a powerful metaphor for grief. (pic courtesy of porbital/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Anyone who has seen the movie Gravity will know that it wows on two fronts: one, for its special effects, which have won it countless film awards; and two, for the grief metaphor that runs like a slow teardrop down a window pane until it sploshes, with relief, into the credits at the end.

One of the on-screen phrases at the start of Gravity is: ‘Life in space is impossible.’ It can feel beyond a bereaved mind to contemplate how you will never see the person again, and how life will never, ever have the same richness or colour as when the person lost was alive. LIfe, as we’ve known it, will literally never be the same again. Living can feel impossible.

Anyone who has lost anybody close to them will know how tempting it is to (more…)

Stress makes men more self-centred and women more empathic

Men's stress makes them   unable to relate to what's going on around them (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/MasterIsolatedImages)

Men’s stress makes them unable to relate to what’s going on around them (pic courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/MasterIsolatedImages)

Stress makes men shut down, think only of themselves, and makes them unable to empathise with those around them. Women, on the other hand, become worried about other people. More evidence, perhaps, that could explain the difference in gender responses – and how the breakdown in communication and empathy explains why some relationships just don’t work. Or, at least, that’s according to new research from SISSA.

Men become unable to distinguish their own emotions and feelings from those of other people when subjected to stress, says the study. Women become more ‘prosocial’ while men think that everyone else must be feeling the same way they do.

“There is a subtle boundary between the ability to identify with others and take on their perspective and therefore be empathic, and the inability to distinguish between self and other, thus acting egocentrically,” say the researchers. “To be truly empathic and behave pro-socially, it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other, and stress appears to play an important role in this.”

Women apply more ‘social strategies’ when stressed – meaning they reach out and ask for help – while men expect everyone else to feel the same way they do.

To work out how to communicate more effectively with your partner, under stress – whether a man looking to become more empathic, or a woman looking at ways to cope with stress – call 07956 823501 or email davanticounselling@gmail.com

Could your stress levels today be picked up from mother when you were a baby?

Infants absorb stress and anxiety from their mothers, says research. (pic courtesy of Serge Betasius Photography/freedigitalimages.net)

Infants absorb stress and anxiety from their mothers, says research. (pic courtesy of Serge Betasius Photography/freedigitalimages.net)

Now and again, a new piece of research comes along that explains so much that my counselling clients are experiencing today. Such pieces of research pretty much sum up the reason why psychotherapy exists: to help heal the wounds of our past and come to terms with what was painful on our childhoods.

The issue with the past, however, is that so much of that early wounding happens in a pre-verbal phase. It’s when we are tiny babies when we don’t have words to express what’s going on that some of those hurts can happen. People may think that babies won’t know the difference. But, as adults having a crisis in later life, feeling unable to cope, we can often feel left with an unease that something isn’t right. We just can’t put it into words. It’s just a feeling that keeps playing out in unhelpful behaviours, situations and cycles that they feel stuck in. And some of those behaviours and feelings may be in response to the nurturing – or otherwise – we experienced as infants.

So, what’s this piece of research that I feel resonates with the wounds in my clients? (more…)