Sunday, April 20, 2014

Emotional Acceptance: How Feeling Bad Can Be Good For You

       It’s only natural to want to avoid feeling negative emotions such as anger, depression, guilt, remorse or fear.  As soon we become conscious of these feelings we immediately seek ways to extinguish them. Feeling unpleasant emotions is extremely uncomfortable and very difficult to tolerate.  It is understandable that we would want to avoid them.  But, in actuality, our avoidance perpetuates the cycle of feeling bad.  When we avoid our feelings, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn what underlies our negative emotions. As a result, avoidance creates feelings of powerless, it’s impossible “to fix” what we don’t know is “broken” in the first place so we do nothing.  

     We avoid feeling negative emotions in various ways; by over eating, over spending, over drinking, and even hyper sexual or dormant sexual behaviors are all forms of avoidance.  At first avoiding our negative emotions may seem like a reasonable response.  Negative feelings are disturbing and often times linked to the very events and circumstances we want to forget.  We can all relate to the immediate relief avoidance can provide.  However, this relief is temporary and we pay a heavy price in the long term when we avoid acknowledging and accepting our negative emotions.  The short term gain we get from avoiding our negative emotions creates more complicated problems for us in the long run.  Not only do we need to resolve the original problem, we now need to resolve the problems we’ve picked up along the way because of our avoidance behaviors.
     In actuality, our unpleasant and negative emotions (depression, anxiety, fear) are signals telling us something is wrong and these emotions need our attention and understanding rather than us ignoring them. We avoid our emotions by using defense mechanisms, such as repression, minimization, fantasy, rationalization, projection, somatization, wishful thinking, and idealization to name a few. Not all defense mechanism are unhealthy but certain ones are thought to hold us back more than others from living more authentic, richer and satisfying lives. Learning how to tolerate our negative emotions rather than defending against them allows us to understand our emotions and gives us a context surrounding them. This new understanding enables us to effectively "fix" what we realize is "broken".  

Below are 4 tips to help you tune into your emotions in order to make effective changes:

1. Develop the ability to "sit with" negative and unpleasant emotions such as depression, anxiety, fear and anger.  Tolerating negative emotions allows us to process our feelings and gives us the time to understand ourselves and our feelings more deeply.

2. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to sort out emotions and to understand the full circumstances surrounding them. Emotions are complicated and often times we feel several at once.

3. Accept that negative emotions are normal and a part of being human. Our goal should not be to never feel bad--that's impossible. Instead, learning how to manage our negative emotions should be our focus and goal.

4. Try not react impulsively in response to your negative feelings. Impulsive reactions often make circumstance and feelings worse. Instead, try to slow down your reactions by being patient and allowing yourself the time to sort out what it is your feeling and why. When you have a greater understanding of your feelings and the circumstances surrounding them, your reactions will be more effective and less damaging to you.

I would like to hear from you. How do you avoid negative emotions? Do you struggle with tolerating your negative feelings? How do you manage your negative feelings?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Your Opinion? A Reader's Question About Guilt.

Dear Dr. Durlofsky,

I read your blog entry about the differences between healthy and unhealthy guilt today, and I would like to ask your opinion on something.

I am a middle-aged married man. I recently confessed to my wife of 12 years my habit of visiting internet cyber chat rooms and pornography sites. I also confessed to her that several months ago I ran into my high school girlfriend. I hadn't seen her for numerous years and we ended up kissing for about 5 minutes on a bench in public. Although I told my wife about this encounter, I did not tell her that I kissed her too. I do not intend on having an affair. I told my wife that when I visited chat rooms I always made it clear that I was married and that I ended all contact with people I chatted with when it became clear it was going to harm my marriage. ( I did not use the word cybersex in my confession).

My wife was angry when I told her these things. She did not talk to me for about 10 days. She then told me that she was hurt and that she hated the feeling of being betrayed, but she forgave me and that she wanted to leave the past behind. I also made the decision to seek treatment. I gave my wife passwords to all my email accounts and placed my computer in the dining room where there are no doors. So far I stayed porn and chat room free for almost 7 months (202 days as of this writing).

The problem is I am still feeling guilty for what I have done. I know that what I withheld was relatively minor and that none if this has done lasting harm to my marriage. We are in good shape as a couple and family.

My question is this: is what I am feeling unhealthy guilt? I feel I have made some critical changes and done no real harm, but I would appreciate your thoughts.

Many thanks,
Robert M.

Dear Robert,

I want to congratulate on your courage to share this information with your wife and your decision to seek treatment. You stated a few times in your email that you believe "no real damage was done" and you did not disclose to your wife the fact that you kissed another woman or engaged in cybersex. Based on this it sounds like you are minimizing your risky actions and the damage your past behaviors have had on your marriage and your self-concept. You seem to realize you have not been fully honest with your wife and probably with yourself.  All of which could be reasons why you still feel guilty. Minimization is a common defense people use when dealing with addiction or feelings that are scary for one to acknowledge.

Re-building trust and forgiving ourselves for past wrong doings takes time and understanding. Although trust can be rebuilt, with lots of hard work, you may need to keep in mind that the reason for rebuilding the trust in your marriage, is the result of your dishonesty.

Exploring your guilty feelings, whether your guilt be healthy or not, should help you to understand the issues and reasons underlying your past risky behaviors. And most importantly, help you to address them in a positive and effective way.

Best of luck to you. Looks like you are well on your way!

Dr. Durlofsky

If you have a question you would like to ask? Email me at drpauladurlofsky@gmail.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When Having It All Is Not Enough

     We can all relate to experiencing anxiety stemming from the fear that what we have is not enough. We ask ourselves, "Do I have enough money, friends, education, a big enough house, have I achieved enough accomplishments or have a prestigious enough career?". For some this feeling is a reality; there are many who struggle to support themselves on a daily basis and truly do not have enough. But for others, who have an abundance, unrealistic fears that what they have is NOT enough is an emotionally debilitating problem. This is analogous to enjoying a six course dinner at a elegant restaurant and at the end of the meal leaving famished. Continuous and unrealistic anxiety and fear of "not having enough" prevents us from enjoying and appreciating what we actually have.

    This nagging, " not having enough" feeling is often caused by an underlying belief that one is "not enough" on the inside-simply stated, feelings of inadequacy. This void gets filled by buying more "things" and/or by achieving greater and better accomplishments in the hope of being enough. At first, having more and accomplishing bigger and greater things might "hit the spot". However, this false feeling is temporary and after a brief period of time passes, the feeling of not having enough returns. And what was accomplished or accumulated during this time is then devalued.

     This does not mean we should not set goals that challenge and help us lead richer and fuller lives. We are all entitled to want more and have more. Problems arise when we believe we are inadequate to begin with and having more or doing more does not resolve this issue.

Below are a few tips to help you not get caught in the "when having it all is not enough" trap:

1. Set aside time to write a list of what you believe you don't have enough of and why.

2. Review each assumption and challenge yourself to imagine what you hope to accomplish from having more. The goal here is to develop realistic expectations of what you will accomplish from having more and how having more will improve your life. Realistic expectations and overall understanding helps to create genuine and lasting change resulting in improved self-esteem and happiness.

3. Start a gratitude journal. Write down all the things in your life you are grateful for and why.  Set aside time each day to read it and add to it regularly. This should help with developing a healthy perspective about one's life.

4. Consider psychotherapy to examine and explore underlying issues contributing to your feelings of not having enough or inadequacy that prevents you from enjoying what you already have.

I would like to hear from you. Do you struggle with feelings of inadequacy? Are you constantly craving more even when what you have is more than enough?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Social Media Fantasies Lead To #Depression


     Most of us are familiar with social networking sites such as Facebook, twitter, myspace and Instagram.  It’s easy to get caught-up in the virtual social world, me included, feeling instantly connected to people that I may not have spoken to in years. Hours of our time can be spent witnessing our “friends” family vacations, children’s momentous occasions, birthdays, weddings and even our “friends” difficult life transitions such as divorce, sickness and deaths.  Although social networking relationships can have a positive effect on us emotionally, numerous studies have been conducted and articles written linking social networking to depression, social isolation, eliciting feelings of envy, insecurity and poor self-esteem.  On the contrary,  other studies indicate that social media sites can be positive for people struggling with social anxiety and depression.


     With all these conflicting reports, it may be wise to understand our own personal reasons for using social networking sites and to evaluate whether or not our use of them is helping or hindering our sense of connection to others as well as our overall emotional health.  Once we understand what the psychological needs are underlying our use of these sites we can then adjust our expectations to meet these needs.  For example, if we are using these sites to build friendships, it’s important to be aware of their limitations in order to avoid disappointment.   When we find ourselves feeling left out, inadequate, irritable or jealous after reading stories or viewing photos of our friends’ activities we can assume our cyber relationships are not meeting our emotional needs. We can all agree that viewing a friend’s vacation pictures and posts will not be as gratifying as when we have the chance to talk to our friend about his/her vacation in person or even during a telephone conversation.  After all, most social networking users will not post vacation pictures and stories that convey the difficult moments they might have had on their vacation. Having a balanced perspective and realistic expectations about social media networking can prevent feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, depression and social comparisons.   


     It is also important to assess the quality of our non-virtual relationships. This can be done by taking a hard look at the amount of actual “real life” time we spend with the people who are important to us such as our girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses, children, extended family and close friends.  It’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to replace the feelings of connection that manifest from having personal, genuine relationships. This is not to say that social networking is all bad or that our relationships from these sites are not genuine, instead it is important to keep in mind their limitations so we can adjust our expectations accordingly.


Below are a few tips to help you balance virtual relationships and “real-time” relationships:


1.     Ask yourself why you are using social networking sites. Is it to build relationships, for professional networking purposes, to connect to old friends or to stay connected to those that live far away. Once you determine what you are looking for you can then set realistic goals. 

2.     Limit your time on social networking sites. This will help with controlling the amount of time you are spending in the virtual world.  

3.     If social networking sites cause you to feel disconnected, depressed or lonely consider “upping” your interactions with people by sending them a private message or even a text message. This level of virtual communication is more personal and intimate than communicating in an open forum.

4.     Make sure to schedule time to see your friends and family beyond the virtual world.

Having positive, secure relationships is strongly associated with high levels of self-esteem, resiliency, fosters feelings of connectedness and decreases depression and anxiety.  


I would like to hear from you. Do you use social networking sites often? How do you balance your virtual relationships with your “real life” relationships? Do you feel the same type of social pressure from social media sites that you may feel in your non-virtual social life?




Sunday, December 29, 2013

7 New Year's Resolutions For A Happier 2014


     As with everything in life, achieving happiness takes work, dedication and focus. For centuries January 1st has marked the date for us to take the time to reflect upon and re-evaluate our lives. We decide what changes or resolutions we need to make in order for us to lead happier and more satisfying lives in the New Year. Below I've complied a list of 7 tips or resolutions that you may want to add to your own list. Hopefully they will help make 2014 a happier year and most importantly a happier you.

1. Learn To Be Patient With Yourself. This is difficult for most of us since we expect so much from ourselves. We become our worst enemy when we are overly critical and harsh, making achieving our goals difficult and frankly unpleasant. Learning to be patient requires us to accept the reality that we all make "mistakes". Once we accept this fact, we gain a better understanding of ourselves. This understanding actually reduces our making needless mistakes in the future. And being patient dramatically improves our relationships.  We develop the capacity to be compassionate with others and ourselves too.

2. First Things First. This I learned from a special person in my life. Being able to prioritize life on both a large scale (big picture) and small scale (day-to-day) helps us to stay focused and not drift into a state of distraction and avoidance thereby preventing us from attending to whatever it was we wanted to do in the first place. First things first attitude also helps us to achieve our goals, big and small, by going about them in a logical and productive manner.
3. Don't Be Afraid to Say No. Saying no is hard for many of us. It's understandable to want to avoid disappointing those we love and care about. For some saying no is difficult because they may believe the other person will be angry or reject them if they don't do what is asked of them. However, these feelings are often projected on to the other person. Saying no not only gives us a greater sense of autonomy but it also allows for the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings or to figure out a comprise. 

4. Tune Into Your Emotions. It's only natural to want to avoid or deny distressing emotions. Anxiety, depression, guilt, anger and other negative feelings are signals telling us that something is wrong. Learning to "sit with" unpleasant feelings and to take the time to understand them helps us find solutions to our problems--after all it's hard to fix what we don't know is wrong in the first place.

5. Go Out And Explore. It's important to continually develop and evolve as an individual. Adding variety of our lives by taking on different roles and exploring various interests helps us to remain stimulated, engaged, and connected to ourselves and others. Exploration of any kind broadens our world, improves our self-esteem, intelligence, confidence, and our overall well-being and degree of satisfaction.

6. It's Never Black or White. Developing the ability to see people and circumstances from multiple perspectives improves our attitude and our life in so many ways. No one individual or circumstance is ever simply "one way" or "another". When we develop the capacity to see the "shades of grey" in life, ourselves, and the people around us, we develop better coping strategies by becoming more flexible and nuanced in our thinking and problem solving capacities.

7. Ask For Help. Asking for help is difficult for some people because they perceive it is a sign of weakness. Others feel afraid, embarrassed or vulnerable when asking for help. Knowing "how" and "who" to ask for help is truly a strength. No one should feel they have to do it ALL on their own.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


       Did you ever think back on some of the important decisions you made in your life and wonder "What was I thinking?" or "Did I really do that and why?". It could be that not using  your emotional intelligence may be to blame for those bad decisions and actions. Emotional Intelligence has become the new catch phrase for self-awareness. Emotional Intelligence  (EQ) is essentially the ability to identify, use, understand, and manage emotions in an effective and positive way. A high EQ helps individuals to communicate better, reduce their anxiety and stress, defuse conflicts, improve relationships, empathize with others, and helps with effectively being able to overcome life's challenges. Our emotional intelligence profoundly impacts the quality of our life since EQ  profoundly influences how we behave and the quality of our relationships. EQ is synonymous with self-awareness because self-awareness, as with EQ, enables us to live our lives with intention, purpose, and autonomy.
     Many of us move through life making important decisions based on our current circumstances that many  of us perceive are beyond our ability to change in the first place-- therefore limiting our options and solutions. Taking the time to reflect upon how we “feel” about our decisions and examining “why” we decide to do what we do enables us to lead lives that are determined by our conscious intentions rather than circumstances alone.
     Developing self-awareness and/or EQ can greatly influence our success in life. This is not to say that our personal situations and/or our intelligence are not factors as well, however EQ and self-awareness can profoundly impact our choices by creating options we may not have otherwise imaged or considered to be possibilities for us in the first place.  Below are some ways in which you can cultivate and increase your EQ:  

1.      Self-awareness. This is the ability to label, recognize, and understand your own emotions. Self-awareness requires us to “tune in” to our feelings and not avoid our negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and sadness. Recognizing our own emotional states and how they affect our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions is the key to cultivating self-awareness.

2.      Emotional-regulation. Emotional-regulation has to do with our ability to control strong emotions by “not acting on” raw feelings in an impulsive or destructive manner. Developing the ability to “sit with” unpleasant feelings and to give our self the time and space to decide how we may alleviate or reduce negative feelings cultivates self-confidence in our ability to make thoughtful and intentional decisions. Emotional-regulation also helps us develop the ability to consider various solutions to a particular situation/problem. Not reacting solely from an emotionally charged state results in better decision-making outcomes.

3.      Empathy. When we empathize with others we develop deeper and more intimate relationships. Empathy is the ability to recognize how and why people feel the way they do. Empathy allows us to anticipate how our actions and behaviors influence other people as well as our own. Developing empathy skills enhances our experiences, relationships, and general understanding of ourselves, other people and the world around us.

4.      Social skills. This is a very broad term. In general having strong social skills means having the ability to communicate in a clear, concise, and courteous manner. In a nutshell, good social skills is the summation of all of the components of EQ; self-awareness, emotional-regulation, and empathy.

I would like to hear from you. What are your thoughts about EQ? Do you feel EQ is important? How to you think EQ can help improve your life and/or relationships?


Monday, October 7, 2013

Self-Esteem--What It Is and How To Raise Your's

     Have you ever wondered what self-esteem actually is? Have you ever thought you had low self-esteem? And, have you ever wondered what you could do to raise your self-esteem?

     Self-esteem is a psychological term that defines our general evaluation of our overall worth as an individual. These evaluations are based on our own personal judgements of ourselves and the type of attitudes we have about ourselves. For example our beliefs about our competency (I am a worthy individual and I have belief in my abilities or I am not smart and not good at anything). Self-esteem also encompasses the emotions we feel about ourselves, for example feelings of pride and triumph or feelings of despair and shame. In a nutshell, self-esteem is the judgements and emotions about who we are and our beliefs about how others perceive us. When our overarching evaluations are negative, we experience low self-esteem. We feel discouraged, undeserving, and unworthy. Conversely, we have high self-esteem when we have positive self-evaluations; we feel worthy, valued and encouraged. Self-esteem also affects the way we behave and the manner in which we relate to others (i.e. compassionate and empathetic or defensive and judgemental).

     Self-esteem is influenced by our early life experiences. In childhood parents have the most influence on shaping self-esteem. The more positive early experiences we have the greater the chance we will develop a healthy degree of self-esteem as children and adults. Numerous books and several studies have been conducted that suggest parents who give their children unconditional love, a consistent sense of being cared for and respect raise children who have high self-esteem. Negative childhood experiences that cause low self-esteem would include being harshly criticized, humiliation, being sexually or emotionally abused, being ignored, and/or being expected to be "perfect" at all times.

     There are numerous self-report inventories that assess self-esteem. However, a formal "test" is not always necessary to evaluate your own level of self-esteem. Instead, set aside time to really think about and understand how you define yourself, and how you evaluate yourself. If you find you are excessively focused on your performance, make negative self-comments, have a fear of trying new things and relate to others in either a clingy or overly independent manner, you may have low self-esteem. This leads to the question--How can one raise his or her self-esteem? Below are some suggestions:

1. Broaden your self-definition. Try not to be overly critical of yourself or demand to be perfect. Working toward developing an ability to be patient with yourself and others, developing self-compassion, expressing emotions and being open to trying varied interests and new activities  are BIG steps towards raising your self-esteem.

2. While an occasional self-disparaging comment every now and then is normal, recurrent and chronic negative comments about one's self is a symptom of low self-esteem. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And just like we cannot all be great at everything the opposite is also true--we CANNOT all be bad at everything. Generalizing negative beliefs about ourselves inhibits us from having a realistic picture of our true abilities. Take time out to think of a few things you have are not "terrible" at and may even enjoy doing. Most likely your list will be longer than you expected. Make a plan to further develop these skills and interests in order to gain a greater sense of pride and competency.

3. Develop relationships that have a healthy dependency. When we feel a combination of both connection and independence in our relationships we have established a healthy dependency. These types of relationships empower us to take risks, to venture out and explore new relationships and interests AND at the same time to feel connected and close to the important people in our lives.

4. Seek professional help. Therapy can help to raise your self-esteem in a supportive and emotionally secure environment.

I would like to hear from you. What are your thoughts about self esteem? Have you been able to raise your self-esteem? How? Do you or a loved one have low self-esteem and don't know what to do about it? Share some ideas you have for helping people raise their self-esteem.