Why giving feedback in your personal relationships may not get the result you want and what you can do about it.

Why giving feedback in your personal relationships may not get the result you want and what you can do about it.

When you partner or someone close to you asks, “Can I give you some feedback?” how do you react? If you are human, your stress response will immediately switch on as you instantly brace yourself for what no doubt will be feedback on how you have messed up.  In the same moment, you start worrying about the impact of the feedback, how you will need to justify your actions and perhaps retaliate with some feedback of your own.

This is a sign that your primitive brain, responsible for your survival flight, fight or flee response is switched on and in the driver’s seat. With its seatbelt securely fastened, the primitive brain has detected a threat (i.e. incoming feedback) and initiated a cascade of stress hormones to be dumped into your system.  It also switches off all those parts of the brain (i.e. our thinking brain) that require either too much energy to run in this perceived crisis or may try and prevent it from fighting, fleeing or freezing.  This allows the primitive brain to focus on one thing and one thing only – getting away from the danger in front of it. Yes, that means that our primitive brains cannot differentiate between a perceived threat of receiving feedback to a real threat of being eaten by a lion! The kind of life-threatening event that occurred back when we lived in caves and gathered nuts, fruit and seeds for dinner.

Your brain and feedback.
Logically, getting feedback from someone is not life-threatening. Even if the feedback is hurtful, spiteful or maybe even has a ring of truth to it, you are not going to die. You are still alive and kicking once the words are said. However, most of us have not developed the ability to receive feedback without feeling a level of anxiety. Our first jump is often to the negative and that this feedback is probably a personal attack on who we are or what we have done. Even feedback that may be constructive and resourceful to the relationship. All the primitive brain perceives is a threat, and it responds in the same way it would have 100,000 years ago when we were faced with a real threat, such as a hungry lion.

Understanding our primitive brain’s default position and need to keep us safe and out of danger provides essential context for the person giving the feedback. Let’s assume your goal is to help improve your relationship rather than intentionally be critical and undermine the other person. Even if you’re coming from a loving place that is well-intentioned and genuinely invested in the relationship, it doesn’t mean the other person will be open to receiving your feedback.

The minute the person you’re offering the feedback to gets that you are about to deliver negative or critical feedback, their sympathetic or flight, fight or freeze nervous system switches on like the lights on a pokey machine when you’ve just pulled a winning four cherry combination. This activation serves the purpose of preparing their body for intense physical activity, the kind of action you need when you are running away from someone who is chasing you down a dark alley with a machete. In the process of preparing for the sprint of a lifetime, the person’s ability to thoughtfully receive and consider the feedback you’re offering, no matter how well intended, has gone walkabout.

Their brain literally can’t handle it. And this is the reason why giving negative feedback has been shown time and time again to have very little correlation to improving relationships. Even if your partner looks like they are fine on the outside as you string some well-intended sentences together, their brain is not in the right state to effectively receive, consider and apply your input.  All the required resources to do this have already shut down at the mention of ‘feedback’. It’s like the hamster wheel is turning but the hamsters not home.

More positive feedback isn’t the answer either.
Let’s face it, receiving feedback at the best of times is not a pleasant experience. The reason why we have this visceral negative reaction to feedback is that we’ve learnt growing up or been trained to believe that most if not all feedback is usually critical, and seldomly positive. Years of being reprimanded by parents or teachers have left their mark. Particularly if you grew up in the 1960s where physical punishment at school was commonplace, and teacher’s seldomly gushed with compliments.

Looking at your personal relationship perhaps providing positive feedback when your partner does something great is also not commonplace. So what if you suddenly start showering them with tons of positive feedback? Will this teach them that not all feedback is negative and therefore tame their primitive brain from climbing into the driver’s seat when they hear the word ‘feedback’? Unfortunately, this tactic still has its problems.

By all means, give out all the praise and recognition you can muster in your relationship. Make sure it’s authentic and honest, with no trace of sarcastic undertones, because most of us can spot ‘phoney’ a mile off. This, in itself, will probably improve your relationship. However, research shows that it requires at least five pieces of positive feedback to adequately balance one negative piece of feedback. That’s a heck of a lot of positive feedback in my opinion! It is also a tough habit to create and maintain, not because you lack the desire to do it but because we are focused on so many other things during the day that takes up our energy and time.

Making a sandwich of feedback.
Something I learnt in my corporate days was this concept of sandwich feedback. What it essentially means is that you sandwich crappy feedback between two fresh and yummy ‘slices’ of positive feedback. So, it may go something like this… “I love how hard you work to help put food on the table, however, please put the toilet seat down after you pee, but overall you are a great hubby.” Sorry to tell you but this doesn’t work either because of what psychologists call conditioning.

The reason being is the person you’re giving feedback to gets used to the fact that after every piece of positive feedback, negative feedback is likely to follow.  Like the lingering stench after you have emptied the bins on bin night but not washed out that liquid residue at the bottom. So even when you are complimenting them on the beautiful dinner they just cooked, they have become so conditioned to expect negative feedback to follow, their pokey machine lines up another four cherries and starts glowing like a Christmas tree. Within milliseconds the primitive brain climbs into the driver’s seat, and you know what happens after that. Worse yet, the two separate pieces of great feedback you so carefully planned, have lost their impact and the primitive brain is already changing lanes and heading for the hills.

There’s a better way of giving negative feedback.
To really make an impact in your relationship, you need to evolve the way you give negative  feedback from feedback being merely to correct or punish, to feedback that inspires growth and wanting to change. This is the difference between saying, “Don’t you dare get in my face again!” and “How could you approach me differently next time?” The first way may trigger some memories of you being dragged into the principal’s office to be reprimanded with a cane (only in my schooling days), while the latter takes a more collaborative and constructive approach. We are in this together.

Why does this approach make all the difference? Remember that critical feedback leads to our sympathetic nervous system lighting up and sending us into survival mode. However, when we focus on non-judgemental and ‘future looking’ statements, the primitive brain does not feel under threat.  Instead of the sympathetic nervous system switching on it stays nice and quiet, and the parasympathetic nervous system turns on instead. This is the rest and digest nervous system, which has the opposite impact on how receptive we are to the feedback message. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming us down and opens up our minds to receive the message, consider new possibilities and grow from the experience.

Below are several examples of what you could say:

  • Instead of saying, “I wouldn’t have done it that way,” say, “What do you reckon might happen if we tried XYZ?”
  • Instead of saying, “You need to improve how you talk to my mother,” say, “Based on what you know about my mum, how could you approach her differently to help her be more open to what you have to say?”
  • Instead of saying, “Your plan clearly didn’t work,” say, “I’d really like to get this done by the end of the month. How do you think we can get there?”
  • Instead of saying, “I don’t understand why you can’t get the garage sorted it looks like a bomb hit it,” say, “It will be so great when we have the garage done don’t you reckon? What do you need to make sure the garage gets sorted?”

This is the difference between demanding and collaborating. It opens up a conversation about how things can get done versus focusing on past failures. The aim is to get the other person to commit to a different behaviour moving forward that will positively impact your relationship. If they renege on their commitments, it opens up an opportunity to have a tougher conversation. It also indicates to them that you consider yourself to be in this together, and are willing to support them as needed.

There’s still a place for tougher conversations.
When you frame feedback in this way, you set the expectations for future behaviour in your relationship. This doesn’t however mean the other person will meet that expectation. They may not rise to the occasion or follow through on the commitments they have made. When this happens again and again, it is absolutely okay to take the conversation to the next level and create a firmer demand for what you need. How these conversations unfold is a different article for a different day, however, here is the key takeaway: those tougher conversations should not be step one of the process of improving your relationship.

By approaching feedback in this way, your create more space for your partner, family member or friend to have a constructive conversation, effectively hear and synthesise what you have to say and be clear on what your expectations are. If you do this well, you will potentially eliminate the need for more challenging conversations to take place later on.  The more open and honest we are upfront about what we are feeling or what we need helps create healthy relationships where conversations can be had, and we feel heard and appreciated.

Author: Leanne Wall
E: Leanne@drleannewall.com
W: www.drleannewall.com

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Practising gratitude makes us happier & less stressed.

Practising gratitude makes us happier & less stressed.

Gratitude combats stress? Had you said this to me back in my medical school days, I would have put my nose up at this claim. Being the concrete thinker that I was back in my twenties, I needed scientific proof for everything health related.  None of this ethnic-bongo-hairy-armpit brigade stuff, as my father used to call it. Fast track 30 years and there is now a ton of research to show precisely this. Expressing gratitude daily for the things you have, reduces our stress hormone levels. Who would have thought? By merely pausing for a few minutes a day and focusing on being thankful, showing appreciation for and returning kindness to others, can not only reduce our stress levels but is beneficial for our overall health and happiness.

Happy chemicals in the brain
Without getting too technical, research shows that focusing our attention on things we are grateful for actually forces a shift to the positive when it comes to some of our endogenous (self-made) happy chemicals. The simple act of being grateful has been shown to stimulate more neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically dopamine and serotonin, which in turn promote feelings of contentment. It goes without saying that this cascade of feel-good chemicals has a positive impact on our mental health too.

Gratitude benefits our mental health
Recent evidence suggests that complementing psychological counselling with additional activities that are not too cumbersome for clients but yield high results, may be helpful when dealing with mental health challenges. In research conducted by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown back in 2017, they zeroed in on the practice of gratitude to determine why study after study was showing that people who consciously express gratitude, are happier and felt less depressed.  Whereas most research studies on gratitude were conducted with well-functioning people, their research honed-in on people who were struggling with mental health challenges.  They found a number of reasons why gratitude may impact our bodies and minds, thereby positively affecting our mental health.

  1. Gratitude unshackles us from negative emotions.
    The act of writing down what we are grateful for produces better mental health by shifting our attention from toxic, negative emotions, such as resentment and envy, towards more positive emotions such as love and appreciation. When we write about what we are grateful for, and how other people have blessed our lives, it is considerably more difficult to get bogged down by negative experiences.
  2. Gratitude helps even if we don’t share it.
    The mere act of expressing gratitude has a positive impact on our mental health and is not dependent on actually communicating that gratitude to another person. Thinking of writing a gratitude letter to someone, however, don’t really want them to read it? You should write it anyway. The simple act of writing the letter helps us appreciate the people in our lives and shifts our focus away from negative feelings and thoughts.
  3. Gratitude benefits take time.
    Just like building a muscle, you can’t lift a dumbbell once or twice and expect to have biceps like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The same goes for gratitude. When we first start taking time out to be grateful, we may not immediately feel the positive effects. However, countless studies show that the more we complete this activity, the more we fire those neurotransmitters in our brains, and the more chemicals like serotonin and dopamine will be produced. The long-term benefits of expressing gratitude have been demonstrated and clearly positively impact our mental health.
  4. Gratitude has long-lasting effects on the brain.
    An interesting finding by Wong and Brown was that individuals who wrote gratitude letters showed increased neurological activity in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude as seen in the functional MRI scanner. “This finding suggests that practising gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time,” said Wong.Strategies to bring more gratitude to our lives
    Here are some proven strategies; some of them are straightforward practices that we can try on our own; some are activities that can be done regularly to elevate our sense of well-being.  Whatever you are looking for, consider the following and see how you may flood your life with gratitude.Smile!
    Research has shown that the simple act of smiling can change the way we feel, regardless of why we are smiling. Instinctively people often smile back when they see a genuine smile on someone’s face.  This can double the benefits because not only do you feel better, but you’ve created an environment where others are smiling back at you. And let’s not forget that a smile can ease a complicated social interaction in seconds, reducing the amount of stress you might feel in an otherwise awkward or difficult situation.

    Keep a gratitude journal
    Journaling has many proven benefits, including better health and greater resilience. Keeping a gratitude journal, however, brings an extra element of benefit. Writing down three things that you are grateful for on a daily basis, will allow you to enjoy the emotional lift that gratitude brings. Keeping a gratitude journal can lift depressed feelings and also help to relieve stress.

    Practice the Loving-Kindness meditation
    This form of meditation starts with focusing on positive, loving feelings towards yourself, and then branches out from there to others. The loving-kindness meditation is widely practised and brings not only the benefit of meditation, which is a huge stress reliever but also increases compassion and connection to others. This type of meditation can help you immerse yourself in the feelings of gratitude you have for all the people in your life that are important to you, and to develop greater feelings of gratitude for those with whom you may struggle.

    Stop comparing yourself
    Envy is one of those emotions that virtually every one of us falls prey to. A friend who has got the perfect relationship or crazily well-behaved children, or someone we know gets a promotion when we feel perhaps it should’ve been ours. Those of us who are prone to envy tend to compare the worst thing in our lives to the best thing in someone else’s.  Rarely do we trade entire lives with someone else and get the whole picture. Instead, we tend to pick those pieces of our life we don’t like and compare them to those parts of other people’s lives that we don’t have and wish we had.  If you find you are wrestling with the green-eyed monster, you can alter your comparisons and add in some gratitude.  If you find yourself wishing for something that someone else has, remind yourself to notice what you have and they don’t, not in a comparative way but in a way that makes you realise how lucky you are as well.

    Give a hug and say thank you
    Merely saying thank you with a quick word or embrace can go a long way to making you feel connected to others. They also will likely feel more connected to you. These fleeting experiences can translate into positive feelings on both sides of the relationship, and build stronger relationships and all the benefits that come with these.

    Plan a gratitude visit
    Think of how many people in your life have shown you kindness at some point or other – kindness that perhaps has changed your circumstances, given you something that you really needed and was important to you, or helped you in some way during a time of need. When last did you tell one of these people how much you appreciated them and what they did for you, and how it helped you in your life?  Perhaps writing a letter of gratitude and delivering it or going on a gratitude visit can bring positive feelings to those people in your life that you appreciate, and even more feelings for you! It is a significant gesture that gets even bigger benefits. So have a think about who in your life deserves a gesture of gratitude from you. It may just be a word of thanks, a warm hug or an acknowledgement of the critical role they play or have played in your life.

    On a final note
    Cultivating gratitude is really a very simple way of creating greater emotional well-being, a higher level of overall life satisfaction and a greater sense of happiness in life. Why wouldn’t you want to feel more positive and content, have oodles of serotonin and endorphins circulating in your veins, have stronger relationships with your loved ones and a greater sense of connection with your family, friends and community? It sounds like a no brainer, so what are you going to do today to start building your gratitude muscle?

Author: Leanne Wall
E: Leanne@drleannewall.com
W: drleannewall.com

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Pandemic fatigue! Do you have it and what to do about it?

Pandemic fatigue! Do you have it and what to do about it?

It has been months of stress and uncertainty. If you are anything like me, you are pining for normality.  Spring is only a few weeks away, but the end of the pandemic is not. Months of coping with a rollercoaster of emotions sparked by the stressors of quarantine, self-isolation, social-distancing, lock-downs, losses, grief, uncertainty, unpredictability and anxiety are taking a toll on our mental health.  Pandemic Fatigue is not an official medical term, as yet, however, it does describe the impact that COVID-19 stressors are having on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. So what are some of the signs you may have Pandemic Fatigue?

Signs of pandemic fatigue

  1. From being a super diligent face mask wearer and always washing your hands, you find yourself dodging those sanitiser bottles or holding your breath when passing people in the hope of not breathing in any stray viral-ladened spittle missiles.
  2. Where social distancing was part of the new normal, you find yourself leaning into conversations at the coffee shop and going in for the hug.
  3. As much as you sleep, you still feel exhausted. Napping during the workday is also not helping nor are those sleeping tablets that you borrowed from your best mate a few months ago.
  4. You are feeling less patient and more irritated, snapping at those close to you like a chihuahua.
  5. You are feeling stressed by things that you ordinarily would take in your stride.
  6. You are getting more upset and emotional about the little things that previously wouldn’t have raised your heart rate.
  7. You are feeling more hopeless about the future, and there seems to be no light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
  8. You are eating more food, drinking more alcohol because what else is there to do and perhaps using more substances than usual.
  9. Your brain feels foggy and concentrating takes a significant effort, particularly if it has anything to do with your work to-do list, house chores, gym rosters and remembering to go shopping.

Our stress response is switched on 24/7

I know my attempt as humour needs work, however on a more serious note, if you said ‘that’s me’ to one or more of the above, you may just be feeling Pandemic Fatigue. Totally normal, understandable and expected. Our bodies were never designed to be ‘switched on’ in this stress mode for months on end.

Back in caveman days, our stress or survival response was triggered for only short bursts to get us out of danger and save us from the sabre-toothed tiger. It was never designed to be switched on 24/7! Our physiological stress response has been activated for a while now, and we are running out of energy. What we need are strategies to manage our Fatigue physically, mentally and emotionally. So what can you do to help minimise the impact of Pandemic Fatigue?

Some suggestions on how to get back on track

Protect yourself and others.  Wearing masks, washing our hands, and social distancing is making a massive difference when it comes to community spread. We hear this from all the experts on TV almost nightly. Put your masks on people! Remind yourself that by doing these necessary things, you are taking control of this otherwise uncertain environment.  This in turn will make you feel more hopeful as you will start feeling that you, your family and community will stay safer.

Clean up your sleep. Have a look at your sleep routine and try and maximise the quality and quantity of slow-wave and REM sleep, so that you can re-energise your brain and sort out those folders of new information that you have learnt that day. Remember the data is clear that consistency of sleep, i.e. the time you go to sleep and wake up every day, is the most effective way to get better quality sleep.

Also sleeping in a quiet and dark room, with a temperature of between 21-23 degrees Celsius makes for an ideal sleep environment. We know that 75% of insomnia is caused by stress and stress, in turn, causes insomnia! So focusing on your sleep and general wellbeing is a no brainer if you want to get through the next few months and curb this vicious cycle.

Push the pause button when emotional. When your brain switches into survival mode, your emotional part of your brain is in the driver’s seat. So feeling more sensitive and fragile is normal. If you find yourself cranky at the moment, and your emotions are getting the better of you, push the pause button and try and remove yourself from the situation or conversation.

Taking a few deep breaths also sends the message to your brain that you are calm and therefore must be safe. So the stress response switches down a gear, or two. Once you are feeling less emotional, then tackle the conversation or situation using your wonderfully developed pre-frontal cortex or thinking brain. Responding with thought versus reacting with emotion is vital.

Get active without a major sweat.
Choose activities that you enjoy but have perhaps let slide recently. Replace walking around the block and then kicking it under the bed, with a real walk in the fresh air and on the pavement! Exercise is fantastic for stress management, and the best part is you don’t need to be running on a treadmill at speed 15. Walking at a moderate pace 3-4 times a week has been shown to have a significant impact on our stress levels. If you are walking and talking and feeling a bit puffed out, researchers say you are walking too fast.

Nurture your creativity. Engaging in activities you used to enjoy is an excellent way to feel a sense of normalcy and reconnect to your sense-of-self. It can also be a good de-stressor that will improve your concentration and focus. Maybe pick up that project at home that you’ve been putting aside for a rainy day.

Perhaps a hobby that you used to spend lots of time doing and brought you enjoyment. Get those creative juices flowing. And if you have no idea what I am banging on about, watch a funny movie that gets you laughing like there is no tomorrow. We know from research that laughter increases our naturally produced happy chemicals, including endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin.

Connection is everything. Connecting with others is super important. I know I have said this so many times in the articles I have written; however, research has proven time and time again that we are DNA wired to connect and connection is crucial for good mental health. We prioritise connecting with our tribe above all else, even having a voice in the tribe. As humans, we crave belonging. So for those introverts who are reading this, remember that connecting with a friend or a family member gets that wonderful connection hormone oxytocin to levels that can truly make you feel happy and loved.

Be clear on what you need from others. Be honest with people that you are close to if you are struggling with negative feelings. Many of us are feeling pretty crappy at the moment and are frankly quite tired of this viral environment. Merely wanting to be ‘normal’ again seems a tough ask. Often sharing how are you feeling with someone that can hold the space for you can be the difference between feeling really lonely and feeling uplifted and supported.

To get the support you need, let the other person know what it is that you want and need from them. If it is merely to be a listening ear, ask them for this. If it is advice you are after, make this clear too. There is nothing more frustrating than sharing how you feel with someone who then promptly goes into solution mode and starts providing unsolicited advice. I have no doubt the intention is well-meaning, however by and large it is not helpful in the moment. So stand your ground, be clear and ask for the support you need.

No more mind-reading. If you wake up feeling a bit irritable and impatient, let your close loved ones into the secret. They are not mind-readers.  Knowing that you’re not quite yourself and you’re feeling a bit sad, frustrated or cranky helps them understand if you don’t want to talk, or if perhaps you respond in a sharper way than usual. This doesn’t mean that you treat your family like a punching bag metaphorically. You still need to manage your emotions as best as you can and of course, are responsible for your behaviour. This is not a chance to revert back to childlike behaviours and start throwing your toys out of the cot.

Protecting your relationships and those closest to you is very important. Having more intimate connections with others who better understand you will help nourish you emotionally and help protect you against those stresses and challenging circumstances that are often out of our control.

Reach out if you are feeling lonely. For those who live alone or do not have a family or friend support structure around them, please remember that there are places you can go for support and help. Australia offers some amazing online support and resources. Lifeline (13 11 14) is just one of many who are available 24/7 and are qualified to provide you with the help you need.

No one knows precisely when this pandemic will end. The news is currently rife with information on developing vaccines and that perhaps by early next year, we will have access to this vital resource. The head of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said only last night on the news that it would take around two years for the world to get back to a healthy state. Two years, what is he thinking? However, the reality is it may very well take this long for the world to settle.

And when you are having one of those days, focus on what you can be grateful for.  I keep on pinching myself that I live in Australia. Things could be so much worse. I am grateful every day that my family are okay, and I can put my running shoes on and go for a walk under the glorious sunshine. Many others don’t have this luxury and have suffered unimaginable losses. It is this fact that keeps me moving forward and hopeful that this pandemic too will come to an end.

 

Author: Dr Leanne Wall (MBBCh. BSc. Grad Dip Counselling)
m: +61 (0) 409 216 289
e: leanne@drleannewall.com
w: www.drleannewall.com
l: linkedin.com/in/leanne-wall-730a3142

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Why do men feel so alone?

Why do men feel so alone?

I was reading an article yesterday written by Professor Sarah Niblock, CEO of the United Kingdom (UK) Council for Psychotherapy. According to Niblock, a survey was conducted during the month of ‘Movember’ in 2019, in which men were asked whether they had people outside their homes they could confide in about their worries. Half said they had two or fewer friends and one in eight had none. In the context of the UK, this meant that 2.5 million men had no close friends. Even worse is that men’s friendlessness trebles between their 20s and late middle age, said Niblock.

This got me wondering about the stats in Australia, not to mention how they have been impacted by Covid-19 landing on our shores a few months ago. Given isolation has been shown to have both physical and mental health implications, this is vital information to be aware of. In fact, research shows that loneliness is as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and there is a correlation between loneliness and coronary heart disease, strokes and depression.

In 2014, Beyond Blue published that almost 25% of Australian men aged 30-65 (~1 million) were at risk of isolation. Around 25% had no one outside of their immediate family to rely on; 61% had lost contact with more friends than they would have liked to and 50% of men rarely talked about deeply personal issues even if they did have friends. Relationships Australia (2018), showed that men tend to report higher levels of loneliness than women and the stats are on the incline.

According to a June 2020 article published by Human Resources Director, ‘on average, one in eight men experiences depression and one in five faces anxieties at some stage in their life. This can lead to devastating results, with men accounting for six out of eight suicides on average each day in Australia.

Moreover, the economic impact of COVID-19 has heightened many men’s anxiety around securing income and the weight of responsibility for protecting family members with 62.1% of men expressing anxiety during the pandemic.  Some men may be unable to work from home, and therefore may feel at risk of contracting the virus at work, while others may be feeling isolated and miss the social connection offices provide’.

But why do so many men find it difficult to put up their hand if they are struggling or feeling lonely?  A common theme I see in the work I do is that many men feel they have to be self-reliant. Statements like ‘Suck it up’ and’ Don’t cry like a girl’ frequently litter their childhood memories. Admitting they have a problem, expressing their deepest feelings or discussing a serious personal topic can be viewed as a sign of weakness for men, and so many men don’t venture there. Instead, they bottle it up and put on a brave face for as long as they can. When it comes to stress levels, bottled up emotions are a sure way to switch on their fight, flight or freeze response resulting in detrimental short and long term effects on their health, physically, mentally and emotionally.

The way we were raised can have a significant impact on how we view loneliness. For some men, it is often challenging to recognise feelings of loneliness in the first place. The differences in how boys and girls behave are not hardwired at birth, rather embedded through how we are socialised. Boys ‘don’t cry’ is a social construct, not a behavioural one. Typically, girls were allowed to express their feelings and cry if they were upset or frustrated. This was seen as acceptable by parents and teachers and part of being a girl. This meant girls learnt to talk about their feelings, express themselves, and these verbal skills were valued by adults in their lives. Boys, in contrast, were more likely to be shut down, which for many, resulted in an inability to express and talk about their emotions. Particularly if they are struggling, feeling vulnerable or lonely.

Having a partner and a family can help ward off the negative effects of loneliness, but what if a man’s personal circumstances change? After a relationship break up, a bereavement or the need to isolate due to Covid-19, some men find their friends may drift away, and they have no one to talk to. Social media can play some part in reconnecting; however, it does not replace face to face connection. Social activities such as playing a team sport are also not for everyone, and if a man is already feeling lonely and isolated, their confidence may be too low to enter these environments and connect over a shared interest. And then there is the danger of self-medicating to overcome their loneliness. In some male-dominated social environments drinking alcohol is encouraged, which in the short term may provide some solace; however, in the long run, may exacerbate the mental health effects of isolation.  So, what are some of the things men can do to help avoid loneliness in the first place?

Start with small talk.
Yes, I know. I sometimes feel like I would rather donate a kidney than have to engage in small talk; however, it can play a big part in breaking the ice. Try making small talk with someone who is in the same takeaway coffee queue or when zapping your lunch in the work lunchroom if you are back in the office. Yes, it will probably feel awkward at first, but these small conversations can help you feel less alone and isolated. A short chat with a fellow co-worker may become a beer after work on a Friday.

Mix with like-minded people
Think about what you are into – music, sport, books, video games. Maybe there is a club near you where you can meet up with like-minded people. Another option is Meetup, which is free and designed to bring people together who enjoy similar things or activities. Fitness, sport, photography, dancing…pretty much anything.

Get moving
Not only does exercise help us stay fit and is an excellent short-term stress management strategy, but it is also a way to meet new people. The good thing about sport and exercise is that it occurs regularly, so there is less pressure to make a good impression at a one-time meeting. Perhaps you have a friend that enjoys walking or a game of golf. Give them a call and meet up with them for a quick 9 or 18 holes.

Online connection
Although research shows that face to face relationships are better, connecting online may be the first step. Whether you are chatting with someone, playing your favourite game or directly contributing to a group chat with like-minded people, connecting online is a great way to battle loneliness. It may also build your confidence to take the step into joining face to face. You have already built up a rapport online and learnt something about them as a person.

Make plans
When we are feeling very lonely and feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel, we might become antisocial without even realising it. Before we know it, we are turning down opportunities to hang out. Challenge yourself to get out and be sociable at least once a week. Plan it in your schedule, so you don’t forget, and you can work your time around it. Maybe SMS that friend that you haven’t spoken to in a long time or have lost touch with. They will probably be happy to hear from you.

Fly solo
If asking someone to have a beer with you is just not your thing, why not head to a local spot and hang out with a good book or magazine. Find a place where you feel comfortable to relax, such as at your local café, a shopping centre or your local library. The first couple of times may feel a tad awkward, and you may think that people are eyeballing you, but they probably aren’t. A regular chill spot also creates an excellent opportunity to meet new people. Turning up on a regular basis will allow you to meet other regulars, and you might spark up a conversation.

Start journaling
Not all of us are into journaling; however, research shows that processing your emotions by writing them down is a great way to battle loneliness. It will also help you to become clearer on where your head is at. You can scribble your thoughts in a notebook, jot down some lyrics, or collect your thoughts in a word document on your laptop. Try the journaling app called Day One if this is something you think may be useful to you.

Care for a pet
Talk about unconditional love! Animals are a great way to make us feel connected and cared for. Pets, especially cats and dogs, can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and ease loneliness. You don’t have to own a pet, try pet minding if you don’t want the long term responsibility. Walking your neighbour’s dog occasionally could be an option, and you may even meet a fellow animal lover.

Give back
Volunteering is an excellent way to give back to your local community and do something meaningful. Countless charities need volunteers, and Govolunteer.com.au is a great place to start looking for opportunities near you.

Seek Support
For those of you who despite trying different strategies to connect still feel lonely, get some professional support. A doctor, a psychologist, a counsellor or a psychotherapist. If you need it, your doctor can help you complete a mental health plan that will enable you to access counselling services or visit a psychologist. It’s okay to get the support you need.

There are also several support programs specifically designed to support men’s loneliness.

  1. Australian Men’s Shed Association– mensshed.org. It’s all in the name – the Men’s Shed Association is all about building, whether it’s furniture or friendships. With over 985 locations around Australia, chances are there’s a shed near you.
  2. Men’s Line – https://www.mensline.org.au/. Men’s Line is a phone and online support service that offers ‘male-friendly’ counselling that can ensure your privacy and anonymity. It also features an active forum where men come together to give each other advice, guidance and support.
  3. Man Therapy – https://www.mantherapy.org.au. Man Therapy is an initiative by Beyond Blue to help men understand and respond to their depression. Described as a toolkit, it gives men strategies and guidance on how to approach and cope with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Don’t forget that everyone has times when they feel lonely. Taking even just a few of the steps above can help reduce your isolation and should help you start to feel better.

Author: Dr Leanne Wall (BSc. MBBCh. Grad. Dip Counselling)
email: leanne@drleannewall.com
website: www.drleannewall.com

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How do you manage other people’s bad moods without getting cranky yourself?

How do you manage other people’s bad moods without getting cranky yourself?

In my line of work, I get to hear a lot about people’s problems and related emotions. Be these at work or at home, with family, friends or that demanding boss.  Many of us are dealing with challenges that if we let them, can make us cranky. And what we focus on we tend to get. The crankier we feel, the more likely we are to notice the negative things happening around us, which in turn makes us even more irritable. You might imagine that all the anger, frustration, anxiety and shame felt by my clients would surely impact my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Without effective skills to manage their emotions, I have no doubt this could and would occur. Emotional overload, vicarious trauma and eventual burnout. So what can we do to help manage the impact other people’s emotions can have on us?

The first step is having awareness of both our own emotions and the emotions of others. The second is practising skills to effectively manage the impact that other people’s moods and difficult emotions can have on us. And in reality, anyone can do this.  So if you find yourself being negatively impacted by other people’s emotions, here are five specific skills I have learned that help me effectively and respectfully handle other people’s difficult emotions. The upside is with practice, you will create new neural pathways in your brain that will enable you to tap into these skills whenever you need to. This in turn will help you keep your cool in all relationships, especially the important ones – your significant other, your boss, kids, parents, friends and work colleagues.

1. Replace judgement with curiosity
I’m not sure about you, but when I grew up, strong emotions weren’t tolerated. If someone was in a bad mood, they were told to get over it ‘quick smart’, particularly if you were a child in the family. Strong emotions such as anger, frustration and sadness were often seen as negative emotions and needed to be fixed. Emotions such as happiness and joy were labelled positive and acceptable; however, negative emotions were judged unacceptable and a sign of immaturity or loss of control. Not surprisingly as a young adult, I found it challenging to deal with other people’s strong emotions and I would often judge them for their inability to get their ‘s%^&t’ together.

It took a post-graduate degree in counselling for me to realise that this judgemental mindset was neither helpful nor set in stone. I recall a lecturer saying that to serve those in emotional turmoil, we need to replace judgement with curiosity. With this lens of curiosity, it’s much easier to acknowledge and validate their emotions, showing understanding and empathy, which is what most people experiencing strong, painful emotions really need.

I learnt that it was essential to be aware of our own self-talk when someone we care about is very emotional. How do we think about emotions? Are they good or bad? Are they triggering something in us that we learnt growing up?

Maybe your go-to position is:

  • Can’t they see that these emotions are no good for them?
  • Can’t they see that they are having an impact on the people around them?
  • How can they be so selfish and self-indulgent?
  • I wish they would just get on with it like I do when I am feeling like this – just move on!

Instead, substitute more curiosity-driven questions:

  • What is happening in their world at the moment that is making them feel this way? 
  • What kinds of circumstance might have happened to make them feel this way?
  • What is the benefit to them of feeling this way? Are they getting something out of it?

Shifting from a lens of judgement to curiosity changes our mindset enabling us to support others in an emotionally-intense situation. When someone close to you is in a bad mood, try to understand how and why they are feeling the way they are rather than judging them for being emotional.

2. Stop problem-solving and start listening
When someone you care about is upset and emotional, what is your first go-to strategy? Without a doubt, the most common mistake people make in how they communicate with each other is that they get stuck in “Advice giving or fix-it mode.” Especially couples!

When someone close to us is cranky, anxious, frustrated or seems to be down in the dumps, we often think we need to fix them. But as I have learnt the hard way, offering advice to someone who is in the midst of a bad mood is typically unhelpful at best and often counterproductive.

Can you think of a time when you were in a bad mood and started describing how you were feeling to your significant other, a family member or a friend? Before you were three sentences in, they were already coming up with ideas as to how you could fix ‘your’ problem. Offering advice about what you should or shouldn’t do and telling you that being upset about it is a waste of time and energy. How frustrated did you feel? No doubt the person that you were talking to could probably see your pain and struggling, and therefore their natural reaction was to try and alleviate your pain and make you feel better. Not to mention, make themselves feel better.

But here’s the thing, most people struggling with emotions don’t want someone to fix their pain or to find a solution to their problem, they just want to feel heard and understood.  This is one of the most counterintuitive but universally true laws of human psychology in my opinion. And once you start believing this and acting on it, everybody around you starts feeling better.

So how can we shift our mindset from problem-solver to helping people feel understood? Reflective listening is the answer. What this means is that when someone tells you something, all you need to do is reflect back to them what they just said, either using their exact words or putting it in your own words. It’s like being their mirror. This tells the person two things, firstly that you are listening and secondly that you understand how they are feeling. If what you say back to them is not accurate, it also allows them to explain it again.

Here are examples to get you thinking of what reflective listening could look like in your relationships:

Your significant other: “You never really listen to me!  You’re always just trying to solve my problems and get back to watching TV.”
The usual response: “The last thing I want to hear is all your issues when I get back from work. All I want to do is relax and watch TV. Can’t you talk to me later?”
Reflective listening: “What I hear you say is that you don’t feel heard by me and that all I’m focusing on is trying to solve your problems.”

Your friend: “My boss was so rude to me today and made me feel like a banana in front of my team when he reprimanded me about a report I hadn’t completed properly.”
The usual response: “But why didn’t you finish the report, of course, he’s gonna be upset with you.”
Reflective listening: “It sounds like you were really embarrassed by your boss and what he said to you in front of your team.” 

Now, I know you might be sitting there saying “Really!” but it works and is a tool frequently used by counsellors and coaches. The reason is, it’s not about what you are saying, it’s about how they feel and the fact that they are feeling heard. The value of being their mirror is that it helps them feel like you are with them, you’re connected and understand where they are coming from, not to mention that you have their back.  By being the mirror to another person’s experience, you’re giving them a genuine connection versus trying to fix them.

3. Putting on your own shoes
Empathy is our ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and ‘feel’ the way they must be feeling. Having empathy is a critical skill for relationship building. Another way that you could do this is through reverse empathy – by putting yourself in your own shoes and trying to remember a time where you perhaps felt the strong emotion the other person is feeling. Maybe it was anger or frustration or a deep sense of sadness. Try and recall a time where you struggled with these emotions, how they felt and what mood you were in.

For example, if they’re really frustrated and angry, think back to when you were so frustrated or angry, you couldn’t even think straight:

  • What happened to get you so angry?
  • What thoughts and emotions were going through your mind?
  • What did the people around you do or not do?
  • And importantly, what do you remember wanting, needing, or wishing for when you felt that way?

Often, reverse empathy can help you appreciate someone else’s emotions and struggle because it’s based on your own experiences in the moment, rather than what you think they must be feeling. And the more you can connect with your emotional responses, the better the chance of being genuinely helpful and supportive to the other person, not to mention being less reactive and emotional yourself.

4. Respond versus react
Have you ever found that other people’s bad moods have stirred up emotions in you? Your significant other is miserable, and you find yourself getting frustrated. Perhaps your boss is anxious and micromanaging, which tends to make you feel anxious too. Maybe a parent is irritable, and you respond with annoyance and a sarcastic dig.

Allowing our emotions to overtake how we’re feeling about a situation, means that we have limited emotional and mental bandwidth to deal with the mood of the other person.  This is the reason why we often react to other people’s bad moods in a way that ultimately isn’t helpful to them, to us or our relationship.

The best way to manage this is by simply acknowledging and validating our own emotions and telling ourselves that it’s okay to feel this way and that how we are feeling is reasonable.  As an example, suppose your significant other has been in a bad mood the whole evening because of something that happened at work. They are impatient, frustrated, and generally painful to be around. There are also no signs of them shifting their mood, and they are totally self-absorbed in their own misery. While you’ve managed to be supportive for the first couple of hours and showed interest in their story, you can feel yourself starting to get annoyed with them.

Rather than 1) allowing your annoyance to get the better of you and saying something unhelpful, or 2) judging them and their inability to get over it or 3) becoming judgemental of yourself for feeling annoyed, you could validate your own annoyance.  This could take the form of a few seconds of pause, during which you acknowledge how you’re feeling, remind yourself that it’s okay and natural to feel this way and then ask yourself ‘what is the most helpful way’ you could move forward. These few seconds of pause allow you to calm the emotional centre of your brain and get your rationale brain back in the driver’s seat.

5. Control what is in your circle of influence
If someone you care about is in a bad mood, there is nothing you can do to make them feel better. Now, this may sound counterintuitive because many of us think that if someone’s miserable, we can make them feel happy by doing something, or saying something. In reality, however, the only thing we can control is how we show up. We cannot control how another person feels or doesn’t feel, that is entirely their choice.

A common error I see many people make when trying to deal with other people’s bad moods is to think it is their responsibility to make that person feel better. The reality is we can only be responsible for the things that we can control and influence. Emotions by their nature are not directly under our control, and therefore we are not responsible for our emotions. We are however responsible for our behaviour and how we think as a result of these emotions.

When we feel responsible for things outside of our control, we set ourselves up for unnecessary frustration, disappointment and resentment. However, when we are clear on what we can control, i.e. our behaviour and thinking, then we are less likely to get frustrated. In summary, because you can’t directly control how someone feels you’re not responsible for it. When you stop taking on the responsibility of making someone feel better, you can start focusing your time and energy on what you can do to connect with them in a heartfelt way and become genuinely supportive.

A final word
Humans are DNA wired to connect. We crave belonging, finding our tribe and forging strong relationships. Emotions are part of what makes us human. Being able to understand and regulate our own emotions and having the skills to support others who are experiencing strong emotions is key to healthy relationships. The more we practise these skills, the better we become at managing the highs and lows of human connection. It is like building a muscle. The healthier our relationships and the stronger our sense of belonging and connection, the better our mental, physical and emotional health. So the next time someone close to you comes home in a grumpy mood, question with curiosity, mirror their emotions, put on your own emotional shoes and focus on what you can control!

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