All posts by Brett McDonald

Technology and teens: Social media as a social weapon

Depressed Teenage Boy Lying In Bedroom With Pills

I recently met with the principal of a local high school. We were discussing the ways that social media has made the lives of teenagers more complex and perilous.”When I was a kid, if you wanted to spread a rumor about someone, you had to get off your ass and go tell people in person. Now, with the push of a few buttons, everyone at school (and everyone they know) can hear any rumor, any insult. I can’t imagine how much pressure that puts on young people these days, and the damage that can be done so easily.” I said.

“It’s really bad in our schools, I feel like I am constantly trying to put out fires caused by facebook, twitter, snapchat, etc.” responds my friend.

As a mental health professional, particularly one who specializes in eating disorders, the ways that social media affect teenage mental health is of particular concern to me. Statistically, depression in teens rose drastically at the same time that we became saturated with technology. Is technology causing a decline in teenage emotional wellbeing? Well, of course correlation doesn’t prove causation, but there are a lot of variables that are introduced by technology that theoretically would predict a decline in mental health. Social bullying is just one way that teens are emotionally compromised by technology. Teenage social systems are complicated enough as it is, just considering hormonal changes, the struggle to define self and roles, the ever-changing group connections that characterize the formative personality. But the invention of instantaneous public outlets causes the impulsive choices that accompany teen life to turn into very powerful social weapons. It is so easy wreak havoc in someone else’s life, and if that person is poised on an emotional precipice, this could be the instigation of major depression or suicide.

As adults, it is incumbent upon us to educate kids about how social media is also a social weapon. We need to make kids aware of the painful result of thoughtless posting, and teach them how to use social media responsibly. Kids should be encouraged look out for each other on these public forums. If a cruel post is made, I hope my kids stand up to the person being cruel, because teens are particularly susceptible to public chastisement. If the overall consensus was that bullying is unacceptable, kids would think twice before attacking someone on these forums. Social media is also a way to be alerted when a friend is in need of help. Being vigilant to signs that a friend needs adult intervention is a great way to teach your teen to help others. If you are a parent, please encourage your kid’s school to offer a course on social responsibility, emphasizing the importance of the proper use of social media.

Can we afford to leave our kids uneducated, expecting them to navigate the increasingly complex dynamics of our changing society without guidance? And if we do fail to provide education, should we be so surprised that the mental health of our kids continues to decline? I think the deterioration of mental health in kids should be a wake-up call that we, as parents, as adults, need to step up how we prepare kids to maintain emotional health.

Is strength your biggest weakness?

Illustration of a sad superhero

What makes you strong? Think a second about how you define strength. Usually, people conceptualize a ‘strong’ person as someone who is independent, not overwhelmed by emotions, giving to others, protective of others, stabilizing to the social system around them, able to push through to a goal and get things done, focused on achievements, quick to forgive, low-drama, someone who thinks of others before themselves, someone who holds themselves highly accountable, someone with self-discipline. American culture particularly defines strength in these parameters and we are often taught habits at a very young age that perpetuate this view of strength. However, further examination reveals some critical downsides to the psychological and social habits of self-sacrifice and being fixated on achievements.

Your values, and how you define strength and virtue, will guide your interactions within yourself and within your relationships, which in turn determines your ability to meet your human needs. Pursuing “strength” can make a person more likely to sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of another, protect people at the cost of protecting the self, refuse to ask for help or nurturing, and be unable or unwilling to express tender and vulnerable emotions. These ideals can cause you to overlook the value of experiences so that you may give more energy to the ‘worthier’ pursuit of serving others and achieving outcomes. Your ability to remain psychologically and socially healthy comes from your ability to meet needs mutually between self and others, as well as your ability to both meet your experiential as well as your achievement needs. Being too heavily focused on the needs of others and the achievements in your life can lead to unmet needs in yourself and a lack of experiential nurturing.

Remaining in balance requires you to allow yourself to understand and nurture your needs and to invite others to understand and nurture your needs. If achievements and doing for others is the only worthy goal, the only good use of available time and energy, what happens to your own sense of self-worth? If you always sacrifice yourself for someone else’s wellbeing (or convenience) what does that teach you about your own value? If you always expect yourself to be more accountable to others than they are to you, what does that do to your ability to remain safe in relationships? If you define your worth solely by the goals you accomplish and how much you ‘get done’, what does that say about the value of your living experience? Is being ‘strong’ getting you closer to loving yourself, if self-love is defined by the act of placing your needs as a priority in the greater social scheme? Are you merely defined by what you can do to serve and achieve, and if so wouldn’t you be better off having been born a robot?

Be careful with your ‘strength’. Bottom line, you believe everything you do. Chronic self-sacrifice and unemotional achievement-focus leads you to lose self-worth, and it leads to unmet needs. Unmet needs lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, loss of relationship security and intimacy. There is no weaker way to be than caught in the ‘strength trap’.

Use the platinum rule as often as you us the golden rule. What’s the platinum rule? Treat yourself as well as you would someone else, and expect from them what you would give to them. Be fair to yourself as you are to those around you. Do unto self as you would do unto others.

About the author

Brett McDonald, M.S.  Author

Brett McDonald, M.S.,  founder of dragonflymind.org, writes her posts based on the unifying theme of Relational Exchange Therapy. A mental health therapist with over 10 years experience, she created RET as a new modality for treatment of eating disorders, and she has since found strong applications for its use with a variety of mental health and social issues. Brett is the clinical director of The Dragonfly Retreat, where she and her partner, Sifu Joseph Simonet, work jointly to lead people suffering from eating disorders and other mental illness out of the symptom trap and onto the road of recovery. Brett is a regular columnist for Personal Development Cafe, and she is in the process of writing a series of books about Relational Exchange Therapy. To read more about RET, visit her                                 website,                          thedragonflyretreat,com. (go to philosopy tab, “What is RET?)

Are you unlovable?

Couple at the Park

Of course not. What a horrible title for an article. Everyone is lovable. The question is, are you BEING lovable. That is something else. In order for me to explain what being lovable means, I have to first describe how I define love. There are few topics more written and sung about than love. It’s everywhere, and for good reason. It’s probably the most compelling issue for the human mind, which is a wonderful reality. To me though, love is a verb. It is an exchange of energy between two people. This energy takes the form of attunement (what we understand about another, what they understand about us) and nurturing (the behaviors that take care of another, the things the other person does to take care of us). When attunement and nurturing cycle back and forth, me to you, you to me, that is love. So there are a lot of different kinds of love but all have the same essential qualities. In order to be in love, you have to understand and appropriately respond to another person, and they to you.

Back to ‘being’ lovable. Sometimes our ability to exchange attunement and nurturing (the love energy flow) is blocked. It can be blocked when one person is not attuned enough to herself, to the point that she cannot possibly communicate her needs to her partner because she doesn’t know her needs. This interrupts the love exchange. Sometimes, as the case with antisocial and narcissistic personalities, the individual is unwilling to give understanding and nurturing to his partner. He is too caught up in keeping that energy in for himself, while at the same time he unfairly expects his partner to always be giving love to him. This person is also being unlovable. Perhaps one person cannot accept accommodation from his partner because doing so makes him feel selfish, or he is way too caught up in giving out to his partner’s needs. All these people are being unlovable in one way or another.

There are lots of ways that the love exchange gets interrupted, and we all have some interruptions and imbalances. Nevertheless, it is in our basic human psychological and social nature to love. In order to be more lovable, take the time to reflect on your own barriers and imbalances in the love exchange. Ask people who know you, “what blocks you from giving me attunement and nurturing?” “Do I refuse to let you understand me and take care of me?” “Have you received enough attunement and nurturing from me? If not, why not?”

Being lovable is a lot like being fit. We all have the capacity to achieve it, but sustaining it requires conscientious effort. Remember, how much you are loved has less to do with your personality and more to do with your exchange of relational energy. In the end, we are all lovable (but some of us are better looking than others and you just can’t get around that part).

Outcome v. Process-Focused personalities: which are you?

“My wife and her family take absolutely forever to do anything. The other day we were hanging pictures and I swear there were 6 of them standing around, debating the exact arrangement of each item on the wall. As soon as they would settle on something, one would raise an issue and the whole endeavor would start all over again. I practically wanted to scream!” says Darren. He takes a sip of his coffee and chuckles to himself. “She has always been that way, even when I married her 30 years ago.”

“Well, congratulations for not landing yourself on the news! Seems like you are a lot more patient with Karen than you were 6 months ago.” I responded.

He says, “Yeah, I kind of have to be. I decided that despite all her flaws and all my frustrations with her, there’s no other way I would rather be than married to her. Still, I would like to work on not being so impatient with her, maybe you can help me.”

“That, and my amazing coffee, is why you come see me. So your personality is really logical. You like to get things done in an orderly and efficient manner. In fact, I think you tend to measure the success of an event by the goals that were reached in ratio to the time/resources that were spent. Am I right?” I ask.

“As usual you have me pegged.”

“Well, you know how I like to categorize people, and I have been working on a new people category. It has to do with the emphasis with which we approach the things we do.”

It breaks down like this

Outcome-oriented people: highly organized, goal-directed, linear, expedient, they see the value of doing a thing as measured by the outcome that was garnered from it. But as much as they get more done, they tend to be more easily frustrated, can be susceptible to missing out on emotional and experiential side of life because they are too fixated on the end product.

Process-oriented people: More disorganized, spontaneous, they do things mostly for the experience of doing things. They are much more ‘in the moment’ and are able to savor the process as being intrinsically valuable. Process-oriented people are more emotionally nurtured and nurturing, but they can struggle in getting things done on time or at all.

It can be a challenge for highly outcome-oriented people to get along with process-oriented people and vice versa. Outcome oriented people can become frustrated and impatient with process-oriented people. Process-oriented people find outcome-oriented people pushy, un-nurturing, no fun and sometimes judgmental. The trick, if you are clearly one type or the other type, is to remember that there is value to be found in the process of a task as well as the outcome. If you are used to focusing on outcomes, but are inthe company of process-oriented people, remember to slow down, embrace the experience and recognize that there is a significant amount of self and other-nurturing that happens when the value of a moment is embraced. if you are process-oriented dealing with an outcome-oriented person, challenge yourself to be patient with where their value lies, and try not to take their frustration and task-focus personally.

“Darren, you are lucky in that Karen and you form a yin-yang. You balance each other out and that is exactly what makes you work as a couple. Remember not to resent her for being your ‘yin’ because that is exactly what you need her to be.”

Actualizing your goals (part 1): conservation is key

Ever been so busy you can’t get anything done? So many of us find this paradoxical scenario a frustrating reality. Maybe you have identified a fulfilling and meaningful goal, but so many other things are interrupting your time and energy, you make agonizingly slow forward progress. Or, even worse, you are so tied up into focusing on tasking that you have no time or mental space to devote to even knowing what your real life goals are. This is the first of a 2-part series on ways to gain traction with your goals by identifying and addressing sources of inefficiency and entropy.

Let’s start with entropy–the things that drain your momentum and focus. Most of the time it isn’t that we are lazy and unmotivated, but rather that we are being sapped by commitments that are not in line with the fulfilling path. Successful people are good at saying ‘no’ to things that derail and diffuse their goal-focus and targeted effort. They are judicious about where they put energy and they guard time and mental space effectively. This is because having forward momentum on a positive course is about knowing when to push forth effort and when to hold back, when to commit to a task and when to take a pass. Trying harder, taking on extra projects, accepting assignments and doing more to convenience others does not always lead to progress with meaningful goals. Indiscriminately doing things just because it conveniences and pleases others can be a fast track to nowhere. Successful people know this and are able to make the distinction between what gets them closer to a goal and what gets them farther away.

One big source of entropy is when we place the accommodation of other people’s goals over the accommodation of our own goals. So how do we get stuck in a cycle of giving excessive amounts of energy away? In a nutshell, this happens when there is an imbalance of social currents. In every moment, you must navigate the ‘inward current’ (your own wants and needs) and the ‘outward current’ (the wants and needs of others). A thousand times per day you must decide whether to act on your own behalf or whether to act on the behalf of someone else. Navigating the social current can be tough because what you need will often interface and conflict with what those around you need. Bottom line, if you tie up all your time and focus doing what everyone else wants you to do, there will be nothing left to propel you toward a fulfilling life course. Then you find yourself exhausted, resentful, overwhelmed and disappointed, stuck living other people’s agenda. Of course, no one wants to be selfish and unhelpful, but fear of appearing as such leads us to   overcompensate to the point that saying ‘no’ is like eating broken glass. So the first step is to challenge the negative labels you put on yourself every time you choose your agenda over the agenda of someone else. A good way to see a different perspective is to turn the tables. “Would it be OK for her to say ‘no’ if she were me?” If yes, then it is probably acceptable for you to say ‘no’ as well.

Another way to achieve balance is to examine the lens through which you view other people to whom you drain energy. Is it a bit too rosy? Do you need a healthy dose of cynicism? Here, I’ll loan you some of mine– A hard fact to accept is that most people are not very judicious about what they ask from you. Most people will allow you to accommodate them as much as you are willing to accommodate them, even to the point that it is having profoundly negative consequences for you. Here’s the real kicker–the more you accommodate others, the worse it feels to say ‘no’. You become even more worried that they will feel negatively toward you for refusing to help, you feel even more sure that everything will fall apart if you aren’t there to shoulder other people’s burdens. Sustaining an imbalance between your needs and the needs of others tends to redouble the very beliefs and feelings that create the imbalances in the first place. People ask even more of you as you over-accommodate them, and the more you give, the more guilty you feel for not giving more. This makes you less likely to refuse their requests in the future, and the cycle continues. The biggest trap of all is the one you don’t even know you are in.

To actualize your fulfilling life course, pull back sometimes and don’t flood yourself out to the never-ending requests from other people. Remember to be mindful of your own inappropriate guilt. Rethink the looming catastrophe you imagine will result from you saying ‘no’. Be judicious in your giving. Save some you for you.

Feeding the bully monster

Girl with hands signaling to stop in black and whiteBecause I work with a population of teenage girls, the issue of bullying comes up frequently. Usually, bullying is seen as a one-directional behavior–someone is abusing and manipulating another person. However, I see bullying as an interaction. The fuel for this dynamic comes from the choices and behaviors of both parties, leading to the lopsided and damaging interpersonal transaction that defines bullying. Recognizing this duality is not blaming the victim, but rather empowering someone on the receiving end of bullying to fight back (without having to actually fight). One very powerful element of this interplay is when the bullied person unwittingly protects the bully. This phenomenon came to my awareness when I was talking with a 15-year old client named Sarah. She was telling me about the litany of cruel and nasty things that other girls who are supposedly ‘friends’ will say to her on a weekly basis. I could see the amount of pain, embarrassment and loss of confidence that she was suffering. Instead of whipping out the traditional assertiveness skills toolkit, I took the time to listen to her explain her experience, and a much more interesting and insidious dynamic emerged.
I asked Sarah what she does when her friends say nasty and insulting things to her.
“Well usually there is a crowd around us and I don’t want to make everyone feel uncomfortable by saying something confrontational. Plus I don’t want to make the person who said it seem like a bad person in front of everyone. My mom tells me that I need to grow thicker skin, so I am just going to work on doing that.”

“I guess if you had thick skin you could take all kinds of abuse” I replied sarcastically (yes, sarcasm is one of my favorite therapeutic interventions).

“Most of the time I just end up laughing it off like it’s no big deal. It’s weird but I find myself apologizing to the person hurting me. I wonder why I do that. I don’t know, lately I have felt like maybe I don’t deserve to be treated better.” She starts to cry.

It kills me. “I think you deserve a lot better treatment from yourself.”

Sarah gives me a confused look

“So, remember when I said you believe everything you do? Maybe what you are doing in these situations is lowering your self-worth.”

Bristling a bit, she says “But I’m not the one saying bad things about myself, it’s them saying it.”

“For sure, but think about this: if you saw a close friend being bullied, would you laugh it off and tell your friend to apologize?”

“Of course not! I would stand up for them.”

“It would be awful not to. Yet you apologize and laugh it off when people are cruel to you. So, you are sending yourself the message that you are to blame for the cruelty and that the need to prevent any awkwardness in the crowd is more important than your emotional well-being. Without realizing it, you are protecting the very person who is abusing you. To your self-worth, this is devastating because you are throwing yourself under the bus so you can protect your bully from being called on her bullspit. Unfortunately, bullies feed on your power. They thrive on the apologies you give them, they like that you protect them from having to take accountability for how they treat you. You are rewarding your bully, which just causes the bullying behavior to escalate.”

“Wow, I never thought of it that way. It has never occurred to me that was what I was doing but it makes complete sense.”

“Of course it does, I’m a genius!”

She throws a pillow at me

Feeling the Balance Part 2: “Avoiding the pain trap”

Keeping a balance between feeling enough to attune to yourself and feeling too much to the point that you are emotionally ‘hijacked’ can be a tricky thing. When you are overwhelmed with your emotions, unfortunately you sacrifice some ability to understand yourself, others and your situation. When something hurts really badly, all you can focus on is the pain, and all you can respond to is the pain. Pain-focus can cause us to seek out behaviors that are not really nurturing to our needs, but are more geared toward distracting, escaping and numbing emotional pain. There is a huge difference between nurturing your emotional needs and reacting to pain. For instance, say you are very depressed. All you think about is how sad, disappointed and failure-oriented your life and self is. This pain-focused lens is neither accurate nor helpful. As long as you are in that mental space, you will over-emphasize negatives and failures, you will under-emphasize the positives and the strengths of yourself and your life. The behaviors associated with depression are often geared only to numbing that pain. Drinking, drug use, cutting, withdrawing from people, sleeping excessively, watching excessive amounts of TV or engaging in promiscuous and risky behaviors are all aimed at distracting yourself and avoiding pain. However, none of those behaviors are actually geared toward meeting your true needs. They don’t solve any problems, cultivate any relationship intimacy or move you toward a better footing with your life. This digs you deeper into the depression, because depression is the result of unmet needs. To pull yourself out of this downward spiral, focus your attention on really UNDERSTANDING what you feel and why, and communicate with others so you can receive their understanding and nurturing. Remember, pain breeds more pain–don’t numb what you feel, but don’t get caught in the trap of having pain obscure your true needs.

Feeling the balance (part 1): just say ‘no’ to numb

man walking on tightrope vector illustrationWhen navigating your emotional world, it is important to feel enough to get your needs met, but not become flooded with emotionality to the point that solutions can’t be realized. Let’s start with what it means to feel enough. To me, it means you can listen to yourself, know when to take steps to better meet your needs, respond when your boundaries are being violated, and communicate your experiences with others. Our physical and psychological feelings are tools that let us know when we are in need. Physical feelings are sensations like hunger, thirst, pain, exhaustion, too hot, too cold, etc. Without this information, we wouldn’t know how to take care of our bodies. We would eventually die from thirst or heat exhaustion or injury because we never felt the discomfort associated with not responding to the body’s needs. Well, the mind is in this respect a very similar system, but instead of having physical sensations, we have emotional ones. When we are sad, angry, bored, passionate, indignant, frustrated or anxious, these are signals that a need has arisen and requires attending to. This attending can take the form of seeking nurturing from others, seeking nurturing from self, enforcing a boundary, engaging in a fulfilling behavior, or pursuing solitude, etc. Our capacity to respond to the emotional and psychological needs we have are what determines the mental and social wellbeing we enjoy. Without feelings, we have no compass, no means of navigation, ultimately leading to loneliness, lack of fulfillment, depression, anxiety or other psychological disorders. For some reason, in our society we tend to associate feelings with negative character traits. We equate emotional effusiveness with lack of control, weakness, instability and self-indulgence. Taking time to care for one’s own feelings or asking emotional care from others is often seen as a self-pitying burden. We place way too much importance on being independent and “under control” in our culture. This causes us to gravitate toward numbing important emotions for the sake of avoiding emotional expression and the corresponding negative labels we place on ourselves. To seek emotional balance, take time to understand and challenge the beliefs you have about your own feeling states. The more attentive you are to your emotional experience and the more you invite others to focus on and nurture you emotionally, the better off you will be psychologically and socially.

Living your to-do list isn’t really living

I was sitting with a woman in a lovely sequined dress at a banquet ball, nursing an $8 liquid starburst. She casually asked me what I do for a living, and I told her I treat eating disorders. “It seems that most people have one eating disorder or another–like me for instance, I just can’t seem to lose that last 20lb no matter how hard I try. I wish I knew what my overeating triggers were.”

“Sometimes what triggers us to overeat actually comes from a much deeper place” I explained. “We tend to substitute food for the unmet emotional needs that we either ignore or repress. Our society can make us particularly vulnerable to neglecting ourselves emotionally, and this causes us to chronically overeat. In the U.S., we are way too achievement-focused and we spend a lot of time interacting with non-human technology that is incapable of providing emotional reciprocation or attunement. End result–unmet needs and obesity.”

“My problem isn’t watching too much TV or doing too much computer. I practically can’t stand to spend more than 10 minutes doing those things,” says the lovely sequined lady. “My problem is I can’t seem to sit still, I am always rushing off to take care of something that needs to be done, I feel like my life is just one running ‘to-do list’ that never gets finished. I overextend myself trying to be productive and perform.”

I smiled. “Which leaves not very much time for you to focus on yourself. You fixate on the goals of your life, but neglect the ‘self’ in your life. Your experience is washed away by the achievements, your process is washed away by your outcome. You are constantly running after the finished product and you don’t realize that your ability to be nurtured as a person comes from focusing on the process of being a person. Process means paying attention to what you feel in each moment, attuning to your reactions and your experience, and taking steps to care for your ‘self’. Without this nurturing, your unmet needs will come out sideways. For you this takes the form of overeating.”

“So, I should spend more time nurturing my ‘self’ and less time chasing after my ‘achievements’ and if I do this, I will stop overeating?” she asks.

I replied, “Well, in order to do that you have to understand what you believe about spending time on yourself. Do you consider it wasteful, lazy, irresponsible or selfish to give back to your emotional and experiential being? Maybe you were raised in a family where focusing on feelings and inner needs was considered bad and that all time should be productively spent on achievements. If you can figure out the ways that your own mind is stopping you from giving your ‘self’ access to your time and effort, then you can achieve balance between your ‘self’ and your ‘life’.”

“I always admired my husband for being able to take time for himself, perhaps he can help me to overcome my imbalance and think differently about my lifestyle.” she mused.

I said, “Not only will it help you prevent eating triggers, but it will improve your emotional intimacy in relationships, it will increase your sense of fulfillment, self-understanding, and you will be better equipped to take care of yourself psychologically. After all, there is so much more to you than just your ‘to-do list’!”